Re: R: postmodernism and liberalism

Re pomo and liberalism

I remember when I was in high school I fervently believed that marxism was
getting a bad rap. Look, I would say, you can't dismiss marxism on the
evidence of the marxist states that have perverted his thought to their own
ends. What the Soviet Union/China/Chechoslovakia practice are not marxism,
but rather some undermining of rights in the name of marxism. In high
school I was wrong a lot. (I'm glad I got used to it then, it's helped me
keep on since.)

Marxism did offer an invaluable way to think about and through capitalism,
but it is by and large an analysis of history. The transformation from
historical analysis to political program is tenuous, and as we have seen
(historically) largely untenable. I would not wish to dismiss either
marxisms' relevance or its usefulness, but to consider it the only (or even
the primary) strategy for addressing the present problems in the (real)
world is a mistake. Enter Foucault, enter Derrida, enter Deleuze. All
three of these thinkers, as vastly divergent in thought as they are, owe
huge debts to Marx. Debts that they have implicitly and explicitly
acknowledged. The fact that they went on to expand on Marx, to call some
of it useful and some not, to offer new critiques of portions of society
that had changed since Marx's day: none of these should be seen as
dismissal. The relevance of these three thinkers for our time, for us as
theorists, is precisely that they think about our time. I can't imagine
anyone thinks that if Marx were alive today, and sitting in the reading
room of the Museum in London, he would write the same things he wrote in
the nineteenth century. It isn't that the problems that he described are
gone, it's that there have been other developments since he described them.

Foucault in particular is most useful when he talks about those changes.
There has been a huge proliferation of surveillance techniques and
technology, normalizing systems and archiving, all of which cast doubt on
Marx's formulations. Foucault is right to think that we need archaelogies
of these things as part of developing strategies of resistance. Not only
on a theoretical level, but on a practical one, too. How will one wage
unpopular political struggle in a world where DNA/voiceprints/all monetary
transactions are archived for later analysis and dissection? Marx did not
address that kind of thing adequately. He did not forsee digital
technology, or biotechnology (cf Haraway), or identity politics (cf
everyone and her sister).

There is (I think) a salient critque somewhere in the idea that
post-structuralist thinkers are trying to do away with subjectivity at the
very moment that so many people(s) are first gaining theirs. But,
ultimately I think that the critique is more one of emotion than one of
substance. (This is not meant to dismiss it as such, emotional critiques
need more of a place in theory.) The debate, as with that between marxism
and post-structuralism, might be helped by clarifying the terms involved.
I see it as primarily a debate about the efficacy of essentialism. One the
one hand, there are those who for good reasons and bad think that the world
is one of essences. If only we were allowed to be (more like) workers (in
the strong marxist sense), more like African-Americans, more like women,
more like queers, then we'd feel good enough to get things done. It's no
mistake that the post-structuralist position has developed at the same time
that these cries are getting louder and more successful. Indeed, the p/s
position *is* a critique of this idea, that there is some originary or
natural moment at which everything will (or did) function with justice.
The constructivist point is not that *real* world oppression does not
matter, but rather that the cry for an (essential) identity may not be the
solution that it appears to be. F+D+D, to once again cite the always
already post-modernists, were (are) all politcally engaged; but there is
more to philosophy after all than (real) world engagement.

I know this is long, but let me add one final note. This debate, which is
a useful one, is never helped by confusing the followers with the original
thinkers. Vague references to derogatory comments issuing from
postmodernists are specious. People who have an inadequate understanding
of the division between doing philosophy and (physically) protesting
injustice should be excluded from the debate. The two things are not
mutually exculsive, but they are different and should be recognized as such.

Thanks for your patience.

Andrew Pollock
Washington, DC

Partial thread listing: