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Postmodernism's Nazi Problem

Post #1667 • March 11, 2014, 5:44 PM • 1 Comment

In one of those ironies that history produces every so often, a biography of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish has just been published at the same time as the so-called "black notebooks" of Martin Heidegger. Peruse the former to read de Man writing in 1941 that the fact that properly Western intellectuals have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as culturally representative as literature proves their vitality. Page through the latter to see how the giant of Continental philosophy ascribed a host of societal ills to world Jewry.

Weltjudentum is ungraspable everywhere and doesn't need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.

Postmodernism, the intellectual underpinning for everything we typically refer to as contemporary art, has a Nazi problem.

Is there something patently fascist about postmodernism? With figures like these looming over its history it's fair to ask, and unsurprisingly some people have. Equally unsurprising is that they hail from the, well, non-left. Bill Crouse at the Imaginative Conservative:

The thesis of this brief paper is that postmodernism, an attitude and a way of seeing reality which thoroughly permeates our western culture, is a direct descendant of fascism, and still contains many of its key elements. As an ideology or world view, fascism is an important ancestor of postmodernism that should not be ignored. That there is a strong family resemblance one barely dares suggest, though more and more brave souls are speaking out.

An anonymous blogger at Start Thinking Right:

Many of the ideas that came together in the fascism of the 1930s survived Word War II and continued to develop in postmodernist thought, hidden away from overt identification with fascism due to a desire to put behind an ugly past. Fascists taught that reality is a social construction, that culture determines all values. Particular cultures and ethnic groups therefore constitute their own self-contained worlds, which should be kept uncontaminated, although these groups will often compete w/ each other. Individuality is a myth; particular human beings can only find fulfillment when they lose themselves in a larger group. “Humanistic values” are a myth; there are no absolute transcendent moral laws by which the culture can be judged. These are “Jewish” – i.e., Biblical – ideas that are responsible for the alienation, guilt, and instability of Western culture. Strength, not love and mercy, must be the true expression of a culture’s will to power. Collective emotion, not abstract reason (another “Jewish” contribution), must be cultivated as the culture’s source of energy.

George Crowder, writing about Richard Wolin's The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism for the Australian Review of Public Affairs:

Where does the defining postmodernist hostility towards truth come from? Hatred of the Enlightenment and the modern world is its remote source, but one of Wolin’s most interesting and provocative ideas is that much of French postmodernism can be traced to what he calls the ‘Vichy Syndrome’ (189). For example, he attributes Blanchot’s ‘silence’ (that is, his doctrine of the impossibility of language) to a ‘subconscious will to unknowledge’ resulting from a failure or refusal to face the distressing facts of occupation and collaboration. Indeed, the Vichy Syndrome, Wolin believes, lies behind the radical and dogmatic scepticism of postmodernism as a whole. Although the Counter-Enlightenment or German Ideology was influential in France in the 1930s, it was after the War that notions of reason and truth reached their lowest ebb among French intellectuals.

Back to the present, Giulio Meotti writes about the de Man book for Arutz Sheva, aka Israel National News and says,

The poet David Lehman, author of the book “Signs of the Times”, found a link between De Man’s theory of language and his Nazi ideas: “It is the danger of the words losing their meaning”.

In that sense, the crop of current Western intellectuals who wrap anti-Judaism and anti-Israeli feelings with a postmodern-language veneer, are all heirs of Paul de Man: dissimulators, violent, fanatical, envisioning a world without Jews.

Such rebuttals are not numerous, which is also unsurprising given the leftward lean of the academy, its consequent affiliation with ideas that derive in one way or another from socialism, and the enthusiasm which the various sects of socialism have vilified one another since the late days of the 19th century. It's practically a tradition for them. Daniel Hannan reminded us recently that

In fact, authoritarianism was the common feature of socialists of both National and Leninist varieties, who rushed to stick each other in prison camps or before firing squads. Each faction loathed the other as heretical, but both scorned free-market individualists as beyond redemption. Their battle was all the fiercer, as Hayek pointed out in 1944, because it was a battle between brothers.

Hayek also noted that Fascism is the stage reached after communism has proved an illusion.

The above assertions may be ripe for debate, but they're not contorted, which is more than you can say about the defenders of de Man and Heidegger at the moment. Louis Menand, writing about the Barish book for The New Yorker, did his utmost to understate the influence of deconstructionist philosophy.

It’s the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. It affects the way students will respond to literature for the rest of their lives. But it’s also part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.

You'd hardly recognize it as an assault stated that way. You might also not recognize it as it was put into practice in the universities. Later:

It’s common to exaggerate—I think Barish exaggerates a little, even though she is a retired English professor—the extent to which the kind of criticism de Man wrote and taught permeated American literature departments. Literary studies is a very big tent. A small number of professors were drawn to the criticism that de Man and his colleagues were writing, and a number probably equally small actively animadverted against it. But it was not the only game in town. You did not need to pass a quiz on “Semiology and Rhetoric” to have an academic career in literature in the nineteen-seventies.

But you probably did have to pass one by the 1990s and the long tenures in the academy guarantee that this will be the case for quite some time. It was necessary for someone to write Theory's Empire. That the empire is looking shabbier than it did fifteen years ago doesn't mean it's so much closer to crumbling. Menand continues:

The response by the scholars [to the de Man scandal] ... only made matters worse. They had been dealt an impossible hand, it’s true, and their chief desire, naturally, was to dissociate de Man’s wartime writings from his later criticism. But there was disagreement about what, exactly, the differences were. There was also some reckless shooting at the messengers. One of de Man’s Yale colleagues complained that the campaign against literary theory in the press “repeats the well-known totalitarian procedures of vilification it pretends to deplore.” Another professor accused The Nation, which had published an attack on de Man, of anti-Semitism, on the ground that de Man and his criticism were “somehow overwhelmingly Jewish.”

And there was some hermeneutical fancy footwork—a big mistake when what most needed defending was the integrity of hermeneutics. No one approved of what de Man’s articles appeared to be saying, but a few tried to suggest that, on finer analysis, they weren’t really saying it, or they were saying it and unsaying it at the same time—that the articles were, as one professor put it, “enormously complex and profoundly ambiguous.”

Here are the pillars of postmodernist argument.

1. I accuse you of that which you accuse me.

2. I accuse you of that which you accuse my hero.

3. I accuse your hero of that which you accuse my hero.

4. All interpretations are possible but yours is inadequate and suspicious.

That all four are dishonest nonsense doesn't slow down their frenzied deployment, even according to Menand, who is a sympathizer. This is not an isolated case. Domenico Losurdo tries to assure us that Heidegger's black notebooks aren't that surprising. Heidegger famously threw his teacher Husserl under the autobus, so therefore,

The outcry over the black notebooks is thus unjustified, but it would be all the more unjustified to imagine a mythical, eternally irredeemable Germany, ignoring the historical context in which Heidegger's life and work were situated. His Judeophobia [read: bigotry - F.] came at a moment when across the west as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a widespread view that the true culprits for the October Revolution were Jews. Indeed, in 1920 car tycoon Henry Ford wrote that this event had a racial and not political origin, and, though making use of humanitarian and socialist language, it in fact expressed the Jewish race's aspiration for world domination. It is worth noting that it was Ford's picture that had pride of place in Hitler's study and not Heidegger's: the origins of nazism and the ideological motives inspiring it were not exclusively German.

But we don't expect Ford's insights into manufacturing and the surrounding economics to extend into the realm of morality, whereas we might fairly expect that a philosopher worthy of the name, and worthy of emulation, to arrive at reasonable answers to questions such as, Would exterminating all of the Jews be a good idea?

So the hermeneutical fancy-footwork continues. Those dancing along could use a reminder about their origins in monstrous state force, and ought to be suspected of trying to revive it.



John Link

March 27, 2014, 10:05 PM

One could suppose the "Nazi problem" found in Postmodernism is the source of its attempt to squelch all that is good in visual art, via the 4 pillars in your excellent summary. While the fact of the squelching is undeniable, the causal chain may be complicated. Once average art got such an upper hand that it began to have a monopoly, its marketing system wanted a theoretical construct within which to pursue the purge of any remaining resistance. Whether PoMo was the best choice aside (it might have been), it was at least an excellent choice and became the agent of persecution for exterminating the good. The persecution was bound to happen, one way or another. It is just the way organizations work. Once they smell the possibility of absolute dominance, the drive to achieve it is sure to come. Pillar #4 is an especially handy club that is cloaked in a peculiar sort of tolerance.



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