In an exchange with possibilitymagazine I wrote
To me the problems famously associated with postmodernism – its tendency towards subjectivistic solipsism, in particular – derive more from its liberalism than from postmodernism itself. I am interested in helping to advance a postmodernism congruent with relational and materialistic thinking.
I was asked why I find this important to achieve. I’d like to answer this question, as briefly as I can.
My main problem with modernism concerns its attitude towards socio-cultural difference.
A modernist celebrates a certain cluster of cultural and institutional formations that emerged in Western Europe in the last few hundred years, which are alleged to have universal value for humanity. This cluster is called ‘modernity’ or, if we are being multicultural, ‘Western modernity’. Typically modernity is perceived as consisting of:
- scientific rationality,
- industrial capitalism, and
- the sovereign state, in either its liberal-democratic or state-socialistic variations.
But modernity also extends to include the art, music, literature, philosophy, politics, gender relations, etc. of modern people, that is, people live their lives in accordance with modern institutions.
Crucially, for the modernist, modernity is in some definite way better than everything that came before it — so much so that the erasure of non-modern (‘pre-modern’) socio-cultural forms through the advance of modern forms is a good and desirable thing. This is what modernists mean by ‘progress’.
Often this modern/pre-modern dichotomy gets projected onto entire cultures: modern cultures are enlightened, democratic, free, prosperous, dynamic, etc., while pre-modern cultures are backward, superstitious, despotic, etc. This gross chauvinism is not a necessary feature of modernism; critically aware modernists will recognize that even the most ‘advanced’ Western societies have poverty, corruption, superstition, etc. However, they perceive these as the vestigial remnants of pre-modern social forms. The remedy is: more modernity. Modernists perceive modernity as, in Habermas’s famous words, “an unfinished project”.
Conversely, modernists oriented to multiculturalism will recognize that pre-modern cultures had their moments of brilliance. North African Muslims invented algebra and modern medicine; the Iroquois League employed a division of powers; etc. But these achievements are evaluated by the standards of modernity, as potential contributions to modern culture.
In the end, for the modernist, everything that is ‘pre-modern’ or non-modern must move aside to make room for modernity. Other ways of living, of being, of experiencing the universe, must perish — or at least withdraw into private life and become inconsequential folkways, like the fondness of Ukrainian-Canadians for perogies and kubasa.
For thousands of years the human species has existed as a vast web of complexly different local societies with different local cultures. These cultures do more than simply set different rules for social interaction; they enable different ways of being human. But this complex web is becoming increasingly integrated at a global level. We could say that that process began in 1492, and it has been accelerating ever since. Where there were many societies, we will have one global society. What form will that society take? Will it have one dominant culture, one set of values and norms for deciding how people should live? Or will it have many? How many different ways will there to be human? Can we live together without becoming the same?
This problem of cultural difference is one example of the more general problem of difference. Another situation in which problem of difference manifests itself is in organizing for bottom-up social change. Imagine a group of people in a room together trying to form a movement. They have to decide what their main goals will be, what strategies and tactics they will pursue, how they will make decisions, how they will allocate resources, and so on. Many potential differences.The group can’t do everything; how will it resolve these differences?
One established way of resolving these differences is to create a hierarchical structure in which some people have authority over the group as a whole, on the basis of some putatively democratic process like voting. This allows certain differences to disappear simply by excluding them from consideration.
For a variety of reasons, many social movement activists have been turning away from hierarchical models towards radically horizontal organizational forms – organizations without fixed leadership structures or even identifiable leaders at all, often with decisions made on the basis of some form of consensus rather than voting. These organizations can be very inclusive. But they still run into problems of difference.
For example: what happens when you get a 9-11 truther in the group? Or an entitled, arrogant white male who will not accept the need to modify his style of engagement so as not to exclude women? Or someone who spews racist language but refuses to see anything wrong with that? David Graeber calls this the “wingnut problem”, and observes that this problem often causes consensus-oriented groups simply to break apart. Of course, the group could just forbid certain behaviours or exclude certain individuals. But then it has ceased to be entirely non-hierarchical. To me this is an interesting challenge: how to resolve the wingnut problem non-coercively? I’m convinced that there is a theoretical dimension to this kind of problem through which a professional academic like myself could make a useful contribution.
I’m very interested in helping to find non-hierarchical solutions to the problems of difference at both the local and the global levels. I find that this concern tends to put me in opposition with people who identify as ‘modernists’ or who celebrate the value of ‘modernity’, and I find that postmodernist theory at least attempts to explore these issues, although often on more liberal terms than I would like.
Hence my somewhat unusual interest in a post-modernist historical materialism.