Obama’s “Postmodern” Condition

Is Obama po-mo? No.

Oh, Jonah Goldberg. In a recent USA Today column, the author of Liberal Fascism advanced the notion that Obama is a postmodernist.

Well, then: Take out the steno pads, everyone—the man’s a postmodernist! Taking Obama’s definition of sin (“being out of alignment with my values”) as a sign that the silver-tongued Illinois senator is something of a relativist (oh my!), Goldberg launches into a stream of derogatory generalizations that, in sum total, indicate to him that Obama Is PoMo: a rhetoric-filled, no-real-answers type of guy, who is only a big deal because he’s made a big deal of himself. (He captions Obama’s visit to Berlin with a line from David Hasselhof: “We are the ones we have been waiting for!”)

Jean-Francois Lyotard—the venerable French theorist whose book The Postmodern Condition was published in 1979, at the nascence of the movement—made a big deal (or, those who interpreted his work after him did) of the fact that the postmodern condition is one that lacks the meta-narrative (the oft-quoted phrase is “incredulity to meta-narratives”). Underlying a lot of the silly ideas that postmodernism has swept up in its disaffected arms is the basic idea, so cheerily chomped upon by young theorists-to-be when they’re not mourning the death of Baudrillard, that one grand schematic or overarching theory is no longer adequate.

If that’s Goldberg’s contention—that the Obama condition, perhaps most reflected in the press’s oft-surprising ineptness, is an un-pinnable one—then, hey, he should come on board (and read Megan Garber’s take on that topic, via David Brooks, while he’s at it), and congratulate Obama’s campaign for being postmodern in its narrative-building.

But that’s not Goldberg’s point. He’s tagging Obama—the man, and, thus, the politician—as postmodern. “How has no one noticed such a suspect quality?” he seems to ask, before harping on about Obama’s wishy-washiness. (Didn’t we determine that it’s not wishy-washy to say you’ll take into account changing ground conditions?)

Apparently, being a postmodernist is a notch above being “post-racial” on the what-infuriates-Goldberg-o-meter. His gripe about the latter is the only one I share in this rant. But then, calling the perpetuation of the label “postmodern claptrap,” Goldberg goes a step too far, insinuating that Obama keeps race talk in his cookie jar for a rainy (or “convenient”) day. Of course, the press has nothing to do with those iterations.

Goldberg backs up his point by pointing to biographical signs of Obama’s postmodernist origins. The main “sign” is the respect Obama had for controversial critical race theorist Derrick Bell, who taught at Harvard law and served as its resident bullhorn-carrier on issues of faculty diversity. (He was the first black tenured professor at Harvard law, and he resigned over the school’s refusal to appoint its first black woman to a tenured position.) Goldberg professes that Obama is an inheritor of Bell’s rhetoric-over-facts chain of belief, a summation that—even given Bell’s questionable campus politics and the slippery slope that is critical race theory—is frankly reductionist on Goldberg’s part. He writes: “Words are power, Bell and Co. argued, and your so-called facts are merely myths of the white power structure.”(Could we get any closer to an indictment of Obama as a black man with a chip on his shoulder against the white men that helped build him?)

If postmodernism is something of a reaction against the limits of epistemology, then Goldberg’s theory (accusation?) would suggest that Obama holds steady in a position of political agnosticism, which isn’t even far from the truth. Cultural theorists have long-debated whether postmodernism is a break from or a continuation of modernism; at this point, the latter contingent is winning out. If that’s the case, then Goldberg makes a silly assumption about what it even means for a candidate to be a postmodernist. And in making it mostly about the rhetoric—of Obama and, annoyingly, of others like Bell—he slips in his own mess, which, frankly, is just as incomprehensible in its attack on postmodernism as it is in its criticism of Obama.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.