Saturday, February 2, 2008

Debating postmodernism and postmodernity

Who are you talking (back) to? What's this address? What are the (inter- or) con-texts of this debate, this diagreement, this conversation?

In debates about postmodernism's genealogy, its meaning, its designs on curriculum in High School education, I think the first questions that need to be asked are those above. So, here I'm writing back to an essay published on Adrienswords blog May 22, 2007 'Postmodernism is/not a dirty word'. This writing back is also in anticipation of a promised subsequent essay from Adrien on related issues; in particular a diagnosis of contagions in Humanities discourse, especially the viral influence of the needless complexity of Judith Butler's writing.

Firstly some positions. I come to this debate after having been a dismissive skeptic on the value of postmodernism. Not having understood what this term meant, its genealogy and various definitions, I had swallowed an empiricist - Old Left - view (Boris Frankel's in From the Prophets the deserts come -1992). In this definition postmodernism was a theory and practice of writing in which language is posited as being as close to reality as human-beings got. Language is reality. This assertion is more properly one of structuralism or poststructuralism, although there is considerable crossover between these various 'isms' and schools of writing.

Having taken an Arts degree at UNSW in the 1990s, majoring in Australian and postcolonial literatures, literary criticism and literary theory, I was exposed to poststructuralist ideas much more than postmodern ones. This makes sense, as it was compulsory to take a semester of Linguistics in first year, and the compulsory literary theory component was centred on first learning the methodology of structuralist analaysis, then post-structuralism. In hindsight my interest in Marty Heidegger's Being and Time, was a response to the desire to anchor the groundless methodology of structuralist analysis into the finitude of death. That such an anchoring has problems, mostly arising from its individualism, was something that encountering Marxist philosophies of history has helped to solve. Walter Benjamin's Messianic time, as the 'time' at-in [prepositions start to break down at this point!], the whole of history is redeemed, enables a way into thinking the finitude of Heidegger's being-toward-death as social.

However, its no longer 1994 and after a hiatus I have returned to University - UTas - to complete a doctorate in recent Australian Literature. The second book my supervisor advised me to read was Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism:or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Further on I also read David Harvey's The condition of postmodernity. An essay that's influenced my thinking on these matters is by John Frow 'What was post-modernism' from Time and commodity culture, and the writing of Zygmunt Bauman in his 'liquid modern' (see Liquid modernity) phase has profoundly shaped my thinking about periodisations, and about how the post- in post-modernism, or post-modernity, is merely a marker for a new, or different, type or phase, of modernity. Thus for Bauman, the shift in recent times has been from solid to liquid modernity, from heavy to light capitalism. While Bauman is attempting, successfully I think, to address a wide public through this simple conceptual schema, his writing is conceptually dense, and leavened with illustrations and citations. But the suasive force of his intervention (replacing post- with liquid -) can be seen in the connotations this term has in the language of our times: financial liquidity, global flows, mobility and flexibility. It won't have gone unnoticed that Bauman alludes to Marx's poetic image of capitalist-modernity: all that is solid melts into the air.

This is a Marxist-influenced list of texts on modernism, modernity and what comes after. And this is what I think needs to be spelled out in this debate: that for these writers postmodernity is descriptive and their work attempts to explain and critique this descriptive. Far from the commonplace view, that postmodernism is a viral normative project, I'd like to emphasis the critiques and attacks on postmodernity, on the normative postmodernism(s), that these thinkers and writers made and make.

Still, there is confusion here and this sense of misunderstanding is due to questions in the field of the philosophy of history. These questions are very rarely posed in the mainstream media, because thinking about time and history is so ingrained and normalized. Indeed, while we might read about developing nations, or the Western tradition, the Enlightenment, even modernity, in the MSM, what are we talking of precisely when these phrases appear? Was there one Enlightenment? Or is Enlightenment an attitude, manifesting an operation of thought whereby we can say that Enlightenment thought is like religious thought, it is a specific practice rather than a period that forever changed how and what we think and practice. Or, take the commonplace terms of developing and developed nations. This historicism sets up a teleological shape to human history which is also universal: all nations are, or aspire to be, heading in the same direction: liberal-democratic-capitalist (to take the most obvious example of this form of historicism from the post-1989 period).

Some fragments to be expanded on later:

But the keyterm here is modern and its extensions: modern-ism and modern-ity. In order to beigin to understand the post- versions of this word, we first need to focus on its root.

One assumption in this debate-conversation is that the only value of a discourse on/of postmodernism/ity centres on Secondary Education and the teaching of disciplines in the Liberal Arts/Humanities. This assumption is not unwarrented, but can easily limit the debate to the sorts of terms and understandings that 'Parents' claim as their right.

Similarly, if your understanding of the politics of postmodernism-ity comes out of Camille Paglia then you've no real claim to be setting yourself up as an expert on the arguments of those engaged in the discourse surrounding postmodernism-ity. Again we come to philosophy of history. And from my reading of those who are influenced by this [i.e Paglia and such] culture war polemic style of writing-thinking, the concept of history promoted is one of dualistic spiritual battle (eros vs thanatos, or Apollonian vs Dionysian), or biology vs culture contest.

Another set of problems:

a. The history of cultural studies - here, Peter Osborne in his The Politics of Time [see link in sidebar], makes a vital link in the chain, when he asserts that Cultural Studies is a/one political legacy of Surrealism (p185);

b. The history of English as a discipline;

c. The disciplinary methods-boundaries: the ethnographic claims of cultural studies, the close-reading and critical claims of literary criticism/English.


Adrien said...

I'm not sure how you can be so dismissive of Paglia's criticism of post-structuralist/postmodern polemics without actually dealing with them.

First the notion that language is reality is quite dangerous and wrong. It's dangerous because you can claim that anything written is valid even if, according to empirical observation, it blatantly isn't. According to our knowledge the Universe pre-exists human language by billions of years. Language is not reality. Language is our way of conceptualizing reality.

Second, as Paglia points out, many of the notions that post-structuralists are thought to've developed themselves have actually been elucidated by others beforehand. Michel Foucault's work is pre-figured with more clarity and brevity, for example, by Michael Oakeshott's essay "Rationalism In Politics". Due to the Culture Wars however Oakeshott, a conservative, is not taught or discussed.

I'm not a conservative but I am a pluralist and I believe that ideas should be circulated freely and not precensored because of unacceptable political orientations. The relativism, the cynicism and doubt about 'Truth' engendered by postmodern philosophy is part of an historical cycle. The late Middle Ages bore a similar kind of malaise.

Foucault, Derrida etc owe most of their polemics to Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. Compared to these guys (who were wrong about many things) they are footnotes. It's simply a continuation of the nihilism that's pervaded the culture since what Nietzsche termed the death of God. What's required now is not the endless excursions into semantics that seem to be par-for-the-course amongst the philosophically minded, what is needed now is a new understanding of Truth. One that provides a basis for cohesion.

That's my opinion anyway.

Michael C said...

I'm fairly comfortable with my reading of Paglia. I think she's an opportunistic culture war polemicist. That's my opinion. I haven't delved deeply into her oeuvre because the sections of Sexual Personae that i read gave me a some sense of her project, and I don't agree with it. If I'm missing out on something, then I suppose I'll have to live with that.

You've mis-sread my post if you think I'm arguing that 'language is reality'. My argument is largely about problems with post-structurturalism/ post-modernism. If you've missed that then it may be because I wasn't clear enough.

What aspect of Foucault's work is prefigured by Oakeshott's? All of it? Some of it?

"Foucault Derrida etc" is a lazy shorthand indicating the sort of lack of engagement you accuse me of. What of Derrida's writings is polemical?

This is a 3 year old post that probably needs to read in the context of the debates that are hyperlinked in it. I'd like to continue a serious debate with you, if that would be of interest, but this one is a bit old and stale and I don't think I'd find what was at stake is still the case. The issue for me is not modernity (Peter Osborne's work is what I follow on this score) but how liberalism operates as political, economic and ethical techniques and logics. How it morphs and remains the same.

Alain Badiou has a new conception of Truth, that might interest you. I find it has its flaws, but then I'm a avowed Foucaultian!

Good wishes.