In one of my probably last random internet excursions for the next months I came across the „World Socialist Web Site“ published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (trying to find out who that actually is on Wikipedia leads into the abyss of socialist splinter groups). While there is a lot of predictable nonsense on the website (you really don’t want to read what they write about the Western intervention in Lybia), I’ve come to find some modern Marxist thinking quite inspiring. This is especially true of a critique of Post-Modernism, a line of thought I also vaguely identify with (finding out more about what is really behind the term is somewhere near the top on my reading list for 2012). Let’s start with a definition of post-modern that maybe is (and certainly should be) commonplace, by Jean-François Lyotard, considered the founding father the philosophical Post-Modern:
I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.
Simplifying to the extreme I define post-modern as incredulity toward the metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences; but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of ligitimation corresponds most notably the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university function which in part relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great voyages, its great goal (Jean-Francois Lyotard. The Post-modern Condition, 1977).
He obviously has both the Marxist Left’s („emancipation of the […] working subject“) and the economical right’s („creation of wealth“) holy cows under attack there.
I also like the author’s summary:
Lyotard regards as metanarrative all philosophical and social conceptions that proceed from the possibility of arriving at a general understanding of the world and society—a scientific understanding which could then provide the basis for consciously changing the world. Lyotard firmly rejects any such conception.
I would very much underline the word general understanding here, though — otherwise the impulse becomes nihilistic, a fate which apparently some, but certainly not all, post-modern thinkers have suffered.
The author first turns to the political past of the post-modernists:
A cursory investigation of the roots of many leading figures in the post-modernist movement reveals at some point either membership in, or, at very least, close contact with Stalinist or left-wing radical organisations. […] The further degeneration and move to the right on the part of Stalinism in the post-war period, the party’s crimes in relation to Algeria and Vietnam, the betrayal of the radicalised student and workers‘ movement in 1968, and finally the collapse of the Soviet block were crucial in spreading disillusionment and disorientation and catapulting a part of the intelligentsia to the right.
A good summary of what that means is quoted, interestingly, from Czech President Vaclav Havel:
The fall of Communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought—based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalised—has come to a final crisis (quoted in Intellectual Impostures, p. 181).
The more or less parallel experience of the fascist / nazi cruelties plausibly contributed to a disillusionment with the concept of history as a progressive process.
Of course, this should not and did not make most thinkers of post-modernism unpolitical Foucault is quoted with an explanation of the possibilities for political action and „resistance“ after abandoning the big meta-narratives:
“There is no locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”
Together with Deleuze, Guattari and Lyotard, Foucault emphasised the necessity of developing micro-politics and micro-struggles. Such a strategy has an obvious appeal to advocates of single-issue type politics: separatists and nationalists of every shade, environmentalists, feminists, and so on.
So far, all this makes a lot of sense to me. But I am equally fascinated with the promise of an alternative, to be found in the idea of „dialectics“, a word right now even harder for me to fill with meaning than the term „post-modern“. I do like the phrase of a „relative relativism“ a lot, though:
“We communists are also relativists, but our relativism in not absolute, but relative.… Comrade Chuzhak argues not according to Heraclitus, who asserted that everything flows, everything changes, but according to Zeno, who proposed that it is impossible to step into the same stream twice, for ‘everything flows, everything changes.‘ Heraclitus was a dialectician, while Zeno was a metaphysical relativist. In the camp of bourgeois scholars there are now very many such relativists” (Aleksander Voronsky, Art as the Cognition of Life. p. 107).
Unfortunately, the article fails to provide any insight into what exactly a „relative relativism“ could look like, but to pursue that concept will still be on my intellectual agenda for the year to come. Exciting!
PS: The article I’m citing from is actually a book review, but obviously goes way beyond that with a line of argument of it’s own. The parts describing the books content are again quite predictable and boring, and I suppose so is the book (Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont).