Emotion And Postmodernity

While I question his reliability on some matters (he gives a predictably and groan-inducingly biased description of the premodern and modern era, coming from an Objectivist perspective), Stephen Hicks’ account of the transition from Enlightenment positions to postmodernity seems to fit with what I’ve learned from other sources. If this is correct (and I post it partly to seek correction if it is wrong), it does help to explain the contemporary political atmosphere. From Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2010), pp. 82-83.

From the postmodern anti-realist metaphysics and anti-reason epistemology, the postmodern social consequences follow almost directly. Once we set aside reality and reason, what are we left with to go on?  We can, as the conservatives would prefer, simply turn to our group’s traditions and follow them. Or we can, as the postmodernists will prefer, turn to our feelings and follow them. If we then ask what our core feelings are, we connect with the answers from the past century’s dominant theories of human nature.  From Kierkegaard and Heidegger, we learn that our emotional core is a deep sense of dread and guilt. From Marx, we feel a deep sense of alienation, victimization, and rage. From Nietzsche, we discover a deep need for power. From Freud, we uncover the urgings of dark and aggressive sexuality. Rage, power, guilt, lust, and dread constitute the center of the postmodern emotional universe.

Postmodernists split over whether those core feelings are determined biologically or socially, with the social version running as the strong favorite. In either case, however, individuals are not in control of their feelings: their identities are a product of their group memberships, whether economic, sexual, or racial. Since the shaping economic, sexual, or racial experiences or developments vary from group to group, differing groups have no common experiential framework. With no objective standard by which to mediate their different perspectives and feelings, and with no appeal to reason possible, group balkanization and conflict must necessarily result.

Nasty political correctness as a tactic then makes perfect sense. Having rejected reason, we will not expect ourselves or others to behave reasonably. Having put our passions to the fore, we will act and react more crudely and range-of-the-moment. Having lost our sense of ourselves individuals, we will seek our identities in our groups. Having little in common with different groups, we will see them as competitive enemies. Having abandoned recourse to rational and neutral standards, violent competition will seem practical. And having abandoned peaceful conflict resolution, prudence will dictate that only the most ruthless will survive.

To make clear, Hicks is careful to note that socialism (Marx) originally staked its claim on reason, hence Marx’s preferred name for his system, “scientific socialism”. But Hicks argues this path was no longer available with the failure of communist states in the 20C, and so socialism took a postmodernist direction.