Postmodernism, Feminism, and Marx: Notes from the Abyss
Stabile, Carole A., Monthly Review
For over a year now, the trial of O.J. Simpson has been headline news not only for the tabloids, but for the mainstream press as well. In the days following the grisly murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the case was the hot topic on almost all television or radio talk shows; it appeared on the covers of popular magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and was featured regularly on the front page of major newspapers. Shock radio host Howard Stern, after playing the now infamous 911 tapes, suddenly discovered domestic violence, while millions of television viewers tuned in to watch the Los Angeles Police Department's stately pursuit of Simpson's white Bronco.
The story had a surrealistic air to it even from the beginning, a distance from the real event that ended the lives of Simpson and Goldman. As the weeks lengthened into months, the distance between the event and media coverage grew wider, while the case itself overshadowed healthcare, the passage of Proposition 187, and the "Contract with America." Domestic violence dropped out of the picture as coverage focused on the trial as game, sporting event, or performance. The question became less and less Simpson's guilt or innocence - what really happened - and more and more how the defense and prosecution would play their respective hands. Few in the mainstream media mentioned economic privilege, but race and gender were repeatedly raised as "issues," first in relation to Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson, then as the court became a battleground between Johnnie Cochran, the African-American head of the defense team, and Marcia Clark, the white chief prosecutor. In the coverage of the case, the lines between information and entertainment, reality and fiction, weren't just blurred: they disappeared.
Welcome to postmodernism: world of the media spectacle, the disappearance of reality, the end of history, the death of Marxism, and a host of other millenarian claims. While celebrity trials have provoked sensationalized coverage historically, few would deny that the media themselves have undergone massive changes in the past decades, or that the media now control and manipulate vast flows of information. But while some of us might want to offer a historical and materialist explanation for these changes, for postmodernists the collapse of reality into its "representations," the disappearance of the line between reality and fiction that allegedly constitutes "popular culture" today, actually is the reality of the late twentieth century. There's nothing to explain, in other words, because the media's representations and fictions are all there is to know, all we can know. Society has moved to the edge of a now flattened world, postmodernists claim, and the only fact we can know with certainty is that we cannot understand what has moved us there or what lies down below, in the abyss.
It would be easy to dismiss or explain postmodernism's apocalyptic vision of society as just another instance of the intellectual's divorce from reality. In this essay, however, I want to treat this trend not just as an intellectual abstraction, but as a historical phenomenon and as an intellectual retreat from politics. In particular, I want to consider the points at which postmodernism intersects with contemporary feminism and the political implications of that intersection.
What Is Postmodernism?
Let me first try to define these two very broad and often incoherent terms, "postmodernism" and feminism," at least as they are used today in the academy. Postmodernism is loosely used to identify a historical epoch, the condition of postindustrial, post-Fordist, or even postcapitalist society. The relations of production (if one can still call them that) of this epoch are variously described as fragmented (this applies to both the social fabric and the mode of production), diffused or disorganized (in the sense that systemic power relations are everywhere and nowhere, pervasive but with no identifiable source), and ultimately unhinged from history. …