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Review Essay: Thomas de Zengotita’s Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics: Toward a New Humanism (New York: Palgrave, 2019)

Justin Elghanayan

Derrida, Kristeva and Foucault. Whatever you might think about these legends of French Theory and American academic culture, reading Thomas de Zengotita’s Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics will have you wondering who is having the thoughts: Is it the Cartesian subject, skeptical and analytical; a French postmodern not-a-subject, intertwined with an infinite cascade of texts; or, perhaps, an American postmodern performative identity? That one could feel compelled to entertain such a question speaks to a monumental shift in the world, an erosion so profound that it is hard to talk about without lapsing into either oversimplification or poetry. De Zengotita does neither in Postmodern Theory, approaching the intellectual record the way a fabled detective might examine clues in a cold case. No preconceptions. Put yourself into the shoes of the cast of characters. Generate the spark of an idea to give the case new life. 

De Zengotita’s tale of the subject commences in the 17th Century with Renée Descartes’ method of doubt and the rise of dominant self/mind/subject from his cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). The Cartesian “dualist metaphysics” dividing “all things mental and all things physical” emerged against the backdrop of unprecedented technological revolution. As the authority of tradition and received opinion faded, science expanded human hegemony over the world. The Protestant Reformation reflected that progression on a religious plane, and Descartes’ own view of “a mind apart, observing and shaping an external physical world,” articulated it more broadly. The new sheriff in town was the modern subject, distinct, in-charge, bending objects and world to its will, in large measure through the power of skepticism. Wielding this tool, one could get closer to truth, though admittedly, the field of accessible truth was less expansive. That one’s own thoughts were now the main loci of truth in the universe comported nicely with the overall trend of the day. In Descartes’ calculus the subject had become more than in charge, it was the only thing you could know was categorically there. Now that was individualism. 

While Descartes’ ideas were pointing in a certain direction (from a traditional Catholic perspective, down), Descartes remained devoutly religious throughout his life, underscoring an important difference between early and later modern thinkers. Events such as the Copernican Revolution and discovery of the New World had confronted Descartes and his world with the shock of the new, but the ultimate destination charted by Descartes’ ideas would be reached gradually over several hundred years, as de Zengotita’s biographically orientated survey of modern theorists reveals. Early thinkers who worked on the problem posed by radical change in the world could still enjoy the remaining momentum of that which was being lost, even if they were in the process of laying the groundwork for its intellectual repudiation. Later writers looking into the void wouldn’t be so lucky, even if they did, like French philosopher Louis Althusser, maintain a literal faith. The philosophical arc delineated by de Zengotita shows how, similar to the Road Runner running off a cliff and managing to stay in the air because he doesn’t know the trouble he’s in, early modern philosophers enjoyed the fruits of skepticism without fully feeling the consequences. 

Nietzsche was ultimately there to remind us all what Descartes’ revelations really meant—as if to say, “Do look down”—but first came a string of theorists whose project was to generate a moral framework compatible with the Cartesian scheme. Several of these thinkers’ work is explored by de Zengotita in Postmodern Theory, including that of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Herbert Spencer, Auguste Compte, and perhaps most relevant in the political context, John Locke, whose concept of property rights reflected the rising status of the individual, and would later form the cornerstone of Marxist theory. For Locke, ownership was established via labor—not via God or some external force, but by the subject binding objects to itself through work. 

While Locke and Kant privileged the place of the individual without really contending with the paradoxes of self-generated meaning, de Zengotita argues that by the nineteenth century some awareness of those paradoxes was clearly looming, making “anxiety…the dominant influence on 19th century European minds.” What else could explain modernity’s “implacable determination to define,” to control by placing ideas into system, other than some deep fear over a lurking agent of chaos? Durkheim and Levi Strauss’ focus on “the chart, the diagram, sometimes even formulas,” were all part of a “veritable fetish in the modernist academy,” according to de Zengotita, tools in service of a “desperate labor of containment.” What was everyone so scared of? 

Nietzsche furnished the answer to that question, arriving on the scene radically critiquing Cartesian thought, rejecting God and immortality, and delegitimating the subject. Postmodern Theory relates how Nietzsche denied the possibility of objectivity, claiming the “Cartesian ego” was an artifact of a grammar that insisted on a ‘subject’ for what was actually a flow.” Bringing “his hammer down on the illusion of representational adequacy,” argues de Zengotita, Nietzsche “exposed the self and all its concepts as ‘…Lies in a Nonmoral sense,’ generalizations imposed on an irreducibly particular and ever-changing reality in the service of survival and convenience.” Revealing many of the hollow illusions that propped up the Cartesian philosophical world of the day, Nietszche set the table nicely for his postmodern descendants, performing the role of harbinger for 20th century philosophers such as Michel Foucault. 

Postmodern Theory illustrates that it took many philosophers to fill out that table, each making their incremental contribution. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, argued that meaning came not only out of the subject’s imagination or will, but also from context. This played out at the level of language, where a sentence could be understood in terms of subjects, verbs, and objects, or be viewed more holistically by taking into account the context in which the sentence was uttered, the nature of the relationship between the utterer and the listener, the place of utterance, and so on. Then Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan took that observation further, transforming “the subject from an existential Cartesian/Kantian/bourgeois agent into an abjectly over-determined object of ‘interpellation’…the subject Subjected.” No longer was the subject the source of all meaning, but simply a vessel, dependent on myriad forces. 

Viewing the subject as a passive recipient of meaning as opposed to its originator put some early postmodernists in a bind. Like their philosophical predecessors who had tacked “And God” onto theories that seemed to lend themselves better to atheism, postmodernists had their own Marxist loyalties to contend with. One of de Zengotita’s keenest insights is that obfuscation in French postmodern writing was a way to conceal that “And Marx” was really in contradiction with postmodern philosophy. Marxism was predicated on Locke’s theory of property rights, which was predicated on the idea that the subject’s labor is what creates ownership. Without the subject you could not incorporate Marxism without a lot of contortion and doublespeak. 

Though de Zengotita tries to be as clear as possible, Postmodern Theory is not meant for as broad an audience as Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, de Zengotita’s earlier groundbreaking phenomenological exploration of what it feels like to live in the wake of the fastest technological growth period in history. As a result, not all the ideas explored by Postmodern Theory are made accessible to the layperson. Any other outcome would surely have been an insult to writers like Derrida, who were straining to grasp the ungraspable, and for whom meaning was supposed to be a moving target.

It is common to view Derrida as a Nietzschean force intent on tearing meaning down—certainly that’s the rap postmodernism generally receives when it comes to post-truth politics—but de Zengotita’s choice to focus on the concept of “différance” instead of deconstruction emphasizes a more positive side of the theorist. Différance (in French the word différer means both “to defer” and “to differ”) established that in the tapestry of signs that make up meaning, each sign is deferential to the others. Since no one sign contains or owns meaning in the way that the Cartesian subject may be understood to possess his thoughts, each sign is dependent on the others and part of a constantly shifting constellation. Derrida’s analysis is not, then, ultimately nihilistic. Although in de Zengotita’s calculus Derrida believed there were no “pure foundations, no pure starting points of the kind modernists were obsessed with discovering or defining,” the fact that the Cartesian system doesn’t accurately describe the nature of meaning doesn’t mean there isn’t any meaning. Rather, Derrida believed that meaning is a fluid thing arising out of a succession of associations; the subject, an illusion people had been using to create a false sense of mastery over this chaotic flow. 

De Zengotita doesn’t spend much time assessing whether some of Derrida’s views were “not even false” (as some refer to ideas that are so incoherent as to be empty). But he does acknowledge that Derrida’s eradication of the subject made awkward phrasing and terminology almost inevitable. From the perspective of analytic philosophy, that may be too forgiving an evaluation. But it is consistent with his overall focus on extracting what is valuable from postmodern thought rather than highlighting its obscurities.

De Zengotita empathizes with Julia Kristeva and others for the corner they painted themselves into, in which they were faced with the challenge of “how to recover history…without allowing the subject to return to center stage.” And he admires Kristeva’s ultimate pragmatic acceptance that even if the Cartesian scheme had overstated the centrality of the subject in the meaning creation-process, there was something like a subject that was at least a part of human consciousness. That something was language, which Kristeva elevated to a new position in the schema of subject, object and context. Minds became “texts” and the subject was partially back—as “a site for contending discourses and forces of all sorts,” as “the patient, not the agent, of an unstoppable process of mental events.” The work that the subject’s will had been doing could now be accomplished by “intertextuality,” a term coined by Kristeva referring to how one text relates to another. Kristeva described intertextuality as a “gadget”; it’s function, to locate agency without having to fully resurrect the subject.  

Foucault shared Kristeva’s willingness to change views in the face of new evidence, altering his perspective about the subject multiple times over the course of his life. De Zengotita highlights this fact, it seems, to counter the narrative that postmodern thinkers were engaged exclusively in intellectual mischief or indefensible abstraction. Indeed, whereas Derrida’s theorizing was in fact quite abstract, Foucault’s big idea was at its core an empirical observation. Derrida had established that overarching master narratives were oversimplifications of a much more complex reality; Foucault noted that those oversimplifications tended to support societal power structures. It was the natural weaponization of the concept of deconstruction, the re-insertion of the political into the post-Lockean scheme. Ascribing to Foucault’s views, you could look yourself in the mirror again without shame and call yourself a Marxist and a postmodernist, without re-embracing the subject. 

Still, without that embrace deconstruction could only go so far. Kristeva’s gadget had made it once again possible to coherently talk about people, but fully politicizing the concept of the fluidity of meaning remained problematic. Kristeva’s response, along with the staff of the French avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, was to go apolitical, and as a result she became according to de Zengotita something of “a political disappointment to her Anglophone admirers.” As he explains, the American academy yearned for a system of thought that would deconstruct the power hierarchy’s false narratives, but still leave identity with a leg to stand on. They wanted both Foucault and the subject. 

De Zengotita illustrates how Judith Butler’s ideas allowed for that combination, effectively bridging pure French postmodernism and the thing that postmodernism ultimately became in America. Her insight was to characterize gender, and identity more generally, as performativity. She is careful not to use performance, because it presupposes the existence of a subject, but Butler’s formulation places identity somewhere between the fixedness of the Cartesian system and the unmoored signifier of the Derridean. It allows for something like a self but admits that there is no fixed truth about it. Though Butler clung to the notion of  “subjectless performativity,” provoking “intense opposition from feminist, gay and transgender activists who saw themselves as struggling for recognition as subjects,” it would only take a little push for her ideas to be co-opted by those very activists. Identity became a performance possessed once more by the individual. The subject may have been a dude in Descartes’ day, but now it was whatever you wanted it to be. And identity politics was born. 

Though de Zengotita avoids giving us an overarching theory, by exploring the evolution of modern thought in such detail he invites the reader to combine the distinct pieces. That consolidation might look something like this: the world changed enormously, and change brought with it a desire to understand, on the basest of levels, the new hierarchy of elements of human consciousness (subject, object, context). Initially, such efforts felt relatively successful, and Enlightenment Humanism—the Cartesian theory of mind wrought into a moral ethos—thrived. But one of the things that was changing was the collective receptiveness to taking for granted any ethos, even one that respected the value of each individual mind. Within the Trojan Horse of skepticism lay the destabilizing Nietzschean (and later Derridean) truth that without the ability to take worldviews for granted, it is difficult for the world to feel fully formed or fixed. But worldviews at the deepest level are exceedingly sticky, moving and melting glacially over time. Even as new credos rise, waning perspectives still maintain some influence. Hence, it took a long time after the birth of skepticism for the sense of solidity in the world to erode and for us to experience the full postmodern condition. 

In de Zengotita’s telling, Derrida and others challenged the subject to reconceive meaning as a flow, not to destroy meaning. Any effort to move “Toward a New Humanism” will have to contend with that conception, and some attendant headwinds. As sticky as worldviews are on the way down, to properly take hold on the way up they must be accreted over generations. Considering that “more changes have been wrought on the face of the planet in the last four hundred years than in the fifty thousand years preceding,” it is questionable as to whether human consciousness could stabilize long enough to reform the “worldhood of the world.” Human skepticism is likely to be unreceptive to another grand narrative, the irony of a credo that doubts all credos. Given the obstacles, de Zengotita is cautious in claiming that a resolution is possible. But his work makes it probable that if one is out there, its building blocks will be found in the work of the great modern and postmodern thinkers who have already wrestled with the problem.

Postmodern Theory implies a further tantalizing prospect. As thinkers attempt to better conceive of the subject’s place in the universe, they often attempt to insert the “And” of a moral structure into the picture. It’s a natural instinct to want a moral paradigm and want that paradigm to reflect one’s view of the relationship of subject, object and context. Consequently, moral systems that catch on tend to intuitively mesh with the then-dominant theory of mind. Postmodern Theory’s biographical approach reveals that extending a theory of mind into a moral system is not straightforward. The tone and the particulars of a moral system partly flow from the personality of the thinker making the articulation. True, philosophy mostly describes rather than influences. But along the margins, perhaps more is possible. Postmodern Theoryinvites us to find out.

Justin Elghanayan is a graduate of Princeton University, and a board member of The Modern Classrooms Project. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.