Butler (Re: cop shows, postmodernism and all that

Paul Henry Rosenberg rad at gte.net
Mon Feb 8 16:55:05 PST 1999

Soapbox warning! But, Doug asked for it...

Doug wrote:

> Steve Perry wrote:
> >Well, you're right, so far as you go--but it seems to me that all the
> >post-whatever intellectual movements have contributed substantially to a
> >diversion of energies from practical politics. They're kinda like video
> >games in that regard; they advance the privatization of experience and of
> >intellectual/emotional engagements. I mean, is it really going too far to
> >suppose that they've got something to do with the utter lack of any new
> >political movements (or leadership cadres) emerging from the universities
> >in the last 20 years or so?
> I think one reason that so many political intellectuals are obsessed with
> theory these days is that it's a symptom of defeat, and a hope that
> discourse can in part substitute for "action." But that's not all. I think
> people are also really at a loss over what to do and how to do it. How do
> you appeal to people today when capitalism seems mighty and permanent, our
> heads are saturated with advertisements, socialism and social democracy
> look totally discredited, and our day-to-day lives are hectic and atomized?

True enough, but pomo theory is about the LAST place to look, IMHO. Rather than pump up that argument again, I'd like to offer some alternative suggestions.

First & foremost: take the pomo's at their word: Eschew infatuation with meta-narratives!

I mean it, for real. Don't substitute the pomo metanarrative, go cold turkey.

To me this doesn't mean arbitrarily throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, it means re-examine all the ligatures that seem to tie things together, according to whatever moves you -- your practical experience, your methodological experiences (or fristarations), your crying needs, whatever. (No meta-narrative cohesion to "legitimate" motives!)

Second: (This and all further points are made in the spirit of being ONE such example of following my own advice under the first point.) -- Distinguish the progressive features of the Enlightenmnent, industrial revolution, American/French/Russian/etc. revolutuns, etc. Distinguish philsophical principle from its application, political strategy from political theory, etc. In short, disaggregate factors, rather than seeking a magical key that will unlock ALL THE ANSWERS.

This is NOT the same as denying the importance of Marxist analysis, the historical centrality of class relations, etc., thought it certainly does allow for the possibility of others doing so. The result, INHO, will be a deeper synthesis in which Marx retains a very central place, but the configuration of connections will be quite different from how we've got them wired today. It will be a whole lot less like a religion, a whole lot more like a tool. (Don't like the "tool" metaphor? Re-chjeck your attitudes toward the working class.)

Third: Take VERY seriously the contradiction between the working class as the engine of revolution and your own particular class situation. If you're on this list, chances are 99% or so that you're fooling yourself by calling yourself "working class" for THIS particular purpose. Whatever form of identity politics moves you, perform an analogous self-examination.

The point of this is not self-flaggelation, but learning to soberly work through the obvious fact that the contradictions of the society we live in INEVIATEBLY live in us, in some form or another.

Fourth: Keeping all these things in mind, don't be afraid to engage in/work with reformist or even centrist anti-reactionary forces. Rather than being obsessed with your own moral purity, seek out opportunities to mix it up & get your hands dirty with others who may pay a lot more attention to you because you've earned some respect in terms they understand.

This is especially important in America, where we haven't had a strong, organized left except for brief episodes (which have put the word "orgnized" to a rather sever text, but you know what I mean.)

My own personal predilictions are toward framing basic political struggles in terms of democracy vs. plutocracy, and substantive vs. formal vs. no rights at all. These are alternative ways of arguing for a universalist political vision, which means defacto inclusion of whatever oppressed group is yer revolutionary subject of choice. But I have no objection to others choosing different ones. It's a much healthier contest, methinks, to see which of us can come up with the best strategy in this direction.

My choices reflect, among other things, an interest in re-appropriating goodies from the liberal tradition. Ain't that what dialectic calls for anywho?


Underlying all the above is my own pragmatism and pluralism in the high Jamesian (rather than the unspeakably low Schlesingerian) sense.

For example: Marxism as a revolution theory hasn't worked out so well. But that doesn't necessarily tell us anything about it's many other aspects. Quasi-religious attempts to recover the "real" Marxism and then shove it down each others throats are so obviously wrong-headed it's a waste of breath to talk about them. But trying out different disagregated aspects of Marxism and seeing how they can fit in with other ideas can provide a truly useful multiple-front approach toward developing syntheses we have no possible way of conceiving in advance.

(I have nothing in principle against looking at Marxism and PoMo theory in this kind of way, it's just that people have been doing this for a couple of decades now, which only seems to have contributed to withdrawl from action, with nothing much to show for it in balance.)

-- Paul Rosenberg Reason and Democracy rad at gte.net

"Let's put the information BACK into the information age!"

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