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Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is probably the single most influential figure in postmodernism, inspiring many later theorists and activists including queer theorists such as Judith Butler.
His book The Order of Things, which outlined the theory and method of his early, structuralist phase, suffered a devastating critique from the psychologist Jean Piaget (Piaget p128-35) But it is the later, post-structuralist Foucault who became a guru. He now replaces structuralism’s “great model of language and signs” with Nietzsche’s theme of “war and battle”. (Quoted in Callinicos APM p81).
The network of power/knowledge
Nietzsche had presented military and market competition under capitalism as universal, eternal features of society and nature, as previously discussed. The clash of social classes, he said, is secondary and arises as a side effect of this fundamental, atomised power struggle.
My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power epigram 636)
Foucault does a cut-and-paste of Nietzsche’s formulation, lightly adapted to modern times and his academic environment. Power, he says
is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations. Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations) but are immanent in the latter… there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled… One must rather suppose that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups and institutions are the basis of wide ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole. These then form a general line of force that traverses the local lines of force and link them together. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 1 p94)
Despite the passing reference to economic forces, Foucault generally discusses power only in relation to knowledge, which he treats as more or less two sides of the one coin: “power and knowledge directly imply one another”. (Foucault, Discipline and Punish p27) The police truncheon, fuel-air bomb and factory all fade from view. Everyone seeks power by gaining knowledge of others and by framing the knowledge that others receive.
This war-of-all-against-all formulation is bound to irritate mainstream politicians and right wing ideologues who like to present society, at least sometimes, as bound together through patriotism, “national values” etc. Conversely Foucault’s concept of power has appealed to many social activists and critics who want ways to unmask hypocrisy and explore the realities of discrimination and the power struggles hidden beneath bland exteriors. Ultimately, though, Foucault’s formulation has two very conservative implications.
Firstly, it makes to no qualitative distinction between oppressor and oppressed. The Walmart executive, the call-centre worker, the police spy, the Sierra Leonean mother who’s had her hands chopped off by thugs, are all playing the same game of power/knowledge, seeking power over others by gaining more knowledge of them. The only difference is how well they are currently doing in this fluid, timeless contest.
Secondly, there is nothing beyond the network of power/knowledge – people will always be competing and trying to dominate one another. Postmodernists love to attack Marxists for their “closure”, the way they link every social relationship back to capitalism and class struggle. In fact it is postmodernism that is closed. Humanity can never be liberated, it is forever caught within social forces beyond its control, like rats in a maze with no exit.
Localism and fragmentation
Foucault opposes any challenge to the capitalist system as a whole. The mighty global network of corporations, banks, armies, bureaucracies and private institutions that dominate the world should not be subject to any united challenge from below: that would require masses of ordinary people developing a collective, systematic understanding of what they are dealing with, and Foucault rails against “the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse”. (Quoted by Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History p59) As we’ve seen, everyone is always trying to dominate each other, and power and knowledge are twinned, so when Marxists talk of the capitalism as a totality their real aim can only be totalitarian power for themselves: they want to control everyone’s thinking within their own discourse, the end result being the Stalinist police state.
Foucault’s alternative is localism, the motto of the petty-bourgeois intellectual since Proudhon: “a reactivation of local knowledges – of minor knowledges, as Deleuze calls them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power”. (Foucault, Power/Knowledge p85)
Protest actions should never be more than fragmentary, nor should our way of thinking. No knowledge can be anything more than a perspective, inseparable from one’s place in particular power struggles. As Mark Poster put it, there is “not truth only truths.” (Poster p7)
The celebration of fragmentation fed into the social mood of the late 1970s, as discussed earlier. The far Left slogan of “one struggle one fight” against the establishment and the system as a whole looked less and less realistic as the tide of struggle receded. Postmodernism, and Foucault in particular, provided a set of theories to justify the abandonment of these politics, and to attack anyone who still defended them.
Humanism and anti-humanism
“Man is an invention of recent date” says Foucault. “And one perhaps nearing its end.” If “the fundamental arrangements of knowledge” were “to crumble, as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Quoted by Callinicos, ITAFFM p42)
Leaving aside the sexist terminology of the time, the concept “man” presents people in broadly humanistic terms. Foucault was anti-humanist. He was not indifferent to human suffering, as shown for example in his criticism of the prison system. But his moral critiques are made within a stunted view of what people are and what they are capable of. Before discussing that, some background about humanism.
Humanism, as Wikipedia says, “emphasizes the value and agency of human beings”. Among other things, it asserts the value of the human personality, the notion that each individual has a universe of thoughts and feelings within them, and they deserve the chance to express and develop that inner world to the full. And it asserts that humans can consciously act on society and change it. So people are “subjects”: both a valid focus of study, and active participants in the world.
Humanism arose alongside the slow emergence of the capitalist class, and was a weapon in its attack on the rigid hierarchies of feudalism. People depicted in art were no longer lifeless symbols but displayed their own thoughts and feelings. As capitalism flourished people began keeping private diaries, the notion of romantic love pushed out the belief in arranged marriages. Personality was deeply explored in literature. The notion that people could change their personal situation through their own efforts became accepted ideology: you made your own life and “the people” could throw off injustice. Women began to challenge the way their own lives were cramped by sexual oppression. (For an overview of these developments see Zaretsky ch 3-5)
By the late nineteenth century, however, the supremacy of the human subject, “man” as a central concept, was under challenge. Under intense scrutiny, the human individual turned out to be rather fragmented internally into persona/inner self, Jekyll/Hyde, ego/id, etc. People were also seen to be driven by forces and structures external to themselves, such as class position, national status and sex roles, as well as by great events like war and economic crises. Perhaps “man” as a self-contained, unitary, free-floating entity was not after all such a good way to understand people and society.
The politics of humanism
Behind these ideas lurked different political agendas. Mainstream capitalist ideology still emphasised the freedom and responsibility of the individual. You are free, so if you don’t get rich you are to blame. It celebrated competitive individualism, with “the community” as a cynical or sentimental overlay. The celebration of the human personality usually focused on upper class males.
The rising socialist movement, and Marxism in particular, broke from these bourgeois concepts of liberty and liberation. It opposed competitive individualism as anti-human: true personal fulfilment and freedom required, among other things, nourishing interpersonal bonds which are cruelly constrained under capitalism. It challenged women’s oppression, particularly that of working women. For example, Lenin said in 1919 that the Soviet republic had barely begun the task of women’s liberation: “Notwithstanding all the [new, Soviet] laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.” Marxists also pointed out how men’s lives were debased by women’s oppression. If woman is “merely a cook, a maid and a whore for man, their relation only satisfies his dehumanised, animal needs”. (Mezaros, p185) Within the Marxist worldview individuals were not truly free to do as they chose, but still had agency by participating in the struggles of their class. Major class struggles were set off by the economic and political crises of capitalism – objective forces beyond anyone’s control. But the working class was capable of understanding these forces, and overcoming them through revolution. When the working class broke the rule of the capitalist class it would also end humanity’s enslavement to the chaotic uncontrolled forces of market and military competition that threatened even the capitalists themselves.
But there was also a second strain within capitalist ideology, one that derided the individual and glorified wider social structures. Unlike Marxism and classical liberalism, it denied human agency, declaring that common people could never take democratic ground-level control of the forces that ruled them. This current tends to present the human personality as endlessly malleable, and/or inconsequential. (By contrast, Marxism declares that people have basic needs and drives which set a limit on the social engineering of our minds. People crave the chance for creative use of their skills, and for fulfilling interpersonal bonds. Their skills, tastes and personal relations develop historically but are an intrinsic part of being human, and if they are not given expression our lives are cramped and distorted.)
Fascism is the prime example of this second form of capitalist ideology: individuals are nothing before the majesty of the nation. But postmodernism too says that people can never be more than chess pieces moved by uncontrollable outside forces – in Foucault’s case, this means power/knowledge.
“Where there is power,” Foucault says, “there is resistance”. (History Sexuality Vol 1 p95) But this resistance seems to be like a law of physics: not the struggle against oppression, more like an objective force operating beyond human control; it does not imply real agency from an individual or a social class. Certainly, such “resistance” does not mean we can ever fight our way beyond the dog-eat-dog world of petty power struggles. This is very clear from Foucault’s contempt for theories of liberation. He allows for no development of the idea beyond bourgeois ideology:
The socialism of a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century… dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature. What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realise that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model.
As evidence for this he points to the failure to move beyond bourgeois values, eg around the family, in either the Stalinist states or western democracies. But while liberty is a purely bourgeois concept for Foucault, the idea that we are all nasty, competitive and selfish – the stalest capitalist cliché about human nature – is preserved in concealed form, in the idea of the inescapable network of power/knowledge.
After all this, Foucault suddenly does an about turn. In his final works he retreats from an objectivist notion of power.
Characteristically, just as he had in the mid-1970s denied that he had ever been concerned with language, Foucault now played down the question of power: “I am very far from being a theoretician of power… power, as an autonomous question, does not interest me”. (Callinicos, APM, p88).
Foucault now investigates
a group of practices which have been of unquestionable importance in our societies… those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 2 p10-11).
I would argue that this is another rehash of Nietzsche. As previously discussed Nietzsche proposed that great men, the Lords of the Earth (the Trumps, Koch brothers and Tony Blairs of his day) could achieve self-expression by forging mighty personalities from their own superior wills, while people in the “herd” could not and remained depersonalised. Foucault is not on the far Right, but like Nietzsche he is drawing a class line. Having spent years explaining that ordinary people’s personalities, hopes and dreams are as shallow and insubstantial as a face drawn in the sand, he now says that the new middle class, and those who ape them, should feel entitled to self-cultivation.
“Couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” Foucault asks. (Quoted in Callinicos, APM p89) By “everyone” he means everyone-who’s-anyone, everyone in a certain social layer. “To invite a hospital porter in Birmingham, a car-worker in Sao Paulo, a social security clerk in Chicago or a street child in Bombay to make a work of art of their lives would be an insult – unless linked to precisely the kind of strategy for social change which… poststructuralism rejects.” (Callinicos, APM p91)
Bodies and pleasures: Foucault on sexuality
If Foucault was to ever to address discrimination against women, his three-volume work on sexuality might be the place. No. His wretchedly impoverished view of humanity leads him away from examining the way sexuality under capitalism dehumanises females.
Under a humanistic view, sexuality connects to the human needs for intimacy, variety and experimentation, all brutally limited by female objectification and the values of submission and self-sacrifice. Foucault sees things differently. Sexuality, as anything more than bodily sensations of pleasure, is only a “great surface network” of force relations created blindly on a social scale as individuals seeks power over each other by gaining knowledge of them. So he can talk of the notion of female hysteria being created, like that of perversion, by doctors and psychiatrists in the Victorian era, to increase their own power. But even here his real aim is to degrade the notion of the human subject, with its valuation of personality and agency: power struggles create “men’s subjection: their constitution as subjects in both senses of the word.” (History of Sexuality Vol 1 p60)
There is no shortage of texts which discuss the inner damage females sustain through socialisation. To take a few examples, Juliet Mitchell closely examines how females’ very early experiences lay the groundwork for a lifetime of self-limitation, in “The Making of a Lady” (Psychoanalysis and Feminism part 1) Cordelia Fine has researched the subtle ways in which girls internalise femininity. John Berger points out that the objectification of women and girls leads inevitably to “a woman’s self being split in two”:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. (Berger Ways of Seeing ch 3)
Foucault directs our attention away from all this.
Above all Foucault mocked the notion of escape from oppression through sexual liberation. Like Nietzsche, he compared liberation to religious deliverance:
Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom… slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression. Some of the ancient functions of prophesy are activated herein. Tomorrow sex will be good again. Because this repression is affirmed, one can discreetly bring into coexistence concepts which the fear of ridicule or the bitterness of history prevent most of us from putting side by side: revolution and happiness. (Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 p7)
Foucault, female socialisation, and transgender
As part of the transgender phenomenon, sex stereotypes have been repositioned as a minority concern, and femaleness redefined in terms of stereotypes rather than socialisation. These are the messages which governments and the corporate media are now pumping out to millions of women and girls internationally, under the guise of defending vulnerable transgender people. In this way the trans trend is of great benefit in furthering the anti-woman agenda of the capitalist class. Marxists and feminists continue to oppose female socialisation in many contexts, but most fall quiet when the issue is seen in terms of transgender; effectively, they are the Left wing of the uncritically pro-trans coalition that extends all the way to the business wing of the US Republican Party.
To this extent, the issue of female socialisation has been junked to accommodate transgender concerns. How can the far Left have made such an abject capitulation? As previously discussed they have caved in to immense pressure from identity politics. But why are identity-politics activists themselves – anti-sexist, politically sophisticated – willing to take such an anti-woman position? The postmodernists, Foucault prominent among them, have helped to make this possible. They have connected to the anger and cynicism of masses of people only to narrow our view of people and society, limit perceptions of what is possible, and pull social critics and activists to the Right. In response we need to reassert Marxist humanism, which highlights the significance of people’s agency and the value of their inner lives. And this means, among other things, highlighting the oppressive nature of female socialisation, even when it is given a progressive veneer.
Sources cited but not hyperlinked in the text:
John Berger Ways of Seeing Penguin Kindle edition
Alex Callinicos Against Postmodernism Polity Press Cambridge 1989
Alex Callinicos Is There a Future For Marxism McMillan 1982
Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, Penguin 1979
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 Penguin 1981
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 2: The Uses of Pleasure Viking Penguin 1984
István Mezaros Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin Press London 1970
Jean Piaget Structuralism, Routledge and Kagan Paul London 1971
Mark Poster Foucault, Marxism and History Polity Press 1984
Eli Zaretsky Capitalism the Family and Personal Life 2nd edn Harper and Rowe NY 1986
This is the fifth in a series of posts on postmodernism. It follows posts on Nietzsche’s politics and philosophical ideas, on the core ideas of postmodernism, and an introduction and historical background to postmodernism.
A central contributor to postmodernism was the post-structuralist philosophy coming out of France in the 1970s. This in turn emerged from the structuralist thinkers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They took up terms and concepts developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, who had founded structural linguistics early last century.
The politics of language
Saussure’s linguistics rejected the theory of language formulated by John Locke. For Locke language was simply a passive reflection of the world: words are effectively just “phantoms of the material world,” as Karl Marx said, or as Alex Callinicos put it, “meaning is held to consist in the entity outside language to which it refers… ideas are the signs of things and words the signs of ideas” (Callinicos page 26). Ultimately this way of thinking assumes the existence of God, who establishes external meanings and equips individual human beings to identify them.
Marx had a different view. He understood that language, simply capturing and housing information from external reality also shapes that information within our minds. Marx also pointed out that this process is social not individual: language provides a social framework through which individual minds come to grips with the world around them. So language plays a political role, a means for dominant classes impose their worldview, which can be contested by opposing classes.
Like Marx, Saussure recognised that there are no self-evident associations between external things, ideas and words. And like Marx, he saw that meanings are not constructed at the individual level. However, he tended to ascribe to language its own system of meaning, sharply separated off from the rest of society: “a system closed into itself, basking in its own internal coherence”, “like a game of chess” (Sebastiano Timpanaro pages 145-51).
Interestingly, Saussure himself did not think that his linguistics could be applied to other aspects of society. “We are convinced,” he said, “that whoever sets foot on the ground of language is bereft of all the analogies of heaven and earth”. Economic value, for example, is “rooted in things and their natural relations” (quoted in Timpanaro pages 157-8). Nevertheless his concepts were applied to anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, and to the psychology of Jacques Lacan, and were hybridised with Stalinism by Louis Althusser (see here. For a longer critique of Althusser see here). Structuralism also prepared the ground for Derrida’s later assertion that “there is no outside-text”, that language is effectively the only reality.
Claude Levi-Strauss, structural anthropology, and the attack on history
Claude Levi-Strauss is perhaps the most important representative of structuralism. His early work is known for its hostility to Eurocentric racism, which identified the progress of a society with its degree of similarity to the societies of the major western powers. In his book Structural Anthropology he rebutted the crude analogy between cultural development and biological evolution, used to support Eurocentrism. (Levi-Strauss Structural Anthropology page 4) But this became an attack on any concept of historical development, or the analysis of any phenomenon in historical terms.
In reality, phenomena like the Christian church or women’s oppression are irreducibly historical, undergoing qualitative changes over time as part of the wider society. For Levi-Strauss, however, a “detailed history” of any phenomenon is needed precisely to cull its superficial, changeable elements from the supposedly essential, ahistorical core beneath them. “By showing institutions in the process of transformation,” he wrote, “history alone makes it possible to abstract the structure which underlies the many manifestations and remains permanent throughout a succession of events”. This underlying structure consists of humanity’s collective unconscious thought. It provides the key to understanding not just language but “the kinship system, political ideology, ritual, art, code of etiquette, and – why not? Cooking.” (Structural Anthropology page 85). It is valid across times and cultures.
If, as we believe to be the case, the unconscious activity of the mind consists in imposing forms upon content, and if these forms are the same for all minds – ancient and modern, primitive and civilised (as the study of the symbolic function, expressed in language, so strikingly indicates) – it is necessary and sufficient to grasp the unconscious structure underling each institution and each custom, in order to obtain a principle of interpretation valid for other institutions and other customs, provided of course that the analysis is carried far enough…
With surprising rapidity – which shows that one is dealing with an intrinsic property of certain modes of thinking and action – collective thought assimilates what would seem the most daring concepts, such as the priority of mother-right, animism, or, more recently, psychoanalysis, in order to resolve automatically problems which by their nature seem forever to elude action as well as thought. (Structural Anthropology pages 19-23)
This mystical collective unconscious also seems to explain economic forces: “Economic history is, by and large, the history of unconscious processes”. (Structural Anthropology page 23)
Things are as they are because our collective unconscious wants them that way. Women’s fashion, for example,
actually is, in the highest degree, a phenomenon that depends on the unconscious activity of the mind… this seemingly arbitrary evolution follows definite laws. These laws cannot be reached by purely empirical observation, or by intuitive consideration of phenomena, but result from measuring some basic relationships between the various elements of costume. (Structural Anthropology page 59)
Levi-Strauss also strays into irrationalism. In The Raw and the Cooked he talked of “the search for a middle way between aesthetic perception and the exercise of logical thought” and tells us that Richard Wagner, the nineteenth century composer and right wing irrationalist ideologue, is “the undeniable originator of the structural analysis of myths”. (Raw and Cooked pages 13-15)
Liberation has no place within this worldview. The notion that oppressed layers of society might develop a collective, conscious critique of the current social order, then act collectively to overthrow it, simply does not exist. This is structuralism’s greatest legacy to postmodernism.
From structuralism to postmodernism
Structuralism’s denial of historical development reflects its own historical position, flourishing as it did during the years of the post-world war 2 boom when fundamental social change seemed to have stopped forever, summed up in Daniel Bell’s proclamation of the “end of ideology”. (For an excellent summary of this period see chapter 1 of The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Chris Harman 1998.) The stifling conservatism of this era was broken by the mass upsurges of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Every conservative ideology, including structuralism, was thrown up in the air.
When the wave of liberation struggles ebbed in the 1970s, things didn’t return to “normal”. A new world was left in its wake. It was harsher: profit-making involved less productive investment and expansion and more speed-ups at work, welfare cuts, casualisation, and a corporate feeding frenzy around the sale of public assets – all reinforced, and also masked, by globalisation. Yet there was little resistence. Working people felt weak, scared, demoralised, and many drifted away from trade unions or any sense of us-against-them. Among students and intellectuals especially there was a sense that liberation theories had been tested out, and had failed. This was the soil in which postmodernism took root. Structuralist thinkers either adapted to the new circumstances, like Foucault and Althusser, or they were pushed to the sidelines.
The next posts in this series will examine the theories and impact of the most influential postmodernist thinkers, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Sources not hyperlinked in the blog post:
Alex Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism? McMillan 1982
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology Basic Books New York London 1963.
Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked Jonathan Cape London 1970
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Collins and Sons Glasgow 1964. Also available online.
Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism, New Left Books 1975.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on postmodernism. It follows a post on the politics of Nietzsche.
The leading lights of postmodernism politely overlook the vileness of Nietzsche’s far-right politics, or explain it away, because his philosophical ideas furnish them with ammunition against Marxism and other theories of human liberation. Like them, Nietzsche wanted to undermine the moral value and practical possibility of socialism; they draw heavily on Nietzsche’s interlinked attack on humanism, human reason, and materialism (the idea that a material world definitely exists, and we can know true things about it; this will be the subject of a future post).
Nietzsche’s hostility to materialism
Nietzsche denied the existence of a social or even natural reality beyond the surface appearances of nineteenth century German capitalism. “The ‘apparent’ world is the one and only: the ‘true’ world is only a mendacious gloss.” (quoted Lukacs Destruction of Reason*) He tied the philosophy of materialism to Christianity: he ridiculed what he called the Beyond, in which he equated the kingdom of God, socialism, and a definite, knowable material world. Thus we cannot identify trends beneath the surface of events that might show us how to transform society. In fact, social change takes place only within the closed circle of “eternal recurrence”: there will be a return to barbarism and slavery, but never equality.
The will to power
The potential for solidarity amongst the working people is another illusion. The collective interest is at best an unstable by-product of individual rivalry. For the heart of reality is the capitalist marketplace, where everyone competes with everyone else, but which is now pumped up into a grand philosophical concept: the “will to power”.
My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. (Will to Power 636*)
The “herd” can never reach the collective understanding of society that would be required for democratic, revolutionary change. We are all trapped within “perspectivity” or “perspectivism”: everyone’s perception, and hence their reality and truth, are different. Reason, the Enlightenment’s great weapon for social change, is no good either. Truth and falsehood are indistinguishable. Logic does not allow us to grasp reality, because logic consists of static categories, whereas reality is fluid.
In order to be able to think and draw conclusions, it is necessary to acknowledge that which exists: logic only deals with formulae for things which are constant. That is why this acknowledgment would not in the least prove reality: “that which is” is part of our optics… The character of the world in the process of Becoming is not susceptible to formulation: it is “false” and “ contradicts itself”. (WP 477, 517).
None of this need paralyse the forces of right wing reaction. They need only a pragmatic, whatever-works-for-us concept of reality, and that is just what Nietzsche offers. Activity, Nietzsche says, does not just reveal but actually creates truth: “we can only take cognisance of a world we ourselves have made”. One truth prevails over other only be dint of superior force behind it. And a belief may be “pragmatically ‘life-preserving’ and still be false: (WP 483, 495). Indeed, some false ideas are pragmatically necessary. “Truth is that kind of error without which a certain species of living beings cannot exist” (493, 520). Myth on the other hand has an operational value and is therefore real. The Goddess Eris “spurs even the inept to work… neighbour competes with neighbour… one potter will resent another, one carpenter the other, beggar envies beggar and singer envies singer” (quoted Lukacs Destruction of Reason)
For Nietzsche the will to power also neatly solves an uncomfortable ambiguity in the concept of bourgeois individualism. For while individualism has the benefit of cutting across worker solidarity, it also leads to notions of personal worth that can only be a nuisance in the heads of “slaves”. The human subject, Nietzsche says, is a “fiction”, an incoherent bundle of drives and forces “whose interaction and struggle lie at the bottom of our thought and our consciousness in general” (485, 490). Only a great will – a man of power, or a great artist can weave these threads together, in an act of self-creation; members of the herd cannot.
Ditching personality as a general human characteristic, Nietzsche focuses on the body: “the richer, more distinct, and more tangible phenomenon” (WP 489), a later focus for Foucault and other postmodernists.
Nietzsche and postmodernism
References to “slaves” are embarrassing to the postmodernists. These people are not driven, like Nietzsche, to bring on a bestial, unbridled attack on the workers’ movement. They just wanted arguments to bring down theories of human liberation, to supply a philosophical rationale for the political retreat of the late 1970s and 1980s, which ushered in the neoliberal era. This is where Nietzsche’s rantings delight them. There is nothing to be oppressed, nothing to liberate. There are no solid truths to support a challenge to the whole social system, just the eternal prison of the will to power. We can choose small issues to fight over, but the big picture will never change.
The other main theoretical underpinning to postmodernism was the structuralist theories popular in the early to mid-1960s, and these will be the topic the next post in this series.
*The Will to Power is a long list of numbered epigrams. Since these stay the same between different editions of the book, they are handier to use than page numbers. The exact wording changes, of course, between different translations. The epigrams quoted above were taken from an old edition, TN Foulis London 1910. The Will to Power was published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister, leading to allegations that she meddled with the text to advance her more explicit racism and more focused commitment to German imperialism. The text of The Will to Power is however consistent with the rest of Nietzsche’s works.
**Lukács published The Destruction of Reason in 1952. The book traces the history of the major irrationalist currents of thought over the preceding two centuries,up to the rise of Nazism. In the early 1920s Lukacs made important contributions to Marxist theory through books such as History and Class Consciousness. Afterwards he bent the knee to Stalin. The Destruction of Reason is nonetheless one of the most useful I have come across for understanding the background to postmodernism. Fortunately the chapter on Nietzsche is available free online
This is the third in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Nietzsche provides many of the ideas that are now identified with postmodernism. “I am simply a Nitzschean,” Foucault said. Derrida “not only fosters Nietzsche’s work but evolves it within the sphere of language”. Deleuze evangelised about him to Paris intellectuals in the early 1960s, via his book Nietzsche and Philosophy, while Irigaray “undertakes to interrogate Nietzsche, the grandfather of poststructuralist philosophy, from the point of view of water”.
Nietzsche’s key works cover wide areas of culture and philosophy. His lasting influence derives partly from his scholarship and exciting style; partly from his ability to discern from afar the period of wars and revolutions to come, and the issues they have continued to pose for modern society; and partly from the very general, symbolic way in which he himself posed those issues: this vagueness allows his writings to be applied fairly readily to new situations. While Nietzsche was deeply affected by the events of his times, he responded to them indirectly, through subtle word-play, irony and paradox, and above all by using pseudo-mythic imagery.
Georg Lukács provides the best overview of Nietzsche’s politics and philosophy that I know of, and it forms the basis of this post.*
The historical context
Nietzsche wrote during a time of transition for world capitalism. On the one hand, the system was still expanding, through colonialism and the growing concentration and centralisation of large corporations. Reflecting this, the dominant ideology was one of progress, reason, and science, brought by the superior white races to the primitive Africans, sly Asiatics, and idle, hot-headed Arabs. The world was a good place and steadily getting better. On the other hand there were shadows. One was the gradual intensification of imperialist rivalries. Another was the menace of the working class. In 1871 Germany defeated France in war, but during that war the workers and National Guard of Paris rose in revolution, briefly setting up the worker’s city-state of the Paris Commune. A minority of intellectuals and artists sensed and expressed these shadows, and darker times to come. Among them were philosophers who justified the status quo not as a glorious place, but on the grounds that its evils were permanent features of the human condition.
Nietzsche was part of this latter current. What distinguished him within it was his extreme political agenda. He called for an assault of unbridled savagery against everything progressive and forward-looking, most particularly socialism and the workers’ movement.
When the Paris Commune was put down, with the slaughter of 20,000 working people, Nietzsche wrote:
Hope is possible again! Our German mission isn’t over yet! I’m in better spirit than ever, for not yet everything has capitulated to Franco-Jewish levelling… Over and above the war between nations, that international hydra which suddenly raised its fearsome heads has alarmed us by heralding quite different battles to come. (quoted in Lukács, Destruction of Reason p327)
For Nietzsche, society divides naturally into masters and slaves. Societies that attempt to conceal or deny this fundamental truth have been infected and corrupted by the slave class, and are sickly as a result.
Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour are the shabby products of a slave mentality hiding from its own nature… Wretched the seducers who have deprived the slave of his innocence by means of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge! (quoted in Lukács Destruction of Reason p325)
With its admonitions against rank, acquisitiveness and militarism, Christianity
is no more than the typical teaching of socialists… Behind all this there is the outburst, the explosion of a concentrated loathing of the “masters” – the instinct which discerns the happiness of freedom after such long oppression… (Mostly a symptom of the fact that the inferior classes have been treated too humanely.) (The Will to Power epigram 209 – **see footnote)
Nietzsche fantasised about a Europe ruled by a true-blooded nobility of refined sensibilities and manners, generators and patrons of fine art and literature. Indeed, he thought, if the capitalists had been able to “share the hereditary nobility’s distinction in glance and gesture, then perhaps there would be no socialism of the masses”:
A higher civilization can only come about when there are two distinct social castes: that of the working people and that of the leisured, those capable of true leisure; or, to put it more strongly, the caste of forced labour and the caste of free labour. (quoted in Lukács)
The ideal aristocratic leaders were
the kind of exuberant monsters that might quit a horrible scene of murder, arson, rape and torture with the high humour and equanimity appropriate to a student prank. They would do so in the conviction that the poets would have plenty to celebrate again. Behind all these noble breeds there is no mistaking the beast of prey, the magnificent blond beast in greedy search of spoils and conquest … It is the noble races that have left the word ‘barbarian’ in their tracks wherever they prowled; even their highest culture betrays this awareness and their pride in the fact. (quoted in Lukács)
One quality of this elite, he thought, was to be removed from the understanding of their social inferiors, since “comprendre c’est egaler” – to comprehend is to equalise (Will to Power 943). This might have contributed to his deliberately opaque and misleading language. He also appropriated the concepts, traditions and names of ideological opponents. For example he seeks to transform the meaning of The Enlightenment: in its old form it represented “the spirit of the democratic herd: a universal levelling. The new Enlightenment aims at showing dominant natures the way; inasmuch as to these (as to the State), everything is permitted that is barred to the herd mentality.” (quoted in Lukács)
For a few years, when Germany’s rulers began experimenting with limited parliamentary democracy in the hope of containing worker unrest in the English fashion, Nietzsche steered toward more moderate formulations, without ever losing his underlying commitment to the master/slave dichotomy. As working class struggle intensified in the second half of the 1870s he returned to more openly brutal formulations.
Nietzsche became an inspiration to the Nazis. But he himself was not particularly interested in ethnicity or Aryanism; in this sense he may have been no more racist than the average bourgeois of his day. What singles him out, and provided grounds for fascists to build on, is the vicious notion, emphasised again and again, that humanity is naturally and permanently divided into masters, to whom all is permitted, and a subhuman caste, to whom anything might legitimately be done.
Nietzsche on women
Given all this, it is no surprise to read that
One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant – woman needs strength in order to cleave to it… she makes the strong weak – she rules when she succeeds in overcoming the strong… (The Will to Power 864)
We take pleasure in women as in a perhaps daintier, more delicate and more ethereal kind of creature. What a treat it is to encounter creatures who have only dancing, nonsense and finery in their minds! They have always been the delight of every tense and profound male soul… (The Will to Power 943)
For more of the same see the relevant Wikipedia entry.
Jacques Derrida defends Nietzsche’s position on this score. Derrida’s case is summed up by his admirer Christopher Norris:
If woman is indeed the antithesis of truth, the very principle of unreason, then she can only be counted as an ally in Nietzsche’s crusade against the great system-building male philosophers, from Plato to Kant to Hegel… Thus Derrida can claim – “perversely” one might think, but as the upshot of a close exegesis – that Nietzsche is not only ambivalent in his attitude to woman but can even be read as a crypto-feminist resisting all attempts to bypass or sublimate the question of sexual difference. (Christopher Norris, Derrida, Fontana London 1987, p202, 203)
Nietzsche and postmodernism
Nietzsche’s politics are not, of course, shared by the postmodernists, who have tended toward liberal stances when dabbling in concrete issues. Foucault, for example, supported prison reform, while Derrida opposed apartheid in South Africa. They seek to explain away Nietzsche’s bestial political agenda, using pitiful rationales of the kind supplied by Norris. In doing so they are helped by the fact, already mentioned, that Nietzsche’s political program comes down to us softened and partially disguised by word-play, paradox and ambiguity, like a fist seen through mottled glass.
What the postmodernists really take from Nietzsche is not his political program but his philosophy, which offers a point-by-point attack on the underpinning ideas of Marxism. This is why they are willing to draw so heavily on someone who was also a forerunner of the Nazis. Nietzsche’s philosophy will be the topic of the next post in this series.
*Lukács published The Destruction of Reason in 1952. The book traces the history of the major irrationalist currents of thought over the preceding two centuries,up to the rise of Nazism. In the early 1920s Lukacs made important contributions to Marxist theory through books such as History and Class Consciousness. Afterwards he bent the knee to Stalin. The Destruction of Reason is nonetheless one of the most useful I have come across for understanding the background to postmodernism. Fortunately the chapter on Nietzsche is available free online.
**The Will to Power is a long list of numbered epigrams. Since these stay the same between different editions of the book, they are handier to use than page numbers. The exact wording changes, of course, between different translations. The epigrams quoted above were taken from an old edition, TN Foulis London 1910. The Will to Power was published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister, leading to allegations that she meddled with the text to advance her more explicit racism and more focused commitment to German imperialism. The text of The Will to Power is however completely consistent with the rest of Nietzsche’s works on the issues of class and the nature of women.
This is the second in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Postmodernism arose from the intersection of two trends. One was the onset of hard times economically as the long post-world war 2 boom finally came to an end. Profits were increasingly being made not by expanding production but by sackings, by welfare cuts, by intensifying the work process, and by cannibalising the system itself, running down and/or selling off public infrastructure. In this climate personal life and relationships became harsher.
It came at the end of the social protest era of the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather than boosting those protests, it played a key role in snuffing them out. Unemployment lowered workers’ bargaining power and confidence to act; the union officials were won to the need to defend the “national interest” instead of their members’ living standards. So just as things were getting worse, the vision of something qualitatively better, of revolution or liberation, faded. Horizons narrowed. The new neoliberal world of austerity might be rotten, it might be going nowhere, but it was the world, nothing could exist beyond it.
It was not so rotten for everyone. A new middle class did rather well out of it, including former student activists who moved into well paid jobs. Neoliberalism was empty, visionless; we were plainly steering toward ecological disaster, with no-one at the wheel; “reform” was now double-speak for regression; but for some, the money rolled in. The cynicism of former activists resonated with much wider sections of the new middle class, particularly in the public sector most exposed to cost-cutting and privatisation .
Success in the new middle class, the middle layers within public and corporate bureaucracies meant cultivating and maintaining connections within professional networks and negotiating more complex corporate hierarchies. In this world, personal appeal was increasingly useful as a tool of trade; it had a growing cash value. One of the effects of this was to produce a “narcissistic obsession with the body, both male and female”. Self-cultivation, “forming oneself into a particular kind of person”, became an art form. (Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, pages 162-172; the quotes are from page 169).
Postmodernism was the worldview that emerged from this social layer. The core ideas of this worldview are a point-by-point challenge to the central ideas of Marxism, the great enemy that must be brought down. But in the process it also cut across core elements of any theory of liberation, including that of radical feminism.
Antihumanism and the “death of the subject”
Marxism shares with liberalism a belief in the dignity of the human personality, the sense that there is a universe within every mind, which deserves freedom to flourish. For Marxism, this humanist vision can only be achieved by the collective class struggle and workers’ revolution, but once real communism is attained each personality will have vast potential for further development. Postmodernism denies this.
Like Marxism, it emphasises the role of external social forces in shaping people’s interior lives, but in the case of postmodernism this takes the extreme form of removing the human personality entirely as a point of focus. People are not twisted by an alienated society. There is nothing to be twisted. Working people’s inner lives are not cramped and contorted by class oppression, nor are women’s inner lives cramped by sexual oppression. There is nothing there to be cramped, stunted or distorted.
This denial of personal depth is concurrent with the seemingly contradictory theme of self-cultivation. In reality, self-cultivation is a for the new middle class, depersonalisation is for the swinish multitude.
Humans have no agency
Closely related to this “death of the subject” is people’s lack of agency, lack of capacity to change the world. Liberalism says individuals are active agents who can change their personal situation and sometimes society as a whole. Marxism says working people can change the world when they act together as a class. Postmodernism says people are inert chess pieces moved about by objective forces (language in the case of Derrida, power-knowledge for Foucault) which they can never bring under collective human control.
Surface not depth
The superficiality of people is mirrored in society. While Marxism says the appearance of society conceals the fundamental struggle of workers and capitalists, postmodernism says that society has no hidden depths. Everything exists on the surface.
Postmodernism is idealist in the philosophical sense of asserting the primacy of ideas over the material world. The factory, stock exchange and police truncheon fade from view: power is only about language – “discourse”. Within discourse lurks something that plays the role of God: it shapes what people think and do, but is not, in turn, shaped in any decisive way by human action. Discourse shapes us but we don’t shape it: we are forever imprisoned within it.
Postmodernism says that the world cannot be understood via reason. In fact it can’t really be understood at all, so we can’t change it in any significant way. Ideas are playthings for academic presentations, popular books and dinner party chat. The deliberately confusing language common in academia, that pretends to profound wisdom you are just too stupid to grasp, is celebrated and taken further here.
The old slogan one struggle, one fight – the notion that only in unity do we have the power to overthrow capitalism, is seen by postmodernists like Foucault as a sinister move to “theorise the totality” – to capture and control people’s entire way of thinking for your own gain. By proposing a comprehensive worldview, the postmodernists say, Marxists only reveal their lust for total domination, as evidenced in Stalinist Russia.
The groundwork for transgender ideology
Postmodernism feeds into the most conservative aspects of trans ideology. Women’s cumulative personal experience, that constitutes such an important aspect of their oppression under current society, is dispensed with. The body matters, not the personality. Sexuality is simply about bodies and pleasures. And the body, like the rest of the material world, is what we choose to make it.
The next posts will look at two ideological currents that the postmodernists draw on – the ideas of Nietzsche and the structuralism of the 1960s. For other posts on postmodernism see here.
There are two ways of justifying the status quo. On one hand, you say how great our society is, apart from a few temporary hiccups and/or malcontents on the margins. Or you can go on about how rotten everything is, adding at once that this rottenness is not caused by class, oppression etc, but is an inevitable part of every society. Georg Lukacs put it this way:
Whereas direct apologetics was at pains to depict capitalism as the best of all orders, as the last, outstanding peak in mankind’s (sic) evolution, indirect apologetics crudely elaborated the bad sides, the atrocities of capitalism, but explained them as attributes not of capitalism but of all human existence and of existence in general. (The Destruction of Reason pages 202-203. Merlin Press 1980)
The first approach flourishes when things are going well for the system, and is the stock-in-trade of mainstream right wing politicians. The second approach gathers strength during times when social and economic problems are pressing, and hard to explain away. Postmodernism is in this latter tradition. Its sneering quality sets politicians’ teeth on edge, but its main social impact has been to engage with people deeply discontented by the current social order, only to pull them toward cynicism and passivity. Postmodernist ideas have had a powerful impact over the neoliberal era, fitting well with a time when people have usually felt powerless to change a hateful world. But it has in turn helped to entrench that era by making it seem unchallengeable.
Today a new era of protest is unfolding, and the central political task is to throw ourselves into support for the new movement rising to its feet against Trump and his ilk. But postmodernism’s legacy of cynicism and passivity is one force holding back the new movement, and needs to be confronted.
This is the first in a series of posts about postmodernism. This post looks briefly at the social conditions from which postmodernism emerged.
The historical background
The postwar boom culminated in the heady years of the late 1960s and early 70s. Sustained economic expansion and high employment had brought confidence in the future; it had also brought more complex jobs that required greater education. This education made the rising generation more aware of social and political evils; they applied concepts of liberty more widely than capitalist ideologists even intended; they were impatient with the economic anxieties of their parents which seemed out of date. Women entered the workforce and learned that they were just as good as men, while the pill gave them greater, if sometimes exaggerated, freedom. Campaigns against racism, the Vietnam War, and conscription, and campaigns to support national liberation struggles, coincided with a period of strong bargaining power for workers. When western governments tried to crush unions through state-wide political attacks, they responded with mass, political strikes that politicised vast numbers of workers, including countless individual women and gays. The Women’s and Gay Liberation movements arose from this background, as activists applied the concept of liberation to challenge their own oppression. A popular slogan was “one struggle, one fight” – against the System, against the Establishment and for Revolution: whatever that word meant exactly, it was attainable. At the same time, carried on these deeper currents, there was cultural change. Phoniness and superficiality were despised. Long hair on men, absurdist humour and irony could all be seen as political challenges to a stiff, straitlaced society.
The cultural relaxation lasted, and women continued to enter the workforce. But in most ways things started going backwards in early 1970s. The campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription came to an end. The long boom ended in 1974-5: union leaders turned on their memberships, closing down industrial action “in the national interest”. As workers lost confidence bosses pressed their new advantage, making ever more aggressive demands. Rank and file organisation withered as unions became more centralised and bureaucratic. Strike levels collapsed: millions upon millions of working people ceased to experience collective struggle. Protest movements pulled apart; the slogan of unity lost its resonance. The Women’s Liberation Movement became the women’s movement, and fractured. Everywhere the vision of liberation faded: the word was jeered at, kept alive only among tiny groups of dissidents.
The world was plainly getting worse not better, but its evils turned out to be deep seated. Former student activists were comforted by cushy jobs. They applied their absurdist humour to advertising campaigns; they used irony to excuse sexism. Ageing Left activists moved into union bureaucracies, academia, reformist party machines, local councils. They moved to the right, and further right. And for the handful that refused to move right they reserved a particular kind of malice.
Another change was also occurring. As jobs became ever more stressful and insecure for the unskilled, the world of work also changed for managers and professionals – the new middle class, and those who aspired to its ranks. Corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies became more flexible and subtle. Networking flourished. Work still meant giving and taking orders, but there was more scope for discretion about just how much you helped your colleagues and contacts. In this world, personal appeal acquired greater cash value. Personal appeal partly meant charm, guarded exuberance, extroversion that constantly read signals about what was and was not acceptable. It meant persona not personality, surface not depth. But personal appeal also meant the body beautiful, looking young at pretty at all costs. This made life worse for the fat and the old; it introduced new, unfamiliar anxieties for men; for women it massively reinforced traditional stereotypic pressures, alongside the talk of empowerment. The body beautiful trend also normalised Botox, plastic surgery, body modification.
Postmodernism interpreted and, in crucial ways, justified this new world, for many academics, writers, intellectuals who were discontented with neoliberalism yet scorned talk of liberation. It gave this new world a philosophical polish, and thereby reinforced it.
Future posts will address the key ideas of postmodernism; the influence of Nietzsche and the 1960s structuralists; and the writings of two key figures, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.