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More on the Problem of "Postmodernism": the necessary boundaries of an historical materialist critique

Since I discussed, in an earlier post, the problem with hasty marxist dismissals of what is generally termed "postmodernism" (which includes post-structuralism and post-colonialism), I feel that it is important to discuss what is needed for a proper historical materialist critique of this phenomenon.  For though I argued that most marxist critiques of this phenomenon haven't been very helpful, and that there is much that postmodernism can teach us as marxists, I also feel that in order to have a helpful critique of this phenomenon that can possibly utilize some of the postmodernist insights it needs to be placed within a proper historical materialist framework.  After all, postmodernists have accused marxists of being totalizing and, since we marxists think this totalizing aspect of our theory is its strength, then we should begin by doing what only historical materialism can do––to all phenomena including itself––and that is to examine postmodernism's social and historical emergence from a materialist perspective.

Although the term "postmodernism" has a spotty and nebulous history, it cohered as a theoretical ideology in the 1960s and grew to prominence by the 1980s.  Jean-Francois Lyotard's 1979 work The Postmodern Condition might have been this philosophical trend's "manifesto" (if we can even speak of this phenomenon as possessing something that can be called a manifesto), where the term was given philosophical life, the work of Michel Foucault––beginning with Madness and Civilization (1961) and culminating with Discipline and Punish (1975)––is perhaps the most paradigmatic expression of this philosophy, even if Foucault generally rejected the terms "postmodernism" or even "post-structuralism" (but, like most "postmodernists" and similar to anarchists, a rebellious rejection of labels is common).  To Foucault we can add Jacques Derrida and, to a lesser extent ("lesser" only due to lesser theoretical importance), Jean Baudrillard.  And a successive generation of iconic postmodernists, such as Judith Butler (who emerged at the end of the 1980s), and "post-colonialists" (i.e. Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha) also need to be recognized as part of the geography that constitutes "postmodern philosophy".  But amongst all of these theorists, Foucault was and is the most influential––even Lyotard's "manifesto" echoed Foucault's analysis of history, power, "modernity", and the decentering of the productive/world-building subject.

Foucault was really into pipes.

Postmodernism is, first and foremost, a philosophy that emerged in academia at the centres of capitalism and has very little cache in the radical social movements and intellectual traditions of the global peripheries.  Indeed, the so-called "post-colonialists" are/were members of a privileged class in their home countries or emigres living and working at the centres of capitalism.  So while postmodernism eclipsed marxism as the radical academic theory at the global centres, it did no such thing at the global peripheries.  This is important to keep in mind since postmodernism, especially post-colonialism, has been quite critical of the discourse of, to put it in Spivak's terms, the discourse of "Europe and the Other"; some of its more polemical dismissals of marxism concern the fact that Marx was "a white European male"… And though Marx's historical specificity is something that historical materialists should also note (for it explains Marx's theoretical limitations while, at the same time, allows us to use Marx's method to critique his own short-comings), and though we should perhaps take some of these postmodern/post-colonial critiques seriously, we also cannot accept that the same eurocentric limitations do not apply to a theory that is mainly significant in eurocentric academia and is built on the same, supposedly flawed and suspicious, foundations of European specificity.  Indeed, not only were the originary luminaries of postmodernism all "white men", much of the theoretical foundations are taken from Nietzsche who, unlike Marx, was actually an explicit European and male chauvinist.  So the first question a historical materialist should ask about postmodern critiques of the essentializing "European" tendencies of marxism is why the Foucauldian––and hence Nietzschean [and the influence of Nietzsche is not something Foucault ever denied]––tendencies of this anti-marxist philosophical tradition, which are usually obscured due to some postmodern theorists' lack of theoretical rigour, do not fall prey to the same eurocentric critique.  Moreover, the fact that postmodernism, as aforementioned, is an academic tradition that exists primarily at the centres of global capitalism, and marxism is still a vital tradition at the peripheries, the question regarding eurocentrism becomes even more relevant.

So the question marxists need to ask is why did postmodernism emerge at the centres of global capitalism, as a counter-radical tradition to marxism, in the 1960s and achieve a certain measure of academic hegemony by the end of the 1980s?  And in order to answer this question, we need to examine the state of academic marxist theory in general, at the centres of imperialism, in the same period.  Aside from Louis Althusser (who was, it must be noted, one of Foucault's mentors), academic marxist theory in this context was infected by either the revisionism of Khrushchev or the counter-orthodoxy of Trotskyism––and this, more than anything else, should explain the material grounds for the emergence of postmodern philosophy.  To riff off of Lenin, postmodernism is the penalty of the revisionist sins of marxist theory.  For this context, especially in France, witnesses a mainstream marxist orthodoxy that is uncreative, that defends either revisionism or dogmatism, that is thoroughly eurocentric and sometimes even openly chauvinist.  And even the May 1968 student movement, which declared fidelity to the Cultural Revolution in China, was incapable of breaking completely from this type of marxism––Althusser's own students were surprised at his lack of support.

But the 1960s and the 1970s were only the periods where postmodernism was developing as a theory, as the radical counter-current to academic marxist orthodoxy, and it would not be, as noted, until the 1980s that this tendency achieved theoretical coherence and hegemony.  For in the 1960s and 1970s, in all of the centres of imperialism, there was still an anti-revisionist movement that attempted to reinvigorate marxist theory by aligning itself with China's Cultural Revolution, the Vietnamese communists fighting American imperialism, and the global anti-colonial movement at home and abroad.  So in this context a counter-marxism was still being expressed, and the emerging postmodernists were either outside of the radical movements or being pulled in contradictory directions; it would not be until the 1980s, when the anti-revisionist movements of yesteryear proved itself incapable of dealing with what would be seen as a global failure, that postmodernism was able to fill the void left by a retreating marxism.  If anything, the foundational theorists of postmodernism were keen enough to sense the eventual collapse of marxism but, rather than understand this collapse according to historical materialist principles (where there will not only be great successes but great retreats since the dialectical contradiction of success-failure, mediated as it is by historical fact, can only mean a long march through history towards revolution), postmodernism would argue that this collapse was due to the totalizing, murderous, and flawed-by-power approaches of marxism: the entire marxist theory of history would be treated as the culprit… and in this context we must wonder why the charges of narrative/discourse totalizing echoed the bourgeois critique of totalitarianism.

Marxism claims that all theories, all ideologies, possess a class nature and are reflections of class positions.  Marxism itself should be read in this context, and all marxist theories should be examined according to the methodology of marxism itself (which is why this methodology is more than just a theory but approaches a science), but we can bring this "totalizing" understanding to bear on postmodernism as well.  Not only can we ask (and explain) why postmodernism emerged during marxism's revisionist/orthodox retreat from academia, we can wonder why postmodernism achieved prominence in a period when capitalism would declare itself the "end of history".  Indeed, postmodernism ends up being the inverted reflection of Fukayama's triumphalist proclamation; postmodernism declared the entire marxist critique of history, of revolutionary progress, as dead and thus, though unwittingly, ended up accepting the normative constraints of the "end of history" ideology.

Despite postmodernism's theoretical skepticism of "history" and "science" and "revolution", we need to ask why its skepticism of these categories ended up producing a praxis that reified capitalist social relations.  Postmodernism reaches its nadir in Baudrillard who declares in Simulacra and Simulation, around the same time that Fukayama was raving about the capitalist end of history, that nihilism is the only option.  For all the supposed criticisms of discourse and power, the discourse of a temporarily triumphant capitalism is accepted as the state of reality.  Hence postmodernism ultimately became, in the words of Samir Amin, "a neo-liberal utopia in disguise."  A fetishism of the end of history through the rejection of totalization/totalitarianism.

It is here that postmodernism reaches, in marxist terms, an ideological hegemony––in academia it becomes an inverted reflection of a social consciousness that treats marxism as a theoretical dead-end.  According to its own terminology (which was always just a replacement terminology for marxist concepts) a discourse, a grand narrative expressing reprehensible power relations.  Due to this hegemony we can also make sense of the emergence of post-colonial theory which, as Aijaz Ahmad argued in the introduction of In Theory [and note that I have problem's with Ahmad's loyalty to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which has been engaged in neo-liberal and counter-revolutionary activities for decades], is the result of privileged emigres from the peripheries encountering chauvinism in the centres and, because the only way to sell their anti-racist theory is to declare fidelity to postmodern categories, produce "post-colonialism"––for the discourse of postmodernism was such that fidelity was required.  Thus we can speak of postmodernism as becoming, in Marx and Engels' words, a self-determining concept: it generated successive theoretical developments, connected ideas.

In any case, the point here is to recognize the historical context in which postmodernism emerged as a coherent theoretical tendency and rose to prominence and, since we are totalizing theorists of history, to refuse to treat this phenomena as something outside of class struggle.  And though the "class struggle" it represents might exist primarily amongst an academic petty-bourgeoisie––and thus some would demand we ignore it altogether as a minor "deviation" that doesn't matter––it still possesses material ramifications on class struggle in general, if only on the class struggle at the centres of global capitalism.  For there is a set politics connected to postmodern theory which produces a general practice amongst would-be anti-capitalists: so-called "anti-oppression" politics, identity theory, contemporary strains of anarchism.

To simply dismiss postmodernism as another form of liberalism without engaging in a principled ideological struggle with its theoretical foundations is to ignore the theoretical hegemony it still possesses, despite whatever non-postmodernist chic theorist claims, a pro-generative power in the realm of praxis.  And we cannot begin to even tackle the power it commands if we cannot make sense of its emergence and eventual hegemony according to its social and historical context.  Thus, this is only a rough sketch of the historical boundaries that must be recognized in order to produce a thorough critique of postmodern ideology––the marking out of the schematics within which an ideological war needs to be waged.  For if we can mark out the historical foundations of this phenomena with "the science of history", then we have the foundation for a thorough critique.

Comments

  1. Greetings,

    You know that we have disagreed about the status of Marxism as a science in the common English language usage of the term, and about the best way to carry out our work in the US and Canada. But your writing here on postmodernism and the academy is as good as anything I've read on the subject. You respect your object of analysis, and engage it on its own terms. You've said that this blog is where you put work that does not have a future (I very hesitate to use the word that you use for this) but I say that this essay is alive. I think you accurately grasp why theory is in the state that it is. Further, I think that you are part of the tide that is shifting, and are becoming aware of itself as it shifts, and thus becoming better able to act in the world.

    good luck out there,

    Marq Dyeth

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    1. Despite disagreements, your interventions have always been beneficial and insightful. Thanks for these kind words.

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  2. This is gonna seem like a trivial quibble, but I think it may make sense to connect the postmodern turn in political and social theory with the (more inventive) postmodern turn in architecture.....just a thought if you were thinking of expanding on this excellent piece.

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    1. No, it's an interesting point because it also demonstrates that the term "postmodern" means something different in different contexts. Postmodern literature is not the same as postmodern theory/philosophy, for example. Same with architecture: it's a term that only has meaning as something that is a counter-tradition to marxism, though, in the theoretical/philosophical sphere. In any case, the term was being used in the 1950s in different areas for things that had nothing to do with what it has come to mean for theory.

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    2. But if I recall, Anderson contextualized the "naming" of poststructural and continental post-marxist theory as "postmodern" as trying to appropriate the innovations that, as far as I know, started in architecture but then moved to literature, film etc.

      If you ever are gonna try and write this into something fuller length (which I would encourage) it would be interesting to look at this relation.

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  3. The downfall of marxism is connected to the downfall in the class struggles, or in other terms the failure of the workers movements and their leadership to confront the neoliberal counterattacks.
    Obviously connected to this is the fall of the Eastern Bloc.

    BLaming Trotsky for postmodernism seems a tad sectarian and idealistic.

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    1. I think you have a problem with reading: nowhere did I blame Trotsky for postmodernism. You say the downfall of marxism is connected to the downfall of class struggles, and I agree. But the question is why did these workers movements and their leadership fail to confront neoliberal counterattacks? Why did the Eastern Bloc fail? These are questions that are connected but tangental to what I was writing here, which had to do with the theoretical realm generally (which yes, is connected, and if you'd notice I put a lot of emphasis on the emergence of revisionism, which is not Trotskyism, but actually the direction taken by the CPSU), and postmodernism specifically. The only mention to Trotskyism here was that it was a type of prevalent marxism in the global centres in the 1960s, competing with the revisionist marxism under Khrushchev.

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    2. Most Trotskyists I respect (Bensaid, Daniel Singer) have the same perspective on the fall of the Eastern Bloc. One doesn't need to defend these states to acknowledge how much their downfall hurt the Left everywhere - including Trots.

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  4. I stopped reading here:

    "Aside from Louis Althusser (who was, it must be noted, one of Foucault's mentors), academic marxist theory in this context was infected by either the revisionism of Khrushchev or the counter-orthodoxy of Trotskyism––and this, more than anything else, should explain the material grounds for the emergence of postmodern philosophy. To riff off of Lenin, postmodernism is the penalty of the revisionist sins of marxist theory."

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    1. Why? You might have learned something.

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  5. Why no mention of Deleuze?

    Otherwise, an enjoyable essay. Thank you.

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    1. Because I don't really consider Deleuze a post-structuralist. In fact, I think a lot of what he developed theoretically with Guattari is, while influenced by postmodernism, an attempt to reassert a more robust modernism, reclaim the subject, and is actually autonomist marxism (and they were quite clear in interviews that they found postmodernism to be "reactionary" and were communists). After all, they conjure names like Samir Amin and Arghiri Emmanuel…

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  6. The historical content of this essay was excellent but I was disappointed by its failure to address postmodernism as the ultimate fate of Marxist materialism (and nineteenth century materialism in general). Children are poorly educated in science and philosophy, barely achieving nineteenth century levels of knowledge, so those who study the arts and humanities are easy prey for postmodernist philosophy. See Do you have good intentions? for a brief antidote to postmodernism.

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    1. You say that "children are poorly educated in science and philosophy" and yet your understanding of marxism, according to your link, is quite off-the-mark. Which is why I disagree strongly with your assertion that the "ultimate fate of Marxist materialism" is postmodernism. I do agree that a poor grasp on historical materialism and a poor level of political praxis leads one to postmodernism, but I do not see it as some magical destiny inherent in the marxist theoretical tradition, which is the most sophisticated materialism still.

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