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A Reply to Elizabeth Powers: “Woke” Activists and Deconstruction

(Ritzau Scanpix/via REUTERS)

“The respective propriety of each strand of said activism must be engaged with on a case-by-case basis, rather than be lumped together with all other causes before being explained away with references to academic trends.”

Introduction

In a recent article for National Review, Elizabeth Powers argues that “woke” activism is an extension of the predominately “French” philosophy of deconstruction that has since gone mainstream. Powers claims that deconstruction goes by many labels, including “post-modernism” and “multiculturalism”; however, she prefers the former term since it “best encapsulates” what is at the core of these doctrines. This is the desire to undermine the traditions and values of Western civilization through exposing the subversive “racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel.” Powers, unfortunately, does not provide a much more elaborate account of this apparently ubiquitous philosophy than this, swiftly moving on to complain about allegedly declining educational standards. She argues that, in the 1960’s, relatively few high school students pursued a post-secondary education, by contrast to today when 70% do. While not elaborated on, Powers implies that this democratization of post-secondary education is to be mourned since it has enabled the less capable to enter and undermine what were once elite and meritocratic institutions. As she puts it “no one in 1963 thought that the boys sitting in the back row of public-school classrooms were college material.” Powers then goes on to praise her generation for doing “real scholarship” in a variety of fields, before returning to the topic of deconstruction. She then provides a rather confusing definition of what the aim of deconstructive theory was, describing it as an effort to “read forward” rather than backwards. She writes:

“The aim of theory, as it was called in the academy, was to ‘read forward.’ It would no longer be a case, as in traditional scholarship, of reading backward, of studying sources or analyzing the traces of literary predecessors (one could also apply this to historical events), documenting the immediate conditions of the creation of a work or of its reception by contemporaries, but instead it would lay bare the biases of its creation— intolerance, racism, privilege, misogyny, you name it—that lived on and was passed down in literary works. Those of my cohort who majored in English literature, which for the most part also meant the study of a ‘foreign’ literature, i.e., the British literary tradition, carried out a similar job of deconstruction of that field. Currently, one of the biggest areas of research among American scholars of 18th-century British literature is the Atlantic slave trade. As I said, students already knew that anyone born before them is an idiot. They walked out of the classes long ago, and the scholars talk only to themselves.”

Why an effort to go back and uncover the “biases” in the creation of the work—including its sources and predecessors—constitutes reading “forward” rather than backwards is not explained. Powers proceeds to argue that the popularity of deconstruction is apparently responsible for declining enrollment in classes in foreign languages—and in the humanities more generally. Why this would be due to deconstruction and not socio-economic pressures to refrain from pursuing “useless” or “scam” degrees, as some right-wing pundits put it, is not discussed. Consequently, we must decide for ourselves whether the impact of French philosophy on our culture —or a desire for jobs after completing an expensive university education—is more responsible for declining interest in the liberal arts. She then returns to the theme of protestors, claiming the minds of protesters lack depth, while comparing them to literary criminals. Powers writes:

“…But the minds of the young protesters are virginal, without depth, without empathy for differences of point of view. They have become more cynical than even the most hardened criminal when it comes to the values of Western civ.”

No doubt had Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s character Raskolnikov picked up a copy of Jacques Derrida‘s Writing and Difference, he would have killed many more landlords for treating him with disdain—and then justified it all by appealing to Jean-François Lyotard and Gayatri Spivak, rather than Napoleon.

The Generation of Woke Culture

There are many significant problems with Powers’ article. At the surface level, she conflates a number of phenomena together, which actually each warrants discriminating analysis. Lumping post-modernism, multiculturalism, and deconstruction together without very serious explanation is simply unconvincing. Post-modernism, as I have explained at length elsewhere, is a vague term that refers to a number of different concepts. One can, indeed, understand post-modernism along deconstructive lines á la Derrida, Spivak, and—in some moments—Richard Rorty. However, it also refers to a more general cultural condition whose roots go far deeper than just some novel French philosophies whose heyday was in the 1980’s (and many of whom have since been supplanted by other critical theories—many quite hostile to deconstruction). Post-modern culture is defined by a declining faith in meta-narratives, which has been brought about by the profound socio-political, economic, and technological transformations ongoing in our society since the advent of modernity. One can point to the profound influence of deepening pluralism and urbanization, the ongoing creative destruction of capitalism, and the rapid changes in our communication and the dissemination of information (brought about by the digital revolution) as examples. Needless to say, this complexity goes far beyond some changes in academic theory. By contrast, multiculturalism is an eminently modernist and liberal doctrine. Its roots arguably go back to calls for accepting religious minorities in John Locke’s 1689 work A Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke’s letter finds expression in the protection for minorities in countless liberal constitutions, and, to this day, it is argued to be an essential feature of liberalism by philosophers such as John Rawls, Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, and others. Indeed, the argument for multiculturalism is an eminently liberal one: The state or a cultural majority has no right to demand minority cultures conform to homogenizing policies that limit their freedom of expression, religion, and so on. As such, if one wishes to argue that multiculturalism is responsible for post-modern cynicism, one would need to begin by taking a far harder look at the liberal principles underpinning American society since its founding. They are likely culpable as well.

While there is no doubt some truth to this, it is also frustratingly simplistic to assume the causes of social woes are primarily generated by too many students at elite universities reading French philosophy or demanding that Chinua Achebe replace John Steinbeck in literature courses.

All of this brings me to the more important question on the actual roots of “woke” activism. I have written before about how a given right-wing outrage machine can generate seemingly endless critiques of woke activism, often framed by simple narratives on the impact of academic life on American society. While there is no doubt some truth to this, it is also frustratingly simplistic to assume the causes of social woes are primarily generated by too many students at elite universities reading French philosophy or demanding that Chinua Achebe replace John Steinbeck in literature courses. This retreat from complexity also has consequences since it prevents us from engaging in the more radical forms of reflection required to diagnose the genuine roots of our social ills.

In part, understanding the particularities of current agitation can be achieved by just going back a few decades. In many cases, anger may be less the result of Derrida’s cultural impact and more a consequence of justified efforts to combat systematic injustice. Take, for example, the current protests against police brutality across the world. The activists protesting George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police office hardly need French philosophy for inspiration since in many ways they are carrying on from the very American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. decried “police brutality” during his 1963 March on Washington. To this day, there remain ongoing problems with police violence directed at ethnic minorities, which are well-corroborated by statistical literature. Reducing contemporary activism on racial discrimination to the insidious impact of academic theory ignores these very material problems. The same is true for many other iterations of “woke” activism, which may well be addressing genuine problems. The respective propriety of each strand of said activism must be engaged with on a case-by-case basis, rather than be lumped together with all other causes before being explained away with references to academic trends.

More broadly, even the less meritorious iterations of woke activism—and there are many of them—warrant a deeper analysis. Ironically, a sustained dive into the often profound diagnoses of post-modern culture can explain much. Post-modern cultures are defined by declining faith in the meta or grand narratives that once provided a form of stability and unanimity across society. As Mark Fisher observed in his classic 2009 book Capitalist Realism, much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of neoliberal capitalism, which—qua Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s infamous dictum—insisted there was no such thing as society but only individuals who must look after themselves. In this cultural context, individuals were encouraged to define themselves by finding meaning in the pursuit of a competitive struggle for money, status, and security. As a result, other people were increasingly regarded not so much as citizens to whom one is bound by civic associations necessary to maintain democracy. Instead, fellow citizens were to be regarded as means to a commercial endat bestand competitors for jobs, capital, and fameat worst. Even personal friendship became commodified by the logic of forming networks of “social capital.” At the same time, outlets of “new media” undertook a retreat from complexity and attempted to distill complicated material down to simplified narratives, which were entertaining and readily digestible. In the political sphere, this contributed to the emergence of a hyper-partisan atmosphere where figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Ben Shapiro treated grave matters like sport, with opponents to be “destroyed” rather than understood or engaged with in good faith. The underpinning reasons why one should hold a particular political belief became less important than cheering for the chosen team, and this, in effect, contributed to a deepening relativism. This created partisans who believe in anything because they understand nothing.

Conclusion

Given this and other contributing factors, it should come as no surprise that so much of contemporary politics assumes a shrill and combative tone, underpinned by what Allan Bloom rightly described as a kind of “easy” nihilism. Deconstruction and other skeptical philosophies are, at most, a reflection of the post-modern cultural condition; in many cases, they precisely serve the function philosophy always should: expressing its own era through thought. Philosophers, thus, are no more responsible for the anomie that defines our era than Socrates was responsible for the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. We do seriously need to move on from the limitations of post-modern culture and its vulgarities. However, to accomplish this, we must pay more attention to diagnosing the disease, rather than just aggravating its symptoms.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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