Is Postmodernism Leftist?
What is, then, the political essence of Postmodernism? Does it have a coherent political orientation? Today, Postmodernism is associated – whether polemically or nostalgically – with the 1968 French Intifada, and thus often regarded as a Leftist project. The French Liberal philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut illustrate Postmodernism and Poststructuralism as part of an anti-Humanist, anti-Liberal and anti-individualist philosophical legacy, what they call “the Thought of 1968”. This wording is a tad bit misleading; to the Thought of 1968 belongs Sartre’s Humanism just as much as Foucault’s anti-Humanism, which complicates the notion of Postmodernism as uniquely sprung from the left-wing radicalism representative of 1968. This is complicated further by the very fact that its ideological primordial ancestor is none other than Friedrich Nietzsche himself. As brought up earlier in this series of essays, when the radicalizing wave of the French Intifada had finally abated, that is when our Nietzsche – Postmodernly reinterpreted – could seriously eclipse their Marx.
Initially, Postmodernism was hardly seen as a Leftist project. On the contrary, European Leftist intellectuals reacted very strongly against fledgling Postmodernism. In the early 1980s Jürgen Habermas attacked Postmodernism, which he linked with the Counter-Enlightenment, anti-Modernism and German “Jungkonservatismus”, the latter including thinkers and writers such as Carl Schmitt, Armin Mohler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Thomas Mann and Edgar Julius Jung. Another prominent critic of Postmodernism was the American literary theorist Fredric Jameson, who presented a socio-historical framing and conceptualization of Postmodernism’s emergence. He described it, in Marxist spirit, as a superstructure and as a consequence of Global Capitalism’s new forms of production and organization. Jameson’s definition explained Postmodernism as “the cultural logic of Late Capitalism”. Going back to the aforementioned Richard Wolin and paraphrasing him: the consensus goes that Poststructuralism and Postmodernism are movements belonging to the political Left – but this is a claim that collapses soon enough upon closer examination. After all, from an historical viewpoint, the Left has been consistently rationalist and universalist in defence of democracy, equality and human rights.
The Swedish historian of ideas Svante Nordin dates the ‘crisis’ of the Humanities’ in Sweden to the 1960s and 1970s, a crisis that he considers to be in full bloom via Postmodernism by the 1980s and 1990s. This historiography suggests an unbroken ideological line. For this reason, in an interview for a newspaper, Nordin was asked the question if Postmodernism was not “rather coming from Right”. The answer read that “I do not consider it as a Leftist position – on the other hand, I do consider it as the position of the Leftists!”. Here we have the problem – and even the paradox – in a nutshell. Leftist intellectuals cling to ideas and theories that are not in any reasonable or justifiable sense Leftist ideas.
To challenge Postmodernism today, from a radical position, seems like a pretentious pursuit of one-upmanship. Aside from the very fact that all critique of Postmodernism can be dismissed as, one way or another, conservative or reactionary, nobody wants to identify or be identified as a Postmodernist anymore. This is also true for those schooled in principles and methods barely different from those we have learnt to be Postmodern. But despite the fact that the term is considered outdated, the cultural climate of our times is steeped in a widespread acceptance of the basics of Postmodernism. It is also blatantly obvious that several of the premier contemporary philosophers and political theorists of our times embraced theories and concepts from Postmodernism and Poststructuralism – such as Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri and the couple Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.
An undead intellectual transmogrification has taken place: Postmodernism is dead and buried – yet still walks upon the earth. It is this well-known yet unrecognized zombie we have chosen to call Post-Thought.
On the wide fields where Post-Thought expands, we can identify different variants of Poststructuralism (such as Foucault vs. Deleuze), of Postcolonial Studies and of Post-Marxism (such as the Autonomist Marxism of Hardt & Negri, versus the Leftist Populism of Laclau & Mouffe) and perhaps also Post-Feminism. These thinkers have been blessed with the reputation of being the most exciting, the most cutting-edge and the newest of the new, in significant sectors of the humanities and social sciences, and in Cultural Studies writings in respected magazines and sophisticated journals. Let us now elaborate on the red thread between Nietzsche, Postmodernism and Post-Thought.
The theoretically lackadaisical Post-Thought suffers from its own passionate love for residual neo-Nietzscheanism (read: Postmodern exegeses of Meister Friedrich). It inspires this school of thought’s masters, it permeates their fundamental issues and related fields of study. Half a century or so ago, Gilles Deleuze misinterpreted Nietzsche’s socially hierarchical term Wille zur Macht (Will to Power), by a false comparison with 17th Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s democratically intentioned concept of potentia agendi (force of effort). This Deleuzian heresy – referred to by German philosopher Jan Rehmann as an intellectual scandal – became subsequently routine and has reproduced itself throughout the Postmodernist intellectual tradition up to contemporary Nietzsche Studies.
Up to this day, the Södertörn University College philosopher Fredrika Spindler is still wrestling with Deleuze’s Niezschean issue of the Will to Power. In a recent study, she wanted to demonstrate the “radical actuality”, relevance, a “Nietzschean Analysis” has for modern political philosophy, without taking into account the historical Nietzsche’s “radical conservatism”. But what is the difference between Meister Friedrich’s political philosophy and a “Nietzschean” contribution to our contemporary political thought?
Spindler’s book in question, Nietzsche. Kropp, konst, kunskap (2010) (Nietzsche: Body, Art, Knowledge), Nietzsche himself is presented by excerpts and quotes, akin to hadiths in Islam (oral tradition about Muhammad and early Islam, written down a century or two after the Arab prophet’s death), in a way so as to illustrate ‘Nietzschean’ view of “the Political”. If Nietzsche’s most politically incorrect statements pertaining to “the Political” are purged, there remains still his philosophical basic concepts, such as the hierarchical Will to Power.
It is exactly here that the Will to Truth loses its relevance for Spindler, and the desire for ideologically creative new interpretations becomes irresistible.
Intellectually, her project for “political actualization” is stillborn. Yet it can teach us something, to the extent that it provides a convenient insight into how neo-Nietzscheanism regards scientific work; how it practices a rather unique methodology of a borderline anti-intellectual sort. In particular, it provides an encapsulation of the ahistorical, asocial and anti-political implications of the “Nietzschean Analysis”. Spindler champions Postmodernism’s schematic – dare I say essentialist – image of “the Modern Project” (including Modern political philosophy). When she talks about “our” Modern Tradition, she admits that the image is simplified, but not that the simplification is designed to make it easier for her to drill her “philosophical” main thesis into our very minds: Nietzsche against everybody else.
In the next and final part of this essay series, we will encounter a neo-Nietzschean variant which champions this simplification of Nietzsche to the very extent that he can be incorporated into the Modern Project that is the Enlightenment.
To be continued…