2020 was an especially rancorous year, and among the many things we fought about was the state of free speech in America. There’s a rising contingent of heterodox thinkers — on the left and right — who argue that a culture of censoriousness has enveloped intellectual life and curtailed free speech.
Back in July, there was the infamous “letter” published in Harper’s Magazine defending free speech, signed by a wide range of writers and intellectuals. Before that, there was a revolt at the New York Times after the opinion section published a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) calling for the deployment of American soldiers to protest hot spots around the country. Columnist Bari Weiss quit the paper and posted a letter condemning what she called its increasingly “illiberal environment.” A few days after that, another prominent writer, Andrew Sullivan, launched The Weekly Dish to escape what he deemed were leftist orthodoxies in mainstream media.
More recently, Glenn Greenwald cut ties with the left-leaning outlet that he co-founded, The Intercept, claiming it has succumbed to “the same trends of repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity plaguing the national press.” And last month, Vox’s Matt Yglesias followed other writers (like Greenwald and Sullivan) in joining the independent digital platform Substack to, in his words, tell “everyone what’s on my mind to an even greater extent than I do now.”
None of these cases are exactly alike, and the claims of censoriousness aren’t equally valid. But they’re all part of a wave of “cancel culture” stories this year. And the common complaint, if there is one, is that public discourse is being stifled. As Greenwald lamented, “how imperiled, across all societal sectors, this indispensable value of free discourse has become.”
Greenwald’s critique of cancel culture is right and wrong at the same time. The boundaries of speech are being contested, on different fronts and for various reasons. But that has always been the case. What’s genuinely new about this moment is the number of voices in the discourse. We’re living in what is unquestionably the freest and most open information space in human history. So all of the challenges to speech are occurring alongside an explosion of … speech.
Cancel culture, whatever you think of it, is a problem within free speech, not a problem of free speech. This is a paradox that stretches all the way back to the invention of democracy and rhetoric in Ancient Greece. The Greeks even created dueling conceptions of free speech — isegoria (the right of everyone to participate in public debate) and parrhesia (the right to speak without limits) — to highlight the conflicts that emerge within open societies. It’s worth noting that the Athenians could never manage these tensions and that’s partly why their democracy had the same familiar fights over ostracism and tribalism. (Socrates was canceled by the mob!)
Our discourse is as free as it’s ever been and as democratic as it’s ever been. And that’s a challenge we’ve never truly navigated before — not on this scale. The turbulence we’re experiencing now, viewed from 30,000 feet, is the latest example of a society wrestling with a contradiction at the heart of every democratic culture: It can’t function without an open communication environment, but that environment, because of its openness, is vulnerable to all sorts of internal pressures that can undermine the system from within.
We’re actually drowning in speech
Before the internet and social media, most people got their news from gatekeeping institutions like major newspapers and TV networks. These institutions functioned like referees, calling out lies, fact-checking claims, and generally deciding what’s worth arguing about. They had the ability to control the flow of information and set the terms of the conversation. The style of discourse that dominated during the gatekeeping age was liberal in spirit but also tightly circumscribed because of the insularity of the participants (mostly white, mostly upper and upper middle class).
The gatekeepers still exist, but they don’t have anything like the power they once had. Whereas public discourse used to be a controlled, curated conversation among the political class, it’s now a complete free-for-all.
The ecosystem looks very different. Digital technologies — social media in particular — have unleashed more voices and platforms and essentially removed any barriers to entry in the public conversation. And that means a broader range of voices and arguments and perspectives. It also means more misinformation, more contestation, more tumult.
The complaints of writers like Yascha Mounk, who launched the online magazine Persuasion earlier this year to counter illiberal excesses, are justified but also misleading. They’re justified because there are efforts to not only suppress speech but punish violations of emergent orthodoxies. At the same time, it’s also true that we’re drowning in a free speech culture that has fostered the very tribalistic discourse people like Mounk want to transcend.
The issue here isn’t whether we have free speech or not. It’s about what kind of free speech culture we want to preserve. It’s the same fight the Greeks had. Do we want isegoria or parrhesia? Does the right to free speech mean the right to say absolutely anything, regardless of the consequences? If I’m an absolutist about anything, it’s free speech, but even I would acknowledge there are boundaries. I suspect most of the anti-cancel culture folks feel the same way. But consensus will always be elusive and we’ll rarely agree about where to mark those boundaries.
As the public sphere opens up to more people, we should expect more collisions over the limits and meaning of tolerance. We should also expect a little anarchy. Plato hated democracy for exactly this reason. Free speech, he argued, degenerated into sophistry because public discourse, if it’s truly open, is never reliably rational or free of coercion. Plato’s response was to scrap democracy altogether. If we reject that (and most do), we still have to grapple with the fundamental problem.
There isn’t a satisfying solution at hand. Part of the issue is a media environment that foregrounds our worst impulses. Social media, to take the obvious example, is basically engineered for bullying and groupthink. Meanwhile, the competition for clicks and audiences is incredibly intense and all the incentives push in the direction of outrage and division.
But in a truly free society, everything is up for grabs. The left, at this moment, is exerting a lot of cultural power and forcing mainstream media institutions to bend to new and shifting ideological standards. Whether that is, ultimately, good for leftist political movements is a separate conversation. What’s clear is that the digital media environment doesn’t privilege the same voices and attitudes that prevailed in the pre-digital world. It’s too competitive and fragmented now. That’s a major shift in how we think and communicate and it’s producing massive conflict.
Free speech has always devoured itself
My main beef with anti-cancel crusaders is that they often don’t acknowledge that free speech only ensures a contest of persuasion. It doesn’t ensure that any particular style of discourse will prevail.
I keep returning to these Greek notions of isegoria and parrhesia because they underscore the tension between equality and liberty, between the right to speak and the license to offend. You might say that isegoria created the political environment of democracy, while parrhesia actualized it. Or to put that a little differently, the right to speak made democracy possible; the ability to speak freely made it worthwhile.
But philosophers like Socrates and Plato quickly realized that the right to say anything opened the door to all manners of subversion. And as every first-year philosophy undergrad knows, the right to say anything in Athens led to joint rituals of ostracism and tribalism. Indeed, Socrates was canceled by the same democratic forces that made his speech possible. He refused ostracism and chose death, but his plight is a reminder that free speech has always devoured itself.
We can’t have a free society without all the hazards that freedom implies. That’s the paradox. The gatekeeping age is over and that means liberalism is but one of many modes of discourse competing for dominance in a wide-open ecosystem. Thoughtful writers like The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu and my Vox colleague Zack Beauchamp have argued that the “woke” debates we’re having now are, far from illiberal, happening squarely within the confines of liberalism — that some of the excesses of the left are efforts to force liberalism to realize its own ambitions. I’m not convinced of that, but perhaps there’s some truth in it.
The hazards of openness extend beyond the cancel culture debates. The fight over speech, important as it is, seems small in comparison to a problem like misinformation about vaccines and elections and the collapse of trust in the institutions charged with informing the public. And the epistemic crisis, as my colleague Dave Roberts dubbed it, springs from the same wide-open information space that produced the free speech drama. It’s a manifestation of the same inescapable paradox.
What is true, and what’s always been true, is that the essential liberal democratic freedom — the freedom of expression — is occasionally a casualty of the very conditions that liberalism helps to establish in the first place. A system built on free speech isn’t self-securing — it can and always has undermined the conditions of its own existence.
The freedom to speak has historically been limited to elites and people with power. As more voices enter the public sphere, rhetorical boundaries will be pushed and erased. The terms of the debates will shift. The line between discomfort and censorship will blur. What was previously unthinkable or unsayable will become commonplace, and what was previously acceptable will be challenged and sometimes suppressed, almost always in defense of the culture that makes freedom practically possible.
So whatever debates we’re having are because the gates to speech have been thrown wide open and the public conversation is less bounded. What comes next is an open question. But the road there will be disputed and shaped by more voices than ever before — and that’s what it means to live in a free society, for better or worse.
Earlier this year, the Senate voted to acquit President Trump of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
Despite all the incontrovertible facts at the center of this story, it was always inevitable that this process would change very few minds. No matter how clear a case the Democrats made, it was always highly likely that no single version of the truth was ever going to be accepted.
This fact underscores a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship — some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.
But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment did very little to move public opinion.
The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.
One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances. There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear.
My Vox colleague Dave Roberts calls this an “epistemic crisis.” The foundation for shared truth, he argues, has collapsed. I don’t disagree with that, but I’d frame the problem a little differently.
We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism.
The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.
I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
This idea isn’t new, but Bannon articulated it about as well as anyone can. The press ideally should sift fact from fiction and give the public the information it needs to make enlightened political choices. If you short-circuit that process by saturating the ecosystem with misinformation and overwhelm the media’s ability to mediate, then you can disrupt the democratic process.
What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.
Bannon’s political objective is clear. As he explained in a 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference talk, he sees Trump as a stick of dynamite with which to blow up the status quo. So “flooding the zone” is a means to that end. But more generally, creating widespread cynicism about the truth and the institutions charged with unearthing it erodes the very foundation of liberal democracy. And the strategy is working.
What flooding the zone actually means
For most of recent history, the goal of propaganda was to reinforce a consistent narrative. But zone-flooding takes a different approach: It seeks to disorient audiences with an avalanche of competing stories.
And it produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. The fact that 60 percent of Americans say they encounter conflicting reports about the same event is an example of what I mean. In the face of such confusion, it’s not surprising that less than half the country trusts what they read in the press.
Bannon articulated the zone-flooding philosophy well, but he did not invent it. In our time, it was pioneered by Vladimir Putin in post-Soviet Russia. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.
In October, I spoke to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic who wrote a book about Putin’s propaganda strategy. The goal, he told me, wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only sensible choice is “to follow a strong leader.”
One major reason for the strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers — all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.
The role of “gatekeeping” institutions has also changed significantly. Before the internet and social media, most people got their news from a handful of newspapers and TV networks. These institutions functioned like referees, calling out lies, fact-checking claims, and so on. And they had the ability to control the flow of information and set the terms of the conversation.
Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment. The preference for objectivity in political coverage, in particular, is a problem.
As Joshua Green, who wrote a biography of Bannon, explained, Bannon’s lesson from the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s was that to shape the narrative, a story had to move beyond the right-wing echo chamber and into the mainstream media. That’s exactly what happened with the now-debunked Uranium One story that dogged Clinton from the beginning of her campaign — a story Bannon fed to the Times, knowing that the supposedly liberal paper would run with it because that’s what mainstream media news organizations do.
In this case, Bannon flooded the zone with a ridiculous story not necessarily to persuade the public that it was true (although surely plenty of people bought into it) but to create a cloud of corruption around Clinton. And the mainstream press, merely by reporting a story the way it always has, helped create that cloud.
You see this dynamic at work daily on cable news. Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lies. She lies a lot. Yet CNN and MSNBC have shown zero hesitation in giving her a platform to lie because they see their job as giving government officials — even ones who lie — a platform.
Even if CNN or MSNBC debunk Conway’s lies, the damage will be done. Fox and right-wing media will amplify her and other falsehoods; armies on social media, bot and real, will, too (@realDonaldTrump will no doubt chime in). The mainstream press will be a step behind in debunking — and even the act of debunking will serve to amplify the lies.
UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff calls this the “framing effect.” As Lakoff puts it, if you say “don’t think of an elephant,” you can’t help but think of an elephant. In other words, even if you reject an argument, merely repeating it cements the frame in people’s minds. Debunking it is still useful, of course, but there’s a cost to dignifying it in the first place.
There is some research that points to the utility of fact-checking. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that repeated exposure to fact-checking does tend to increase the accuracy of beliefs. But the issue with zone-flooding is an overabundance of news, which diminishes the importance of any individual story, no matter how big or damning.
In this environment, there are often too many things happening at once; it’s a constant game of whack-a-mole for journalists. And we know that false claims, if they’re repeated enough, become more plausible the more often they’re shared, something psychologists have called the “illusory truth” effect. Our brains, it turns out, tend to associate repetition with truthfulness. Some interesting new research, moreover, found that the more people encounter information the more likely they are to feel justified in spreading it, whether it’s true or not.
Flooding the zone, polarization, and why many people still don’t know what Trump did
This all intersects with political polarization in troubling ways. One consequence of pervasive confusion about what’s happening is that people feel more comfortable siding with their political tribe. If everything’s up for grabs, and it’s hard to sift through the competing narratives to find the truth, then there’s nothing left but culture war politics. There’s “us” and “them,” and the possibility of persuasion is off the table.
It’s worth noting that this polarization is asymmetric. The left overwhelmingly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. Some of the reporting is surely biased, and probably biased in favor of liberals, but it’s still (mostly) anchored to basic journalistic ethics.
As a recent book by three Harvard researchers explains, this just isn’t true of the right. American conservative media functions like a closed system, with Fox News at the center. Right-wing outlets are less tethered to conventional journalistic ethics and exist mostly to propagate the bullshit they produce.
All this has created an atmosphere that has helped Trump. The Trump administration was remarkably successful at muddying the waters on Ukraine and impeachment, and Republicans in Congress helped by parroting the administration’s talking points.
The fact is, Trump did what Democrats have accused him of doing. We know, with absolute certainty, that the president tried to get a foreign government to investigate a family member of one of his political rivals. And we know this because of the witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee and because Trump’s own White House released a record of the call proving it.
Yet all the polling data we have suggests that public opinion on Trump and Ukraine basically held steady. Again, some of this is pure partisan recalcitrance. But there’s good reason to believe that the right’s muddying of the waters — making the story about Ukraine and Hunter Biden, pushing out conspiracy theories, repeatedly trumpeting Trump’s own version of events, etc. — played a role.
The issue is that the coverage of the trials, in both the mainstream press and right-wing outlets, ensured that these counternarratives are part of the public conversation. It added to the general atmosphere of doubt and confusion. And that’s why zone flooding presents a near-insoluble problem for the press.
The old model is broken
The way impeachment played out underscores just how the new media ecosystem is a problem for our democracy.
It helps to think of zone-flooding less as a strategy deployed by a person or group and more as a natural consequence of the way media works.
We don’t need a master puppeteer pulling the media’s strings. The race for content, the need for clicks, is more than enough. Bannon or Conway can shake things up by feeding nonsense into the system.
Trump can dictate an entire news cycle with a few unhinged tweets or an absurd press conference. The media cycle is easily commandeered by misinformation, innuendo, and outrageous content. These are problems because of the norms that govern journalism and because the political economy of media makes it very hard to ignore or dispel bullshit stories. This is at the root of our nihilism problem, and a solution is nowhere in sight.
The instinct of the mainstream press has always been to conquer lies by exposing them. But it’s just not that simple anymore (if it ever was). There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.
We probably need a paradigm shift in how the press covers politics. Nearly all of the incentives driving media militate against this kind of rethinking, however. And so we’re likely stuck with this problem for a very long time.
As is often the case, the diagnosis is much easier than the cure. But liberal democracy cannot function without a shared understanding of reality. As long as the zone is flooded with shit, that shared understanding is impossible.
They were discussing the false narratives surrounding President Trump and why they’re so difficult to cut through. As long as Trump has a right-wing media ecosystem to spin and protect and lie for him, the argument went, it’s just not clear that the “facts” matter all that much.
“People focus on the underlying facts,” Marantz told Stelter, “but the underlying facts are not the things that matter in terms of narrative-shaping … narrative-shaping happens on Fox News, in Congress, on the internet.”
That facts don’t seem to matter anymore is hardly a new observation. But it’s all the more urgent now, as we trudge into an impeachment process that will almost certainly lead to an unsatisfying conclusion in which no one version of the truth is likely to come out and be held by the public. In the 21st-century media ecosystem, “alternative facts” — as Kellyanne Conway’s famous formulation goes — can reign supreme, or at the very least blot out the truth.
But what really struck me about Stelter and Marantz’s conversation is how its insights about the death of facts and the profusion of narratives sprouted from a philosophical movement that began almost four decades ago but has since been blamed for the nihilism of the Trump era.
That movement is called “postmodernism,” and its legacy, while mixed, is very much worth revisiting. Postmodernism isn’t any one thing. It refers to a host of ideas and literary movements and even architectural styles. But what its critics fixate on is its purported attack on the idea of capital-T truth. Some key postmodern thinkers reveled in the idea’s destabilizing power and opened the door to questioning the very notion of objective knowledge. To hear critics tell it, the postmoderns created the post-truth future.
There is some truth to the critique. A version of postmodernism that questioned objective truth and promoted relativism was fashionable, even celebrated, in the academy in the 1980s and 1990s. But did the scribblings of obscure French philosophers really impel us into the age of Trump?
More likely, the changes that brought us that world were already underway when Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition — the book that coined the term — dropped in 1979. Forty years later, it’s more useful and accurate to view Lyotard and his fellow postmoderns’ work as a diagnosis of a world that was then already being fractured by mass media and technology.
Postmodernism didn’t set us on our path toward information dystopia. At its core, it identified a crisis that was brewing in its time — and that has reached a boil in our benighted present.
Postmodernism and its discontents
Postmodernism has been a favorite scapegoat for our ills for decades now. The conventional critique of postmodernism is that it’s nihilistic, a knock that you hear from critics on the left and the right.
In the Trump era, the critique has deepened — not just nihilistic, critics say, but the source of our era’s woes. Liberals like the former chief book critic for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, argue that postmodernism spilled out of the academy and seeped into the broader culture, devaluing the very concept of objectivity. She lays the fact-averse both-sideism of the Trump age at the feet of postmodernism, which she believes cemented the idea that no “perspective” can be privileged over another.
The psychologist and pop-philosopher Jordan Peterson believes postmodernism’s obsession with marginalization and cultural appropriation kicked off our current political correctness “crisis.” As he describes it in a blog post, postmodernism was the brainchild of a handful of leftist academics in the ’70s and ’80s who argued that “since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived … no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.”
For Peterson, postmodernism’s skepticism of capital-T truth unleashed the menace of identity politics and placed race and identity at the center of the struggle for power. There are a few problems with that logic, but if you buy Peterson’s premise, then his conclusion more or less follows.
Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author of Enlightenment Now, has expressed what is probably the most common complaint about postmodernism. He thinks of it as a progressive phantasm that has destroyed the liberal arts. “The humanities,” he says, “have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”
On Pinker’s view, postmodernism threatens the progress of science (by questioning the possibility of objective truth) and is also a poison pill for liberal democracies because it replaces the pursuit of shared truth with a leftist culture war over power and identity.
These sorts of takes — and there are enough to fill a library — are all united in their hostility to a school of philosophy they consider gleefully anti-truth.
What postmodernism is — and what it isn’t
Responding to critics of postmodernism can be exhausting because it’s never clear what they mean by the term — or, in many cases, because they’re attacking a cartoon version of it.
As Aaron Hanlon, an English professor at Colby College, explained last year in an excellent Washington Post column, postmodernism is “a contested series of assertions by many different people from several disciplines, hardly a monolithic philosophy.” And many philosophers widely considered “postmodern” rejected the label, preferring terms like “post-structuralist” instead.
But the postmodernism most people have in mind has its roots in a school of French philosophy that emerged in the 1970s.
The basic idea, popularized by Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, was that we had reached the end of what he called “meta-narratives.” That meant there was no longer any single dominant account of the world, like historical Marxism or really any theory that attempted to explain human life in terms of absolute universal values.
It’s not so much that these accounts previously explained the world and then suddenly they didn’t; his point was that the world had become too fragmented and pluralistic to support anything like a moral or social consensus. None of our stories about history and justice — and for Lyotard, all ideologies were stories — could make any claim to superiority over the others.
Lyotard’s book is the first genuine work of postmodernism and probably still the clearest and most relevant. Lyotard — and I can’t stress this point enough — wasn’t saying that objective truth was impossible; instead, he argued that what passes for truth in postindustrial society is often a reflection of who holds power, and to forget that is to risk being manipulated.
He was making this claim against the backdrop of a society that lacked the basis for a common project. We were, instead, an atomized “consumer society” defined almost exclusively by commercial interests. At the same time, the institutions charged with discovering and disseminating truth — the government, media, the academy — were increasingly beholden to capital.
Lyotard believed that capitalism and technological changes resulted in the “mercantilization” of knowledge, which is a fancy way of saying that knowledge had become a commodity to be bought and sold like anything else. All of this, he insisted, would be intensified by the digital revolution (though he preferred the phrase “computerization”). He even suggested that in the future the great battle would be over who gets to control information.
Lyotard was too pessimistic about the reliability of science under capitalism, but his book isn’t — in any sense — a rejection of truth. His book was a warning, not a celebration. It wasn’t a call to nihilism or defense of relativism. He was identifying a crisis that was already underway. And his argument was less about the possibility of truth and more about how what we take to be true is often a reflection of unseen cultural and economic forces.
One of the reasons postmodernism has gotten such a bad rap is that other theorists — like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, all French philosophers writing before and after Lyotard — took the movement in a different, more relativistic direction. And the writing itself became more dense and indecipherable.
Over time, as Hanlon told me, thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler, the celebrated American philosopher, emerged as the faces of postmodernism and “stole the show from Lyotard’s diagnosis and distorted the legacy of that book.”
We’re drowning in content
The postmodern writer who took Lyotard’s work seriously and pushed it into the digital age is Jean Baudrillard, another French academic. Baudrillard began his career studying the impact of consumerism on everyday life. Like Lyotard, he believed postmodernity was defined in large measure by “consumer society.” He also shared Lyotard’s view that new media technologies would become a massively disruptive force that would “scramble” our grand narratives.
But Baudrillard became singularly focused on media. He published arguably his most famous book, Simulacra and Simulation, in 1981, in which he explored the consequences of living in a heavily mediated world. The individual, he argued, had become submerged in content, symbols, and ads — and we can now add misinformation and clickbait to that list.
Baudrillard was one of the first postmodern philosophers to sound the alarm about the political implications of these transformations. Like a lot of postmoderns, he emerged out of the Marxist tradition. But he quickly realized that, in the late Cold War era, political resistance was getting harder and harder. Citizens were shape-shifting into consumers and actively participating in their own marginalization.
It’s crucial to remember that Baudrillard was thinking all of this through with Lyotard’s argument about the end of meta-narratives in the background. In Baudrillard’s mind, the triumph of liberal democracy, and the collapse of the Soviet model had paved the way for sterile consumerist politics. The future, he warned, would be shaped by markets and brands and an oversaturated media landscape.
For postmoderns like Baudrillard, television and now the internet immersed people in their own private realities. The constant battle for our attention means that we can experience whatever version of reality we prefer, whenever we prefer. Even worse, because media platforms are competing to win audiences, the incentives will always push them in the direction of catering to our worst impulses. After a while, we’re just awash in self-curated content.
Baudrillard popularized the world “simulacra” to describe the unreality this puts us in. Twitter, as Jonathan Chait recently suggested, is a kind of simulacrum. Spend enough time on it and your picture of reality becomes predictably warped. The content you consume is easily mistaken for the real world.
Baudrillard warned, almost three decades ago, that representations had become their own reality — far more real than actual reality. And that was before Twitter or Facebook were even conceivable.
The American postmodernist, Frederic Jameson, made very similar arguments in his 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism. Jameson, like Baudrillard, thought we were witnessing the rise of a “mass culture” in which media and capitalism color our experience of reality. Jameson was thinking less about “narratives” and more about how market ideology flattened culture and obliterated distinctions between high and low art. But he echoed Baudrillard’s warnings about the loss of a shared reality.
Thinkers like Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Jameson hold up pretty well, but there’s no denying the relativistic outgrowths of postmodernism. Many postmoderns held that truth was socially constructed, though not all of them argued that all truth claims were valid. But some of them did go that far.
This is the part of the critique of postmodernism that can be hard to rebut. As Michael Lynch, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut told me, postmodernism had its strengths and weaknesses. “Its crucial insight is that power in all its dark forms is what often determines what passes for truth in our culture and ignoring that makes you vulnerable to manipulation,” Lynch says.
But the big error, Lynch added, “is to infer from this that truth itself was determined by those in power. That collapses what passes for truth with truth itself, which is just a mistake, both politically and logically.”
Lynch, of course, is right. Some of the postmoderns took this initial insight from Lyotard — that power often dictates what we take to be true — and extended it to mean that there is no truth as such.
In other words, postmodernism, like any body of thought, is shot through with bad ideas, absurd claims, and shoddy thinkers. But if we look past the excesses and focus on the things it got right, it actually explains quite a lot about what we’re living through.
Moreover, any argument that says postmodernism “killed truth” implies that a small cadre of (mostly French) theorists writing obscure books and journal articles somehow transformed the world. If the world has changed, it has more to do structural changes in the information space — namely the explosion of digital technology — than with the works of Derrida or Foucault or any other writer.
Why all of this matters today
Postmodernism doesn’t explain everything about our current moment, but it absolutely explains some of it — like, for example, the “narratives” problem Stelter and Marantz lamented on CNN.
For the postmoderns, discrete facts weren’t all that valuable to most people. What really mattered were the narratives we relied on to make sense of all those facts. Think of narratives as a device for connecting the dots, a way of mapping our experience of the world. This process of connecting the dots has never been immune from bias or distortion.
The postmoderns made a simple point: Technology and globalization were making the world infinitely more complicated and that meant more information to process, more dots to connect. And one way to manage this chaos is to lean more and more on narratives that strip the world of its complexity — and often reinforce our biases at the same time.
In that sense, it’s not exactly new that people are constructing fact-free narratives about the world around them. What is new, and what the postmoderns were warning about decades ago, is the volume of narratives and the proliferation of media technologies designed to flood our consciousnesses with as much content as possible. This has changed the game and, to borrow Lyotard’s phrase, “scrambled” our perceptions of reality.
The best postmodern thinkers, in other words, anticipated where we were heading as a society. They could see how innovations in technology, capitalism, and media were distorting our shared sense of truth. And none of them — not even the most pessimistic — could’ve imagined the epistemic anarchy unleashed by Facebook or YouTube algorithms.
We’re now, as philosopher Thomas De Zengotita told me, “the authors of our own universes.” We’ve combined the puerility of televisual culture with the self-centeredness of digital culture. The result is the total triumph of the mediated self, where everyone can create, perform, and affirm their identity and their truth and the marketplace will oblige them at every step.
“And this whole technology thing,” De Zengotita wrote in 2005, “is only just getting started.” The media technologies that define our worlds are getting more sophisticated and more immersive every day. All of which is to say, the crisis signaled by postmodernity will only deepen.
But there is some value in at least understanding how we got here and why we can’t go back.
One of the most striking things about Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing last Thursday was how quickly the male Republican senators dismissed everything they heard from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
Ford sat before the entire country and calmly laid out the details of her alleged assault in excruciating detail. It was as convincing as it was painful, and the all-male Republican panel sat silently through most of it.
And then came Kavanaugh.