Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Postmodernism and the Death of Solidarity, Part 2

Building on a previous post of mine on Post-modernism and its effect on international solidarity and historicism, I felt that it was obligatory to better define what I meant by “Post-modernism” and why it has been so caustic to the left and its various movements.

I received this response from the New Centrist, which I feel provides an important and necessary addition to this discussion. He writes:
"On a gut level, I agree with your post. Most postmodernist writing is crap. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Sokal affair.

However, as someone who was forced (like yourself?) to examine postmodernist, poststructuralist, and deconstructionist literature I think you are stating the case a bit too strongly here. From this point forward, I’ll simply generically refer to these authors as postmodernists.

The case could be made that the postmodernist turn on the intellectual left was a predictable response to the failure of previous mechanistic, determinist, economic theories that attempted to explain human collective action. Many of these scholars went way too far in the other direction and ended up in the place you describe in this post (insular, jargon-laden, etc.). Nevertheless I think there are some important insights that have come to us from those who could be broadly termed postmodernist.

Most crucial in my own research is the concept of identity as something that is multifaceted, contested and relatively fluid. Previous theories tended to prioritize one aspect of identity or another (class, race, etc.). In particular, many leftist theorists placed class position (really class identity or “consciousness”) as *the* primary factor in radical collective action and ultimately, revolution.
Unlike some who see postmodernism as an ideology that intrinsically contains its own politics, I see the varying postmodernist approaches as providing tools that one can use to apply (or not) in their research. If the tool is appropriate, use it. If not, use another tool. I think the same way about rational choice theory. For some, it is a nefarious right-wing political project. For others, it explains all of human decision making. I think reality is somewhere between these two poles.

Lastly, there are some great authors who apply postmodernist tools but still manage to keep their research empirically grounded, their writing lucid, and their topics genuinely interesting. One great example is William Sewell’s “Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848”. As you can tell by the title, Sewell is concerned with language and how language changes over time. But this emphasis is not exclusive. Sewell examines the rhetoric of specific groups of workers, the relationship between language and collective action, etc. In addition to what workers wrote and said, he also examines workers’ rituals and customs (going back to the feudal era of guilds), forms of solidarity, etc. What was so groundbreaking about Sewell’s work is he displayed that the most important strikes and other forms of militant collective action took place among craft workers (artisans), rather than industrial workers (proletarians).”
All of this is true, and Post-modernism (as TNC noted, I am lumping a couple different strands of thought together here) has its benefits. One of my colleagues at the University of Edinburgh was in the Film Studies department, a place in which Post-modern ideologies and methods were prominent, and even useful. Studying the use of language and imagery, and the resulting effect it has on society and culture, clearly has a place in the study of media. As TNC noted, studying language and how it changes or reinforces physical and political structures also fits well into the study of politics. I would not have these things removed or disparaged. However, the study of language and meaning existed before the rise of what we now call Post-modernism, it is the manner in which the study of language and its imbedded meaning becomes the end-all which it often becomes in post-modern heavy departments.

TNC continues:
“OK, setting aside my personal defense of—if not postmodernism and postmodernists—the possible benefits of some of the tools provided by postmodern theory, I disagree that the political failures of leftist social movements in the 1960s can be traced to the “development of postmodernism as an ideological movement”. I take a far more conventional (conservative?) position. They failed because they discarded—indeed denigrated—the coalition of labor, religious, and civil-rights activists that had made the earlier advances possible. Rather than building the coalition, the New Left tore it apart. Not due to postmodernism, but various forms of ultra-leftism. The postmodern turn came later, after “the movement” was in its death throes and the retreat of activists into the academy. After all, American academics (unless they were fluent in French) weren’t reading Foucault, Derrida, etc. until the 1970s. And it was really the 1980s when all this French theory became so influential.”
This is an important point, and one the various contributors to “The Defense of History” also find agreement with. What is now called “Post-modernism” built upon the arguments made by Foucault, Derrida, and other French theorists but its roots were in the rejection of universalism, especially the western variety (both right and left wing). Post-modernism was not responsible for the failure of the Left in the 60s, but what now constitutes post-modern thought can trace its perspective to what occurred in that era. Pomos like Jean Baudrillard and ex-Trotskyist Jean-Francois Lyotard both state that the 1960s was the era that shifted their thinking (G. Katsiaficas, 1987). Alex Callinicos, in his work Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, argues that Post-modernism’s roots lie in “forms of cultural or anti-disciplinary protest that emerged in the 1960s” (1989, p.162-8). As I argued in my previous piece, many of the voices that constitute post-modernism have their roots squarely in the Left’s failure to achieve its lofty modern goals for society, and the perceived inability of the working class to side with the intellectuals as they led them to the Promised Land. The leftist radicals of the 1960s had not yet read the forbearers of post-modernism, but they had already embraced their relativistic perspective and its rejection of objective reality or universal understanding. It was when they retreated from the political battlefield and directed their attention towards their academic careers that they fully immersed themselves in these ideas, and made them the de facto-leftist positions in many Universities.

TNC points out that post-modernism was also a reaction to the essentialism that characterized Marxist and leftist thinking in the Modern period. TNC writes:
“[There was a] tendency among many leftist authors to impute the working-class with a certain set of traits. Outside of the class dimension, many authors also addressed matters of race and gender with a similar lens. The Pomos challenged this by saying “context matters”. In other words there is no universal “working class” or “Black” person, or man or woman for that matter. These identities always need to be examined in specific times and places.”
This is an important point of contention, and one that I find myself in agreement with the Pomos. It seems so self evident; people come from different backgrounds and face different struggles, and these experiences shape their actions and ideas. Context clearly matters, and that Marxism or historicism was reduced to a simple economic calculation was clearly incorrect on the part of its purveyors. I am not an expert on Marx, but I have never seen the Marxist framework as essentialist or deterministic. Engels defended the materialist conception of historical progress, but provided this caveat:
“According to the materialist conception of history the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure--political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after successful battle, etc, judicial forms and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas--also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” Engels to J Bloch, September 21-22, 1890 in Marx-Engels Selected Works Vol II, op cit, p488.
Thus, these contextual elements are accounted for in the broader methodological perspective provided in Marxism. While Pomos are right to discuss these specific contextual issues when discussing agency within politics and society, where they have gone astray is in undermining any type of universal link between these groups or individuals. It is this lack of universalism which I find so destructive in building solidarity between individuals.

Aijaz Ahmad, a contributor to “In Defense of History,” articulates the contradiction post-modern conceptions of identity create in establishing universal solidarity between culturally un-alike people. He writes:
“A great problem for socialist theory and practice today is that of the relationship between difference and universality, group rights and indivisible universal rights, the right as woman and the right as citizen, and the right as worker, whether citizen or immigrant”(p.63)
Postmodernists argue (and again, I am speaking broadly here) that universality is a fantasy at best and hegemonic oppression at worse. Ahmad continues:
“This absolutization of identity, this quick abrogation of universality, strikes me as politically very dangerous. For a start: if in the constitution of your identity, I have no rights of cognition, participation, criticism, then on what basis may you ask for my solidarity with you except on the basis of some piety, some voluntaristic good will that I may withdraw at any moment?.... What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that group egoism of discrete communities is perhaps not much of an improvement on the historical egoism of the bourgeois male individual, and that we need forms of politics that constitute human subjects both in their heterogeneity and their universality” (p.63).
Without some universal bond to ground solidarity in, I fear that Ahmad’s description of a faddish and shallow solidarity within the international society will be the reality.

Worse yet is the fetishisation of indigenous or oppressed cultural identities which is a result of post-modernism’s distinctiveness framework. Prospect Magazine recently published a piece by Edward Docx titled Postmodernism is Dead, which made this key point:
“Postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice.”
Few would disagree with the overly western or male centric focus in the study of history prior to this period was negative, and that providing space for other voices to be heard and to have their stories and perspectives included in our cultural and historical narrative was necessary. But again, without a strong universalist core, this model can go appallingly off the rails. If one’s political goal is to challenge hegemony and give power to marginalized groups and voices, then why not legitimize theocrats, fascists, and racists? Ophelia from Butterflies and Wheels, commenting on the Prospect piece aptly notes that this means horrendous thoughts and forces will be given weight in the political debate, “Like the Taliban. Like al-Shabaab. Like child-raping priests. Like the BJP. Like the Tea Party. Once you think that “all discourses are equally valid,” you’ve relinquished the tools you need to argue that some discourses are wrong and bad and harmful.” Ken Malik ‘s piece in “Defense of History” suggests that giving legitimacy to all narratives at the expense of universal ones detracts from “the capacity of postmodernists to challenge racist discourse [and] is undermined by their own belief in the relativity of meaning” (pg.119).

I was working on a piece a few years back on the National Anarchist movement in the Bay Area of California. I had noticed that there were a growing number of overtly racist Anarchists that would appear in small groups at music or political events. White-nationalist or racist Anarchism is not a new political movement, but what I began to see was the way the movement’s rhetorical justifications for its existence sounded strikingly similar to those used by leftist-minded sectarian groups. In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article on the group, they quoted their leader as saying:
“We are racial separatists for a number of reasons, such as our desire to maintain our cultural continuity, the principle of voluntary association, and as a self-defensive measure to protect each other from being victimized by crime from other races," BANA co-founder Andrew Yeoman told the Intelligence Report.”
Identity, voluntary association, victimization, defense of traditions: sound familiar?

Thankfully, most Pomo minded lefties in the West have yet to openly defend the white-racist narrative. Yet, as many of us are painfully aware, several other groups and identities that are the antithesis of the pluralistic society we enjoy are given significance in the debate thanks to this unfortunate ideological perspective provided by postmodernism.

(Part 3 on postmodernism, the scientific process, and American right-wing thinking in a week’s time. Read the first in this series here.)


Don said...

Well said, Roland. This should be a debate on every college campus.

kellie said...

This is completely not my area, though I'm over-exposed to this realm in my family life. I'll comment in any case! I was under the impression that the trend you describe is older than the '60s, and has its roots in earlier Left failure and the Frankfurt School.

From where I'm sitting, a lot of post-modernism seems a linguistic power-grab. Language is power, so seize control of the language! Across the breadth of an open society, it's impossible for such a plan to work - language is too varied and dynamic - but within some more defensible redoubts it seems to have succeeded.

On academic language in art, Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word was early, sharp, and accurate.

kellie said...

By complete coincidence, I stumbled across some VERY weird conspiracy theory material about the Frankfurt school today, here and here. Funny stuff, until Breivik comes up.

Roland Dodds said...

Good points Kellie. I will include them in a later post. The conspiracy theory you linked to will take some time for me to take in...

As for the Frankfurt school, I have mixed feelings. I can’t help but feel its influence on my thinking from an early age, and it is only since I left the university in 2004 that I truly began to appreciate how this school’s line of thought had influenced the political movements around me. I have generally held the Frankfurts in low esteem since then, but I do recognize the value of some of their approaches. The fact that it is a punching bag for the right in their conspiracy theories about cultural Marxism is interesting, and requires additional reading on my part.

kellie said...

The conspiracy theory seems at least as demented as any other.

I don't know enough to have a good or bad view of the Frankfurt school, and I suspect as with other sources of contemporary academic Theory, it's not so much a question of whether there's something of interest in the original ideas, as a problem of how the ideas are used in the power-play of Theory-speak.

TNC said...

Hi kellie.

One important element of the right conspiracy theory is they all include Gramsci as some sort of hugely influential figure on the left. At least the ones that I have read and hear on the radio. If you ever listen to conservative talk radio, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Andrew Breitbart, and many others talk about Gramsci as if every person in college or university is studying the man's works. Lunacy.

It's strange because Gramsci's ideas never had any sort of influence on any of the socialist states ("actually existing socialism") and his influence in the academy has been limited as well.

The right-wing conspiracy theory latches on to a simplistic understanding of Gramsci's concept of hegemony. According to the conspiracy theory, Gramsci recognized that the way to move western societies in a more communistic direction was to control the institutions of the superstructure--especially the mass media and education--to shape and ultimately control public opinion. Once you control their minds, well, the rest is easy.

kellie said...

So this paranoid Right theory depends on believing that a paranoid Left view of the world is correct...

TNC said...

Nice way of putting it Kellie! A belief that "cultural Marxists" (in cahoots with their useful idiots and fellow travelers) control the mainstream media and educational systems. Essentially Americans have been dumbed down into believing the state is our savior, the free market is evil, and God does not exist.

A ridiculous conclusion given the limited role of the state in the daily lives of most Americans, the degree of commercialization of media in the U.S., and the popularity of God in the U.S.

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