Critics of postmodernism come mainly from the Marxist camp. They feel that postmodernism is a diversionary tactic, the last ditch of a late capitalism in the process of dying. They dislike fervently the way that postmodern aesthetics rejects socialist realism - and, for that matter, epistemological realism. They often point out how semiotics and the postmodern idea that everything is image and nothing is substance are used cynically by advertising agencies - which, unable to sell us real goods of real production, can now only sell us images of satisfaction and packaged happiness. Marxists also dislike postmodernism's relativist treatment of science, since as they see 'criticism' (the critical method) and science as being identical. And they are not all too pleased by postmodernism's rejection of the proletariat and industrialism as liberators, nor its insistence (dating from the Situationists) that liberation of leisure may be more important than liberation of work... the way postmodernism intertwines with Nietzschean thought, deep ecology, mysticism, and libertarian individualism makes many Marxists view it as right-wing, reactionary, perhaps even fascist!
Non-Marxist critics of postmodernism abound, too. The right wing foams at the mouth at the way it dovetails with multiculturalism, feminism, 'direct democracy,' the "communitarian" movement, and some concerns they see as left-wing. The right-wingers feel that postmodernism is the last-ditch effort of a dying left wing... that left-wing academics, disappointed with Papa Joe Stalin and Pol Pot, have found a new weapon with which to smash Western civilization and rationalism. Other critics of postmodernism feel it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. From the modern world, it wants to take McLuhan's electronic technology and the 'global village' it allows while ditching other parts of modernity; without acknowledging that, sans modernity, such communication would not be possible. From the premodern world, it wants to recover the 'religious sensibility' and 'traditional values' of the past while jettisoning the intolerance and fundamentalism of religion or the "crushing weight" of tradition upon free thought. The postmodernists, their critics claim, do not see that both tradition and religion can be both liberating and stultifying, but you cannot "pick and choose" from both and claim to be doing anything but generating fictions.
Sociologists see postmodernism at work everywhere. Take scientology or radionics, for example - which combine sophisticated technology and scientific-sounding concepts with some very, very old, perhaps antiquated ideas. If postmodernism is anything, I think, it is perhaps a rejection of linear narrative, and our central linear narrative is History. Associated with that constellation are ideas like Progress, whether one views it as the Hegelian spirit of consciousness or the inevitable progression of the factors and relations of economic production. Scientists hate postmodernism because it suggests there is no such thing as "superstition." In the discourse-world of Foucaultian geneaology, there can be no ideas which are consigned to the "dustbin" of history. They can lose meaning as new discourses are adopted, perhaps even be abandoned as parts of discourses, but that does not mean they are "gone," for humanity never to reconsider. In the postmodern world, all things are subject to reconsideration . And that is how one can look at postmodernism: a reconsideration of the central constellation of ideas in the arts, economics, politics, philosophy, and sociology.
Our posthistorical age is marked by several features, we are told. Its various Zeitgeists go by various academic-sounding names: poststructuralism, postindustrialism, postliberalism, postrationalism, and postpatriarchy. In each of these cases, the "post" is there for the same reason. The previous state of affairs has neither been overthrown nor dissolved. Rather, it has been co-opted, supplanted, reformulated, enantiodromized (made into its opposite), or transcended. Postmodernism is a parasite within the body of modernity, digesting it with its enzymes; it is not a conqueror or a destroyer. No discontinuity is noticeable: which is why some people still feel this is a 'modern' age, unable to see the thousand simultaneous, invisible paradigm shifts which annulled modernity, fraying it at its edges, rather than attacking its core. Some postmodernists deny that some of the core values of modernity - such as humanism - are being attacked by their movement. Nor do they feel they are nostalgiacs, reactionaries, or part of the continual "retro" fads of society. What is going on, they say, is a reconsideration, a return to reflection, a reappraisal. Can that be so bad?
Postmodern art takes the daring experimentation of modernism, but passes over its hesitant boundaries. It questions the boundaries between the process of creation and the completed act, between the creator/presenter/provider and the audience/appreciator/receiver, and between the private museum or gallery and the place of 'public exhibition.'. Postmodern art is about appropriation, about the Dadaists taking their urinals and putting them on display, about Warhol taking a Campbell soup can or Marilyn Monroe's lips, about Man Ray borrowing eyelashes and fingers from other photographs, about rap artists 'sampling' 1940s show tunes and turning them into bass rhythms, or Klein taking anything and making it his art by painting it with International Klein Blue. It is about John Cage sitting down at his piano for roughly five minutes, without touching a key, and receiving applause. Not because he has played a single sound, but because he is John Cage. For the postmodernists, intention is everything, and reception is everything, but content is nothing. For most modern artists, this makes postmodern art one big fraud.
If postmodernity means the abandonment of structure and content in the plastic arts, many anti-deconstructionists feel it is the abandonment of meaning and theme altogether in literature. Utilizing the ideas of Piercean semiotics, Sassurian linguistics, and Heidegger's philosophy, Derrida delivered the crushing blow to literary structuralism at Johns Hopkins in 1968. Henceforth, in the wake of poststructuralism, many literary critics have turned to other theories, such as Fish's reader-response criticism, Searle's speech-act theory, or Derrida's own offering, deconstruction. The key concept in postmodern literary criticism seems to be that any text contains additional meanings beyond what the author could have 'structured' into it, and that literary criticism is a process of creating meaning, not discovering it. As postmodernism is about breaking down boundaries, many critics feel that Derridean criticism will destroy the 'literary canon' and put Tom Clancy and the great works of Western civilization on the same level, and destroy the critical differentiation between 'high' art (which endures) and 'low' art (which does not.)
In other art areas - music, architecture (where it all started), sculpture, etc. - aestheticism is being challenged by postmodern critics. "Great" art's greatness, they say, does not adhere entirely within the work of art autonomously: it has something to do with the relation that exists between artist and art appreciator, a relation that exists within the field that we call "culture." For this reason, much of the new postmodern academic criticism is going on in 'cultural studies' departments, which do not agree with the modernist dictum that art is a mirror that dimly reflects society. The cultural studies profs feel that art - broadly defined - is strongly patterned by culture, and can and must shape it in turn. Poststructuralism, some modernist critics feel, has resulted in a proliferation of subjectivist positions, and hence an abdandonment of objective standards and universal criteria in artistic appreciation. This, they also argue, allows postmodern art creators to "get away with anything" - including canning shit and putting it in on display. But some postmodernist critics feel modern art was a betrayal because it did not admit its own dependence on context and situation.
As they see it, these economic historians feel that the wave of factory closings in the 1970s is part of the collapse of capitalism. As capitalists are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in a global market, they are more and more attempting to find their wealth through speculation (the 'junk bonds' and 'merger mania' of the 80s) rather than production. As more and more 'real' goods are made in Third World sweatshops, the capitalists are deindustrializing in the Western countries so as to escape union protection of workers, government regulation, and progressive taxation. "Post-industrialism" really means the internationalization of the capitalist class, who are de-industrializing so as to crush the 'advanced' (First World) proletariat and moving their factories so as to exploit the Third World peasantry. These economic changes - less and less real goods produced, more and more promises made through increasingly sophisticated advertising - and the dying gasps of capitalism are the 'real' roots of postmodernism and its attendant ideas, suggest the Marxist econohistorians.
Unfortunately, there is more to postindustrialism than just that. Key ideas in the postindustrial constellation are 'workplace democracy,' 'etherialization,' 'Green economics,' and 'reconceptualizing vocation.' In the postmodern/postindustrialism's furthest vision, economics itself- the existence of scarcity and the need for calculi of allocation - may cease to exist. 'Workplace democracy' doesn't mean that the State controls the factories - rather, that workers' councils meet to coordinate with management production, labor conditions, and wages, and that these councils have the same decision-making power as management. 'Etherialization' is an extrapolation from the history of miniaturization, but the key idea is that with technology, more and more will be accomplished with less and less, so that the material side of production will continue to diminish. 'Green economics' is a burgeoning field that seeks to rethink concepts of prosperity, wealth, risks & benefits, property, and prices in ecological terms. 'Reconceptualizing vocation' is an idea from Marilyn Ferguson - that vocation be made less of a label and a trap and more of a growth experience, by increasing the flexibility, diversity, and autonomy of work.
There have been many schemes associated with the 'third force' movement to have an economy of relative equality that does not restrict freedom, opportunity, or diversity. In the early 20th century, there were the schemes of Social Credit, and Henry George's plan to eliminate building taxes and tax only land, which Karl Marx called "the last stand of the capitalists," but the landlords and rent collectors hated George more than Marx. And there was the Owenite 'communitarian' movement, which focused on creating voluntary collective ventures. The most recent effort has been Schumacher and Hazel Henderson's New Economics, based on the principle of 'small is beautiful.' Schumacher's economics - "as if people mattered" - is based on the idea that the scale of production may be more important than who owns it. As Schumacher saw it, the diminishing quality of production and labor autonomy was in direct relation to the scale of production. Fordism and mass-assembly-line production was the problem, but Schumacher's critics saw his solution as romantic or even reactionary - returning to small-scale ventures like the old craft guilds where workers once had control over their own labor. Such things might work in the Third World, they said, but in the West, that meant an abandonment of industrial 'progress'.
The advocates of 'participatory democracy' see it as a step beyond pale representative democracy - as a return to the old town meetings of New England where everybody could have their say. Skeptics scoff at this, declaring it impossible to do in a country of 200 million people, but the postmodernists say it could be done through an 'electronic plebiscite.' Many of the mainstream politicians are turning on to this idea, especially former computer man Ross Perot, who wanted to stage 'electronic town hall meetings' on issues all over the country through sattelite hookups. The postmodernists say that what we have now is 'spectacle democracy' - we elect people and then watch passively for four years the dreadful result. 'Participatory democracy' means grassroots citizen activism - that every citizen take an active involvement in the direction of governance - and the making of decisions by consensus (mutual agreement) rather than voting, where the people in the minority feel bullied and overpowered by the majority. Consensus means compromise, but it creates workable solutions.
"Decentralization" just means that power should be dispersed as far and wide as possible - that the less power is held in the center, the more people on the periphery are empowered to change their lives. Decentralists suggest that an important part of this is the growth of NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) which hold governments accountable for their actions, like Amnesty International. Also important are strategies of civil disobedience, as described by Gene Sharp in his Politics of Nonviolent Action , to keep governments responsible and responsive. Decentralists feel that centralized governments of either stripe - Left or Right - rely too much on coercive power, whether that be brute force (military, torture, etc.) or more subtle means (propaganda, imprisonment, etc.) To have a truly nonviolent, participatory society, the power of the centralized government must be reduced and shared with governance at all levels. The centralized government cannot be 'seized' and used for beneficial ends - the centralized State, as Max Weber understood, is primarily an instrument for the monopolization of violence and coercion, and can be nothing but that.
Being the libertarian socialists that they are, most postmodernists support 'communitarian individualism' - the creation of communes or schemes whereby people who want to live cooperatively can, sort of like the kibbutzim of Israel. They support various ways of encouraging community and collective action and concern, as long as they are on a voluntary basis. But many feel taking wealth and redistributing it without asking merely creates resentment against the poor. Many feel the answer to poverty is a full-employment economy, which in their revisionary economics they say is quite possible, and can pay everybody good wages to boot! In any case, they support various forms of rotationary governance, so that everybody in the community gets a shot at running things, for a short while, at the local level. This 'rethinking' of politics by the postmoderns is often seen as idealistic by their critics, 'wooly-headed' at best but 'foolish' at worst, because "it denies human nature..."
Many philosophers feel uneasy about postlogocentric philosophy because it questions reason and logic itself. Some are put off by its relativism and its willingness to question the notion of truth or meaning itself. As Rorty sees it, in direct defiance of the analytic philosphers, there are no statements which make purely abstract truth-claims, only statements which make references to a type of truth, whether that be scientific truth, metaphoric truth, mythic truth, or humanistic truth. Many postmodern philosophers lean to an epistemology of constructivism - that reality is created through our categories of understanding and our modes of organizing perception- and to a denial of ontology itself, that there are somehow things 'out there' which 'exist'. Others see the root of the problem in Aristotelian logical binarism, as Korzybski did, which could not see that there might be things which are partially true or partially false, and that in every case to say that X 'is' Y 'is' a partial lie.
Mainly, the key element of postmodern philosophy is the 'linguistic turn.' Like Wittgenstein, the postmodernists see the root of many philosophical problems in the use (and misuse) of language. Derrida sees the root of much of philosophical binarism in the (arbitrary) division and prioritization of writing and speech. Many take the insight of Whorf and Sapir and the sociolinguists - that how we speak about the world shapes our experience of it. If one understands fully Derrida's explorations of 'play' in language and the 'referent problem,' then they may realize that any statement may contain an inexhuastible number of meanings. Like this one. Or this one. And based on that fact, there are therefore a multiple number of ways of viewing the world and experiencing it. Some cultural relativists take this understanding to mean that the ontologies of other cultures are no less valid than that of Western society, even if Westerners cannot experience them or understand them. In any case, as postmodernists see it, any semiotic system can have the 'reference' problem, because the signifier is always 'slipping' toward another signified.
Some in this school of thought, like Jakobson or Lacan, see the origins of consciousness and human identity in language itself. Many postmodernists feel that this is taking things too far, that subjectivity has deeper origins than just in the use of interchangeable pronouns or terms of possession. Lacan himself borrows from many of Freud's early writings on the "Freudian slip" to suggest that the origins of the unconscious are in language itself - that the unconscious precisely is the inability of the mind to grasp unintended meanings in language. In any case, the postmodernists who are followers of Foucault believe that the key factor in shaping human experience is 'discourse' - the setting of boundaries for which statements are meaningful and which are not. As Foucault sees it, discourses are not wholly arbitrary, but they can have a 'geneaology' which is often quite unexpected and not according to some rationalistic evolution. Foucault looks at the geneaology of 'justice,' for example, and he takes to task rationalist philosophers who see nothing but increasing precision, logic, and civility in its evolution of the concept and its usage.
There are other femininists who balk at this type of talk, because it sounds a lot like the 'essentialism' that patriarchy used to enslave women - they are too 'emotional', 'passive', 'dependent', etc. to succeed in a man's world. But the postmodern feminists insist: why make wom(y)n fit into a man's world? Rather to remake the world! Some feel that science, business, and governance would have been vastly different enterprises if women has been present and had a greater voice at their inception. Other more extreme postmodern feminists see all three as hierarchical, and that in a postpatriarchal society there would be entirely new forms of knowledge generation, economic organization, etc, which will not resemble at all what we have now. Riane Eisler describes this alternative model as a 'partnership society,' which she contrasts with our existing 'dominator society.'
Many postmodernists do not resist the charge of 'essentialism,' as long as it is understood from a nominalist perspective! As they see it, women are fundamentally less violent, power-hungry, and - as Carol Gilligan argues - amoral - than men. This has nothing to do with biology or evolution as the sociobiologists explain it. Rather, this is a consequence of their position in the symbolic and social order and thousands of years of socialization. Instead of denying this fact or accepting it as a weakness, the postmodernist feminists want to begin with it as a cornerstone of bringing feminine values (nurturance, etc.) to overthrow masculinist values (violence, etc.) Some postmodern feminists feel the beginning point for postpatriarchy is undoing the symbolic order itself. Whether this means an end to language, or simply its complete remaking, is not clear. What is clear is that postmodern feminists do not want to replace patriarchy with matriarchy - taking the same hierarchical model and putting women at the top. Rather, the whole social order will have to be undone to ensure true female equality.
Many of the postmodern feminists take Eisler's theory to be true - that at some point in the past, men and women did live as equals, and that patriarchy and history began at the agricultural revolution, with its attendant division of labor. Marija Gimbutas argues that in Europe's prehistory, its settled Chthonic societies were Earth goddess-worshipping and mostly egalitarian. Then the Kurgan nomads of the Asian steppes brought warfare, the horse, and a series of male sky, thunder, and sun-gods. That was the beginning of patriarchy and all the known historical civilizations - Greece, Rome, Babylon, etc. Some postmodern feminists feel that patriarchy is a rude 7000 year intrusion into aeons of equality. By overthrowing patriarchy, then, the human race can get back into where it should be going. Of course, the critics of this belief do point out that those 7000 years of oppression followed aeons of very slow social and technological change and even stagnation... and feel that the feminists want to return us to that round-of-being cosmology where nothing moves forward because nothing can.
Is it really possible to see the origins of the postmodern ideology in the changing social and economic structures of our time? Is it all basically the ruling idea of a new ruling class - the information czars and advertising moguls of America's Sunbelt overthrowing the industrial barons of the North, as some have argued? Why is it, then, that the key ideas of postmodernism seem to be coming from Europe and being imported to America wholesale, via Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault, et al.? Is it because modernism - especially Levi-Straussian structuralism, artistic modernism (a la Picasso, Mondrian, etc.), and architectural modernism (the Eiffel Tower: need one say more) - started there also? If liberal progress is at an end, is postmodernism at the root of racial reaction, religious fundamentalism, ethnic and nationalistic retrenchment, feminist 'backlash', and other "backward strides of history" as some critics have suggested? Was the New Left the last grasp for modernist/Enlightenment optimism, or the first wave of postmodern/post-Marxist pessimism?
Postmodernists have often accused Marxists of having a critique of society but no real way of changing it because they ignore the 'superstructure' of society. The same could be said of postmodernism: while the world has had some Marxist states, no one so far has even suggested what a postmodern state would look like, if it was a state at all. The postmodernists seem to be giving hints that all societies on the planet are moving postmodernally - that is to say, toward not moving at all, in terms of 'progress' - with or without any "postmodernists" in charge. The problem with trying to figure out what the postmodernists would do if they were 'running the show' is nobody knows who they are. There are people pointing to trends, shifts, and changes, but nobody claims to be making them, let alone seeking the 'revolution' to bring them about. Are they merely the prophets of postmodernity or its priests? Derrida won't say what his role is: to lead us out of history or to merely point the way out. It is a role befitting a master magician.
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