POSTMODERNISM IS/NOT A DIRTY WORD
May 22, 2007
Postmodern, postmodernity is I think a word is a word deployed by people attempting to historicize their own era. This is an odd thing to do as history is obviously written retrospectively. I once quipped that postmodernism was coined by intellectuals convinced of impending nuclear holocaust and desperate to put themselves into history before it was too late. That was glib but maybe there’s something in it.
The ‘postmodern’ historical period began after the Second World War. Or at least this is how it has been commonly referred to. Many will disagree but I’ll just place it on the table as a useful term of reference. The postmodern period is for many adherents of the concept still going. I myself would argue that the ethos of the 20th century could be divided in two: from 1914-1945 (the modern period) thence from 1945-1989 or thereabouts) the post-modern period. Prior to 1914 the spirit of the 19th century was still intact and, after many phenomena including and most especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the spirit of the 21st century emerged.
I had a lecturer at Uni who taught literature and art and worked as a journalist. He’d interviewed a lot of the significant ‘postmodern’ writers like Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs etc. He said that modernism was a project in which the values and assumptions of Western culture were attacked and post modernism was where they were ground into bits. He was profoundly ambivalent about this process.
Postmodernism, for want of a better word, is not restricted to what Rafe Champion has termed the “convoluted verbal labyrinths” produced by the Humanities academy nor the literary and artistic avant-gardes that compliment them. It also refers to the profound changes in culture since the Second World War. Everything new since ’45 is postmodern. Samuel Beckett’s Watt, William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, the films of Peter Greenaway and Alain Resnais are all postmodern but so are Star Wars, Big Brother, Starbucks and McDonald’s.
Undoubtedly these changes as a whole have been good. But they have also been disorientating and destructive of old moral assumptions and the structures that underpin them. There is a sense of disconnection between the present and the past which is becoming a global phenomenon. Possibly this cannot be expressed in concrete terms but the malaise is there. It is felt. And it can be expressed in art.
Here I’m thinking of the films of for example Wong Kar-Wai especially: In the Mood for Love and 2046. The former, set in the 60s, charts the breakdown of ‘old’ Chinese culture in Hong Kong. This is evidenced by the break-up of the protagonists’ marriages, the fragmenting of communal family life and the technological and economic forces underpinning this.
The rice-cooker is central to this. Innocuous and convenient as it is, the rice-cooker aids in the breakdown of communal life as the characters drift away from eating together and switch to getting take-out meals that they eat with rice cooked quickly in the new gadget. This is of the essence of the freedom of liberal society. The characters are independent economically (via their jobs) and socially (they no longer need others to help prepare their meals. Their freedom is as much from one other as for themselves. Something is unravelling here.
By the second movie (2046 the sequel to In the Mood for Love) the male protagonist Chow Mo-wan is incapable of forming deep emotional attachments to women. His relationships are superficial and based on temporary gratifications. For a living he writes science fiction and part of the film is dedicated to his literary conceptions. In the future year 2046 nothing changes. Reality is portrayed as an endless train ride. The characters a neo-hippie man and an android woman are together but apart. Not just perpetual strangers but prototypical of two divergent species. These two films chart a transformation of the human species from a dirty yet sociable world in which there a clear and stifling rules to a clean, technological global matrix of permanently disconnected individuals.
The unravelling of the disciplines normally associated with Humanities: clear writing, sophisticated reading into the opaque miasma that is currently lampooned as ‘postmodernism’ is a symptom of this contemporary negative nihilism. It is also attacked by a small but significant faction of the left including Nick Cohen and Ophelia Benson.
In the face of the rise of a new world brought about by science and technology particularly IT and (soon) biotechnology what can we salvage from our traditions and or assumptions about what it is to be human, to be a person in a community etc. Things don’t work the way they used to. In this new world of increasing choices about where and how to live what exactly is the community?
It’s understandable that people would latch on to ‘neoliberalism’ as the beté noir of their ills. The left do it for the same reason that the far-right pick on Jews. It’s someone or something to blame. It makes things nice and simple in a complicated world. Libertarians such as Rafe Champion and Jason Soon are at pains to point out that liberalism is not the same as conservatism. They also argue that so-called neo-liberalism is simply classical liberalism reasserted onto the global agenda after a periodic flirtation with command economics.
Rafe Champion’s summary of liberalism is (see the link above):
(1) a range of freedoms, including the freedom to exchange legal goods and services with people in other lands, (2) the rule of law, including property rights and (3) a robust moral framework including honesty and compassion.
The economic system known as capitalism evolved organically from a diffuse range of sources. Liberalism was a retrospective ideology that sought to ‘codify’ the raison d’etre of this new system. Other ideologies precipitated by capitalism: socialism, communism, social-democracy, anarchism, fascism etc. were all reactive to the emergence of capitalism and liberal values. One way or the other they each sought either to pursue an improvement on and/or a reaction against the new way of doing things.
“Progressive” ideologies like communism and socialism, which attempted to create a better system, were doomed to fail in my opinion. Capitalism took many centuries to develop. This development was partially cultural, partially economic and partially technological. To imagine a better world and to try to impose a half-cocked design based on the inevitably myopic conjecture of a central committee would be to ignore certain truths about human nature and the scope of what is possible. When Lenin and his cohorts took an essentially feudal empire and tried to create a communist system from above they ended up creating a high-tech version of ancient despotism. Hitler and his fellow travelers can be distinguished from the communists because they intended to create a high-tech despotism. They intentionally reacted against the Enlightenment and all that followed (apart from the gadgets).
The communists did not intend to do so. Certain vicissitudes of liberalism (like free speech) were enshrined in the Soviet constitution but they weren’t worth the price of the ink used. Without the ‘bourgeois’ political framework of free elections, property rights, separate powers and the rule of law any constitutional guarantees of human rights were fatuous. The communists tried to create their future now. They did not realize that the values of the Enlightenment would take time to permeate thru a populace and that it was not possible to create a ‘worker’s paradise’ (assuming it’s possible to create Utopia at all) by legislative proclamation. Note that all communist regimes took hold in culturally backward countries. Totalitarianism in the ‘bourgeois’ states took on the character of wholesale rejection of liberalism in places where this latter set of ideas had a tenuous hold. Fascism was a rejection of the Enlightenment; communism was a corruption of it. The results were near identical.
So what does this have to with postmodernism?
Postmodernism, postmodernity are rallying cries for elements of the ‘New” Left. Recognizing the nightmare that their Marxist dreaming had wrought and faced with the evident post-war wealth of ordinary people in the capitalist world (during the heyday of the social-democratic era) the Left fragmented. The old Marxists looked increasingly ridiculous. Trotskyites who claimed that the Soviet Union would’ve been great if only Leon and not Joe Steel had been in charge looked dumb especially as they replicated Stalinist type errors in miniature. A “New” Left emerged which was dedicated more to the emancipation of oppressed groups within society: women, non-whites, homosexuals. Part of the postmodern project has been to address hidden histories of these groups, expressing their hithero concealed contributions to society.
Initially this was both a good thing and successful. Modern societies see an unprecedented level of racial and sexual equality and tolerance of cultural including sexual diversity. In this the Left of the twentieth century was successful. However as this sort of social emancipation is entirely compatible with liberalism and because activists for same were not exclusively of the Left, the Right now tend to regard their contribution as negligible. This is unfair and untrue. But the Left has it coming in many ways because there’s a large section of it that (academically) seeks to disregard the progress that has been made and at the same time for reasons of self-interest to perpetuate notions of oppression to ridiculous ends.
This has resulted in intellectual ghettoes within universities where common sense is suspended and paragraph long sentences designed to mystify easily intimidated undergraduates are the new rulers. This Left has drifted away from the territory of concrete issues of justice toward the playing of word-games around unsubstantiated claims of cultural oppression and linguistically enforced power relations. Part of the fault of this lies with a fascination with certain French intellectuals called post-structuralists who’ve collectively analyzed the relationship between knowledge, language and power.
Some of this work is useful. Here I’d cite Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu is not really a post-structuralist. After all his writing is comparatively clear and he engages in extensive empirical research. My post-graduate work was about taste and the distinctions between high culture and popular culture. Bourdieu’s work is essential here and while I was made to feel somewhat marginal (Bourdieu wasn’t considered ‘cool’) I feel vindicated now.
Foucault’s writing is largely theoretical, that is to say it makes interesting points that should be tested against empirical evidence. Unfortunately this hasn’t really happened by and large. What has happened is that Foucault has become a new god whose words and ideas are used to justify notions about subjects about which he himself wrote little, like the arts. There is also very little critical reflection on him at least by his supporters. I wonder often, when hearing an address by some Foucauldian art critic whether or no s/he realizes how utterly authoritarian the man essentially was. That said he does describe power relations in an interesting way: a kind of synthesis of Marxian history, Nietzschean genealogy mixed with a large helping of Durkheim’s sociology.
Those guys aside there’s a catalogue of famous intellectuals whose books read like a catalogue of four-syllable words assembled via Gyson and Burrough’s cut-up technique. To be sure an interesting experiment in poetic composition (David Bowie being, I think, its best exponent)
but for expressing clear ideas about culture? Not so good. Still that’s the point: Derrida, Iriguay, Lacan and the spectacularly useless Jean Baudrillard have captured and soiled the minds of a generation of arts graduates who have been systematically taught to ignore common sense and their own critical facilities in favour of composing sentences like the following from Judith Butler that practioner of the supremely incomprehensible:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in 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.
Ninety-four words, one sentence, three commas and one full stop! What the fuck is she on about, ‘ey?
Fortunately there is hope. At the end of University having given up on the incomprehensible postmodernist clique and switched more and more to the canon of dead white males (like Aristotle and Machiavelli) I encountered Sexual Personae the first book of the perpetually controversial Camille Paglia. Here was my first (post-Tertiary) example of a modern cultural critic, someone hip to the power and depth of popular culture, not caught up in the traps of word-game obfuscation or the knee-jerk rejection of the past as the province of dead white males. She was postmodern without being opaque, contemporary without being historically illiterate. Importantly she reinserts nature in the human condition as a major player. Consider the compelling and rather grand opening sentence for Sexual Personae:
In the beginning was Nature from which and against which our ideas of God were formed.
The opening chapter to the book “Sex and Violence or Nature and Art” was issued as a Penguin mini-book. I bought it on a coach ride from Brisbane to Sydney years back and read it several times. It contains the infamous sentence long taken out of context by the considerable orthodox feminist camp in revolt against her that stated that if women ruled the world we’d all still be living in grass huts.
Paglia avoided the tendency to extreme cultural relativism that had come to characterize the modern humanities academy. Under this regime the Taliban were as morally justifiable as liberal democracy and the White Pages (to borrow from Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom) was the literary equivalent of Hamlet. Paglia made several assaults on the modern humanities academy most famously in her essay ” “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” which set Foucault in her sights. I both agree and disagree with her dismissal of Foucault but I wholeheartedly agree with her return to common sense, to the traditions of literary criticism as embodied by her mentor and her observations that Arts intellectuals have strayed so far from the logic of science and the Enlightenment as to make themselves irrelevant. For this she has been unfairly labelled a neoconservative (a charge she rightly labels as ridiculous) although she could be considered a libertarian. I cannot comment on this. Socially she is libertarian, economically…? Whatever else she might be she is what Judith Butler is not, original and provocative possessing an elegant prose style that expresses the ability to think for herself. After being immersed in the tedious ‘avant-garde’ quagmire of stuff praised because it was impossible to understand she vindicated my instinctive and internal denunciations. She made me go: “Yes!!”.
So what is the point of this post?
It is inspired by several things. Rafe Champion’s recent Catallaxy pieces on the intellectual drought amongst the Left and a similarly themed book from Nick Cohen first brought to my attention by Iain Hall, (see listening to right-wingers can be good for you.) Rafe argues that the:
… intellectuals of the left can be depicted as a great forest of trees that have all been sawn though at the base. The ideas are dead but the forest keeps standing up because the branches of the trees are intertwined.
…looks forward to the time when the left produces some thinkers and activists who are so imbued with the imaginative and critical spirit that they will investigate the resources of classical liberalism and weigh them up, without fear or favour, against the ideas of the left.
Right now he’s busy tearing up the new edition of Beyond Right and Left by David McKnight. Whilst I’m not going to comment on the veracity of Rafe’s critique I have to say that McKnight does make some interesting points about the direction that the Left should follow. Of these I have my own criticisms (and will follow up eventually).
But this post is already too long and meandering for that.
At the end there is simply the dead wood of the postmodern project and the related dead end of left-leaning intellectualism to consider. I tend to agree with Nick Cohen that the left is in a confused place at present. Its failures economically and its successes culturally have left it nowhere to go. Still it presses on flogging a dead horse.
Culturally it’s still pursuing the emancipation of oppressed groups by paradoxically apologising for non-Western cultural practises which continue to oppress said groups. (It should of course be understood that this is not indicative of the whole left but rather of the cultural and radical left.)
Economically there is a certain illiteracy which persists; the result of many left-wing intellectuals pursuing arts-type studies at the expense of the ‘harder’ disciplines. Still there is a call for a critique of the ‘neoliberal’ agenda which is often confused with the neoconservative agenda. Leftists would do well to realize that there is as much diversity and fragmentation on the Right as there is on the Left. The Right encompasses such diverse ideological tribes as conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, neolibertarians, paleoconservatives, classical liberals, anarcho-capitalists as well as a fringe where all sorts of religiously and racially motivated anti-Enlightenment lunatics abound. When there is call for analysis and critique of the neoliberal agenda I take it that what is meant is analysis and critique of modern global economic practise. They are not the same thing.
Perhaps the Left should shift its focus from economic demonisation (a Marxist leftover) and perhaps concentrate on point 3 of Rafe Champion’s classic liberal agenda: the robust moral framework. This is what McKnight in his book is getting at essentially. Rightly or wrongly (both?) we live in a world of shifting and uncertain moral fabric. There is a widespread disillusion with institutions and a kind of neo-tribal attitude emerging resulting in a myriad of postmodern and anti-modern subcultures. These are the result of increased economic and personal freedoms and also a reaction against the nihilism implicit in aspects of the brave new world. On the one hand you have Korean breakdancers busking on Swanston St, Sunday afternoons. On the other you have various forms of religious fanaticism that seek to destroy modernity, science and liberal society in the name of the ‘good’. They are both features of postmodernism. Osama bin-Laden is just as ‘postmodern’ as a rave or an internet chatroom. Those seeking to articulate the moral fabric of globalization must ask themselves what membrane will unite the various tribes of the new world against the enemies of modern liberal society.
Whatever direction the Left takes from here it needs to move away from the foggy-brained nonsense that clogs the arteries to its collective mind. I believe we need a critique of ‘globalisation’ one that is based on hard facts and a clear understanding of the economic theories and practices involved. Former Marxists should read Hayek and give him a go, not just scan The Road To Serfdom for incidents of unfeeling economic cruelty. In philosophy and art there needs to be a rediscovery of tradition and an acquisition of hereto unfashionable philosophers like Karl Popper.
Ultimately there needs be an understanding that what is past is past. And what has happened has happened no matter how unsavoury or distasteful it appears. Learn from your mistakes. That is crucial. Individually and collectively progress is impossible if one does not do this. Society needs a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ in that it needs viable alternative sets of political and cultural ideas. I would rather that the sports-team organization of ideas were a thing of the past and that individuals decided these matters independently. This is not yet to be. So at best it’s best that the Left gets its shit together. Like a viable Opposition in the House it’s essential to political freedom.