November 10, 2020


Cancel the woke: ‘Cynical Theories’

By Dion Kagan
Image of cover of ‘Cynical Theories’ by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay attack ‘wokeism’ with a reductive account of its theoretical underpinnings

The co-authors of this new book discrediting the intellectual roots of “Social Justice” scholarship, British writer and editor Helen Pluckrose and American mathematician James Lindsay, are two members of the trio behind the academic hoax known as the “grievance studies affair”. The affair, which targeted journals in areas focused on identity was, in the hoaxers’ words, an exposé of “the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left”. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (Swift Press) is a book-length addition to this same project. Its authors are committed liberals who are worried about the increasingly dogmatic hold of certain ideas on the thinking and organising of the progressive left – in short, “wokeism”. Setting out how the current malaise of social justice activism emerged from “cynical” postmodern theories, and the spread of those ideas into culture more broadly, the book is a kind of advanced primer for those in want of more sophisticated ways to dismiss identity politics run amok.

To recap the grievance studies episode: throughout 2017 and 2018, Pluckrose and Lindsay teamed up with American philosophy professor Peter Boghossian to devise and submit 20 fake academic articles. Given their target was scholarship based in critical theory and identity, their papers aped (and cunningly satirised) the idioms of gender studies, race and whiteness studies, queer theory, masculinities studies, and so on. Six of the bogus articles were rejected, but four were accepted and published online, while another three had been accepted (but not yet published) and seven remained under review when the hoax was exposed. By then, the authors had managed to publish an article titled, “Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria, Transhysteria, and Transphobia Through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use” in the journal Sexuality & Culture, and a paper exploring “rape culture and queer performativity” in dog-walking parks that was honoured for its contribution to feminist geography. Arguably their biggest coup was securing an acceptance to the high-ranking feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. All accepted articles were later retracted.

The trio undertook this project, they wrote, “to study, understand, and expose the reality of grievance studies, which is corrupting academic research”. As their exposé of the high echelons of scholarly publishing allegedly proved, there are serious problems in these fields. These problems are complex but “most easily summarized as an overarching (almost or fully sacralized) belief that many common features of experience and society are socially constructed”. Faith in this belief can be traced back to postmodern thought and, among other dangerous ideas, it is “spreading rapidly into culture”.

Most culture war spectators would be familiar with this position, and in fact the grievance studies affair was not the first academic publishing hoax to showcase it. As the story goes, concepts with their origins in the French deconstructionist theory commonly foisted on university students – in particular, a radical skepticism of scientific knowledge and an unflagging commitment to cultural and moral relativism – have seeped into the real world outside of universities where they have been re-fashioned as activist dogma. The scholar-activists peddling these ideas are “obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationship between them”. Now, these ideas are everywhere: Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is a bestseller, workplaces impose diversity and inclusion policies, Instagram reveals a pandemic of performative wokeness and Twitter is a cesspool of pile-ons and cancellations. Left unchecked, these woke phenomena pose a threat to liberal-democratic society. As “cancel culture” so manifestly demonstrates, these ideas have become totalitarian: they permit no dissent.

How did we get here? How did those playful postmodern ideas of simulacra and the death of the author become white supremacy, male privilege, cisnormativity and other intractable woke dogma?

In Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay – now sans Boghossian – develop an account about how, over some decades, strands of postmodern theory underwent a kind of “moral mutation” from their original form into a series of “applied” forms. These, in order of their appearance in the book, are postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, (feminist) gender studies, disability studies and fat studies. While of course, they acknowledge, these subjects have different interests and histories, and unique relationships to political developments outside of the academy, they nonetheless “have enough in common to be readily identifiable”. As the co-authors write, “they are usually entitled ‘critical X’ or ‘X studies’, where X is whatever they want to complain about, disrupt, and modify”. As a form of evidence, they tend to lean heavily on the lived experience of marginalised groups (including “folk wisdom”, “witchcraft”, “tradition, folklore, interpretation, and emotion”). And they are all deeply influenced by postmodernism. Not all postmodernism, but certain influential strands of French deconstructionist thought mostly attributable to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – “the original architects of what later came to be known simply as ‘Theory’”. In applied postmodern forms, what began as abstract ideas (objective knowledge is impossible; knowledge is a construct of power; society is comprised of systems of power and privilege) became actionable political programs. This largely unfolded during the 1980s and 1990s, and mainly remained within the realms of scholarship and universities.

However, around the mid 2000s a third phase in the evolution of postmodernism occurred: applied postmodernism leaped the “‘species’ gap from academics to activists to everyday people” and became “reified”. “Reified” means to make something abstract into something real – in this instance, it’s the application of deconstructive methods and postmodernist thinking to the enterprise of social change. So, far from being dead as is often declared, postmodernism is alive and well, albeit mutated into the woke, “Social Justice” left. (Pluckrose and Lindsay capitalise “Social Justice” to distinguish it from the general – by which they mean actual – concept of liberal social justice.) Under Social Justice’s influence, the “applied derivatives of postmodern thought” became “fully concretized”, taking root in public discussions as “allegedly factual descriptions of the workings of knowledge, power, and human social relations”.

“Now”, the co-authors write, we have “a kind of Gospel of Social Justice … that express[es], with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist … sex is not biological and exists on a spectrum, language can be literal violence, denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability and obesity is hateful, and everything needs to be decolonized.”

For Lindsay and Pluckrose, this is largely make-believe: since social problems like gender and racial inequality improved so significantly in the later part of the 20th century, Social Justice warriors needed to re-invent them anew. Intersectionality, for example, “offered activists a renewed sense of purpose, as it provided them with new problems to interrogate and new accusations to make – especially against each other”. But we need not labour under these all-pervasive, imaginary systems of power. Rather, Cynical Theories urges its readers to restore moderate liberalism and its faith in the individual’s capacity to not be, for example, racist or sexist. By defending the rational approaches of old-school liberalism, the authors hope readers will be able to push back on theoretical extremism from a principled position.

For writers concerned by the “cynicism” of postmodern ideas, Lindsay and Pluckrose don’t hold back on their assessment of its applied derivatives. They describe, for example, postcolonial theory as fanatical in its elevation of indigenous knowledges over and above science, and vehement in its cancelling of dead white racist authors such as Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. The “hallmark” of critical race theory, similarly, is its “paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere”. Queer theory, with its “almost pathological obsession with the ways sex, gender, and sexuality are spoken about” is “obscure by design and largely irrelevant, except to itself”. That’s a well-worn approach to dismissing queer theory, but more unsettling is the characterisation of disability studies’ critique of ableism as “insane” and their assessment of fat studies as a “paranoid fantasy” and “among the most irrational and ideological forms of scholarship-activism in identity studies”.

The authors of Cynical Theories have gone to great lengths to make it look like they’ve done their homework and they are being praised for “the exhaustiveness of their research”. The book has a lot of references, and this may be one of its more seductive qualities – especially if you’ve wrestled with postmodern or social justice scholarship before. It can be comforting to see complex ideas set out, unpacked plainly, organised authoritatively into a unified theory and (mostly) debunked. But don’t be fooled. Readers with a more confident grasp of postmodern philosophy – or its “applied derivatives” – will sniff out the omissions, misattributions and cherrypicking that props up the applied-to-reified hypothesis. One of these, for example, is the widespread myth that postmodern theory is engaged in the wholesale denial of the very concept of truth. Take Foucault, the pin-up boy of Theory: rather than denying that truth or scientific knowledge exists altogether, Foucault was far more interested in establishing truth’s relationship to power. At least in my understanding, his greater aim was to show that what is taken to be true shifts throughout history, and this typically involves various institutions working to suppress the untruth of contradictory ideas. Cynical Theories isn’t quite Jordan Peterson–level caricature of postmodernism, but it is certainly fixated on the French deconstructionists. The likes of Wendy Brown, Nancy Fraser, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben, for example (and an entire generation of more recent thinkers who tend to argue for the existence of truth and whose work is deeply informed by postmodern ideas), don’t rate a mention.

The less philosophy-minded may find Cynical Theories wanting in terms of a broader political, economic and historical contextualisation of social-justice activism. For this, something like Jeff Sparrow’s book Trigger Warnings, an account of the emergence of identity politics alongside the transition from direct to delegated politics, is more enlightening. As is Waleed Aly’s recent analysis of cancel culture – and other moralistic, orthodox tendencies in woke politics – which is viewed in light of the difficulty liberalism has grappling with power and oppression, and disillusionment with the current practice of liberal democracy.

Is it naive to suggest that universities – including the beleaguered arts and humanities departments in Australian ones – might remain places that seek to foster debate and contestation? For Pluckrose and Lindsay, the answer seems likely to be no, at least when it comes to the ideology of Social Justice. “When a political stance is taught at university,” they assert, “it is apt to become an orthodoxy, which cannot be questioned.” They claim their attack is not on scholarship (so long as it remains rigorous and evidence-based), or universities per se (so long as they remain vigilant in their resistance to “anti-empirical, anti-rational, and illiberal currents on the left”). And yet, Cynical Theories’ original subtitle, “How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody” has been altered, at least for the Australian market. “Activist Scholarship” has been replaced with “Universities”. It’s a minor enough change, but it certainly makes it clear who is to blame.

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher and the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.

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