Why Postmodernism Is No Progressive: If You Seek Understanding or Social Change, Don't Go There

By Epstein, Barbara | Free Inquiry, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Why Postmodernism Is No Progressive: If You Seek Understanding or Social Change, Don't Go There


Epstein, Barbara, Free Inquiry


Over roughly the last 15 years the theoretical paradigm that was at first called "postmodernism" and has come to be more often referred to as "poststructuralism" has been adopted by very large numbers of progressive and feminist intellectuals in the United States. In the arena of feminist writing, it has come to be virtually synonymous with theory; feminist theory has come to mean feminist poststructuralism. This is also true in cultural studies and many other interdisciplinary fields, in literature, and to a lesser degree in anthropology and history. Other groups as well have played a role in this process: in the late seventies, when interest in Michel Foucault and other writers then usually described as postmodernist began to take hold in the United States, the audience for such work also included gay and lesbian intellectuals, literary critics, and others whose concerns were not linked to politics.

In more recent years the field of postcolonial discourse has emerged within the framework of poststructuralism. Some domestic intellectuals of color have adopted aspects of poststructuralist thinking, despite the earlier view within these circles that what is sometimes called "the literary turn" amounted to a turn away from politics.(1) In the United States it is largely academic feminism that has been responsible for the spreading influence of this approach, and for the acceptance of the view that poststructuralism is not only politically radical but that it is the intellectual ground for radicalism.

I believe that the underlying assumptions of poststructuralism conflict with the assumptions that are necessary for radical politics, that its implicit structure of values contradicts progressive values. The version of poststructuralism that has been adopted by feminists and other progressives has mostly had the effect of undermining social analysis, replacing concern for social change with concern for intellectual and aesthetic sophistication. The standards according to which poststructuralism measures concepts and political positions - the rejection of meta-narratives, the insistence that everything must be understood as socially constructed, the rejection of any claims of truth or value - seem to me to be more like red herrings dragged across the path than bullets directed at the heart.

I see the assumptions and methodology of poststructuralism as working at cross purposes to a progressive perspective. The feminist or radical version of poststructuralism especially is dominated by a campaign against various kinds of presumed intellectual errors, such as thinking that there is some natural substratum that is not socially constructed, or thinking in categories, or in oppositional binaries (hot or cold, up or down), hierarchies (better, worse), that there is not only difference and fragmentation, but also similarity and cohesion, that instability is not necessarily better than stability; or thinking that there is such a thing as truth, that there is a reality that lies outside discourse. In this respect poststructuralism, especially its radical and feminist version, is a campaign against basic structures of thought and language. It therefore has something of the character of a campaign against original sin, with the consequence inherent in all such campaigns: the more one attacks, the larger sin seems to loom.

That poststructuralism presents itself as purely critical, suspicious of all systems and all assertions, gives its attack on errors of thought and language the odd quality of being simultaneously amoral and moralistic - a terrible combination for a perspective that claims to be progressive or radical. The implicit values of poststructuralism, its celebration of difference and hostility to unity, make it particularly inappropriate as an intellectual framework for movements that need to make positive assertions about how society could be better organized, and need to incorporate difference within a collective unity for social change. …

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