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Cynicism and postmodernity.

(London: Verso 1997).

THIS IS A CHALLENGING, rewarding critique of deconstruction, postmodern political theory, and the "inner emigration" favoured by many intellectuals today over active politics. Deconstruction, metaphysical in essence, is unsuitable as a guide to politics; instead of allowing for the construction of a more rational political order, it promotes a neurotic obsession with the impossibility of authenticity and a disavowal of the "violence of representation -- both political and semiotic." (196) Postmodernism has become an empirical social condition, a set of critical-theoretical strategies which legitimatize a widespread cultural anxiety. It leads to a political sell-out, to a self-obsessed, sterile avoidance of any risk. Anyone concerned to keep up with the booming literature on postmodernism, and particularly that focused on its political consequences, will want this book. It could be paired in opposition to Zygmaunt Bauman's Intimations of Postmodernity.

I would offer three criticisms of this book. First, its markedly Hegelian argument is curiously reticent about Marx; it provides us with a methodologically and politically idealist account of postmodernism. Bewes is right to see cynicism as a dominant motif of our time, and he is right to seek to counteract it. His strategy and his argument both centre on high-philosophical issues: cynicism and postmodernism originate with intellectuals; their ideas have shaped the late-20th century world. A "Mass cultural retreat from politics" (3) has been accompanied by a refusal to attempt to grasp the impossible -- "Disillusionment with enlightenment, the loss of faith in modernity and rationality, is not primarily the result of enlightenment's failure to fulfil its promises ... It is the consequence of the formalization of an endemic disappointment --unknowability, undecidability -- as the definitive modern condition, by way of the concept `postmodern.' " (6) "Postmodern cynicism is a legacy of the transportation of ... metaphysical anxieties to the political sphere, and of the diversion of politics ... to ethereal concerns more properly addressed in the realm of metaphysics." (48) Among c. 20,000 critical theorists on campuses in the West, this may indeed serve as a rough-and-ready genealogy of the postmodern sensibility. But disillusionment with enlightenment is not to be found only among intellectuals, and is experienced and voiced by people who have never read a postmodern theorist. The dynamic nucleus of postmodern culture today is not the university but the cultural industries, from advertising to popular music; what the left confronts is not a few easily identified and vilified cultural figures, but a vast network of signs and discourses: MTV and Musique Plus do far more for a postmodern sensibility in an hour than Jean Baudrillard in a year. Perhaps had Marx rather than Hegel more centrally shaped this inquiry, its engagement with the present could have spoken more eloquently to the social and economic complexity of our historical present.

Second, if Marx is missing, so is the 20th-century socialist experiment. Tony Blair (an outlandish parallel is drawn with Himmler!), "moderation," Zygmaunt Bauman, the proliferation of statistics as a manifestation of depoliticization, the Hamlet-like Derrideans pathologically disinclined to get real about politics --are all arraigned by the author for undermining the possibility of a serious politics. The origins of contemporary political cynicism can be related to movements in epistemology. I do not think this is an accurate picture -- at least not of the reality I operate in. I think the collapse of socialism, an incipient future, as capitalism's other, as a reality with maps and flags and libraries, is far more closely related to today's pervasive cynicism. I think many left intellectuals, most of them innocent of any interest in Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, do have a sense of deep gulf between their old Marxist-Leninist or social democratic or neo-Marxist maps of possible presents and futures -- and the remorseless, brutal efficiency of late-20th century reality. This is not primarily a philosophical problem. It is the problem of the defeat of socialism, in both its Marxist-Leninist and social democratic versions. We would be on a different planet if there were one (even seriously flawed) "socialist experiment" that could be cited as a real alternative to the capitalist mire in which we are compelled to live. With capitalism (for now) apparently the one feasible economic and social system and liberalism (for now) as the one surviving, successful ideology, cynicism is not an illogical response from anyone who had dreamed of something else. Where else, but in a kind of internal migration, can the dream of socialism be remembered?

Third, the book offers us an implicit contrast: the obsessive, politically inert postmodern cynics, as contrasted to the politically active, engaged non-metaphysicians. Over and over, with something like the enthusiasm of an aerobics instructor, Bewes counsels his readers to reject the strategy of "internal migration" -- that is, that of surviving in a society we despise by exiling ourselves to its margins, there cultivating our inwardness and authenticity. Leftist intellectuals should embrace, instead, the violence necessary of politics and for representation. This language is curious; it gives the book a very Babouvist flavour, but nothing is made very specific. The book's "violent" tone --even if the "violence" is merely a metaphorical one -- echoes the vanguardist rhetoric of the distant past. At the end of the 20th-century, the socialist language of violence lives vigorously on; violence, it is imagined, will somehow jolt postmoderns out of their cynical lethargy. I do not think so. There are ethical and historical arguments against this stance, but the practical argument is that the socialist revolution has been deferred, perhaps for a long time, by the uninterest in it, for both economic and political reasons, of the masses -- and no amount of verbal "violence" in a book as academic as this one will change this fact. The recourse to the rhetoric of violence suggests a continuation, not a going beyond, of the psychology of internal migration and left isolation.

This is a good book, for academics who are interested in the theories which surround postmodernism. But the left's dilemma --and the self-regarding futility of such impassioned but rather disembodied appeals to a generic "violence" -- is surely illustrated by the fact that neither Bewes's book (nor indeed this review of it) is likely to reach more than a tiny fraction of the people who every day are affected by CNN, NBC, the Internet, the advertising industry. Written strictly for a philosophically informed minority, Cynicism and Postmodernity bears the scent of the PhD it was once.

One savours in particular the Aristotelian/Hegelian take on Beavis and Butthead -- can a Beginners' Guide to the Epistemology and Ontology on Beavis be far behind? Or am I just being "postly" cynical?

Ian McKay

Queen's University
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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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