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Introduction: Post-Marxist Aporias


     1. The title of this special issue was adapted from Alex Callinicos' book Against Postmodernism, which contains a section called "The Aporias of Poststructuralism." The word "aporia" (usually pronounced "a-por-EE-a") dates back to ancient Greece and meant "paradox." In our own time--the era of high critical theory and, for many, low political expectations--the term has been favored by a number of poststructuralist writers who have used it to mean "impasse," "contradiction," and/or "the point of undecidability" in a text at which the work begins to deconstruct itself. Callinicos, who in his book seeks to hoist a number of poststructuralists with their own petard, claims that their (collective) discourse is aporetic in a variety of ways, including its espousal of a conventionalist anti-realism (he suggests that poststructuralists are invariably "closet realists"); its conception of political resistance (or the impossibility of same); and its problematic construction--or rather deconstruction--of subjectivity.

     2. The adapted phrase "post-Marxist aporias" was originally the title of a special session for the Modern Language Association's 1997 conference in Toronto. The initial plan was for panelists Kenneth Surin, Barbara Foley, Warren Montag, and David Siar (Chair) to examine/critique work by writers who have specifically identified themselves as "post-Marxist." If those writers formed a company, they would certainly include on their board of directors Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the authors of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985), a work that, though now more than a decade old, continues to be an important source of inspiration for many like-minded critics. And among the company's stockholders we would find any number of neo-Gramscians, identity politicians, and cultural studies enthusiasts who have in common the conviction that "class" is now a second-class concept--or, in extreme cases, no concept at all.1

     3. As the session took shape, though, it was decided that panelists should have free reign to interpret the title in whatever way they chose, since, these days, the term "post-Marxist" applies not only to a particular group of critics, philosophers, and fellow travelers, but also to a "new world order" that has signaled for many on the left not the "end of history" but the beginning of new struggles. Published now in Cultural Logic, the essays produced by Surin (who has revised and expanded his paper), Foley, and Montag (both of whose papers are the original panel versions) offer provocative and highly varied takes on the "post-Marxist condition."

     4. Surin, for instance, re-opens a debate over the relevance of (Marxist) "dependency theory" in (what he terms) "the era of financial capital." After citing a number of arguments raised against dependency theory by its critics--most of whom have been "inhospitable to socialist aspirations"--Surin, in his analysis of the "burgeoning of extraterritorial markets in portfolio capital that has taken place in the last decade," reasserts some important truths: 1) "[d]isparities in wealth between nations as a group are due fundamentally to asymmetries of economic and political power that are constitutive of the capitalist system of development, and indeed of world capitalism generally," and 2) "[t]he asymmetries of economic and political power that exist between groups of nations cannot be removed or significantly ameliorated with the structures and strategic possibilities that are integral to the prevailing system of capitalist accumulation."

     5. From Kenneth Surin's intervention in current economic theory, we move to Barbara Foley's analysis of some of the ways in which anticommunism (which is more often than not the political bedfellow of "post-Marxist" theory) continues to hamstring cultural criticism. Drawing some examples from her recent work on both Jean Toomer and Ralph Ellison, Foley shows how these two Afro-American writers had significant relationships to the left that have been utterly distorted and/or occluded by dominant anticommunist paradigms--paradigms that, when uninterrogated, close off the possibility for a potentially much richer engagement with these writers than is often attempted.

     6. Warren Montag, too, is concerned with the suppression/distortion of history, and, in his discussion of Gayatri Spivak's well-known essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" he argues that Spivak's article is an example of an approach criticized long ago by Marx and Engels: it asks transcendental questions that allow an infinite deferral of history and hence acts as an obstacle to knowledge by prohibiting any inquiry into historical determination. For Montag, "[t]he question of whether or not the subaltern, or to use the Leninist term, the masses, can speak cannot be posed transcendentally but only conjuncturally by the disposition of opposing forces that characterizes a given historical moment."

     7. The other essays addressing our special topic examine a range of subjects, including the "knowledge industry in the wake of poststructuralism" (Deb Kelsh); identity politics (Martha Gimenez); and race theory (Amrohini Sahay). Without attempting to summarize the complex ideas and positions contained in these articles, I will note that their authors have in common the view that efforts to undermine the importance of class analysis as an indispensable tool for understanding and explaining social/historical change lead to theoretical and political incoherence.

     8. Also contained in this issue is a special section devoted to the work of historian Theodore W. Allen. Allen has provided a summary of his ground-breaking two-volume study The Invention of the White Race (Verso) and has generously consented to shed additional light on his work by agreeing to an interview with Jon Scott and Greg Meyerson (which was conducted via e-mail this past spring). It is our hope that Internet access to Allen's ideas and arguments will increase his audience and contribute to an understanding of the class-based origins (and perpetuation) of racism in the U.S.

     9. Finally, Greg Meyerson, Jim Neilson, and I would like to acknowledge the contributions of our reviewers, who have provided us with some fine essays on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's most recent book; films by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese; the latest novels of John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Haim Gordon's study of "evil," Israel and the Intifada; and historian Robert Thurston's re-evaluation of "life and terror" in the Soviet Union from 1934-41. Thanks, respectively, then, to Imre Szeman, Jeff Youdelman, Greg Dawes, and Adam Katz, and Grover Furr.

     10. As always, we hope that the work presented in this issue will stimulate thinking, discussion, and further research, and we look forward to printing (on an on-going basis) our readers' comments and criticism in the "readers' response" section of the journal.

David Siar



1 A number of these writers are to be found in the collection entitled Cultural Studies, edited by Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler (Routledge, 1992). For a book-length exposition and critique of Laclau and Mouffe's positions, see Norman Geras, Discourses of Extremity (Verso, 1990).

Contents copyright © 1998 by David Siar.

Format copyright © 1998 by Cultural Logic, ISSN 1097-3087, Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 1998.