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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Zerzan's Premodernist Complaint about "Postmodern" Thought

Early in his recent essay Greasing the Rails to a Cyborg Future, John Zerzan claims that "the reigning cultural ethos of our times [is] postmodernism." This seems to me, honestly, a fairly surreal mischaracterization of the current North Atlantic cultural ethos. If I were forced to offer up such a monolithic characterization in the first place, I would say the current ethos is better described as a clash of institutional neoliberalism and diverse popular resistences to this neoliberalism. In a way I suspect Zerzan would sympathize with such a description, which, if true, implies that our differences really turn most on where something called "postmodernism" fits into such a clash.

Zerzan begins by accusing "postmodernism" of any number of apparent infirmities, most of which I take issue with from the get-go. He derides, first off, for example, what he takes to be "postmodernism's" "sharply narrowed ambitions concerning thought[.]"

Now, I simply don't agree that all the viewpoints typically described as "postmodern" lack ambition in matters of thought. In fact, dwelling on the statement for more than a second reveals that it is an incredibly weird thing to say in general. What count as ambitions in matters of thought? Are we to encourage immodesty in matters of thought? Unfortunately, this puzzlement I am feeling already is a preview of coming attractions in the piece.

Next, Zerzan bemoans "its tendency to shade into the cynical."

And again, I'm afraid, I just can't make sense of the claim that all the viewpoints typically described as "postmodern" are cynical. Certainly the views expressed by Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Paul Gilroy, Richard Rorty are not particularly cynical ones, and they are the figures I know best. There's a lovely and endearing forthrightness and earnestness in many of my favorite passages in these figures, seems to me. Maybe Michel Foucault is a bit cynical here and there, for one, but cynicism doesn't seem particularly constitutive of his thinking. What is Zerzan really on about, I'm wondering...

"[P]ostmodernism," he intones, "has become a term both pervasive and faceless."

Now, as an accusation "postmodern" certainly has acquired a certain pervasiveness -- comparable to, say, the pervasiveness of the accusation "politically correct" in certain mouthbreathing circles (with just as little relevant content in either case). But as a legible or consistent self-ascription things get a lot more ambiguous pretty quickly. Funny how that happens.

"But," Zerzan continues on, postmodernism "does have a face. [A faceless one, presumably, from the above, but given those wily postmodern paradoxialists, I'm sure that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to say on Zerzan's part somehow.] The theory of postmodernism began in large part as French reaction against the grand and total claims of Marxism."

Of course, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Latour, Foucault, Derrida say rather importantly different things about Marx when you take the time to read them. But no matter.

It is just as fair to say "postmodernism" reflects the shift of philosophy from a structuralist to a post-structuralist moment. It is just as fair to say "postmodernism" reflects a brief period when Venturi was really exciting people who were interested in architecture or De Lillo was really exciting people who were interested in contemporary literature. It isn't exactly clear that all of these people were really talking about the same sorts of things or even talking to one another when they used the term "postmodern" or had the term "postmodern" attached to whatever it is that they were up to. But no matter.

Funny how complicated things get when you know anything about them.

"Emerging and spreading about 20 years ago, in a period of reaction with almost no social movements, postmodernism bears the imprint of conservatism and lowered expectations."

No doubt that depends on who you ask. Here's a recommendation: Try asking.

I do want to point out, as an aside, that this glib dismissal of the last 20 years seems to involve the usual refusal to take queer politics seriously. I also think it invovles an even more shocking refusal to recognize the emerging peer-to-peer intervention into proprietary socioeconomics and credentialed politics, which is in my view the single most important social movement of the last fifty years, unfinished and precarious though it may be.

Zerzan then points out that "[postmodernism] has also risen in lockstep with the unfolding logic of an increasingly technological 'cyborg' society." I do take seriously Zerzan's worry about the impact of the neoliberal context in which academic discourses -- whether "postmodern" or not -- are generated, circulated, and applied. But I find it suspicious that he would single out so-called "postmodernist" discourse for such worries, especially since it is fairly commonplace among such discourses to draw attention themselves to these very issues.

Zerzan continues:
Postmodernism tells us that we can't grasp the whole, indeed that the desire for an overview of what's going on out there is unhealthy and suspect, even totalitarian. We have seen, after all, how grand systems -– "metanarratives," as they are fashionably referred to –- have proven oppressive. Having hit on this epiphany, the pomo troops were quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Skeptical about the claims and results of previous systems of thought, postmodernism has in fact jettisoned nearly all desire or hope of making sense of what we experience. It abandons the "arrogance" of trying to figure out the origins, logic, causality, or structure of the world we live in.

How, one wonders, can a group presumably so fragmentary and superficial and endlessly skeptical nevertheless cohere into a fearsome robot army marching in lockstep? How, one wonders, can a group so routinely reviled and trivialized be at once presumably so fashionable?

If Zerzan agrees that totalizing explanatory frameworks taken as universal certainties can be oppressive, just what "baby" is he trying to reclaim from the totalizing authoritarian fundamentalist "bathwater" we all rightly disdain?

He claims that "postmodernists" have "in fact jettisoned nearly [love that ass-saving qualification] all desire or hope of making sense of what we experience."

I venture to say that not a single so-called postmodernist of note has abandoned such hopes, and by far the majority of these figures would characterize their thinking as an effort at meaning making, even if in a construal that Zerzan wouldn't content himself with.

"Instead," Zerzan soldiers on,
postmodernists focus on surfaces, fragments, margins. Reality is too shifting, complex, and indeterminate to decipher or judge. Too "messy," too "interesting" to allow for fixed conclusions, as Donna Haraway puts it in her own well-known "Cyborg Manifesto."

I challenge Zerzan to provide the quote and context for this claim. How hard could it be if the text is truly so "well-known" to him?

I challenge Zerzan to flesh out why an interest in surfaces, fragments, and margins apparently disqualifies one from thinking reasonably about structure or causality or logic? Why cannot complex and shifting realities be judged? Why are the only "conclusions" that qualify as such for Zerzan apparently "fixed" ones?

The answer to all of these perplexities likely is that Zerzan is temperamentally a conservative, whatever his commitment to some causes (environmentalism, anti-globalization) shared by some (me included) who are progressive. All of the deeper fears and paranoias registered in the piece seem to me quite conventionally conservative ones.

Zerzan snidely reminds us of the common complaint that "postmodern style is notorious for its dense language and games of contradiction." One wonders if Zerzan refuses to read poetry as well for these reasons. Or Plato. Or Nietzsche. One also wonders if perhaps some of the "density" in play here isn't exactly attributable to Haraway's language.
In Haraway's manifesto, for example, she concedes that "the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism" –- but that in no way dims her enthusiasm for a part human, part machine, high-tech future!

But Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" manifestly has as much rage in it as it does enthusiasm. If readers of WiReD magazine, say, saw nothing but enthusiasm in Haraway's piece, it's because that's all they wanted to see there. If Zerzan sees nothing but enthusiasm, it's because that's all he wants to see as well. Neither reading seems to me particularly careful or interesting. Indeed, this sort of reading seems to me pretty embarrassing and dumb.

"Things grow stark and menacing in every sphere," Zerzan intones, "and still Haraway and the postmodern crowd insist that conclusions be avoided." Haraway's "Manifesto" draws many conclusions, of course, among them many that comport well with the appraisal that technoscientific societies defined by the parochial patriotism and profit-taking of neoliberal corporate-militarism are stark and menacing.

Zerzan may wish that theory could, through a pious embrace of whatever more synoptic methodology he imagines he has found his way to, provide certain and conclusive guidance to the quandaries of this historical moment. It is an old story that boys turn to their toys and their stolid steely philosophies when they recoil from the fraught ambiguities and compromises of stakeholder politics in a diverse world. I don't see why I should be expected to hold his hand particularly as he deals with (or refuses to do so) these facts of life. But I quite agree we should use the theories and other tools at our disposal to do the best we can in the causes of democracy and social justice. Many of the theories and tools I find congenial to my democratic ambitions are the ones that tend to be derided as "postmodernist." Live with it.

The key claim arrives in Zerzan's next declaration, namely, that "[o]f course, once one renounces any attempt to comprehend the overall situation, it's easy to embrace the endless complex of piecemeal 'solutions' offered by technology and capital." I see the force of the point, at least to a point. But I don't agree that such an accommodation of capital becomes any less easy just because a theorist acquires delusions of grandeur.

It isn't as if many of the more apparently compelling accounts of "the overall situation" (a view always only available from the perspective of the Cyclops eye of an awe-inspiring enormous swinging dick, one suspects or is meant to do), aren't also nice loud mouthpieces for the princes of industry and captains of their mercenary armies. It isn't "postmodernists" extruding sausages of mass-mediated reality congratulating themselves at being eyewitness accounts of "the overall situation" with titles like The Book of Virtues or The Clash of Civilizations or The End of History, after all. I mean, really, now.

"Postmodernism celebrates evanescent flows, a state of no boundaries, the transgressive," Zerzan continues. "If this sounds familiar, it's because these values are shared by the most ardent architects of both consumerism and capitalist globalization."

I do think there are some texts written by some of the figures who are typically corralled together (mostly by their foes, but whatever) under the "postmodern" banner, that have moments which really do seem altogether too cozy with the voracious energies of "free trade" in its dreadful neoliberal construal. And I do think it is right and important to highlight these moments and resist them.

But, frankly, some of the best critiques of these moments in some so-called "postmodernists" come from critiques likewise called "postmodernist" by critics of "postmodernism." And I think it is weird to imply that postmodernism -- which is honestly impossible to talk about sensibly in the monolithic construal that inevitably attaches to conversations like this -- is more complicit in neoliberalism than are the conservative foundationalist frameworks championed by many of the most vociferous critics of "postmodern" theory. Indeed, the overall tone of anti-postmodern discourse (whatever its occasional insights) seems to me indistinguishable from reactionary anti-intellectual and anti-humanistic discourse, and hence I am very suspicious of its politics even when it is inspired to defend (as I do myself and Zerzan, by the way, does not -- however vulnerable I may be to a "postmodern" appellation) the practices of proper consensus science in technoscientific cultures such as my own.

Zerzan worries that "[a]s the dimensions of personal sovereignty and community steadily erode, along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the uncontested next stage of human existence."

But I for one simply do not agree that the kind of surefire efficacy and certainty that tends to attach to sovereign conceptions of agency can't be jettisoned without losing the real blessings of community, meaning, and value.

This looks to me just like conventional conservative hysteria in the face of novelty. I have been hesitating to lug out the ultimate weapon here, but honestly do look up Zerzan's sketch of a more desirable world (a literally genocidal fantasy of preagricultural mammals grubbing authentically in the muck) if you doubt the easy companionability of premodern conservativism with anti-postmodern polemic.
Division of labor, structures of control, the nature of technology –- not to mention less abstract factors like drudgery, toxicity, the steady destruction of nature –- are integral to the high-tech trajectory. They are also of no concern, evidently, to postmodernists, who continue to cling to the subtle, the tentative, the narrowly focused.

Inevitably, the perplexed question arises... Has Zerzan actually read any of the texts he is talking about?

At this point, I fear, the observations have acquired what seems to me a rather fragmentary and superficial quality (but not, you know, in a postmodern kinda sorta way), and so I hope I can be forgiven a comparable scattering.
Virtual reality mirrors the postmodern fascination with surfaces, explicitly rejoicing in its own depthlessness –- one obvious way in which the postmodernists are the accomplices of the Brave New World.

Does this mean that Zerzan construes the writings of, say, Katherine Hayles on virtuality as "explicitly rejoicing in... depthlessness"? That seems to me an awfully difficult reading to substantiate, once one has actually read her. And if Zerzan has in mind some other theorist who presumably represents a "postmodern" account of "virtual reality" I would be pleased to know who he means. This is a subject in which I have dipped my own oar here and there as it happens. It's not that I mean to be snotty about it, but I do know enough to be perplexed about the formulations getting flung about here.

Another Zerzanian observation: "As we reject any possibility of understanding shared or even personal experience, no challenge to that experience seems plausible."

Okay, I'll bite. Who's "we"?

The zany Zerzanianisms are coming fast and furious now: "The political counterpart of postmodernism is pragmatism; we find ways of accommodating ourselves to the debased norm."

What to say? Isn't this a rather facile characterization, to speak charitably? Willian James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty advocate the accommodation to debased norms, then? Does Zerzan have a citation or two to adduce in support of this claim, so one has some sense of how to talk this over with him? Certainly it's fine to debate the finer points if one is talking to somebody who has some grasp of the subject matter, but, to be blunt, these bumper stickers are incomprehensible to me. I would say (admittedly just a countervailing bumper sticker) American pragmatism fueled some of the Progressive era reforms that I can only assume Zerzan would champion given his stated disdain for our own Gilded Age corporatist crimes. Richard Rorty had a brief flirtation with the postmodern term, which he later came to disavow for good reasons that he stated at length. Does Zerzan have that in mind here or something else? Is he conflating pragmatism with the instrumental rationality criticized by the Frankfurt School? Who knows? These are reasonable things to talk about, but it is hard to say how they could issue out in the larger criticisms that animate this piece.

The Big Finish:
The decay of meaning, passion, and inner vibrancy has been going on for a while. Today it is a juggernaut, in the face of which postmodernism is the culture of no resistance. The good news is that there are signs of life, signs that folks in various places are beginning to suspect our culture's greatest hoax.

If Zerzan means to suggest here that "postmodernism" is our culture's greatest hoax, then I fear he is shooting at fish in a barrel. If Zerzan means to suggest here that neoliberalism is culture's greatest hoax, and that deriding "postmodernism" contributes something vital to the elimination of that hoax, then I am sorry to say he is shooting blanks.

1 comment:

Michael Anissimov said...

Interesting analysis!