Early last year the Louis Vuitton fashion house featured young male celebrity Jaden Smith in a skirt and dress, in a video advertising its new collection. The move was hailed for helping the cause of transgender acceptance and gender fluidity. The Independent ran an article by Heather Saul quoting the gender-fluid Ruby Rose:
“[Kids] from middle America, to smaller towns in Australia, to all over the world — if they don’t quite understand why they don’t quite feel comfortable in a dress, but all their friends wear dresses, or if they’re a boy and they want to wear a dress or they want to wear a skirt, they’re gonna get picked on. To be able to make this huge impact on what was really a huge transgender and gender-fluidity movement last year is really going to be for the greater good of society because it’s going to let people know they’re not different in a weird way; they’re different in a way that should be celebrated.”
The last line in this quote was used in the article subheadline, emphasising how “different” these young people are from their peers.
This piece followed an earlier article in which Katie Glover, editor of transgender magazine Frock, complained that the Vuitton advert undermined trans identity:
…to help make it plain for anyone to see which gender you are, you put on a uniform. Men put on trousers and have men’s haircuts, and women put on dresses and skirts, feminine tops and tights and women’s shoes to show their femininity and declare to the world that they are female…
Male-to-female transgender people rely on props like clothes, shoes, make-up and hairstyles to create the gender identity they want to portray to the world because most of the time their bodies alone are unable to do that…
The danger for trans women is that if wearing what are traditionally women’s clothes becomes the norm for men too, then trans women will no longer be able to rely on these props to help them display a female gender identity – and for many, that could be a serious problem.
Glover’s piece prompted a critical response the next day from Daren Pritchard. Pritchard argued that defending gender-fluid people and opposing role stereotypes go hand in hand.
Glover’s article states that gender stereotypes in clothing exist as a uniform to clarify which gender a person is. She implies we should stick to the stereotypical norm of men wearing trousers, and women wearing skirts or dresses to reinforce this. But claiming that women should have to declare their femininity to show that they’re woman is outrageous – not to mention incredibly old-fashioned…
This dated notion of ‘boys do this, and girls do that’ is responsible for so much gender prejudice, not to mention endless aisles of pink toy hoovers and blue toy spaceships. We have moved hard to move away from such entrenched traditions. The progress in acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community over the past years has been incredible, so let’s not reverse that by exclude those – such as non-binary people – who don’t fit into specific categories…
I would assume a trans woman wears clothing intended for females because they identify as female. Surely a non-binary person wearing clothing that may be associated with either gender is no different; their changing wardrobe is merely a continuation of their fluidity.
The three articles bring out tensions within transgender ideology.
The two sides of transgender ideology
On one hand, the adoption of trans or fluid identity is one, very specific way of defying the restricted social role you were allocated at birth. The new use of “gender” confronts the chromosomes-are-destiny version of sex stereotyping, which has centuries of tradition behind it, and is still championed by social conservatives and still accepted by millions of people. For these reasons trans or gender-fluid people face discrimination and sometimes considerable personal danger, against which they deserve full support.
On the other hand, trans ideology says natal men can now be women on the “inside”, and vice versa, not via biology or socialisation but via an inner essence beyond both. In reality this mystical essence rests entirely on gender stereotypes; it too appeals to much of the centuries-old “common sense” about the nature of males and females.
The concept of gender-fluid idea has a bit more potential to go further and challenge gender-based thinking entirely, something the far Left has tried to work with. But this is a potential only. Most importantly, discussion of gender-fluidity preserves the idea that discontent with stereotypes is a minority concern: the great mass of us are still a snug fit with our “gender” of birth.
These different elements in transgender thinking play out in the media, which tends to serve up different things to different audiences. The niche-market left-liberal media often highlight progressive ideas within transgender ideology; at times it may even reject crude notions of pink and blue brains, without challenging the trans conceptual framework. Meanwhile the mainstream media, addressed to a vastly larger audience, mostly delivers precisely this pink-and-blue, mystical, born-into-the-wrong-body stuff. (See for example this research on child transition covered in British media: it finds that media stories commonly present “the uncontested belief in gender and sex-role stereotypes as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex”.)
Touching a raw nerve
There are also tensions within the left-liberal view of transgender. To emphasise the progressive elements of trans thinking does not eliminate its more fundamental, conservative ones. This creates a lot of straining and pretense, touchy no-go areas, issues that must be left unexplored – especially transgender’s central reliance on sex stereotypes. Perhaps Katie Glover’s real blunder was simply to say the unsayable.
Union activist Kiri Tunks writes in The Morning Star on proposed changes to the law on gender self-identity in Britain: “The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law… means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.” The ability to define one’s own “gender”, she points out, “will undermine the legal characteristic of ‘sex’ and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression… Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.” She says that “women are being told they cannot talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic.” She also defends the need for single-sex spaces. Concerns to defend these spaces is “often dismissed as unjustified moral panic”, but they “exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.” This piece is a very valuable contribution to the debate on gender, just as it is poised to reach a wider audience.
Source: Sex matters
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.
Apologies to anyone interested in this blog, for the long delay between posts. My personal circumstances have changed, so I can finally get back to it.
“It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public ‘acceptance and recognition’ of not just ‘transgender and gender diverse people’ but the completely new belief that children are ‘transgender,’ together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity. The press has a big influence on people’s views, including parents, teachers and all adults in a child’s life, and it plays a pivotal role in normalising and creating acceptance of ideas within society as a whole. Whether individual people believe that some children are ‘transgender’ and that “physical treatments for younger adolescents” is a good idea is largely dependent on a societal consensus created in large part by the way the media reports it.”
Referral figures for the Tavistock clinic Gender Identity Development Service, just announced, have risen from 1,419 last year to a total of 2,016 this year, an increase of 42%. The number of children who feel they are ‘trapped in the wrong body’ and need to transition to the opposite sex continues to soar year on…
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