[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Medicine or symptom

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John Gray: Medicine or symptom
The Times Literary Supplement, 98.7.10

    Lloyd, editors. 593pp. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; distributed
    in Europe by AUPG. £66.50 (paperback, £19.95). - 0 8223 2033 9.

    In 1943, a Harlem street hustler called Malcolm Little came up with an
    ingenious strategy to beat the draft. Believing that Harlem was then
    under surveillance by military intelligence, Little let it be known
    around the neighbourhood that he was "frantic to join . . . the
    Japanese Army". The ruse worked. After being interviewed by a
    psychiatrist at his pre-induction physical examination, Little was
    judged mentally disqualified for military service. The evidence
    suggests that Little - who was to reappear after the Second World War
    as the black nationalist leader Malcolm X - was in fact neither a
    psychologically disturbed person nor an admirer of Imperial Japan. He
    merely impersonated those roles.

    Still, real admiration for Japan did exist among African Americans.
    Few can have been as hyperbolic as Mittie Maud Lena Gordon, the leader
    of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, who had petitioned President
    Franklin Roosevelt for funds to promote black repatriation to Africa,
    and who described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the day when
    "one billion black people struck for freedom". Nevertheless, Booker T.
    Washington invoked Japanese nationalism as a model for African
    Americans shortly after the Russo-Japanese War, and W. E. B. Du Bois
    wrote a novel, Dark Princess: A romance, in which an Asian Indian
    princess, a Japanese aristocrat and an African American intellectual
    are portrayed in alliance against "white Europe". African American
    sympathy for Japan and the Japanese found some echoes in grassroots
    political life when, partly no doubt as a response to their own
    experience of segregation, black community groups opposed sending
    Japanese children to segregated schools in San Francisco.

    These incidents in African American history are recounted by George
    Lipsitz in "'Frantic to Join': The Asia-Pacific War in the lives of
    African American soldiers and civilians", one of several arresting and
    illuminating essays in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of
    Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd. The book is one in a
    series of Post-Contemporary Interventions, whose general editors,
    Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson, are well known as leading figures in
    American postmodernism. Yet one of the many striking features of this
    collection is the critique of postmodernist thinking that it contains.
    At times, the criticism is explicit, as when Lowe and Lloyd state in
    the introduction that the book has been made necessary by the
    inadequacies both of the liberal assumption of the congruence of
    capitalism, democracy and freedom and of "the postmodern conception of
    the transnational". But mostly the critique of postmodern thought is
    conducted more obliquely - sometimes, indeed, apparently unwittingly.
    Lowe and Lloyd tell us that the book aims to show how the
    contradictions of transnational capitalism are expressed in cultural
    conflicts. They, and most of the authors they bring together, deploy a
    neo-Marxian perspective in which the cultural differences of the
    modern world are viewed as manifestations of the economic and
    political contradictions of capitalism. They repudiate any narrowly
    class-based analysis of contemporary capitalism and attack the theory
    that it is producing a thoroughly homogenized and commodified global
    culture. In their view, that dystopian vision fails to perceive the
    many local struggles over power and identity, some of them tending to
    escalate into larger conflicts, which the contradictory imperatives of
    global capitalism are engendering throughout the world. The purpose of
    The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital is to assemble
    evidences of these struggles and show how they embody singular
    responses to common dilemmas. Unfortunately, the account of the
    contemporary scene that emerges is not always notably clear or
    coherent. The post-postmodern perspective that is articulated in most
    of the contributions oscillates unstably between something like
    Frankfurt School Marxism and Foucaldian variations on familiar liberal
    concerns with power and oppression.

    All the contributors distance themselves from the classical Marxist
    ambition of developing a total theory of history, arguing that local
    struggles should be understood from within, as particular experiences,
    rather than as mere specimens of a universal project of emancipation.
    Dipesh Chakrabarty's contribution, "The Time of History and the Time
    of Gods", excavates nonmodern, nonsecular understandings of labour in
    India. Homa Hoodfar's "Veiling Practices and Muslim Women" criticizes
    the Western feminist assumption that "veiling is solely a static
    practice symbolising the oppressive nature of patriarchy in Muslim
    societies" and theorizes veiling as a "complex, dynamic and changing
    cultural practice". The emphasis of these contributors on the
    singularities of social life expresses an authentically postmodern
    scepticism - in my view well-founded - about large social theories
    which presuppose Enlightenment views of history and human nature. Even
    so, they and other contributors frame their historical accounts in
    extremely abstract Marxian categories the provenance of which is
    unmistakably that of the Enlightenment. Papers by Maria Josefina
    Saldana-Portillo on the Sandinista agricultural policy, by Jacqueline
    Urla on the Basque Free Radio, and Jose Rabasa on the Zapatistas
    abound in fascinating details, but - notwithstanding their claim to be
    developing non-linear accounts of history and development - they
    presuppose a narrowly neo-Marxian understanding of contemporary
    capitalism at nearly every point. The account of human interests and
    of the goals of political struggle that informs these essays belongs
    with an Enlightenment world-view which their authors believe they have

    Equally, the view of historical inquiry evident in many of the essays
    is closer to that of classical and humanist Marxism than it is to
    postmodern thought. Indeed, Lipsitz's account of the impact of the
    Asia-Pacific War in the lives of African Americans deploys an
    understanding of historical truth that even a liberal historian would
    have no difficulty in accepting. It is not denied that there are
    historical facts - indeed, some curious examples are retrieved and
    documented - and the idea that history should (or could) consist of a
    plurality of equally valid narratives is nowhere entertained. On the
    contrary, perfectly ordinary understandings of truth, falsity and
    evidence are invoked throughout Lipsitz's account of Malcolm Little's
    dealings with the American military authorities. Little is described
    as "feigning a desire to join the Japanese Army"; the precise date and
    category of his deferment from military service is given; and the
    differing motives, circumstances and limits of some African Americans'
    sympathetic identification with Japan around the time of the Pacific
    War are carefully sifted and weighed. Moreover, there is nothing in
    Lipsitz's account of Malcolm Little's stratagems that smacks of the
    postmodern fetish of the fragmented self that cannot be distinguished
    from (but only deconstructed into) its many roles. On the contrary,
    Lipsitz's is an account in which persistent human agency is central,
    demonstrating that Malcolm Little was an agent quite distinct from the
    roles he played. Indeed, the intentions and projects that Little
    pursued through his numerous personae are shown to be one human
    subject's responses to American racism at that time. Clearly, Lipsitz
    understands history in terms of the projects and struggles of human
    subjects. In this, he is at one with the editors and other
    contributors. The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital is
    history written in postmodernism's wake.

    That postmodern relativism and the deconstruction of the human subject
    should have been left behind in this book is not altogether
    surprising. Any thinker who is critical of existing social
    arrangements and modes of thinking must eventually part company with
    such positions. Postmodernists who have tried to recover the
    historical experiences of occluded and marginalized people are among
    these thinkers. They sought to write alternatives to official
    histories which are written as if the present had always been
    inevitable. To retrieve in historical memory lives that would
    otherwise have been forgotten is an admirable project. But it
    presupposes that the submerged histories that can thereby be recovered
    are not our own constructions. The postmodernist dogma that there are
    no facts, only interpretations, so that society and even human nature
    are no more than cultural constructions, is not ultimately
    distinguishable from the old-fashioned Idealist doctrine that nothing
    exists apart from minds and their contents. But, because it aborts the
    distinction between appearance and reality in society, any such
    doctrine is fatal to critical thought.

    For all its faults, the classical Marxian conception of false
    consciousness acted as a deterrent against social theorists taking
    society's self-understanding at its face value. By introducing the
    idea of unconscious conflicts into the theory of society, Freud's
    conception of repression performed a similar critical function. Like
    Idealism, postmodern relativism is an impediment to critical thinking.
    True, it allows indefinitely many narrative accounts of the same
    historical events; but by the same token it disallows any assessment
    of them in terms of how they reflect or distort historical realities.
    It thereby renders impossible or pointless the unofficial "histories
    from below" that belong among postmodern thought's genuine

    The editors and most of the contributors to this book are fairly
    unambiguous in their rejection of postmodern understandings of
    contemporary capitalism. Rightly, they are sceptical of Marxian
    theories, in which all or most societies are fated to recapitulate the
    historical development of a few Western countries. "While Marxism
    arises as the critique of capitalist exploitation", Lowe and Lloyd
    observe, "it has not critiqued the theory of historical development
    that underlies liberal philosophies." But acknowledging this default
    poses a fundamental problem for their own perspective. Marxian
    interpretations of history are defective partly because they have so
    much in common with liberal interpretations. Both liberals and
    Marxists view history as a teleological process whose end point is
    Western modernity. For liberals and Marxists alike, modernity comes
    heavily laden with Enlightenment values. Though they have dismantled
    much of Marxism's theoretical framework, the contributors to this book
    continue to be animated by Marxism's Enlightenment hopes.

    Late modern history belies those hopes. There is no general,
    systematic connection between becoming a modern society and accepting
    Enlightenment values. Fundamentalism is as deep a feature of the late
    modern world as the movements by workers, gays and women which the
    contributors chronicle. No theory of modernization captures its messy,
    sometimes contradictory realities. There will doubtless be many more
    people like Malcolm Little. But they are markers for the recurring
    conflicts of the contemporary world, not portents of its
    transformation. Postmodern thinking is best understood as a symptom of
    the modernity whose ailments it affected to diagnose. Written in the
    aftermath of postmodernism, this volume is a pastiche of Marxian and
    Foucaldian themes, in which some usefully unconventional history is
    wrapped in a welter of abstractions. In this, it is not too different
    from the postmodernist theorizing it seeks to surpass.

    John Gray's books include False Dawn: The delusions of global
    capitalism, 1998.

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