How did we get in this mess?
That is the question Helen Pluckrose and James A Lindsay are trying to answer with Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity--And Why This Harms Everybody.
The last decade has seen the mainstreaming of an obscure, theory-laden approach to political issues with race, sexuality and gender taking centre stage.
This is often simply referred to as “identity politics” – but, whilst older identity movements had narrow goals, this new identity politics is characterised by all-encompassing moral absolutism, a neurotic obsession with “risk” and an overreliance on institutional coercion.
Identity-based activism is also not limited to the stupidity of youth, with adults very much in the room. Many of these adults are “scholar-activists” who seem less interested in broadening human understanding of the world and more focused on weaponising scholarship for political goals (often against their own colleagues).
Some examples on this ridiculous trend from just the last month include:
A Professor at the University of Southern California has been stood down for explaining the Chinese filler word ‘nega’.
An Associate Professor at the University of Missouri has been stood down because he made a light hearted joke about Wuhan, which he subsequently apologised for, following an online backlash.
An Emerson College Professor teaching queer studies has received a pile-on after a student complained about the lack of POC thinkers on the curriculum (despite their being plenty of POC thinkers on the curriculum).
A literary agent was fired for expressing gender critical views about trans women on a personal account not connected to her employer.
I used to think this kind of silliness was limited to North America, but we are seeing tinges of it in Australia within arts criticism, “safety” based reasoning for censorship, as well as various attempts to boycott and shun academics who hold heterodox views.
So, does Cynical Theories explain how we got here? Unfortunately, no.
Pluckrose and Lindsay come from an asocial, ultra-rationalist perspective when it comes to critique – not willing to engage with scholarship outside their field.
They are very much part of the facts and logic reactionary team opposed to identity politics. In this sense they can be grouped with with sassy “I’m not like other girls” sexologist Debra Soh and tiresome “wash your penis” self-help guru Jordan Peterson.
The authors correctly trace a lot of current activist thinking to the various ‘critical’ subdisciplines that have sprung up in Western academia over the last 20 years, including post-colonial studies, queer theory, disability studies, critical race theory, fat studies… you get it.
However, rather than critically engaging with these theories to decipher their true origins, Pluckrose and Lindsay settle for a conspiracy theory and essentially “blame the French”.
‘Postmodernism’ is the root of all evil in the authors’ view, it’s responsible for everything from microaggressions to hate speech to cultural appropriation to safe spaces to implicit association tests to whiteness to heteronormativity to any and all bit of academic jargon weaponised to get someone fired.
This is, of course, patently ridiculous to anyone with a passing understanding or interest in what’s probably better described as ‘French Theory’.
There’s a reason why this book has been praised by the right-wing press (who let’s face it, don’t read theory) and heavily mocked by even sympathetic scholars who understand the work of the so-called “postmodernists”.
The following will outline where they went wrong in criticised French Theory and why Cynical Theories should be thrown in the heap with other ‘intellectual dark web’ texts who rely on an (ironically) irrational hatred of the humanities.
What The Hell Is Postmodernism?
There’s a standard shtick you’re meant to do when introducing postmodernism, noting that “it is impossible to define by definition” and blah blah blah.
This is mostly academic wank to cover for the fact that the term is used to encompass a lot of different thinkers - including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, Fredric Jameson and Hélène Cixous - all of whom frequently disagreed with each other and are united only by being foreign and weird to an American audience.
Taking a macro-view, Pluckrose and Lindsay use a phrase by Jean-François Lyotard that postmodernism is an “incredulity towards metanarratives” where a metanarrative is some broad story about historical meaning such as ‘progress’.
Whilst I can’t fault the authors for using this phrase, it appears in every introductory French Theory text, this is a confusing way to lump together various “postmodern” theorists.
Lyotard made this statement within his 1979 book “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” to describe his perception of a trend in philosophy and social science, rather than as an exhaustive unifying definition. In-fact, often left out of this phrase is the start:
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”
A better place to begin with is to acknowledge the debt held by the “postmodernists” to 19th century philosopher and intellectual giant Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of knowledge and history. Speaking on whether the human animal has an “instinct for truth” Nietzsche wrote:
It is unlikely that our "knowledge" extends farther than is exactly necessary for our self-preservation. Morphology shows us how the senses and the nerves as well as the brain evolve in proportion as the difficulties of acquiring sustenance increase.
God is dead, humans have to reckon with ourselves as boring animals rather than the chosen ones. Unfortunately, that also means shifting our understanding of “knowledge” and “truth” to one of social creations which are useful and meaningful rather than directly corresponding to “the real world”.
This may also mean acknowledging that rather than a desire for “facts and logic” humans may be driven by irrational forces. For Nietzsche, this underlying force was ‘will to power’ –a highly contentious phrase that seeks to capture a particular striving to impose oneself on the world.
In his genealogy of morality, Nietzsche notes that the character of people within a particular time and place explains the historical change in moral values better than any narrative regarding “human progress” or “rational self-reflection”.
French theorists (“the postmodernists”) were influenced by this Nietzschean understanding of history, and combined it with contemporary intellectual movements like Structuralism and Surrealism.
Structuralism is a school of thought which seeks to understand how people think, understand and derive meaning in the world. According to structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, culture is best understood as a system of symbolic communication with social structures arising from their capacity to exist within a broad system of meaning.
For example, the idea of “the family” is meaningful primarily due its contrast with other human relationships including friendship, acquaintance and stranger. The idea of “homosexuality” is meaningful in contrast to “heterosexuality” but also the result of other meaningful distinctions between sexual desire versus behaviour, object of desire versus intensity of desire etc.
Many “postmodernists” were actually “post-structuralists” applying structuralist thinking to different contexts, with an understanding of the Inception-like paradox of being a subject developing a theory on the construction of subjects.
Another influence on the “postmodernists” was Surrealism, an artistic and intellectual movement which sought to centre irrational experiences as a meaningful component of being human. For the Surrealists, the “rein of logic” may be suitable for practical or economic human endeavours but not for generating lives worth living. In the words of André Breton, the Surrealists praised:
Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
The Surrealist movement was influential on the “postmodernists” because it demonstrated the value of poetic, marvellous and sacred experiences for the human animal. The irrational being just as important to humanity as our capacity to reason.
All of the above led to a variety of “postmodern” works in the mid 20th century.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida developed an approach to interpreting texts known as “deconstruction” which applied Structuralist insights to reflect on the difficulty in pinning down the meaning of words without relying on their relationship to other words in a continuously differed web of meaning.
Pluckrose and Lindsay claim in the book that “Derrida rejects the common-sense idea that words refer to things in the real world” but this isn’t exactly right (although I don’t think it’s any more “common-sense”). Derrida instead highlighted that words only gain meaning within a certain linguistic and historical context.
Deconstruction was taken up by post-structuralist feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray in order to try and understand what it means to be “a woman” without being defined by a lack (by being “not a man”) or being defined as a victim (by being “the target of patriarchy”).
Sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard grappled with trying to understand meaning in a global consumerist society, particularly searching for “truth” in a world filled with simulacra and simulation.
This was echoed in the work of literary critic and Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson, who saw the current world as existing “outside of history” filled with pastiche rather than meaning.
Finally, psychiatrist Jacques Lacan combined insight from Freudian psychoanalysis, Surrealism and Structuralism to develop a unique set of psychoanalytic concepts including the imaginary, the symbolic and the real.
If all of this seems really elitist and abstract, far removed from “woke” political activism – it’s because it is! A common criticism of “postmodernist” academia is that it is only suitable for literary analysis, not for developing theories of political change.
Identity politics is a poor fit for postmodern thought in many ways.
Identity based movements require stable social categories: woman, gay, black, transgender etc. As well as stable structural categories of oppression: patriarchy, heteronormativity, whiteness, cisnormativity etc. A postmodern academic would have a field day charting out the construction of these social categories and their reliance on the very oppressive structures they wish to overthrow.
An influential concept in French Theory is Nietzsche’s notion of ‘ressentiment’ where disempowered groups become burdened and defined by their perceived oppressors. This is why poststructuralists such has Julia Kristeva have called group identity on the basis of sex or ethnicity “totalitarian”.
Indeed, whilst most of these theorists get a mention in Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay really save their scorn for one particular French theorist.
The Fall Guy
My suspicion as to why Pluckrose and Lindsay have such a hatred for Paul-Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) is because they had to read The Order of Things.
The book, published in 1966, is a notoriously difficult read charting the history of various sciences and making the case that far from a gradual, “trial and error” evolution of scientific development, scientific discoveries can be tied to historically contingent ways of understanding the world (or epistemes).
Foucault’s case is very similar to that of philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s notion of ‘paradigm shifts’ leading to revolutionary shifts in scientific understanding.
Foucault, unlike Kuhn, isn’t so much interested in whether or not this or that scientific discovery is “really true” (much to the outrage of Pluckrose and Lindsay) but rather how the social practice of science and philosophy has changed over time.
The Order of Things is something of a departure for Foucault in that it incorporates the natural sciences and was developed with historians of science in mind.
The bulk of Foucault’s work is focused on social phenomena, particularly how different social categories from “insane” to “homosexual” have been constructed socially over time.
One way of viewing Foucault’s work is as a historian of focus – looking at why intellectuals and institutions at a particular time were pre-occupied with this or that social phenomena, how they conceive of this and how this knowledge changed how the target of analysis viewed themselves.
In Madness and Civilization, Foucault highlights the peculiar history of mental illness as opposed to physical, organic pathology. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, madness was considered a ‘tragic experience’ – an overwhelming of the senses – meaning the mad garnered a kind of social respect. However, by the 17th century the mad began to cause social discomfort, giving rise to segregated spaces (originally designed for lepers) to house the socially unproductive and disruptive. Once segregated the mad became objects of scientific interest generating elaborate theories in the hope to “cure the insane” including the development of “moral training”.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault challenges the narrative that our mechanisms of punishment, moving from public torture and execution to correctional facilities, came about due to society becoming more humane and civilised. Instead, Foucault notes that the public drawing and quartering of prisoners was a double-edged blade when it came to social order. Public violent spectacle often sowed the seeds of resistance within the general population, rather than scaring the public into compliance. As such, subtler disciplinary methods arose in order to develop “docile bodies” through normalisation and surveillance. In later lectures Foucault would speak of “governmentality” a broad term encompassing practices which allow institutions to control citizens indirectly through normalisation, responsibilisation and appeals to “health” or “self-esteem”. It should be noted that later in life, Foucault regretted is overemphasis on state-institutions in earlier work as it led to misunderstandings that power was inherently “oppressive” or bad.
In his multi-volume The History of Sexuality, Foucault challenged the “repressive hypothesis” that Western society was incredibly liberal about sexual habits in Ancient societies but, beginning in the 17th century right up until the mid-20th century, sexuality gradually became stigmatised and shunned. Instead, Foucault’s work demonstrates that all societies have had elaborate taboos on sexuality and that they stem from differing understandings of the self. Moreover, the “prudish Victorians” developed elaborate systems of thought regarding sexual habits that created, rather than repressed, new ways of viewing ones desires (through “repression” the “homosexual” was born!).
Despite Pluckrose and Lindsay’s claims, Foucault was first and foremost a scholar, not an activist. He followed scholarly virtues as a historian of ideas, striving at a form of ‘objectivity’ although not in the epistemological sense. In a 1967 interview Foucault stated:
I do in fact seek to place myself outside the culture to which we belong, to analyse its formal conditions in order to make a critique of it, not in the sense of reducing its values, but in order to see how it was actually constituted.
So how do Pluckrose and Lindsay attempt to tie Foucault to the new wave of ‘woke’ activism? They reduce his complex and nuanced body of work down to two principles:
The postmodern principle: Radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
As should be clear from my summary of his work, the first principle vaguely touches on something accurate but falls short of capturing the purpose of Foucault’s work.
Foucault isn’t interested in “truth” – he is interested in the history of ideas and how they shape our view of ourselves.
Nevertheless, the real glaring mistake is in point 2 - trying to equate Foucault’s conception of ‘power’ with New Left notions of social oppression.
Foucault didn’t equate the exercise of ‘power’ with negative connotations, in fact certain social categories and concepts wouldn’t exist without it. As Asad Haider notes in his critique of Andrew Sullivan’s attempt to construe Foucault’s work as delineating the world into “oppressors” and “the oppressed”:
It’s either amusing or painful to read this since Foucault’s analysis of power was specifically directed against the zero-sum view, for which power is something that one holds and wields over another. Foucault conceived power as productive and relational. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, a short and clear book which Sullivan could read, Foucault dispels these interpretations completely. Consider this straightforward sentence: “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away.” Or: “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations.”
Pluckrose and Lindsay also attempt to equate Foucault’s historical work looking at ‘subjugated knowledges’ with modern theories like ‘standpoint theory’ and ‘epistemic injustice’ which seek to prioritise the experiences of subjects over scientific or otherwise scholarly knowledge. This is the “listen to black trans voices” type shtick used to dismiss contrary perspectives on any and every social issue.
However, as post-structuralist scholar Dr Carol Bacchi has noted, Foucault was interested in highlighting disqualified ways of thinking historically (that of the prisoner or mentally ill patient etc) in order to better understand which form of knowledge predominated (had “power”) not “what was true”.
Foucault did not (and would not) claim that a certain form of understanding is “more true” merely because it is disqualified socially – unless one wishes to argue that a schizophrenic’s claim that aliens are bugging their phone is “more true” than the psychiatrist who calls this a delusion.
Ultimately, Cynical Theories creates a straw man in Foucault as some highly influential figure in the current wave of identity politics.
What’s the real cause?
The book makes a distinction about mid-way through between “postmodernism” proper, which is focused on scholarly understanding and deconstruction, and what Pluckrose and Lindsay call “applied postmodernism” in the various schools based on identity.
They need to do this because there are glaring differences between this apparent “applied postmodernism” and French Theory.
Some of the thinkers mentioned as “applied postmodernists” include post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, standpoint theorist Sandra Hardin, “fat activist” Marilyn Wann, queer theorists Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “whiteness studies” academic Robin DiAngelo, critical race theorist and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw and various others.
Pluckrose and Lindsay only briefly touch on the work of the “applied postmodernists” and -even then – fail to make direct connections between academic concepts and popular identity-based activism.
This is an issue, because academic concepts rarely translate neatly into grassroots activism. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of “intersectionality” for example has taken on a life on its own within online and offline activist spaces, merging with aspects of standpoint theories and activist organisational philosophies.
There are many aspects of identity activism that a “postmodernist” would take issue with intellectually, including:
A belief that fixed identity or at least fixed oppression-based identity is stable, persistent and “true”.
The prioritisation of lived experience as more accurate than the scientific or scholarly understanding of the subject.
A reliance on “oppressive” top-down social structures: heterosexism, transmisogyny, white supremacy, ableism etc.
The strategic co-opting of therapeutic discourse including trauma, minority stress, implicit bias, internalised homophobia, toxic masculinity etc.
As should be clear, although identity activists may occasionally cite Foucault as an influence, there are some glaring differences in thinking. This isn’t French Theory, it’s American Theory.
It’s also strange that in a book which appears to alluding to ‘Critical Theory’ there is little to no mention of the works of intellectual giants like Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci or Theodor Adorno. These theorists were more overtly politically than Foucault, but because they fall within the Marxist, materialist tradition Pluckrose and Lindsay couldn’t use them to make their case.
Ultimately, why American academia has developed this kind of thought, and why it has translated in the way it has to activist circles is a topic that better thinkers need to tackle.
How did we get in this mess?
Cynical Theories wants you to believe that a bunch of French intellectuals corrupted Western academia and brainwashed the kiddies – a ludicrous idea!
The origins of ‘woke’ activism likely have more cultural, rather than purely academic causes.
Ultra-rational reactionaries like Pluckrose and Lindsay are unlikely to be able to tap into the irrational, emotive forces that generate our lives. As such, they’re very poorly placed to answer questions of social and political change.
Here’s hoping someone with a greater understanding of contemporary ideas can help us understand this ‘woke’ trend and chart us a way to escape.
Until then, I remain cynical.