Monday, February 18, 2008

Original impetus for Post-Structuralism comes from belief in things that Post-structuralism, ironically, says it's against

The mystery of why academic bookstores have sections devoted to Critical Theory and why other bookstores carry people in their philosophy section who don't seem to have anything to do with established philosophy as commonly understood is one that can be answered very simply.

Post-structuralism and its predecessors Structuralism and the Frankfurt School arose with and corresponded to different parts of the New Left, namely its start, climax, and fall. Post-modernism is based on some similar, some different social trends and is not going to be dealt with here. I've written a lot on what I think post-modernism is about. Search the terms "postmodernism" and "post-modernism" in the little box above to get those writings.

The Frankfurt school, represented first and foremost by Herbert Marcuse, was a non-traditional Marxist school of thought that came into prominence in the '50s and early '60s that incorporated media studies, psychology, an philosophic perspectives from Nietzsche and others into its doctrines.
This group, many of whose members came to the U.S. as refugees during World War II, with Adorno and Horkheimer, the biggest members after Marcuse, settling in Los Angeles and observing the film industry there. Marcuse was enormously influential on the early New Left. Other people roughly in the same category are Erich Fromm, '60s blender of humanistic psychology with Marxism, and even John -Paul Sartre in some aspects of his later thought. The New Left at this time wanted to distance itself from the Old Left, which it saw as doctrinaire, part of a different social situation, and appreciative of systems tainted by the atrocities committed by Stalin.

The next phase of the New Left came in the late '60s and early '70s when New Left radicals started to want to base their radical ideas on traditional leftist sources and so started to turn to Mao, Lenin, and other Communist figures (as opposed to Trotskyists and unaffiliated socialists). There was some wisdom in this although very few of the groups that came out of it are still around, and even fewer of those aren't insane and doctrinaire themselves. This period saw the rise of Structuralism.

Structuralism in philosophy wanted to preserve some of the freedom and types of thought that arose in the post-war world while basing itself on something more concrete than the philosophies associated with the first wave. A criticism leveled by Derrida, one of the biggest post-structuralists, is that the New Left/Frankfurt school people's thought was such a mish-mash of various things that there wasn't even any internal consistency or logic to it, and that at least in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist humanism one could make it say anything in support of any philosophy or political ideal you wanted.

So structuralism focussed on how social phenomenon structured themselves in a very stripped down and non-sentimental sense. Give a few premises it was thought that social and political phenomenon could be seen to arrive at their mature forms through the permutations and developments that preceded from them. In politics Louis Althusser specifically connected a structuralist perspective, talking about how modes of production structured themselves in relation to both Lenin, Communism, and the sorts of things that had come to the forefront since the '50s like Nietzsche, Hegel, and Freud. Some of Althusser's students blended his ideas with the Maoism that became popular during that era, while Althusser himself remained a committed, if eccentric, member of the French Communist Party.

Post-structuralism, in turn, came about when this New Left readjustment to traditional leftist ideology started to fail. It largely agrees with some of the premises of structuralism but says that in the end they're insufficient to come to any sort of definitive claim of transcendent truth. Phenomenon may be structured to some extent but that structuring is, surprise surprise, often a blind for prejudices of some sort, of hidden biases present in the greater society. Most of post-structuralism today focusses on how false social phenomenon structure themselves and are skeptical of whether any great social project could be honestly constructed. Failing ideology that hides social attitudes despite being liberatory, failing structuralism. It seems clear that there's a relationship between the two.

Post-structuralist influenced politics, as much as it doesn't just declare that we're all fucked so there's no point in struggling for a better world, became very skeptical of authority and of established social institutions and adopted semi-anarchist politics, allying itself somewhat with the various Autonomous movements in Europe and the resurgence of Anarchism in the U.S.

Both of those, in turn, were in some sense responses to the failure of late New Left organizations to survive and transform themselves into large scale, viable, political movements for positive social change.

And that's where we've been for several decades now.

Why do people think this is in any way important anymore? The answer to that is that despite being self professed skeptics of traditional leftist ideology the supporters of post-structuralism have adopted the oldest left belief at all: that history has a concrete point, a culmination, that it's progressing towards, and that as history moves closer to this it will produce ideologies that are closer and closer to the final truth. So you have to pay attention to the ideological development and somehow try to locate yourself within the presumed dialectical process in order to be valid. The Old Left was negated by the New Left, which was in turn negated by the later New Left, which was then negated by the failure of the later New Left, so therefore we can't examine the beliefs of any of them because they've been supposedly proven wrong. But history rarely proves specific beliefs and social movements 'wrong'. Social movements may have consequences that are very wrong but in and of themselves they're subjects for academic study, not steps on the ladder of truth and untruth.

It's been pointed out that post-structuralism has reached an insane dead end, particularly in the form of Deconstruction, with skepticism of everything being so deep that nothing concrete, no concrete statements, can possibly be strong enough to resist its criticism. Yet instead of trying to find a new sort of philosophy people cling to it because it represents the latest and supposedly the best.

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