Half-Life & After-Life of Postmodernism – Part 4

The Metaphysics of Power & The Power of Rhetoric

In the Swedish Humanities and the Social Sciences, Michel Foucault is extremely popular, praised for his “new” and more “interdisciplinary” understanding of “power” and power relations. But the question has been carefully avoided, regarding how much of Nietzsche’s “aristocratically radical” philosophy is hidden in St. Michel’s hugely influential conception of “power”. His fusion of “power” and “knowledge” (pouvoir/savoir) is clever and witty, yet still but a remake of Nietzsche’s derivation of a Will to Truth from the Will to Power. Foucault’s neo-Nietzschean rhetoric about the multiform nature of “micro-physical” power conceals an essentialist concept of an enigmatic force underlying real-life social relations; it betrays a power analysis that is blind to the occurrence and the importance of social antagonisms (Labour vs. Capital, for instance).

St. Michel’s Dogma of Power has far-reaching ramifications for much of today’s research in academia and politics at large. How do you oppose an abstract, eternal and intangible “power”? If it really is the case, as Foucault claims, that “power” is everywhere, it seems virtually meaningless to resist it.

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Just a rudimentary observation of Foucault’s omnipresent influence in academia reveals the hidden significance of neo-Nietzscheanism in the theory-building of even Postcolonial Studies. We can also see three prominent philosophers in the discourse of Post-Thought: Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They can hardly complain about their reception in the Swedish intellectual public debate. Stefan Jonsson, in the major Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, has for a long time emphasized the great international significance of this philosophical trio for the international intellectual debate. He believes that the Autonomist Marxist duo Hardt & Negri, with their concept of “Empire”, succeed in pinpointing the “sovereign power of our time”, the form of power which, according to Agamben, rests on a “biopolitical” foundation. Possibly, it is the navigation by these three fixed stars in the night sky of Post-Thought that has led Jonsson to the politically dangerous conclusion that “Neoliberalism as such” has gone out of time – a peculiar statement when coming from a university teacher who in his daily work has to struggle with an increasingly market-adapted research and education state policy while stuck in an increasingly buy-and-sell-oriented college.

Originally, Postmodernism replaced the socially-anchored ideological analysis with free-floating Foucaultian “discourses” or Lyotardian “metanarratives”. In Post-Thought, a toothless variant of the metanarrative flourishes: Jonsson’s thesis about the ideological collapse of Neoliberalism is dressed ‘post-typically’ in terms of “the Neoliberal metanarrative”. His colleague, the Swedish historian of ideas Anders Burman, claims that Postmodern theories enable critical reviews of “stultifying narratives”, and that they can also contribute to meaningful alternatives; “Narratives and counter-narratives do not need to exclude a critical, theoretical perspective”. Expressed as an uncritical, non-theoretical narrative about the “narrative’s” radical potential, his narrative thesis remains but merely a hope. In fact, the popular narrative perspective is part of the culturalization of social criticism; rather than revealing the dumbing-down of the media, it reflects the general aestheticization of the political debate.

Burman presents Postmodernism (ergo, Derrida and Foucault in his case) as a “humble way of thinking”, “affirming the Enlightenment” in the “spirit of Montaigne and Nietzsche”. Meister Friedrich, transmogrified into a thinker shoehorned into the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment!? Perhaps that of the Dark Enlightenment, but that too would be stretching it. Contrary to classical Postmodernists such as Jean-François Lyotard, our contemporary ‘Post-Thinkers’ no longer dare to stand for a consistent critique of the Enlightenment. The change of attitude is due to the discovery of Postmodernism’s roots in the Counter-Enlightenment and the Conservative Revolution (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Klages etc.). In addition, Postmodernism was discredited by a series of “affairs” in the 80s and 90s (Heidegger the Nazi who slept with a Jewess; Paul de Man the antisemitic Nazi collaborator whose longtime friend Derrida was a Jew; Alan Sokal the scourge of all “fashionable nonsense”). After these intellectual backlashes, attacks on “reason” and the Enlightenment were longer as viable. This is the backstory to the notion of Postmodernism as a “New Enlightenment”.

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