Over the past fifty years, postmodern theory—an umbrella term generally used to refer to such diverse theoretical movements and paradigms as post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and others—has generally dominated most fields in the humanities and some in the social sciences, while even making forays into the natural sciences. But the economic meltdown in 2008 and the subsequent chronic crisis in capitalism have dealt a fatal theoretical blow to the varied and nearly ineffable assemblage of perspectives that are often grouped under the rubric of “postmodernism.” History had not ended, nor could postmodern theory grapple with the conditions of its continuance. The financial collapse of 2008 demonstrated that language itself, or the “symbolic register” in postmodern parlance, could not by itself contain the entirety of social reality. In fact, the manipulation of the “symbolic realm” in the stock market, in particular in the real estate sector, had resulted in real material consequences that had spun out of the reaches and control of language itself. Moreover, mere symbolic manipulation could not, by itself, remediate such consequences. Further, for those who regarded class analysis as outmoded, or class itself as a mere construct of language, the class character of the social order, underlying layers of mediation and theoretical obscurantism, became starkly visible. Meanwhile, with the election of Barack Obama and his continuation and extension of Bush’s policies, the hollowness of identity politics (the political fallout shelter of postmodernism’s retreat from historical materialism) was on full display.
A review of postmodern theory and its claims is in order to show exactly how and why postmodernism fails in light of the present moment. The various theoretical tendencies, while diverse in many ways, have nonetheless been properly grouped under a single heading. There is much merit in the postmodern label where the various theories are concerned, especially in connection with their demotion of reason, their radical epistemological relativism, their dismissal of or representing as inaccessible social and historical reality, and their undeniable political pessimism.
One must begin by mentioning the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, where the strange bedfellows of high modernism and Marxist theory combined—at least where Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer were concerned—to produce a critique of Enlightenment rationality itself. This critique arguably inaugurated the “postmodern turn” and its attack on the Enlightenment project en toto—on reason, on the universal project of human emancipation, and on such “master narratives” (particularly Marxism) that sought to explain and address the social totality.
In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), reason, albeit split into “instrumental reason” and “critical reason,” formerly a necessary tool for any critical methodology, became an instrument of oppression itself. One might say that the postmodern thereafter became married to one or another form of what Max Weber had referred to as the “iron cage of rationality.” The postmodern theorists variously constructed this cage from different materials. For Michel Foucault, it was a cage of knowledge/power; for Francois Lyotard, it was a cage of master narratives; for Jacques Derrida, it was a cage of language. In each case, a faculty, tool or method that had previously been regarded as essential for understanding the social totality and undertaking the struggle for human emancipation was now regarded as means of self-hostage-taking, or as evidence for always already having been taken hostage by the very means once considered essential for theory and practice: reason, knowledge, theory, language, etc.
We can begin with Foucault, whose project must be seen in light of an effort to explain social reality, including historical change, in terms that he hoped would both escape and exceed Marxism, while nevertheless essentially leaving Marx’s analysis of political economy in place. As Mark Poster made clear in Foucault, Marxism & History (1984), Foucault’s work clearly responded to the structuralist currents in French Marxist thinking prevalent in the 1960s, and we can discern subtle references to Marxist thought in his work—for example in Discipline and Punish, where he refers to “panopticism” as the disciplinary prerequisite for coordinating the “accumulation of capital” and “accumulation of men” under industrial capitalism. But Foucault’s major preoccupation was with the nexus of power and knowledge. In effect, in his archaeologies and genealogies of knowledge, Foucault twisted and reversed Bacon’s axiom, “knowledge is power,” into “power produces knowledge.” He conceived of knowledge as the product of decentralized and seemingly disembodied power structures, not necessarily but sometimes connected to the state. Change was based on permutations of power, at times severe ruptures in its operations. (Here Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) should also be considered germinal.) What followed from this position, among other things, was that knowledge and truth were a function of sheer power itself. Going further than Nietzsche, Foucault aimed to show that knowledge was used to impose a form of “panoptic” discipline on the body and in the various spheres throughout the social order.
Foucault’s conception of the knowledge-power nexus owes much to Nietzsche and Heidegger. But it can also be connected to Soviet Marxist thought as well. In his “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Georg Lukács introduced the idea of a proletarian “standpoint epistemology,” wherein, based on its unique positioning within the social order and its productive capacities, the working class occupied a privileged epistemological perspective for uncovering the verities of social and scientific reality. Only the working class could have the interests and the social positioning necessary to unpack the reified character of commoditized social relations and to find historical truth, objective reality. In effect, Foucault turned Lukacs’s standpoint epistemology on its head and emptied it of its class character. By implication, Foucault suggested that knowledge could not be located outside of the powerful institutional frameworks capable of producing it.
The problems with Foucault’s formulations are quite clear. How, for example, could it explain how knowledge escaped the control of power elites, as for example, in the case of structural breakdowns like the 2008 crisis, wherein neither the state’s own ministers or the economic “experts” either anticipated it or precluded its appearance? If Foucault is right, how could power ever be threatened and overcome, as in numerous instances in the modern world? Further, if power is so decentralized, why does it rely on state power in the cases of war and imperialism? Further, what kind of politics could ever be possible under such an analysis?
In the end, Foucault’s recommendations boiled down to local, boutique politics for petty bourgeois self-fashioning. In The Care of the Self, his final book in the trilogy The History of Sexuality, a subject’s political agency extends only as far as the ability to locate itself within its preferred “discursive fields,” likewise, given the power of discourse, to fashion itself as a particular kind of subject. This faith in and strict adherence to “local” politics can be seen in any number of the academic left’s political engagements.
With the “linguistic turn” of deconstruction, the radical disjuncture from social reality becomes even more pronounced. With deconstruction, for example, such ideas as “truth” and “history” do not exist outside of language, if at all. As Jacques Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology (1967), “there is nothing outside of text.” Derrida’s later defenses of this often-lampooned remark did little to extricate him from its significance. For much of the 1990s, as the “linguistic turn” metastasized throughout the humanities, in my own field of British nineteenth-century studies, it became problematic to speak of the nineteenth-century working class as a real social formation in history. Rather, one did better to refer to the proletariat as a function of language itself. Frederic Jameson’s attempts to overcome the poststructuralist “prison house of language” wound up nearly ensnaring him in this discursive trap, from which he was barely able to escape long enough to locate an object that exceeded the “symbolic register.” Despite the fashion of critiquing logocentrism—the idea that language is a system of domination—it is not unfair to say that under the linguistic turn, nothing could exceed language, except language itself. But even this excess amounted to a “chain of signifiers” that slid away like a sloughed-off snakeskin to hover around its own coiled body. If it pointed to anything, it was only to itself.
It seems almost unnecessary to note that this theoretical perspective is matched by the self-abnegation of its praxis. To be sure, postmodern theory itself arose due to the bad faith that parts of the left had kept with Stalinism. The failure of the Stalinist state prompted Adorno and Horkheimer, under the influence of Weber, to suggest that the fundamental unity between the two major contenders for systemic hegemony in the West—capitalism and socialism—was bureaucratic rationality. The iron cage was not class society per se, but rather instrumental reason—i.e., rational organization. But such a critique could only have posed a problem for a politics that saw revolution primarily in terms of re-organization, i.e., Stalinism and its apologetics (and in some sects of Trotskyism). In fact, this is the root of the problem, stemming back to the Frankfurt School, through Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and into post-structuralism and even deconstruction: an adherence to the belief that Stalinism represented Marxist socialism, and thus that its failure was a failure of socialism-communism. One might argue that a successful left communism, that is, a communism that views revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class from commodity production and class society, could have averted half a century of “fashionable nonsense.” But this too would be to discount historical processes as mere constructs of discourse.
In terms of political activity, social democracy in Europe and Democratic Party adherence in the United States has been the concomitant to what can only be seen as a theoretical pessimism. Changing “discourses” is analogous to the volleying back and forth of political party control that continues under bourgeois democracy. In fact, what we primarily get from political elections in the United States is the rhetorical shape shifting that Foucault saw as the horizon of political possibility. The difference between Bush and Obama, clear even to many Obama supporters, was a change of identity and rhetoric. Similarly, identity and language politics are the only remnants of academic postmodern political engagement. According to Judith Butler, they were sufficient to induce the “uncritical exuberance” of her colleagues among the academic postmodern left upon the first election of Obama, despite the fact that Obama supported Bush and voted for the bailout of Wall Street banks and brokerage firms, the same bailouts that would energize the OWS protests in the wake of economic catastrophe.
The crisis of postmodernist epistemology was in evidence well before 2008, however. It was discernible in the aftermath of the 2000 US Presidential election. Given its adherence to radical epistemological pluralism and relativism, how could the academic left, such as those who had been recently embroiled in the “Science Wars,” argue for an objective recount of ballots in the contest between the two ruling-class candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush in Florida? The social constructivists could not come to the aid of their favorite, because they had long argued that all knowledge claims were mere constructs of ideology or language, or that observation could not but be utterly saturated in “theory-ladenness”—that is, that no observation could escape the theoretical prejudices of the observer. Science and its products were social constructs “all the way down.” Likewise, the academic left could not credibly support the Democratic Party’s claim that the ballots should be objectively evaluated for the intentions of the voters. If they had joined in the calls for a recount, they could only have done so by marshaling a Foucauldian-Nietzschean argument that the success of knowledge claims depends on the power associated with them. Thus they would have conceded the argument in advance to the Republicans, who were accusing the Democrats precisely of attempting just such a power play.
Yet, it was finally the economic collapse of 2008, and nothing as strictly “discursive” or “symbolic” as a US Presidential election, that finally marked the theoretical end of postmodernism’s sway over academic thought. Yes, the practical result may be a theoretical and historical vacuum that lasts for some time. In some fields, we may see a decline into positivism as a response to the theoretical licentiousness of the past fifty years. In others, postmodern theory may continue to be bandied about, despite its obvious shortcomings, failures, and patent absurdities. Similarly, the bourgeois economists continue their neo-Keynesian/monetarist parrying, pretending that their paradigms haven’t been utterly discredited by a crisis that they failed to predict and have no nostrums for remediating. Likewise, we may witness a period during which the postmodern mounts pathetic resurgences in effigy, repeating as farce what was first intellectual and political tragedy. That is, we may be in the “late age” of postmodernism, the tail end of this decrepit phase of bourgeois philosophy.
And, like the financial collapse, postmodernism was indeed tragedy. It was tragedy for the massive amounts of “cultural capital” that it wasted; it was tragedy for the defrauding of intellectual integrity that it represented; it was tragedy for the abandonment of reality that it recommended. Further, like the financial fiasco, it was criminal. The postmodernist ringleaders should be indicted as as the ideological counterparts of Wall Street’s thieves, as the “junk bond traders” and “corporate raiders” of culture, as Camille Paglia once referred to them.
Except for these final processions and prosecutions, however, the era of postmodernism—the last gasp of “credible” philosophical idealism—is theoretically, and effectively, over.