- Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War
Norris presents a forceful and stalwart polemic against antirealist tendencies in contemporary cultural theory. Extreme skepticism regarding objective truth-claims, the insistence on the solely linguistic construction of reality, doubts about the communicative capacity of language, and roughshod equations of knowledge with power: these familiar features of current theoretical—or anti-theoretical—life represent, for Norris, a slippery slope on which intellectuals unwittingly slide into quietism, conformism, and acquiescence to the status quo. This loss of a capacity for criticism qua opposition constitutes a new trahison des clercs and a betrayal of the substance of critical thought. Hence the accusation announced by the title: theory, which ought to be a source of resistance, has become uncritical.
The case in point that provokes Norris to this reflection is Baudrillard’s reassurance, in the wake of the Gulf War, that “The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place” in Libération (29 March 1991). Baudrillard’s claim was obviously a consistent extension of his own version of antirealism and skepticism nuanced by his idiosyncratic theory of the media: the “hyperreality” generated by the dissemination of ideology leads to an age of a “simulacrum,” in which all originality is replaced by imitation. To invoke a “real”—be it the real invasion of Kuwait or, on the other side of the argument, the real violence of the allied forces—is to fall prey to a delusion that the spectacular media stand in a referential [End Page 153] relationship to something outside. For Norris, this refusal to recognize the war is de facto a refusal to oppose it, and this conformism is treated as a political consequence of a philosophical problem, the renunciation of realism that, for Norris, derives primarily from a post-structuralist reading of Saussure, the conceptualization of language as an internal system of difference rather than a referential or communicative vehicle of knowledge.
It is however with very real and down-to-earth knowledge, the facticity of the war, that Norris judges the capacity of theory to keep its head in the clouds. Baudrillard’s goof is a pretext for Norris to survey the scene—Lyotard’s sublime, Foucault’s reification of power, Fish’s conformist pragmatism, Rorty’s never-ending story—and to discover that the post-modern intellectuals couldn’t care less, and he proceeds to contrast this apathy with alternative intellectual practices, the varying modes of engagement of Chomsky, Eagleton, and Habermas. The book then is a call to arms, or rather, one more call to arms, a forceful articulation of one side in the continuous debate over the relationship between intellectuality and engagement. Norris concedes as much when he places Chomsky in a line stretching back to Voltaire (102).
There is much to learn from Norris’s presentation, particularly in the rich and detailed discussion of the arguments for and against realism. There are also many points that will raise eyebrows, such as his insistence that Derrida, and deconstruction properly understood, belong on the engaged side of the ledger (15–21). There are however two overriding issues that deserve more attention. First, it appears that Norris’s hostility to postmodernism at its most giddy and his urge to reconnect theory and politics may have led him down too straight and too narrow a path.
Bad philosophy has often gone along with bad politics, as we should scarcely need reminding after the ‘Heidegger affair’ and kindred revelations. Postmodernism is bad philosophy on every count, not least...its uncritical adherence to a theory of language and representation whose extreme antirealist or sceptical bias in the end gives rise to an outlook of thoroughgoing nihilism. That the Gulf War provided such a telling instance of our so-called ‘postmodern condition’ is reason enough to take stock of that condition on terms other than its own.(191)
Fair enough, but was it really only or even primarily postmodernism that muffled intellectual opposition to the war, or has Norris’s affect blinded him to a case...