A Postmortem on Postmodernism

[Back in 2014, I organized a workshop here at Williams College on Theory After Postmodernism. Having gotten The Myth of Disenchantment off my desk, I’ve returned to my manuscript project (“Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism“) which directly focuses on that subject. Although my comments from the workshop probably won’t make it into the new manuscript, I thought my opening remarks were worth posting here for those interested. I’ve made just a few modest changes.]

In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a catastrophe afflicting European intellectual and cultural life, and he argued that global capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalisms had produced an ethical vacuum. Moreover, he faulted the European philosophical academy for its inability to produce a sufficiently robust moral philosophy to resist the relativizing onslaught. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist had spawned a new type of person, stating: “The postmodern man is an encrusted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism.” While the prose is rather florid, Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch, especially by connecting the postmodern with nihilism and a pervasive ethical disaster, and it is not hard to find thinkers who use similar terms to describe the current era as being in a “postmodern crisis.”[i]

The problem is that Pannwitz wrote this account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. Nor was Pannwitz the only one. The first English book with “Postmodernism” in its title came out in 1926. Indeed, like the almost imperceptible tremors that anticipate a major earthquake, tantalizing references to the “postmodern” or “postmodernists” (Sp. postmodernista) began appearing more than a half century before the term would attain common currency in the 1970s.[ii]

Criticizingpostmodernism” is far from novel. On strictly philological grounds, what these examples show is that the term “postmodern” became lexically available shortly after 1901 when variants on the term “pre-modern” appeared and came into common usage in a number of European linguistic repertoires.[iii] By becoming the quintessential periodization, “modernity” was read as a fundamental rupture from the past, but accordingly it became possible to imagine its future eclipse.

I have another project [“The Myth of Disenchantment”] that challenges notions of “modernity” as rupture,[iv] but what I’d like to do this morning is talk about the function of “postmodernism” in the contemporary Euro-American academy. So while you eat your bagels and drink your coffee, I want to warm up our workshop by sorting through a host of terminology—from deconstruction to poststructuralism to postmodernism and then gesturing toward a simple argument—that no matter how you consider it, the “postmodern” period is over and the central theoretical commitments we associate with “postmodernism” have collapsed. In this respect, I’d like to begin with an autopsy to figure out what postmodernism was, which should help us think about where we should be heading.

[To read more, follow me over the fold]

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 4–Racing against the Machine: from the Ends of Sleep to the Ends of Work

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Over the last couple of years, artificial intelligence has been depicted in a surprising number of films—including Autómata (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Big Hero 6 (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015, pictured above), キカイダー REBOOT (2014), Robocop (2014), Terminator Genisys [sic.] (2015), and Transcendence (2014).[i] Although not uniformly apocalyptic in tone, these movies collectively embody a broader current of disquiet about the ethical dilemmas and potential dangers of machine sentience. Nor are these anxieties confined to the typical movie-going public. July 28, 2015, Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and a host of other luminaries signed an open letter cautioning against a “global AI arms race” and calling for a ban on “autonomous weapons. In doing so they lent their weight to the idea that in some respects these cinematic fantasies might be well founded.

But for many social theorists, the graver contemporary threat is not killer robots, but worker robots stripping us of employment and purpose.

In this rather long post, I place contemporary robot-movies in dialogue with an essay by John Maynard Keynes (“Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“) in order to explore a particular contemporary capitalist nightmare—that the very technological innovation that has undergirded modern productivity might in fact be its undoing. More specifically, I want to see how dystopian readings of automation (in particular the automation of mind or machine sentience) contribute to fears of the loss of sleep and the loss of work. Technological optimists should fret not as in a later post I’ll look at acceleration as utopian liberation. But if you follow me across the fold I’ll examine acceleration as despair or we might say as the death drive of the robot apocalypse.

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The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Introduction- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism

One reoccurring charge against postmodernism and poststructuralism alike is that they are unable to think utopia.

At first Capitalist Realismpass, this certainly seems plausible, after all postmodernism in Lyotard’s famous formulation was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” For another example, in all of Derrida’s work on deconstruction, did he not (perhaps admirably) refuse to offer an alternative to logocentrism? To be sure, he privileged writing over speech and praised grammatology. But by and large Derrida resisted utopia’s allure. Plus, aren’t classic postmodern works like Naked Lunch, The Crying of Lot 49, or Blade Runner deeply pessimistic?

Indeed it is easy to paint that entire period of philosophy and art as the culmination of skepticism or cynical reason—or in other words as the withering of modernist utopianism or perhaps as nothing less than pure crystalized dystopia. As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, charged the protagonist

You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” To which he replied: “You know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”

But of course, even in France he couldn’t. As it would seem at least a hundred political theorist have observed—it is hard to organize a politics around cynicism and nihilism, people need something to believe in and work toward, and hence the inability to think utopia is supposed to be precisely why postmodern and poststructuralist theory have failed to transform into easily recognizable political projects. As Žižek has argued, totalitarian regimes maintain their hold by encouraging cynicism. All they need to forestall revolution is to convince the masses that every politician is a bastard and all politic is corrupt. The people think why bother? and they continue supporting, with ironic distance, the mechanisms of a state in which they no longer believe. The promotion of postmodern skepticism would therefore seem to disable politics and prevent its ability to mobilize against the exploitations of global capitalism.

This critique of utopias absence has be sharpened recently by the British philosopher and blogger Mark Fisher. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (2009) was inspired by the insight (attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson) that

it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

This too certainly seems plausible and if you’ll follow me over the fold, I’ll layout both Fisher’s case AND in the next blog-post I’ll argue against this thesis by looking at a few seeds of anti-capitalist utopia

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Theory After Postmodernism Workshop May 16-17, 2014

Readers of the blog might be interested to know that I’ve organized a small workshop on Theory After Postmodernism here at Williams College on May 16-17, 2014.


Theory After Postmodernism May 16-17

It is free and open to the public. More details can be found here:




Neuronal Politics: A Review of Malabou

Catherine Malabou in Blue

Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should we do with our brain? Trans

by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.

Original: Malabou, Catherine. 2004. Que faire de notre cerveau? Paris: Bayard.

The Rise of the New Ontologists

Recently, political theory has moved away from epistemology and toward ontology; in effect, swapping the obsessions of post-structuralism (the limits of knowledge and language) with a renewed emphasis on the ground of being as such. If the post-structuralists reduced everything to discourse, the “new ontologists” (as they are coming to be called) reduce everything to an issue of existence. In so doing, they privilege things over concepts, or, we might say, supplant idealism with materialism. Yet the new ontologists also double down on postmodernist anti-humanism by displacing the human as the center of political theory. In effect, they describe being in new ways in order to suggest the possibilities of reading agency into the non-human world.

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Why Hegel -1

Hegel in Blue

The title of this blog (which is also the title of my book in progress) is meant to evoke a quote from Hegel “[Spirit] obtains its truth only when, in its absolute disruption (absoluten Zerrissenheit), it finds itself.” This may inspire the questions:


Why Hegel? Why now? Žižek has proclaimed this the “age of Hegel,” but then Žižek is also known for milking provocative claims for all they are worth. So that alone doesn’t get us very far.

Evoking Hegel at this moment might seem particularly anachronistic; indeed many would describe him as the ultimate dead white male. If that weren’t enough, Hegel has the potential to represent everything that Postmodernists criticize about modernity—Western triumphalism, a totalizing system, the rationalizations of colonialism and Orientalism. On top of which, the Phänomenologie des Geistes is a baffling text about which there is much disagreement. This would all seem to make a Hegelian revival even less plausible. So why is such a revival currently ongoing?

                                                                        ALL ROADS LEAD TO HEGEL:

Part of the renewed interest in Hegel has to do with the end of Marx. When Soviet Communism collapsed, Marx became less threatening. In the 1990s, he was spoken of as dead and it was in this same period that class seemingly vanished as a popular category in the U.S. and elsewhere. The 2000s have led to a limited resurgence of Marx in a kind of declawed, less political, less empirical, and less economic guise. Once class and economic specifics are stripped from Marx he starts to look more and more like Hegel. What is more,  with capital run rampant today beyond the worst fears of Das Kapital, Marx runs the risk of seeming dated. While I am not alone in thinking that some version of Marx is still relevant to the current economy, the case now has to be made; and for many, the Marx that seems most appealing is the philosophical Marx of Die Deutsche Ideologie and the Theses on Feuerbach, etc. This is a Marx vigorously engaged with Hegel. For these reasons, a whole crowd of scholars who otherwise define themselves as various kinds of Marxists (Žižek, Jameson, etc) have spent the last decade reaching back behind Marx to recover the Left-Hegel.

Although I think the status of Marx is the biggest reason for the Hegel resurgence, it isn’t the only one.

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After the End/Before the Beginning [Test Post]

The basic intuition that inspired this blog is that we are in the process of moving past postmodernism. I mean this in two senses: first, economic and cultural forms have shifted from the highpoint of postmodernism as they were understood in 1960s-1980s, and second, and even more importantly, the weird American academic field called “French Theory” or “Post-structuralism” that is so often identified with Postmodernity is on the way out.

None of this is to say that the “new thing” has begun yet. Nor would I claim any prophetic knowledge of the future.

This blog is intended to play host to my struggle with what is appearing on our intellectual horizon now that we are begin to move beyond postmodernism.

I intend to post short semi-review pieces about the things I am reading. Basically everything from classical/contemporary religious studies to new trends in radical philosophy and critical theory.

Also, I’m going to stop myself from over-editing everything. So I apologize in advance if posts here are rough.

Let the fun begin.