Saturday, October 20, 2012

Historicizing postmodernity and "postmodern theory"

A couple nights ago I had a little Twitterflurry with @Interdome and @ekstasis, that went a little something like this:


The point of departure for this debate was my tweeting the following, which linked to @CoreyRobin's review of Daniel Rodgers's Age of Fracture (an important recent book that I confess deeply disliking -- but that's for a separate blogpost):

Now @Interdome (AKA Adam Rothstein, whom I don't know) has responded with a thoughtful blogpost, in which he defends post-structuralist theory. The nub of his argument is that one should not conflate postmodernity, as an era, with the body of theory that became popular contemporaneously to that era (properly called post-structuralist theory, but which in popular writing is commonly referred to as postmodern theory). Rothstein argues, further, that any nostalgia for modernist certitudes is misguided, since the primary products of those certitudes were oppression, war, and overconsumption. Finally, he takes umbrage at the suggestion that today's GOP is somehow practicing a kind of "vulgar post-structuralism" in its attacks on science.

Let's take those arguments one at a time. (And let me also acknowledge that this debate is in some ways a rerun, with contemporary signifiers, of the Habermas-Lyotard debate from thirty years ago.)

Obviously it's illegitimate to conflate a critical theorist with the object of his or her theory. It would be ridiculous to blame Marx for nineteenth century capitalism's rapaciousness, say, or William F. Buckley for the inefficiencies of Great Society welfare programs. Likewise it's absurd to suggest that, say, Judith Butler is responsible for climate change denialism, or to suggest that someone who talks about racism is actually perpetuating that racism (one of the American right's dumbest recent tropes).

What I was suggesting, however, was not that post-structuralists were identical to or responsible for the revanchist politics of the late 20th century. Rather, I was referring to the political effect that post-structural theory has had, as well as the ugly ways it has been vulgarized.

To make this case, we need to begin by historicizing poststructuralist theory, that is, to recognize that post-structuralism was as much an artifact of the era of conservative ascendance as supply-side economics or Madonna music videos. Rothstein depicts post-structuralist theory as occupying some Archimedean point outside the historical epoch in which it arose. He suggests that it offers a timeless set of epistemic truths, rather than itself being embedded in (and dare I say a symptom of) that era's own pathologies. By contrast, I would suggest that, now that Minerva's Owl has alighted, it is evident that post-structuralist theory suffered in significant ways from what is known in the intelligence community as "mirror-imaging," that is, the tendency of analysts to take on the characteristics of the objects they are assessing.

In what sense does post-structuralist theory (covertly?) reflect the pathologies of postmodernity? To fully answer that question would take many volumes -- it's part of Daniel Rodgers's project in Age of Fracture -- but let me here put my finger on the two things that I think are most salient. Both of these matters speak directly to the question of whether post-structuralism, despite overtly being critical of how power has operated in the postmodern era, in fact has contributed to the dominant, reactionary politics of that era.

The first point derives from post-structuralist theory's profound epistemological skepticism -- the "hermeneutic of suspicion" that Rothstein refers to. This epistemological skepticism in its sophisticated form represents a compelling critique of the verities of positivistic modernism, but in the hands of inept practitioners (or cynics) can easily shade into vulgarian anti-scientific discourse. This is why the infamous "Sokal hoax" was so embarrassing: it revealed that the language of post-structuralism was all too easily appropriated to render a specious anti-scientific argument in a manner that the leading practitioners of that body of theory did not find objectionable.

Second, the "incredulity toward metanarratives," which Lyotard described as the hallmark of the postmodern outlook, all too easily degenerates into a rejection of any sort of narrative, just as anti-authoritarianism can blur into a rejection of all authority. It's important to note that poststructuralists didn't just assert that the particular master narratives of high modernism were bunk, but rather that all master narratives were bunk, and usually pernicious bunk, at that. In this vein, I think it's altogether too easy to say that Lyotard was just describing something he saw out there in the culture: he was himself deeply engaged in the debunking of metanarratives -- very specifically, the metanarrative of the working class's subjective emancipation through collectivization. In other words, postmodernism's epistemic agenda was specifically aimed at undermining the grandest of the modernist collective action programs, namely socialism. In the French context, post-structuralism was thus "counter-revolutionary" in a very specific and explicit way.

But as post-structuralist theory migrated to the United States in the 1980s (there to be reimagined as a holistic thing called "French Theory") it was taken up by folks with a different political agenda from post-1968 French anti-communists. In the United States, post-structuralism emerged as a toolkit for unmasking dominant narratives of race, class, and gender that privileged white, male, middle-class life in America. Over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, at the very moment when neoliberalism was running wild and "left" high modernism was collapsing, post-structuralist theory was sweeping through the American academy as a tool for "deconstructing" various dominant paradigms. Post-structuralist theory (at least in its pre-9/11 maximalist moment) came to be about the radical critique of all socially-received categories. There was no such thing as race, gender, class, nation, tribe, etc.; these were all just myths that the Man had put over on us in order to push his own domination. (I'm caricaturing, but not by much.) In the context of American culture war politics during the 1980s and 1990s, this political agenda seemed on its face to broadly speaking "left," if by left we simply mean a generalized sympathy for the excluded and the poor and opposition to unbridled capitalism and the lingering white supremacist dimensions of American life.

Unfortunately, however, the story doesn't end there. Here it's important to make a basic point: any effective politics cannot end simply with the countering of oppressive cultural categories; ultimately, it must be about collective action. By definition, collective action requires that people act in unison, which in turn requires that people put aside their differences. You don't need to be sociobiologist to observe that people tend to be selfish, so the question is, what is it that gets people to be willing to put aside those individual differences? In practice, it is almost always some narrative that gets an agglomeration of people see themselves as forming some sort of unity of shared interest or identity that trumps their differences. Collective action cannot survive without such narratives.

This brings me to my point about how post-structuralism ended up being reactionary as a matter of praxis: in draining the amniotic fluid of socially-constructed collective categories, it was all but inevitable that the collective action baby would end up getting aborted. Specifically, post-structuralism's radical attack on all collective categories as "socially-constructed," while good for undermining narratives of oppression that relied on such categories, has had a reactionary political effect where it undermined narratives and categories that are necessarily for progressive political action, notably the category of social class. Incredulity toward meta-narratives doesn't just undermine white supremacism, it doesn't just undermine socialism, it undermines the very possibility of collective action, because in practice collective action almost always depends on some meta-narrative which is capable of getting people to put aside their inevitable differences and pursue the collective goal. And without collective action, we're left without emancipatory hope. In sum, by undercutting the narrative bases for collective action, post-structuralism has been reactionary in effect if not in intent.

It's important to note here that I've slipped in a crucial assumption into this argument, and I'd like to bring that out. I'm assuming that collective action is something we should actually wish for. Here, inevitably, we get into the biggest of all historical judgments, which is whether the collective actions undertaken in the name of modernism were, ultimately, a good thing or not. Rothstein is clearly a skeptic. He sees the symbolic high points of modernist collective action as (I quote) "imperialism, world wars, American-made cars, and boom-towns." Take just a small step further and you're with Adorno, declaring that Auschwitz is modernity's apotheosis.

I guess your mileage may vary on this, but I don't accept the wholesale rejection of the project of modernity. I can't sit and look back on the history of the collective actions undertaken over the last three hundred years and say humanity as a whole would be or have been better off if none of that had been undertaken, and we instead had remained under the various anciens regimes. Sure, there have been terrible depredations during our long current historical epoch, but ultimately I am with Habermas at an ethical level: what we need to cure modernity's ills is more of it -- it's an incomplete project.

A big part of my antipathy to post-structuralism's anti-collective action effects has to do with my growing horror about global elites' failure to act against climate change. The simple, fundamental truth is that if we don't manage to create a broadly accepted metanarrative about the need to stop the runaway train of GHG emissions, then we will destroy civilization in ways that even the most hardened skeptic of modernity should blanch at.

And this is where we get back to my argument that the contemporary right is engaged in a kind of "vulgar post-structuralism." Indeed, the right's critique of climate science uses tropes (admittedly in crude form) that should be all too familiar to post-structuralist critics of categories like race or gender. The climate change deniers claim that the narrative about anthropogenic climate change as a threat to civilization is not "true" but rather is "socially constructed and politically biased balderdash" designed by elites who dress up their socialist, one-worldist agenda in the meretricious language of science.

Now, Rothstein may not like this, but this mode of argumentation derives directly from the post-structuralist efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to deconstruct categories like race and gender: these weren't "real" things, just categories that certainly elites had invented in order to divide and oppress. Oh, but we were sincere, and they're just cynics! I can hear the defense. I'm not convinced. There might be some PR flaks for oil companies who are mere cynics, but there are many climate skeptics who sincerely believe that the whole of climate science is an elite ruse designed to allow for the imposition of socialism and one world government. The post-structuralist theory-derived cognitive and political tools serve their arguments all too well. We may not like what modernity brought us, but what humanity desperately needs, despite everything, is not no "schemes to improve the human condition," but rather better schemes to improve the human condition. If we are to avoid boiling the planet, we cannot resign ourselves simply to straying through the infinite nothing.

The bitter truth is that the only hope of confronting the runaway climate change problem is by galvanizing humanity-scale political action. It is only if humanity can find a way to see itself as sharing a single fate that the necessary collective political actions will be remotely possible. But prospects for such action have been profoundly undermined by a philosophical agenda whose most notable practitioner famously declared that the very category of Man was no more solid "than a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." So much for galvanizing political action.

So, to sum up, it seems to me that the big and important way to understand post-structuralist theory is to situate it as an artifact of the late 20th century era of post-Fordist neoliberalism (e.g. "postmodernity" in David Harvey and Frederic Jameson's terms). To put a bumper-sticker on it, I see post-structuralism as rooted in the same skepticism about state action, and indeed collective social action of all sort, as the right-wingers on the other side of the political aisle. You read a "post-structuralist" like James Ferguson, and he's as skeptical of the state as anyone in the IMF ever was. This is the fundamental sense in which post-structuralism was a part of its era, rather than simply a critical voice describing that era.

But I can't leave it there. Because, much as I hate to admit this, in a profound way I accept the post-structuralist critique: I too am incredulous of metanarratives. I accept the post-structuralist credo that, in the desert of the real, ethical action of any sort may be impossible, and that negation and refusal may be all that's left. I accept that, now that the high modernist baby's been aborted, it's not going back into the womb.

But I can't say that any of this makes me feel very happy. Hence my position of "melancholic wistfulness": I feel acutely the loss of that moment when the modernist baby seemed so full of promise. Just because I recognize that the baby was never going to grow up to be the healthy child of high modernist dreams is no reason for me to celebrate the abortion with the post-structuralists. It's a tragedy.


Gabe said...

Why is James Ferguson's alleged post-structuralism in scare-marks? And what is the warrant for the presumption that Ferguson's skepticism towards the state emerges out of his theoretical positions rather than, say, many years worth of ethnography in Lesotho?

Nils said...

Let me say that I consider "The Anti-Politics Machine" among the best -- if not THE best -- piece of development writing I've ever read. Brilliant. So no knock on Ferguson.

With that said, the suggestion that his arguments are the result of a-theoretical "ethnography," that Ferguson some sort of dustbowl empiricist, doesn't stand the laugh test. First of all, I don't think Ferguson himself would say that. Second, he cites post-structuralist theory prominently (indeed, part of the power of his book is that it is one of the most telling applications of Foucault's theory of the prison) in articulating his argument. And third, the notion that one can conduct "ethnography" in some sort of a- or pre-theoretical state of objectivity is absurd: OF COURSE he brought a series of theoretical concerns to the ethnographic process. Everyone does. The only question is whether they've actually thought through those theoretical concerns, and are conscious of them, or if they are naively unaware of their theoretical agenda, much like Moliere's bourgeois gentilhomme's was unaware that he had been speaking prose his entire life.

My observation is in the end quite simple: that the suspicion of state action is something that was shared widely in the 1990s, from the neoliberals to the post-development scholars. The basis for the suspicion was quite different of course: on the one hand, the post-public choice theory crowd saw the state as engaged in rent-seeking, and observed huge principal-agent challenges with any collective endeavor; on the other hand, the post-structuralists saw the state as simply a vehicle for promoting capitalist penetration of civil society, and were deeply dubious about all categories of collectivity. But practically, these together pointed to why the age was one of diminished expectations about the possibilities for collective action -- at least as enacted through public institutions.