Saturday, June 11, 2011

Postmodernism and the Death of Solidarity

Spending any amount of time at a university will remind one of the influences postmodernism and poststructuralism have had on academia and large swaths of the left-leaning political class. Although it often isn’t stated overtly in the public debate, the conflict between factions on the left has a great deal to do with what the various ideological perspectives preoccupy themselves with, as well as their radically different understandings of history and the historical process.

I recently read two books that address this debate, both of which arguing against the postmodern approach, that I have found worthwhile for anyone interested in this debate. In Defense if History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda is a collection of essays by Marxists challenging the postmodern fad within academic circles on the left. Michael Merube’s The Left at War also addresses the hostility between the postmodern left and the Marxists and liberals they oppose, and provides an excellent addendum to this discussion.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, a contributer to In Defense of History, provides a telling set of criticisms on the negative affect postmodernism has had on the left. It is a large field of thought, but there are recurring themes and trends that distinguish the postmodern perspective from other fields of study. Ellen rightly recognizes that postmodernists are not concerned with epochs throughout history or the material conditions that affect change, but are preoccupied with discourse, culture, and language (1997, p.5). “Society is not simply like language” according to postmodernism, “It is language” (ibid). With this as its foundation, it is not surprising that postmodernists (a movement that has had its greatest impact within academia and the Uni minded) spend a ridiculous amount of time and ink on discussing the media and language ques.

Wood rightly connects the failures of leftist social movements in the 1960s to the development of postmodernism as an ideological movement. Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of socialism, the left in the West began to recognize that the working classes within their societies were not lining up behind a hefty swath of the left’s larger political program. The vanguard of intellectuals that was to lead the working class to a new era of cooperation and prosperity did not possess the leadership and/or ideas to captivate the imaginations of the masses. The more astute among the left acknowledged that this was not the result of “false consciousness” on the part of the working class, but the reality that intellectual leftist movements did not address (or only nominally addressed) the real, and tangible concerns of the working people they claimed to champion. Others saw the unwillingness of the working class to support their radical programs as a betrayal, and began to remove this key force for change within Marxist ideology from the historical process. Postmodernism has always been strongest within the halls of the university, and it is easy to see why. When radical student activists in the 60s failed to achieve their intended goals, they retreated to the world they were most familiar with. Thus, defeatism is the fundamental principle of the movement (ibid, p.7). Resenting the working classes that had spurned them, the intellectual movement that would later be called postmodernism replaced the working class as the driving force for historical change with themselves: “Postmodernism has simply taken to the ultimate, and often absurd, extreme the familiar attempt to replace these hegemonized agencies with new ones, by situating intellectual practice at the center of the social universe and promoting intellectuals – or, more particularly, academics – to the vanguard of historical agency” (ibid, p.9).

Postmodern preoccupations with the media are a result of its rejection of any totalizing theory of history or meta-narratives that can explain action and change across time and culture. This is perhaps the most important conflict I have with postmodernism, and the root of the relativist perspective championed (both deliberately and unintentionally) within this virulent strand of thought.

Convoluted academic prose became the norm, as the desire or intent to reach an audience beyond the university walls was diminished or surrendered. With the intellectual academic as king, competition for influence was self-contained within an ever smaller community. Thus, jargon heavy prose became the desired mode of communication for the field, with ever increasingly areas of minutia as the focus of academic research. Not all of academia felt at home with this approach; the editor of Philosophy and Literature (an academic journal), started the annual Bad Writing Contest. In 1999, the prize was awarded to Judith Butler, an American feminist academic that is apparently well respected in her field of research for the following bit:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power” (reprinted in Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left? p.100).


Denis Dutton, the editor of Philosophy and Literature perceptively acknowledged that the point of Butler’s piece was not to communicate, but to beat into the readers head that “they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.”

To be continued in part 2.