Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Post-structuralists/post-modernists think that grand theories, by virtue of the consideration of totality as a unified, transparent entity, ignore a basic problem: totality represents no more or less than a slippery zone that constantly undermines itself by sheer surplus of meaning, surplus of elements, relations and practices. Against the notion of totality Foucault attempts at highlighting the "contingencies that make us what we are" or attempts at investigating the continuous, diffuse, local ‘capillary character of disciplinary technologies’. Derrida rejects totality because in the discourse or language there is no center and it is the field of infinite substitutions exhausting totalization. With this rejection of totality post-structuralists/post-modernists insist on "difference" and the fragmented nature of reality and human knowledge. Thus there is no structured process, not even in the capitalist system with its systematic unity and laws of motion. There is no truth, any notion of "making history" but only anarchic, disconnected and inexplicable differences. The post-structuralist/post-modernist view on totality basically stands on two notions: (i) fragments and impossibility of reaching at truth (ii) discourse. And those two are intricately related to each other. It is the world of words that create the world of things, said Lacan. And from this comes the idealist concept that language is doing the speaking through human beings. As language is supposed to be without any center with infinite substitutions, contingencies rejecting the concept of the whole become the destructive course of this new brand of idealism. Foucault charged that Marx played the very negative role against the efforts at decenterings "by the historical analysis of the relations of production, economic determinations, and the class struggle — it gave place, towards the end of the nineteenth century, to the search for a total history, in which all the differences of a society might be reduced to a single form, to the organisation of a world-view, to the establishment of a system of values, to a coherent type of civilization ..." [Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, New York, 1972, p.11-12].

It is half-truth and anti-history. Marx was not a crude idealist to conceive of erasing all conceivable differences in any future classless society, not did he make any search for a "total history". Dialectics teaches us about multiplicity of contradictions as well as the principal and main contradictions. Marx avidly studied the historical process and discovered those contradictions, the resolutions of which through the intervention of subjective forces would wheel history forward to a social system. But Marxian dialectics never says the end of history in such a new society, nor does it deny the non-existence of all the earlier contradictions or emergence of newer ones. Secondly, Marx never claimed to embark on a project of total history of capitalism. For the theorists of fragments against totality without any concern for social progress through revolutionary struggle, there is no need for a comprehensive view with definite focus on the important contradictions and classes in the capitalist system. None can deny the importance of many different types of histories, local histories, histories of religions, medicines, art, literature and so on and so forth. Among so many histories Marxism is basically concerned with the socio-economic dynamics of a society and its movement at a certain stage towards the dissolution of the old order for a new socialist and then communist society. Therefore historical materialism basically studies the main centers to be dislodged or replaced, the main contradictions of a country in a given stage and the classes in the society.

As for people like Foucault, Derrida and the band of post-structuralists/Post-modernists there is no such project of changing the system of capitalism itself, there is no need for developing a total view of the state of things. Those idealist theoreticians are however, consistent in such rejection of totality with the associative notion of casting aside the very prospect of reaching the truth. As truth is a taboo and it eludes them how can they accept totality? [Elsewhere this question of reaching the truth has been discussed.] However, it is absolutely wrong that Marxism rejects or discourages other histories of various fields of knowledge or histories of localities, regions, etc.

It is necessary to make a little elaboration of the Marxian concept of totality. For a Marxist methodologist what the investigator knows is founded upon his contact with the external world through his senses, the material basis. Hegelian dialectic enables the study of the ‘organic wholes’ and of the inter-structural relations that those wholes involve. Some people mistakenly construe a single whole. The dialectic makes it possible to study society — such as capitalist one — as a differentiated whole or totality of each structure (i.e. inclusive of component parts). Marx had taken Hegelian dialectics as a tool of analysis in the study of the whole and the inter-structural relations that this whole involves in a historical process. Marx found that the relations are internal to some whole or totality of which they consist in reciprocal interdependence. Thus facts are logically interdependent. In this way Marx concluded that each of them is only a one-sided view of the totality or whole. It is to be kept in mind that Marx’s notion of totality is different from Husserlian phenomenology using the notion of "totality". Marx’s dialectical method demystified such phenomenology by concentrating on the living historical relation linked with the real and by giving the notion of whole or totality, meaning in the concrete reality of an honest investigation. But the real moment, detached from the whole, with Husserl and particularly with his followers, becomes idealism and speculation. And here comes the question of practice. ‘Totality’ is not an abstract category. It is moving with life throughout and with the life of what thought perceives — but it is not thought. Beyond the phenomenology which, above all, conceives of totality as a structure, Marx conceives totality as a source. In Capital, Marx begins with an analysis of the commodity, both because it is the basic expression of the relations between men in the capitalist socio-economic formation, and because, historically, the commodity mode of production preceded the capitalist economy itself and constituted the point of departure. In short, the characteristic of the dialectical method of Marx is to refrain from separating the study of structures from the study of the internal dynamics of these structures, of these organic totalities, and the contradictions, which act as their motive force.

It is not new to reject totality or taking into consideration fragments, even during the age of the rise of empiricism through John Locke, George Berkely and David Hume. Treating facts in isolation was common and the search for intervening links, i.e. the necessary links that connect facts to their essence (i.e. the totality or whole) was abandoned. In this way individual aspects held sway over the methodology of totality: the parts were prevented from finding their definition within the whole, and instead the whole was discarded as unscientific or else it degenerated into the mere ‘idea’ or ‘sum’ of the parts. Marx’s concept of society is a complex whole or totality encompassing both structure and super-structure. His methodology involves two movements; the first consists of a movement from the empirical to the abstraction involving isolation of the components of the facts under study. It is not that components shall not come under focus but they have to be studied not as mere fragments but as components of the whole, in certain relationship in a process. The second movement is the transition from this first phase of abstraction to the of the concentration of many determinants, hence unity of the diverse. [Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Vantage Books, New York, 1973, p.101]

The obstinate dismissal of the question of whole in favour of fragments and contingencies and the entire concept standing on the discourse theory cannot explain social reality, nor can it think about revolutionary change in a society. As a natural corollary of such petit bourgeois views we are invoked to deny history for the supposed absence of any systems, no scope of general opposition to the existing order, no scope of getting at the roots of the many powers oppressing us and that there is no possibility of emancipation.


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