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Timely Materialisms: New Combinations of Poststructuralism and Cultural Critique
James Berger. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. xx + 278 pp.
Lee Quinby. Millennial Seduction: A Skeptic Confronts Apocalyptic Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. ix + 182 pp.
Peter Hitchcock. Oscillate Wildly: Space, Body, and Spirit of Millennial Materialism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. xvii + 237 pp.
Nicholas B. Dirks, ed. In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the Century. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998. xvi + 308 pp.
At the turn of the millennium, one of the more interesting and promising developments in cultural and materialist studies has been a deepening concern with questions of history in relationship to postmodern culture and critical methodology. This development is characterized [End Page 480] by a critical engagement with the so-called "end of history" debate sparked in large part by Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992). The intent of the debate has been to historicize and critique the failure of historical imagination on the part of an apocalyptic-minded American culture increasingly shaped by the postmodern hyperrealities and reifications of late capitalism. Another important characteristic of this recent development is the critical attempt to historicize and critique materialist methodologies, to understand their own relationship to time. This last endeavor often raises fundamental questions about the future of materialist theory and practice. In each case, what is particularly striking about this turn-of-the-millennium development is that it involves a sense of the continuing relevance of poststructuralist theory, although not without certain reservations.
Such a sense on the part of cultural and materialist studies is surprising, given the vehemence of the late-1980s critique of poststructuralism's "ahistoricism." The story of poststructuralism's demise is well known. In 1987 the debate over Martin Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi party was renewed with the publication of Victor Farias's Heidegger and Nazism. In the same year came the shocking revelation of Paul de Man's implication in the politics of Nazi Germany. The general sense was that the entire work of these two central figures in poststructuralism (particularly deconstruction) was not only ahistorical, but fascist. Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, the humanities were undergoing a "turn" toward history after the high period of theory in the 1970s, resulting in the development and expansion of various forms of cultural materialism, cultural studies, and what has now come to be known as the New Historicism. Characteristic of this historical turn were sharp critiques of poststructuralism's apolitical formalism, which, in literary studies, were prompted in large part by Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism (1980) and further intensified by the heated controversies surrounding the work of Heidegger and de Man. An important early 1980s attempt to link the concerns and methodologies of poststructuralism and materialism was made in Michael Ryan's Marxism and Deconstruction (1982), and later countermeasures on the part of poststructuralist theorists were taken, as in the case of Post-Structuralism and the Question of History (1987), edited by Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young, but by the end of the 1980s the result appeared to be a victory of [End Page 481] "history" over the putatively abstract, apolitical theory of poststructuralism.
In the 1990s, however, this state of affairs changed. An exemplary text in this regard is Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx. In this widely read work Derrida turns his attention towards specific cultural, historical, and economic issues, bringing deconstruction and Marxism together in a way that had not been attempted since Ryan's book in the early 1980s. In particular, Derrida addresses Fukuyama's "good news" about the end of history and the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy, characterizing it as a form of ontological presence that attempts to conjure away, repress, or exclude the "ghosts" of the past and present--that is, the traces of difference, alterity, and otherness that promise change and, indeed, a future. In his portrayal...