Monday, March 11, 2013

Michael Rectenwald: Postmodernism, the Academic Left, and the Crisis of Capitalism

Those who are obsessed by language finally come to the conviction that there is nothing but interpretation: Stanley Rosen in Hermeneutics as Politics(1987)

It seems almost unnecessary to note that this theoretical perspective is matched by the self-abnegation of its praxis. To be sure, postmodern theory itself arose due to the bad faith that parts of the left had kept with Stalinism. The failure of the Stalinist state prompted Adorno and Horkheimer, under the influence of Weber, to suggest that the fundamental unity between the two major contenders for systemic hegemony in the West—capitalism and socialism—was bureaucratic rationality. The iron cage was not class society per se, but rather instrumental reason—i.e., rational organization. But such a critique could only have posed a problem for a politics that saw revolution primarily in terms of re-organization, i.e., Stalinism and its apologetics (and in some sects of Trotskyism). In fact, this is the root of the problem, stemming back to the Frankfurt School, through Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and into post-structuralism and even deconstruction: an adherence to the belief that Stalinism represented Marxist socialism, and thus that its failure was a failure of socialism-communism. One might argue that a successful left communism, that is, a communism that views revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class from commodity production and class society, could have averted half a century of “fashionable nonsense.” But this too would be to discount historical processes as mere constructs of discourse.

Over the past fifty years, postmodern theory—an umbrella term generally used to refer to such diverse theoretical movements and paradigms as post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and others—has generally dominated most fields in the humanities and some in the social sciences, while even making forays into the natural sciences. But the economic meltdown in 2008 and the subsequent chronic crisis in capitalism have dealt a fatal theoretical blow to the varied and nearly ineffable assemblage of perspectives that are often grouped under the rubric of “postmodernism.” History had not ended, nor could postmodern theory grapple with the conditions of its continuance. The financial collapse of 2008 demonstrated that language itself, or the “symbolic register” in postmodern parlance, could not by itself contain the entirety of social reality. In fact, the manipulation of the “symbolic realm” in the stock market, in particular in the real estate sector, had resulted in real material consequences that had spun out of the reaches and control of language itself. Moreover, mere symbolic manipulation could not, by itself, remediate such consequences. Further, for those who regarded class analysis as outmoded, or class itself as a mere construct of language, the class character of the social order, underlying layers of mediation and theoretical obscurantism, became starkly visible. Meanwhile, with the election of Barack Obama and his continuation and extension of Bush’s policies, the hollowness of identity politics (the political fallout shelter of postmodernism’s retreat from historical materialism) was on full display.

A review of postmodern theory and its claims is in order to show exactly how and why postmodernism fails in light of the present moment. The various theoretical tendencies, while diverse in many ways, have nonetheless been properly grouped under a single heading. There is much merit in the postmodern label where the various theories are concerned, especially in connection with their demotion of reason, their radical epistemological relativism, their dismissal of or representing as inaccessible social and historical reality, and their undeniable political pessimism...

One must begin by mentioning the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, where the strange bedfellows of high modernism and Marxist theory combined—at least where Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer were concerned—to produce a critique of Enlightenment rationality itself. This critique arguably inaugurated the “postmodern turn” and its attack on the Enlightenment project en toto—on reason, on the universal project of human emancipation, and on such “master narratives” (particularly Marxism) that sought to explain and address the social totality.

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), reason, albeit split into “instrumental reason” and “critical reason,” formerly a necessary tool for any critical methodology, became an instrument of oppression itself. One might say that the postmodern thereafter became married to one or another form of what Max Weber had referred to as the “iron cage of rationality.” The postmodern theorists variously constructed this cage from different materials. For Michel Foucault, it was a cage of knowledge/power; for Francois Lyotard, it was a cage of master narratives; for Jacques Derrida, it was a cage of language. In each case, a faculty, tool or method that had previously been regarded as essential for understanding the social totality and undertaking the struggle for human emancipation was now regarded as means of self-hostage-taking, or as evidence for always already having been taken hostage by the very means once considered essential for theory and practice: reason, knowledge, theory, language, etc.

We can begin with Foucault, whose project must be seen in light of an effort to explain social reality, including historical change, in terms that he hoped would both escape and exceed Marxism... The problems with Foucault’s formulations are quite clear. How, for example, could it explain how knowledge escaped the control of power elites, as for example, in the case of structural breakdowns like the 2008 crisis, wherein neither the state’s own ministers or the economic “experts” either anticipated it or precluded its appearance? If Foucault is right, how could power ever be threatened and overcome, as in numerous instances in the modern world? Further, if power is so decentralized, why does it rely on state power in the cases of war and imperialism? Further, what kind of politics could ever be possible under such an analysis?

In the end, Foucault’s recommendations boiled down to local, boutique politics for petty bourgeois self-fashioning. In The Care of the Self, his final book in the trilogy The History of Sexuality, a subject’s political agency extends only as far as the ability to locate itself within its preferred “discursive fields,” likewise, given the power of discourse, to fashion itself as a particular kind of subject. This faith in and strict adherence to “local” politics can be seen in any number of the academic left’s political engagements.

With the “linguistic turn” of deconstruction, the radical disjuncture from social reality becomes even more pronounced. With deconstruction, for example, such ideas as “truth” and “history” do not exist outside of language, if at all. As Jacques Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology (1967), “there is nothing outside of text.” Derrida’s later defenses of this often-lampooned remark did little to extricate him from its significance. For much of the 1990s, as the “linguistic turn” metastasized throughout the humanities, in my own field of British nineteenth-century studies, it became problematic to speak of the nineteenth-century working class as a real social formation in history...Read more:

Source - Loren Goldner:

Editorial: In This Issue
Loren Goldner: Fictitious Capital and Contracted Social Reproduction Today;
China and Permanent Revolution
John Garvey: The New Worker Organizing
Matthew Quest: CLR James and Maoism
John Garvey: Trotsky Reconsidered: Claude Lefort’s Perspective

Book Reviews:
Loren Goldner.  Review/Essay:  Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and the Question of Unions in Contemporary Capitalism
Freddy Fitzsimmons. Review/Essay: The Condition of the Working Classes in England
Maury Moriarity  on  Michael Schmidt/Lucien van der Walt Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. AK Press 2009. Vol. 1.

Readings/debates on Sokal's Hoax:

Papers by Alan Sokal on the "Social Text Affair"

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
The original "parody" article, published in Social Text # 46/47, pp. 217-252 (1996). An annotated version of this article - explaining some of the jokes and providing much additional bibliography - appears as Chapter 1 of my book Beyond the Hoax.

"A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies"
The article in which I reveal the parody, published in Lingua Franca, May/June 1996

"A Plea for Reason, Evidence and Logic"
Transcript of a talk presented at a forum at New York University on October 30, 1996. It was reprinted in New Politics 6(2), pp. 126-129 (Winter 1997). A slightly expanded version of this talk was presented at the Socialist Scholars Conference (New York, March 30, 1997) and was published under the title"Truth, Reason, Objectivity and the Left" in the Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay), April 18, 1998, pp. 913-914; in further revised form in Mistaken Identities: The Second Wave of Controversy over "Political Correctness", edited by Cyril Levitt et al. (Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1999), pp. 285-294; and, in yet further revised form, as Chapter 3 of my book Beyond the Hoax.

the uses of obscurity
“the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”... The rest of the article was in the same vein. And yet, it was accepted and published. Of course, one ought not conclude too much from that fact alone. All it proves directly is that the editors of one trendy journal felt comfortable publishing an article that they obviously didn’t understand. But what’s more striking — and was insufficiently stressed in the debate that followed — is that they published an article they could not expect their readers, nearly all of whom are non-scientists, to understand. This is an example of the deliberate use of obscurity. The related discovery was made during the writing of the article..'

Sokal's Hoax - by Steven Weinberg 
The New York Review of Books, Volume XLIII,
No. 13, pp 11-15, August 8, 1996
Sokal was not the first to visit these issues,26 but he has done a great service in raising them so dramatically. They are not entirely academic issues, in any sense of the word "academic." If we think that the discoveries of science are flexible enough to respond to the social context of their discovery, then we may be tempted to press scientists to see nature in a way that is more proletarian or feminine or American or religious or whatever else it is we want. This is a dangerous path, and more is at stake in the controversy over it than just the health of science. As I mentioned earlier, our civilization has been powerfully affected by the discovery that nature is strictly governed by impersonal laws. As an example I like to quote the remark of Hugh Trevor-Roper, that one of the early effects of this discovery was to reduce the enthusiasm for burning witches. We will need to confirm and strengthen the vision of a rationally understandable world to guard us from the irrationalities that still beset humanity..