On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”

The first problem is that “hybridization” seems not at all the opposite of dualism (in this context); it appears to be a precursor for a new binary. How hybridization is the tool of oppression is not explained, but a hybrid will still bump into its own antithesis. The fundamental problem here still seems to be binary thought, and after eight years of Bush — dichotomizer par excellence — I am a bit incredulous that oppression is still not primarily found in black/white thinking. The only real defense White offers is a meager appeal to a passage by Zizek wherein he bizarrely takes “contemporary capitalist modernizers” at face-value when they praise decentralization & diversification — even though absolutely nothing within our modern Western empires suggests the powers-that-be are even close to abandoning hierarchical structures of domination.

Secondly, White seems shocked to learn that our “tools of resistance” can be so easily co-opted by the ruling classes. This brute-force adoption and re-appropriation of radical philosophy for hegemonic ends is not even vaguely unique to postmodernity (or altermodernity or whatever); it has nothing to do with “increasing hybridization” or the “subverting of binaries.” Marx famously failed to give credit to capitalism for it’s ability to cannibalize absolutely everything, adapting and morphing continuously in its perpetual quest to commodify. Marcuse detailed all this long ago, so it’s odd to express any measure of surprise that what are revolutionary tools one day are the next day turned into marketable fashions available widely at Hot Topics or digested comfortably in the plush seats at Regal Cinemas (revolutionary fervor re-enacted with zeal for us by chisel-chinned millionaires). White asks, “Could it be that while we’ve been smashing boundaries and crossing borders, consumerism has quickened its global expansion by piggybacking on our identity-blurring efforts?” as if there were seriously doubts that that could be answered in anything but the affirmative.

The root problem that I want to question is White’s assumption that deconstruction does more than just de-stabilize binaries, but that it actually collapses them. I believe this is where White really goes astray, arguing (presumably contra postmodernism) that “altermodernism” must “insist that in the coming era differences do matter” as if this were not already a defining feature of deconstruction. Furthermore, White’s idea of heterogeneity means erecting failed binaries — for example, between “comrade and consumer.” This is not posting postmodernism or the birth of altermodernism, it’s an old-fashioned return to modernism itself. This return happens because he is not letting differences sit in tension with each other, so eager as he is to insist that all binaries collapse. Once they collapse, we’re left with the same old stomach-turning homogeneous universality that so characterized modernism.

On the contrary, I feel like the deconstructive project respects differences by playing with them — holding them simultaneously, holding them reflexively, holding them with some degree of irony. Derrida calls it “différance,” and this is not just a more pretentious way (read: French) of spelling “difference.” Différance is the exploration (an “adventurous” one according to Derrida) of the traces of each sign within the other. It is the space in which opposition pulls on the other without ever siding with either, noting how each both excludes and includes its “opposite” pairing.

So when White wants to preach to the Comrades about those dirty Consumers, I start to get really nervous. The entire point of deconstruction, which White only apparently understands in theory, is questioning these very absolute distinctions. In the closing paragraphs of his piece, I hear White aching for a purity of thought & action that is dangerously impossible. It is simply not possible to completely escape the tentacles of capitalist terror, to once-and-for all disinfect yourself of the bourgeoisie sickness(es). There is literally no way to remain untainted — and part of the stupidity of anarcho-primitivism, for example, is pretending that there is.

I am, as of this moment, sitting in an over-manufactured notion of what a homey cafe looks like and willingly boosting the coffers of a corporation with policies I find absolutely abhorrent. You can try to abstain from certain activities, to boycott particular stores,  and I certainly believe that some companies are better than others. But, for example, attempt one month without using a single Proctor & Gamble product and you’ll quickly discover how tight the corporate stranglehold really is. I have, in my quest for a job, really struggled because my religion precludes participation in a very vast collection of industries. So I’m not saying that we give up — but Derrida would say the final decision is “undecidable”… am I really comrade, or just consumer? Adbusters subscribers like to flatter themselves that they are solely the former, but the real answer is: both & neither. That’s deconstruction. It’s siding with Kierkegaard & Vattimo in saying, “I believe that I believe.” I strive for justice, but know I never arrive. The process is never finished. And during that process what I’m not seeking out is to definitively split up society into the revolutionary and the non-revolutionary (pace White). To do so is to “otherize,” and it’s exactly the kind of terror that postmodern ethics is trying to avoid. I am partial to how Lyotard puts it at the end of The Postmodern Condition:

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconcilia­tion of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.

Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism.

One thought on “On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *