The Half-life and After-life of Postmodernism
[Editors Note: This article was originally published as a series of five separate articles between the months of January and February 2018 at metaright.org. The following is an abridged and heavily edited version complete with footnotes explaining the changes made from the original text.]
–Lukas Eidolon, Managing Editor.
It is amusing that Postmodernism today has become a pejorative term for any ‘normative cultural relativism; any distrust of excessive skepticism against objective knowledge which exaggerates the role of language.’ Others seem to think that Postmodernism describes not the diversity of reality and thought, but instead aims for a ‘reactive non-position’. To Post-postmodernists, or those who think Postmodernism is a thing of the past, we say it is History in a completely different sense – living History.
In our opinion, there are ties between the Past and the Present which are interesting, but in order to discover them we need a historicist, ideologically-critical method that is not content with looking at History through the rear-view mirror, but one that also sees Postmodernism’s delightful and horrendous traces well into the Present. Such an analysis leads us to the conclusion that it is not just those few who reject Postmodernism as a “reactive non-position,” but as a matter of fact, embrace Postmodernism indirectly, albeit in an modified version which we shall henceforth term ‘Post-thought¹’ – a passively reactionary position.
The very notion of Postmodernism is ambiguous and contradictory, yet that does not mean that the phenomenon has lost it’s relevance or that it does not possess a useful dimension. Overall, it is possible to distinguish three basic concepts as belonging distinctly to Postmodernism:
First, it is about the current time or state of the society we live in, often described as “Postmodernity,” “Hypermodernity” or even “Liquid Modernity” as per Zygmunt Bauman.
Secondly, it is aimed at an aesthetic style, especially in architecture; such as in the realm of Derridean Deconstructivist architecture, which evokes such architects like Anglo-Iraqi “Queen of the Curve,” Zaha Hadid.
Thirdly, it can refer to a specific form of philosophical and political theory-building.
It is the third concept that interests us here. We see Poststructuralism as mainly a French opposition to the Structuralism of the 1960s, which constitutes an integral part of Postmodernism. All postmodern theory has a theoretical core of philosophical and ideological elements, namely:
Distrust of total thinking (the world as totality);
Priority to “Difference”, “Contradictions” and “Diversity” over Equality and Uniformity;
Distrust of origin and ordering principle (the Unit Principle).
The politico-philosophical (epistemological-ontological) positions that Postmodernism adopts are partly nominalist, viz., the view that reality consists only of individualities. This is an anti-essentialism which – at least rhetorically – rejects all attempts to find the “essences” of things that are presumed to be deeper dimensions within history and society and partly an anti-universalism that explicitly rejects universal moral and political doctrines.
Examining the forgotten or neglected connexions between “Classical” Postmodernism and Post-Thought, it is important to note that these theoretical core elements largely reside in contemporary neo-Nietzschean² political philosophy. Here we have a red thread of fate that can reveal something essential about the continuity between the Past and the Present in relationship to Postmodern thought.
The question, however, is whether this Niezschean thread is so ‘red³’ after all.
If we restore an ideological perspective to Nietzsche as an anti-socialist and anti-democratic thinker with a Conservative Revolutionary agenda, we are faced with a political paradox, viz., the intellectual New Left has built its Post-Thought on, at the very least a debatable, interpretation of a political philosophy with proto-Fascist elements.
This statement is hardly less paradoxical since the New Left, which de facto blocks qualified historical and social analyses critical of the current System, is primarily attacked by the conservative and reactionary Right. A culturally conservative two-front war against Neoliberalism and left-wing politics has become the framework for the ongoing culture war. We agree with some right-wing criticism, but insist that it still fails to hit the mark simply because the Postmodern rot is misinterpreted as an expression of a left-wing politics.
Enter the Postmodern: The Return of Nietzsche as Nomadic Rebel
Postmodernism and Poststructuralism arose out of the 1968 Uprising and when Marxism – especially the Structural Marxism of “French Theory” – entered something of a crisis. The Structural Marxist Louis Althusser and his disciples had prominent positions at universities and amongst the public, but towards the end of the 1970s the Althusser School seemed to dissolve just when the ideas of Nietzsche entered something of a resurgence, consolidating Nietzsche as a kind of new type of rebel.
How did Nietzsche get this central role?
His philosophy was reinterpreted and repurposed, then incorporated into a situation of deconstructive criticism and loss of meaning. Even still, Nietzsche’s ideas won the ears of a generation of academics who had been disillusioned by the political failures of the 1960s, to paraphrase the American historian of ideas Richard Wolin:
Meister Friedrich’s great significance to French Theory in the 1960s and 1970s must also be understood in light of the distinguishing traits of French philosophy. An important role was played by the philosophical reaction to Hegel’s influence. The desire to exorcise the Spectre of Hegel lay a lot behind this Nietzschean Renaissance. Michel Foucault explained that our era is trying to “escape Hegel”, and the way to do this is to fly by Nietzsche’s wings. As a matter of fact, even the Althusser School may indirectly have contributed to Nietzsche’s popularity – and its own downfall – through its relentless criticism of competing Hegelian exegeses of Marx.
The Franco-Nietzscheans regarded Hegel as the Philosopher of Dialectics, Reconciliation and Identity. Nietzsche had to represent the opposite: a fragmentary, anti-metaphysical and anti-systematic Philosophy of Difference without an organizing principle.
However, the Postmodern Nietzschean Renaissance would not have been possible without Gilles Deleuzes’ Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), also known the “Bible of Postmodernism”. Here was laid the foundation of the French – and to some extent also American – exegesis of Meister Friedrich: Nietzsche the Yea-Sayer and Anti-Dialectician. About a decade later, Deleuze relaunched him as a “Nomad” and a “War Machine” undermining all orders and “codes”, albeit without creating new bureaucrats and institutions as per Marxism or Freudianism. Thus Nietzsche was given the advantage over Marx in that he was not a political spokesman for new forms of state oppression.
In the 1970s, Deleuze’s seemingly violent rhetoric seemed to justify the left-wing terrorism of the time. But for him, it was not about broken windows and Molotov cocktails, but rather about a “violent” philosophical discourse and esoteric vocabulary. With this pseudo-radicalism, the Postmodern Nietzsche conquered the universities while the protests and riots of the New Left left the streets, at least for the time being.
Indispensable parts of the philosophical project that is Postmodernism are taken from Nietzsche. But once this has been acknowledged, one must turn Nietzsche against the Postmodernists. For Nietzsche, that supposed “nomadic rebel”, is far from any unsystematic or fragmentary thinker without a core essence. “Difference” for Nietzsche is always associated with the difference of value – what he calls the Rangordnung – between people, morals and social order. Since the Postmodernists think they can neglect – or alternatively, metaphorically reform and democratize – Nietzsche’s political ideas, they become blind to how Nietzsche practically uses his theoretical doctrines, such as Perspectivism, to create hierarchies. Postmodernists and Poststructuralists work for the tolerance of and respect for “the Other” but rely on a thinker who could hardly be further from these ideals.
Is Postmodernism Leftist?
What is, then, the political essence of Postmodernism? Does it have a coherent political orientation? Today, Postmodernism is associated – whether polemically or nostalgically – with the 1968 French Intifada, and thus often regarded as a Leftist project. The French Liberal philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut illustrate Postmodernism and Poststructuralism as part of an anti-Humanist, anti-Liberal and anti-individualist philosophical legacy, what they call “the Thought of 1968”. This wording is a tad bit misleading; as the Thought of 1968 belongs to Sartre’s Humanism just as much as Foucault’s anti-Humanism, which complicates the notion of Postmodernism as it uniquely sprung from the left-wing radicalism representative of 1968. This is complicated further by the very fact that its ideological ancestor is supposedly none other than Friedrich Nietzsche himself.
Initially, Postmodernism was hardly seen as a Leftist project. On the contrary, European Leftist intellectuals reacted very strongly against the fledgling Postmodernism.
In the early 1980s Jürgen Habermas attacked Postmodernism, which he linked with the Counter-Enlightenment, anti-Modernism and German Jungkonservatismus, with the latter including thinkers and writers such as Carl Schmitt, Armin Mohler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Thomas Mann and Edgar Julius Jung.
Another prominent critic of Postmodernism was the American literary theorist Fredric Jameson, who presented a socio-historical framework and conceptualization of Postmodernism’s emergence. He described it, in Marxist spirit, as a superstructure and as a consequence of Global Capitalism’s new forms of production and organization. Jameson’s definition explained Postmodernism as “the cultural logic of Late Capitalism”.
Paraphrasing Richard Wolin, the consensus goes that Poststructuralism and Postmodernism are movements belonging to the political Left – but this is a claim that collapses upon closer examination. After all, from an historical viewpoint, the Left has been consistently rationalist and universalist in defence of democracy, equality and human rights.
The Swedish historian of ideas, Svante Nordin, dates the ‘crisis’ of the Humanities’ in Sweden to the 1960s and 1970s, a crisis that he considers to have been in full bloom via Postmodernism by the 1980s and 1990s. This historiography suggests an unbroken ideological line. For this reason, in an interview for a newspaper, Nordin was asked the question if Postmodernism was not “rather coming from Right”. The answer read that “I do not consider it as a Leftist position – on the other hand, I do consider it as the position of the Leftists!”. Here we have a paradox; Leftist intellectuals cling to ideas and theories that are not in any reasonable or justifiable sense Leftist ideas.
To challenge Postmodernism today, from a radical position, seems like a pretentious pursuit of one-upmanship. Aside from the very fact that all critiques of Postmodernism can be dismissed as, one way or another, conservative or reactionary. It would also seem that nobody wants to identify or be identified as a Postmodernist anymore.
This is also true for those who adhere to schools of thought which are similar to Postmodernism. But despite the fact that the term is considered outdated, the cultural climate of our times is steeped in a widespread acceptance of basic ideas purported by Postmodernism. It is also blatantly obvious that several premier contemporary philosophers and political theorists of our times embraced theories and concepts which derived from Postmodernism and Poststructuralism such as Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri and the couple Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.
A hauntological⁴ event has taken place, Postmodernism is dead and buried – yet still walks upon the earth. We have chosen to call this well known yet misidentified zombie Post-Thought.
On the wide fields where Post-Thought expands, we can identify different variants of Poststructuralism (such as Foucault vs. Deleuze), in such areas as Postcolonial Studies and Post-Marxism (think of the Autonomist Marxism of Hardt & Negri, versus the Leftist Populism of Laclau & Mouffe) and perhaps extending to Post-Feminism as well. These thinkers have been blessed with the reputation of being the most exciting, the most cutting-edge, the newest of the new in all significant sectors within the humanities and social sciences.
Let us now return to the red thread that connects Nietzsche, Postmodernism and Post-Thought.
Post-Thought suffers from its own passionate love for residual neo-Nietzscheanism. It inspires this school of thought’s masters, it also permeates their fundamental issues and related fields of study. Half a century or so ago, Gilles Deleuze misinterpreted Nietzsche’s socially hierarchical term Wille zur Macht (Will to Power), by a false comparison with 17th Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s democratically intentioned concept of potentia agendi (force of effort). This Deleuzian heresy – referred to by German philosopher Jan Rehmann as an intellectual scandal – became subsequently routine and has reproduced itself throughout the Postmodernist intellectual tradition up to contemporary Nietzsche Studies.
To this day, the Södertörn University College philosopher Fredrika Spindler is still wrestling with Deleuze’s Niezschean misinterpretation of the Will to Power. In a recent study, she wanted to demonstrate it’s “radical actuality.” This is to say a “Nietzschean Analysis” for modern political philosophy, without taking into account the historical Nietzsche’s “aristocratic radicalism⁵”. But what is the difference between Meister Friedrich’s political philosophy and the “Nietzschean” contribution to our contemporary political thought?
In Spindler’s book, Nietzsche. Kropp, konst, kunskap (2010) (Nietzsche: Body, Art, Knowledge), Nietzsche himself is presented by excerpts and quotes, akin to hadiths⁶ in Islam, in a way so as to illustrate an approved leftist interpretation of a Nietzschean view of “the Political”. However, even if Nietzsche’s most politically incorrect statements pertaining to the Political are purged, there still remains his most basic philosophical concepts, such as the hierarchical Will to Power.
It is here that the Will to Truth loses its relevance for Spindler, and the desire for ideologically creative new interpretations becomes irresistible.
Intellectually, her project for “political actualization” is stillborn. Yet it can still teach us something to the extent that it provides insights into how neo-Nietzscheanism regards scientific work and how it practices a rather unique methodology of a borderline anti-intellectual sort. In particular, it provides an encapsulation of the ahistorical, asocial and anti-political implications of the “Nietzschean Analysis”.
Spindler champions Postmodernism’s schematic – dare I say essentialist – image of “the Modern Project” (including Modern political philosophy). When she talks about “our” Modern Tradition, she admits that the image is simplified, but not that the simplification is designed to make it easier for her to drill her “philosophical” main thesis into our very minds, viz., Nietzsche against everybody else.
The Metaphysics of Power and The Power of Rhetoric
In the Swedish Humanities and the Social Sciences, Michel Foucault is extremely popular. Praised for his “new” and more “interdisciplinary” understanding of “power” and power relations. But the question remains, how much of Nietzsche’s “aristocratically radical” philosophy is hidden in St. Michel’s hugely influential conception of “power?” His fusion of “power” and “knowledge” (pouvoir/savoir) is clever and witty, yet is still only a simulacrum of Nietzsche’s derivation of a Will to Truth from the Will to Power. Foucault’s neo-Nietzschean rhetoric about the multiform nature of “micro-physical” power conceals an essentialist concept of an enigmatic force underlying real-life social relations. This is to say it betrays a real understanding of antagonizing forces within the social sphere, such as the classic struggle between labour and capital.
St. Michel’s ‘Dogma of Power’ has had far-reaching consequences in terms of its influence on academia and metapolitics. How do you oppose an abstract, eternal and intangible “power?” If indeed it really is the case, as Foucault claims, that power is everywhere, and it seems virtually meaningless to resist it.
Just a rudimentary observation of Foucault’s omnipresent influence in academia reveals the hidden significance of neo-Nietzscheanism in the theory-building of even Postcolonial Studies. We can also see three prominent philosophers in the discourse of Post-Thought: Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
Stefan Jonsson, in the major Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, has for a long time emphasized the significance of this philosophical trio for the international intellectual debate. He believes that the Autonomist Marxist duo Hardt & Negri, with their concept of “Empire”, succeed in pinpointing the “sovereign power of our time”, the form of power which, according to Agamben, rests on a “biopolitical” foundation.
It is possible that by navigating political theory using these three fixed stars in the night sky of Post-Thought that has led Jonsson to the politically dangerous conclusion that “Neoliberalism as such” has gone out of time – a peculiar statement coming from a university teacher who in his daily work has to struggle with an increasingly market-adapted research and education state policy while stuck in an increasingly buy-and-sell-oriented college.
Originally, Postmodernism replaced socially-anchored ideological analysis with free-floating Foucaultian “discourses” or Lyotardian “metanarratives”. In Post-Thought, a toothless variant of the metanarrative flourishes in its place.
Jonsson’s thesis about the ideological collapse of Neoliberalism is dressed ‘post-typically’ in terms of “the Neoliberal metanarrative”. His colleague, the Swedish historian of ideas Anders Burman, claims that Postmodern theories enable critical reviews of “stultifying narratives”, and that they can also contribute to meaningful alternatives: “Narratives and counter-narratives do not need to exclude a critical, theoretical perspective.” Expressed as an uncritical, non-theoretical narrative about the narrative’s radical potential, his thesis remains merely a hope. In fact, the popular ‘narrative’ perspective is part of the culturalization of social criticism. Rather than revealing the dumbing-down of the media, it reflects the general aestheticization of the political debate.
Burman presents Postmodernism (ergo, Derrida and Foucault in his case) as a “humble way of thinking”, “affirming the Enlightenment” in the “spirit of Montaigne and Nietzsche”. Meister Friedrich, transmogrified into a thinker shoehorned into the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment?! The Dark Enlightenment perhaps, but that too would be stretching it.
Contrary to classical Postmodernists such as Jean-François Lyotard, our contemporary ‘Post-Thinkers’ no longer dare to stand for a consistent critique of the Enlightenment. The change of attitude is due to the discovery of Postmodernism’s roots in the Counter-Enlightenment and the Conservative Revolution (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Klages etc.). In addition, Postmodernism was discredited by a series of “affairs” in the 80s and 90s. Martin Heidegger the Nazi who slept with a Jewess, Paul de Man the antisemitic Nazi collaborator whose longtime friend Derrida was a Jew and Alan Sokal, the scourge of all “fashionable nonsense”. After these intellectual backlashes, attacks on “reason” and the Enlightenment were longer as viable. This is the backstory of how Postmodernism came to regard itself as a “New Enlightenment.”
The Emperor’s New Clothes⁷
Swedish cultural journals, such as Fronesis, as well as book publishers such as Tankekraft förlag, profusely churn out translation after translation of Continental Post-Thinkers. From the Archpostmodernists such as Foucault and Deleuze to lesser figures such as Paolo Virno, Agamben, Mouffe and Negri. The craze for the latter gives a clear indication of the relatively strong position of Post-Marxism in Sweden.
The French Theory–laced movement of Post-Thought continued it’s theory-building about “power” in Hardt’s & Negri’s Empire (2000), which incidentally, leads us to a political analysis that makes it clear that power, in this case, has no centre. That the United States is no longer a hegemony, that imperialism is ancient history and that the nation-state itself has been rendered obsolete in the face of the mass society and globalization is of no consequence to them. In the words of the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo, Empire’s pro-American attitude demonstrates “the self-destruction of Western Marxism”. According to Timothy Brennan, Hardt’s & Negri’s theories about “Empire” are merely the Emperor’s new clothes, consisting of one-third Deleuze, another one-third of references and allusions to European political philosophy and another one-third of futurological speculations.
Post-Marxism has, from its status as the actual, explicit left-wing of Post-Thought, effectively contributed to the sad state of affairs that decades of system-critical Marxist discussion abroad meant that such views are virtually unknown in Sweden. The neglect of this anti-Capitalist intellectual tradition means that the field is left free for Neoliberalism to assume the very framework for, and act as a prolegomena to, all ideology in areas that Post-Thought finds unimportant – such as socioeconomics. Like all other ‘Post-Ideologies’, Post-Marxism mixes up a principally non-dogmatic approach with an unprincipled theoretical eclecticism – an attitude whose ‘openness’ tends to make critical and serious scientific debate impossible; to just about the same extent as the dogmatism it was constructed as a methodological alternative too.
On one hand, the idealistic Post-Thought has no hegemonic position within the cultural sphere in a broad sense, and hardly represents any real threat to Neoliberalism as independent ideology or “metanarrative”. On the other hand, as it dominates in some key fields of the public debate – whole academic institutions, disciplines and certain genres of cultural journalism – Post-Thought maintains indirectly an ominous ideological function. It marginalizes and censors knowledge of and insights to historical contexts and processes, structural social analyses and sociomaterial explanations. Post-Thought’s fascination for aesthetics, its one-sided culturalism and fundamentally apolitical focus on identity politics, deviates from a rational analysis and critique of Neoliberal Capitalism and ultimately undermines the championing of social rights within an expanded democratic public sphere.
¹The term Post-Thought as it is used in this article essentially refers to what we would normally call cultural-Marxism, albeit with it’s origins in the French Post-Structuralist movement rather than the Frankfurt School.
² Neo-Nietzscheanism, as it is used in this article, refers the leftist interpretations, specifically among the postmodernists, of the ideas of Freidrich Nietzsche.
³A play on words, red as in the “red thread of fate” as well as red, the color of socialism.
⁴The original sentence ran, “An undead intellectual transmogrification…” I have chosen to substitute it with the word “hauntological” instead. Firstly, because I find it expresses the desired ideas a bit better and secondly because
it seemed appropriate given the that the word has it’s origins in postmodernism.
⁵The original term used here was “radical conservatism.” However, I have chosen to change it to the much more accurate “aristocratic radicalism.” I believe the term was coined by George Brandes in a letter to Nietzsche.
⁶The collected sayings of the prophet Muhammad.
⁷The original title was “Naked Snake: The Emperor’s New Clothes” which without the context in the original piece, makes little sense in this version.