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Cynicism and Postmodernity
Timothy Bewes
Verso ISBN 1-85984-196-1

Ewan Morrison

Woody Allen put it rather clearly when he exclaimed "Marxism is dead, feminism is dead, humanism is dead and frankly, I don't feel so good myself." We all know, and have for some time, that the grand narratives have collapsed, we all know that cynicism is the inevitable result of a loss of faith, and that a certain ironic wit and negativity is the only way to survive on groundless terrain. The only problem is that cynicism has gone from being a survival tactic towards becoming an end in itself. We have grown used to it and cannot let a political event, an artwork, a novel or even a relationship pass without a sneer of self-conscious irony.
Cynicism and Postmodernity marks the next turn in the spiraling tale of self-conscious postmodernity: the condemnation of cynicism and the rather contradictory project of subsequently trying to find a position from which such a criticism could take place. A kind of cultural criticism in reverse. A burst of well intended frustration and anger followed by confusion.
In this Timothy Bewes' first published work, his focus is on politics, the arena in which, he claims, postmodern cynicism has had the greatest impact and the most damaging effects. It sets out ambitiously to assess the impasse of postmodern thought and to re-orientate contemporary theory towards an active politics beyond cynicism and apathy. As such it is one of the many new publications in what is fast turning into a backlash against postmodernity.
Cynicism and Postmodernity characterises "post modern cynicism" as "a melancholic, self pitying reaction to the apparent disintegration of political reality," -- a period of disillusionment with Grand Narratives and totalising ideologies. Postmodernism is seen by Bewes as a cynical reaction to the aims of enlightenment thought and modernity.
For Bewes, as for postmodernity's time served critics, Habermas and Norris and Eagleton; the postmodern is a temporal historic blip, a small upset or period of cowardice in the face of the difficult ascent of the enlightenment project. Postmodernity, in this view, is already pre-staged by Hegel, as a part of modernity: "the reification of a certain panic in the face of psychical violence and epistemological kinesis..."
According to Bewes, postmodernity is pre-staged and therefore dismissed in The Phenomenology, in which Hegel describes the possible responses to the violence of consciousness during its progression towards knowledge. Paraphrasing Hegwl, Bewes diagnoses three distinct types of response to the fear of knowledge. These are characterised as "decadence, relativism and irony."
According to Bewes: "Hegel introduces and dismisses the intellectual credibility of these recognizably postmodern states of mind, symptoms of a crisis in the thoroughgoing skepticism of the healthy philosophical sensibility." 
Postmodernity is then, seen as a period of inactivity, in which indulgence in metaphysical introspection and critique stands in for any real activity, in particular political activity. The postmodernist is cynical of the Grand Narratives of modernity, and instead revels in doubt, nihilism and apathy. The postmodernist, lacking a foundation for ethics, or a scientific basis for social analysis, has no other terms to assess anything on, other than subjective impressions and existing cultural values. Hence so much post-modern theory is taken up by the relatively apolitical study of "aesthetics." Applying his three tools of decadence, relativism and irony, the postmodern aesthete becomes either decadent, reactionary or nihilistic.
Following through on his claim that postmodernity is a historical blip, Bewes attacks the foundations upon which the epistemological break with modernity occurred: Auschwitz and the implication of modernist rationalism in the rise of totalitarianism.
"To equate such logic [national socialism] with reason, as Gillian Rose or indeed Hegel or Kant, or Arendt variously conceive it, is a postmodern fallacy."
From Bewes' perspective postmodern thought has turned against reason because it has mis-conceived rationality. Bewes goes on to characterise postmodernity as a fear of reason. Quoting Zygmunt Bauman and his cautionary relativism, as an example of the fear of risk inherent in postmodernity; Bewes shows how this fear of exercising reason can lead to a liberalist political philosophy which elevates the tolerance of confusion, to its prime principle. Bauman, like most postmodern relativists, justifies his position by a severe mistrust of the connection between reason and totalitarianism.
"This condition of uncertainty, of over-riding caution in the face of impasse or irresolution, is to all intents what Bauman prescribes for the postmodern ethical subject: embrace your bafflement, and live accordingly."
In the face of ethical choice, claims Bauman, it is better to err on the side of caution. Against this Bewes defines modernist reason as "risk", and Bauman's ethical caution as "fear of risk." The fear of violence which Hegel characterised as the lack of courage in facing the challenge of enlightened knowledge.
What is at stake is an important point, and this is the heart of the debate from which Bewes himself, somewhat disappointingly, retracts. The question is: is modernist rationalism as profoundly implicated in totalitarianism as many post-modernists would claim, or has rationalism been mis-conceived by postmodernism? In short, is it possible, in any way, to return to the modernist project of enlightened reason?
To address this question Bewes looks at a number of positions expounded by postmodern theorists on the subject of Auschwitz and Nazi general Eichmann's use of Kant's categorical imperative, as part of his defense at the Nürnberg trials. However, the weight of evidence he brings up against his own claim, far outweighs his own side of the argument, however boldly he states his case. "Auschwitz is a corollary not of reason, but of the fear of reason."
Disappointingly Bewes does not follow through the logic of his own argument to make a case for re-instating the modernist project; or to denounce postmodernism, as Habermas and Eagleton and Norris have done from their different positions. When faced with the immensity of the project before him he simply falls back on a rhetoric of exclamation: "[Postmodernity is] a dangerous rhetorical sophistry, a pervasive counter Enlightenment and relativistic drive to abandon ideas of truth, and the possibility of social progress." While he acknowledges the work done by anti-postmodern theorists he does not endorse their un-shaking belief in the reinstatement of the enlightenment project, or acknowledge the difficult work that is still to be done on supporting and developing such an argument. Nor does Bewes pay respect to their work or develop any of their arguments.
Bewes does not follow through in support of the initial quotation by Hegel upon which such an argument could be based. Instead Bewes heads off into the realms of contemporary politics, cultural criticism and literature in the attempt to find some real substance to grapple with. Believing as he does in some vague notion of "political engagement" and "risk" in the face of so much postmodern apathy. As he leaves the work of other theorists behind however, he also steps off the track that might have led him to a position which could legitimate the claims he makes.
Bewes about-turns on the importance of answering the question (the complicity of rationalism with totalitarianism) dismissing it as mere metaphysics. In a chapter Energy vs. Depth: The Lure of Banality, he develops the claim that we cannot apply metaphysics to politics; as the former is based upon notions of depth and the latter upon energy: the former on universal concepts and the latter upon cultural variables, contingent historic facts and localised pragmatics.
"Postmodern politics is therefore founded on a fundamental confusion between the affairs of politics and those of metaphysics. Its aims are all too apparent: to put a hold on the hazardous exercise of political rationality in the quest for metaphysical stability. This end necessitates that the political temperament, which is essentially one of instability, risk and perpetual uprooting, be divested of its credibility."
It is at this point that Postmodernity and Cynicism loses its credibility as a critique of postmodernity. In his exoneration of energy, temperament and force, Bewes starts to sound like his critique of rationality is coming from the perspective of an irrationalist: Nietzsche, and the proto-Neitzscheans, Deleuze and Foucault, as we all know, use the same language, and are well known postmodernists.
In attempting to find a basis for political action, through "passion, energy and force," Bewes steps out of philosophy, historical analysis and even politics, into the realm of the irrational, into the realm of fiction. It is not surprising then that he abandons the difficult work of theorists and philosophers to address the person of a fictional character (as a metaphor for the point he is trying to make): in the charismatic character of Rameau, in La Neveu de Rameau, by Diderot: a character whose existence is "to all appearances , the preference for energetic thoughtlessness, over the philosophers profundity... Rameau's position is one of resolute indifference to all 'higher things'...freedom, truth, genius, wisdom, posterity, truth or dignity." He is characterised as: "'The destructive character' an agent of unsanctioned lawmaking violence...the catalyst of history..."
Bewes pits the energy of Rameau against the impotent depth of the postmodern theorist (whom he characterises as "the metaphysical philosopher"), Rameau is seen by Bewes as "the enemy of ...the pervasive fear of violence in 'late' postmodernity." Bewes quotes Hegel's references to Diderot's Rameau as an example of the negative movement of dialectic thought. Rameau is then built up through the rest of the book, as a metaphoric example of the energetic power of Hegel's dialectic between philosophy and action.
Bewes attempts to build up an emotive argument for some kind of political action, and spirit of risk, not by analysing the reason for "postmodern apathy", but by stockpiling examples, and attempting to create a sense of frustration with it. Cynicism and Postmodernity is filled with impatience and frustration but never gets beyond the limits that are causing the frustration. Inevitably, what Bewes is looking for is not a realpolitick or politics based upon methodological analysis, but instead a spirit of political engagement, a temperament even. A new kind of energy with which to sweep away cynicism. A passionate "risk".
Until he has answered the much bigger question, this notion of "risk" within the political arena seems unformed, and un-informed: a call to arms without a cause to fight for, energy without direction. Bewes, it seems, is almost willing to risk another Auschwitz in the name of the creative violence of reason.
The book should be heralded for its detailed diagnosis of the intellectual impasse of postmodernity, through all aspects of contemporary culture, quoting as it does, from a breath-taking array of sources in literature, theory, sociology, media studies and contemporary politics. The pluralistic and eclectic nature of Bewes' references, however, serve to confuse and defer the difficult argument that was initially intended. Thus Bewes' mixing of references to the K Foundation, Tony Blair, Derrida, Rorty, Death Brand Cigarettes, Auschwitz and Dazed and Confused magazine, serves only to dilute his argument.
It is exactly this attempt to pull together so many reference points and to jump between genres and disciplines in a flurry of intellectual activity, which nonetheless obscures the very clear issue at its core. Having diagnosed the problems of postmodernity, Bewes is unable to find a direction or methodology which might lead to a solution. His method is itself, irrational and eclectic. The subject areas he attempts to span are too broad, and we have no grounds in either metaphysics, empirical fact or political theory upon which to judge any of his statements. The form of the book itself, is a product of postmodern pluralism in academia, the breaking down of boundaries between disciplines. The book partakes of the same retreat from method and discipline into subjectivity, that it attempts to condemn. Bewes is interested in the notion of re-instating reason without actually exercising reason in the form of a rationally structured argument.
Ironically, the postmodern culture of cynical self-awareness and apathy is only added to by this book. As a culture, our cynicism exists not because we are unaware of what is wrong with postmodernism, but because we are only too aware of our inability to get out of the impasse, our inability to take a risk, to commit to a cause. Cynicism and Postmodernity is then another attempted critique of our cynical postmodern culture which inevitably adds to the canon of self-consciousness but impotent knowledge. All diagnosis and no cure. Knowing that we are cynical, just makes our cynicism all the more profound.