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  • Postmodernism and Imperialism: Theory and Politics in Latin America
  • Neil Larsen

My remarks here1 concern the following topics of critical discussion and debate: 1) the ideological character of postmodernism as both a philosophical standpoint and as a set of political objectives and strategies; 2) the development within a broadly postmodernist theoretical framework of a trend advocating a critique of certain postmodern tenets from the standpoint of anti-imperialism; and 3) the influence of this trend on both the theory and practice of oppositional culture in Latin America. So as to eliminate the need for second-guessing my own standpoint in what follows, let me state clearly at the outset that I will adhere to what I understand to be both a Marxist and a Leninist position as concerns both epistemology and the social and historical primacy of class contradiction. In matters philosophical, then, I will be advancing and defending dialectical materialist arguments. Regarding questions of culture and aesthetics, as well as those of revolutionary strategy under existing conditions—areas in which Marxist and Leninist theory have either remained relatively speculative or have found it necessary to re-think older positions—my own thinking may or may not merit the attribution of ‘orthodoxy,’ depending on how that term is currently to be understood.


One typically appeals to the term ‘postmodern’ to characterize a broad and ever-widening range of aesthetic and cultural practices and artifacts. But the concept itself, however diffuse and contested, has also come to designate a very definite current of philosophy as well as a theoretical approach to politics. Postmodern philosophy—or simply postmodern ‘theory,’ if we are to accept Jameson’s somewhat ingenuous observation that it “marks the end of philosophy”2—arguably includes the now standard work of poststructuralist thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault as well as the more recent work by ex-post- Althusserian theorists such a Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, academic philosophical converts such as Richard Rorty and the perennial vanguardist Stanley Aronowitz. The latter elaborate and re-articulate an increasingly withered poststructuralism, re-deploying the grandly dogmatic and quasi-mystical “critique of the metaphysics of presence” as a critical refusal of the “foundationalism” and “essentialism” of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. These two assignations—which now come to replace the baneful Derridean charge of “metaphysics”—refer respectively to the Enlightenment practice of seeking to ground all claims regarding either truth or value in terms of a self-evidencing standard of Reason; and to the ontological fixation upon being as essence, rather than as relationality or ‘difference.’

Postmodern philosophy for the most part adopts its “anti-essentialism” directly from Derrida and company, adding little if anything to accepted (or attenuated) post-structuralist doctrine. Where postmodernism contributes more significantly to the honing down and re-tooling of poststructuralism is, I propose, in its indictment of foundationalism—in place of the vaguer abstractions of “presence” or “identity”—as the adversarial doctrine. It is not all “Western” modes of thought and being which must now be discarded, but more precisely their Enlightenment or modern modalities, founded on the concept of reason. Indeed, even the charge of “foundationalism” perhaps functions as a minor subterfuge here. What postmodern philosophy intends is, to cite Aronowitz’s forthright observation, a “rejection of reason as a foundation for human affairs.”3 Postmodernism is thus a form, albeit an unconventional one, of irrationalism.

To be sure, important caveats can be raised here. Postmodernist theoreticians often carefully stipulate that a rejection of reason as foundation does not imply or require a rejection of all narrowly ‘reasonable’ procedures. Postmodernity is not to be equated with an anti-modernity. Aronowitz, for example, has written that “postmodern movements” (e.g., ecology and “Solidarity” type labor groups) “borrow freely the terms and programs of modernity but place them in new discursive contexts” (UA 61). Chantal Mouffe insists that “radical democracy”—according to her, the political and social project of postmodernity—aims to “defend the political project [of Enlightenment] while abandoning the notion that it must be based on a specific form of rationality.”4 Ernesto Laclau makes an even nicer distinction by suggesting that “it is precisely the ontological status of the central categories...

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