Postmodern Considerations of the Intellectual: Prophet or King?


            When we think of our place in the world, what words come to mind? What is my involuntary contribution to the zeitgeist? What is yours? What is the history we are writing?

College means meeting many who wish to be the intellectual. Or who are, their realization of it immaterial. The thinker more than the do-er. Artist, manager, consultant, advisor, analyst, statistician, scientist. Peak humanism, one might say, this marketability of things immaterial.

When I speak of intellectuals, I mean this not in the ‘we are smart and they are not’ overlord way, but in the schema that imagines a particular individual relation to cultural production—that values our ideas, that gives us worth separate from the literal work of our hands. There are hints of a Marxist categorization here, but the difference, I think, is that the Marxist analysis assigns this difference in value to the very basis of production. The postmodern creation, which the intellectual as understood here becomes, is based on a difference in cultural programming, the very arena within which the intellectual works! It is a role born of a critical lens that imagines the end to always be power and the self. 

Postmodernism, essentially, is “a shift in the way that humanistic intellectuals view the relation of their work to society at large” (McGowan). It is the hop that allows a consideration of the intellectual as self-serving, as a double-agent propping up systems their critique cannot exist without. This is the clearest definition of postmodernism I’ve been able to arrive at. 


            McGowan, in the introduction to Postmodernism and Its Critics, argues that the postmodern landscape allows “[a]rtists and intellectuals [to] insist on the centrality of culture’s signifying systems to social life” while simultaneously “bemoaning the fact that modern society marginalizes the cultural.” This critical lens is what, to me, defines much of intellectual culture now. The intellectual is prophet of a world that should be. Creative destruction, or sleight of hand? 

The intellectual who values equality-is he even a thing? He must be if postmodernism is to be imagined whole. The postmodern impetus is to “[m]ov[e] the margin to the center and the center to the margin” (Jordan Peterson). This it must do to be.  I remember my first approximation of such a thing in an Ethnicity Race and Migration class at Yale. The second week’s discussion was titled “Erasing Africa: Terra nullius and a people without history.” Even before I went through the readings, which included my first meeting with Hegel’s thought, I already could hear the echoes of his work in the foreignness I felt in philosophical halls. It came as no surprise that this exclusion was intentional—I was used to being an outsider, and it felt rather reassuring to find validation for my instincts.  I had for years encountered an approach to African works that suggested “that there [were] no appropriate texts… none [that were] good enough to occupy our philosophical energies” arising from the continent (Taiwo 14). Taiwo’s description of Hegel’s ghost ”insinuat[ing] itself into the innermost recesses of the academy” only reminded me of the chain of philosophy classes I had attempted to sit through year after year, leaving each time disgusted with the insistence on “pragmatic considerations for why the peculiar absence” of African work existed (Taiwo 14). In this mental landscape, it was refreshing to discover Olopade’s ‘maps’. These “five maps—Family, Technology, Commerce, Nature, and Youth”—provided an approach to the world that immediately felt familiar (Olopade 10). From the immense value placed on kinship ties to a reverence and dependency on nature’s gifts, Olopade’s propositions felt like they were describing a world I inhabited. Here, I was anything but an outsider. These indeed were the reworkings I did not yet know I needed. Through the subsequent study of colonial boundary making, I was better able to understand how colonial empire-building sought to exploit and break these ties—using gender, native power structures and whatever else they could affect to reform African societies to their liking. There were crumbs of evidence everywhere pointing to the fact that empire recognized these maps and sought precisely to damage those in seeking to conquer the continent. In the larger scheme of things, I was remembering (or learning for the first time maybe) that the African too could be philosophical.

Postmodern thinking is useful! It is destabilizing and enables us to continue to search for truth. But like most things, it has its critics.

Jordan Peterson, up there on the list of critics

            Postmodern thinking itself encourages us to reconsider this image of prophet. Why is this now the postmodern moment? Imagine the intellectual as drawn here, in all their critique, not as prophet but as king. Jordan Peterson, in a critical lecture on Postmodernism, provides a troubling example of a Sciences Po-educated PhD’s role in employing the “marxist theses that cities are parasites on the land” and “stealing what was rightly the farmers” to engineer a genocide that sought to “push[] Cambodia towards an entirely self-sufficient agrarian socialist society” (Wikipedia). This is but one example of the contradictions of postmodern thought that push us to reconsider its validity as a standalone philosophical school. There are many more, rife in the cultural conversation today—it is the trained intellectual who will critique systems most usefully(surely arguable, but I think this to be mostly true). The sociology professor with the Ivy League degree. The reporter with a huge mansion. It is the billionaire who will start the foundation for democracy. It is the JD’d lawyer who will stand to argue a civil-rights case. The community activist with a college degree who will guide the vision of the protest. Giving value to the critical lens is itself king-making! What do these choices mean for the world today? For the postmodern equality agenda? 

McGowan reminds us that “it is no coincidence that the impetus for the postmodern reflection on social theory has come from the intellectuals who, in many cases, have received their academic training in criticism of the arts.” From those “[d]escribed by Cornelius Castroriadis as ‘[] who, by their use of speech and through their explicit formulation of general ideas, have been able or are now able to attempt to have an influence on how their society evolves and on the course of history’“ (McGowan). The postmodern intellectual appears, strangely, to be both prophet and king. Critic and director of a vision of tomorrow.

The postmodern post-enlightenment desire for “[s]elf-legitimacy”, seeking to create “normativity out of itself” forces the intellectual to be this strange thing. To argue against the brokenness of systems we continue to live within. For some, postmodernism is a misguided attempt to save the intellectual wasteland. For others, it is the politic that our philosophical history has birthed. I wonder which is more true. It could be a little of both, harking to the Nietzschean refrain that “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” [Nietzsche 1954: 46-47]. Maybe truth is just the never-ending battle between these. All I know is that the fuzziness encourages me to be a gentler critic because really, I don’t know if anyone actually knows the answer. We’re all looking, so if we can, let’s look together.