Post-Structuralism As Subculture Barbara Epstein probes the roots of postmodernism's attraction -- and its limitations. Two articles examining postmodernism, post- structuralism, and their implications for left politics have appeared in recent issues of CrossRoads. I agree with some of the points made in each article. In "Political Strategy for the 1990s" (No. 36), Paul Costello argues that Marxism fails to account for many of the developments of the late twentieth century: the increased power and reach of the state, the increased importance of technology and media, of culture as an arena of politics, of social categories transcending class. He argues that postmodernism (or post- structuralism, the set of theoretical perspectives associated with it) do a better job of describing these phenomena. Mel Rothenberg, in "Making Left Politics More Than a Discourse" (No. 37), argues that the claims of what he calls postmodern discourse (there is no objective reality, there can be no overall strategy for social change) reflect the fragmentation of contemporary society; and that post- structuralist theory, while giving us insight into contemporary culture, cannot provide a basis for left politics. Costello is sympathetic to utilizing postmodernism as the theoretical framework for left politics; Rothenberg argues for a return to Marxism and to the category of class. I agree with Costello and Rothenberg that we need to look at the challenge to Marxism presented by postmodernism/post-structuralism, and also at the impact of this discourse on progressive movements (given the very large numbers of left and progressive intellectuals who have become part of this movement, or are influenced by it). However, I would address the question a little differently than either Costello or Rothenberg. I don't think that either post-structuralism or Marxism is likely to provide a strategy or politics for the left. SUSPECT EVERYTHING -- ALMOST Post-structuralism, as both writers acknowledge, can give us an appreciation of some of the developments of the late twentieth century that do not easily fit Marxist categories. Marxism can help us understand the social and historical context of these developments. It cannot tell us what an oppositional stance should consist of, but it can help provide a theoretical framework for our search for that stance. Comparing Marxism and post-structuralism, as bases for radical politics, seems to me not a very useful approach: Marxism and post-structuralism are different kinds of philosophies, with different aims. Marxism is about the prospects for social change; post-structuralism is not. Neither post-structuralism nor the deconstructionist method that it is associated with implies any particular politics. The post-structuralist suspicion of all assumptions, its emphasis on the breakdown of social and ethical systems, suggests a mood of despair but does not call for the construction of an alternative; its implication is that all forms of politics are equally suspect. The one arena that post-structuralism does not examine with suspicion is, of course, itself. (There is another area that post-structuralism endlessly uncovers and examines, but oddly, often seems to take as "natural": the desire for power. Perhaps this may have something to do with the ubiquity of the quest for power and status in the world of elite academia that post-structuralism inhabits, where status, and limited but nevertheless real forms of power, do more than money to bolster the ego). The concept of alienation, which is key to a Marxist critique of capitalism and vision of a better society, is entirely absent from post-structuralism; one cannot be alienated if, as post-structuralism argues, there is no self to be alienated from. But if alienation drops out of our vocabulary, we have no reason to protest current conditions and no basis for imagining anything better. Lacking the concept of alienation, we also have no basis for criticizing the quest for power and status that fascinates post- structuralism, or for rejecting it in favor of other aims. A critical stance is not necessarily the same thing as a politically radical stance. Post-structuralism calls for taking apart existing ideas and assumptions: a progressive perspective would call for dismantling some things, but not others. Probably the majority of intellectuals who adhere to post-structuralism have progressive sympathies -- but post- structuralism itself does not provide a basis for a political perspective, by which I mean a vision of a better society, and some idea of how to get there. The fact that post-structuralism implies no particular politics is not necessarily an indictment. There have been many intellectual and artistic developments that have not addressed political issues but have made other sorts of contributions; Freudian theory, for instance, is not inherently either radical or conservative. Freudian theory can enhance a political perspective; an understanding of the psychic structure of individuals can deepen one's understanding of social processes. But if Freudianism is taken as the core of one's political stance, it tends to lead to a simplistic politics, one that is blind to its own consequences because it has no tools for understanding social and historical dynamics. I think something similar could be said for post- structuralism: a method that is geared to exposing all claims to truth or value does not tell us how current systems evolved, what would be better, or how we might get there. POST-STRUCTURALISM'S ATTRACTION Post-structuralism is a set of theoretical claims, a theoretical literature with roots in Continental philosophy; it is also, at least in the U.S., an intellectual subculture with considerable influence. Post-structuralism has been frequently criticized from the left as incoherent, at least as a basis for politics or social analysis. These criticisms often seem to fall into a void. The reason, I believe, is that those who are drawn to post-structuralism are not looking for a theoretically coherent basis for social analysis or left politics. More often they are drawn by the celebration of incoherence, and by the subculture that has grown up around radical post-structuralism, centered in the elite universities but also reaching outside them. Most accounts of the rise of postmodernism/post- structuralism describe it as a response to the crisis of Marxism, and in a certain sense this is true: what is being challenged is the Marxist belief that a coherent strategy can be devised on the basis of an understanding of history, and that concerted action can produce desired social change. I believe that part of the appeal of post-structuralism is that, as a subculture, it creates a refuge from the seemingly impossible demand of creating an effective left politics, and it does so without abandoning the attractive aura of radicalism. It creates an arena in which one can regard oneself as a subversive without worrying much about whether one is changing society. It celebrates the playful, the "excessive" or absurd, the apparently useless; it creates a space in which brilliance, originality, even intellectual perversity, are valued for their own sake, without regard to their connection or lack of connection with any external reality. The playfulness of post-structuralism is unfortunately accompanied by less appealing characteristics: an obscurantist language, intended to create a privileged space for the cognoscenti; the worship of celebrities; a conviction of cultural superiority, and a tendency to resort to mockery, rather than debate, when confronted with criticisms. These qualities collide with radical post- structuralism's presentation of itself as "subversive," affiliated with the politics of the powerless and marginalized. David Hoy, in an article on the work of Jacques Derrida, points out that deconstruction aims not to clarify the texts that it addresses but to show how they work against themselves, to make it impossible to read them as coherent works. He suggests that ennui may be one basis for the appeal of this approach to so many contemporary theorists. (David Hoy, "Jacques Derrida," in Quentin Skinner, ed., The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 44. I would suggest that the culture of radical post- structuralism is driven by a tension between surface glitter and play and a deeper level not just of boredom but of despair: about the possibility of radical social change and also about the possibility of intellectual work having any social impact. I suspect that many intellectuals, as well as others, feel both sides of this tension: the appeal of intellectual play for its own sake, and an a sense of defeat over the reduction of intellectual work to play. INFLUENCE ON FEMINISM While it is true that postmodernism competes with Marxism for an audience among intellectuals, the leading edge of the shift toward post-structuralism has not consisted of disillusioned Marxists (most of whom are discouraged but nevertheless not ready to give up materialist analysis) but of feminists and other cultural critics. The association between post-structuralism and feminist theory has become so close that among left/feminist intellectuals challenges to post-structuralism tend to be understood as either challenges to theory generally or as challenges to feminism. This makes discussions of post- structuralism extremely fraught. If it is not just a theory but Theory, any challenges seem to presume anti- intellectualism. If it is not just an approach that some feminists are drawn to but feminism itself, then challenges are politically and morally suspect. This does not create an atmosphere conducive to discussion. Radical post-structuralism is shaped not only by post- structuralist theory but also by the fact that it is a movement that is aspiring to hegemony in the liberal arts in the universities and outside them. Post-structuralist theory criticizes "totalizing metanarratives" or attempts to establish any one hegemonic theory; but in practice radical post-structuralism is often associated with the claim that it has superseded all other perspectives, and with scorn for those who espouse them. Though neo-conservative critics of the university often describe post-structuralism as the latest infatuation of the activists of the '60s, now ensconced in the universities, in fact the enthusiasm for post-structuralism has come mostly from disciplines (such as literature) that were not particularly associated with radicalism when those now holding professorships were students. Many of the '60s generation of students were sympathetic to the movements of the time; many of those now drawn to post-structuralism were in this category. But on the whole those who were activists in those movements have remained aloof from post- structuralism. The post-structuralist contempt for other perspectives, its claim that it represents radicalism, and the daunting volume and obscurity of the literature, has done a great deal to discourage open criticism from those with a commitment to radical politics. Radical post-structuralism lays claim to an egalitarianism that is belied in practice. The most thoughtful and detailed attempt to link post-structuralism with egalitarian politics is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1987). Laclau and Mouffe argue that Marxism erred in asserting a connection between class position and political stance: they point out that there is nothing given about working class radicalism, and they argue that this "indeterminacy" of politics applies to every social group. The working class, they argue, has no special standing; all social groups, and their perspectives, must be regarded as equivalents. There are theoretical problems with this view: the fact that workers are often conservative does not prove that there is no relationship between class position and politics. Workers adopt conservative politics for different reasons than their employers, and if socialism were a real possibility one could expect workers to look at it differently than employers. Laclau and Mouffe themselves favor radical democracy, but their theoretical stance, that every perspective is equivalent, removes any basis for believing that radicalism is better than conservatism; it turns it into one perspective among many. But what is most troubling about Laclau and Mouffe's book is not these theoretical inconsistencies but the contrast between the call for a radically egalitarian politics and a writing style that is so arcane that no one outside a small group of academics familiar with this vocabulary could be expected to understand it. The contradiction between egalitarian claims and a highly exclusive vocabulary is not an idiosyncrasy of Laclau and Mouffe's; writing that is arcane to the point of incomprehensibility is very much part of radical post- structuralism. Style, according to radical post- structuralism, is political. Post-structuralist writers tend to cultivate a style that excludes the vast majority of potential readers, reduces most of even the highly educated to a passive audience, and invites at best a small circle of initiates to discussion. This is not a matter of objecting to the use of technical terms that are not part of everyday language. Post-structuralist writing more often aims to confuse than to clarify or explain. Some post-structuralist writing rests on idiosyncratic vocabularies; much of it is written in jargon that could be translated into clear English relatively easily. Probably most of those who write in this jargon do not write with the conscious intention of bewildering or intimidating their audience. The style is absorbed with the ideology, and has become an integral part of the discourse. The style of radical post-structuralist writing is a key to its aims, which often have more to do with performance than with dialogue or persuasion. The orientation toward performance is particularly evident at conferences, lectures, seminars, forums, where what is valued is the brilliance or at least impressiveness of an individual's orientation. These events become highly competitive; those most skilled in the vocabulary hold forth, while the less skilled, or the uninitiated, remain silent. Often the theoretical artillery employed seems to overwhelm the actual issues under discussion. Values that were once associated with feminism -- the openness and accessibility of discussion -- seem to have been forgotten. The radical post-structuralist orientation toward performance intersects with a readiness to adopt a manner of condescension. Critics of post-structuralism are more likely to be mocked than answered. Mainstream culture, when analyzed from a post-structuralist perspective, is likely to either be applauded when it can be fit within the post- structuralist list of accolades (fragmented, destabilized, shifting, and so forth). More often, objects of post- structuralist cultural criticism are held up to a disdainful scrutiny. The implication is that radical post-structuralist culture is more sophisticated, and that sophistication is the highest value. I recently attended a panel on the history of American patriotism at an American Studies conference. Three papers revolved around the relationship between patriotism and racism; each paper sneered at the attitudes it described. I was disturbed by this, not because I wanted the speakers to be indifferent to racism, but because this approach seemed to imply that racism could be dismissed as bad taste. I tried to imagine this approach applied to anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany: a paper that dealt with fascism by sneering at it would probably be regarded as offensive. The easy recourse to a stance of intellectual superiority in radical post-structuralism leads to intimidation. It discourages debate and promotes intellectual conformity. Several years ago a feminist theorist gave a lecture on sexuality and feminist politics at a prominent East Coast university. She began her talk, to an overwhelmingly female audience of several hundred, by asking, "Is there anyone in this room who believes that she is a woman?" Not one hand went up. At least according to that year's intellectual fad, to think that there was such a thing as "woman" was to commit the error of essentialism. Any woman in the room who thought of herself as a woman evidently realized that if she said so she would be ridiculed, and that, with less command of post-structuralist vocabulary than the speaker, she would have a hard time responding. So the entire audience seemed to assent to the view that there is no such thing as "woman." Given the amount of grumbling that there is among left intellectuals about radical post-structuralism, it is surprising how few efforts there have been to actually engage it in debate. This is partly because many people are intimidated: challenging it requires becoming adept in the vocabulary and familiar with the quite extensive literature. People may also sense that debate is not quite what is called for. To return to the example of the text whose coherence can always be undermined: the fact that one can uncover internal contradictions (of a text, a culture, a social structure) does not determine what one does next. Pointing to incoherence is one possibility; another would be to look for the elements of a new, preferable whole -- though undoubtedly with its own internal contradictions. Which one does is a matter of preference, of values. This piece is not intended to answer the question of what the theoretical basis for a left politics should be, or what those politics should consist of. What I am trying to do here is to clear the way for a productive discussion of those issues by arguing that post-structuralism does not provide the theoretical basis for such a politics, and that the subculture of radical post-structuralism is not a place to begin that discussion. Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness Board at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a Contributing Editor of CrossRoads.