William Davies, Theory wars: how postmodernism became weaponised, New Statesman, 10 November 2021.
How did a philosophical movement embracing consumer culture become a target for today’s anti-woke brigade?
Postmodernism, as the journalist Stuart Jeffries demonstrates in Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, is a tricky phenomenon to describe. The term is usually assumed to originate in architecture in the early 1970s, where the work of Robert Venturi, Charles Moore and others defied the austere tenets of the modernist movement that had swept the world under the influence of Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. As Venturi and his co-authors articulated in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the carnivalesque opulence of consumerism and post-industrial capitalism is something to be enjoyed and appropriated. Postmodernism also mandated a remixing of past styles, which yielded such British peculiarities as Poundbury new town and Venturi’s Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery.
In the past five years, however, the term “postmodern” has been revived, largely by people with no real interest in any of its historical movements or debates. Liberals have blamed “postmodernists” for the decline of “truth”, clearing the ground for opportunistic liars such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Conservatives have constructed an enemy in the form of “postmodern Marxism”, that is alleged to inject “woke” ideology into the heads of the young at universities. The nadir of this paranoia in the UK was reached in 2020 when the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, blamed the “fact” that children in Leeds in the 1980s were taught about racism, but not how to read and write, on “postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault”.