from the pages of October 1996

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History of Consciousness Board

Barbara Epstein

 

Alan Sokal's hoax, his article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,"1 a parody of the amalgam of postmodernism, cultural studies, and identity politics that holds sway in some sectors of the academy, has provoked heated emotions. A friend of mine, who belongs to a reading group all of whose members are on the left, told me that in a recent meeting Sokal's article was mentioned. People lined up for and against Sokal, and the discussion nearly turned into a shouting match. What was extraordinary about this, my friend said, was that no one in the group had read the article, copies of the relevant issue of Social Text being hard to obtain. Members of the group knew about the article only from comments in the press, or from talking to friends who had read it.

My friend's story confirms my own experience: Sokal's parody has hit a nerve. Defenders and critics of his effort have a hard time speaking calmly to each other. Pieces in the press, for and against Sokal, seem to sail past each other. His defenders spell out the argument implicit in his parody, that the laws of nature are not merely effects of human consciousness or discourse, though they must be apprehended through human effort. His opponents accusing him of misunderstanding postmodernism or denying the importance of studying culture.2 In informal conversation, Sokal's supporters gloat while his opponents assume the pose of martyrs. Lampooning postmodernism, they cry, encourages the right; it is irrelevant that the lampooner is a leftist, or that he and his supporters see his spoof as a political act, a defense of the left from rampant silliness. What is going on here? The heated emotions, I think, are due to the fact that the ideological amalgam which may be called "postmodernism" for convenience is not so much an intellectual stance as a subculture within which lives, social networks, careers have become embedded. There are many of us on the left who have come to regard this subculture with considerable anger. If this were merely one intellectual subculture among many, and content with that status, it would probably provoke little if any anger, at least from the left. In the late seventies and very early eighties postmodernism did seem to be one approach among many, a genre of thought that was asking interesting, provocative questions about the relation of language and culture to society. But since then it has increasingly taken on the qualities of a sect.

There are many intellectuals who find postmodern concepts useful, and use them productively. Such work is to be distinguished from the equation of postmodernism with radical politics, and the pursuit of intellectual hegemony under its aegis. As a campaign for dominance, postmodernism belies its claim to value diversity; it treats other perspectives with scorn, often dismissing them as outmoded and conservative. It has created an arena in which statements are all too often grandiose and self-referential, in which participants congratulate themselves on their radicalism or "transgression," and in which ideas are judged by their conformity to the shifting ideological trends within this world rather than in terms of their ability to shed light on any external reality. It is difficult to debate postmodernism because it is not a set of claims. It is a set of attitudes, the central one being the suspicion of all claims - and the concomitant effort never to make any claims, or at least, never to acknowledge them. Postmodernism sees itself as the unique possessor of a critical perspective, with a foothold above the fray, a perspective from which it may judge the claims of others without exposing itself to being judged in return. This stance of pure criticism helps explain both the appeal and the self-contradictory quality of postmodernism; it also helps explain the anger of those defined as intellectual inferiors. It is why some of us do not see postmodernism as having anything to do with social radicalism, which requires not merely breaking with existing views, but criticizing exploitation and oppression from an explicitly egalitarian set of values.

The postmodern world is not a place where criticisms are easy to make. Several months ago I gave a paper criticizing feminist poststructuralism as part of a panel on that theme, at a large feminist conference. I argued that feminist poststructuralism may represent an aesthetic stance that is radical in the sense of being avant-garde, but that it has no relevance to social radicalism, that the vocabulary and assumptions of poststructuralism make any kind of social analysis virtually impossible. In this sense poststructuralism, I argued, stands in the way of the development of a radical politics.

When I had finished a woman in the audience rose, identified herself as a postmodernist, and described my talk as an instance of McCarthyism. She claimed that many people whose work is in cultural studies are failing to get tenure. Critiques like mine, she said, should not be made in public; such critiques will cause large numbers of people their jobs. In the ensuing discussion I was accused of sexism (I had described postmodernism as suspicious of rationality; given that many feminists espouse postmodernism, I was told, this was dangerously close to describing women as irrational). I was chastised for questioning the views of leading feminist theorists, and told that one of those whose views I had criticized is a very nice person, and very politically committed. No one addressed the argument that I had made. After the discussion several members of the audience came up to tell me that they had agreed with much of what I had said, but that once accusations of McCarthyism and sexism began flying through the air they had decided not to say anything.

I was too stunned by the initial accusation of McCarthyism to respond effectively: I should have pointed out that I had described postmodernism as irrelevant to radical politics, and that if this is McCarthyism, it is certainly a very novel version. But in another sense there was something to the charge. It is true that there are places in academia, and in the world of publishing, where one's work has to be seen as radical, subversive, and transgressive if one is to advance one's career. But what this means is that one's ideas must be au courant, "on the cutting edge": the new, revolutionary brand of laundry detergent is obviously preferable to the old. This merely indicates the cheapening of words such as "subversive," the commodification of ideas that once had political value. As academics' links to social movements disappear, "radicalism" becomes a selling point.

In my experience postmodernism in practice, as it functions in conferences, seminars, public talks, it is more ideologically driven, less restrained by standards of logic, let alone correspondence to reality, than postmodernism in print. A number of years ago I taught a seminar in which the students read chapters from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, which argues that the concept "woman" is essentialist, and that sexual difference is socially constructed. During the discussion I argued that there are biological differences between men and women, and that while gender is constructed in a myriad of ways in different social settings, there remains a fundamental biological difference between men and women, with important social consequences. The students were shocked: they pointed out that enemies of feminism point to differences between men and women. My agreement that such differences exist seemed to place my feminism in question. One student argued that not only sexual difference but bodies are socially constructed. His stake in this view, he said, was that if he were to believe that he had a body that was given rather than constructed through discourse, that would make him a white male, and give him a set of politics that he did not want. I asked if he could not be a white male but define his own politics; my remark was ignored.

A second student accused the first of speaking from a position of privilege as a white male. Other students began accusing each other of various ideological errors. I interrupted to suggest that we should all try to treat each other with respect, that everyone should be able to say what he or she thought without fear of being attacked. One student expressed general agreement with this, but said that some ideas were so hurtful that they should be ruled out of public discussion. When I asked what ideas the student had in mind, I was told: my view that there are innate biological differences between men and women. I later found out that the chair of my department received a complaint that I had expressed this apparently offensive view in class. The chair sensibly advised the complaining student to discuss the issue with me.

It is of course true, as one student pointed out in the course of the discussion, that there are some people who are born with sexual characteristics that do not fit male or female categories, and some people who do not identify with the sex with which they are born. But this does not imply that the distinction between male and female is discursively constructed rather than biologically based, or that the categories are invalid, but rather that there are people who do not fit these categories or whose self-image differs from their biology. It is useful to consider how these exceptions should affect our thinking about sex. Such discussion cannot take place when ideological denunciation replaces thoughtful exchange, or when consideration of non-discursive reality is ruled out. Postmodernism asserts that there is no such thing as truth, and it does sometimes seem that participation in postmodernist discussion requires shutting down the part of one's mind that asks whether a view accords with reality, whether it makes sense or not. An acquaintance of mine, who teaches in a major East Coast university, described the doctoral defense of a candidate who had written a dissertation on the treatment of race in the law. The student criticized existing law for failing to take race (or gender, or sexual orientation) into account, for treating blacks and whites, women and men, homosexuals and heterosexuals, as equal before the law. He cited as an example the following: several black teenagers had seen a film in which a black man was beaten by a group of racist whites. They were standing on the sidewalk together discussing their anger at racism, and at whites, when one of them pointed out a white teenage boy walking down the other side of the street. Several of them ran across the street and beat the white boy, who sustained permanent brain damage. This was designated a hate crime by the court. The student objected to this designation: in treating black violence toward a white as the equivalent of white violence toward a black, he argued, it disregarded racism. The faculty at the exam, other than my acquaintance, applauded this view. My acquaintance asked the student, and the other faculty, what legal system they could imagine that would distinguish between people on the basis of race (or gender, or sexual orientation) and yet remain fair. The student and the other faculty at first seemed taken aback by the question. But after a minute one of the faculty members said, "No, that's the wrong question. It's not our job to make proposals; we're critical theorists. Our job is to criticize prevailing assumptions." The student and the other faculty seemed relieved, and the exam proceeded as if the question had been answered. My acquaintance was appalled. She considered asking whether the others present believed in apartheid. She considered refusing to concur in a passing grade. But she realized that the student would be the main victim of her protest, which really should be directed toward the other faculty. The student was given high marks for the exam; my acquaintance did not object.

Postmodernism has become an enclosed universe, not only largely indifferent to other perspectives but also largely uninterested in learning more about the world or (despite its protestations of radicalism) engaging with society so as to change it. I have come to see the world of postmodernism as a bubble, a place where intellectuals can take refuge from a disappointing world and reassure themselves that the intellect is all-powerful. Over the last twenty years the right has grown enormously in numbers, political power, and popular influence. In the fifties there was an explicit attack on the left; this included an attack on left academics, many of whom lost their jobs. In the eighties and nineties there has not been any concerted attack on the left comparable to McCarthyism. Nevertheless the left has dwindled to the point where it is not clear what the term refers to.

Meanwhile academia, especially the humanities and to a lesser extent the social sciences, have lost prestige, influence, and funding. The logic of the marketplace, never altogether foreign to the academy, invades it an accelerating pace. Postmodernism appears to transcend the devaluation of humanist intellectuals by creating its own elite. It redefines radicalism as cultural marginality, which is much easier to achieve than social change. As it becomes increasingly difficult to exert political influence, postmodern cultural studies asserts that "everything is political": graffiti is political, writing obscure articles is political, presumably, brushing one's teeth is political. It is hard not to see postmodernism as simultaneous pursuit and denial of social irrelevance.