Despair & Utopia (was Re: "Post-Modernism")

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Sat Nov 6 09:53:54 PST 1999

Doug Henwood wrote:

> Yoshie Furuhashi wrote:
> >The basic theme of late modernist culture is impossibility (of society,
> >knowledge, revolution, etc.), a theme in keeping with the age of the
> >retreat of the Left.
> So is this a false perception, a failure of will? Or are there real
> reasons to feel the impossibility of it all?

I take it that Doug's questions imply acceptance of Yoshie's description of late modernism. (The "Cambridge School of Anthropology" would have been among the earlier late modernists. They denied the possibility of understanding society as other than an irrational chaos.) The question is only whether there are "real reasons" for affirming the impossibility of society, knowledge, revolution, etc.

Let's take the first: Society is impossible.

Now my trouble in responding to that assertion is that the only reply possible is "You're a liar." That is, the proposition cannot be seriously affirmed, and to pretend to affirm it is to lie. *Aliter*, the proposition is incoherent. A proposition such as "This sentence is false" points to interesting logical puzzles, but the sentence "Society does not exist" (and if it is impossible then it does not exist) merely affirms confusion and one cannot hold rational discourse with the person who affirms it. One can, in contrast, hold rational discourse with someone who says, believing it, "I am Napoleon." The propostion is coherent (if nutty), and one can discuss the implications of it for action. But it is impossible to discuss the implications of "Society is inpossible" because, like all incoherent propositions, it has no implications. Incoherent propositions are sort of polar opposites to contradictory propositions. The latter imply everythign. The former imply nothing.

Knowledge is impossible.

For reasons summarized in John Foster's post on "origins of dogmatism" this proposition is both regressive and trivial. And as has been continually

pointed out throughout the long history of scepticism, it is also incoherent. It's not really worth debating but serves only to deflect attention from such questions as how do we use what we do know for what purposes or what do we need to know that we don't know or ......

Revolution is impossible. Having found out yesterday (thanks to Ann Li) that I have used the term historicism more or less correctly, I can apply that label here. The proposition that "Revolution is impossible" is just as silly as the proposition that "Revolution is Certain." Neither proposition is of much interest. Both claim that the maker of the proposition (or the asker of the question) knows history absolutely because he/she is in possession of the key that allows perfect prediction of the future. Both of course deny contingency or partial knowledge.

So, there are no real reasons to feel the impossibility of it all. But perhaps it would be worth exploring more fully why such concepts would be bruited about. Also, how accurate is Yoshie in arguing that these beliefs in impossibility are controlling in much contemporary thought. I tend to think she is correct, and that it has indeed been the prevailing attitude since August 1914. A whole series of rather schoolboy/girlish absolute antitheses operate. Either we can know everything or we can know nothing. Either we have absolute certainty or we have no real knowledge. Either revolution is certain or TINA. Everyone can generate their own series. Perhaps someone should write a simple computer program to generate the complete set.

One of the reasons that sceptics have so much material to operate with is that we know so fucking much. And the more we know, the more we raise new and interesting questions to which we don't know the answers, and that fruitful ignorance becomes the excuse for doubting everything.

Probably we are faced with one large realm of thought in which a simple mechanical application of the old base/superstructure formula would do just fine.


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