Postmodernism revisited

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Mar 3 08:51:07 MST 1995


Louis Proyect:
I'm taking a seminar with Randy Martin at the Marxist School in NYC.
Randy teaches at Pratt and is the author of "Performance as Political
Act" and "Socialist Ensembles: Theater and State in Nicaragua and
Cuba". The seminar involves a re-reading of some basic works of Marx
in the context of contemporary critiques by postmodernists, feminists
and postcolonialists.

I came to the seminar expecting to pick up some ammunition to use against
all those trendy "post" thinkers, but have discovered, much to my
initial dismay, that Randy Martin has a more nuanced view of things. Since
I am a rather crude fellow, both personally and intellectually, this
has required me to alter my habits of thought. But it may pay off in
the long run--who knows. In any case, I would like to submit a statement
by Randy on some of the basic issues being discussed in the seminar for
your consideration. As you will see immediately, they are the same issues
that were discussed recently in the postmodernism thread in this list.

Randy Martin:
A certain amount of mischief has been done under the sign of the
prefix "post." It is often inserted in front of a noun not as a modifier,
but as a total break with what it is manifestly attached to. It seems to me
more useful to inquire into the nature of this attachment, and to repose
the "post" as a complication within rather than complete rupture from
the subject in question. It is within this in mind that I would like to
examine the relation between marxism, postmodernism, feminism and
postcolonialism.

My interest is not in subsuming the last three terms into the first, but in
exploring their mutual articulation. It is not uncommon to construct a
rather brittle and straw figure of marxism in order to constitute a
critical project that can strengthen an understanding of politics that
have typically been difficult to perceive from a marxist optic. One risk
in this procedure, however, is to reproduce internally the very features
one is attempting to correct through the critique of marxism. An
example of this can be found in certain treatments of postmodern
politics, exemplified in the radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe.

Their declaration of the end of master narratives has all the ring of a
universalizing proclamation, and their newly decentered subjects may
not be able to recognize what they share with the old ones. More
specifically, the claim that Marx is the source of a master narrative of
history ending with the victory of communism and the industrial
proletariat as universal subject, rests on a reading of Marx that would
greatly simplify any text. As noted by Foucault, Marx shares with
Nietzsche and Freud a view of history as internally discontinuous, and
therefore contributes to the very theory of decentering that
contemporary theorists depend upon.

The notion that, for Marx, history can be apprehended as a narrative,
has been greatly problematized by Althusser and others. Careful
attention to the opening pages of the Manifesto bear out these
assertions. There, as in the 18th Brumaire, as in Capital, Marx is
vigilant in presenting the ambivalent and divided movement of history,
not as an inexorable synthesis that is the same everywhere it appears,
but as a contradictory process that destroys boundaries only to
reconstitute new societal divisions, that depends upon a socialization of
labor that it subsequently flees, that levels distinctions only to reinscribe
them more extensively. This account of creative destruction is helpful in
grasping the dynamics of the postcolonial condition.

But doing so assumes that is possible to extract what is analytic in
Marx, rather than reading him descriptively and generalizing form a
specific situation. To do so can only produce a eurocentric account of
marxism. This is not to say that Marx's (or anyone else's work) could be
transcribed in toto to account for contemporary situations of
postcoloniality or other phenomena. The same would have to be said
regarding the relation of marxism to feminism. Yet feminism's success
in showing that the separation between public and private is itself a
political construct, is not at all inconsistent with Marx's efforts to
analyze how the disarticulation of production and reproduction (and of
circulation) is generative of politics. Clearly this does not exhaust
feminist analysis but makes a case for a certain supplementarity among
critical endeavors that share a given epistemic context.


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