I’ve been mentally composing a version of this essay for a long time. I thought perhaps its relevance might have passed but the explosion in the last few years of postmodern identity politics into the mainstream convinces me that far from being something that happened briefly to one not very happy undergraduate in the early 00s, the mental distress I experienced as a result of exposure to ‘critical theory’ has expanded to encompass much of contemporary discourse. I don’t claim to have a solution to that, but I want to share how I survived.
I went to a moderately eccentric school by ordinary standards, but for the purposes of this essay we can treat it as a classical education, inasmuch as we learned about great civilisations that came before ours and this knowledge was treated as important and still relevant to us and the world and culture today. Built into the form of the curriculum was a tacit teleology, that implied (whether or not it was ever stated) an evolutionary relation of each civilisation to the one that preceded it. It was a narrative that led to where we are now, and the civilisation we currently inhabit.
Imagine my surprise, then, when as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford in around 2000, I discovered postmodernist thought, and its many schools of critical theory.
By ‘critical theory’ I mean the body of thought emanating initially mostly from France, with Saussure and Derrida, then expanding out to include such figures as Paul de Man, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler. Many more names have joined that list since, and taken together I believe it is referred to as ‘cultural studies’ today, or, in the words of the Sokal Squared hoaxsters, ‘grievance studies’. Back in 2002 at Oxford, critical theory was a looming presence at the edge of the arts but seemed most pertinent to the study of literature; it has subsequently, I gather, swallowed most of the humanities and is mounting siege against the sciences as I write.
But I digress. The central insight of this discipline was the destabilising one, and that I think has not changed. To summarise: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified’. That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs – a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.
This insight was developed by Jaques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by centuries of culture since the Enlightenment to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up vested interests, and to conceal the operations of power. Recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.
I freely admit that I was a bit loopy anyway when I reached that point on my reading list, for unrelated personal reasons. But this insight hit me like a freight train. I spent most of one Trinity term feeling as though I was in the midst of a psychotic experience. Instead of seeing the ‘dreaming spires’ around me as the accumulation of centuries of carefully-tended tradition, a representation in architecture of the ideal of the university as a custodian of the best that has been thought and said to date, I saw each building as a kind of nightmarish extrusion into physical space of power structures that were indifferent if not hostile to me as a sexual minority and a woman. I felt suffocated: stifled by a kind of blaring architectural triumphalism that declared at every corner, with every church tower, every statue of every great man, ‘YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANY OF THIS, WE WILL ALWAYS WIN’. And stifled again by the nihilistic twist postmodernism places on this reading of the world, and culture, in that it assures us that there is nowhere to stand outside the push and pull of power. There is nothing outside the text. So in trying to challenge these operations of power, we will probably just end up re-inscribing them.
By now you’re probably thinking ‘wow, she sounds nuts’. Well yes, I was a bit at that point, as I said before. But I describe this experience in detail because 1) it was so distressing and 2) the state I spent the next few years in following my fall from the Eden of pre-post-modernism sounded, in my inner monologue, so similar to what I read of the toxic ‘social justice’ debate that rolls around our social media some 15 or so years on that I feel they must be related. What if today’s SJWs are in fact acting out a traumatic state of mind engendered by exposure to ‘cultural studies’ at university? If that is the case, then there may be someone out there who will find some comfort in my story of how I recovered from that experience to the point where I was able to make any decisions at all.
Because make no mistake, the Fall engendered by internalising the idea that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is a horrible place to be. Consider that iconic scene in the Matrix where Neo wakes from the dream he believed to be normal life, in a slime-covered capsule, to discover that he and the rest of the human species are in fact mindless peons farmed by forces beyond their power to change. Then bin the rest of the Matrix franchise, shoot Morpheus and the rest of the resistance, end the film with Neo back in his pod as a human generator, just without his connection to the Matrix. Eyes staring helplessly into the machine-farm abyss. That’s a bit how it feels.
Forget political radicalism. There’s nothing left, this worldview says, but a continuous action of ‘disruption’ from within the system. There is no way to change the world for the better because what even is the better anyway? All you have left available to you is a kind of carping from the sidelines. Calling out particularly brazen efforts by the collective voice of consensus reality to perpetutate itself in its current form and to silence potentially disruptive voices. Maybe trying to widen the range of voices permitted to contribute to the operations of power. Maybe you can see now how this could be a mindset conducive to (for example) the contemporary popularity of ‘call-out culture’ and quixotic obsession of public discourse with ensuring the identity categories of figures in public life and Hollywood films precisely replicate their demographic proportions in the population at large.
No truth, no authority, no meaning, no means of striving for the good without producing more of the same. Just power. For the longest time I couldn’t find a way out of the dragging nihilism engendered by this worldview. Eventually though it occurred to me that I just didn’t have to be absolutist about it. I just had to be a bit more pragmatic. So what if we can never be wholly certain that what we mean to say to someone else is exactly what they hear, because every definition we use in theory needs to be defined in its turn, and so on ad infinitum? If I ask my friend to pass the salt, and he passes the salt, I really don’t need to waste energy mulling over the social forces underlying the particular rituals around eating and table manners that obtain in my current cultural context. I thank my friend and add some salt to my dinner.
This is a tiny example but I decided to try and apply this principle to life in general. If I needed to get on with something, instead of getting bogged down, within every social context and every situation, with the subterranean operations of power, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality etc etc etc, I’d try and bracket all that stuff and act as if things were still as stable as they were before the Fall. I coined the term ‘temporary certainties’ for this state of mind. It took a bit of mental effort (and you probably still think I sound mad) but far less mental effort than inwardly deconstructing every utterance, object and situation I found myself in for signs of Western-colonialist cisheteropatriarchal blahdeblah.
Gradually, the psychosis waned. Now, 10 or so years on from arriving at this solution, it’s still working for me. The world can never be as solid-seeming as it was before my Fall. Truth still seems a bit relative depending on where one is standing. But the important insight is that many categories, many tropes, objects and structures, are stable enough to treat them ‘as if’ they were pre-post-modernist type solid. You don’t need to waste time deconstructing everything; indeed, trying to do so is a fast track to a sense of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage. And trying to build any kind of transformative politics on a foundation of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage is not going to turn out as a net force for good, however radically you relativise the notion of ‘good’.
This doesn’t have to mean buying in wholesale to things as they are and becoming a cheerleader for keeping things unchanged. But to anyone currently struggling to focus in a world that seems hostile and composed entirely of operations of power, I say: pick your battles. Much of the world is still good (for a temporarily certain value of good), many people are kind and well-meaning. Creating new interpersonal dynamics around the anxious effort to avoid the accidental replication in ordinary speech of sociocultural dynamics you find oppressive (aka ‘microaggressions’ may not, in the end, make for a more functional society. It’s possible to treat as a temporary certainty the hypothesis that in asking ‘Where are you from?’ someone is not in fact unconsciously othering you by virtue of your apparent ethnic difference, but simply – from maybe a naïve position in a social background that does not include many ethnic minorities – seeking to know more about you, in order to befriend you.
The beauty of a temporary certainty is that, choosing such a vantage point, we can say of any given cultural phenomenon (the institution of marriage, say) ‘we are where we are’. We are no longer stuck with the Hobson’s choice of either pretending to buy into something as an absolute that we see as contingent and culturally constructed, or else setting ourselves pointlessly in opposition to it, protesting that as it is culturally constructed we should make all efforts to disrupt or transform it into some form that might appear more ‘just’. Instead, we can accept that despite this phenomenon being, strictly speaking, contingent, it remains stable enough that we can and should find a pragmatic relation to it. (In my case, that was to get married. One of the best decisions I ever made.)
You may object that my argument here amounts to a strategy for recouping something for cultural conservatism from the rubble of the post-modernist project. I beg to differ. Rather, what I’m advocating here is more along the lines of a plea to those who see themselves as political radicals to think deeply about what really matters and to focus on that. As it stands, ‘social justice’ social media suggests that thanks to the post-Fall malaise I postulate as infecting most of our young people, radical politics is resiling into a kind of nihilistic shit-slinging incapable of going beyond critiquing the contingency of what it seeks to change in order to advocate for anything better.
 I don’t mean modernism, hence the clumsy construction. I mean something more like ‘the popular twentieth century Enlightenment-ish consensus about truth, reason and meaning’