Defending Post-Modern Theory (as always)

Had a little Twitter tiff with @ekstasis and @nils_gilman yesterday which I think suffered largely from poor definition of terms, that I thought I’d write a short note to try and clarify (the wonders that more that 140 can do).

Began with this tweet by @nils_gilman:

Postmodernism was counter-revolutionary in practice if not in principle http://crookedtimber.org/2012/10/17/age-of-fracture-or-age-of-counterrevolution/ … just look at the GOP’s “skepticism about facts”

I often find myself defending post-modernism, not because I particularly love post-modern theory (we’re called post-structuralists, please) but because it is so frequently maligned from what seems to me to be misunderstanding. And now that most post-modern theorists have gone on to other things, the haters feel free to continue whipping their straw men, and we’re slowly cementing a revisionist history of what post-modernism really was (ironic, no?).

To me, post-modernism stands for two different things that are important to keep straight.

1- The historical epoch that came after modernism.

2- A particular approach to theorizing the nature of thought in that historical epoch.

The difference is huge–the first is shorthand for a period of time that we are attempting to discuss as relevant. The second is a particular theory with pros and cons that can be debated. As I was trying to make clear yesterday, treating a historical epoch as “reactionary” is ridiculous. To begin with, time passes of its own accord, and our identification of historical epochs as succeeding one another is not due to one’s particular “overthrow” of another, but the inevitable turning of the pages of our calendar. You might as well accuse 2011 of being stupid, or Tuesdays of laziness. What a pejorative statement against a historical time period could mean, I have no idea. Maybe this stems from our tendency to treat cultural nebulae as if they were solid masses, as in “hiphop died in ’93″, or “kids these days are doing it wrong”, but all of that seems to be on the relative-losing side of the Culture Wars, again, ironically.

The point of my calling this out is that I don’t want to fall in the trap of criticizing any person who published a book in the post-modern era, and think that we are levying a charge against post-modern theory. Anyone displaying a set of characteristics in their work that seems particular to the post-modern era, we might call an example of post-modern thought, but we should keep this separate from people actually attempting post-modern theory. @nils_gilman said in one of his later tweets, “You need to judge theory by both its high and vulgar forms. The latter often reveals something telling about the former.” And while I would say there is some truth to that, you really cannot judge a person by others who are lumped with them for specious reasons of misidentification. This is the reason that people can be futurists today, and we know they have nothing to do with the pro-war, proto-fascist writers of the Futurist Manifesto. This is how you can have something like the “New Aesthetic” and know that it doesn’t merely apply to anything at all that we might call new. Sure, there is a relation between post-modern thought and post-modern theory. Post-modern theory was largely done in the post-modern era, and as such would qualify as post-modern thought. But this does not and cannot mean that all post-modern thought is post-modern theory.

The simple reason for this, is that post-modern theory extends both before and after the post-modern era. Any undergrad philosophy student could tell you that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud were the “Masters of Suspicion”, from the work of whom stems the entire intellectual tradition of post-modern theory. This was work that was published starting in the first half of the 19th Century. And today, we see post-modern ideas continuing under new guises, such as queer theory, network theory, and other particular attempts to name a defined “theory”.

So what is particularly post-modern about post-modern theory? In my estimation, it identifies and promotes a set of suspicions about a foundational set of cultural “known truths”, and is able to show convincingly that these truths have very real effect in human life, but their reality stems from a set of factors that could be shifted. It is not a debunking of the “real”, it is a debunking of the “natural”, as a nature of things that is implicit and immutable.

1867, Marx publishes Capital, Volume One and argues convincingly that value is not our attempt to judge the inherent worth of an object, but that value is something that we instill in an object via our labor.

1887, Nietzsche publishes The Geneaology of Morals, and shows that morality does not come from what is permanently “right and true” in the world as in Aristotelian tradition, but from our own individual hang ups about value and punishment.

1900, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams and theorizes a part of the mind that is not directly accessible to human consciousness, and yet can affect our consciousness. The detail of this split and how it functions obsoletes the Cartesian cogito.

In my opinion, perhaps the greatest post-modern document of all time is the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race”, published in 1998. In this very short publication, the largest group of anthropologists, for once and for all, destroy the scientific underpinnings of hundreds of years of cultural, imperial, economic, and sexual oppression. This is not a relativistic statement. It is a statement of fact, that what is described as “race” simply does not exist from a genetic standpoint.

None of these documents call themselves post-modern, or even were published in the post-modern epoch. But these are singular examples for the basis of questioning “Grand Narratives” that Lyotard pronounced dead in his book The Post-Modern Condition. All of these critiqued narratives were once taken as fact, and by the 1950s, when the theories of these modernist Masters of Suspicion are widely known and accepted, it seems that everything true is potentially suspect. Which of course, it is. There is nothing fundamental to Truth that makes it self-evident. This has always been the case. Lies that masquerade as truth have been told since the beginning of human history. The fact that a majority of people believe a lie does not make it factual. And yet, that is a fact. Truth is dead, but facts are still numerous. Post-modern theory simply makes it its business to identify this trend, and to push it, to see how far it goes. As for this general observation by which we might identify a general theory of what post-modern theory is (I always use Lyotard for the definition myself), I don’t know that this is debateable. That there is a post-modern theory, relating to a post-modern trend in thought, does not seem to be the question here. The question posed, as I understand it, is whether this trend of identifying weaknesses in grand narratives is a good thing or not.

When people start digging up one’s lawn, accusing it of not necessarily being Truth, one starts to get edgy. And hence the reactionary kickback against those working with post-modern theory. When I say “lawn”, what I really mean is “class”, of course (being the good Marxist I am). If you start making the case that urban riots might have a point, that women are not necessarily subservient to men, that governments rule by tyranny rather than democracy, that morality is a better description of sexual power regimes than of goodness, that theology is used to extract more labor from workers, that science can be used to hurt people as much as help them, and that human history can be read as one long trail of tears in which these facts are covered over and rejected–well, those are pretty dangerous things to say. They are not dangerous because they threaten the Great Books. They are dangerous because they threaten the Great Corporations, the Great Nation-States, the Great Religions, and the Great Men of History.

The Great Men of History, to counter this threat of facts against their own narratives which keep them firmly and logically in control, do not paint these theories as disputes against their version of the facts. They portray them as against “fact” in general. These college professors! They claim that they are politically-minded but they are full of their own ideas, stoned into nihilism with their Hasan-i Sabbah “nothing is true, everything is permitted” Eastern mystic hashish garbage! Reject this islamo-fascism and return to your Christian heritage, the defender of truth for thousands of years! They would love the assertion that intellectuals are replacing “‘strong readings of society’ with ‘weaker ones’”. Since when was “strong” preferable to “correct”? As if this was the 1950s, and jocks are beating nerds outside of their fraternity house before graduating to go shape the world at Dow Chemical.

And we’ve internalized this reactionary narrative, to the point where we are blaming those who wrote about this epochal shift in thought for causing it! As if Lyotard, by writing his book in 1979, somehow was responsible for Nietzsche’s popularity. We are supposed to reject these upstarts, that inspired students to protest in the streets (many of the professors were in fact against it, ironic again) and stoke the fires of nostalgia for the time period of “true beliefs”, for the Greatest Generation. If only we had fascism rampant in the world, so we could be so morally steeled in our fight against it! If only we had a specter of atheistic communism to oppose, to be the rationale behind our military-industrial complex! Then we would not live in this world of doubt, fear, and calamity that these professors caused with their books. This is the narrative of the GOP, not relativism and historical hermeneutics. Professors and theorists are at once irrelevant, and poisoning our water supply. Islamists are both fascist and communist. Black presidents are at once socialist and elitist. The GOP does not seek to replace truth with fact. It seeks to replace fact with anything that will help it win its political struggles. It seeks to build a false history of the past as Whiggish rationale for American exceptionalism. It seeks to supplant real politics with nationalism and oligarchy, and send resisters to poverty, if not to prision (as does the DNC, in case my opinions on American politics weren’t clear).

The 1950s may have been great if you were a white, male, American with an industrial job. But we forget that the unfolding of history since that time has been filled with multitudes of struggles of the people who were not those chosen few, as they attempt to live something like a decent life, and establish some facts of their own. And the fact that some things have gotten better for some of those people shows that this has not been the wrong course to take.

It could be better, but that is history. If there is a post-modern universal truth of history, it is that there is no universal truth of history, and history will never finally turn sunny side up, like a quarter flipped into the air. But to heavily paraphrase general semantics theorist Alfred Korzybski, history is never depressing, people only become depressed because of history. Thankfully, regardless of what the theory is called, and however people feel about it, no one is done fighting yet.

While history continues to sort itself out, blaming a particular trend of theory (which on the whole, is really a pretty small fraction of culture) for the trials of the world seems silly. Now, if the article wanted to quibble with a particular theorist, I’m all ears for that. But given that the original article summed up the entirety of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as ‘destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other’ I’m thinking that nuance was not particularly the goal here, so much as polemic. But hey, absorbing that ire is all in a day’s work for a theory that attempts to rethink some of the most entrenched misunderstandings of Western society.

Posted: October 18th, 2012
Categories: Emissions
Tags: , ,
Comments: 3 Comments.