Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault

By Verhaegh, Marcus | Independent Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault


Verhaegh, Marcus, Independent Review


* Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault By Stephen R. C. Hicks Tempe, Ariz.: Scholargy, 2004. Pp. v, 230. $29.95 cloth, $18.95 paperback.

In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen R. C. Hicks seeks to explain the nature of contemporary anticapitalist movements, giving particular attention to their potential origin in modern thought. He attempts to demonstrate the way in which "postmodern" ideas have more illustrious roots in the Western intellectual tradition than one might expect-to the detriment of that tradition. As the subtitle suggests, he marks Rousseau as a notably significant historical origin in this regard. However, he rightly takes his more interesting thesis to lie in his placement of Kant as the father of the "Counter-Enlightenment" and so of "postmodernism."

This is of course a very postmodern way of looking at Kant, once we understand the term relative to Hicks's placement of Derrida in the postmodernist camp. However, one should not get the impression that Hicks wanders into thickets of poststructuralist philosophical poesy or the like. His account aims to present cut-and-dried thinking-which is overrun only occasionally by bursts of vaguely Russellian rhetoric aimed at the Teutonic intellectual tradition, along with a few similarly more-florid musings on Nietzsche and Duchamp.

Explaining Postmodernism builds up to the analysis of contemporary strategies of the left that deviate from the orthodox Marxist and other class-centered modes of thought. Hicks seeks to trace these postmodern strategies to a line of intellectual history that comes to the fore with Rousseau, blossoms with Kant-and here Hicks shows some admiration for Kant's deftness in turning the received Enlightenment tradition on its head-and then continues with Herder, Fichte, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Foucault, and Derrida. Central to his analysis is the claim that the left, feeling itself to have utterly failed to achieve its goals at the level of the real means of production, responded with a denial of reality. Hicks views this denial of reality as licensed by the idealist elements in Kant's thinking, as subsequently developed in Foucauldian antihumanist relativism and in Derridean textocentrism.

One can see how this line of argument might have some traction: many Derrideans, for example, do tend to reduce social life to the interaction of poetically manipulable signs and marks that have no fixed mooring in the Enlightenment goods that Hicks champions. Central goods of this kind are material prosperity, technological prowess, and reasoned self-understanding. The Derridean might place these types of goods within a "labyrinth of signs" having no grounding in the Logos or other candidate for what is Echt, where the mesh of discourse formed can be changed so as to allow the sign-user to find libidinal satisfaction through other methods of approach toward the material and the rational than are coherent for the Enlightenment subject. The Foucauldian might give a similar type of analysis but focus more on the links between power, discourse, and the body. The upshot of both lines of thought is to minimize pursuit of Enlightenment goods in themselves in favor of changing our discursive approach to them. To give an example: rather than working to bring about greater economic equality as measured in pecuniary terms, the Derridean activist might seek to change subjects' discursive stance on the importance of wealth, so as to downgrade the feelings of accomplishment and self-worth that attach to acquiring wealth. This change might then be cast as a move toward greater equality between the haves and have-nots.

Refreshingly, Hicks does not take it as given that these poststructuralist viewpoints have been demonstrated to be in error. …

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