Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Of Postmodernism and Conservatism

Three years ago I published an article about the politics surrounding space development, in which I identified postmodernism with conservatism. It was not the first time I suggested this in a public forum, but that time around it evoked a strong, and mostly negative, response, many readers of my article expressing shock or outrage at my having suggested a connection. Alas, those expressions of shock and outrage did not include a coherent criticism of my position, and apart from some brief explanatory remarks I offered during an appearance on The Space Show, I left the matter at that. However, given the replies some of my recent remarks have drawn (specifically those regarding the ways in which a postmodernist stance can be a dodge) it seems appropriate to enlarge on them here.

Just What is Postmodernism Anyway?
Offering even the most basic definition of postmodernist thought is an exceedingly difficult task (complicated further by its close relationship with post-structuralism, and the imperfect boundaries between them, as well as their looser relationship with critical theory). Offering a list of its most central characteristics is only slightly less difficult. However, it would be relatively uncontroversial to say that postmodern thought is hugely skeptical of the various forms of human reason and their exercise (deduction, induction, definition, categorization, dialectic, the separation of subject and object, linguistic description, etc.).

Accordingly it takes the position that what knowledge of the world is attainable is of a limited, conditional, "fragmented," surface character (at best), and more aptly described as "constructed" than "discovered." Experience and understanding are therefore relativistic and subjective--while the subject itself is also a target of the aforementioned skepticism, postmodernism typically regarding the individual as "an effect of social forces, and an illusory one at that." Accordingly postmodernists stress the role identity plays in one's approach to the world, to the point of denying that it can be transcended to permit anything like the formation of coherent, objective images of the world modern thought generally strove to produce, let alone a satisfactory basis for making value judgments.

The result is the elimination of not only the basis of a universalistic view of the world, but of comprehensive and systematic understandings or explanations of the world--and for criticisms of it. This narrowing of the scope for critical, rational thinking also constrains the possibilities for rational action, and the ideas premised on it. This certainly includes the "utopian" projects of ameliorating the condition of humanity through the use of reason espoused by the major ideological traditions that came in the wake of the eighteenth century "Age of Reason." Indeed, the presumed end of the era of such "grand," "totalizing" or "meta" narratives--like the Modern idea of progress, the Enlightenment "project" of emancipating humanity, or the Marxist reading of history--is exactly what Jean-Francois Lyotard referred to when he wrote of "the postmodern condition" in the 1979 book by that name.

A Negative Conservatism
As it happens, the outlook I have just described has historically been the province not of the left, but the right, corresponding to the thought of those who attacked the Enlightenment in the wake of the French Revolution--men like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, and their intellectual descendants. It is they who have for the last two centuries emphasized the limits of human knowledge, reason and action; who have denounced the application of reason to human affairs, and especially the utopian impulse; and who have responded to universalistic liberal or radical principles with a stress on identity and particularism.1

There is, too, the way in which each of these streams of thought emerged. Just like the conservatism of Burke and his contemporaries, postmodernism emerged in the wake of revolutions, wars and associated catastrophes--in the postmodernists' case, the rise of fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, while, as M. Keith Booker notes in his study Mushroom Clouds, Monsters and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, it also received a great deal of impetus from Cold War anti-Marxism. And just as the ideas of Burke, de Maistre and the rest became part of the intellectual arsenal of the opponents of revolution, so has postmodern thought tended to explicitly oppose Marxist thinking, with the result that postmodernists and Marxists have often been at odds--a fact acknowledged in the writings of Marxists like Jurgen Habermas, Frederic Jameson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Parenti and John Molyneux, who pointedly dismissed postmodernism's "incredulity toward metanarratives" as "an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions."

While postmodernism's essentials safely situate it within the conservative tradition, it is the case that there are important differences between postmodernist thought and the mainstream of conservative thought, specifically that where conservatism typically has something to offer in place of reason, whether tradition, religion or some other sort of authority, postmodernism offers nothing. Even postmodernism's endorsement of identity and the traditions on which it is founded lacks the certainty and solidity of conservative theories about the validity of those things: their claims for divine endorsement of their favored social order, for society as an organic entity on which surgery ought not be performed, for institutions like property, capitalism and traditional family structures as "natural."2 Indeed, postmodernism's skepticism and hostility to system-building leaves it wearing an ironic face rather than the earnest one generally associated with more conventional political stances, and an uneasy fit with any source of authority (including the authority of postmodernism's own premises).

One may contend on this basis that postmodernism is a negative form of conservatism, much more suited to attacks on the intellectual tools and objects of the left than the defense of those things cherished by the right, but, just like the arguments of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, conservatism nonetheless, tending overwhelmingly toward acquiescence in the status quo, whatever that status quo may be, in both intellectual and practical terms.3 And it does not seem at all implausible that, in ways direct and indirect, postmodernist thought has contributed significantly to the larger political climate in conservative ways--inhibiting robust criticism of society and the exploration of alternatives, lowering the expectations of reformers, shifting politics away from matters of economics and class toward symbolic issues, and in its attitude toward science, opening the door wider to the "merchants of doubt" who have manufactured specious arguments for "creation science" and "climate change skepticism."

Explaining the Confusion
Given the case to be made that postmodern thought is essentially conservative, one may wonder why this position is not more widely seen outside the academic Marxist writing of which the mainstream is scarcely conscious (and even within Marxist theory, not more fully developed and frequently expressed than it currently is).4 A central reason would seem the undeniable fact that many a postmodernist thinks of themselves as being left of the political center, not least because many of them espouse liberal-left positions on specific political issues (as has been the case with, for instance, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida). The apparent dissonance between their philosophy and their practical politics in this regard is concealed by the reduction of political ideology in the public imagination to stances on a few hot-button issues (abortion, gun control, etc.), the notion that conservatism, liberalism or radicalism entail larger understandings of the world apparently alien to most of those claiming adherence to these ideas (which is itself a rather postmodern attitude). This image is bolstered by the tendency to associate postmodernist "identity politics" not with all those engaged with such issues, but only the claims of ethnic minorities and other traditionally disadvantaged groups championed by the left, rather than the claims of dominant groups, which can equally be termed identity politics, but which usually come bearing other labels (like "culture war").

The confusion is increased by the notorious unreadability of much of the relevant writing.5 Where the English-speaking world is concerned, this is likely compounded by their experience of French academic writing as "difficult" due to the differences in prose style across academic cultures (a more frequent use of "point-late" text structures, the less frequent organization of paragraphs around topic sentences, etc.), and the divergent traditions of Anglo-Saxon and continental philosophy (e.g. the synthetic-analytical divide), which leaves English-language readerships struggling to follow the thread of argument, overwhelmed with abstractions and starved for concrete evidence for the claims they see being advanced.

The matter is certainly not helped by the fact that few outside the Academy, or the upper strata of high culture, consciously and openly avow postmodernist thought. One generally does not see politicians, CEOs or popular authors cite postmodernist authors, and certainly the works of Jacques Derrida do not command the kind of intense elite enthusiasm that those of, for example, Ayn Rand enjoy all these decades later. Their combination of irony, idiosyncracy and obscurity has not lent itself to use in public battles of ideas in the manner of, for instance, the ideas of Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, George Gilder--or the aforementioned Rand--in the last hundred and fifty years. Conservatives looking for intellectual champions simply find more appealing candidates elsewhere, leaving the parallels and the connections unadvertised. Unsurprisingly, there has been little effort to convey the actual content of postmodern thinking to general, non-scholarly audiences--to produce "pop" postmodernism for lay readers.6 Thus critical engagement with postmodernism's actual ideas has remained the purview of a cultural-intellectual elite, even as those ideas have become so ubiquitous as to be utterly taken for granted within the mainstream.

1. This is all without getting into such matters as its rendering of situations where oppression exists much more ambiguous through power analytics; its original sin theology-like propensity to reduce all human activity to an exercise in power relations; and the divisiveness fostered by identity politics, and the ways in which they undermine broader struggles for equity (which conservatives have frequently exploited, going back at least to Klemens Von Metternich). It is certainly worth recalling Michel Foucault's enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution--a rare but particularly telling example of the way in which the postmodernist critique can take the shape of explicit support for retrograde irrationality and anti-rationality.
2. It is even clearer that postmodernists have nothing to offer the left in the way of these things. As Alexander Sidorkin put it, "postmodern writers do not give us a good reason to act, nor do they give us a reason to resist oppression. They are just not useful in dealing with our real problems of injustice and human suffering. They do very little to address racial or gender discrimination, or to redeem inherent economic injustices of capitalism."
3. In that classic Hobbes argued for obedience to the prevailing government in preference to the worse alternative of disorder, rather than on the basis of tradition, historical practice or religious doctrine (in the manner of, for instance, the much less well-known Robert Filmer).
4. Rare exceptions of non-Marxist writers making this point include Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture. There has also been some acknowledgment of the relationship between conservatism and postmodern thought on the right in Gerald J. Russello's writing on Russell Kirk.
5. Noam Chomsky, a not altogether unsympathetic observer, wrote that on examining the texts of Foucault and Jacques Lacan "what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish."
6. However, that is not to say that postmodernist jargon and thought has failed to enter mainstream usage, with that influence most evident in the rhetoric of identity politics (like feminist use of the term "objectification," a legacy of Lacan's writing).

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