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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 577-581

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Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge. Edited by Stephen Cullenberg, Jack Amariglio, and David Ruccio. London: Routledge, 2001. 495 pp. $140.00.

Postmodernism: everyone talks about it; no one seems to be exactly certain what it is. Postmodernism and postmodernist thinking seem to pop up everywhere in contemporary intellectual life, and yet even those of us who claim to feel a certain affinity for such ideas often have a difficult time explaining exactly what we have an affinity for, and fumble embarrassingly for words when asked to summarize the postmodernist "position" in our research or in the classroom. Given all this, this reader's initial reaction to a volume titled Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge was rather skeptical. That skepticism quickly faded as I actually started to work through this important work.

The book consists of the editors' opening chapter and six sections containing two or three papers on a relatively common theme, followed by a brief comment [End Page 577] on the papers in each section (written by someone who is neither a paper author nor one of the editors). The idea for the volume came out of a conference held at the University of California, Riverside, in 1995, but the papers all seem to be very finished and the collection does not have any of the standard foibles of a conference volume. The six sections range widely over various topics in postmodernism, economics, and knowledge—every paper addressing economics in some way—with two sections emphasizing feminist topics. Many of the twenty-four contributing authors are names that readers of this journal would expect to see in a book on postmodernism and economics—the three editors, Arjo Klamer, Deirdre McCloskey, and Judith Mehta for example—and similarly for the sections emphasizing postmodernism and feminism (Julie Nelson and Jane Rossetti for instance). Many other contributors are economists and historians of economic thought whose writings have been informed by postmodernist ideas in various ways, but would probably use some other word to characterize their own research: these include Shaun Hargreaves Heap, William Milberg, Philip Mirowski, John Davis, and others.

While the volume contains many interesting and important papers, the introductory essay by the editors is alone worth the price of admission. Chapter 1 is by far the best summary statement of what postmodernism is within the existing literature on postmodernism and economics. Perhaps it is one of the best summary statements of postmodernism period, but such an appraisal is beyond this reviewer's expertise. As one would suspect, the editors do not, and cannot, provide just one simple definition of postmodernism; it is a way of thinking that defies such linguistic confinement. While postmodernism cannot be captured by any single word, the one that perhaps comes closest is anti-essentialism; all of the various versions of postmodernism suggest that objects in the world, in society, or in the human mind do not have essential natures, or at least if they do have such natures, we have no way (contrary to every standard epistemological framework) of finding out what they are. The stories that have been offered about essential natures—by scientists, by political and social leaders, by various grand-narrative intellectuals from Plato to Marx, as well as by an array of religious visionaries and clerics—involve "essences" that are products, or constructions, that emerge within a particular social discursive context, and thereby reflect the various configurations of power and authority within that context. The bottom line is that if one is to characterize postmodernism, one cannot go about it by defining it in terms of its essential nature, and worse, to successfully enforce such a definition would instantiate authority relations within the relevant discourse community (i.e., masking that which postmodernism ostensibly unmasks). No, capturing the essential nature of postmodernism in a simple definition is not the way to give readers an appropriate sense of the postmodernist way of thinking.

The approach the editors take in chapter 1 is indirect, but very effective. They provide four key categories around which to focus the discussion of...


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