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Monday, April 24, 2006

Scrapping Pomo (But Keeping Some of the Parts)

In response to a recent review/defense/response exchange between Russell Jacoby and Eric Lott concerning Lott's book, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, Michael Bérubé is asking people to "explain universalism's comeback" (and postmodernism's decline).

I thought I'd pick up that ball and run with it here, not by explaining a resurgence of universalism, but rather by suggesting that the movement away from pomo theory in the academy need not entail a categorical rejection of its ideology. It's also, and in no uncertain terms, an argument for the value of rhetorical reading and analysis even of articulations of philosophical systems. The common formalist reading of postmodernism, after all (that it's "anything goes" relativism), is at least unhelpful and at most intellectually bankrupt. I've been thinking about this for a while, but I've yet to articulate in any formal way. Consider this entry the first step in doing so.

Postmodernism’s time probably has come, at least that brand of postmodernism given to such hyperbolic exclamations as when Lyotard, noting that some scientific innovations are ignored for being too radical a departure from normal science, writes: “Such behavior is terrorist . . . eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents . . . .” (Or when Baudrillard laments that “the territory no longer precedes the map.”) Such statements, accompanied by calls like Lyotard's to “wage a war on totality,” are easily read as overly-dramatic and as espousing a cynical, opportunistic relativism.

But if you read postmodernism not in this formal way, but, rather, from a rhetorical perspective that sees projects like those of Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault as real responses to events and situations in a specific historical and cultural context, then it’s much easier to see the value of postmodern theory. In the 1960’s, WWII hadn’t ended that long ago, and scholars and laypeople alike, especially in Europe, were still struggling to work through its implications for life in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Not only that, but events like the Prague Spring and French student (and eventual general) strike of 1968 left many disillusioned with communism and “dramatized the failure of liberal institutions to deal with the dissatis­faction of broad masses of citizens” (Best and Kellner). In this light, the quirky, evasive, hyperbolic rhetoric (and attendant philosophy/anti-philosophy) of postmodern theory can be interpreted as a reasonable response to the prospect of an increasingly rigid, unresponsive, and oppressive global political economy.

And, so, while it makes sense now to rearticulate a collective politics (though I will stop short of advocating a new universalism), we ought not to summarily dismiss pomo and what it has to offer this new vision of collectivity. Namely it offers a politics of humility: it stands as a continual reminder that “collective” is never, and can never be, an all-encompassing term. It reminds us to look for the “them” that necessarily attends the “us” of collective political action, and to revise the terms by which we define “us” when it seems to have become unfairly or unnecessarily exclusionary.


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