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What's Wrong with Postmodernism?:…

What's Wrong with Postmodernism?: Critical Theory and the Ends of…

by Christopher Norris

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It is a curious fact – one noted by Perry Anderson in his book Considerations on Western Marxism – that the level and quality of theoretical work on the left often seems to vary inversely with the fortunes of left-wing politics at large. Then again, one could argue (and Anderson does) that this should not be any great cause for surprise, since a recourse to theory is typically the response of any marginalised fraction of dissident intellectuals, excluded from the mainstream of political life and left little choice but to cultivate a range of more of less hopeful alternative visions. Still one might think it a curious turn of events when this response takes the form of a deep investment in issues of aesthetics, philosophy of art, and literary theory as the chief areas of concern among a sizeable number of committed left-wing cultural activists. For it is, to say the least, far from self-evident that specialised work in these areas could eventually feed back to exert any influence on the way people live, think, feel, vote, and comport themselves in the public sphere of politically responsible action and choice. The suspicion must be – or so it would seem from a commonsense-realist standpoint – that these theorists are just whistling in the dark, discovering all manner of pseudo-radical rhetorics and postures by which to disguise their own deep sense of political failure and defeat. [from "Introduction: Criticism, History and the Politics of Theory"]
In this chapter I propose to contest some of the arguments that Habermas brings against Derrida in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. It seems to me that he has misread Derrida's work, and done so moreoveer in a way that fits all to readily with commonplace ideas about deconstruction as a species of latter-day Nietzschean irrationalism, one that rejects the whole legacy of post-Kantian enlightened thought. In short, Habermas goes along with the widely-held view that deconstrution is a matter of collapsing all genre-distinctions, especially those between philosophy and literature, reason and rhetoric, language in its constative and performative aspects. This is all the more unfortunate since Habermas's book (which I shall henceforth refer to as PDM) is by far the most important contribution to date in the ongoing quarrel between French post-structuralism and that tradition of Ideologiekritik which Habermas has carried on from Adorno and earlier members of the Frankfurt School. So I will be criticising PDM from a standpoint which might appear squarely opposed to Habermas's critical project. That this is not at all my intention – that in fact I concur with most of what Habermas has to say – will, I hope, become clear in the course of this chapter. [from chapter 1, "Deconstruction, Postmodernism and Philosophy: Habermas on Derrida"]
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0801841372, Paperback)

What's Wrong with Postmodernism collects seven of Christopher Norris's reviews of recent work in literary theory. Throughout, Norris appears to assume that his readers possess substantial background knowledge in politics and philosophy as well as literary theory. He clearly deserves his reputation as the most philosophically astute of British literary theorists and, considering the abstruseness of the topics under consideration, he also manages to be surprisingly clear.

Two purposes permeate the collection. The first is to criticize postmodernism, described as "the upshot of a generalized incredulity with regard to all theories, truth-claims, or 'scientific' notions of system and method." Through discussion of Jean Baudrillard's Selected Writings and Stanley Fish's Doing What Comes Naturally, Norris argues that in addition to its obvious intellectual flaws, postmodernism leads in the political sphere to malaise, cynicism, and apathy. The appeal of postmodernism, he suggests, is due to the failure of literary theories based on Ferdinand de Saussure's structuralism; fortunately, because there are approaches to the philosophy of language other than Saussure's, the postmodernist turn is not irresistible.

The second purpose of What's Wrong with Postmodernism is to defend deconstruction--and its patron saint, Jacques Derrida--against the accusations of postmodernist irrationalism found in Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity and John M. Ellis's Against Deconstruction. Norris contends that deconstruction, properly understood, is not itself guilty of postmodernist irrationalism, even if Derrida's epigones sometimes are. --Glenn Branch

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:48 -0400)

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