main-qimg-6442a8a4cf8dad6feeee899c4b37a2abIt seems hard to believe that the article – or review/feature – below was written in 1990 as the trends it analysed as very much still with us.  Although postmodernism (pomo) isn’t the same force it was amongst former radicals and in university departments in the late 1980s – or in the NZ the early 1990s, as it takes time for fads to permeate such circles here – pomo ideas have permeated such a chunk of social and intellectual life and institutions here, with such debilitating effects, that it simply doesn’t get discussed now as a specific trend.  It’s simply part of the ‘new normal’.  The author of the piece below is today a prominent Marxist critic; he was a regular reader and contributor to revolution magazine during its 1997-2006 existence, but the piece below predates the magazine; it appeared in the British monthly review Living Marxism in September 1990.

by James Heartfield

Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, Verso, 1990; Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: interviews and other writings 1977-1984, Routledge, 1990; Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity, Routledge, 1989; Bryan Turner (ed), Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, Sage, 1990; Jonathan Rutherford (ed), Identity: community, culture, difference, Lawrence & Wishart, 1990; Anthony Woodiwiss, Social theory after postmodernism, Pluto Press, 1990; Jurgen Habermas, The philosophical discourse of modernity, 1990

The career of Jean Baudrillard spans the postmodern fad, from its beginnings in the demoralisation of France’s radical intelligentsia to its modish end in the American universities. His latest book, Cool Memories, carries the postmodern rejection of a sense of mission to its melancholic conclusion. Cool Memories is a collection of aphorisms written between 1980 and 1984 which finds Baudrillard the victim of the market he celebrates. His success drives down the quality of his product until finally we are here in his discarded notebooks of the early 1980s.

Ideas of liberation, emancipation and individual autonomy. . . exhaust themselves,” he writes. “No one is interested in overcoming alienation; the point is to plunge into it to the point of ecstasy.” Baudrillard asks himself whether it is possible to “grasp a world when you’re no longer tied to it by some kind of ideological enthusiasm. . . ? Can things ‘tell’ themselves through stories and fragments?” The more that he tries to plunge into alienation and let things tell themselves, the more he gives voice to the narrow prejudices of the middle class intelligentsia. Feminism is “shitty”, transexuality is “disturbing’” rape and ‘terrorism’ are a reaction to our “hypertolerance”, “socialism is destroying the position of the intellectual”, the challenges to the West in the Falklands, Palestine and from Islamic peoples are “feeble-minded. . . suicidal rhetorics” only marginally less detestable than the imperialist powers. The postmodern rejection of a sense of purpose is revealed in this plague on all your houses approach as the outlook of that class in society which has no independence of purpose: the middle class.


The publication of Michel Foucault’s interviews from before his death in 1984 is a reminder that the irreverence of postmodernism towards the received opinion of the right and left had a liberatory potential. That potential, however, was hamstrung by its lack of orientation and fear of involvement. Foucault drew attention to questions of the social control exercised through institutions like psychiatry and social security at a time when the prevailing social-democratic consensus assumed these to be wholly good things. His celebration of the Iranian revolution is a challenge to French chauvinism that would elude Jean Baudrillard.

Underpinning his ability to think beyond the accepted norms was a sense of their transience. On the question of healthcare, he insists “’Health’ is a cultural fact in the broadest sense of the term. . . at once political, economic and social. . . Each period has its own notion of normality.” This sense of historical relativity allows Foucault to examine the fixed assumptions that underpin the exercise of authority. In his speech ‘The dangerous individual’, he shows how psychiatry was pressed into the service of the law to create a category of dementia which established “the right to punish. . . not only on the basis of what men do, but also of what they are, or of what it is supposed they are.” He links the emergence of the idea of the dangerous individual to the need of the state to equate the political revolutionaries of France in 1848 and the Commune of 1871 with criminality.

It is precisely this concept of relativity that gets the better of Foucault. It denies him a framework within which he can sift out the essential conflicts from the peripheral. All questions are reduced to the manichean collision of authority, as the embodiment of power, and its victims. This is a conflict which is insurmountable because there is no identifiable agent of change. Hence Foucault sees only the role of the intellectual “who destroys evidence and generalities, the one who, in the inertias and constraints of the present time, locates and marks the weak points, the openings, the lines of force, who is incessantly on the move, doesn’t know where he is heading nor what he will think tomorrow for he is too attentive to the present.”

A missing agent

Lacking the bearings of a social movement for change, Foucault’s insights are in constant danger of being put to repressive uses. His assault on the psychiatric professions has been used to justify the policy of discharging the mentally ill from hospitals to face a life of homelessness and ;police harassment called “care in the community”.

The inherent weakness of the postmodern thinkers is that their relativisation of all certainty lacks any agency of change. Having written off the working class, postmodernist relativism is transformed into a scepticism towards the possibility of change. This weakness accounts for the ease with which the theory has been appropriated by academia. Nicholas Xenos’ Scarcity and Modernity is an example of the taming of postmodernism’s critical insights. Xenos turns his fire on the concept of scarcity, finding it to be a function of abundance. He quotes Karl Marx’s distinction between the relative and the absolute wage to show that want is socially and historically determined. Rather than map out a challenge to those relations that relegate one class to want while raising the other to abundance, Xenos wonders: “Perhaps the best we can hope for is to free our minds from this concept that has taken hold of it.”

The apparent meeting point between conservative ideas and the postmodern theory of the radical intelligentsia suggests that the idea ought to take off in a big way. But the plethora of recent publications invoking the term in their titles is deceptive. Most academics are staring into the abyss of postmodern relativism with a caution that suggests a lingering commitment to objectivity.


Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity is an example of the ambiguity of academia’s response to postmodernism. Editor Bryan Turner wants postmodernism to be an extension of the modern rather than a repudiation of it. Barry Smart looks for a distinction between a “postmodernism of resistance” and a “postmodernism of reaction”. Scott Lash tries to reclaim the term from the French philosophers in favour of the American architects who coined it. Lash wants to foist what he sees as the anti-humanism of the modern movement in architecture on to the French writers Baudrillard, Lyotard and Foucault. He insists that the real postmodernism of the American architects Jenks and Venturi is a recovery of the human and historical dimension. That the chintzy homeliness of American reaction against Bauhaus can be seen as a challenge to the status quo only reveals Lash’s limited horizons. But the real story of Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity is the unwillingness of academia to follow the French philosophers down the path to relativism.

This resistance to postmodernism is due to a prior commitment, not to revolutionary change, but to traditional sociology. However, their critical attitude does reveal some insights into the popularity of the theory. Smart employs a useful allusion to the collapse of American hegemony, suggesting “the preoccupation with the ‘postmodern’ may be symptomatic not so much of the demise or exhaustion of the ‘modern’ , as a belated recognition of its geopolitical relocation, the shift of its creative and innovatory momentum and influence to the Pacific rim and the developing societies of the East”. It is a point that Roland Robertson also makes less successfully when he links postmodernism to the strengthening of the particular-universal ‘dialectic’.” The rational element in all this jargon is that universal ideas about the destiny of America are difficult to sustain in an age of uncertainty and international divisions.

Looked at in this way the differential response to postmodernism becomes more understandable. Those countries whose position in the world order has become more precarious, such as the USA and France, have provided fertile ground for a theory that raises uncertainty to a permanent condition. As the cohesion of the ruling class internationally is less secure, its ideas move towards a more local perspective. This differential response is illustrated by the German Jurgen Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity on the one hand and the collection of British essays Identity: community, culture, difference on the other.

Identity: community, culture, difference is the collected papers of a conference organised by the soft left associated with the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and Marxism Today. The contributions are in keeping with the narrow preoccupations of the British radical intelligentsia. Lacking the iconoclasm of the French postmodernists, their concern with identity is no less parochial in its consequences. The celebration of the different experiences of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, feminists and gay activists is on the one hand banal, because we know their experiences are different. But, on the other hand, it is conservative, because these differences are counterposed to collective action.

Too complex for a Big Story?

Though linking postmodernism to the “demoralising decade of Thatcherism”, Kobena Mercer assumes that “everybody knows that everyday life is so complex that no singular belief system or Big Story can hope to explain it all.” Jeffrey Weeks and Simon Watney both try to cope with the competing claims of different identity groups, with Weeks plumping for tolerance, while Watney wants to see minority rights removed from political debate by being enshrined in a constitution. The project of social transformation is rejected as a fairy story, while the hope that everyone would just get on with each other is granted the status of a political programme. While these British theorists share many of the localising preoccupations of the French, the lack of urgency in the formation of new ideas is evident in the ease with which the latest fad coexists with old ideas about the welfare state. In his Social Theory After Postmodernism, Anthony Woodiwiss carries this to extremes by grafting an introduction about postmodernism onto his book about law and Marxism.

While these two books are peculiarly British in their small-mindedness, Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity indicates the relative certainty of contemporary German thought. As the archiect of the new Europe, Germany is least beset by the doubts that dog the other leading powers. Habermas’ 12 lectures are a self-assured rebuttal of the postmodern critique of reason which he traces back from Foucault and Jacques Derrida to Friedrich Nietzsche’s elevation of the will to power over all questions of objectivity. He identifies the problem “not as an excess but as a deficit of rationality”. The birth of modern philosophy in the Enlightenment, he holds, took a wrong turn in adopting a “subject-centred” rationality.

This problem was aggravated by Hegel and Marx, whom Habermas accuses of modelling their concepts of reason (in the former) and the emancipation of labour (in the latter) on the self-conscious subject. The model of a process of self-education on the part of this subject is flawed because of its circularity. This leaves it open to rejection at the hands of the irrationalists, or displacement by a rationality of “communicative action”. Habermas’ theory of communicative action is a version of pluralism, in which rationality is based on agreement between subjects rather than the knowledge of the subject.


In the debate with postmodernism, Habermas reveals a confidence in the possibility of consensus that seems remarkably complacent next to the angst-ridden French and British contributions. He holds up the cohesive tendencies in capitalist society as positive, while rejecting its divisive tendencies as negative, with little attempt to understand their relationship. Whereas the postmodernists emphasise difference, Habermas accentuates consensus. But they are two sides of the same coin.

Capitalism acts as a cohesive force in so far as it eliminates regional and parochial divisions and brings people together in a nationwide division of labour. But it acts as a force for fragmentation because it divides society along national, class, ethnic and sexual lines. The possibility of consensus is forever circumscribed in a society based upon the division between antagonistic social classes. Consensus cannot be wished into being: it is constantly disrupted by the disintegrative tendencies inherent in capitalist society which the postmodernists ultimately celebrate and which Habermas tries to wish out of existence.





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