Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism
By Jason Josephson Storm
Work in Progress.
(under contract with the University of Chicago Press)
The various human sciences used to presuppose the possibility of intellectual progress. But for decades now, a host of scholars have called into question the universality of the disciplinary objects and their utility as analytic categories. It now seems naïve to presume the existence of the unique categories of “art,” “literature,” or “religion,” much less the possibility of progress or knowledge. Faced with the skeptical arsenal of deconstruction, scholarship was dominated for a time by a kind of poststructuralist poetry rooted in the play of homonyms; and worse, by way of backlash, it has lately been overwhelmed by a wave of radical particularity (nominalism) that is frightened of all generalization. Both are errors. Retreating to the sociological survey, the FMRI, or the archive does not provide a solution in and of itself, but a temporary gesture. As bad as word-play was, to renounce abstraction (as many now seem to be doing) is to abandon communication and to fall into fragmentation.
As I argue, it would be an equally grave error to try and reverse course and retreat into the insincere comforts of a false universalism or realism. There is a temptation in the face of this abyss of meaning to recoil from its edge and to try to reconstruct the master categories, in effect, to answer negation with restoration disguised as redefinition. This would be a fatal mistake. It would result in merely the indefinite deferral of the central problem. Not a minor matter, this dilemma is central to the fate of the academy in the condition of postmodernity. The decay of master narratives has led to a near universal distrust of universals, while deepening particularity seems to promise nothing but further dissolution. Is there a way forward that rejects both modernist essentialism and postmodernist skepticism? Fortunately, as the world slides out of postmodernity, new possibilities are appearing.
In response, I’d like to put forward an approach that is neither deconstruction nor restoration—as a substitute, I think we need to find the negation of the negation. To skirt a cliché, we need a Copernican revolution. We need to revolve the whole enterprise on its axis. The center must shift if the human sciences are going to hold. In sum, I aim to move beyond deconstruction by radicalizing it or turning it inside out.
The science I will propose here is a post-Kuhnian social science or process anthropology that is capable of tracing the unfolding of de-essentialized master categories (what I call “high-entropic assemblages”) in their full complexity. Drawing on work in feminist new materialism, science studies, linguistics, and both analytic and continental philosophy, I aim to produce a set of methods for producing a humbled, fallibilist, and situated knowledge.