Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Helen Pluckrose, James A Lindsay: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody
(Pitchstone Publishing, 2020)
Dr. Taimur Rahman
A miniature storm of social media protest greeted the letter against ‘cancel culture’ (Note 1) published in Harpers magazine and signed by 150 prominent scholars and writers (including Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, J K Rowling and Salman Rushdie). It opened up the fault lines between the young and the ‘woke’ (2) on the one hand, and older established liberals and progressives on the other.
While the conflict between ‘politically correct’ culture and ‘freedom of speech’ has been raging since the 1990s, the massive mobilisation in recent times in the wake of the murder of George Floyd give this debate an urgency and seriousness that it perhaps didn’t enjoy before. Not since the 1960s has the west seen so many people march in the streets on both sides of the Atlantic. And the fact that some of the worst symbols of racist and colonial culture have been removed from public view will certainly be of some consolation to many in the Third World.
It is in this complex context that I submit this review of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. The authors may already be known to some readers as academics involved in the ‘grievance studies’ affair. They wrote several deliberately absurd papers to postmodern academic journals, many of which were published, in order to demonstrate that these journals were ready to publish articles of extremely low academic rigour.
In this work, however, their goals are less sensational. They set out to unapologetically defend liberalism in relation to postmodernism (3). Hence, in direct contrast to the kinds of articles they submitted previously to grievance studies journals, this work is deliberately written in a simple lucid style. It is a work that wishes to engage not just the academic reader, but also the general public. In fact substantial parts of the book explain in a straightforward manner what postmodern writers are actually arguing. The language is so unencumbered by the desire to embellish a concept with impossible to comprehend phrases that during the first few chapters the academic reader may even be misled to think that the authors will end up oversimplifying postmodern theories. However, this is not the case. In sum, stylistically the book is written with the intent of persuading activists on the ground today that the goals of social justice will be better served within the philosophic framework of liberalism.
The notoriously difficult task of defining postmodern Critical Theory (4) (which the authors thankfully abbreviate to Theory) is accomplished by breaking these varied texts down into two principles and four themes. And though this may strike the reader as being stylistically reminiscent of Chinese communism while others will take offence that Theory is summed up in bullet points, it lays a clear basis for their argument through the book. These principles and themes are, firstly, the postmodern principles of knowledge and politics. The first is a deep epistemic scepticism about metanarratives and the possibility of discovering objective truths that Theory supports by rejecting the “correspondence theory of truth” (p. 33) (5). The politics of Theory, the authors claim, is guided by the imperative to challenge all forms of power and hierarchy. Secondly, the four themes of postmodernism: the blurring of boundaries (or binaries), the power of language, cultural relativism, and the loss of the individual and the universal. They first two of these are derived mainly from post-structuralism (6) while the last two are efforts to break down essentialism (7) at the cultural or social level.
The book begins to gain momentum from the second Chapter onwards. Perhaps the most interesting idea in this book is that Theory, which was assumed to have run its course by the 1990s, has actually transitioned into its ‘applied’ phase. The core ideas of Theory are now being applied to race, gender, colonialism, queer, disability, and fat studies. Each of these is explored by the authors in Chapters 3-7.
In Chapter three the authors examine the works of Fanon, Said, Spivak and Bhaba, concluding that the practical result of the imperative to ‘decolonise everything’ is, at its very mildest, a call to be more inclusive of scholars of other nationalities and races. However, in its more virulently theoretical form they have argued that scientific rationality is itself a western construct. Hence, not only is it the case that scholarship is not valued on the basis of evidence, merit, and rigour but on the basis of the ethnicity of the author, but even more importantly, as Meera Nanda points out, it has reproduced the orientalist notion that the east is “traditional, spiritual, experiential” (p. 84).
In Chapter four the authors examine the development of queer theory. They brief the reader about the influence of Foucault’s biopower (8) on the works of Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick amongst others. The authors argue that queer theory is almost exclusively dominated by Theory. Its main focus is the blurring of boundaries – that is challenging the notion that sex or sexuality has any connection with biology. This is possible only because the epistemological basis of Theory has rejected the correspondence theory of knowledge.
Chapter five examines critical race theory as it emerges out of legal studies. Political practice under the influence of Theory has focuses on micro-aggressions, hate-speech, safe-spaces, cultural appropriation, media representation and so on. However, it sets up a double blind, contend the authors, making it impossible to have meaningful conversations regarding race. For instance, if race is noticed it is because the person is racist. If it is but noticed it is because they are racist.
Chapter six argues that the death of liberal feminism resulted in a situation where feminism was completely subsumed by gender studies based on a postmodern Theory. Gender studies has completely moved away from any form of materialist analysis of women’s role or status. The result of this is, ironically, the simultaneous destruction of individuality and universality. Intersectionality has destroyed the idea of collective interests of women, since the individual is a matrix of multiple intersecting de-centred identities, and therefore, equally untenable.
Chapter seven on disability and fat studies was, for me personally, the most revealing. While most academics are, I think, quite familiar with its impact on race, gender, colonialism and sexuality, the influence of Theory on disability and fat studies was for me, at least, new terrain. The core influence of Theory on these issues seems to be, according to the authors, that disability and obesity are mere social constructs. Theory shifts the focus from the provision of professional help to challenging the supposed normative constructs of health sciences themselves. The authors point out that this could, in fact, result in adverse health outcomes for people in that predicament.
The book concludes that since 2010, Theory has reached its reified stage. The actual practice of postmodern Theory has amounted to the views that “all white people are racist, all men are sexist”, “sex is not biological”, “language can be literal violence”, “denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability or obesity is hateful, and everything needs to be decolonised” (p. 183). The authors concluded that liberalism is still yet the strongest philosophical and political foundation for the goals of a just, equitable, and open society.
As is clear, this book pulls no punches. And why would one even expect less from authors unafraid to court controversy in their pursuit to demonstrate that postmodern academic journals were substandard?
The strength of the book is that it brings in one place the influence of postmodernism on six different disciplines or issues. While specialists will no doubt argue that the views expressed do not adequately represent the work done, the book offers a broad sweep that helps identify the pattern and impact of postmodern scholarship on the social sciences.
As far as the epistemic critique is concerned, the work is, in my opinion, undoubtedly on very strong ground. Half the heavy lifting is already accomplished by clearly explaining the position of postmodernist scholars. However, where the book might fail to persuade the radical activists of today is in its conclusions in defence of political liberalism.
A profound change is sweeping the globe. Inspired by these global movements, even otherwise conservative Pakistan (where I am based) has seen a revived women’s movement and student movement. In the west there is the simultaneous revival on the one hand of a new social-democratic politics, and movements on race, gender, and sexuality on the other. Perhaps it is not even correct to characterise this as a movement but as many movements coalescing, converging, breaking apart and coming back together.
Hence, while many of the slogans that animate these movements are derived from the theory and practice of postmodernism, it is difficult to characterise all these amorphous movements as such. It is safe to say that scores of people have responded to these slogans for social justice without necessarily being aware of the academic background to these slogans.
Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be out on the streets because they are suffering from the manipulation of a few epistemically challenged professors. It is not difficult to recognise that it is out of a deep sense of disappointment with liberalism and Marxism that many have turned to Theory. The perception of social injustice is not false consciousness and the thirst for change is genuine, real, and widespread. The book argues persuasively that postmodernism will not match those needs. But then what will? The argument that we must stay the course is unlikely to fully persuade the radicals of today. But hopefully the book will give them cause to rethink certain assumptions to better inform their politics for justice.
The reviewer is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
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