Thoughts on Postmodernity 2: The Tensions of the Past and the Fluidity of the Present.

The great advantage of this approach is that one can follow the author’s reasoning and start to perceive conceptual connections one didn’t see any previously.

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Thoughts on Postmodernity 2: The Tensions of the Past and the Fluidity of the Present.

“Three Sphinxes of Bikini” (1947), by Salvador Dali.

Andrew D. Chapman, in a recent APP essay,“Thoughts on the Relationship Between Postmodernism and Fascism,” makes a large number of philosophically illuminating points, spinning as it were a tightly woven spider’s web of arguments and connections. The great advantage of this approach is that one can follow the author’s reasoning and start to perceive conceptual connections one didn’t see any previously. On one hand, this method is particularly suited to tackle a broad cultural phenomenon like postmodernism. And on the other hand, the success of such an approach rests on the plausibility of the relations the author succeeds in unearthing.

I agree with some of the points made by Chapman; but I disagree with some others. (Try to find two philosophers who agree on anything—I promise you, this will keep you occupied for a long time….) This essay, then, is a critical commentary that highlights some of points of assent and dissent.[i]

I’ll state my position right up front, so that the upshot of my commentary is clear. I think that Chapman overstates his claim; I would defend a more nuanced approach. There are indeed links between fascism and the cultural currents of Postmodernity. But there are also multiple ways of thinking about those links. Correspondingly, I want to defend the following claims:

(i) Postmodernity has created the conditions for a specific type of fascism to emerge. By making this claim, I also defend the further (implicit) claim that an ahistorical, universal theory of fascism is impossible; one must take the historical-cultural climate in which any particular brand of fascism developed into account.

(ii) The rise of fascism is possible because postmodernity is not as “post” modern as it loudly proclaims. Instead, I am in broad agreement with the Frankfurt School neo-Marxists here: fascism emerged because modernity enabled it. It was—as it were—the inevitable culmination of some of its implicit tendencies. The same applies to the contemporary rise of fascism: it is precisely the “modern” characteristics of postmodern culture that enable a unique and contemporary kind of fascism—hence a neo-fascism—that is at once strangely like and strangely unlike its historical predecessors.

The overall picture of relations between postmodernity and fascism that I defend is thus different than Chapman’s. Nevertheless, our accounts partially overlap—and sometimes they diverge.

I. The Tensions of the Past

Let’s start out with a commentary on the Chapman’s definition of postmodernity:

[B]y postmodernism, I mean the late 20th-century artistic, cultural, and philosophical ideology that explicitly rejects early 20th-century modernism in all its forms; that is philosophically committed to individual and cultural relativism; that is highly skeptical of all universalist and/or essentialist theories in general and of classical metaphysics and Rationalist epistemology more specifically; that promotes an essentially detached, ironic, satirical, and uncommitted way of living; and whose mode of creativity is explicitly derivative and syncretic, by juxtaposing manifestly discordant, ready-made materials drawn from a wide variety of existing sources and traditions, aka bricolage.

It is true that Postmodernism (PoMo) came to full fruition in the late 1970s and re-invented itself in various guises throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. What makes this claim complex is that postmodernity is an artistic, cultural and philosophical position. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition is often taken as a threshold moment for the philosophical branch: he seemed to define a philosophical agenda that would be equated with PoMo as such. Notably his claim that the “metanarratives” of history had ceased to function was taken as a mission statement.

Some nuance is necessary here. The subtitle of the Postmodern Condition is A Report on Knowledge,” and indeed, a significant part of the book is about knowledge- production during a time when computers, digitization, and automation-of-information took over. In this process, job prospects, education, institutional structures and the role of “knowledge procedures” changed in ways that were unprecedented.

Lyotard’s statement that the “metanarratives” were obsolete was not a political statement in the sense that he advocated a new era of political engagement. Rather, it was the diagnosis of a historical situation—none of the existing metanarratives could do justice to the fluidity of the present. That Lyotard overplayed his hand here is clear: to judge that the metanarratives are obsolete is to place oneself in an external, post-historical position. Moreover, if the claim is that all meta-narratives anywhere are obsolete, you have just created a new one that you assume has universal validity.

With regard to Chapman’s interpretation of the term “bricolage”, we can refer to one of the sources of this term:

He [Lévi-Strauss] presents as what he calls bricolage what might be called the discourse of this method. The bricoleur, says Lévi-Strauss, is someone who uses “the means at hand,” that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous—and so forth.[ii]

Bricolage is not necessarily derivative or purposively focused on juxtaposition—it is a mere makeshift approach for creating and designing. Bricolage contains an element of improvisation and surprise. Sometimes, putting an object or tool to use in ways for which it was not intended creates a perceptual shift. One regards such tools with renewed insight into their possibilities. Improvisation, borrowing, and heterogeneity characterize the working mode of the bricoleur. That this viewpoint leads quite easily to a dismissal of grand narratives or unifying discourses is demonstrated in the next quote:

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur. The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon.[iii]

The engineer is presented as a character that brings unity and thereby coherence in a discourse. However, the engineer himself is in reality a bricoleur of sorts. His concepts, ideas and methods do not fall ready-made from the heavens. This theme (most conceptual characters are in reality just conceptual or mythic characters in a grand narrative) remains a persistent thought in postmodern thinking. This is especially so since the “engineer” can be regarded as the paradigmatic figure of modernity.[iv] It is the engineer who ensures a technology-driven highway of progress, and who has always the final say, because he justifies his choices on the basis of natural science. Here, again, postmodernity displays a certain suspicion towards “discourses” that are unified around one system of references (numerical in the case of mathematics, genetic in the case of biology, etc.). The creeping suspicion is that the unity of such discourses is an integral part of their myth, the idealized image that such disciplines present to the outside world.

Whether this postmodern suspicion is (fully) justified can be discussed, but for now it suffices to say that this is a core postmodern argument. And it is the same suspicion that provides the background for Lyotard’s claim about the obsolescence of essentialist, grand, unifying narratives.

The suspicion towards all essentialist theories of human nature and Rationalism are easily explainable against the background of Lyotard’s claim, but also against the cultural background from the 1970s. France had May 1968, and experienced widespread student revolts demanding a “democratization” of the universities. The US was embroiled in the Vietnam war and struggled with the rise of counterculture movements. The USSR and Maoist China were seen as a global enemy to be reckoned with. This differences between East and West became a schismatic conflict that tore Marxists of different stripes apart. Pop culture echoed the work of Andy Warhol, and high culture retreated into the quietistic safe space of artistic Conceptualism.

In such a cultural climate, essentialist theories about human nature may seem like the last thing one needs, and relativism is seen as a safe haven from ideological fanaticism. This makes PoMo essentially escapist. The detached and ironic mode of living is a way to not-engage, and to keep one’s distance; the playfulness is not a kind of spontaneous outburst of creativity, but a childish strategy for distraction. In Chapman’s words:

The meme-ification, playfulness for its own sake, refusal to engage in debate, excessive displays of strength, etc., that is especially evident in online culture, but that is also present in, e.g., the speeches of Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, their official deputies, and their ilk, shows the two sides of social life: postmodern nihilism on the one side, fascism on the other.

All this has a marked effect on artistic expression. And while Chapman speaks of Postmodern artistic expression as “derivative” and “syncretic,” this is only one half of the story. Yes, there was a considerable emphasis on collage and juxtaposition in PoMo, but this was as much the result of the rejection of modernity as it was of a number of artistic tendencies earlier in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Expressionism and Suprematism, as well as De Stijl and Surrealism had long been experimenting with techniques of abstraction, geometrical composition, juxtaposition and recombination. But the Second World War stunted and deformed an artistic current that no doubt would have developed in a different direction given the absence of the war. Nonetheless, the ominous signs that modernity was a field of tensions waiting to explode was already in the air. One need only read Nietzsche, Byron, Gogol, Kafka, or Dostoyevsky to see the seeds of what became a core concept of the critics of modernity: alienation.

The same trend is already visible before the First World War in the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, the paintings of Edvard Munch and Paul Delvaux, or the Dutch art collective De Ploeg (The Plough/Group). Later on, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso continued this line of modern artistry. Not just alienation and the underlying tensions of modernity figure in their works, but also a sense of doom and ominous foreboding—and in Dali’s work, not seldom combined with a sense of maddening hopelessness and desperation. This tendency comes to a climax in Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Dali’s The Face of War (1941).

In Rene Magritte’s paintings, we encounter the same themes. His seemingly tranquil and ordered compositions convey the sense of a dimension that is fundamentally “off”: a nightmarish undercurrent that lies in wait just under the surface, and that is also present in Dali’s The First Study for the Madonna of Port Lligat (1949). And even while surrealist art takes alienation to its extreme in its visual language, it nevertheless is figurative. What is striking is the play of images and fragments that seamlessly connect to the reality around them. A penetrating example is Dali’s Three Sphinxes of Bikini (1947)—featured at the top of this essay—which he painted as a response to US nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The theme of an irrational force that underlies all currents of thought (and that in Delvaux, Vigeland and Magritte is threatening to escape) is not a postmodern theme. It belongs to the neo-Marxist philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School. The Dialectic of Enlightenment was a book that attempted to come to terms with that horrendous rift that tore modernity apart: the Holocaust. While some saw in the Holocaust a betrayal of the ideals of modernity, Horkheimer and Adorno reasoned the other way around: the Holocaust was the inevitable result of the forces of modernization. Its horror and irrationality were, as it were, already inscribed in the emancipation that modernity promised.

This thought—that reason is problematically and unconsciously afloat in a sea of irrationality—looms large in the work of Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida, Cixous, and Foucault. To be sure, they provided different (and mutually exclusive) accounts of how reason and unreason interacted, but the “universal highway to happiness” as postulated by modernity was gone.

Art could do nothing more than capture this cultural current in images. In a climate of relativism, escapism, and pessimism about rationality and post-history, collage was chosen as the modus operandi.[v] This was not merely because PoMo is derivative, but because nihilism thrives in the cultural conditions just described. The only possible form of expression in such a climate is a crooked and ultimately cynic repetition of the past—and simultaneously a mode of non-committing. No original work can be created, because the overarching coordinates for its interpretation have metamorphosed into a flat universe of fragments and images. Worse still, the only further mode of development is a repetition of the repetition. A copy of a copy; an image of an image.

While claiming a “post” position, PoMo magnified and intensified and artistic current that is indigenous to modernity, and has alienation as its core theme. While claiming that modernity had been overcome, PoMo re-iterated a modern artistic practice in a decidedly postmodern way. Nevertheless, the core premises of modernity were still active.

So PoMo did not reject modernity: it is just its most recent manifestation. The very insistence on difference and diversity, plurality and relativism stems not from a rejection of modernity, but from the appropriation of various philosophical post-structuralist ideas that received an unfaithful cultural translation.[vi] At this point, Chapman asks this urgent question:

A question: If the goal of postmodernism is to unite the people around emotion and power, then what is the point of fragmentation, infinite interpretability, infinite iterability?

And provides a provisional response:

And this, perhaps, is the point of fragmentation, infinite interpretability, infinite iterability: they unite while pretending to not unite.

As I’ve argued in the first essay in this two-part series, PoMo has elevated the production of an individual’s worldview into an artform. It is a production process that is immensely successful. One can “argue” and “like” and “become an active member” of whatever group or cause, as long as one “obeys.” Depending on the group one likes, there is an unwritten code of conduct, and these codes are seldomly questioned—because, if you don’t like the group, then leave. Such groups unite people around a cause, but they pretend you choose to be a member.

What started as a question about interpretation in Derrida and a question about difference in Deleuze were properly philosophical issues. It was a logical development from linguistics and metaphysics in the wake of De Saussure and Bergson. How these thoughts became culturally embedded is quite a different matter. For instance, the Derridean idea that signs are always open for interpretation does not mean there is no truth. In a commodity culture of fragmentation, this thought easily degenerates to: my interpretation is [in this world] my personal, customized truth. Mass-media, digital corporations and politicians have been all-too-quick in seizing the enormous opportunities for manipulation and deceit here.

Given my reasoning here, I disagree with Chapman’s claim about the connection between “juxtaposition” and Fascism. Here is the distinction:

Surrealism is essentially fascistic—its entire point is to put, say, an elephant, a Sudanese corn bin, a headless nude woman, and other manifestly discordant materials on an operating table and to force the viewer to deal with that random assembly. Nothing justifies the juxtaposition, and this itself is the point of that juxtaposition.

In late-capitalist Postmodernity, the kind of visual clamor that is omnipresent in shopping malls, advertising, music videos or cinema is indeed a cacophony of discordant stimuli. However, in Surrealism there is a rhyme and reason to the madness. Even if Surrealist artworks do not justify their presence in logical and/or linguistic terms, they nevertheless capture the cultural current. Often, art does this earlier than the sciences or philosophy. In all its non-discursiveness and seeming incoherence, Surrealism visualized the falling-apart of metanarratives long before Lyotard even wrote about it; it presaged the fragmentation of reality by fifty years. The coordinates of reality are shifted, and “normality” in Surrealism becomes something alien to the onlooker. One must adapt while looking at a Surrealist painting.

During the 20th century, this was an artistic and later on a philosophical position. One could choose to subscribe to such a vision or reject it. Nowadays, what the Surrealists painted has become a reality of the military-industrial-university-digital complex—fragmented, seemingly impossible to narrate from a single viewpoint, endlessly mailable and alterable. Our reality has irrevocably changed, and it has become more and more surrealistic by the day. Surrealists were not fascists—they merely captured a new cultural trend that would give rise to a unique kind of contemporary fascism, neo-fascism.

II. Idealizing the Past

Having said all this about PoMo, let’s now turn to Chapman’s definition of fascism:

By fascism, I mean a political ideology that valorizes the nation-state, conceived as an organic whole, and seriously depreciates or even outright rejects the autonomy and human dignity of the individual; that places highly centralized governmental coercive power in the hands of a single charismatic leader, aka “the strong man”; that glorifies violence against and war with its perceived internal and external enemies; and that promotes a vision of social cohesion that’s essentially regressive and oriented towards an imagined ideal past.

Certainly, Chapman and I are here in broad agreement. Fascism is deeply reactionary when it comes to its cultural narrative. An idealized version of the past is glorified, and the present must be adjusted to conform to it. Fascism emphasizes the “organic” metaphor exactly for this reason: society is an organism, each domain of which is intimately connected with the adjacent ones. In this sense, fascism promises an identity-driven antidote to the alienation of modernity. It does so by emulating a past in which everyone knows everyone, communal structures are fully functioning, and social problems are treated like illnesses or parasites.

It follows that individuality is only allowed as an expression of superiority. One may excel in fighting enemies, because that is an affirmation of the vision of fascism. Having an individual point of view about the social order is a sickness in the fascist universe.

So far, Chapman and I agree. The disagreement comes in where history is concerned. While fascism in its historical forms (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet) valorized the nation-state and a strong, para-military government, neo-fascism does so only as a strategy. In a time of globalization, the idea of the nation state is used to define an inside/outside perimeter.

To be sure, Hitler used initially this tactic. Nevertheless, the Nazis based their political success on their strengthening of the German economy. Their tactic was not to rely heavily on global corporations. Nowadays, such global corporations function effectively like nation-states. The only thing they lack are clear geographical borders. But apart from this, they have everything: access to natural resources, production and research facilities, a hierarchical leadership structure, private security aka army, and almost infinite labor power.

Another difference: their leaders or boards of shareholders are not democratically chosen. In such a climate, Hitler’s imperialist fascism appears as an amateurish attempt at control. So neo-fascism doesn’t need a strong man—all it needs is a dispersed network of influential and wealthy patrons that control parts of the globe. Warlords, yes, but now on a planetary scale.

But what about the likes of Trump, Duterte or Bolsonaro? Are they not the “strong men” that are indispensable for fascism? I think not. They are mere figureheads, grotesque puppets useful for sowing hatred and dissent. They create distractions via their endless Tweets and clownish assertions. The real neo-fascism is busily working away in the background: their trusted cabinet members or political advisors are the ones implementing their vision for the future. And while the puppet-“strong men” create diversions for the mass media, those with political and business experience use the free time and political climate to create a lasting, deeply entrenched neo-fascism.

This time around, neo-fascism will not stop because the “strong man” has been removed. It will be long embedded in society through unjust laws and regulations, draconian “security” measures, omnipresent surveillance and financial backing by corporations who are all-too-willing to look away when it’s profitable. If this sounds like a dystopian future, then I have written this too late: it is already a reality in many places on the planet.

For these reasons, I disagree with Chapman’s claim that neo-fascism is post-capitalist: on the contrary, it is capitalism’s way of securing a steady stream of resources and cheap labor power or even modern slavery. This time around, this process will not run via democracy, but via corporation-driven, state-backed imperialism.

Now let’s critically consider this remark:

Fascism retains the hierarchy but does away with the pretense of freedom. Communism destroys the hierarchy in order to expand the freedom to more than a pretense. Both fascism and communism are universalist in that both attempt to appeal to something universal. The fascist: emotion and power; the communist: reason and dignity.

It is certainly true that both fascism and communism attempted to realize a universalist paradise. To be so confident in one’s aspirations, one must believe that history has ended. In other words: that the Paradise one is constructing will be the last one, as nothing can possibly improve on it. For this reason, fascism was proud to relinquish individual freedom. The very emphasis on discipline, bodily fitness, combat prowess, eugenics and the systematic killing of “the weak,” all point in this direction. Fascism is the glorification of relinquishing one’s autonomy in service of the whole.

In its abstract sense, communism starts from the opposite end: it destroys societal hierarchies to make one’s background irrelevant to the freedoms one can enjoy. Nevertheless, in actual practice, 20th century communism exceeded the Nazi killing-horrors, and also adopted its cultural narratives to a surprising degree.

The early 20th century Russian art movements were initially hailed as attempts to overcome “good taste” and bourgeois preferences. But during Stalin’s reign, the political preference shifted to Social Realism, and composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to compose “social realist” works for the masses. Writers like Krzizhanovsky had to seek refuge in the genre of the fantastic or hide their works altogether. Architecture had to adopt a conservative, classical form language again. One paradigmatic example here is the former Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in Berlin, built in a semi-classical, Social Realist style, complete with domes, columns, colonnades and ornamentation.

Art had to be understandable and had to evoke emotions and enthusiasm, especially enthusiasm about the glorious world that Communism had built, an organically structured laborer’s paradise. Chapman’s distinction between reason and dignity for communism on the one hand, and emotion and power for fascism on the other, can be easily coin-flipped, I think.

From their own point of view, Nazis were the most reasonable people on earth, seeking a thousand-year continuation of the human race with the help of advanced technology. And they were not afraid to say as much out loud. As regards human dignity, the Nazis justified their extermination campaigns for mentally ill, physically disabled and societal outcasts with the argument that one should not be cruel to those poor souls and “put them out of their misery.” How dignity-respecting is that? The Nazi argument was initially precisely that a life without (a Nazi-prescribed) form of human dignity was not worth living. Later on, of course, the narrative hardened, and resulted in cruel caricatures and depictions of “degenerates” as Untermenschen.

On the other side of the coin, the adoption of Social Realism by communism was all about emotion and power. The extensive parades, the display of military power and the silent presence of the secret police were all utilized as tools to emphasize state power. The adaptation of a fascist language of power and emotion by a political system that presented itself as resolutely anti-fascist shows something important about the political malleability of signs and visual language.

And here we can see just how PoMo culture has enabled the emergence of neo-fascism: this time around, it’s a “new-and-improved” fascism that draws heavily on PoMo’s intellectual undercurrents and the ongoing fragmentation of reality.

III. The Fluidity of the Present as a PoMo-Enabled Neo-Fascist Political Strategy

PoMo culture has enabled the creation of personal bubbles. These are tailored universes, customizable for everyone’s individual preferences. Via screens, subscriptions, personalized advertisements, tablets, streaming services, notifications and smartphones, the contents of these universes become entrenched in our worldview. In two other recent essays on APP, I’ve written the following:

Not coincidentally, we see an increasing rise of self-commodification. The “feel-good” posts on Instagram, the Facebook messages, forced professionalism on LinkedIn and the continuous rating and valuing of experiences points towards a new direction: no longer is there just a “free market out there”, but its mechanisms have pervaded the farthest corners of our personal identities. [vii]

Not only are individuals atomized through social media. Individuality itself is atomized, fragmented into pieces of reality. We cannot be of one mind anymore, because our minds are torn apart by means of an extreme fragmentation of our perception of reality. The postmodern suspicion of “grand narratives” is not a theoretical choice any more: it is the inevitable outcome of a process of existential fragmentation and loss of coherence. In a world controlled by touchscreens and buttons, a grand narrative cannot but appear as an absurdity. [viii]

We perceive reality itself as disjointed, thereby turning PoMo into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has deep consequences for our ability to act as a collective, or to realize lasting political changes. By means of a perfected “divide and conquer” strategy, the potential for political change is eroded.

And exactly at this point, neo-fascism comes in. Under a layer of commodity terms like “individual expression,” “polyvocality,” “differences,” and “diversity,” some grand narratives are still alive. Racial purity, racism, glorification of individual prowess, showing one’s commitment to a cause: all these ideas can be amplified exponentially via social media and mass media. And the puppet clowns that are in power—the likes of Trump—have harnessed our addiction to individual and direct gratification into fashionable neo-fascism.

The core of their strategy is fluidity. What was truth yesterday is “disputed” now. Allegations are “false” or “unfounded.” Blatant lies are “miscommunications.” All these messages are televised, streamed, endlessly discussed by panels, repeated and cobbled together in various constellations. The fluidity of the present is a potent and lethal tool for mass manipulation. It is also a great asset in whipping up artificial divides and sustaining prejudices. Chapman writes:

There is a deep, sustaining, and essential attitude of anti-rationalism and pessimism that drives postmodernism—at the center of postmodernism is not a structure of reason and the potential for progress, but, instead, a clenched ideological fist.

As regards the “clenched ideological fist,” I think one could say the same for 20th century modernism, especially in the West. However, PoMo culture rejects any overarching field of reasonableness. The Internet gave conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and religious fanatics alike a platform to showcase ideas that are beyond credibility. However, their presence in the “arena of debate” appears to legitimize them. The same phenomenon has played out politically. Trump gets away with saying something racist one day and denying being a racist the next. In this picture of reality, sanity is a long way off. And the fact that the public follows it and tolerates it only vindicates those in power.

There is something deeply nihilistic about this tactic. It appears as if democracy, truth and integrity count for nothing anymore. What is so unsettling is that they are treated as if they will be made to vanish overnight because they are irrelevant for the current order of things. And if a certain class of people can get away with undermining democracy, they will also allow those supporting them to get away with it. In a different political reality, this would disqualify one from playing the political game altogether. In contemporary political reality, this systemic correction does not take place. Even worse, those playing this game are cheered on, taken serious, obeyed and financially or ideologically supported.

It is the combination of nihilism on the political level and fragmented solidarity on the individual level that gives rise to the neo-fascism that resembles its historical precursors only partially.

In a political reality that is thoroughly fragmented, seemingly discordant elements and events appear together in a surrealistic tapestry. On one hand, politicians lie and cheat, only to deny it on camera next day. Reports on climate warn for catastrophic events, but politicians create new oil pipelines and order the destruction of rainforests. The stock of fossil fuels is running out, but politicians invest in oil and coal infrastructure. The presence of widespread racism threatens to undo the fabric of society, but those in power deny its existence and fan the flames.

On the other hand, all the while, as Chapman points out, a kind of arms race takes place. Not coincidentally, Duterte, Trump and Bolsonaro are looking for ways to strengthen their grip on society by means of targeted violence and omnipresent surveillance. Police, army, combat squads or security firms and continuous surveillance: one wonders how on earth we’ve allowed this slow militarization of civil society to advance so relentlessly. Exactly whose safety are we talking about? And why is there so little societal discussion on who controls these changes and how we can hold them accountable?

All these events—and I am only sketching them in outline here—point in the direction of a digital, mass-media and dictator/corporate-driven neo-fascism that is not directly a consequence of PoMo culture. Nevertheless, the way in which it develops is unique for this time and cannot be analyzed apart from PoMo’s core characteristics. This is why only looking back to the fascisms of the past will not suffice. We will have to look to the present as well, if we are to determine the outlines of a rapidly developing neo-fascism. One can understand neo-fascism only in conjunction with the historical and contemporary coordinates in which it develops.

For one thing, neo-fascism is and will continue to be more fluid, more palatable, more personalized, more like continuous background noise, and more finely ingrained in daily life than its predecessors. It will be harder to keep out of your life and will appear so fragmentary that it can hardly be part of a “larger scheme.” The very idea that such pervasive fascism is orchestrated will appear ridiculous, and those pointing it out will be branded “conspiracy theorists.”

And worst of all, this all-pervasive PoMo-enabled, neo-fascist strategy of targeted fluidity is something for which we collectively lack not only the analytical-critical philosophical tools that would be effective for dissecting it, but also the robust metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and political philosophical theories that would constitute adequate countercultural forces for supplanting it. Given the corporate identity of universities, this should hardly come as a surprise.

The one thing we do know is that the real philosophy of the future must dismantle and transcend this fluidity, or else we’re fucked forever.

And another thing we know is that the existing language of philosophy is hardly up to it. Certainly, the message of PoMo should be taken seriously when it comes to diagnosing the fragmentation of reality. But its pessimistic, nihilist tendency can be safely left along the roadside. If anything, we could use some powerful and comprehensive real-philosophical grand narratives again—a potent, liberating, systematic and rational antidote against the visual and auditory cacophony that is late capitalism.


[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all longer quotations are from Chapman’s essay.

[[ii]] J. Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in J. Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2001): 351–370, at p. 360.

[[iii]] Ibid.

[[iv]] See O. Paans, “The Generic Eternal: Modernism, Alienation and the Built Environment,” Borderless Philosophy 2 (2019): 207–256. Available online at URL: <>

[[v]] In architecture, collage and pastiche techniques were seen as an escape route from or antidote to monolithic, one-dimensional and totalizing modernistic urbanism. So, to celebrate the plurality of the world and argue for an alternative for modernism, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter wrote Collage City; Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown wrote Contradiction and Complexity.

[vi] Some of those ideas were already prefigured in 19th-century thought and found their way into (post)structuralism: the crisis of legitimacy in the sciences (Husserl, Brentano, Latour), the importance of history in the production of facts (Bachelard, Canguilhem, Foucault), the open-endedness of symbols and signifiers (De Saussure, Cassirer, Derrida) and the identity/difference split (Bergson, Simondon, Deleuze).

[vii] See O. Paans, “Thoughts on Postmodernity 1: An Impossible Presentation,” Against Professional Philosophy (16 August 2019), available online at URL = <>.

[viii] See O. Paans, “Fragments of Reality, Fragments of Solidarity,” Against Professional Philosophy (23 August 2019), available online at URL = <>.

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Otto Paans

Published a month ago