Hey Paul! (Pomo Ground-clearing)

Paul Henry Rosenberg rad at gte.net
Sat Mar 6 10:34:22 PST 1999

Maureen Therese Anderson wrote:

> 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??

In "I'm Impressed" it was part afterthought, part grace note.

My main target here was the self-alienation of the left as revealed in a variety of recent threads. Self-appointed heroes of the working class, desparately seeking self-legitimation.

I've made a comment about this phenomenae before. (I'm sorry, but I forget whose comment I was piggy=backing on at the time.) Left/revolutionary intellectuals are constantly beset by cognitive dissonance because of their privileged positions.

At worst this drives us to pathological absurdity, at best it presents a constant challenge that keeps us intellectually vital and alive.

And it makes us CONSTANTLY self-identify as NOT American (American leftists are the worst offenders, this isn't meant to exclude the rest, but to highlight our own worst-case status), constantly re-creating our own context of self-exclusion and defeat.

Toward the worst side of the spectrum is the tendency to attack each other mercilously and recreate the tower of Babel.

My poke at PoMo:

> Who says this PoMo stuff won't clear your head and revitalize your
> revolution for you?
> Not me! Not anymore!

was NOT to say PoMo was the cause of all this. It was a jab at PoMo pretensions to clear our heads and revitalize the revolution --- JUST AS I SAID!

You see, Maureen, I'm DREADFULLY old school. I say what I mean. ESPECIALLY when I'm poking fun at people. Precision is the essence of humor (a corrollary of "brevity is the soul of wit").

It is rather tiring to have to explain this all, it drains away all the humor, all the bite, all the life... Which is a BIG part of my beef with PoMo.

The challenge is not to explain the joke, but to GET IT.

> 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.)

And I failed to respond immediately because I'd BEEN procastinating too long.

> 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.

A few points to clear up my position:

(1) Saying that you've inherited bad ideas from someone else doesn't get you off the hook. (I'm not saying it IS a bad idea, mind you. Remember, I say what I mean. I'm laying down a general principle, so you'll understand my thinking. It's also a rhetorical device, the effect of which is utterly ruined by having to explain everything like this. How's THAT for self-referrentiality, huh?)

(2) Inheriting sensible ideas, and distorting them out of all proportion, turning them into fetishes, is far worse. And this what PoMo seems to do with incredible ferocity.

(3) I don't deny for a minute that oppositional pairs bear scrutiny. I just think that PoMo approaches have a strong tendency to be rigid, schematic, static, ahistorical and decontextual. Let's see, the oppositional pair position would be flexible, fully-realized, dynamic, historical and contextual.

(4) For example, PoMo attacks on "reason" don't do very much at all to advance our understanding of what reason actually is. On the other hand, cognitive science is making a good deal of headway in deconstructing the old reason/emotion dichotomy.

> 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.

(1) All the above COULD be sufficient reason to HATE Pomo without any further ado. There's no poison worse than that of close relations.

(2) I want to understand where Marxism has gone wrong, using its profoundest success to help understand its failure, rather than finding new, more superficial ways to fail. Hence I find the mere listing of similarities you offer as entirely besides the point -- except of course as advertising.

(3) One way in which Marxism went wrong was by assuming a sort of positivist scientism, which was amittedly altogether rampant at the time.

PoMo, with its (non-exclusive) binary obsessions construes itself both as positivist and anti-positivist: positivist in its emulation of science (the jargon is the evidence of this, not its essence) and anti-positivist in its arguments, which totally overlook the posibility of construing science on non-positivist grounds.

The real way out of this is through pragmatism, which does a FAR superior job of demystifying the nature of science, and (underlying it) common sense.

(4) As an extra added bouns, William James was already deconstructing the reason/emotion dichotomy 100 years ago in his exploration of "The Sentiment of Rationality."

> 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.

But there's no reason in the world I have to complain about everyone at once, is there? Is there? I mean, that would be EXHAUSTING!

> 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.)

Needless to say, my problem with this whole gestalt gets down to the very way that individualism is conceived, so your attempts at clarifications & disavowels here is pretty much beside the point for me.

> 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.)

You'll recall I wrote a rather long clarification in response when you first raised this objection. I never got a response to that, so I had hoped this cleared things up for you. Apparently it did not. The cookie-cutter comment was in another part of the post. You tried to hang a great deal on a single scene (which you hadn't even seen):

> (David quotes in his article:)
> >Giles: It's a reliquary. Used to house items of religious significance.
> >Most commonly a finger or some other body part from a saint.
> >Buffy: Note to self. Religion: creepy.
> I didn't see this episode, but reading it reminded me of how,
> the couple times I did see the show, I just couldn't get past
> Buffy's Brady Bunch-aspect. Because, while this "Ew! Body
> parts--yuk!" is supposed to be a critique of Jerry Falwell
> ("isn't religion dumb? isn't Jerry Falwell/US religious
> right-fundamentalism abhorrent and ridiculously superstitious?"
> --this is the part David picks up on), it inevitably overreaches.
> Buffy's "ew, creepy" sqeamishness simultaneously casts out
> Condomble, Vodun, and hell, most cultural practices outside
> of the Enlightenment west.

And this is emblamatic of my whole problem with PoMo -- it DESTROYS the specific in its infatuation with its own holy meta-narrative.

Unlike you, I actually SAW that episode. And I've seen virtually the entire Buffy program. In that scene, for one thing, it's COMPLETELY ambiguous whether she's saying that religion as a whole is creepy, or if she's making a specific mock-anthropological comment. And, not coincidentally, that ambiguity is part of what makes the show so rich.

Furthermore, as I pointed out elsewhere in the "cookie-cutter" post:

> Put it this way (in cartoon form): PoMo accepts the after-the-fact
> positivist reconstruction of the Enlightenment as a TRUE PICTURE, and
> fashions it's opposition on that grounds. I reject both positivism AND
> the positivism reconconstruction of the Enlightenment. I take a
> pragmatist stand (which, BTW, Willow and Ms. Callander both did in
> treating magic as another form of technology, rather than a dichotomous
> other to rational science).

Thus, contrary to your theory-dominated, fact-starved interpretation (a kind of imperial invasion of the text, I might call it) Buffy does the exact opposite of reinforcing the strict dichotomy (Enlightenment West Good/Everything Else Bad) you propose.

To repeat : This is emblamatic of my whole problem with PoMo -- it DESTROYS the specific in its infatuation with its own holy meta-narrative.

> 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.

Not true, but I'll accept it for the sake of argument.

> 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.

Not at all. But name me just ONE PoMo figure who's 1/10th as significant.

> 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?

My point: as I've just reminded you above, Buffy is doing a damn good job of undermining that opposition. So my answer is: "Buffy" is political activity, PoMo theoretical obsessive-compulsives are engaged in parlour games.

> ...<MEGA-SNIP of content>...

> 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?

Of COURSE media representations are a political issue. I've been involved in media activism and media criticism for years.

> (I'm presuming that you yourself don't see Africa's postcolonial
> problems as issuing from "irrational animism." Tell me if I'm wrong.)

I think irrational animism contributes to EVERYONE's problems.

Course, I'm an irrational animist myself.

> 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?

The fallacy here is that you're using the subject matter to legitimate the theoretical practice. This is the kind of confusion that Charles Murray thrives on. It's not one that we should duplicate.

I am EXTREMELY interested in the ways in which people are demonized, dehumanized, etc. in political discourse, and the ways in which doing this serves to mediate the objective contradictions of the producers and consumers of such discourse. I just don't think that PoMo theorists have done very much to help us understand any of this.

> 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 don't for the life of me see how a PoMo critic of Kaplan gets to the heart of the matter faster than a good historical survey of the role of the African slave trade in the European imperialist conquest of the world. It was the slave trade that gave us the images, not the other way around.

This is not to say that images weren't important in getting the slave trade started. It's just the old truth that it's dialectical MATERIALISM we're talking about. Without the slave trade, those early images would have faded like one-hit wonders.

> ...I'm just trying to figure out where you get off this bus.

> ...<MEGA-SNIP of content>...
> 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?


I think it's so important it shouldn't be allowed to get all gummed up in the La Brae Tar Pits of PoMo theory.

Instead, it needs to be set into some kind of REAL WORLD framework that changes over time, as well as remaining strikingly similar. And then there must be explanations of both the changes and the similarities.

BTW, on this whole modernist/animist theme, I wonder what you have to say about William Gibson's animist vision of cyberspace? To my mind it's entirely of a piece with a consist aspect of modernism -- those who work closely with technology have ALWAYS invested it with animist spirits.

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

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

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