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16.2.04

Postmodernism =/= Marxism

One of my pet peeves is people throwing around the word "postmodernism" without regard to the fact that it refers, not to liberal or leftist ideas in general, but to a very specific body of theory. In reporting the decline of social theory in English departments, the Christian Science Monitor falls into this trap:

Theory In Chaos

An old joke used to ask, Where are the last bastions of Marxism? Answer: the Kremlin and the Duke University English department. But now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the last defenders of Karl Marx's ideas may indeed reside on a pretty, Gothic-style campus in the pinewoods of North Carolina.

For literary traditionalists, the riddle is apropos. They have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics.


Anyone who can conflate postmodernism with Marxism knows precious little about either. Marx was a quintessential modernist thinker. Postmodernism (as well as poststructuralism) rose as a reaction against Marxism, and the two exchange heated polemics (which often boiled down to "more revolutionary than thou" arguments).

Marxism does propose that most of our knowledge about the world is socially constructed -- an ideology, in Marxist terms, generated by and used to justify the dominant relations of production. However, Marxism also posits that there is a truth about how the world is, and that through various devices -- such as dialectical reasoning and standpoint epistemology -- we can see through the ideologically impregnated world of appearances and understand the true exploitative nature of capitalism.

This "objective" side of Marxism eventually merged with structuralism, producing theories that linked the world's processes together into a huge, and sometimes quite deterministic, system. Postmodernism and poststructuralism were the far wing of the reaction reestablishing the role of human agency against the all-pervading structure of later Marxists like Louis Althusser. Poststructuralism has developed this line of critique on the ontological level, exchanging the rigid systems of structuralism for shifting and contingent articulations of fragments of social structure and knowledge. Postmodernism has taken it in a more epistemological direction, challenging the tyrrany of logic by seeking to disrupt categories and systems of thought as soon as they're stated. Postmodernism has a second important feature of postulating (in appropriately vague terms) the emergence of a new, postmodern, historical era in which the certainties and progress of the Enlightenment are found to be hollow.

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