Poststructuralism emerged along side postmodernism, the two terms sometimes being used interchangeably. Poststructuralism emphasizes that all ideas and concepts are expressed in language which itself is enmeshed in complex relations of power. Influenced particularly by the writings of Michel Foucault, poststructuralists have drawn attention to the link between power and systems of thought using the idea of discourse, or ‘discourses of power’. In crude terms, this implies that knowledge is power.
Poststructuralists argue that ‘knowledge’ comes to be accepted as such due to the power and prominence of certain actors in society known as ‘elites’, who then impose it upon others. Elites take on a range of forms and occupy many different roles in contemporary society. For instance, they include government ministers who decide policy focus and direction for a state, business leaders who leverage vast financial resources to shape market direction, and media outlets that decide how a person is portrayed while reporting a story. Additionally, elites are often also categorised as ‘experts’ within society, giving them the authority to further reinforce the viewpoints that serve their best interests to a wide audience. Jenny Edkins (2006) uses the example of famines to show that when elite actors refer to famine as a natural disaster, they are removing the event from its political context. Therefore, the ways that famines occur as a result of elites taking particular forms of political action, through processes of exploitation or inaction due to profits on increased food prices, are lost when they are presented as unavoidable natural disasters.
However, in the absence of a universal frame of reference or overarching perspective, there exist only a series of competing perspectives, each of which represents a particular discourse of power. Such a view has sometimes been associated with Jacques Derrida’s ( 1976) famous formulation: ‘There is nothing outside the text’. Poststructural or postmodern thinking has exerted growing influence on international relations theory, especially since the publication of Der Derian and Shapiro’s International/Intertextual (1989). Poststructuralism draws attention to the fact that any political event will always be susceptible to competing interpretations. 9/11 is an example of this. Not only is there, for poststructuralists, irreducible debate about whether 9/11 is best conceived as an act of terrorism, a criminal act, an act of evil, or an act of (possibly justified) revenge, but there is also uncertainty about the nature of the ‘act’ itself – was it the attacks themselves, the process of planning, the formation of al-Qaeda, the onset of US neo-colonialism, or whatever? In such circumstances, the classic poststructuralist approach to exposing hidden meanings in particular concepts, theories and interpretations is deconstruction.
Critics, however, accuse postmodernism/ poststructuralism of relativism, in that they hold that different modes of knowing are equally valid and thus reject the idea that even science can distinguish between truth and falsehood. However, since the 1980s, positivist approaches to international politics have been subject to criticism from a range of so-called ‘post-positivist’ approaches. These include critical theory, constructivism, poststructuralism and, in certain respects, feminism. What these approaches have in common is that they question the belief that there is an objective reality ‘out there’, separate from the beliefs, ideas and assumptions of the observer. As we observe the world, we are also in the process of imposing meaning upon it; we only ever see the world as we think it exists. Such an approach leads to a more critical and reflective view of theory, which is seen to have a constitutive purpose and not merely an explanatory one. Greater attention is therefore paid to the biases and hidden assumptions that are embodied in theory, implying that dispassionate scholarship may always be an unachievable ideal. Postmodern thinkers take such ideas furthest in suggesting that the quest for objective truth should be abandoned altogether, as all knowledge is partial and relative
The postmodern problematization of ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, and related issues has also been raised in contemporary discussions of many of former US President Trump’s claims, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’. Trump attorney Rudi Giuliani’s assertion that ‘truth isn’t truth’ and the promulgation of ever more astounding conspiracy theories in recent years have added to the confusion. Some claim that Trump—and the phenomena that surround him—are the product of postmodern social and political thought. Others suggest that this is not so, but that he can be explained through the lens of a postmodern analysis (Hanlon, 2018). Box 4.6 raises some of the critical issues surrounding the debate in which Trump stands not just as an unusual individual in politics but as a political phenomenon.
Many have proposed that the nature of reality and the status of truth have become open questions since Donald Trump decided to enter politics, and even more so after he was elected president. Almost any criticisms of Trump and his policies are decried by him and his loyal supporters as ‘fake news’ while factual information (such as the relatively smaller size of the crowd at his inauguration compared to that at Obama’s) is countered with ‘alternative facts’. The Washington Post maintains that Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims in his first year (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/20/president-trump-made-2140-false-or-misleading-claims-in-his-first-year/). And his ‘base’ is either in denial, or doesn’t care.
Trump is also a supporter of a host of conspiracy theories. On climate change, for example, he once maintained that ‘climate science was a hoax created by the Chinese to make US manufacturing uncompetitive’, and that the polar ice caps were not melting but were instead ‘at a record level’ (quoted in Gabbatis, 2018). These claims are a direct repudiation of virtually all available scientific evidence on the subject, but the scientific consensus is explained away by accusing scientists of taking an opportunity ‘to wield influence, secure funding or act out a green/Marxist agenda’ (ibid.).
Not all claims about conspiracies, however, lack substance. It seems that there is plenty of evidence to implicate the Russian state in a conspiracy to interfere in the US elections of 2016. Moreover, Russia continued to interfere with the Mueller enquiry set up to investigate exactly who was involved. One news site reported that:
The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. One post on Instagram—which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal—claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with ‘radical Islamic groups’ (Denning, 2018).
In explaining the Trump phenomenon more generally, it has been suggested that ‘one of the sharpest analytical tools available is the theory of postmodernism’ (Heer, 2017) whose proponents ‘describe a world where the visual has triumphed over the literary, where fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, where nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”) has replaced historical consciousness or felt experiences of the past, where simulacra is indistinguishable from reality, where an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch (Trump Tower) replaces modernism’s striving for purity and elitism, and where a shared plebeian culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism’