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The potential of postmodernism

What's left after the end of history?

postemodernpotential2

Is postmodernism doomed to impotent interpretations of the world around us, never able to change things for the better? Or does the deconstruction of binaries and challenging of grand narratives offer us a fruitful way to think about the age we live in, and where it might take us? Simon Glendinning responds to Mike Cole's article

Mike Cole begins and ends his essay on the ongoing significance of Marxism with the evocation of Marx’s own pronouncement on what is needed in our time: not merely an effort to interpret the world, something Marx regarded as the results of philosophy hitherto, but to change it. Postmodernism is regarded by Cole as the contemporary epitome of that old pre-Marxist philosophical failing: not only does it only interpret the world, it is limited to such an ambition “by definition”.

Cole does not elaborate on this claim by providing a definition of postmodernism, but he presents an example in that name in relation to an author who wrote a book about it. Cole refers to “the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard who was incredulous of all grand narratives”. For his part Lyotard does attempt to provide a definition of what he calls the distinctively “postmodern” outlook: he interprets it as a condition marked by “incredulity towards metanarratives”. There is nothing in Lyotard that aims or calls to overcome that incredulity by reviving our formerly modern condition.

So perhaps Lyotard was incredulous of all grand narratives himself, as Cole suggests. But Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition was not in the business of defending an incredulous turn of mind. He was not trying to make a case for becoming, like him, incredulous, he was claiming that we have already become so, unless we are Marxists. The world has changed – and the kind of discourse that Marxism represents belongs, in a significant part of itself, to the modern world we no longer inhabit.

History is not a matter of one such historical-present followed by another such historical-present ad infinitum.

Lyotard’s primary focus was on something that still goes on our time. His aim was to make sense of our ongoing efforts to attain scientific knowledge on any subject, the kind of work that goes on, especially, in universities. Our understanding of why we go in for that sort of thing is, Lyotard suggests, “altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age” (PMC: p. 3). We have now (nearly all of us) entered what he called “a postmodern condition”, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge does not remain unaffected by that (putative) fact. Here is Lyotard presenting his “working hypothesis”:

I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse…making an 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. For example,…the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end – universal peace. As can be seen from this example, if a metanarrative implying a philosophy of history is used to legitimate knowledge, questions are raised concerning the validity of the institutions governing the social bond: these must be legitimated as well. Thus justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth. Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward 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 legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing, its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. (PMC: pp. xxiii-xxiv)

As the paradigm for a narrative of the emancipation of the working subject Marxism would fit very clearly within the embrace of this definition of the “modern”. And our incredulity towards such modern discourses, in so far as we have it, would mark our condition as “postmodern”.

Marxism framed a conception of man as on an epic journey towards attaining to what Marx called “the height of humanity”, a conception of a universal humanity attaining emancipated and de-alienated condition. It thus also sets the heading of man towards a maximally just way to be. If Lyotard’s working hypothesis is correct we live in a time when this kind of epic (hi)story-telling of human history as progressing towards some kind of final perfection is over, exhausted.

Jacques Derrida, another postmodernist in Cole’s view of that, “stressed the need for the deconstruction of all dominant discourses”, an ambition that Cole argues is shared by Marxism in its effort to free us from any mystifying discourse “that masks the inherently exploitative nature of capitalist society”. But for Cole that critical de-mystifying effort is not sufficient on its own. To be fit for our purposes it must also succeed in “pointing in the direction of a non-exploitative world”. Cole supposes Marxism thus “remains a coherent worldview”, and the charge of its becoming, in our time, incredible, unbelievable, should be dismissed.

But the point about incredulity was not a philosophical criticism of Marxism or indeed any other “modern” teleo-messianic conception of a coming end of history. Incredulity towards grand narratives, the deconstruction of the discourses of modernity, is understood by Lyotard and Derrida as something already underway in our societies: it is something that is (they suppose) happening. However, if “postmodernist” philosophers do not attempt to find a solution to this situation by identifying a new grand narrative in the modern form, or reviving an old one, that does not mean that they saw no future for us beyond our present condition. That, at least, is what I want to put on the table in this reply.

II

I will focus on Derrida, whose work I know best among those Cole identifies as postmodernist. We can get a sense of what Derrida thinks becomes possible for us even when the old modern discourses have become exhausted by considering his attentive reading of the Hegelian-Marxist philosopher Alexandere Kojève in Specters of Marx. Kojève was sure that history hitherto had indeed been telic. Indeed, he supposed that the end of a distinctively “Hegelian-Marxist teleology” had actually been attained, and attained in what he called “the American way of life” (IRH, p. 161). On the other hand, this arrival of the end of history was not conceived by Kojève as the attainment of a higher human condition, as the communist end was conceived by Marx, but as nothing short of a “return to animality” (IRH, p. 161). Hardly the ideal end celebrated by those who preach “the vulgate of the capitalist paradise as end of history”, Derrida noted (SM, p. 74). But here is the striking thing. Whether one is thinking of our time as the time of the end of history (as Kojève did) or as the time of the exhaustion of every philosophical (hi)story of man and his teleology which might announce such an end (as Derrida did), our condition seems to leave us with nowhere to go but more of the same, with technical optimization of the economic system – economic “neoliberalism” as we call it today – as the only “progress” game in town, and “operational” citizens who look forward to no more than the new iPhone and voting in the next series of the X-Factor. This seems to me to get to the heart of Cole’s worry about what he calls “postmodernist” world-interpretations. They promise nothing at the very moment when “it is time to change the world”.

This is the chance that heralds itself in a post-Modern condition. Not the hopeless desire for a revival or renewal of an old modern interpretation of the world, but an affirmation of democratic perfectibility that is freed from all teleology.

Is that right? Is there nothing promising for us in the postmodernist interpretation of our time, revealing then, as Cole suggests, only the “essentially reactionary nature of postmodernism” behind its apparently radical deconstructing?

Derrida’s reflections on Kojève’s own discussion of what’s left for “post-Historical Man”, which we can read fairly in terms of existence in a “post-Modern condition”, shows why that charge is false, though it will not please Marxists. While Derrida will want to subject Kojève’s account to critical questioning (concerning, especially, its highly idiosyncratic reading of “the American way of life” as the fulfilment of a specifically Hegelian-Marxist teleology) and deconstructive questioning (concerning, especially, its overall teleo-messianic presuppositions), he urges against reducing it to a (genuinely reactionary) celebration of unending economic neoliberalism. Moreover, while Kojève does not recant his claim to see “Man’s return to animality as a present certainty” in America (IRH, p. 161), Derrida insists that one take account of the “Postscript” to Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel in which Kojève states that he had “radically changed his opinion” about the singular finality of the American end that he had presented in the original text (IRH, p. 161). In the “Postscript” Kojève has in view what he came to regard as an altogether different and, if one can say this, even more final finality for man, an end of history attained already in Japanese culture during the last three hundred years; a final finality that he conceived as still to come for the West and Russia as globalization becomes “’Japanization’” (IRH, p. 162). Derrida takes as seriously as he can the “nutty” projection of what Kojève describes as Japanese “snobbery” going worldwide (a projection “which is his genius but which is also his entire responsibility”) (SM, p. 71). In particular, he invites us to focus on the “last and also most enigmatic sentence” of Kojève’s “Postscript” on the Japanese end of history – where we all become snobs – which, Derrida suggests, seems never to have been read (SM, pp. 72-3). That last sentence of the “Postscript” reads as follows:

This means that, while henceforth speaking in an adequate fashion of everything that is given to him, post-historical Man must [doit] continue to detach “form” from “content,” doing so no longer in order actively to trans-form the latter, but so that he may oppose himself as a pure “form” to himself and to others taken as “content” of any sort. (IRH, p. 162, emphasis in original)

What Kojève gives us to think, Derrida argues, is precisely not that just one (“Americanized”) kind of life will be an “eternal present” for man in the post-Historical period but that a future for post-Historical humanity remains to be thought once we have attained to and come to terms with the finally final post-Historical condition of snobbish “Japanization”. And it does so, Derrida suggests, in just the same way as he himself had proposed in “what we are nicknaming the messianic without messianism” (SM, p. 73). Derrida glosses Kojève’s final sentence as follows:

In the same place, on the same limit, where history is finished, there where a certain determined concept of history comes to an end, precisely there the historicity of history begins, there finally it has the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself. There where man, a certain determined concept of man, is finished, there the pure humanity of man, of the other man and of man as other begins or has finally the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself. (SM, p. 74)

Taking Kojève’s thought rather rapidly in the direction of his own manner of speaking, Derrida’s gloss does very little to reduce the enigma of the last sentence. However, that Derrida could take it in his own direction at all brings out the striking parallel between the two positions. For whether one is thinking (with Kojève) about life after the end of history, or (with Derrida) about the end of the road for modern teleo-messianic conceptions of man and history that would anticipate any such end (even a bizarrely orientalist projection of a “Japanized” one) one is effectively speaking of the same, let’s say “post-Modern”, condition. And the point is that neither Kojève nor Derrida conceive this as the end of the old perfectionist interest in emancipation or progress for humanity. Rather, both insist on seeing a new chance for that interest now freed from any teleo-messianism of human self-realization that has a specific or determinate “content”, in a newly “trans-formed” way to be as its anticipated end. For Kojève this is because the specifically “Japanized” “content” attained by Man-at-the-finally-final-end, its “snobbery” (IRH, p. 161), is a condition that in itself finds itself endlessly called to be something superior: the space is opened in that condition for endless perfectionist ambitions to attain an as yet unattained other possibility of being that any I or we can be. Transposed into his own terms this is Derrida’s affirmation of a new messianism too: a messianism without a determinate messianism, a messianism without content, a messianism without a telos.

III

Derrida does not think that history was ever telic, and his reading of the in-our-time “exhaustion” of the sense that it is or was thus calls for “thinking another historicity” (SM, pp. 74-5). What Derrida is especially keen to avoid is a conception which sees human history in terms of the “successive linking of presents identical to themselves and contemporary with themselves” (SM, p. 70). History is not a matter of one such historical-present followed by another such historical-present ad infinitum. Rather, every “present” has to be thought as structurally “always already” haunted (freighted, inhabited) by both the ghosts of the past – including, for us, the ghost of Marx that Cole recalls – and by the apparitions of what has yet to appear “in the opening of the promise or expectation” (SM, p. 163). So “no time is contemporary with itself” (SM, p. 111). This irreducible spectrality of what goes on in (every) “our time” does not ruin every effort of studying events “in their historical context”, but it does imply that such a context can never be rigorously circumscribed, delimited or saturated or even single (there are many histories running through our time, and at different speeds, some archaic, some hyper-modern), and it opposes every “historicism” which sees the future extruded from the past like toothpaste from a tube, one historical-present after another, each one forced out by the present that preceded it, linked in an intelligible line of “development”. For Derrida, the future, at any time, appears on the scene in what remains in our present that heralds itself as still lying ahead of us. And then one can do what one can to make it so that what proclaims itself in our time as still to come for us will have been “prefaced” by what we do with the inheritance that we are; so that our lives will have been the first “apparition of the inapparent” (SM, p. 125).

Perfectionism undergoes what one might call “democratization” in this new condition. The promise of democracy is, that is to say, itself conceived in terms of its open-ended and unpredictable perfectibility not the attainment of a final perfection. From now on, that “other man”, that other who is the as-yet-unattained but attainable future for us, that “other man” who would be “man as other” to both ourselves and any others today, is no longer thought from its final end (a final “solution” to the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of neoliberalism that Cole still hopes for from Marxism), but from its opening in our own efforts to “seek a step” beyond our attained condition, with all its injustices. It is true that this does not point towards “a concrete concept of progressive social change”, it does not point towards a finally just world, but not because “anything is allowed” but because what it wants more than anything to be “allowed” in every future “today” is the possibility of thinking a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that remains to be thought, something still unattained, but which heralds itself in a politically democratic regime that welcomes its own transformation.

The world has changed – and the kind of discourse that Marxism represents belongs, in a significant part of itself, to the modern world we no longer inhabit.

This is the chance that heralds itself in a post-Modern condition. Not the hopeless desire for a revival or renewal of an old modern interpretation of the world, but an affirmation of democratic perfectibility that, while strictly inconceivable in a pre-Marxist space, is freed from all teleology: the affirmation of self-critique and perfectibility without a final end, progress without a telos of a final perfection. For sure this is not Marxist, but it is not simply anti-Marxist either, and it is certainly not reactionary.

 

Bibliography and Abbreviations

PMC: The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard, Manchester : Manchester University Press (1984)

SM: Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida, Abingdon: Routledge (1993)

IRH: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the "Phenomenology of Spirit", Alexandre Kojève, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1980)

 

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Min Jeckel 15 October 2020

This essay is a perfect example of why postmodernism will never achieve anything. It is more than a-political, it is a destructive force. The endless creation of 'isms' and senseless words, the inability to enunciate or see clearly the moral pressure of human suffering.