Hey Paul! (Pomo Ground-clearing)

Maureen Therese Anderson manders at midway.uchicago.edu
Fri Mar 5 09:25:40 PST 1999

Hey Paul,

Truly I'm in awe. Is there anything at all that escapes your "pomo" branding?? Your most recent pomo-branding ("I'm IMPRESSED!") was truly dazzling in its reach even for you. What's this about??

I know that lots of talking-past happens in a forum uniting perspectives from such different parts of the woods (part of the list's beauty for me, a relative newbie), but this seems like more than garden-variety talking-past. So in the spirit of communication I'm going to quixotically try a bit of ground clearing, from the vantage point of my finite part of the woods. And I apologize for whatever in its generalizations is old news to you: I'm really just trying to backtrack a bit to find out what is RILLY RILLY eating you! (Besides, I'm irresponsibly procrastinating on worldly tasks.)

First, based on your pomo-branding in several posts, including mine, I've gathered that you associate the idea of relational, codefining oppositions (e.g. self/other; rational/superstitious) with postmodern theory. So here's the first thing to clear up: the observation that groups never constitute themselves sui generis but always in co-defining relationships with others, well that's a founding-principle of stodgy old sociocultural anthropology. (And of other stodgy disciplines, as well.) The theme unfolds differently in different anthro traditions (American cultural, French structural, etc.) but they've all had it in common since long before Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler or Lacan came to town. So while you can criticize notions of positional, co-defining values as too culturalist or too structuralist, you can't criticize them for being too pomo.

Secondly, despite points of antagonism, those sociocultural approaches frequently link up with Marxist social analysis. Both views maintain that our experience of the world is profoundly mediated by surrounding cultural/social forms, and both ground that founding principle in thorough-going critiques of bourgeois/enlightenment empiricism, rationalism, homo economicus, etc.

So, as with the co-defining identity point, when you dismiss anti-empiricist approaches as "pomo," you have to be more precise about what's really bugging you. Not just because both "structural" traditions do all that Enlightenment-critiquing *without any help at all* from Homi, Judith, or Jacques, but more importantly, because these older traditions are themselves busy slugging it out with strands of pomo theory.

Both slug it out with those pomo strands which end up reinforcing the very liberal market premises that they've defined themselves against from the get-go. This point, that a lot of pomo theory has an affinity with neoliberalism, seems something of a standard critique now, i.e., those strands which end up equating social/political agency with individualist, voluntarist "consumption" choices, etc. (Though, as many on the list have repeatedly pointed out, "pomo theory" contains a range of currents and ancestries, and personally I'm happy to hear out Lacan or whomeever might have something of value to add here.)

The slug-fests around these issues can get ironic at times. As, in my field, in the well-publicized one a couple years back between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins. [Bref: Sri Lankan Obeyesekere accused (in a much discussed, prize-winning book) academia's preeminent cultural-structural anthropologist, MS, of being an imperialist Whiteguy for saying that the Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was a god, since *ob*viously nobody could be that naive. Which generated notoriously anti-pomo Sahlin's cantankerous response (in a much discussed, prize-winning book), to the effect that it was Obeyesekere who was in fact trapped in the native "mythical thinking" of 18th century bourgeois empiricism, with its empirical reason/pure objects dualisms.]

That slugfest, incidently, links up to a Buffy post, where I'd suggested that we think twice before uncorking the champagne because of Buffy's enlightened "no gods/religion" aspect. You branded that caution as cookie-cutter pomo-theory, whereas in fact it echoed "cultural" arguments similar to Sahlins' anti-pomo ones. (Maybe as an experiment you could try posting your grievances for a few weeks without any recourse at all to the term, postmodernism. It might help clarify things for all concerned.)

But in that post, my cautions were also motivated by a perspective that sees culture/discursive processes and political economy processes as two sides of the same reality. Many on the list seem interested in erasing the culture/material hyphen (as someone put it yesterday). So it's probably good to separate out the different sets of tensions here. Socio-cultural vs pomo tensions (Sahlins vs. Ob.) are distinct fromthe tensions involved in erasing the culture/material hyphen without reducing the one to the other. But the latter one is, again, one whose starting point is a tension between two traditions whcih are both critical of the liberal wisdoms which resurface in some pomo theory.

Now politics. Your litmus test of whether an approach gets branded with the scarlet "PM" or not. Be assured that I for one consider Howard Zinn to be a national treasure. Really. But I hope you agree that "What's to be done?" is a big question, requiring lots of kinds of doers on lots of levels, and that HZ isn't alway going to be the best gauge of all those activities.

So, returning again to that same post wherein my "pomo" transgression lay in suggesting that Buffy contained codependant oppositions between rational enlightenment and enchantment/superstition. ...Actually, here I'm just going to bow to your greater Buffy knowledge and say that I'm just talking about all the _other_ scores of media representations that do this, okay? So, Buffy aside: is dwelling on the above opposition a political activity or parlour game?

I think how this is answered partly depends on what one thinks of peoples whose (post-)modern trajectory is cast as outside of the European Enlightenment. Since West Africa is the region I have most knowledge of (historically, culturally and "empirically"), I'll use it by way of example. Because it's also a region where superhuman agents play a role in the everyday lives of just about everyone. I don't just mean the "illiterate villagers," but also in the most cosmopolitan sectors, including all those brilliant advanced degree-holders from top European Universities, etc. Nor is this some purely private-sphere activity but something that figures in all sorts of institutional, public, political affairs. I'm feeling utterly ridiculous having even to type this ("not just the villagers"), but I have been floored too many times by progressives who just can't get their heads around this one: that active superhuman agency is recognized as part of the every day mainstream reality in entire regions of the modern world.

Progressives aren't the only ones who don't get their heads around this. And here's the most immediate "political" issue. That the ultimate source of Africa's postcolonial problems is its so-called "animist superstition," is a notion that lies below the surface in popular and highbrow media alike. I'll mention just one media example, selected because of my thorough first-hand knowledge of the text's reception, and you seem to value that kind of empiricism. But the point is that the instances can be multiplied *ad nauseum*.

A few years back Robert Kaplan wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, utterly seething with height-of-empire explanations of Africa's problems. You know: "irrational animist beliefs not suitable to a moral society," and (of course) "ancient tribal hatreds," and on and on. Its odious analysis was only slightly less breathtaking than the piece's influential and enthusiastic reception. It was widely circulated in overseas "policy" circles (e.g., as required reading at the Africa section of the Foreign Service Institute, widely distributed to/by FSOs in US embassies, the article of the hour in no end of policy communities in Abidjan, the ex-patriate "development work" hub of West-Africa). And domestically, back here in Chicago, the article was brought up to me on several occassions by professional-middle-class types upon hearing that I'd spent the last couple years in Ivory Coast (a country that figured prominently in Kaplan's doomsday piece). Who'd have thought the Atlantic Monthly got such circulation? I sure didn't.

So Paul, I'm wondering where you'd fall on this. Can I presume that you agree that if world's most influential powers still systematically cast "cultures" in terms of civilized and backwards ones, and simultaneously cast post/neo-colonial problems in places like Africa as indigenous "mentality" problems, that this is a "political" issue? (I'm presuming that you yourself don't see Africa's postcolonial problems as issuing from "irrational animism." Tell me if I'm wrong.) If you concur, then can you see how media representations of enlightenment vs. superstition can serve to reinforce these organizing oppositions? And if so, would you agree that concerns about these issues are more than apolitical parlour games?

And if you agree with the above, do you see any value in the fact that some want to rethink (a word which I know sets off your pomo alarm) the broader underpinnings that allow Kaplanesque articles to go unchecked? To unpack the prevailing propensity to view societies which have been utterly central to the formation of "the modern world" as marginal to that modernity? ...I'm just trying to figure out where you get off this bus.

In that "central to modernity" vein, I mentioned in that pomo-branded post how Europe's seemingly internal quarrel about religion and superstition took place in the context of new global encounters. (And didn't mean to focus exclusively on "discourse": I just assume that the material importance of places like Africa and the Americas en route to Europe's modernity, through trade and forced labor, is obvious to anyone on the list.) I also alluded to some of those seventeenth century texts authored by early mercantile traders along Africa's Gold Coast. These guys who were all fretting about those unfathomable natives, in their mentally enslaving thrall of witchdoctors who keep them from trading in the right way. I happen to think it's significant that in these (best-selling) pieces of travel-writing, the merchants' commodity-consciousness quandary and the superstition one were cast as one and the same problem.

But at any rate: it's an uncanny experience for me sometimes, to set those 17th c. texts down, enter the late-20th century, and come across pieces like Kaplan's. Over three centuries later and there are all these mainstream pieces that are just as certain, via such similar arguments, of the backwardness of peoples who are not marinated in European social forms and categories. And just as certain (far more, actually) about the first-principles of market-society. Do you think it worthwhile at all to spend some time thinking about those linkages?

now successfully procrastinated,

Maureen (who rest assured can't afford to procrastinate thusly any time soon, I promise!)

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list