Friday, 24 April 2009

Some thoughts on the post-modern academic left

I was at a seminar the other day, when one of the speakers, a prominent feminist academic, made some remarks about racism after 9/11 that both annoyed me and prompted some thoughts about the inadequate response of the post-modern academic left (a broad-brush term, I admit, but I think you'll know what I mean) to recent world events. 

In her lecture, the speaker suggested that racism had not gone away in recent years, but since 9/11 had mutated into a hostility to the culture, values and religion of the (implicitly Muslim) 'other'. Part of my frustration at this claim (which wasn't followed up by considered argument, but was almost a throwaway line, as if the speaker knew her like-minded audience would instinctively agree) derived from the fact that I had spent the previous evening watching this compelling exchange between Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie (recommended by Max here), in which these two writers from Asian Muslim backgrounds argued passionately that white liberals should not hold back from criticising Islam out of a wrongheaded fear of causing 'offence' to particular faiths or cultures. Now this white, liberal academic appeared to be suggesting exactly the opposite: that any critique of Islamic ideas and practices was a manifestation of racism and therefore off-limits.

This prompted a number of thoughts. Firstly, that those elements of the academic left who cite (as did this speaker) Foucault as a major influence on their thinking, often have a remarkably un- or pre-Foucauldian take on the operations of power. As I read him, Foucault was trying to move away from what he saw as a crude Marxist view of power as only held at the centre - by the state - and operating in a unidirectional, transmission-belt kind of way, thinking of power instead as something dispersed throughout society and as having positive as well as negative effects. However, some of these po-mo post-Foucauldians seem precisely to assume that 'real' power only exists in one place - broadly, the capitalist / imperialist / racist west. All else is the  'resistance' of the powerless. Therefore, when any new event occurs in the world, the instinct of the po-mo leftist is to look beneath the apparent causes, to see how it's 'really' the result of actions by 'us'.  (I'm not suggesting, by the way, that because these people mis-read Foucault, the latter was somehow 'right': see this post for the political consequences of his theories).

Secondly, po-mo theorists like my feminist academic appear to have a strangely static and un-dynamic vision of the world, in which there's no room for progressive change. Rather than charting the ways in which racism, for example, has been fought over the years, and acknowledging that there might (just possibly) have been some diminution in oppression and discrimination, she instead conjured up a picture of racism as some unchanging, ahistorical 'thing', standing outside and looming above history, unable to 'really' change but capable only of appearing in new guises. This is philosophical idealism and reification, not historical materialism. So po-mo leftists see the military-industrial complex, or imperialism, or capitalism, not as dynamic, contested processes involving real people, but almost as entities with a transhistorical life of their own. It's close to a conspiracy-theory view of history, and perhaps helps to explain why some on the po-mo left have succumbed so easily to myths about the influence of the supposed Zionist lobby, etc.

Thirdly, I was reminded of how po-mo academic leftists have been unable to face up to the new phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalist terror, and instead have often tried to change the subject. When they discourse about the 'post-9/11 world', they're not interested in analysing the roots or nature of Islamist ideology. No, they'd much rather talk about the west's reaction to it - the supposed threats to our liberties, the rise of 'Islamophobia', and so on - as if this was the 'real' story. What a gift the Bush administration's response was to this brand of leftist theorist! The Patriot Act, Guantanomo, Iraq - these all enabled po-mo leftists to turn their attention back to something they felt comfortable criticising - yet another manifestation of that same old western power complex. You could almost hear the sighs of relief in the seminar rooms and lecture halls.

Of course, if po-mo theorists don't succeed in changing the subject, and end up having to engage with the phenomenon of militant Islam, all they can do is attempt to fit it into familiar categories. If 'the west' is the only real nexus of power in the world, and is unequivocally oppressive, then those who oppose it must be the 'resistance', and therefore progressive. So you get the distasteful phenomenon of leading feminist theorist Judith Butler claiming that the misogynist, racist Hamas are part of the 'global left.' Or the media studies professor, injured in the 7/7 attacks, writing an imagined 'open letter' to one of the bombers, in which he attempted to 'understand' their rage at British foreign policy, while wishing they had chosen a different means to express it. Can you imagine someone injured in the bombing of a gay pub a few years back writing to the homophobic bomber trying to 'understand' his anger at anti-discrimination legislation? - and yet the perpetrators of 7/7 were just as reactionary and anathema to all progressive values. Or imagine a left-wing academic in the Thirties suggesting that, since Nazism was born out of anger at Germany's humiliation by the European powers, it was part of the global resistance to capitalism (hmm, having read Nick Cohen's book, maybe that's not so unimaginable).

These are unconnected, semi-articulate thoughts at the moment, but I'd be interested to hear of any more considered critiques of post-modern academic leftism, in the wake of 9/11. One of the reasons I find the whole thing so annoying and frustrating is that people who express these views are often those whose work I've admired in the past - people who have fought against oppression and inequality, but now seem to be avoiding facing up to the biggest threat to progressive values in the world today.  More on all of this another time, perhaps.


Bob-B said...

These seem entirely sensible thoughts to me. On the other hand, it is bizarre that a feminist should have no qualms about islamic culture and values. Has she ever looked at the Islamic world?

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment. It's the failure of western feminists, in particular, to grapple with the phenomenon of militant Islam that I find most disturbing. And I find it difficult, as a white, pro-feminist man, to intervene in the debate. Thank goodness that feminists from the 'Muslim world', like Maryam Namazie, are speaking up - but I'm not sure they're being listened to by mainstream western feminists, yet.

Eve Garrard said...

Lovely post, Martin, and I'd like to add my voice to the general concern about a failure in western feminism. You might be interested in a philosophical paper by David Cooper written in 2003, called Ideology, Moral Complicity, and the Holocaust - it isn't about 9/11, but its final paragraph bears strongly on what you're saying here.

Blake Stacey said...

Makes sense to me, but then again, I'm a physicist.

Your post on Foucault reminded me of the weird way "Left" and "Right" can twist themselves into a Möbius loop.

I am often struck by the ability of those on the cultural and political "Right" to embrace a kind of cafeteria relativism, whenever the facts uncovered by that nasty liberal science rub them the wrong way. For example, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is a long way from the literature department's faculty lounge, but they still invoke a "different starting points" mantra when confronted with fossil evidence. It's the down-home American analogue of the Hindutva ideologues using poststructuralist jargon to defang science and make room for the Vedic version.

When all else fails, I guess, assert that science is "only one way of knowing", even if you'd find applying that same relativist ethos to, say, the interpretation of Biblical texts to be complete anathema.