jump to navigation

If it wasn’t for that pesky Enlightenment… Academy and Engagement… June 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left.


I was at a conference recently and found it quite fascinating. The broad area was that of visual and material culture.

But then I heard a number of eye-watering phrases used by some of the participants. These ran along the lines of the “Enlightenment being the patriarchal hierarchical endarkening which resulted in the barbarism of Nazism’. Later there was reference to societies ‘in thrall to the enlightenment that resulted in progressive politics that resulted in disaster’. And who was trotted out to justify this contention? Why none other than one T. Adorno, late of the Frankfurt School.

Now, round here we value progressive politics. Indeed we value it highly, so it is always intriguing to hear the term thrown into any debate or discussion.

But in this context it appeared to be be so unformed, so lacking in connection to any serious engagement with either history, ideology or philosophy that it made me wonder just what sort of misreading of Adorno (“Dialectic of Enlightenment” wasn’t namechecked but one presumes that was the source), or indeed of the meaning of the Enlightenment, is being transmitted through academia at the moment. Or more importantly, since when has it been thought that Adorno, surely as much of his time as any other person constitutes the first and last word on the subject?

And this – coincidentally – feeds into Donaghs post on Dublin Opinion about post-modernism. The critique quoted by Donagh makes a point which links directly to the approach quoted above:

The warm, desiring, palpable body [of post-modernism] is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production.

Keep this in mind for later in this post. But I think Bakhtin (from whom this quote is taken) overstates the significance of postmodernist thought in the general scheme of things, and more pointedly, I don’t see any way back to a pre-postmodernist position intellectually, no grand narratives that will suffice in the mid to long term other than a general and rather diffuse humanism. Which if one thinks about it is pretty much where we have been (in the self-defined West) for quite some time and arguably for considerably longer than the term postmodernism has been bandied about.

In any case I lack a reflexive suspicion of post-modernist thought. I find it interesting in what it attempts to do, although I suspect that the goal is unattainable and can lead to obfuscation as much as…well…er…enlightenment.

But what on earth was the participant at the conference trying to say?

Was it that this straw man Enlightenment – that she posed – was somehow responsible for … say, Nazism and Communism? That appears to me to be a highly dubious contention. Surely any serious historical reading would see the former in direct opposition to the Enlightenment, in other words a response to it. The latter, for all its myriad flaws was by contrast – and particularly in terms of its humanist core – very much of the Enlightenment. But can one trace a direct line from the Enlightenment to the Politburo and say one is the inevitable and natural outgrowth of the other. This I find difficult to sustain except in the broadest sense that any political or social or philosophical movement however democratic and egalitarian contains within it the seeds of totalitarianism. Indeed to talk about the ‘failure’ of the Enlightenment – as with regards the events of the 20th century – is to take an almost essentialist view of social, cultural and political movements.

But so what, is arguably the proper response to that argument, since more importantly, even if true in the particular does that then invalidate the Enlightenment in general? Would the essential principles that it articulated…rationality, humanism, liberty… be somehow nullified because it had been misread, misinterpreted, misapplied? And that is before we engage with the question of whether we can read the Enlightenment as a single mythic entity, self-contained unto itself, which of course it wasn’t.

This is – unfortunately – a mode of expression which is familiar in the present political era. The idea that ‘democracy’ is a sham, whatever about its flaws…because of Iraq, Afghanistan, US policy, hypocrisy (as if any complex human society is, or could be, anything other than hypocritical) has a certain currency in certain places.

Consider too the very deliberate use of the term ‘progressive politics’ in the discourse outlined above. In what sense have ‘progressive’ politics led to disaster, unless again we take the line that those who raise issues are responsible for the response to the raising of those issues. In the context of the US or Europe where this speaker originated the statement was nonsensical. I can think of few instances in either location where progressive politics resulted in any such disasters. Actually I can’t think of any. What I can see is an anti-rationalist, anti-humanist anti-Enlightenment movement that in perhaps three places in Europe took root for a relatively brief historical period.

And the fact that the views expressed above are almost indistinguishable from a conservative analysis of the Enlightenment is perhaps no surprise. Because they are in themselves a very conservative, and rather self-serving reading of the issues.

So, is this simply a modish lash, the faintest echoes in contemporary academia of debates which shaped in part the discourse of the 1960s and 1970s and in other areas have moved on, or is it indicative of something more fundamental? I’d suggest it is both. And the more fundamental aspect is – unfortunately – in the visual sphere an ahistoricism which ignores political, economic and historical methodologies in favour of purely metaphorical approaches to decoding information [incidentally, last year I was at a conference on material culture and what struck me was the dearth of knowledge on the part of those there, including myself, as regards economic theory. Yet here was a hall full of people who had made as their primary research focus material produced by changing economic processes largely driven by industrialisation].

There is something lulling about a sort of poetic discourse leavened only by unformed chunks of Frankfurt School jargon. There has been and remains a fluffy sort of aversion to “Reason” (capital R) in some areas of artistic discourse, eschewing it in favour of a discourse that centres on the senses, the body and artistic individuality albeit laden with jargon which leans upon sociological and sub-Marxist terminology – and actually the more I think about it the more I am reminded of the stereotypical 1930s and 40s cinema depictions of the artist as flighty emotional individualist albeit lent a post-modernist sheen in this theoretical updating. And for examples of this I’d suggest considering some articles in contemporary arts magazines.

I have no particular problem with this.

Indeed the Enlightenment has to be seen and critiqued within the historical context it developed and for both positive and negative attributes. But the sort of manichean approach to arts discourse which presents us with Enlightenment (bad, proto-totalitarian, patriarchal, etc) and antagonism to Reason (good, human, emotional, etc) is undercut by work such as that produced by Lisa Jardine in “Ingenious Pursuits” which explicitly links together the development of arts and science in tandem during the period of the Enlightenment.

Where I do have a problem is with a sort of ‘tick the boxes’ approach to this discourse which applies the Frankfurt School in a recieved and entirely uncritical fashion. Because that sort of approach is at root no more than an attempt to justify individual artistic engagement which may or may not be appropriate.

There is simply no point in railing against the Enlightenment – in the academy of all places – unless one understands it, and what it sought to achieve.


1. FERGUS O'ROURKE - June 25, 2007

I am not sure that I understood that post at all – and I have am Honours degree in Philosophy ! However, no doubt I will. What made me put metaphorical pen to paper was that ridiculous word “attendee”. The verb “attend” is intransitive, or almost so. The people to who you refer were either attendants or attenders.


2. FERGUS O'ROURKE - June 25, 2007

Oops ! That’s “an” and “whom”, of course.


3. John - June 25, 2007

A tentative suggestion: The idea that the Enlightenment represents the triumph of an instrumentalist, materialistic and scientific approach to understanding the world carries over into both Communism and Nazism to such an extent that what we ordinarily regard as the “humanistic” element of the Englightenment is lost. How does one, first of all, derive an ethics from science, an ought from an is? Both Communism and Nazism purport to do so by presenting their ideologies as natural, historical and therefore right and good. This allows them to “scientifically” justify the dehumanizing of particular social elements, such as homosexuals, jews, kulaks, etc., as subhuman and therefore outside the remit of the Human. Their quasi-Enlightenment project thus remains both scientific and humanistic.

I think I’m really just paraphrasing Adorno’s argument here, amn’t I? Maybe I haven’t advanced the discussion at all.


4. FERGUS O'ROURKE - June 25, 2007

While I am at it, here’s one I prepared earlier:

The suffix “-ee” is for persons who have had something done to them. An employee has been employed. An internee has been interned.

Someone who does something active (as in attending) is graced by the suffix “-er” e.g. an employer or an attacker, or “-ant” e.g. participant or claimant.

Let’s be careful out there ! (But not too pedantic)


5. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

My point isn’t to suggest the Enlightenment is the be all and end all. Quite the opposite.
Nor is it to pillory Adorno, who I think pointed to something of what John mentions, albeit I think the case is overstated particularly as regards Nazism which appropriated aspects of what appeared to be scientific theory (social Darwinism) etc etc, but in an unconsidered and uncomplex fashion (and of course in such a way as to ignore any further developments in science which overtook the positions they took) in order to justify the essential irrationality of their enterprise. Communism is a different case, insofar as it draws on a broadly humanist approach, and a sort of kind of scientific approach i.e. Marxism (which really is anything but being grounded in philosophy). But I’m certainly not trying to defend Communism one way or another.
But I think to suggest that Nazism was both scientific and humanist is to move so far from the use of those terms, particularly the latter, as to render them inapplicable in this discussion.
My further point is to suggest that in the discourse which is evident in academic discussion of art or visual culture some fairly large concepts are being bandied about in a manner which makes them…well.. Fergus as you imply impossible to understand…
As for attendee. I was trying to work out just what one is at these sort of functions. I’ll gladly use any other word appropriate.
Indeed, I have. The word is participant..!


6. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

Actually I should go further. Nazism was fairly obviously a response to democracy, modernism and communism. Most definitions note its extreme nationalist, anti-Marxist, anti-liberalism, anti-democratic, anti-semitism (hardly based in any serious scientific analysis by the 1930s). The illegality and irrationality of the Nazi regime, even to the extent of breaking the laws it purported to uphold was fundamental to its approach. In other words Nazism is largely explicable as a response to conditions then extant…

What need is there to pin the tail on the Enlightenment donkey?


7. John - June 25, 2007


All fair points, and I largely agree; my own view is that none of the above-named worldviews (Nazism, Marxism etc) were in any way rational or scientific: They were simply aware of the need to present themselves in that way in order to acquire credibility (that said, while the idea of Nazism as an irrational antimodernist belief system certainly applied at the top of the Nazi hierarchy, in pragmatic terms Nazism was an antimodernism that made great use of technology, from the V2’s to Zyklon B and industrial-level genocide.)

I think it’s those instrumentalist and utilitarian aspects of Enlightenment thought, two aspects, incidentally, that have been indispensable to progress in the last few centuries, that its critics find objectionable. But I think the problem is really one of degree, namely, at what point do we stop regarding nature or other human beings as objects to be tooled about with? Governments are expected to do precisely that, of course – make the hard decisions that sacrifice or compromise the interests of one group for the sake of another – which is why politicians have such a reputation for being unprincipled. After all, how can anyone be expected to construct a consistent moral code if they adopt an instrumentalist attitude to some or all human beings?

My defence of the Enlightenment is thus a negative one: The problem with moral consistency is that it only comes via another Grand Narrative, and a Grand Narrative that DOESN’T lay claim to the Enlightenment as one of its forbears (a religious Grand Narrative, let’s say) sounds even more frightening to me than one that does.


8. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

“But I think the problem is really one of degree, namely, at what point do we stop regarding nature or other human beings as objects to be tooled about with? Governments are expected to do precisely that, of course – make the hard decisions that sacrifice or compromise the interests of one group for the sake of another – which is why politicians have such a reputation for being unprincipled. After all, how can anyone be expected to construct a consistent moral code if they adopt an instrumentalist attitude to some or all human beings?”

This is the core problem. And it is particularly so for the left because the left seeks to initiate transformative programs. And I completely agre, re Grand Narratives. It’s instructive to consider those which shaped say Imperial Rome and prior to Christianity were comfortable with slave owning and suchlike. We certainly could be prey to much worse Grand Narratives…


9. Donagh - June 25, 2007

This was written before I noticed points 7 and 8.

Firstly, I think you’re right, WbS, to question to use of such eye watering phrases, especially as they are not clearly thought out intelligent opinions and are instead considered part of the academic argot – stock phrases used repeatedly and unthinkingly as givens, taken as they are from Adorno and structuralism, etc.

However, I not quite sure what you mean when referring to the Bakhtin article and Terry Eagleton’s comments on how postmodernism uses the terms invented by the Soviet philologist in a context very different to the one in which they are used so extensively today. I think Eagleton’s point ties in with much of what you are saying, especially your point “There has been and remains a fluffy sort of aversion to “Reason” (captial R) in some areas of artistic discourse, eschewing it in favour of a discourse that centres on the senses, the body and artistic individuality albeit laden with jargon which leans upon sociological and sub Marxist terminology”. He argues, I think, that the analysis Bakhtin developed, such as hetroglossia, dialogics etc, has become the new lexicon of a critical discourse that ultimately replaced a historicist analysis (Marxist) with one that denuded itself of any historical perspective (postmodernism).

But I don’t think its correct to put it in terms of for and against the Enlightenment. The people who use those phrases are suggesting that the Enlightenment is over because it failed. They argue that it’s rational hubris let directly to the gas chambers or the mass extermination of the Russian peasantry. But there are some who say, and I think this is ultimately Eagleton’s point (probably following from Adorno), that the Enlightenment, or as Evil E sees it, Modernism, is far from over, and that Nazism and Communism were distortions. Those who consider Modernism to be over and insist we are in a Postmodernist phase, with its ahistoricism and moral relativism, are playing directly into the hands of, well, er late capitalism. But I’m parroting again.

Nazism which appropriated aspects of what appeared to be scientific theory (social Darwinism) etc etc, but in an unconsidered and uncomplex fashion (and of course in such a way as to ignore any further developments in science which overtook the positions they took) in order to justify the essential irrationality of their enterprise.

I’d take issue with the ‘essential irrationality’ part of this sentence and suggest replacing it with unethical or dehumanized. However, humanism, as any Enlightenment philosopher would tell you, is about putting the human as the centre of scientific research, being both subject and object, which lead neatly to the development of psychology. Its clear that their scientific method wasn’t very rigorous (peer review was a shambles), but when its said that Nazism was the appliance of science I understood it was about the cold rationality that allowed them to develop a method to kill 6 million people with the efficiency of a car manufacturer and to use the science of psychology to find a way to keep them calm (fake railway stations, shower rooms) while they led them to the gas chamber.


10. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

I don’t broadly disagree with what you’re saying and actually on reflection I’d agree that I’m as responsible myself for positing what might be taken as an equally manichaean division between “for or against the Enlightenment’.

My only reservation with your final paragraph is that you perhaps overly emphasise one aspect of efficiency, i.e. the process of industrial genocide over the entirely irrational approach post-Wahnsee to the destruction of European Jewry in the context of also fighting a European war on two fronts. This latter diverted material and labour power from the war effort. Surely it is representative of the greater irrationality that speaks of the overall implementation of National Socialist power rather than the seeming rationality of a sort of distorted Taylorism applied to genocide which, unfortunately, may have had its roots in pre-Nazi German ‘myths’ of ability and yes…efficiency.


11. Redking - June 25, 2007

Great post WBS-I recall being in a seminar at university in the late 80s where the lecturer asserted that the Enlightenment logically ended up in the ovens of Auschwitz and recall later when doing a law degree my (postmodernist) ,tutor, a very engaging guy grandly declaried that “grand narratives” had ended. So it’s been around as mentioned for several decades-are we now in a post post modernist era!? While I find some of it entertaining I do get annoyed with the intellectual laziness and ahistoricism of it all. But more than this I want to know how a progressive political project (dare I use the term) can ever be built around the nebulous theorising and shoe-gazing of postmodernism?


12. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

As I say, Redking, I’m not reflexively averse to post-modernism. I think it’s a fairly complex body of thought, but like you I’m wary of the complete discarding of narratives in every context i.e. progressive politics. For example, catastrophic societal disruption might easily see some of the more noxious grand narratives re-emerge with renewed vigour.


13. Donagh - June 25, 2007

Well you have a point there WbS, the whole thing was imbued with a particular madness, especially when you find out that they speeded up the process when it became apparent that they were losing the war. And it would be wrong to associate the delusion of national socialism with a kind of Fordism on steroids, despite that particular Corkman’s sympathies.

I suppose the situation is complex, and I think its wrong to follow a neat line from Francis Bacon and Boyle’s Law to the construction of the ovens in Auschwitz, they are still a thread in the story. I suppose my main point was to reflect Redking’s point. These kind of eye watering phrases are intellectually lazy and willfully ahistorical.


14. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

I completely agree Donagh. It’s as if these phrases are a modular intellectual kit, taken down, slotted into an arrangement and really not very well understood.


15. John - June 25, 2007

I’d be a little concerned that the acceleration of killing towards the end of the war be used to demonstrate Nazism’s “irrationality.” Clearly there was a reason behind their actions that was in keeping with the logic of their worldview. Either they were driven by a mission to eradicate “Jewry” from the world and felt compelled to complete the job before the war ended, or else they were concerned that by not killing as many Jews as possible before the war ended they would be guaranteeing the survival of a mortal enemy who would pursue them to the ends of the earth. Whatever their thinking, it was certainly rational from their own perspective even if we regard it as strategically bizarre. Prolonging the war by that stage was clearly lessof an imperative.


16. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2007

I wonder though. Logically they knew that in the US and the UK there were still considerable numbers of Jews – hence in part their vilification of the US capitalism. So there was no question of them eradicating all Jews. Does that then mean that they sought to eradicate all Jews in Europe, or at least all that they could. But even there facing defeat they must have recognised that that too was an unrealised project. So in that sense it wasn’t entirely rational even by their own lights. As long as one Jew survived they had effectively failed. And more than one Jew did survive.


17. John - June 26, 2007

Granted, but by virtue of the fact that it was a conscious decision there must have been an “explanation” rather than that it constituted an “act of madness.” It might well have been a policy decided upon in rage, despair, panic, or some other such emotion, but that to me doesn’t constitute madness, only behaviour that hasn’t been thought through more carefully, whereas “irrationality” and “madness” as I understand it is a mindset composed of a series or collection of thoughts and ideas that are fragmented and which bear little or no relation to one another.


18. Idris of Dungiven - June 26, 2007

I’d suggest that the line of argument that sees the roots of the Shoah in the preceding two centuries of enlightenment was an emotional reaction to the horrors of the 1933 – 1945, a reaction that was heightened and worsened by the ways in which the collapse into barbarism with high technology seemed to contradict those centuries assumptions of the progressive amelioration of the human condition.

Now, those like Adorno who lived through that era of catastrophe might be entitled to react in that way. Today’s post-modernists, however, are just taking what is (for them) a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.


19. smiffy - June 26, 2007

Nice use of the Sex Pistols there, Idris.

I’m not sure that I’d necessarily agree, though. Firstly, the anti-Enlightenment stance taken by Adorno and others was adopted prior to the Second World War (I think Dialectic of the Enlightenment came out in the early forties). It was a reaction to the rise of fascism, rather than to the Holocaust, although the shadow of Auschwitz hangs over much of Adorno’s later work, like Minima Moralia. I don’t think that the post-modernists (“ugh” at the term, by the way) tend to posit the progression from empiricism to the gas chambers in quite the way that’s presented here (and, no doubt, was presented by the box- tickers at the conference at the weekend). It’s far too complex a subject to get into here, but I’d argue that much of what is termed ‘post-modernism’ could arguably be traced to political developments post-1945, with ‘minority’ groups like colonial subjects (the Algerian independence struggle being particularly important), gay people and women challenging their marginality in society, suggesting a questioning of marginality itself.

That’s highly tenuous, and very simplistic, of course, but I’m just throwing it out as a contrast to the Holocaust theory.

On the wider points raised, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the Enlightenment = Nazis argument on the basis that the Nazis didn’t act in a very rational way (i.e. in their own best interests). I think it misunderstands the thesis (theses) put forward by Adorno and others. Essentially the argument is that ‘Enlightenment’ empiricism is necessarily reductionist. It imposes a particular framework on its objects of study in order that they become objects of study. It’s the universalism of the Enlightenment, the idea that everything can be captured within a single overarching conception of the world, that’s seen as totalitarian. The link with fascism, or with the Holocaust, so the argument goes, is that this kind of Enlightenment think by definition tries to eliminate difference, the logical extension of which is the physical elimination of those seen as ‘different’.

Now, I can’t say that I buy it, but I think that’s the (very) general gist.

I think the key question when it comes to post-modernism (double *ugh*) is whether it can be adopted in support of progressive politics. Certainly the kind of examples WBS provided us with from his conference suggest little more than intellectual masturbation, the pose of radicalism without having to actually do anything, on the part of some who cite these theories. However, it’s also the case that this kind of inherently sceptical thinking can be and has been used to support progressive causes. Certainly the kind of anti-essentialist approach of Foucault was adopted by Said in his [i]Orientalism[/i], a work which is often unfairly criticised based on what Said’s disciples argue, rather than what’s in the book itself. Similarly, someone like the recently deceased Richard Rorty (apologies to the reader who mailed us on him for not responding) attempted to establish how the kind of anti-metaphysical philosophical approach might be used to support a leftist political project (whether he’s successful in this or not is another question). Oh, and let’s not forget Jacques Derrida’s later work, like The Politics of Friendship or Spectres of Marx.

I guess my main point is that it’s important to avoid the error of people like Francis Wheen, Nick Cohen and Johann Hari, whose criticism of the ‘post-modernists’ seems to come from what they’ve read about them, rather than dealing in any sustained way with the writings themselves, to see if there’s anything the progressive left can use.


20. WorldbyStorm - June 26, 2007

John, I should have clarified. I don’t mean the term irrational in the sense of ‘madness’, what I mean it is in the sense of being illogical, so to use a fairly banal example, the distinction between astrology and astronomy. A person who ‘believes’ in the former isn’t mad, but may be irrational. A person who grounds their understanding of the universe in the data uncovered by the latter isn’t necessarily sane but is at least drawing that understanding from an empirical, rational methodological approach. Of course this breaks down in the softer sciences or in areas of philosophy or belief, so it isn’t absolutist. But I wouldn’t suggest the Nazi’s were ‘mad’ and there’s a lot of very compelling evidence to suggest they were anything but. But the belief systems they used to justify their acts were irrational.
I think there is something in what Idris says in that there is a ‘comfort zone’ within certain branches of academia which alights upon post-modernism or any other critical theory in an unreflective way, but…again, like smiffy I have considerable time for post-modernism and I think it has led to insightful critiques.
The approach of Cohen, and Wheen has been remarkably short sighted and indeed overstated.
Personally I also have considerable time for Said.
But look, all these are methodologies for examing the world of thoughts or materiality. In that respect they can be enormously useful. The problem is when they are presented as the definitive means of methodology in a completely uncritical fashion and then applied in an unthinking and – dare I say – mechanistic fashion merely to bolster the argument or subject de jour.


21. Dublin Opinion » Blog Archive » Death and Religion is Kids Play - June 27, 2007

[…] Enright then suggests, partly ironically, that the Renaissance ridded us of our superstitions and our fears. The Renaissance which brought us, in a series of wonderfully engineered linked bridges, right into the modern secular period. This modern age, in which a German pope can inform the world that Catholicism and Enlightenment Reason are twinned warriors, standing shoulder to shoulder against the medieval irrationality of Muslim fundamentalism. (For an interesting discussion on the Enlightenment, Reason and modernism vs postmodernism check out WorldbyStorm’s post on Cedar Lounge Revolution). […]


22. John - June 27, 2007


Fair enough. I think we’re using the term “irrational” in different ways. I wouldn’t regard someone who believes in astrology as irrational if they can provide a justification for it, whereas your use of the term would judge the relative merits of the justification given for belief in a particular worldview.

Like smiffy, I feel the term “postmodernism” is incredibly imprecise. Who counts? Fukuyama, Jameson, sure, but deconstructionism? poststructuralism? Why not structuralism? Are subaltern studies necessarily postmodern and if so, in what way? From what I read, and it’s many years ago now, so much of what is regarded as constituing postmodernist theory is already present in modernist thought in one form of another: For instance, and somewhat bizarrely, I recall seeing Derrida’s argument in “Dissemination” summed up in Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies” in a brief two-sentence paragraph.

My feelings are that if the grand narratives of modernism can be used for both liberatory and repressive means, the same is likely to be true for postmodernist “narratives,” and they surely are narratives, regardless of what they might say. Ironically, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment is precisely the argument that I understand postmodernism to want to make, namely, that totalising narratives do not allow for anything “outside of” the text, nothing that cannot be incorporated by it or covered by it, and this should make us suspicious. But then, hadn’t Godel’s theorem already told us that this had to be the case? Isn’t Derrida’s pursuit of that which is outside of the text is just Godel’s theorem applied to cultural discourse?


23. Donagh - June 27, 2007

The problem is that when dealing with the subject of postmodernism you have to deal not only with the founding members so to speak, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Baudrillard etc but with the academic industry that has spawned from their original writing. There is an understandable revulsion from the latter, marked eloquently by Smiffy’s series of *ughs*, as it seems caught in a self edifying cycles of meaningless academic chatter, far removed from the original issues that generated it. In a sense the study of postmodernism is occurring in a historical vacuum and this discussion is an attempt to re-historicise it. Its clear that what is now known as post modernism stems from the structuralist and post-structuralist thinking of Barth, Derrida and Foucault in the late 50’s and 60s that it was very much influenced by a materialist analysis of power and epistemology which also tied into the Frankfurt school and the linguistics of Saussure.

That it became a critique of the Enlightenment was almost inevitable, as it was at this time that Europe, after crushing itself in a world war was also shedding itself of its imperialist past. It is not an accident that Derrida’s work began as a critique of the colonialist presumptions of Levi-Strauss.

The linking of the process of Enlightenment thinking, where the human subject is an object of study, leading to a reification of the human, to the rise of the Nazi’s is certainly not without merit and in a sense is an attempt to comprehend how our European civilization could be capable of such barbarity. When I conceded the point to WorldbyStorm that the actions of the Nazis (especially as they speeded up the Holocaust when they realized they were losing the war) were a sign of their irrationality, I mistakenly used the word madness. This is incorrect, but I think it’s wrong to get caught up with the argument as presented by latter day academic types, who, as Smiffy rightly said strike ‘the pose of radicalism without having to actually do anything.’

Its also, as John suggested, a subject whose boundaries are difficult to define. When did postmodernism begin? Some argue that, depending on the subject under study, it started as early as the 1920s. I’ve read that modernism is still on going and that postmodernism, rather than being a reaction to modernism, is merely a phase within it. This is what leads to people getting caught up in intellectual knots.

There is also a complication with regard to its usefulness for progressive politics, as it seems that there is a progressive and a conservative strand. Ultimately, the conservative strand, leaving aside the postmodernist (*blugggh*) academic industries support for De Man, comes to the fore when discussing history, and the argument that all history is text and that as such are relative to interpretation. Richard Evan’s In Defense of History does a much better job on this topic than I ever could but it seems that some postmodernist historians are providing an argument for holocaust denial.

However, because of its roots in Marxism there is also a strand of postmodernism (can we call it something else?) that is progressive. And it is interesting that Derrida returned to Marx in his later years, and if I remember from that essay (the Specter of Marx) correctly he described his own early Marxism in ‘68 and explained how his ideas came out of a political struggle. My own view is, a bit like Woody Allen’s producers in Stardust Memories, I prefer the early funny stuff.


24. joemomma - June 27, 2007

What was the conference? Is that a secret?


25. WorldbyStorm - June 28, 2007

I’d rather not say. My point isn’t an attack on the individual but on the mode of discourse, but as I was giving a paper too it might be just a little too easy for some to work out who I am and it might be seen as an attack…


26. Gavin Mendel-Gleason - April 18, 2013

More thoughts on the subject of this article (and a pointer back):



27. The Philosophy of Science | Spirit of Contradiction - May 21, 2015

[…] the charge that “The enlightenment ended in the ovens of Auschwitz” a theme discussed here: If it wasn’t for that pesky enlightenment, an idea whose origin can be traced to “Dialectic of […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: