Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Book Review: Tracking a Convergence Beyond Postmodernism
Charles Lemert. Postmodernism Is Not What You Think: Why Globalization Threatens Modernity (2nd Edition). Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2005.
Anthony Elliot. Subject to Ourselves: Social Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Postmodernity (2nd Edition). Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2004.
Reviewed by Sam Han
(Department of Sociology, City University of New York, USA).
I want to go past working in sociology. I don’t want to stay there. But it’s not a declared hostility. It is just that it is one of those disciplines which may be precious, but it’s necessary to pass through all disciplines.1
For readers familiar with the works of both Lemert and Elliott, it may come as a bit of an unusual choice to review these two books, and not their most recent collaborative effort – The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization (released as Deadly Worlds in the US). The New Individualism is undoubtedly a major statement in contemporary theory, and one that takes the innovative approach of studying global transformations and the fate of the modern ideal of individualism using the analytic of emotion. As many would expect of these experts in social theory – one from the US, the other from Australia by way of the UK – New Individualism is innovative to say the least in both its method, using the stories of various individuals, and mode of theorizing, that stakes its claim in the globalization debates using the almost-forgotten concept of individualism to make a unique argument. But this type of theoretical and literary gusto did not appear out of thin air. Postmodernism is Not what you Think and Subject to Ourselves help us to track the development of each scholar’s individual prowess and their eventual convergence.
It is clear from reading these reprinted editions of books written a decade prior to The New Individualism, Lemert and Elliott, though they were not collaborators, were clearly swimming in the same stream, though perhaps one too distant from the other to see. Postmodernism is not what you think and Subject to ourselves – each published within a year of each other originally – are in many ways in dialogue with one another, and when read together can be seen as a two-volume set, complementing one another, picking up where the other leaves off and ultimately even haunting, in Derrida’s sense, the ideas behind The New Individualism.
The second edition of Postmodernism is Not What You Think contains crucial updates to the first edition. As the subtitle and cover suggest, Lemert has modified the thematic focus of the revised edition to “why globalization threatens modernity.” As did the prior edition, Postmodernism works simultaneously as instructional text and theoretical contribution to this still rarely understood concept. The book is divided into three “parts” – with each containing three chapters. The first – “Disturbances” – situates the postmodernism debate and traces the intellectual roots of postmodern social thought. One bright moment among many is his highly original commentary on the so-called Sokal Affair, which manages at once to defend postmodernism against claims of its absurdity yet remaining gracious and decidedly not nasty. As those of us who have dealt with reactionaries that still cling to the postmodern backlash know, this is no easy task. Part I clears the ground for Lemert’s more theoretically intricate and nuanced second and third parts – “Beginnings” and “Questions.” Part II contains key chapters that not only defend postmodernism against two of its most oft-cited charges – that postmodernism lacks a politics and it has no place in the social sciences, especially sociology – but argues convincingly for its implications in both. The chapter entitled “The Uses of French Structuralisms” is of particular import as a methodological critique of sociology. Employing a bricolage of historical sociology and discourse analysis inspired by a structuralist semiotics, Lemert offers a brilliant account of the cultural milieu of the Vietnam War to critique one of the fundamental philosophical assumptions of American sociology – reality as an a priori concept – going as far as doing a bit of film criticism (which, as far as I know), is rare for Lemert of war films including Apocalypse Now. Part III is where the reader will encounter the newest material, including the two never-before-seen chapters “On an Ironic Globe, What does it Mean to Be Serious?” and “If There is a Global WE, Might We all be Dispossessed?” It is here where Lemert pushes us beyond the limits postmodernism, just as skillfully as he guided us there. The latter provides a theory of globalization as dispossession that captures the irony of the globalized world. Though the Enlightenment concept of the metaphysical WE of humanity is hauled into crisis by the very structural transformations we call globalization, there is still, in some mysterious way, a pervasive global reality that has dispossessed even those who, on the surface, have homes – being economically able to feed our bellies and afford a roof over our heads. Lemert’s book clears up the fog of postmodernism ever so slightly, just enough for us to use the knowledge he imparts in this book while maintaining the crucial tenets of postmodern thought – the fog cannot be lifted. The hope of its clearing was the myth of modernity that caused it to get itself into trouble in the first place.
The most noticeable difference between the first and second editions of Subject to Ourselves is of course the new foreword written by Zygmunt Bauman. Anthony Elliott, who may not be as well known as Lemert in the US, is more widely read in the UK and his native Australia. There he is most well-known for being a proponent of psychoanalytic social theory. If Lemert’s Postmodernism is said to have a decidedly French social-theoretical bias, Elliott’s in Subject to Ourselves is clearly more pan-European. Elliott draws upon and takes on several British social theorists, including Anthony Giddens (his teacher) and Zygmunt Bauman as well as numerous European psychoanalytic thinkers. (As a side note, in his review2 of the first edition of Lemert’s book, Elliott notes Lemert’s exclusion of the works of Bauman, who is the veritable “prophet of postmodernity”3 in the English field of social theory.)
Elliott’s book is distinct in, first and foremost, its theoretical and methodological intent. From the outset, he states that the book is “a psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis”4 at the level of culture and politics. Marking his territory immediately in a liminal space between the fields of psychoanalysis and social theory, Elliott explicates their affinities and contradictions with postmodern thought. This goal explains what I believe to be his choice of certain specific theorists throughout the book – Julia Kristeva and Cornelius Castoriadis – whom he draws upon at key moments. Using Kristeva and Castoriadis as anchors, as well as other contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers, including Bion, Bollas, Laplanche and Jacqueline Rose, Elliott seeks to bring the “abstract critiques” of Derrida and Lyotard down to bear on culture and politics.5 Moreover, Elliott’s project in this book is to not only argue the weight of psychoanalytic theory in postmodern thought, but to offer it as an alternative to poststructuralist theories of identity as “fragmented selves”. Psychoanalytic theory, according to Elliott, “has put flesh on the bone of the postmodern recasting of identity”.6
Elliott’s analytic focus is on identity and subjectivity in postmodernity. Beginning with his analysis of “the ambivalence of identity” in Chapter One to his skillful reading of the O.J. Simpson trial, Elliott offers a broad-ranging synthesis of social theory, psychoanalysis and the modernity/postmodernity debate quite successfully. This is especially so in his reclamation of the concept of reflexivity that has been written on most famously by Giddens, Beck and Lash. Effectively doing away with Giddens’ “double-hermeneutic” approach to the subjective experience of reflexivity, Elliott does what Giddens could only do, at best, in a mediocre fashion, that is, to theorize reflexivity psychoanalytically. Giddens’ attempts (notably in Modernity and Self-Identity) have been wholly reliant upon a certain normative mode of Kleinian thought. Elliott’s argument, while indebted to post-Kleinians like Bion, is that the postmodern world does not simply fragment selfhood but rather challenges it in its “creation of subject-positions on in which unconscious flux and fluidity on the one hand, and symbolic representations and meanings on the other, are directly related to each other”.7 Hence, the self, Elliott argues, experiences a strangeness or otherness in the postmodern “radical encounter with uncertainty.” Unlike Giddens, Elliott emphasizes the radical potential for such uncertainty. In fact, he finds in this postmodern world of uncertain, reflexive identifications an opening and possibility for “creative living,” one that comes out of unconscious fantasy and imagination.8 It is in the stress placed on the affective aspects of fantasy and imagination where Elliott truly makes what I believe should be a lasting contribution to psychoanalytically-inspired social theory. Breaking from the normative readings of psychoanalysis offered by Giddens in his conceptualization of reflexivity, Elliott’s version may be said to be an attempt to save the concept from its own immanent pitfalls. Indeed, not only are the arguments developed in Subject to Ourselves novel and quite interesting, but his explications of those whom he critiques along the way are generous and instructive, which is a skill shared by Lemert.
If there is criticism to be made of either book, one could venture in the realm of new media technologies, which both Elliott and Lemert only mention. While each effort goes as far as offering treatments of Baudrillard and Jameson, theorists such as Paul Virilio, Manuel De Landa and Brian Massumi among others, have no mention. Perhaps this is not so much a symptom of a blind-spot in either Lemert or Elliott but in fact where the debate on postmodernism/ postmodernity stands today. Visibly, it has withered as a keyword in the academy’s journals and books. But the advances and challenges that characterize postmodern thought have largely been adopted in the realm of media theory. It is there that one sees the torch of postmodernism carried on, but with a decent (and justified) level of critique. Will the human sciences pay attention yet? Or will it continue to ignore it and relegate it to disciplinary obscurity as it once tried with postmodernism? In this light, Postmodernism and Subject to Ourselves are strong statements made by the respective authors to their home discipline of sociology. It is a call for it to climb down from its ivory tower of empiricism and liberal humanism to see the lessons of postmodernism, learn from it and theorize beyond it. Will sociology heed the call? Will it even hear it? One can only hope that these books will help it do so.
1 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with S. Mele and M. Titmarsh (c1984). In Mike Gane, (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:81.
2 Anthony Elliott. “The Ethical Antinomies of Postmodernity.” Sociology (2000), Volume 34: 335-340.
3 The title of Dennis Smith’s book on Bauman is subtitled Prophet of Postmodernity.
4 Charles Lemert. Postmodernism Is Not What You Think: Why Globalization Threatens Modernity (2nd Edition). Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2005: xv.
5 Ibid.: xx.
6 Ibid.: xi.
7 Ibid.: 36.
8 Ibid.: 37.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)