Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Conservative Praxis of Postmodernism.

“That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.” — Jean Baudrillard (1)

In the post-May 68 intellectual climate postmodernism ascended from an emergent philosophy to a mainstay in university humanities faculties. These stars of the French intellectual scene set out to critique and deconstruct the enlightenment tradition. But as Foucault informed us we should not ‘blackmail’ a thinker into being either for or against the enlightenment. Therefore following this line it is not as simply to say that because a postmodernist critiques the enlightenment that the theorist represents a revolt of unreason against rationality in social life. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet and Thomas Hobbes both advocated political absolutism, but the philosophical system backed by Hobbes shifted the justification of government from divinity of the sovereign to practicality and utility for its constituents. Enlightenment philosophers took Hobbes’ naturalistic approach and built onto it while removing other elements, concluding in favour of democratic and republican ideals which Hobbes had hoped to fight. The political and philosophical systems put forward by Enlightenment philosophers though were not monolithic, having contained within their ambiguous definitions many differences of opinion. But one can assured they favoured relatively progressive forms of political activity with their naturalistic methods and notions of progress, truth and justice.

Postmodernists have sought to challenge all notion of universality, hierarchy of values, binary opposition and grand-narratives. Through challenging traditional notions of the subject and society, post-modernists have been associated with left-wing politics. However, their philosophical systems do nothing but create a problematic foundation for the engagement in critique.

The concept of practical criticism or critique implies two parts, negative and positive. Critical negativity finds the object of criticism deficient in some form. The negativity leads to the positive which is the affirmation of a value or attribute found deficient in the object criticised. In Praxis, negativity manifests itself in negation and the positive manifests itself in the product of transformation. Transformative politics necessarily implies criticism of current political establishment, both in its theoretical foundation and its institutions and theoretical foundations and hypothetical institutions to replace the negated. Post-modern criticism is Deconstructionist in that it seeks to critique forms of hegemony, but unlike practical criticism does not seek an alternative hegemony. Derrida defined this though not as a nihilism but rather openness to an unknown ‘other’. The absence of a signified transformative goal undermines the ability to produce practical critique in the pursuit of progressive change, a quintessential quality of left-wing politics.

To take a literary example, Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” features a gang of youths who systematically deconstruct a house, at first superficially, until they remove the very foundations which hold the structure together; the day after, the house falls over. The gang’s act of deconstruction renders the house a pile of rubble; they have destroyed and created anew with new possibilities of creation. Our lead on the gang’s story breaks off at that point. Deconstructionist criticism echoes this story of an East London gang in that they are anti-‘what is’ but have no ‘to be,’ and thus their deconstruction doesn’t necessarily follow to progressive developments.

In all probability, deconstruction could lead to reactionary, even fascist developments in that, for example, human rights are a Universalist ideal system, and therefore a hegemonic construct. If we approach human rights from a radical subjectivist position we undermine the hegemonic concept and thus render it useless.

The nomothetic discourses which construct the notions of human rights and justice stand between postmodernists and the further degradation of human dignity. For as we know human rights are not universally respected by all, particularly Western governments who claim positive universal values as they push forward their own national and corporate interests under the guise of a false cosmopolitanism. To infer from this situation that ‘Western Civilization’ and philosophy are oppressive at a fundamental level, i.e. it’s championing of rationality and hierarchy of values is a misapprehension of modernity’s challenges.

The crisis in Western Civilization is not caused by the application of rationality but the misuse of rationality. It’s the creation of ‘Rational-choice theories’ whose logic is based on a series of assumptions eventually divorcing itself from actuality when it fails to adapt. A prime example of this process is the discipline of economics, an underlying principle of which is the presumption of scarcity and thus the necessity of a market. Scarcity in resources has marred human society since time immemorial, till recent times when technological developments have increased the production levels of essential commodities to the point that scarcity is now artificially created. Sustaining an illogical price system serves not the ‘unlimited wants’ of the people but rather the sectional interest of power elites and corporations. This construct of principles breaks with the idea of a rational-choice theory which should be aimed at satisfying human needs on a Utilitarian basis.

This failure of the Western establishment and global economy should not be combated by undercutting our ability to make rational-choices and values in the pursuit of progressive enlightenment ideals. Postmodernist have pushed in the face of such challenges theories of cultural relativism, that values are cultural constructions and therefore to say that one value superior to another is foolhardy and even racist when involving inter-cultural discourse. Therefore we cannot declare the universality of the right to life because that creates a hierarchy of values; one which is in contradiction to other cultures i.e. death penalties in the USA or public beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

This denial of ones ability to choose one value over another serve only to sustain the value currently entrenched. Therefore by virtue of logical necessity postmodernism’s ultra-radical break with ‘convention’ becomes rather conservative. Left-wing politics and affirmation of value are firmly based on the enlightenment/modernist worldview, in the words of Marshall Berman:

“I have been arguing that those of us who are most critical of modern life need modernism most, to show us where we are and where we can begin to change our circumstances and ourselves. In search of a place to begin, I have gone back to one of the first and greatest of modernists, Karl Marx. I have gone to him not so much for his answers as for his questions. The great gift he can give us today, it seems to me, is not a way out of the contradictions of modern life but a surer and deeper way into these contradictions. He knew that the way beyond the contradictions would have to lead through modernity, not out of it.”(2)

We cannot go to ‘post-modernity’, we can only engage in the modernist project of shaping our world, of ‘taking our epoch on our shoulders paying for it today and forever’.

Written by Mathew Toll.


1) "Continental Drift: Questions for Jean Baudrillard," Deborah Salomon, New York Times Magazine, November 2005.
2) All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman (Verso, London 1997) pp. 128–9.

(Written late 2005 or early 2006)

1 comment:

Mathew Toll said...

When I first wrote this piece (since modified slightly) I posted it on a few forums, a lot of discussion ensured:


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