Voices From the Collective: Marxism versus Postmodernism

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Each issue we reprint a series of posts from the Bad Subjects discussion list. As always, these posts are reprinted unedited and as they appeared on the list.

Issue #30, February 1997



Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997 22:30:41 GMT
From: Julian Thomas <julian.thomas@dial.pipex.com>
To: Multiple recipients of <bad@eserver.org>
Subject: Re: David Hawkes

At 12:53 16/01/97 -0500, you wrote:
> At 8:09 AM 1/16/97, DAVID HAWKES wrote:
>>> I like the Frankfurt School
>> As do I Dave, but don't they have more than a
>> bit in common with the pomos that neither of
>> us likes? Weren't they in part responsible for
>> the shift away from class and material pro
>> cesses towards culture and "discourse"?
>> Doesn't their shift in emphasis from "exploi
>> tation" to "domination" lead>away from Marx
>> and towards Foucault - that is, away from
>> specific interests>that are at the root of
>> social hierarchy towards the diffuse notion of
>> "power" that the Foucauldians see?
>> Doug

I read Dave's book after the last time the pomo thread was raised, as members of the list made me realise that I didn't have the background to fully argue my case ( i still haven't!). I thought it was well written, but I still have a problem with the points raised by Doug. As I read it, the shift from Marx to Foucault was a result of a changing set of social circumstances. Class is too simplistic a method to use to analyse our world. Whether you accept the term postmodernism, late modernism, late capitalism, the structures of domination and exploitation go beyond labour. To look at the concept of 'power' one nedds a variety of tools, not just Marxism. There are numerous ways to create wealth and economic power that do not rely directly on labour. It could also be argued that class itself is now more a case of lifestyle appropriation.

Julian

Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997 19:06:58 -0500
From: dhenwood@panix.com (Doug Henwood)
To: Multiple recipients of >bad@eserver.org>
Subject: Re: David Hawkes

I don't see how the matter of how one is inserted into the social division of labor, which is a large part of what class is about, matters any less now than it did 20, 50, 100 years ago. One's choices in the world of consumption, where so many of those discursive trangressions occur, are still constrained by one's position in the realm of production. People with the most space to transgress discursively are probably ones with higher incomes. Of course there are noneconomic forms of oppression. But chic power dispersion models drain power of interest; the beneficiary of domination is harder to see than the one of exploitation. I was just reading Foucault's nutty passage about how Marx and Ricardo are more or less the same.

Doug

From: David Hawkes <dthawkes@inch.com>
To: Multiple recipients of <bad@eserver.org>
Subject: Re: David Hawkes

My argument is that the logical contradiction Marx notes is between Capital and Labor, not between social classes. In Marx's day these forces were indeed embodied in social classes - the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But this is no longer the case in a society where many people own capital (and are thus bourgeois) and simultaneously sell themselves for wages (and are thus proletarian). But this does not alter the fact that capital and labor are in logical and ethical contradiction, since capital is in fact objectified labor. The two forces are hostile and irreconcilable; furthermore one is good and the other is bad, and the bad one rules the postmodern world, with disasterous ideological results.

Cheers,
Dave

Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1997 19:03:27 -0500
From: dhenwood@panix.com (Doug Henwood)
To: Multiple recipients of <bad@eserver.org>
Subject: Re: Marx, Ricardo, and Foucault (was David Hawkes)

At 11:39 AM 1/17/97, SMurphy691@aol.com wrote:
> "I was just reading the nutty passage about
> how Marx and Ricardo are the same..."
> This chipper aside begs some interesting
> questions-I'll assume, unless>corrected, that
> you are referring to the section in Les Mots et
> les Choses where Foucault goes on about Smith,
> Ricardo, labor and representation. By my
> reading, he isn't saying that Ricardo and Marx
> are the same at all. Marx did derive a good deal
> from his reading of Ricardo, and this seems to
> be at least in part what Foucault is zeroing in
> on. Here, however, MF's interest is in these
> names as figures for shifts in conceptions of
> representation, and this in itself, I suppose,
> can be seen as a rather neutralizing
> maneuver. Clarifications, anyone?

On pp. 261-262 of the Order of Things, MF wrote:"But the alternatives offered by Ricardo's 'pessimism' and Marx's revolutionary promise are probably of little importance. Such a system of options represents nothing more than the two possible ways of examining the relations of anthropology and History as they are established by economics through the notions of scarcity and labour... Marxism introduced no real discontinuity; it found its place without difficulty as a full, quiet, comfortable, and goodness knows, satisfying form (for its time), within an epistemological arrangement that welcomed it gladly (since it was this arrangement that was in fact making room for it) and that it, in return, had no intention of disturbing and, above all, no power to modify, even one jot, since it rested entirely upon it.... Their controversies [between bourgeois & revolutionary economics] may have stirred up a few waves and caused a few surface ripples; but they are no more than storms in children's paddling pool." On the next page he celebrates Nietzsche. Sure, there's lots of neat stuff to mine from Nietzsche, all that cool stuff about free play in the world of signifiers, but he was a pretty frightening fellow overall, a racist, the celebrator of exploitation and caste society, the official philosopher of the Third Reich.

Doug

Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1997 08:59:39 -0500 (EST)
From: David Hawkes <dthawkes@inch.com>
To: Multiple recipients of <bad@eserver.org>
Subject: Re: David Hawkes

On Thu, 16 Jan 1997, Doug Henwood wrote:
> At 8:09 AM 1/16/97, DAVID HAWKES wrote:
> < >I like the Frankfurt School
> > As do I Dave, but don't they have more than
> a bit in common with the pomos that neither of
> us likes? Weren't they in part responsible for
> the shift away from class and material pro
> cesses towards culture and "discourse"? Doesn't
> their shift in emphasis from "exploitation" to
> "domination" lead away from Marx and towards
> Foucault - that is, away from specific inter
> ests that are at the root of social hierarchy
> towards the diffuse notion of "power" that the
> Foucauldians see?

They don't really move away from the economy so much as adapt to the ways the economy has changed since Marx. Following Lukacs in -History and Class-consciousness_, their basic assumption is that the commodity form has come to determine all human thought. The "fetishism" produced by commodification involves such things as the displacement of reality by representation, the imposition of false equivalence on objects, peoples and cultures which are actually different, the death of the autonomous subject and other notable features of the postmodern age. This theory rests upon Aristotle's distinction in the _Politics_ between exchange-value and use-value, as it is extrapolated by Marx in the opening chapter of _Capital_. Since the postmodern economy is dominated by commodity exchange rather than material production, one can argue that acritique of the psychological effects of exchange-value and the commodityform is more powerful than an approach which emphasises the material mode of production. I would certainly read the Frankfurt School, like Jameson, as hostile to postmodernism, but they are forced to concede its empiricaltriumph. Postmodernist philosophy accurately reflects and describes the state of the postmodern world, but it does not condemn that world, and even when it does it cannot explain what is wrong with th world. The F_School do and can.

Cheers,
Dave


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