Sunday, November 14, 2004

To Danny Yee on Postmodernism and Cultural Studies

As I wrote my last paper I came across some interesting anti-postmodern critic, which was not very clear whether it was anti-postmodern or anti-cultural studies. How can one bear anything against a discipline? I believe it's a bit out of place, yet I agree... we do bears lots and lots against Postmo for having taking over the discipline with all its smart assish "isms". The critic was actually based on the review of a book called "A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader". Hereunder you'll find the review and then below my response (sent by e-mail).

The review is available at

A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader

Antony Easthope + Kate McGowan (editors)

Allen & Unwin 1992
A book review by Danny Yee - © 1993

What is this thing called Postmodernism? What do they teach in Cultural Studies courses? Who are these people -- Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva -- my sister keeps talking about? It was in an effort to find answers to these and related questions that I bought A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader from the university bookshop, where a large stack marked its status as a course textbook.

Since much of what I am about to say is rather negative and will probably not be taken very happily by many people (ie anyone working in a Cultural Studies department), before I go any further I had better confess that I am a eurasian, middle-class, heterosexual male with a background in the natural sciences. No doubt someone will try to explain that this is why I can appreciate Said but find Althusser and Cixous and Spivak and Derrida "threatening". (Actually, since a majority of the people with access to the internet are still scientists, engineers, or people in the computer industry, I rather fear that this review will fail to provoke anyone at all, the most likely response being "Why on earth did you take it seriously enough to bother reviewing it? I could have told you it was all garbage without actually reading it.")

In the words of its introduction, A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader "is meant to provide an accessible introduction to the analysis of the texts of high and popular culture together." Many of the extracts, however, seem to have little or nothing to do with textual analysis. There are twenty-seven extracts by twenty-two authors (there are two extracts each from Foucault, Marx and Williams, and three from Barthes) divided into seven sections (entitled Semiology, Ideology, Subjectivity, Difference, Gender, Postmodernism and Documents in Cultural Studies). Each section has an introduction written by the editors and the back of the book contains summaries of the included works and short biographies of the authors and other important figures. The introduction admits that the editors' selection of texts is arguable and also points out that they have concentrated on the textual wing of Cultural Studies rather than the sociological wing.

What I am going to say applies mostly to those works that go way beyond textual criticism -- Derrida, Lacan, Cixous, Kristeva, Spivak, Lyotard and to some extent to Althusser, Barthes, Baudrillard, Macherey and others. I devote most of this review to discussing these extracts, as I feel they are the most representative in the volume, being the most recent in date and hence the most explicitly postmodern. What follows certainly does not apply to the earlier writings in the volume (Marx, Saussure, Freud, Leavis, Tzara), or to all of the others.

It is clearly hard to say anything generally applicable about such a diverse collection of extracts. But my reaction to a large number of the extracts (and those I feel are most "representative" for reasons discussed below) was extremely negative. The most notable thing about these writers is that they are extremely hard to read -- some of them use language so obscure as to be almost indecipherable. They also have a tendency to claim authority by citation and exegesis of one another and often equally obscure predecessors. They base their arguments on this kind of appeal and literary and linguistic word games rather than by reasoned argument or appeal to any kind of evidence. They also make extravagant claims about the scope and validity of their particular ideas/theories, while at the same time being amazingly parochial in their use of other disciplines. And when one succeeds in sorting out a kernel of content from the word games and exegesis, it usually turns out to be either banal or blatantly false. We are looking at constructions of dubious stability in their own right built on highly questionable theoretical foundations.

It seems to me that the writers in question actually go out of their way to be difficult to read. Their sentence structure and syntax seem designed to perplex and they have a fascination with puns, plays on etymology and grammar, apparently random use of quotation and other linguistic games. Now I have no objection to this (it is sort of entertaining) provided it is taken as a purely literary exercise (or perhaps as a kind of Zen Koan). However it seems rather out of place in any attempt to argue anything serious and, even worse, some of the authors seem to think they can demonstrate something significant with a play on words, or that particular aspects of French grammar or difficulties in translation from the German actually have some kind of universal significance. And they cite one another's puns!

The other way in which they abuse language is lexically. They use specialised jargon from different disciplines in inappropriate places, introduce their own terms without definition, and use ordinary language terms in what are clearly not the ordinary senses of the words. Unexplained capitalisation of words like "subject" and "other" and the use of untranslated Greek is commonplace. It seems to me that this is largely done in order to hide the otherwise manifest confusion of their basic metaphysics. The basic problem here seems to me to be that certain ideas and theories, most notably semiology and psychoanalysis, have been ripped from their proper domains and grossly misapplied. Some of the authors seem to feel they can use whatever metaphysical theories are most convenient and then discard them when they sprout unwanted consequences.

The worst offender in this regard is Derrida's essay Differance. (This is included in its entirety and is the longest extract in the volume, so the editors clearly feel it is important. It is also cited by other writers included in the volume.) Since no amount of description will give the uninitiated any idea of what it is like, here is an extract (an unusually clear paragraph!).

"Retaining at least the framework, if not the content, of this requirement formulated by Saussure, we will designate as differance the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted 'historically' as a weave of differences. 'Is constituted', 'is produced', 'is created', 'movement', 'historically', etc. necessarily being understood beyond the metaphysical language in which they are retained, along with all their implications. We ought to demonstrate why concepts like production, constitution, and history remain in complicity with what is at issue here. But this would take me too far today - toward the theory of the representation of the 'circle' in which we appear to be enclosed - and I utilize such concepts, like many others, only for their strategic convenience and in order to undertake their deconstruction at the currently most decisive point. In any event, it will be understood, by means of the circle in which we appear to be engaged, that as it is written here, differance is no more static than it is genetic, no more structural than historical. Or is no less so; and to object to this on the basis of the oldest of metaphysical oppositions (for example, by setting some generative point of view against a structural-taxonomical point of view, or vice versa) would be, above all, not to read what here is missing from orthographical ethics. Such oppositions have not the least pertinence to differance, which makes the thinking of it uneasy and uncomfortable."

"Uneasy and uncomfortable" indeed! Anyone can claim immunity from metaphysical prosecution, and I am tempted to respond by playing the positivist and arguing that this is completely meaningless nonsense. That would be asking for trouble, however, so I will instead steal a line from Feyerabend [1], and just say that it bores me to tears -- I have no intention of reading any more Derrida, as life is too short and there are too many other interesting things to read.

This linguistic and metaphysical confusion is paralleled by a worrying anti-empirical streak. I don't suppose it would ever occur to some of these people to look at the real world. Of course they probably don't accept that there is a "real" world and hold more or less extreme relativist positions, but they make no effort whatsoever to make their position explicit, and certainly do not face up to the problems that come with such views. Marx criticised his fellow philosophers for interpreting the world instead of trying to change it, but some of these writers aren't even interested in interpreting the world, only in interpreting one another's interpretations!

The other common feature is argument by exegesis of certain authors who have been "canonised" by the postmodern movement. So there is a tendency to quote Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein or even Derrida himself the way Fundamentalists use the Bible -- as if they were divinely inspired sources of truth. For this kind of "proof by citation" the more difficult and obscure the author cited is the better [2]. The inclusion of the passages by Marx in the volume seems to me similar in nature. They are not necessary to understand the other extracts, and seem to serve mostly to "authenticate" the discipline (and "legitimate" it politically) by claiming Marx as a spiritual ancestor.

None of these things would upset me so much, except that the writers in question insist on making massively extravagant claims. So the introduction to the section on gender begins "Every sign is gendered" -- a claim from which we can rule out a priori the possibility of an asexual alien species with culture! And on the basis of psychoanalytic theories which are arguable enough as explanations of human neuroses people feel they can make pronouncements about epistemology in general. Everyone wants their discipline, their pet theory to be more fundamental than all other disciplines. (Not that this isn't a failing of some physicists and biologists too, of course, but they very rarely achieve the kind of idiocy evidenced by several of the authors in this volume.)

This extravagance of claims is matched by an amazing parochiality of knowledge. While cultural studies claims to embrace sociology and literary criticism and anthropology and linguistics and psychoanalysis, what its exponents have in fact done is to take the bits and pieces from each discipline that suit them and ignore the rest. They have completely turned their backs on the natural sciences, not even deigning to acknowledge their existence by denying their importance. One wonders whether some of these authors actually know of their existence. At any rate it certainly wouldn't occur to them to them that if they want to understand consciousness or perception of time then the work of cognitive psychologists, neurobiologists and philosophers of mind might be relevant. So Lyotard (in an extract from The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) is prepared to make general statements about science although he appears to know nothing about science, the history of science or any work on the philosophy of science done since Wittgenstein. Apparently to understand modern science all we need to do is to read Kant and Hegel and assorted other 19th century thinkers in the right way.

Well that sums up my general feelings about those extracts, but what about the others? The passages from Saussure, Marx and Freud do not suffer from the problems above, however due to their age and positions they can hardly be considered part of the cultural studies program per se. (And some people would do well to remember that Freud thought of himself as a scientist, not a literary critic!) The extract from Saussure's Course in General Linguistics was interesting, since I had never seen it before, despite its frequent citation in linguistics. The two extracts from Foucault (particularly the first, from Discipline and Punish) stay just close enough to reality to be interesting, and I could be tempted to read more of his work. I have come across references to Said's Orientalism in several other places, and the extract contained here has encouraged me to go and buy myself a copy.

In general, where "postmodernism" is restricted to literary criticism and critical studies (as the introduction claims is its domain) it is a lot more reasonable. In the hands of Barthes semiology appears to be a useful tool for the analysis of mythology and of a short story of Balzac's (extracts from Mythologies and S/Z), and the same holds for the extract from McCabe about realism in the cinema. But even within literary criticism the theoretical background of postmodernism often seems more of a hindrance than an aid. So extracts from Macherey (semiology applied to the production of literary texts), Baudrillard (Disneyland as reality), Mulvey (psychoanalysis of cinema narrative) and Jameson (Postmodernism or, the Logic of Late Capitalism) share many of the problems of the authors discussed above. The final section (Documents in Cultural Studies) is the only one which really seems to address what the introduction claims is the topic of the volume. However none of the extracts really seems to have much to do either with postmodernism (as explained in the previous section) or with the rest of the volume. The extract from Leavis' Mass Civilization and Minority Culture is a straightforward defence of "high culture" and the passages from Adorno and Williams seem to draw a lot more on Marxism than on "postmodernism".

And what about the "sociological wing" of the "cultural studies program" which was omitted from this volume? I don't know anything about Habermas or Bakhtin or Bourdieu, but I have delved fairly extensively into the works of Levi-Strauss and Geertz (these are the five writers listed as representative in the introduction). As far as I can see Geertz and Levi-Strauss are anthropologists, and it makes no sense whatsoever to incorporate them into "cultural studies" along with Derrida and Kristeva and company; they have a lot more in common with Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard. I don't think that either of them would want to be associated with the kind of anti-empirical nonsense this volume is full of, either.

So what is left of the "cultural studies programme" when one removes the linguistic games, metaphysical drivel, arguments by exegesis, etc.? I would argue that one is left with a collection of many different strands of thought -- some of value, some of dubious interest -- without any real unity. It seems to me that those parts of "cultural studies" which are of interest are more sensibly labelled "sociology" or "psychoanalysis" or "anthropology". I cannot see what Derrida has in common with Williams, or why Foucault should be classified along with McCabe. I suspect that they are tied together only because their "followers" share certain beliefs and that Cultural Studies departments are the result of academic empire building as much as anything else.

In the name of pluralism cultural studies tries to cram everything into a narrow theoretical framework built on semiology and psychoanalysis, a framework entirely incapable of carrying the weight put on it. In the name of interdisciplinary studies postmodernists have sealed themselves into their own narrow degree programmes and courses and turned their back on the rest of the universe. While many of the works that are labelled "postmodern" and taught as "cultural studies" are interesting, the subject/discipline as a whole is built on sand.


[1] Talking about astrology in the postscript to Three Dialogues on Knowledge.

[2] Has anyone noticed how rarely Russell is quoted compared to Wittgenstein? The reason is that one can read Russell, understand what he is talking about and then rewrite it in one's own words. You don't get any kudos for interpreting him. But with Wittgenstein and Nietzsche it isn't possible to do this, so one can show how clever one is by finding new and different interpretations of their writings. This, to me, is the way one tells philosophy from literature.

28 June 1993

Hi Danny

My name is Ari, and I'm writing you from Israel. I read your review on the book "A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader" and I most likely tend to agree with your opinion thoroughly and have quoted the article in my paper "Theo Van Gogh & Arafat: Our Prince of Sarajevo or Deconstructionist Semiotics?" available in my blog ( I want to give you my opinion on a few topics though:

1. Cultural Studies is indeed a discipline, and it's not only post modern fallacy. It was actually "invented" by the guys of the Frankfurt School and it was divided into different segments of divagation. I believe that was the beginning of the modern philosophy, post Nietzsche, Heidegger and the other great philosophers. Ever since nothing has been done, just critical theory. But there's also serious people engaged in CS.

2. True, I don't need to read Derrida either, the triangle of Foucault, Derrida and Delezue I thoroughly avoid. I find myself more comfortable with the HHH triad (Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger)

3. Ever read books of Jungian thought? I think that's from where they fed themselves. From cognitive psychologisms, then they started to destroy western philosophy and literature.

4. They need to quote of course people like Heidegger, Saussure and Marx for they have no theories of their own. I can't say we haven't benefited from this postmo CS thing, but most likely not. I'm actually leaning towards classical liberalism, modernism.

5. Postmodernism is not a discipline or a movement, is a grouping (proper or not) of several disciplines and movements. Whether they're as correlated as their preachers claim, I don't know. Only After Postmodernism will answer to that.

6. Sure, I agree. To understand modern sciences it suffices with reading the good ol' philosophy. If you want to not-understand-at-all science, then curdle up into the postmodernist crap.

7. Postmodernism as any intellectual movement can't be restricted to literary criticism. In fact show me the first poem or novel that we can call postmodern? Maybe hyper-literary or pragmatic or feminist. But postmo as a whole?

8. Cultural theory will be the philosophy of the future, you'll see. It's been ever since the Frankfurt School. We just need to get rid of this postmo crap first, a NY-based art curator once told me: A 2nd modernism, that's what we need. A new modernism.

9. Geertz and Levi-Strauss? Watch out, they're probably the core of modern cultural studies. Anthropology actually collaborates a lot to CS&T, in as much as sociology does, don't overlook the fact the post-modernity have brought most science closer to each other. for example biology and linguistics. We don't know the answer whether it's good or bad.

10. The discipline is not built on sand, only the current theory is. Ever since post-structuralism. The deliberate "assassination" of text.



PD: Your review goes back as far as 1993. I hope you are not as yet aware of the outrage Postmo has caused in CS ever since.

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