Thinking Sociologically I
Using theory to untangle complex realities..
In this new series of articles EDDi introduces and explains key sociological concepts. You may not use theory to understand your reality, but theory certainly uses you. Whether you are a teacher, principal, lecturer, student or simply curious, in this short EDDi section Dr Stephen Whitehead will answer common questions related to sociological theory. All of the answers were originally published on Quora. We offer them (in revised form) via EDDi in the hope that you will acquire some sociological insights into the 21st century. Treat these articles as a healthy, and heavier, counter-point to all the lighter fluff which gets posted on social media.
QUESTION: What Is Postmodern Neomarxism?
The first point to make is that postmodernism is not a monolithic all-encompassing philosophical or sociological theory, nor is it as single tract of thought or set of ideas.
It has at least four branches to it and these differ in a number of important if subtle ways:
radical postmodernism (Baudrillard);
strategic postmodernism (Derrida);
feminist postmodernism (Nicholson);
and radical modernism (Jameson).
The question relates to the final dimension; radical modernism (Lemert, 1997).
Frederick Jameson (1984) is the most celebrated thinker in this genre, though his ideas draw heavily on Adorno and Habermas. Harvey (1989) and perhaps Bauman (1997) could also be linked with this sub-theory of postmodernism.
Neo-marxist postmodernists such as Jameson see postmodernity as the inevitable ‘cultural logic’ of advanced capitalism, where progressive cultural expressions are appropriated into the commodifying project of multinational corporations, thereby sustaining establishment/capitalist ideology.
In a similar vein, Bauman welcomes the turn from the totalitarian and ‘cleansing’ actions of modernity but warns against the consumerist-driven, individualised desires of the self that he claims are apparent within the postmodern age.
Remembering that Jameson and Bauman were developing neo-marxist informed understandings of and collaborations with postmodernity at least a decade before Facebook and the whole social media charabanc impacted global society, then I for one take their ideas to be amazingly prescient.
What is common to all the postmodernist thinkers is the strong sense of change if not ‘collapse’ of modernity, and indeed to first understand and appreciate postmodernity one really needs to get to grips with the historic cultural importance of modernity.
At the same time, do not see postmodernity as having swept modernity aside all over the world. We can see totalitarian ‘instincts’ in many places, from ISIS to China, and in all religions, which tells us that modernity’s essence is not completely gone.
That said, the postmodern world which most of humanity experiences has exposed what Derrida described as the ‘collapse and unfeasibility of the grand, centralizing systems which once attempted to explain everything.’ (Lemert, p. 103).
Of course, one can argue that Jameson and similar are trying to have it both ways, that is, offer a damning critique of modernism (and appearing to be postmodernists) while staying loyal to the highest values of modernism and modernity itself.
Theoretical and philosophical distinctions aside, I guess the value of postmodernism (and radical modernism) largely depends on whether or not you see the avid massification of global culture (from KPop to YouTube) to be a statement on the continuing power of capitalism to dictate our lives, or as liberating forces for the masses.
Similarly, one can argue that the election of Donald Trump was evidence of both the collapse of modernity and the cultural logic of late capitalism. For me, he was/is the ultimate postmodern politician - he represents nothing substantial. All you see is imagery.
Ultimately, the aim of radical modernist thinkers must be to redefine modernism, using postmodernism as a tool to do so.
Whether or not this is feasible largely depends on whether or not one can untangle the gorgon knot of contrasting theories.
Lemert, C. (1997) Postmodernism Is Not What You Think. London: Blackwell.
Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1000 followers.
Stephen’s latest book (International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide) is available via: teachabroad.ac.