Disenchanted Marxists

Karol Berger argues (A Theory of Art) that Lyotard’s famed distinction of modern and postmodern is “far too stark.” In fact we aren’t faced with a simple choice “between a belief in universal history grasped by an all-explaining meta-narrative and a belief in a plurality of equally valid life forms and local stories that make sense of them.” On the contrary, “a large and fruitful territory lies between these two extremes, a vision of a plurality of life forms and stories, indeed, but not ones that coexist by politely ignoring one another, but rather ones that are engaged in a never-ending competition.”

Postmodernism, he argues, is plausible when the choices we face are trivial – cappuccino or latte? – but not when we are faced with serious questions like “Shall we tax the rich, or shall we treat them as a separate culture pursuing its own legitimate life form? or, Shall we intervene in a distant country, or shall we allow one tribe to practice its life form by engaging in ethnic cleansing?”

Lyotard gets modernity wrong. In fact, it’s not dominated by metanarrative but is pocked with “piecemeal local pragmatic negotiating, together with huge doses of plain violence.” Berger suggests that “the recourse to universal meta-narratives, far from being the most central feature of modernity, has been an important, but ultimately atavistic, sideshow, a nostalgic search for a suitable secular replacement for the grand religious meta-narrative of the premodern era.”

In the end, “postmodernism” may be “no more than an attempt by lapsed Marxists to give their disenchantment the dignity of an epochal change. . . . a state of mind of the post-Marxist intelligentsia,” whose grand narrative was shattered first by Solzhenitsyn and then by 1989.

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