Friday, June 04, 2010

5. An aside about Marx and post-modernism

Michele Barrett, The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault:

We are all already regulated, already participants in networks of power, already constituted within the operations of power -- and notions such as the "free individual," on whom power descends from above -- are completely meaningless. Foucault did not believe that this position entailed "seeing power everywhere" or reducing everything to power, just as Marxism had reduced everything to economics, although this criticism is frequently made of his work. He suggested instead that the problem was to understand how power operated in specific methods and strategies, how major shifts such as the increased disciplining of individuals in modern western society had taken place, and how one could show the political and economic dimensions of changes in power.   

People don't always interpret things in the same way, and I think this is the point post-modernism wants to make. It is certainly appropriate to make this point, especially when responding to someone who insists that their interpretation is the only interpretation!

But it seems to me that the impulse to "deconstruct" comes too late. Only when you have a community of intellectuals invested in "modernism" can you arrive at a place where you "need" a community of intellectuals invested in "post-modernism." And that's because, had anybody bothered to think for themselves in the first place, the "constructions" which exclude certain perspectives (those excluded from the professions at that time) would never evolve into "deconstructions" which exclude others (those excluded from the professions now), because there was never any justification for them in the first place. Maybe I am missing something, but this seems to be lost on professionals, and people who want to become professionals, if not surprisingly.

This is what David Harvey is getting at when he says he doesn't read Foucault as "anti-Marxist." And that's because you don't have to. You can read Marx, or anybody else, in whatever way you want. If you place a determination on Marx that Marx is deterministic, that is fine, but nobody else has to. They will take from Marx what is relevant to them -- and you can keep your determinism, if that is what is most useful to you; if that is the extent of what you want to take from Marx, and helps you get along in the world, achieve your goals, and so on.

It was only after I was two-thirds of the way through the above book that I realized that the "Marxism [that] had reduced everything to economics" was the Marxism of the 20th-century, socialist state. But, as Foucault himself would point out, that is not the Marxism of either the 19th or the early 21st centuries. So we have to remember that people in different circumstances interpret things in different ways, and we have to remember this in the first instance -- not only after the professional climate has changed.


Jack Crow said...


A number of critiques of the resurgence of "marxist" thought, lately.

Marx's work is a useful tool.

Not the only tool - and certainly not a reason to avoid play.

Richard said...

In addition, while one doesn't need to attend to Marx, necessarily, one does need to attend to the problems he was addressing. The problem is those who dismiss Marx are all too often missing the nature of the problem at hand. Marx can help.

JRB said...

Well said.

Enron said...

I would say it was more Engels anyways.

Jack Crow said...

Seriously, Enron. Engels transformed Marx's analysis into a damned cult of the dialectic.

Richard said...

That's an interesting comment, Jack. I admit I don't know too much about Engels or his proselytizing of Marx's work; I know Engels did some good work of his own, but beyond that....

but this point about the cult of the dialectic--so far I have yet to see Marx use the word (in Capital anyway), yet commentators use it constantly, including the writer of the introduction, and even Harvey in his lectures uses it all the time, "you have to think dialectically". And yet what Harvey seems to mean by it is to keep in mind the movement and the contradictions (and all the rest of it!), but does that really need to be called dialectics? Isn't keeping alive contradictions and tensions and whatnot just part of thinking?

Jack Crow said...


Marx uses it, when discussing Hegel. He also uses it, when he mentions that he's gone beyond Hegel (in Capital), and no longer needs it.

But the term "dialectical materialism" was invented by Dietzgen, and then later incorporated into Diamat by combining Engels' essays, with Feuerbach, to arrive at an alleged science.

I will admit that I am fully, completely in agreement with Rosa L, here:

...and furthermore, confess her influence.

If you have six months (and it takes that long, since Rosa is up to almost a million words, IIRC), it's the pre-eminent deconstruction of diamat.

Because I was not clear the last time I mentioned Rosa - she doesn't reject Lenin, Trotsky or Marxism. Just the dialectical materialism.



Jack Crow said...

I should be clear: In Capital, he refers to the method (but does not use the term itself).

As to all the contradictions stuff, I think Rosa has made a cogent case:

On its own terms, dialectical materialism cannot allow for the change it declares, because it insists that history is material (no problem there) and that all processes are material (no problem there) but that they also all contain their own negations (bwuh?) which emerge from (what? never said) self-contradiction in order to "contradict" the already existent, triggering a crisis.

But if this is actually the case, nothing can happen - because the self-contained contradictions, being material, must also then contain their own self-negating contradictions, which must contain theirs, and so on ad infinitum.

Diamat also fails to explain the problem of photons which don't ever change and seem to last a very, very, very long time* (I owe this recognition, again, to Rosa).

* - they also do not contain their own opposites (as diamat insists), just waiting the chance to emerge and contradict them.

JRB said...

Good stuff, Jack. Don't know much about it myself.

Richard said...

Yeah, thanks for the information, Jack. I knew that Marx would have used it in discussing Hegel, I just haven't read that stuff. I was also under the impression that Hegel's dialectic was different than the so-called Marxist dialectic.

le sans-culottes said...

Rosa L is a bit loony if you ask me, but her critique of diamat does make sense.

However, the point of this post is that you can read any text any which way you want. Personally, I am more in line with Harvey's understanding of Marx's dialectic, as being different than Hegel, i.e.: less about negation and more about a non-dualistic approach that could account for contradictory and mutually reciprocal interaction.
ex: bourgeoisie/proletariat