August 09, 2016

Marxist Theory: What is truth? The rise and fall of postmodernism

“Reality", finally, is a historical construct”
 -Richard Markley

Postmodernism emerged as one of the most powerful cultural trends in the advanced capitalist countries in the post war period. The cause of its rise were manifold, but essentially it was the historic shift in social patterns and intellectual whims at the time which created the perfect breeding ground for a theory which rejected the entire tradition of the enlightenment. Prior to its political and social theorisation, postmodernism emerged as a tendency within the cultural arts; Therborn described it a “mutation of the modernist succession of avant-gardes” 1.

The first true expression of this new trend, which was to become something of a paradigm, was in architecture as a response to the previously dominant modernist style which was considered too ordered and elitist. Postmodern architecture was a mixture of populist and pastiche, plundering the past for styles and then mocking them in exaggerated forms. The American Architect Louis Sullivan wrote in 1896 that when it comes to buildings “form follows function” but the new ideas turned that truism on its head, the function was autonomous, purely ideological – the function became to decode the modernist world and re-assign the symbols across society in such a way that all old forms were undermined. The changing styles of the cities reflected and reinforced the changing mindset of those living in them.

The decline of the left as a radical force, caused by the trend towards accommodation rather than an anti-systemic confrontation with capitalism took its toll on the integrity of Marxism as a system. This was not caused by any problems or ‘gaps’ in Marxism, so much as by the failure of socialists to stick to their principles and re-elaborate revolutionary politics for a changing world. The apparent strength of bourgeois ideas in the western world, the dramatic increase in the consumer lifestyles and the lack of an authentic alternative outside of Stalinism led many intellectuals to reach the conclusion that socialism was morally and intellectually bankrupt. In fact something fundamental had shifted, that we were living in a new world, no longer one of modernity but a postmodern world.

Postmodernism was presented either as a critique of the condition of late capitalism, and/or as a confirmation of its new mode of existence. Its defining motto argued for an “incredulity towards meta-narratives”, namely any social theories that make a claim towards a universal truth, e.g. the theory of evolution or Adam Smith’s theory of wealth creation and the development of capitalism. Thus it rejected socialism, liberalism as well as any grand assertions of ethical or moral judgments. It was thoroughly anti-foundationalist, denying any forms of essence in history, politics or art – it was a complex web of indeterminate and fluid concepts and ideas based on a fundamental rejection of established procedures for knowledge and reason. The rejection of narratives and truth as being scientifically verifiable was linked to a comprehensive critique of power relations. All narratives in the Enlightenment age were regarded as masks for power and domination; communism was in essence as bad as fascism, no matter how progressive the communist narrative may have appeared. This identified postmodernism with a whole-scale attack on the entire Enlightenment tradition, both left and right interpretations of it, which gave postmodernism a particularly radical gloss, apparently hitting Marxism as hard as it hit the conservatives. The only radical position to take was ruthless criticism of everything because every narrative was indissolubly connected to power relations – they are embedded in a claim to truth which is itself self-referencing. The focus of study should be on les petits récits (the small stories), the local, partial and therefore more truthful accounts of real people, not ‘big ideas’.

The foundations of the ideas that would lead to post modernism were present in the early 1960s, particularly in the work of Daniel Bell who spoke of capitalism having reached the point of a post-industrial society and a concurrent “end of ideology”. These ideas were the early harbinger of later postmodernist theories, but it was not until Jean-Francois Lyotard, that it emerged as a distinct ideology with the 1979 publication of The Postmodern Condition, in which he heralds the death of meta-narratives. Considered the father of postmodernism as an intellectual viewpoint in the west, he was previously an active Marxist, contributing articles to the French socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s. He came to criticise the Marxist left, for their failure to really understand the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria and reverting to anachronistic and unhelpful analogies with the Russian Revolution. Lyotard was writing at a time when the linguistic turn in intellectual theories was still in full swing. The French structuralists were developing new ways of analysing language and words, crucially the idea of semiotics – how things are signs or signifiers for something else. A branch of structuralism broke away and began to reject wholesale the entire project. Instead the signs were dislocated from the reality, they came to refer not to anything in the real world but only to themselves or to other signs. Thus the term ‘discourse’ and ‘narratives’ emerged, words which came to mean a relatively autonomous and often self-referential perspective. The postmodern critique of Marxism takes everything that Marxism alleges and makes it a negative, totalising meta-discourse, for instance that Marx had claims to absolute truth, and so on. It is perhaps no wonder that several key postmodernists began their political life as Marxists, and indeed Lyotard’s original claim that meta-narratives were at an end focussed almost entirely on Marxism as the meta-narrative which had finished.

Two other French intellectuals, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, were important pioneers of postmodernism. Derrida himself developed a way of writing and presenting his ideas which perfectly demonstrated the intellectualised and self-indulgent methods of this new generation of thinkers. The post-structuralist movement rapidly spread beyond the debates on language and text, like a virus it established itself across almost every branch of the humanities. When it eventually took hold in academia postmodernism represented the most serious attack on Marxism at the universities. It was the angry sigh of the defeated intellectuals who had seen the horrors of Stalinism and despised the commercialised world of consumer capitalism. Detached from progress and any genuine emancipatory project, they took Marx’s argument to ‘question everything’ but forgot to search for any answers.

A primary fixation was on the argument that there is no ontological root, no reality that can be fixed and objectively identified; instead there is a plurality of views and ‘narratives’ or discourse which all have a valid claim to truth. Truth here simply means whatever a local community or social group decides is true and there can be mutually incompatible claims to truth. For Lyotard and other postmodernists this is inevitable, but arguing over ideologies and “politics” is ultimately fruitless. Instead anything which could be truly authentic is local actions, highly contingent and localised

When Hegel had declared that we had arrived at the end of history many postmodernists rejected the idea that there was even a ‘history’ at all – why have narrative when all we can see is semi-autonomous events and happenings which litter our past, devoid of any genuine space in which we can evaluate and order them? Post-structuralist thinkers like Foucault disagreed, preferring a radical historicist reading of power and ideas which attempts to understand power relations through the shifting nature of our own knowledge, assumed as they are by the almost suppressed codes of domination, the form of which changes but its content remains similar. Foucault, following Nietzsche, disagrees that there is such a thing as rationality or truth in the realm of human ideas. The way we understand truth is always a product of the different modes of domination and power. As we discussed in the last chapter, this was particularly attractive to feminist thinkers, a new way of thinking about how gender was formed and the kind of impact that had on narratives of history (A white-male dominated history referred to as His Story)

In the world of art there was a conscious break from modernity with all of its institutions and traditions, the art work which pointed to some part of the human condition was rejected as conformist and stale. Instead art and culture became detached from any social signifiers, replacing works which provided insight with forms which were merely ‘interesting’ and divorced from any authentic sentiment. But for the postmodernists this was more accurate, more real, it cut through the falsity of the modern bourgeois condition and ridiculed it purposefully. The sublime, the beautiful, the erotic, had all been corrupted by capitalism and its fixation on commodities, on fantasy masquerading as truth. In this age Damien Hirst’s Tiger Shark in formaldehyde (titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”) was paid for by Charles Saatchi, who along with his brother Maurice, provided the advertising campaign for Thatcher in the 1980s (who won re-election under the slogan “Labour isn’t working”). 

The art represented the existence of both life and death simultaneously, a fact underscored by the fact that the original shark decomposed and almost disintegrated and had to be replaced with a new one. The cost of the shark (upward of $12 million) is the “perfect summation of our wasteful, high-priced, oblivious moment” as the New York Times referred to it [], an ironic statement about the commodity nature of the art market and its unethical connection to the world of big business. 

Of course the art work has little meaning in itself, it is empty apart from shock value, instead its meaning must be read into it – it must be understood to represent the shifting values and technological aptitudes of our age. The shark is especially captured for the work; it represents the continued domination of man over nature for essentially superfluous reasons. Writing in 1965 Marcuse prophesied this state of affairs, or rather he saw how it was going already: “the market, which absorbs equally well (although with often quite sudden fluctuations) art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a ‘complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss’ in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up.” 2 As an art critic writing in the Time Magazine pointed out, the generation growing up with the hyper stimulus of the TV-media spectacle can only produce art which is “at best a mere cultural reflection, at worst a lie.” 3

It was both a theoretical standpoint with its own (increasingly obscure) language and terms of reference but it was also a climate which affected both intellectual culture and attitude at the universities. Perhaps the most infamous encounter between the postmodern and the left in the academic world was a notorious journal article submitted by Sokal to a cultural studies journal called Social Theory.The article, called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity (1996) was written from the perspective of a postmodern physicist who argued that many scientists “cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.” He goes on to argue that gravity does not exist, and that the discoveries in quantum gravity have profound political implications for how we view the world. The article was a hoax – designed by Sokal to expose the pretensions of the postmodernist influenced academic community with its obscure language and elitist conceptions about knowledge. Sokal explained his method as first quoting some “controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr”, he then assembles pastiche, namely combining political writers’ concepts with scientific discoveries, Irigary and quantum gravity for instance. He concludes “one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies and bald assertions.” It was a brilliant example of what has been referred to as “obscurantisme terroriste” when referring to the works of Deridda, namely that they were written in such a way as to make them purposefully obscure and hard to understand. That a hoax like Sokal’s could even occur, is evidence of the intellectual malaise of postmodernist ways of writing and thinking. Thankfully, most of the workers’ movement was immune from the ramblings of many of the postmodernists, but its influence was certainly felt in the political sphere.

Politically postmodernism can tend towards a conservative-nihilistic viewpoint or a radical one. Radical postmodernists within the social movements tend to celebrate diversity to the point of political atomisation, are highly critical of any structures apart from the most libertarian and ‘horizontal’ and focus almost exclusively on a highly localised political programme which rejects any question of power or government. postmodernists reject classical socio-political identities such as “working class” and prefer modern identity politics focussing on gender and race. For instance there is a tendency expressed in the writings of people like Hardt and Negri to attack the concept of class from a left point of view, preferring to dissolve everything into the multitude.

This rejection of class as a basis for analysis was concurrent with the emergence of what some termed the post-industrial (or post-Fordist) society of the first world. The steel workers and coal miners were largely gone, replaced by the service sector and finance, including the ubiquitous communication workers in call centres. Importantly the call centres, unlike coal mines, could be located anywhere in the world, adding a sense of displacement and impermanence. This neatly fitted in with a growing obsession with new forms of technology and alienation apparently caused by over-abundance (consumerism) instead of poverty and deprivation.

Beacuse postmodernism is a huge subject so there is not the space to dwell on every facet of it. However two interesting thinkers provide a space for thinking about that postmodernist theory offers us for analysis. Arguably Derrida’s most important contribution was the concept of différance, a playful term which indicates that we cannot start from the concept of similarity but of how things are different. The french word is actually a neologism, meaning both to be different and to defer meaning, it is also pronounced the same as the word difference, highlighting the relationship between speech and text and questioning which is more authentic.. Derrida argues that words can never really articulate what is behind them, they can only refer to other words which can help define meaning, but this can never be done comprehensively. All identity within texts are non-essentialist, they are discrusively constructed through an chains of signifiers which leaves the possibility of genuine, total meaning impossible, it constantly slips and escapes us. His goal was to expose and undermine the rigid categorisation of our definitions, demonstrating that they are as much created but absence and what-it-is-not than by what it is. I briefly mention this idea because the concept 4 ofdifférance is central to many postmodern and some post-Marxist thinkers, for instance Laclau and Mouffe. 5

Jean Baudrillard exemplifies the kind of theoretical underpinnings that postmodernism reaches when it touches political ground. His critique of Marx’s ideas begins at his concentration on the law of value, which is trapped in the realm of political economy and in fact is simply a left wing version of the bourgeois narrative concerning work and value. What Marx misses is that labour itself is alienating 6, and the distinction between work and ‘rest’ (or leisure time) is a false one, where we rest merely to work again, there is no genuine pleasure, no chance for a genuine transformation or escape, but merely a return to the inescapable logic of forced labour. Communism or socialism is simply a more efficient method of rationalising the work of humanity, which is why ultimately Marx’s political economy is as guilty as Smith or Ricardo for continuing our alienation. 7 What Marx could not have foreseen was that increasingly people are not buying the commodity for its use value, but its symbolic value – production now focusses on what a product represents, its symbolic representation. 8

Our modern world has a reproduction of the social life which is postmodern – but Baudrilliard is not saying this is necessarily a good thing. Whereas the early capitalist world saw humanity ordered around the needs of capital accumulation and production, today our society is organised according to signs and codes. Society is ordered around simulations and simulacra, sign values and hyper-reality, we have moved “from a metallurgic into a semi-urgic society.” 9 Symbolic exchange is rooted in pre-modern societies, they form a kind of natural order where gift giving as part of rituals of spirituality, eroticism or sacredness form the basis for human interaction. The ideological leap to the modern age through the enlightenment paves the way for the commodification of our lives into technical and not social rationalisation, allowing the generation of surplus value in an inhuman and disabling realm of hyper-accumulation. As a necessary part of this process humans are pulled apart into a range of simulacra, false signs which become detached from real meaning.
The all-pervasive power of the simulacra entangles us in a constantly re-transfigured hyper-reality, where the signs are more real than reality itself. 10 In Baudrilliard’s reading of the postmodern condition hyper-reality comes from the loss of meaning in our everyday lives, but it is powered by the media, along with the expansion of virtual worlds such as video games. This postmodern nightmare can be recognised in the online gaming community Second Life, where people adopt characters and live out a life on the internet with others. The characters can be human or non-human, the cities are the creation of game designers who want to present a version of the real which is conscious of its own surreal existence. The gamer plays the game, can be whoever they want, and experience a life in which they can be more successful, better looking or a more adventurous person than they could ever be in the real world. This simulation can be seen in the military with the increased use of computer game technologies to train soldiers and the use of “drones”, robot planes piloted from thousands of miles away which are used to attack enemy combatants or wedding parties – the distance from the target and the use of technology creates an inseparable barrier between the real and the simulation, with often terrifying results. When the Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed by US special forces President Obama is alleged to have watched it live on a TV link, simulating himself as a US Navy Seal, living out an American dream of being the ‘one who killed Bin Laden’, much like in a violent computer game. Then the media reported Bin Laden had used his wife as a human shield, had fired on the American soldiers. Then they reported he had not used her as a human shield, someone else had; in fact Bin Laden had not fired anything. The media added confusion as the White House’s story changed. Was Bin Laden still the world’s most dangerous man? It could be argued that he existed merely as a sign, a symbol of something called Al-Qaeda which may or may not exist (in the sense that it is an ephemeral organisation, anyone can join and claim to be an Al-Qaeda militant). What was real in the life and death of Bin Laden? Does President Obama even know what happened or what it really means?

This leads to the point when the signs and reality collapse into themselves in a moment of implosion. Nothing really has its own meaning anymore; the boundaries become blurred in a constant mixing of eternally interchangeable signs. In our postmodern world ‘it is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real…’ Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday party, held in London at the Royal Albert Hall, was a moment of pure implosion. The ageing statesman, feted and adored by the western world as the communist leader who ‘saw sense’ and dismantled the Soviet Union is today an ambassador for a liberal agenda of meaninglessness. His gala was hosted by Kevin Spacey and Sharon Stone, featuring music by German rock band the Scorpions and attended by celebrities from around the world, from Right wing conservatives like Arnold Schwarzenegger to faded Hollywood actors and Mel C from the Spice Girls. The event was a recreation of a Hollywood awards ceremony, a parody of the cultural and entertainment industry replete with red carpet and chandeliers. But the point of the event was pseudo-political; Gorbachev gave out prizes, corresponding to the three key planks of his 1980s reform programme in the Soviet Union. Perestroika (“Reconstruction”) was awarded to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet (the ultimate hyper-real experience).Glasnost (“Openness”) was presented to Evans Vadongo, a Kenyan who had pioneered alternative energy sources in Africa. Finally Uskorenie (“Acceleration”) was given to Ted Turner, the US millionaire who founded CNN.
Perhaps ironically we can end this lesson in the implosion of meaning (are you a politician, an actor, a celebrity or all three simultaneously?) with Ted Turner whose CNN news channel extensively covered the first Gulf War. 

It was after the US bombing of Iraq in 1991 that Baudrilliard famously said that the Gulf war did not happen – it was simply a media spectacle 11. Of course it seems absurd to argue such a thing, after all the US launched a military strike against Iraq, ostensibly in defence of Kuwait’s sovereignty (or perhaps Kuwait’s oil?). But Baudrillard’s point is that the Gulf War was effectively a scripted, media managed event, it did not exist in its own terms but was presented to us through the media who would get their information from military press conferences and watching other news channels. The ‘clean’ war saw the use of smart bombs alongside depleted uranium. The offensive was so overwhelming that US casualties were almost insignificant, the Iraqi army crumbled, all live on TV; wall-to-wall coverage of a war in which General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf fired lines at news cameras as if he was a latter day John Wayne. The idea of the Spectacle can be traced to Guy Debord who wrote about the Society of the Spectacle. The Spectacle is the electronic culture of mass commodified images and text which destroys genuine meaning, even threatens to destroy history. The relentless spectacle of modern media with its 24-hour rolling news broadcasts and free newspapers as well as millions of websites all spewing forth ideas, theories, facts and values causes knowledge to recede into the background, obliterating our capacity to make political judgements. Ultimately its result is “to make history forgotten within culture”. Baudrillard and DeBord would no doubt agree on this description of the degeneration of modern culture in this way.
Baudrillard’s ideas are certainly one-sided in their view – in a sense a latter -day continuation of the culture industry thesis of Adorno and Horkheimer. 

However he goes even further than they do, arguing that people not only had become stupefied by the aesthetic assault of the postmodern age but that we have become stupid full stop. Baudrillard describes humans as “like animals in their brute indifference” – that we have lost all critical faculties and been reduced to a Disneyfied state of apolitical and asocial “atonal amorphousness.” 12 His conclusion that humans are stupid is flat wrong – the struggle of millions of people against colonialism or military dictatorships, and movement against austerity and anti-union legislation – to cite but two examples amongst many, indicates otherwise. Humans are intelligent, sensual, active creatures who can make rational decisions – they can of course also make bad or “stupid” decisions, but that is not an inevitable outcome. Any theorist who argues a war is not happening when people are suffering and dying is covering something up – in Baudrilliard’s case it is the continued existence of imperialism, the nation state and the very real geostrategic machinations of the US ruling elite – something that postmodernism certainly has not ended. After all, the appearance of the war and how it was communicated to (largely western) audiences can only act as an auxiliary level of analysis to the real living question of force and violence which takes place at the heart of it.

So where did all this come from? Fredric Jameson has produced perhaps the benchmark book on postmodernism where he calls the Cultural logic of late capitalism. He explains that postmodernism is the product of the changes that were occurring in western capitalism around this end of the 1980s. Fusing elements of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture industry with the economic thesis of Late Capitalism by Ernest Mandel 13 – as well as the “positive ideology” of Althusserianism, he syntheses a relatively dystopian view of the penetration and totalisation of the cultural sphere by outright commodification. In modernity it was possible to understand the historicity of our society and critique it through parody and irony, but in postmodernity these avenues of critical reception are closed off and history itself is reduced to a “vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum”, all sound and fury signifying nothing. The real driving force for the economic changes which have brought about a decisive “change in the life world” is the transformation of imperialism into a higher stage of monopoly capitalism in the form of trans-national corporations, the increasingly dynamic role of banks and financial transactions, the technical developments in production which have further commodified everything and the emergence of a genuine computerised society where our knowledge increasingly comes from mass media.

Jameson evocatively describes the crisis of the post-1960s world “with its delirious paper money constructions rising out of sight, its Debt, the rapidity of the flight of factories matched only by the opening of new junk-food chains, the sheer immiseration of structural homelessness, let alone unemployment, and that well-known thing called urban ‘blight’ or ‘decay’ which the media wraps brightly up in drug melodramas and violence porn when it judges the theme perilously close to being threadbare.” 14 The resulting cultural shift is an understandable one, but a fundamentally negative one, rooted as it is in the failure of socialist revolutions in the west and the increasing domination of a kind of hyper capitalism over our lives, where adverts seem to provide us with more information about society than encyclopaedias do. Most of Jameson’s analysis focuses on the aesthetic changes that have occurred, characterising the new art as depthless, a fragmented subject without historicity and art reduced merely to pastich, a shallow parody without affect. Art is increasingly made out of the very alienated commodities of capitalism itself – Jameson writes that “Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification [e.g.] the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup”. 15 In this world the signs are detached and float around, we experience them in such a way that a schizophrenic or a drug addict experiences the world, “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicating or hallucinogenic intensity”. This bi-polarity and contradiction between the increasing banality of culture, coupled with demands for greater “intensities” in our emotional responses is almost a replication of the bad trip drug culture of the 1960s. Jameson refers to the character of Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now, “the horror, the horror” of a war with no clear enemy or ideological drive, sudden psychedelic imagery emerging from the monotony of the jungle, powerful forces manipulating people behind the scenes and a constant sense of anxiety, a “being-unto-death”. This is the modern way of letting go, the postmodern condition of a culture built on a system that is decaying alive but has not yet been killed.

But what makes Jameson’s work so powerful, Perry Anderson even claimed it was the culmination of Western Marxist thought 16, is the skill with which he synthesises Marxist and left wing theories to explain both the emergence and trajectory of postmodernism. What made postmodernism an exciting breakthrough, something to be critiqued, embraced, and eventually captured “for the cause of a revolutionary Left” was that it offered a break from the post war conditions of apparent paralysis and decline, opened up bold new possibilities for language and primarily the aesthetic, something that for too long had been dismissed by the left. Rather then rejecting Marxism as another meta-narrative, it is precisely the meta-narrative of Marxism which explains the cultural logic of postmodernism.

We can briefly summarise the Marxist critique as follows. Firstly there is such a thing as objective reality. If there is not then everyone might as well stop doing anything, because nothing means anything and we can never hope to know anything about the world, the universe or ourselves. Thankfully we can avoid this nihilistic outlook – after all we have science which has helped us to discover so many important laws and new ways of understanding our reality. If objective reality can work for science then why can’t it also apply to human society and our thoughts? Marx himself consciously rejected this argument because from his perspective practical interaction with the physical world was such an important part of our transformative experiences. Writing in the thesis on Feuerbach he explains that “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
The attack on meta-narratives works to undermine its own argument. If there is a meta-narrative of the decline of modernity and the corruption of the human spirit by capitalism/enlightenment, it cannot undo all truth claims that exist without also undoing its own truth claims, leading to a nihilistic, reflexive vicious circle with no beginning or end. Why is the postmodern meta-narrative true when the others are not? On a more worrying level, doesn’t postmodernism actually confirm the neo-conservative thesis that we are at the end of “history”? Doesn’t postmodernism just co-exist and benefit from the ruling capitalist ideologies which are hard at work denying any place for a totalising understanding of the relationship between market, state and society? This has particular implications on the debate around gender. Of course a critical approach top white-male dominated history was useful to the study of power relations and how they replicated themselves, but a strong reading of postmodernism would have implications for whether it was possible to construct a Her Story of resistance to the overarching narrative. If macro visions of history were off the agenda, then women’s resistance to patriarchy could only ever be understood as episodic, partial and fragmented, not a very appealing approach to the question of women’s emancipation. 17

Furthermore, postmodernism reverts to idealism in philosophy and politics by praising the autonomy of symbolism over the actual social real, dis-articulating subjects from their objectivity. Related to this is its obsession with how things look – the privileging of the aesthetic as some kind of essential feature of politics or social life, denigrating political substance over the feel of something. The elevation of singularity as the ontological root over any universal forms, so nothing is like anything else (différance and heterogenity are the only concepts which can sum up social relations) and everything exists simply as it is. For instance postmodernists deny any historical relevancy to the Russian Revolution or France 1968, referring to them as spectacles or somehow points of singularity which are utterly detached from us today. Likewise, the eradication of truth from epistemology leads to a collapse of meaning in the order of ideas. postmodernism does not claim to be amoral, its morality comes from a desire to challenge all power relations but if each community has competing truth claims, and there is a multitude of these, postmodernism provides no methodology to judge which are right or wrong. One society may have a tradition of child brides whilst most do not, postmodernism would point out how each tradition is socially constructed but if any claims to universal truth are annihilated then how can there be any judgement over if this practice is right or wrong? The idea that each historical event can only be understood subjectively and with no reference to any kind of universal criteria leads to worrying acceptance of the legitimacy of ‘revisionist’ reactionary histories all accepted as ‘competing narratives’. This has to be challanged, as one critic bluntly put it “Auschwitz was not a discourse”. 18

On a geo-political level postmodernism could quite arguably be referred to as a malaise of western intellectuals, Therborn wrote that it presents “a form of myopia towards the world beyond the North Atlantic” 19 – especially in its talk of post-industrial society as being some kind of ontological rendering of the entire world we live in. For Chinese workers in Guandong or textile workers in Bangladesh issues of class are certainly as important, if not more so, than post-Colonialism.

There is an antagonism at the heart of post modernism. Is it merely describing the world, identifying a new state of affairs which has come to exist since roughly the 1960s, or is it a product of that trend and a crucial reinforcing ideological framework which both justifies and deepens the new phenomena? The energy and persistence with which postmodern writers produced books, essays and articles outlining their new anti-theory, was a sign of the serious shift in mood of the 1990s, but has interestingly taken a dramatic nosedive with the turn of the millennia. By 2002 Jameson wrote about “the return to and the re-establishment of all kinds of old things”, that postmodernism had reached its high watermark and started to roll back. In many ways it inhabited a space in the world away from politics – within the credibility gap between electoral means of production and the consumerist nightmare of western capitalism. By the mid 1980s even Lyotard was admitting that postmodernism should be considered more as a mode of thought than as an epoch 20, implying that modernity and postmodernity could live side by side as antagonistic and mutually reinforcing modalities. But with the return of imperialism as a clear colonial project in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of the anticapitalist movement things began to shift. It is true that within the anticapitalist movement itself postmodernist ideas were prevalent, but they were far from hegemonic, and it opened a space for the revolutionary left to engage in open struggle with the political programme of postmodernism, which was proven to be totally ineffectual for critiquing the actual material basis for capitalism, let alone overthrowing it. But the damage that it did still lingers on, and until there is a resurgence of genuine emancipatory politics that connects to the reality of peoples struggles in the day to day, it will continue to haunt modernity with the spectre of its own demise.


  1. Therborn 2007 p70
  2. Repressive tolerance
  3. Hughes R, 1985, Careerism and Hype Amidst the Image Haze, accessed on June 18 2012
  4. Confusingly, Derrida explains that differance is “neither a word nor a concept” (Derrida 1982, p3) but for the sake of space I will have to do violence to his argument and pick one of these
  5. Boucher 2009, p106
  6. Baudrillard, 1975, p32
  7. Baudrillard 1975, p59
  8. Baudrillard 1981
  9. Baudrillard 1981 p185
  10. Baudrillard 1994
  11. Baudrillard, 1995
  12. Baudrillard, 2008, p94
  13. Mandel periodised capitalism into three phases based on technological paradigms, first steam engines, followed by electricity and the internal combustion engine, finally the nuclear bomb and electronics.
  14. Jameson, 1991, p374-375
  15. Jameson 1991, p. 9
  16. Anderson 1998, p. 125
  17. Benbabib S, 1995
  18. Evans R, 1997
  19. Therborn, 2008 p. 127
  20. Lyotard, 1992, p. 35

No comments: