“In class struggle, culture is a key battleground. The capitalist rulers know this—and so should we.”
In the academic social sciences, students are taught to think of culture as representing the customs and mores of a society, including its language, art, laws, and religion. Such a definition has a nice neutral sound to it, but culture is anything but neutral. Much of what is thought to be our common culture is the selective transmission of class-dominated values.
Antonio Gramsci understood this when he spoke of class hegemony, noting that the state is only the “outer ditch behind which there [stands] a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks,” a network of cultural values and institutions not normally thought of as political.1 What we call “our culture” is largely reflective of existing hegemonic arrangements within the social order, strongly favoring some interests over others.
A society built upon slave labor, for instance, swiftly develops a racist culture, replete with its own peculiar laws, science, and mythology, along with mechanisms of repression directed against both slaves and the critics of slavery. After slavery is abolished, racism continues to fortify the inequitable social relations—which is what Engels meant when he said that slavery leaves its “poisonous sting” long after it passes into history.
Culture, then, is not an abstract force that floats around in space and settles upon us—though given the seemingly subliminal ways it influences us, it can feel like a disembodied, ubiquitous entity. In fact, culture is mediated through a social structure. We get our culture from a network of social relations involving other people: primary groups such as family, peers, and other informal associations within the community or, as is increasingly the case, from more formally articulated and legally chartered institutions such as schools, media, churches, government agencies, corporations, and the military.
Linked by purchase and persuasion to dominant ruling-class interests, such social institutions are regularly misrepresented as politically neutral, especially by those who occupy command positions within them or are otherwise advantaged by them. What Gramsci said about the military might apply to most other institutions in capitalist society: their “so-called neutrality only means support for the reactionary side.”2
When culture is treated as nothing more than an innocent accretion of solutions and practices, and each culture is seen as something inviolate, then all cultures are accepted at face value and cultural relativism is the suggested standard. So we hear that we should avoid ethnocentrism and respect other cultures. To be sure, after centuries in which indigenous cultures have been trampled underfoot by colonizers, we need to be acutely aware of the baneful effects of cultural imperialism and of the oppressive intolerance manifested toward diverse ethnic cultures within our own society.
But the struggle to preserve cultural diversity should not give carte blanche to anyone in any society to violate basic human rights. Many patriarchal cultures, for example, are replete with “sacrosanct customs” that, on closer examination, promote the worst kinds of gender victimization, including the mutilation of female children through clitorectomy and infibulation, and the sale of young girls into sexual slavery. I once heard an official from Saudi Arabia demand that Westerners show respect for his culture: he was addressing critics who denounced the Saudi practice of stoning women to death on charges of adultery. He failed to mention that there were people within his own culture—including, of course, the female victims—who were not enamored of such time-honored traditions.
For most of U.S. history, slaveholders and then segregationists insisted that we respect the South’s “way of life.” In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was an integral part of the ongoing political culture. Many evildoers might rally under the banner of cultural relativism. The truth is, as we struggle for human betterment, we must challenge the oppressive and destructive features of all cultures, including our own.
In academic circles, postmodernist theorists offer their own variety of cultural relativism. They reject the idea that human perceptions can transcend culture. For them, all kinds of knowledge are little more than social constructs. Evaluating any culture from a platform of fixed and final truths, they say, is a dangerous project that often contains the seeds of more extreme forms of domination. In response, I would argue that, even if there are no absolute truths, this does not mean all consciousness is hopelessly culture-bound. People from widely different societies and different periods in history can still recognize forms of class, ethnic, and gender oppression in various cultures across time and space. Though culture permeates all our perceptions, it is not the totality of human experience.
At the heart of postmodernism’s cultural relativism is an old-fashioned anti-Marxism, an unswerving ideological acceptance of existing bourgeois domination. Some postmodernists depict themselves as occupying “positions of marginality,” taking lonely and heroic stands against hoards of doctrinaire hardliners who supposedly overpopulate the nation’s campuses. So the postmodernists are able to enjoy the appearance of independent critical thought without ever saying anything that might jeopardize their academic careers.
Taught to think of culture as an age-old accretion of practice and tradition, we mistakenly conclude that it is not easily modified. In fact, as social conditions and interests change, much (but certainly not all) of culture proves mutable. For almost four hundred years, the wealthy elites of Central America were devoutly Roman Catholic, a religious affiliation that was supposedly deeply ingrained in their culture. Then, in the late 1970s, after many Catholic clergy proved friendly to liberation theology, these same elites discarded their Catholicism and joined Protestant fundamentalist denominations that espoused a more comfortably reactionary line. Their four centuries of “deeply ingrained Catholic culture” were discarded within a few years once they deemed their class interests to be at stake.
Generally, whenever anyone offers culturalistic explanations for social phenomena, we should be skeptical. For one thing, culturalistic explanations of third-world social conditions tend to be patronizing and ethnocentric. I heard someone explain the poor performance of the Mexican army, in the storm rescue operations in Acapulco in October 1997, as emblematic of a lackadaisical Mexican way of handling things: It’s in their culture, you see; everything is mañana mañana with those people. In fact, poor rescue responses have been repeatedly evidenced in the United States and numerous other countries. And more to the point, the Mexican army, financed and advised by the U.S. national security state, has performed brilliantly in Chiapas, doing the thing it was trained to do, which is not rescuing people but intimidating and killing them, waging low-intensity warfare, systematically occupying lands, burning crops, destroying villages, executing suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and tightening the noose around the Zapatista social base. To say the Mexican army performed poorly in rescue operations is to presume that the army is there to serve the people rather than to control them on behalf of those who own Mexico. Culturalistic explanations divorced of political-economic realities readily lend themselves to such obfuscation.
The Commodification of Culture
As the capitalist economy has grown in influence and power, much of our culture has been expropriated and commodified. Its use value increasingly takes second place to its exchange value. Nowadays we create less of our culture and buy more of it, until it really is no longer our culture. We now have a special term for segments of culture that remain rooted in popular practice: we call it “folk culture,” which includes folk music, folk dance, folk medicine, and folk mythology. These are curious terms, when you think about it, since by definition all culture should be folk culture. That is, all culture arises from the social practices of us folks. But primary-group folk creation has become so limited as to be accorded a distinctive label.
A far greater part of our culture is now aptly designated as “mass culture,” “popular culture,” and even “media culture,” owned and operated mostly by giant corporations whose major concern is to accumulate wealth and make the world safe for their owners, the goal being exchange value rather than use value, social control rather than social creativity. Much of mass culture is organized to distract us from thinking too much about larger realities. The fluff and puffery of entertainment culture crowds out more urgent and nourishing things. By constantly appealing to the lowest common denominator, a sensationalist popular culture lowers the common denominator still further. Public tastes become still more attuned to cultural junk food, the big hype, the trashy, flashy, wildly violent, instantly stimulating, and desperately superficial offerings.
Such fare often has real ideological content. Even if supposedly apolitical in its intent, entertainment culture (which is really the entertainment industry) is political in its impact, propagating images and values that are often downright sexist, racist, consumerist, authoritarian, militaristic, and imperialist.3
With the ascendancy of mass culture we see a loss of people’s culture. From the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, a discernible working-class culture existed, with its union halls, songs, poetry, literature, theater, night schools, summer camps, and mutual assistance societies, many of which were organized by anarchists, socialists, and communists, and their various front groups. But not much of this culture could survive the twin blows of McCarthyism and television, both of which came upon us at about the same time.
The commodification of culture can be seen quite starkly in the decline of children’s culture. In my youth, I and my companions were out on the streets of New York playing games of childhood’s creation without adult supervision: ringalevio, kick-the-can, hide-and-seek, tag, Johnny-on-the-pony, stickball, stoopball, handball, and boxball. Today, one sees little evidence of children’s culture in most U.S. communities. The same seems to have happened in other countries. Martin Large notes that in England, in the parks and streets that once were “bubbling with children playing,” few youngsters are now to be seen participating in the old games. Where have they all gone? The television “has taken many of our children away” from their hobbies and street games.4
This process, whereby a profit-driven mass culture preempts people’s culture, is extending all over the world, as third-world critics of cultural imperialism repeatedly remind us.
There are two myths I would like to put to rest: first, the notion that culture is to be treated as mutually exclusive of, and even competitive with, political economy. A friend of mine who edits a socialist journal once commented to me: “You emphasize economics. I deal more with culture.” I thought this an odd dichotomization since my work on the news media, the entertainment industry, social institutions, and political mythology has been deeply involved with both culture and economics. In fact, I doubt one can talk intelligently about culture if one does not at some point also introduce the dynamics of political economy. This is why, when I refer to the “politics of culture,” I mean something more than just the latest controversy regarding federal funding of the arts.
The other myth is that our social institutions are autonomous entities, not linked to each other. In fact, they are interlocked by corporate law, public and private funding, and overlapping corporate elites who serve on the governing boards of universities, colleges, private schools, museums, symphony orchestras, the music industry, libraries, churches, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV networks, publishing houses, and charitable foundations.
New cultural formations arise from time to time, usually within a limited framework that does not challenge dominant class arrangements. So we have struggles around feminism, ethnic equality, gay rights, family values, and the like—all of which can involve important, life-and-death issues. And if pursued as purely lifestyle issues, they can win occasional exposure in the mainstream media. Generally, however, the higher circles instinctively resist any pressure toward social equalization, even in the realm of “identity politics.” Furthermore, they use lifestyle issues such as gay rights and abortion rights, among others, as convenient targets against which to misdirect otherwise legitimate mass grievances.
The victories won by “identity politics” usually are limited to changes in procedure and personnel, leaving institutional class interests largely intact. For instance, feminists have challenged patriarchal militarism, but the resulting concession is not an end to militarism but women in the armed forces.
Eventually we get female political leaders, but of what stripe? We get Lynn Cheney, Elizabeth Dole, Margaret Thatcher and—just when some of us were recovering from Jeane Kirkpatrick—Madeleine Albright. It is no accident that this type of woman is most likely to reach the top of the present politico-economic structure. While indifferent or even hostile to the feminist movement, conservative females reap some of its benefits.
Professions offer another example of the false autonomy of cultural practices. Whether composed of anthropologists, political scientists, physicists, doctors, lawyers, or librarians, professional associations emphasize their commitment to independent expertise, and deny that they are wedded to the dominant politico-economic social structure. In fact, many of their most important activities are directly regulated by corporate interests or take place in a social context that is less and less of their own making, as doctors and nurses are discovering in their dealings with HMOs.
Supply Creates Demand
We are taught that the “free market of ideas and images,” as it exists in mass culture today, is a response to popular tastes. Media culture gives the people what they want. Demand creates supply. This is a very democratic-sounding notion. But quite often it is the other way around: supply creates demand. Thus, the supply system to a library can be heavily prefigured by all sorts of things other than readers’ preferences. Discussions of censorship usually focus on limited controversies, as when some people agitate to have this or that “offensive” book removed from the shelves. Such incidents leave the impression that the library is struggling to maintain itself as a free and open system. Overlooked is the prestructured selectivity, the censorship that occurs even before anyone gets a chance to see what books are on the shelves, a censorship imposed by a book market dominated by six or seven conglomerates. There is a difference between incidental censorship and systemic censorship. Mainstream pundits sedulously avoid discussion of the latter.
Systemic repression exists in other areas of cultural endeavor. Consider the censorship controversies in regard to art. These focus on whether a particular painting or photograph, sporting some naughty thing like frontal nudity, should be publicly funded and shown to consenting adults. But there is a systemic suppression as well. The image we have of the artist as an independent purveyor of creative culture can be as misleading as the image we have of other professionals. What is referred to as the “art world” is not a thing apart from the art market; the latter has long been heavily influenced by a small number of moneyed persons like Huntington Hartford, John Paul Getty, Nelson Rockefeller, and Joseph Hirschorn, who have treated works of art not as part of our common treasure but, in true capitalist style, as objects of pecuniary investment and private acquisition. They have financed the museums and major galleries, art books, art magazines, art critics, university endowments, and various art schools and centers—reaping considerable tax write-offs in so doing.
As trustees, publishers, patrons, and speculators, they and their associates exercise influence over the means of artistic production and distribution, setting ideological limits to artistic expression. Artists who move beyond acceptable boundaries run the risk of not being shown. Art that contains radical political content is labeled “propaganda” by those who control the art market. Art and politics do not mix, we are told—which would be news to such greats as Goya, Degas, Picasso, and Rivera. While professing to keep art free of politics (“art for art’s sake”), the gatekeepers impose their own politically motivated definition of what is and is not art. The art they buy, show, and have reviewed is devoid of critical social content even when realistic in form. What is preferred is Abstract Expressionism and other forms of Nonobjective Art that are sufficiently ambiguous to stimulate a broad range of aesthetic interpretations, having an iconoclastic and experimental appearance while remaining politically safe.
The same is true of the distribution of films and their redistribution as videos. Some are mass-marketed while others quickly drop from sight. Capitalism will sell you the camera to make a movie and the computer to write a book. But then there is the problem of distribution. Will a film get mass exposure in a thousand theaters across the nation, or will the producer spend the next five years of his or her life toting it around to college campuses, union halls, and special one-day matinee showings at local art theaters (if that)?
So it is with publications. Books from one of the big publishing conglomerates are likely to get more prominent distribution and more library adoptions than books by Monthly Review Press, Verso, Pathfinder, or International Publishers. Libraries and bookstores (not to mention newsstands and drugstores) are more likely to stock Time and Newsweek than Monthly Review, CovertAction Quarterly, or other such publications. A small branch library will have no room or funds to acquire leftist titles but will procure seven copies of Colin Powell’s autobiography or some other media-hyped potboiler.
It is not just that supply is responding to demand. Where did the demand to read about Colin Powell come from? The media blitz that legitimized the Gulf War also catapulted its top military commander into the national limelight and made him an overnight superstar. It was supply creating demand.
One hopeful thought remains: socialization into the dominant culture does not operate with perfect effect. In the face of all monopolistic ideological manipulation, many people develop a skepticism or outright disaffection based on the sometimes evident disparity between social actuality and official ideology. There is a limit to how many lies people will swallow about the reality they are experiencing. If this were not so, if we were all perfectly socialized into the ongoing social order and thoroughly indoctrinated into the dominant culture, then I would not have been able to record these thoughts and you could not have understood them.
Years ago, William James observed how custom can operate as a sedative while novelty (including dissidence) is rejected as an irritant.5 Yet I would argue that after awhile sedatives can become suffocating and irritants can enliven. People sometimes hunger for the uncomfortable critical perspective that gives them a more meaningful explanation of things. By becoming aware of this, we have a better chance of moving against the tide. It is not a matter of becoming the faithful instrument of any particular persuasion but of resisting the misrepresentations of a thoroughly ideologized bourgeois culture. In class struggle, culture is a key battleground. The capitalist rulers know this—and so should we.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Parenti is an American investigative journalist and author. His books include: Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (2000), a survey of the rise of the prison industrial complex from the Nixon through Reagan Eras and into the present; The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (2003), a study of surveillance and control in modern society. The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (2004), is an account of the US occupation of Iraq. In Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011), Parenti links the implications of climate change with social and political unrest in mid-latitude regions of the world.Parenti has also reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ivory Coast and China.
Parenti’s reporting in Afghanistan was the subject of an award-winning HBO documentary called Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. Directed and edited by Ian Olds, the film follows the working relationship between Parenti and his Afgan colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi, and after Naqshbandi’s capture and murder by the Taliban, Parenti’s investigation of that crime.
- Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 238.
- Ibid, p. 212.
- See my Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), chapter 1 and passim.
- Martin Large, Who’s Bringing Them Up? (Gloucester, England: M.H.C. Large, 1980), p. 35.
- William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in his Essays in Pragmatism (New York: Hafner, 1948), p. 13.
During the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush era, just as critical intellectuals and left political activists had won a small place for the concepts of political economy and class analysis in academia, postmodernism and post-structuralism replaced Marxism as the favored mode of Anglo-American intellectual radicalism.
Strictly speaking, postmodernism and post-structuralism are not the same thing. What I mean by these terms is an array of literary and cultural theory rooted in a Nietzschean — as opposed to a Marxian — critique of bourgeois modernity. Postmodernists hold that reason — the leading principle of European post-Enlightenment modernity — is not universal, but merely masks relations of power. Rather than conceiving of power as residing in centralized institutions like states, which can be seized and transformed, they regard power as dispersed and reproduced in every form of social discourse. Postmodernists reject the notion that the interests and outlook of the working class or any other group constitute the basis for liberation of all of people. They are suspicious of abstract categories like class, and deny the existence of unified subjects — individuals or classes — with historical agency. They do not speak of the origins of things because originary narratives inevitably privilege certain historical actors and forces while obscuring and repressing others. Postmodernists argue that because it is embedded in culture, language cannot transparently represent real historical objects; thus they concern themselves with the study of discourses and the cultural construction of meaning and difference, rather than with the study of society. They often adopt a playful, ironic, self-contradictory style, reflecting their view that there is no correct analysis of anything, but only an infinite variety of “readings.”
Like many Marxists who argue that Marxism and postmodernism are mutually exclusive, Terry Eagleton carried his polemic against postmodernism to the Middle East in a lecture at the American University in Cairo in April 1993, drawing on his book, Ideology: An Introduction (Verso, 1991). Eagleton contends that postmodernists are wrong in characterizing all post-Enlightenment philosophy as having a naive view of the self as prior to social context. Reviewing the tradition from Spinoza to Marx and beyond, he argues that individuals and social groups are historically formed and constitute communities based on real interests. Postmodernists, he believes, fetishize difference, and by positing that difference cannot be overcome, they ultimately reinforce the authority of the liberal state, which presents itself as the institution for representing and negotiating these differences. This opposes the Marxist concept of political order and ethics which emphasizes community. In Ideology, Eagleton argues that postmodernists who deny that the working class or other subordinate groups have interests derived from their socioeconomic conditions must reduce their political preferences to a moral option, and hence a version of liberalism.
While I share his critique of postmodernist politics, what makes Eagleton’s defense of Marxism unconvincing is his failure to consider categories of identity and difference marginalized by European post-Enlightenment (including Marxist) tradition: gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, physical or mental capacity, or religio-communal loyalties that have been particularly potent in Lebanon, Bosnia and the Indian sub-continent. Those who identify with these excluded categories may well regard Eagleton’s Marxist universalism as yet another form of Euro-patriarchy.
Eagleton, David Harvey and Fredric Jameson have all tried to turn deconstructionism against itself by examining the historical conditions of its emergence. In The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Blackwell, 1990), Harvey combines a persuasive analysis of the global crisis of capitalist accumulation since 1973 with a discussion of cultural trends in urban architecture and other visual arts. Harvey commends the postmodernist “concern for difference, for the difficulties of communication, for the complexity and nuances of interests, cultures, places, and the like” and sees this as giving postmodernism a “radical edge.” Yet Harvey, like Eagleton, is suspicious of the postmodernist tendency to avoid questions of political economy and global power.
Harvey proposes that postmodernism derives its power from “the fact of fragmentation, ephemerality, and chaotic flux.” This he associates with the end of the long post-World War II economic expansion and the collapse of the “Fordist” regime of capitalist accumulation, with its integrated system of mass production, mass consumption and populist democracy in North America and Europe. In response to the crisis, a new regime of “flexible accumulation” emerged in the advanced capitalist world, characterized by geographical mobility of labor and capital, rapid shifts in consumption practices, specialized markets and the displacement of workers in traditional industrial sectors. In advanced capitalist countries — the sites of postmodern culture — this has resulted in higher structural unemployment, the deskilling and dispersion of labor, stagnation of real wages, the decline of trade unions, and rapid development of new products and forms of financing.
Developing a theme from the title essay of Fredric Jameson”s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke, 1991), Harvey proposes that the postmodern cultural shift is due to “a crisis in our experience of space and time…in which spatial categories come to dominate those of time while themselves undergoing such a mutation that we cannot keep pace” (201). Flexible accumulation practices alter the spatial distribution of investments, jobs and markets, and speed up production and capital turnover time. Compressions of time and space induce a new cultural sensibility, while capital remains dominant.
Jameson takes more pleasure in postmodern culture than Eagleton, and his analysis of political economy is less detailed than Harvey’s. But they all agree that postmodernism is the cultural form appropriate to the current configuration of transnational capitalism. Jameson regards postmodernism as a peculiarly American phenomenon because “the brief ‘American century’ (1945-1973)…constituted the hothouse of the new system, while the development of the cultural forms of postmodernism may be said to be the first specifically North American global style.” Jameson regards postmodern culture as “the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” whose underside is “blood, torture, death and terror.” Nonetheless, the simple binary opposition of the First and Third worlds suggested by Jameson’s contention that all Third World literary texts are national allegories, in an essay on “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital” (Social Text, Fall 1986), provoked angry responses from those who see his Marxism as an obstacle to understanding the specificity and variety of non-Western cultures.
Aijaz Ahmad severely criticizes Jameson’s Eurocentrism in one of the central essays of In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992). Ahmad properly rejects the term “Third World” as referring to no unitary entity. He prefers class categories, but his rhetorical strategy is not unlike deconstructionist approaches to collapsing binary oppositions. Ahmad disparages narrow Third Worldist nationalism, recalling the importance of communist political practices and the “Marxist critique of class, colony and empire” in the oppositional culture and politics of the formerly colonized world. But he also rejects critiques of nationalism based “not on the familiar Marxist ground that nationalism in the present century has frequently suppressed questions of gender and class and has itself been frequently complicit with all kinds of obscurantisms and revanchist positions, but in the patently postmodernist way of debunking all efforts to speak of origins, collectivities, determinate historical projects.”
Despite his insistence that socialism, not nationalism, is the antipode to imperialism, many of Ahmad’s positions amount to a recuperation of progressive nationalism. And rather than analyze why progressive national movements have all but disappeared in the current conjuncture, Ahmad denounces both postmodernism and the failures of the Anglo-American left.
Emigre intellectuals from the former colonies who have achieved some prominence in the West and who Ahmad regards as embracing postmodernism — Ranajit Guha, Salman Rushdie and Edward W. Said — receive equally harsh treatment. Ahmad argues that Said’s critique of Western representations of non-Europeans “panders to the most sentimental, the most extreme forms of Third Worldist nationalism.” No doubt Orientalism has been used in this way, and this is partly because Said seems ambivalent about the possibility of “true” representation or the ability of any Western intellectual to produce one. While Orientalism is not beyond criticism, Ahmad does not sufficiently appreciate its overwhelming significance as a text that reformed Anglo-American Middle East studies.
Ahmad is critical of these acclaimed figures because they admire bourgeois culture, and their intellectual and cultural anti-imperialism valorizes the celebrity of a privileged elite. But Ahmad, too, is situated in an academic institution, and the privileges accorded by such institutions enable us to read and write about each other’s work. Awareness of these privileges should lead us all to conduct criticism in a modest and comradely, rather than a dogmatic and personalistic style. Ahmad’s moralism obscures the validity of some of his arguments.
Finally, Ahmad is much concerned with Salman Rushdie’s misrepresentation of women in Shame, but he himself barely engages with the work of women like Jean Franco, Barbara Harlow, Mary Layoun, Ella Shohat or Gayatri Spivak — all of whom have much to say about the matters he addresses. This suggests that Marxism is here being deployed as a discourse of exclusion.
In The Politics of Postmodernism (Routledge, 1989) Linda Hutcheon asks whether postmodern politics can be useful to the feminist movement. She applauds postmodernism’s challenge to the apparent common sense informing our cultural representations and the political significance embedded in them. Like Harvey and Jameson, she appreciates postmodern literature and photography. But she is quite clear that “the feminist and the postmodern — as cultural enterprises — can not be conflated” because “Feminism is a politics. Postmodernism is not.” And this is because postmodernism has no theory of agency, no strategy of resistance and no way to transform the structures of meaning that it so brilliantly exposes and critiques.
Gayatri Spivak’s much-quoted essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Illinois, 1988), addresses these problems. But her complex resolution is ultimately available only to intellectuals. Others are apparently left to define their political categories and strategies by the “strategic use of positivist essentialism” that she proposes in her introduction to Selected Subaltern Studies edited by Ranajit Guha and herself, and published by Oxford University Press in 1987.
For those concerned with the Middle East, nothing exposes the political disabilities of postmodernism more than Jean Baudrillard’s article in The Guardian arguing that the Gulf war existed “only as a figment of mass media simulation, war games rhetoric or imaginary scenarios which exceeded all the limits of real-world, factual possibility.’ Christopher Norris opens and closes his Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (Massachusetts, 1992) with a critique of Baudrillard. Rather than disregarding Baudrillard as absurd and irrelevant, Norris takes him on because he believes that engaging Baudrillard in terms of the Gulf war “brings home…the depth of ideological complicity that exists between such forms of extreme anti-realist or irrationalist doctrine and the crisis of moral and political nerve” of the left (27). Norris, like Hutcheon, rejects the excess of those who argue that historical events have no reality outside texts, although both agree that they are given meaning through texts. This fine difference limits what can be considered a valid representation, preserves the epistemological distinction between truth and falsehood, and makes it possible to argue ethically.
Norris also argues, similarly to Spivak and in opposition to Baudrillard, that Derridean deconstruction “sustains the impulse of Enlightenment critique even while subjecting the tradition to a radical reassessment of its grounding concepts and categories” and maintains “a scrupulous regard for the protocols of reasoned argument and an ethics of open dialogical exchange.” Viewing deconstruction as an internal critique of the Enlightenment allows it to be deployed as a tool of cultural critique by many who share Norris’ dismay with postmodernist excesses. This strategy cannot determine when it is appropriate to suspend the intellectual conversation about meaning and draw a political line, but it preserves the possibility of doing so. It is clear that the Gulf war required such a response.
A dialogue is required between advocates of Marxian political economy and postmodern cultural theory because of the apparent inability of the working class to play the role designated for it in Marxist theory; because of cultural and political changes in recent years that call into question the viability of oppositional political practices associated with both Marxism and liberalism; and because of the inadequacy of Marxist theory about the nature of human difference. There is a basis for such a dialogue because, in addition to their shared opposition to bourgeois society, many Marxists and postmodern literary deconstructionists can agree that language represents its referent only through a series of cultural filters, and that interpretations so constructed are never fully aware of their own meanings. Both can reject scientific positivism and agree that events have no single determination. Both can appreciate how postmodern cultural critique undermines the apparently natural and common sense character of dominant cultural representations and exposes the political interests in which they are embedded.
Cultural theory devoid of political economy lacks critical power and can easily become a form of entertainment for intellectuals who have no social commitments beyond the academy. We cannot, however, resuscitate the kind of Marxism Terry Eagleton advocates, despite its intellectual elegance. But developing an historically informed, holistic conception of society — tentative and subject to change as it must be — can be a powerful tool for understanding and political action.