Issue #06 September 2017

A Few Notes On Post-Modernism

Naoko Ito — Ubiquitous, from “Urban Nature 2009”

There are two characteristics that make a scapegoat: First of all, it so worthless that it’s not worthy of being eaten; second, it is all-powerful and worthy of appeasing the Gods. Sacrifice is a sanctified act of throwing away, with its own economy. Observe the act of scapegoating and you will see, that the target group always will be (1) painted as incredibly incompetent, ridiculous, and even animalistic, and (2) as the culprit that is responsible for everything that is going wrong in the world. And now read all these essays that appear countlessly on the internet about post-modernism — it always is (1) a buffoonish, masturbatory, banal piece of trash, a crazy invention of some lonely drunk French dudes that no one ever listened to and (2) responsible for neoliberalism, populism, anti-intellectualism, multiculturalism, the demise of the left, the demise of tradition, Trump. There is no question: Post-modernism is treated like a scapegoat and surprisingly from all sides, left and right, extremist and moderate. And this is a problem, not because the post-modernists are “actually good” (even though they are), that’s not the point, but because needing a scapegoat is a bad sign for any society or group in the first place.

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We can see this mechanism at work in contemporary anti-Semitism. Depictions of animalistic greed and hunger for power are combined with an almost all-powerful intelligence that allows “them” to control the world, a strategy that runs parallel to the one in the 1930s and before. Scapegoating is an age-old story and in general it is a very banal one. But in contrast to the instances where the scapegoat and the phenomenon — the sacrificial sheep and the storms and bad winters for the ancient farmer for example — are ‘random’, or, rather, a gesture of magic or propaganda, the case of post-modernism is markedly different. These ‘lonely French dudes’ were more like the weathermen predicting a harsh winter and there is no use sacrificing them in hope for a mellow spring. Speaking of the changes they were witnessing that lead to the problems we are facing now, the post-modernists could hardly have caused them, being nothing more but “obscurantists”. If post-modernism is so powerful and the post-modernists so powerless, then it’s not their doctrine that is scary, but rather the reality of it. What the left, the right, the moderates and the extremists take issue with, is the post-modern world, and they channel this aversion to what they assume are its priests. With such a gesture we are back at good ol’ book burning. But we should not go and burn the doctrines of post-modernism, which is as futile as slaughtering a sheep for a good winter, but tackle the problematic reality of post-modernity. With such a perspective we can see the post-modernists not as priests or proponents of a dangerous dogma, but as the doomsday prophets of a disastrous trend, namely the post-modernization of the world. Essentially then, post-modernity is not a doctrine to get rid of, but a reality to understand and, if possible, to change.

We need to understand the post-modernists as being inherently critical of the situation at hand and the changes to come. They didn’t particularly want to get rid of the ‘subject’, the ‘truth’, or what not, but they realized that the reality we all live in has inherently and irrevocably altered these concepts — and how can we react to that? They have realized that the institutions that expedited truth and subject formation — the family, public education, and the press for example — were losing their monopoly and becoming shaky. Instead of reacting to these changes regressively in a gesture of “get it away from me,” they were trying to see, where their ‘lines of flight’ lay.

A regressive reaction, where you wish back the situation as it was before — wishing back classical class analysis, “traditional values,” a monopolized truth etc. — necessarily turns a blind eye to the conditions that made these changes happen, and that perpetuate them. You can’t change a situation by wishing it away, as it resulted from historic changes, economic reforms, and new socio-political dynamics.

The post-modernists set on to think through post-modernity and therefore to overcome it without idealizing and harking back for a world that gave us colonialism, the oppression of women, and two world wars. This is a core insight of the post-modernists: The changes are problematic, but the past was not better. What happened along with the emergence of post-modernity was the realization that the structures that kept modernity intact were power-based and the truths they produced were stabilised ideologies — the work of Foucault basically intended to prove that point. Certain dynamics have become visible and we can’t ignore them if we want to avoid the blind nostalgia for a world “where everything made sense”.

While understanding the impossibility of returning to an inaccessible past, the post-modernists also saw the dangers ahead, dangers that we are currently facing and that the left, the right, the moderates, and the extremists are ironically blaming the post-modernists for. But neither the post-modernists, nor post-modernism should be ‘blamed’ — as if you could blame the sun for rising or the rain for falling. Post-modernity should be faced.

Naoko Ito — W as in Wind, from “Urban Nature 2011”

The question of the minority

One of the socioeconomic dynamics that the post-modernists observed concerns advertisement. While the desire to sell as much of your product as you can for the lowest possible price is basic for any market based system, the insight that the desire to buy is not discovered, but created, has only recently become a leading factor for product development. Advertising is no longer just a means to make the “world,” or, rather, the market, aware of your product, but a means to ‘tap’ into the desire structure of a specific set of buyers. It is crucial to understand that the desire for smartphones was not something that was always latent in the history of humanity, but is in itself a recent phenomenon; smartphones could only arise once the desire for them could unfold even though we feel that we could never have done without them once they’re here (John C. Brady wrote about this dynamic in our first issue). This marks the rising influence of target and personalized advertisement and products. To make this process more efficient, it is best to categorize interest groups that are small enough to be precise and big enough to generate profit. This can be sustained by tagging content and interests and by self-identifying with specific subgroups.

This brings the once rigid division between ‘majoritary’ and ‘minoritary’ into flux, breaking down grand binary divisions like ‘male’ and ‘female’. This change can be illuminated by understanding the rift between normality and marketability. The white heterosexual male, the blueprint for ‘normality’ in bourgeois society, is, from the perspective of target advertisement, an empty spot. It’s completely unmarketable due to its broad nature, just like female fashion by itself. What’s marketable are hipsters, bankers, hippies, drag queens, gamers, fashionistas, which might or might not consist of white heterosexual men or women. We can witness how contemporary acts of racism and discrimination present themselves as apologies of ‘normality’, clinging to a binary division (normal/abnormal) that has no place in the pluralist field of marketability.

Groups that were once considered minoritary on political grounds are themselves undergoing economization. Their delineation, once a means of discrimination, is showing its potential for profitability. Not that discrimination is a thing of the past; rather, it changed its function and is now hindering these minoritary audiences from becoming politicized. The pluralization of sexuality is in that sense still unfolding on the grounds of heteronormativity. Holding on to “traditional” binary divisions between the sexes and a monolithic understanding of gender roles and sexuality works straight against the logic of target advertisement, but at the same time, they make sure that the proliferation of different forms of sexual identification stays within the possibility of economic exploitation and don’t undermine the socioeconomic status quo. This shows an interesting ambivalence within this logic, because while it is not interested in giving minorities actual political power, it does offer them expression and visibility which the previous western bourgeois society denied them. Such phenomena aren’t the fault of “identity politics” but are of imminent economic interest.

Walter Benjamin said that fascism offers the proletariat a means to express itself (through anger, ultimately leading to war) and capitalizes from it, but it does so without actually challenging the means of production, keeping them in the hands of the elite. When minorities become a market, it does not mean that they gain political power. But there is still the basic prerequisite that they gain political rights and possibilities to spend their earnings as the minority that they identify as. Note, for this ambivalence, that neither the left, nor the right ‘accept’ Hollywood as their voice — for the rightist narrative, Hollywood consists of a bunch of liberals who push their inclusive agenda; while for the leftists, Hollywood belongs to a bunch of old white men who are only interested in profit. We can now see that both are, in a certain point, correct — because they’re both not that different.

While the ‘logic’ of capitalism, in view of the economic value of structured information that allows subjects to become clearly positioned within the economy — both as workers and as consumers — ,is interested in the visibility and diversification of target groups, it is also interested in global mobility and division of labor that allows the actual producers to remain invisible and powerless. This marks the difference between expression and actual ownership of the means of production that Walter Benjamin refers to. While minorities are allowed to express themselves, they are rarely allowed to do so on their own terms and with control over the means of expression. This also alludes to the different dynamics in the nurturing of tribal sentiments within target audiences and the pressure to strongly identify with them — in the 1960’s and 70’s, you were a mod or a rocker, a punk or a hippie, but 50 years later, you’re all in the limbo of Radio Nostalgia, a new market with new allegiances.

Such strategic differentiations are not always harmless, as we can see within the proletariat, where nationalist and racist discourses create tensions between the “outsourced proletariat,” the “immigrant proletariat,” and the “native proletariat” to make sure they are divided, channeling frustrations that arise due to capitalist exploitation — note, that in the current nationalist discourse, the first remains invisible and the second appears as a culprit, while only the latter is given a voice. Identification works both way: As marketability (economization) and as a means of suppression (depolitization). This means that the current multiplication of (e.g. sexual) self-identification is not necessarily subversive, as it can be used to stimulate the auto-poiesis of new potential markets.

On the other hand, ironically, the contemporary shift to the right does not contradict the logic of capitalism, but is rather a means to channel the frustration of the exploited to keep the ownership of the means of production stable. ‘Normality’ is a political tool to identify ‘legitimate’ ownership from mere marketability. It makes sure that the solidarity of the emerging subgroups remains economic and attached to brands instead of people. The steering of the frustration of the exploited toward minorities, which keeps them in their place politically, does not contradict the economic role that the minorities are to play as consumers. It nurtures tribal sentiments and makes sure that minorities keep perceiving themselves in the mode of being “minorities” — considering that the difference between ‘minoritary’ and ‘majoritary’ has nothing to do with numerical differences. It is symptomatic that nowadays in the US, the left and the right consider themselves as victims — which brings us back to the mentioned necessity of scapegoats.

The question of solidarity

The “Class Solidarity” that was once deemed possible, back in the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, connects to the image of a huge swarm of workers working in one huge factory, eating and sometimes living together as one family; and therefore of an organically moving body that becomes a massive and dangerous wave if it wants to and that can collectively own the factory it works in, appropriating it from the owner. We can barely imagine the fear that a word like Generalstreik could once elicit. Solidarity here is inherently connected to the democratic authority over one’s own production and a physical proximity of the suppressed.

Nowadays, a smartphone is not created in one factory: there’s rather a plethora of specialized factories that manufacture parts of the parts of smartphones which are assembled throughout the world. This means that no factory could suddenly appropriate its production, because its production is worthless without the global network that partake in the production of the smartphone that can only be sold according to copyrights. Imagine all smartphones of the world being produced in one huge factory — We could not imagine what power its workers would hold. And now, how little power do factories have nowadays? Imagine a factory rebelling and appropriating the parts of the parts that they create for a smartphone, or even calling for humane working conditions. Does the production of smartphones stop? No, another factory opens next door, because the owners have the know-how of building these parts of parts and they have the right to open another factory producing them. And what worth is such a part of a part anyway? The workers would be faced by a monopsony; having to negotiate with the very corporation they rose against in order to sell their useless part of a part. So we can see that not even the proletariat of smartphone producers could realistically create solidarity along the whole network. Its physical distance holds them apart and under the thumb.

This means that a return to classical class analysis has become much more problematic. Voices from the left that blame the post-modernists for overlooking the proletariat miss the point. You simply have no political power if you can easily be outsourced; the improved workers’ conditions and demands in China are leading to further outsourcing to Vietnam. There is nothing new in the far-right’s narrative of a solidarity with the proletariat; as we’ve already seen with Benjamin, giving the suppressed a voice is an appropriate means of the rightist agenda. Yet, the visibility of the proletariat in itself does not come along with its appropriation of political power — especially as long as the means of expression are not in its own hands. Understanding that they are part of the same suppressive dynamic as minorities is a strong potential source for a new form of solidarity — one which the rightist narrative is actively trying to avert. And once again, this narrative is an example for a regressive reaction to a contemporary problematic. The plea for nationalization and de-globalization is an attempt to forcefully undo a dynamic that is inherent to the capitalist development. While problems that arise out of global phenomena are probably indeed in need of local action, exploitation will simply not be undone out of sheer will.

Naoko Ito — Untitled, from “Urban Nature 2009”

The question of family

Let’s talk about “traditional”, or family values. Did the evil PoMo kids who identify as whateversexuals cause that demise? Were these values really so weak as to be challenged by rebellious teenagers? Rather than speaking of the demise of the family, we ought to understand the function that it plays within the power structure — how it stabilizes and perpetuates it, but also how this function can change due to changes within the socio-economic dynamic. It’s a question of the relation of the family to its ‘outside’ — society, economics, law — and how it mirrors, expresses, and perpetuates them on a small scale.

“Traditional family values” rely on the differentiation between private and public. They assume that teaching gender roles is a ‘private’ matter of the family, while the public deals with administrative things, like rights. But it is precisely this differentiation that becomes dynamic within neoliberalism, because “dads” are just as much a target audience as “teenage daughters” — just look at the different TV series that are produced nowadays. Many of them enact family life, but with a different focus depending on the target audience the series aims at, each member of the family assuming marketable roles. It is notable to see that in ancient Greece, the private sphere, the oikos, was the economical one, while the public sphere, the polis, was only accessible for citizens that ‘transcended’ economic dependence and interests. Participating in politics was considered possible only when you don’t depend on anyone financially to influence your vote. This is an interesting aspect in itself, but it also influenced an understanding of gender roles that runs like a golden thread through Western history.

Aristophanes, the ‘father’ of comedy, wrote a play called Lysistrata 2400 years ago. It’s a fun crude piece with lots of penis and sex jokes where the eponymous female protagonist, tired of the constant warmongering of the men, hatches a plan. She proposes to all women of Greece to start withholding sex from their husbands until they make peace with each other. After all the women join in and after a long time of suffering and craving, which concerns both the horny men and women, the men give in and lay down their arms to once again lay with their wives. What is played out in this play is an origin myth of sexuality that is nowadays repeated to engage frustrated teenagers for the far-right agenda: Namely, that women ‘give’ sex, while men, by prevailing in the non-sexual realms, ‘earn’ it. This split of the genders into two realms, where the women occupy and control the sexual one and men the non-sexual one, reflects the split between the private and public spheres, oikos and polis in ancient Greece, where women control the household and men control the public sphere and, at the same time, own the household.

But Aristophanes, like all great authors, is not that simple. Because what this chantage by the women results in is a levelling of the gender roles to pure, animalistic lust that concerns men and women equally, showing the artificiality of said differentiation. And, more importantly, it shows the co-dependency of the two realms, showing that ‘female’ sexuality can be just as an effective political weapon as the councils of men. The dissolution of the private and public realms that is happening within capitalism — all in all, there is no structural difference between political and commercial advertisement — will therefore directly affect the power relations between genders and no regressive return to “the traditional” can undo it. The institutions that were responsible for the transmission of tradition are simply not as monolithic as they once were. And it’s a good thing. It opens up lines of flight to re-negotiate a dynamic that has been suppressive for a very long time. But every change also comes with new means of suppression and it is in this light that we need to understand Deleuze’s statement in his Postscript that we need new weapons to tackle the current changes. That’s why the post-modernists were so obsessed with power structures; not to legitimize suppression, but to find new ways to fight it.

Clinging to past structures and ideas like classical class analysis, the ‘truth’ or “traditional values” boils down to the desire to forget about the uncovering of a lie and preferring to be unwittingly lied to. It’s regressive through and through. Hence, only a critique that takes these changes for the realities that they are, that understands their inherent relation to contemporary capitalism and that understands that what is done cannot be undone, will remain relevant in the world of today. And this is what the post-modernists did: They resisted the regressive urges, they tried to understand the changes that happened and tried to grasp those moments where these changes were prone to change, their lines of flight. It is not time to deny or to accept capitalism, because it’s not our choice to be made. Our choice to be made is to see where its changes are to the good and where they are to the bad and to see where it opens up the possibility of a more humane world, a world without suppression. And that’s how Marx initially understood communism: Not to refuse capitalism, but to look for and organize potentials within the capitalist structures for a world without alienation. But the conditions have changed in these 150 years and if we ignore that, we might just as well be some drunk French guys sitting in smoky offices in Paris.

Timofei Gerber is finishing his MA in philosophy in Heidelberg, Germany. He is also a co-editor of this magazine.


September 2017


A Few Notes On Post-Modernism

by Timofei Gerber

“Ethics Matters”: A New TV Series

Epoché Magazine in conversation with Dan Halliday

The Political Dimensions of Time: A Polemic

by Brendan De Paor-Moore

You and I, I and It: Martin Buber’s I and Thou

by Justin Richards

Lacan on Satisfaction

by John C. Brady

Arendt’s “Philosophy & Politics”