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Some Remarks on Postmodernism and the Politics of Change

Johannes Angermuller
Department of Comparative Literature
UGA (Athens, GA)
Institut fur Soziologie, Erlangen (Germany)

In the early 1980's, Habermas labeled a couple of French philosophers "young-conservative" since they attempted, according to Habermas, to empty the project of Enlightenment of its emancipatory content. Ever since, there have been doubts as to the 'progressive' commitment of philosophers like Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault.

However, from the mid-1980's on, some of these theoreticians began to modify their stance on political matters. Whereas few, like Baudrillard, now denied the existence of power and inequality, others, the majority (notably Derrida, neopragmatists like Fish and Rorty, and the increasing group of 'Post-Marxists'), more and more criticized the existence of social inequalities. The exchange of deconstruction with sociologically based perspectives like Marxism, Feminism, and New Historicism, as well as Derrida's numerous attempts since the mid 1980's to emphasize the political implications of his project, mark a significant radicalization of the 'postmodernist' discourse as compared to that of the late 1970's.

Today, the discourse in disciplines like literature and anthropology is dominated by a high degree of critical attitudes toward things social. A large number of 'poststructuralist' thinkers share an awareness of the societal situatedness of their discourse. Habermas' polemic against the reactionary character of the nouveaux philosophes is very hard to maintain.

However, the radicalization of the discourse has brought about new theoretical problems which are difficult to solve in the framework of poststructuralist theories. The renewed interest in ideology, hierarchy, and class dominance has made it necessary to retheorize the relation of cultural production and social inequality in a more profound manner.

.. This theoretical task is most clearly tackled in Bourdieu's praxis- structure-habitus approach, the recent success of which among literary critics indicates a beginning turn toward questions of social inequality.

I assume, however, that the poststructuralist perspective will not be altogether abandoned since it serves as a counterpoint to rather static sociological approaches like Bourdieu's one. The current discourse is characterized by the twofold willingness of making clear the political dimension of the intellectual projects and of deconstructing binary hierarchies and symbolic repression. The crucial point is the similar political effect both Derrida's and Bourdieu's texts may have on the reader: although from different perspectives and with considerable differences, both deal with the problem of symbolic- social inequality in a critical way.

As a consequence there are four points, I think, that need to be clarified.

1) The fact that 'postmodernism' is increasingly differentiating into different factions representing contradictory views on the political spectrum means that it is no longer just an intellectual 'movement' but rather a dominating discursive pattern. Can we go beyond postmodernism, then, given that it does not denote any longer a coherent intellectual project (if it ever did at all)?

2) What does the increased articulation of political goals mean for the relation between academia and non-academia? Do the participants of the current discourse more and more have to address issues of immediate political significance?

3) In the 80's and 90's the paradigmatically central discourse has been that of literary theory. But does the increased interest in sociological questions mean that the social sciences become more important again? Where will paradigmatical questions be discussed in the future?

4) It seems that the sharp opposition between the various camps is breaking down, leading toward a new politically aware type of thinking. Are we about to see a realignment of the intellectual battle lines between 'postmodernism', Wittgensteinian and pragmatist philosophy, interpretive sociology and Marxism?


Johannes Angermuller

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[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]