What Would a Postmodernist Do?

Political theory before lunch:

I’ve lately been reading two books by non-aligned Marxist intellectual heavyweight Samir Amin— a world traveler of Egyptian and French descent currently involved in the World Social Forum, and involved in the 50s in the Bandung Conference. Both The Liberal Virus and The World We Wish to See are published by the mighty Monthly Review Press, and the former, at least, sets aside space for robust criticism of postmodernism as a political theory.

Amin’s criticism took me by surprise. As an American college-educated lefty who’s sought out a lot of other American college-educated lefties in his short life, I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of postmodernist political analysis. The basic strain of this analysis is that so-called universal truths aren’t trustworthy because the “universal” is defined by the most powerful actors in society and serves their interests. Postmodernist histories examine the way universal norms of what’s normal or desirable become tools of social control: they are the intellectual justification for punishing or forcibly normalizing whatever is defined as deviance, whether that deviance manifests itself as pathology, criminality, queerness, midwifery, anything.

My sense of postmodernist cultural theory since Baudrillard is that it examines social reproductions: the spectacles of mass media, our own insane drives and unverifiable obsessions, and our freedom to broadcast give away or mash up anything in our newly unfixed culture. It is interested in social reproductions over both the Marxist questions of labor, scarcity, production, and economic power and over the Man’s demands for conformity to universal norms. We can defy the Man’s universalism by creating our own meaning in the mirrors and neon: our world is all surface, but the surface is nothing but a visible core anyway.

This historical analysis and attendant cultural framework (which I’m doing a quick and dirty summary of; would love clarification if I’ve gruesomely misrepresented anyone’s area of expertise out there) has been influential, lately, in Occupy. Occupy needn’t make demands, because the new ways of living the occupations represent are themselves the demand: to ask something of the State or its owners would be to legitimize them.

So. Did this framework weaken Occupy, for instance, as a political force? Yes, it outright killed it, say some. (I’m with this guy that the surveillance state had more to do with it.) No, and policing your fellow Occupiers hurts the whole movement, say others. An anti-statist political thinker like David Graeber (linked to above) is not exactly as TV-eyed as Baudrillard, but in his own work he privileges the carving out of free alternative spaces over open political confrontation, noting that anarchist values will never come to predominate from a state-style revolution.

What does Amin criticize in postmodernism? In it, he sees privilege and accommodationist wimpiness. He points out that the West’s “society of spectacle” and the consumption it requires depends on Third World misery and cheap labor. He believes that a struggle against capitalism will require the work of democratized states, not just autonomous communities. He also notes that being unwilling to unify under a counternarrative to capitalism (a counternarrative with its own primary values and truths) is to be atomized to just another individual– defanged, and, eventually, wiped out. (This critique brought to mind David Graeber’s note on Foucault: the belief that ideas and their attendant free performance are the real source of power in our society is to ignore “the men with sticks to beat you” who underlie the authority of the state and big finance.) Then again, Amin is not particularly interested in First World political theory. He lives and works in Senegal, and spends his time organizing and working alongside the intellectuals of the global periphery, not (say) teaching in an American or French elite university.

Where does that leave me? I see my main political role in an oppressive society as allyship. The historical analysis of my friends in the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites has helped me to see the real damage done to oppressed folks by middle-class leftists, whether in the self-interested pieties and messed-up power structures of the non-profit world, or in the alienating attempts of white Old and New Left academics to explain that class trumps race, sexuality, immigration status, disability, etc. Among the principles of ally-based activism might be: Listen; leave space for an oppressed community to construct its own meanings and values; then seek an accountable role where you can help them. This idea clearly has some historical relation to postmodernist critiques of universalism, filtered through feminist care ethics and the intersectional work of folks like the Combahee River Collective.

So I wonder where I stand on this issue.

I’m interested in hearing from friends here:

What is a postmodernist praxis? Can the powerless in our society use postmodernist political theory to bend the social balance of power away from the hegemonic atomizing monster of our dominant society?



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2 responses to “What Would a Postmodernist Do?

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