Kakutani and the many pundits and critics who have offered up a similarly broad cultural diagnosis have obvious incentives for doing so. It lets them pose as serious public intellectuals who can see beyond the froth of the current news cycle. It gives them the chance to display their wide-ranging and eclectic reading (in a single paragraph, Kakutani name-checks Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Thomas Pynchon, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Frank Gehry). And, not least, it exonerates them from the charge that they are nothing but liberal ideologues by allowing them to assign blame to both sides in the ongoing American culture wars. Yes, the responsibility for the death of truth may lie, in part, with Fox News and the GOP, but it also lies with the New Left and those dreadful postmodernist academics. “Postmodernist arguments,” Kakutani explains, “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception.” And since one perception is as good as another, anything goes. Michel Foucault and Donald Trump: brothers-in-arms.
Mainstream writers like Kakutani have repeated this last argument so often that it is easy to forget how strange and unconvincing it actually is. First, it reflects a misunderstanding of the most prominent “postmodern” philosophers. The radicalism of an author like Foucault, for instance, lies not in any supposed denial of objective reality but in his insistence that the way we know, understand, and speak about reality is always a matter of power relations. Second, it also assumes, bizarrely, that an abstruse current of thought which has attracted few readers outside the academy, and which mainstream publications have roundly and repeatedly denounced, has somehow infected the entire culture and come to define our political moment. Has academic postmodernism really had an appreciable influence on the Trumpian right, whose ideologues rarely miss an opportunity to denounce academics in general and humanists in particular?