Reviewed by A. Clare Brandabur
(Haidar Eid. Worlding Postmodernism: Interpretive Possibilities of Critical Theory. Roman Books.)
In hıs New Yorker review of a new biography of Paul de Man (The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish), Louis Menand speaks of a crisis in the world of literary theory: “Twenty-five years ago, literary theory went through a crisis, and it has never really recovered its reputation.” Paul de Man, Menand claims, was not the cause of this crisis: nevertheless, his story of fraud, betrayal, and deception became “too perfect a synecdoche for everything that made people feel puzzled, threatened, or angry about literary theory.” The most common misgiving about theory has perhaps been the issue of distrust of language – like Hamlet in his pretended madness who claimed to be reading “words, words, words” — with the implcation that words failed to signify anything.
The present book by Professor Haidar Eid, “Worlding” (Post) modernism: Interpretive Possibiities of Critical Theory, is an impressive contribution among many efforts to salvage from the shipwreck of literary theory elements that are usable and sane. The book’s dedication to Edward Said is an important sign of its underlying spirit and leitmotif. Long before the crisis of which Menand speaks, Said stated , in (1975):
“For most of my generation, mind, culture, history, tradition, and the humanities both as words and as ideas, carry an authentic ring of truth, even if for one or another reason they do not lie easily within our grasp. I have no desire to have done with them, if only because as words and ideas they still seem partially to anchor the world we inhabit, if only because they also are still objects of our regard – and also because . . . they are machines to think with.” (Beginnings, Intention and Method 1975:19) (italics in original)
Said’s ideas of a secular role for the intellectual and his concept of the “worldliness” of the scholarly vocation are reflected in Haidar Eid’s choice of “Worlding” for his title. Well before the “crisis,” Said fully realized its dangers and took a stand on the side of the value of language and the possibility of achieving truth as a basis for responsible political action. In this ambitious book, Professor Haidar Eid employs reason and logic to cut through the Gordion knot of contemporary critical theory in order to construct in its place something closer to a rational and humane vision. “What deconstruction has led to in its application” Eid says, “is a nihilistic reduction of meaning to non-meaning, not to say nonsense” (33).
As Eid states in the Introduction, the reconstructed theory he envisions “ultimately aims to achieve . . . a dialectical critical theory that combines (post) modern and ‘traditional’ micro and macro analysis.” The formulation he calls for is “informed by theories of rationality, reason and knowledge without falling into essentialism and apriori epistemology.” What has happened under the influence of primarily French theorists, the system which suffered the “crisis” that Louis Menand located twenty-five years ago, was, Eid maintains, “the penetration of global capital in almost all fields of life as well as the disintegration of the liberal public sphere”.
If we need a recent example of the penetration of global capital, we have only to look at Arundhati Roy‘s The Cost of Living documenting the devastation to the environment and the displacement of millions of lower-caste Indians by the government’s pursuit of massive dam projects, the profits from which accrue to political elites and multi-national corporations. An even more contemporary example comes with the global outrage at Israeli massacres in Gaza in which UN shelters, family homes, hospitals, power-generators, mosques, ambulances, playgrounds and schools are targeted with lethal force while Israel, backed by US weapons, prestige, and money, acts with complete impunity. US power blocks any functioning of the wider “liberal public sphere” to secure justice for the indigenous Palestinians, increasingly at the mercy of a highly militarized colonial settler state armed by the global superpower. In the face of widespread moral outrage at the magnitude and sheer malice of the onslaught, representatives of the hegemonic power(s) repeat justifications amounting to the centrality to the globsl capital system of what should be a pariah state. To establish this connection between theory and social justice, Eid quotes Edward Said’s comments on the political and economic ramifications of poststructuralism:
It is significant that the emergence of so narrowly defined a philosophy of pure textuality and critical non-interference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism, or for that matter with a new cold war, increased militarism and defence spending, and a massive turn to the right on matters touching the economy, social services, and organized labor. (Said, 1983: 4).
Like other thinkers who have attempted to set things straight in the world of critical theory, Haidar Eid offers correctives aimed at restoring a rational basis for political action, and for reasserting the importance of ethical values in literature, especially in the novel. Two important examples of such studies are those of Andrew Gibson and Linda Hutcheon. In Postmodernity, ethics, and the novel from Leavis to Levinas (1999), Gibson harks back to a time when a concern with the morality of fiction was central to Anglo-American theory and criticism – the time of F.R. Leavis. As a corrective measure Gibson invokes the work of Emmanuel Levinas for the “project of an independent rational justification of morality . . . to counter a situation in which moral judgments become mere ‘linguistic survivals from the practice of classical theism’ (Gibson 13). Like Gibson, Linda Hutcheon is also bent on salvaging what is valuable in postmodernism, prefacing her work with a revealing quotation from Andreas Huyssen’s 1986 study After the Great Divide: “What will no longer do is either to eulogize or to ridicule postmodernism en bloc. The postmodern must be salvaged from its champions and from its detractors” (Hutcheon: Preface 1).
What is at stake in these texts is not merely academic issues in some ivory tower, but problems also posed in popular fiction, television programs and talk-shows. Perhaps the most telling symptom that the anxiety generated by the crisis is not confined to the academic world but also pervades popular culture comes from Binx Bolling, a fictional character in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer who writes in his notebook, “Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference “ (qtd by Thomas H. Schaub in “Secular Scripture,” his brilliant essay on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Schaub draws attention to the raising in this post-Apocalyptic novel of the relation between words and things. The protagonist realizes that in the absence of the vanished features of the destroyed world, gradually the words for the vanished things will vanish also: “The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors, the names of birds . . . the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (89). Schaub sees that the ontological problem raised in The Road recurs in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise when the protagonist Jack Gladney encounters nuns who pretend to believe in heaven, one of whom explains to Jack, “If we did not pretend to believe these things . . . the world would collapse” (DeLillo 318).
o explicate his thesis about the need for a reconstructed literary theory, Haidar Eid analyzes two very different novels – Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914) and Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), the novel quoted by Schaub in the passage above. By discussing Joyce’s novel as a realist modernist novel and also as a (post) modernist novel, Eid drives home his point that postmodernism is a development but not a complete break from modernism. White Noise, however, appears more fully postmodern in its deployment of characters who turn into allegories of philosophical or theoretical positions: Jack Gladney so distances his enemy-Other in the novel that, when he finally shoots him, both men bleed, and, having overcome his own “othering” of his wife’s seducer, Gladney takes him to have his wounds treated. Gladney is a projection of media – the “white noise” of movies, propaganda, the chemical event from the effects of which he is dying, even the conviction that he must act violently to assert himself to overcome his terror of death.
Of various attempts to diagnose the crisis and identify its origin, Haidar Eid’s seems the most comprehensive and penetrating. He surveys an astonishing range of critical literature on both sides of the controversy and on both sides of the Atlantic, and marshalls a remarkable array of opinion from a wide range of schools and traditions. Having first traced the genesis and development of Derrida’s poststructuralist paradigm, Eid shows how the neopragmatist American philosopher Richard Rorty arrives at a similar dead end in the arena of American postmodernism. By bringing to bear both advocates and opponents of these systems, Haidar allows the reader to examine the whole philosophical discourse and to follow arguments in scrupulous detail. Eid provides an exhaustive examination of the work of scholars like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Georg Lukacs, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Antonio Gramsci, Jean Paul Sartre, and Frederick Jameson, interspersed with analyses of their work by scholars like Adam Kelsh, Terry Eagleton, and Mesud Zavarzadeh – all with clarity and insight.
Eid locates the onset of the controversy to Derrida’s attack on structuralism-logocentrism in a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, thus placing the event historically in the late sixties just as the anti-Vietnam protest was gaining momentum in the US, and just before that outburst of protest against the DeGaulle government in Paris in May 1968. Terry Eagleton regarded poststructuralism, according to Eid, as “a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968” (1983: 142).
Eid comments on the fast-growing popularity of poststructuralism as a reaction following the debacle of Paris 1968. Postsructuralism, he says, lacking an historical consciousness, a clear-cut political programme, and a critical social theory, filled the vacuum created by the retreat of those who were supposed to offer an historical alternative to an authoritarian monopoly capitalist regime. When they were called upon to give voice to the thousands of striking students and workers, the Stalinist leaders failed because they had become the enforcers of the status quo for the Gaullist regime. Eid says they not only failed to lead but they failed to provide a clear positive social analysis of the situation. It was this failure, Eid argues, that left the way open for the rise of theories of language, discourse, and the loss of meaning and truth.
In the wake of the perceived failure of macropolitical action, Eid says, the reaction saw the rise of micropolitics, fragmentation, and – most importantly – the disappearance of universal knowledge and common sense. Eid shows the process by which poststructuralist ideas led to impotence with respect to effective political reality by reducing reality to a text which makes, as Eagleton says, “no difference between fiction and life” and therefore no difference whether “we are watching a massacre in a Third World country, or a baseball match” (Eagleton, 1984). Eid shows that the neo-pragmatism of American philosopher Richard Rorty equates to a remodelling of the ideas of the old American pragmatism re-theorized to suit the requirements and outlooks of liberal middle class intellectuals of late capitalism . According to Rorty, “the movies and television programmes have replaced the sermon and treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress” (1989: xvi). And that is precisely the source of the white noise that surrounds Dick Gladney, caught in the web of advertising, movies, and television, and haunted by a morbid fear of death.
n conclusion, though he is clear-eyed about the problem, Haidar Eid offers a constructive overview, seeing possibilities in spite of the negative effects of globalization. “What globalization produces,” Eid says, “is a deepening of the gap between those who have and those who do not have . . . Whereas globalization produces the unification of capital on a world scale, it leads to the fragmentation and the division of workers and other subordinate groups” (Eid 87).
What we are witnesssing is, therefore, not the end of history . . . but rather a return to a form of nineteenth-century classical capitalism in its polarization, intensification of class conflict, and proletarization of different segments of the society. Hence the importance of Habermas’s argument with regard to the need for the continuation of the Enlightenment project in order to (re)address the prevailing social Darwinism and neo-colonialism . . . and the growing economic polarization, oligopolies, social inequality, poverty in the ‘Third World’, discrimination, unemployment, sexism, and violence. (Eid 87)
Eid foresees the possibility of a healthy situation in which projects like that aimed at by Habermas become achievable: the removal from communication in civil society of restrictions created by multinational corporations and capitalist governments in order to reach a practical positive rationalization and reason that help in creating a better world. While Eid regards the Habermas project as full of promise, he acknowledges that it is not the only alternative, and that there are other constructive democratic ways forward. The fundamental reason for theory’s existence , Eid asserts, is not only to describe and comprehend the world, but also to offer alternative worlds (89).
A Note About the Author: Haidar Eid is a Professor of Comparative and Postcolonial Literature at AlAqsa University in Gaza. Strongly influenced by Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by Mossad in Beirut in 1971, Haidar Eid elected to commit himself to the Palestinian cause by teaching in Gaza (where his late parents and brothers were living as refugees), A co-founder of the BDS Movement, his many publications deal with issues of social justice and resistance to Israeli occupation. AlJazeera has very recently published his Gaza Diary written during July and August 2014, the latest Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.
- Barish, Evelyn. The Double Life of Paul de Man. Livewright, 2014.
- Eid, Haidar. ‘Worlding’ (Post) modernism: Interpretive Possibilities of Critical Theory. (Forthcoming from Roman Books Publishers.)
- McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Picador 2007.
- Menand, Louis. “A critic at large: Does a critic’s life explain his criticism? The New Yorker. March 21, 2014.
- Said, Edward W. Beginning: Intention and Method. (1975) Morningside Edition 1985). New York: Columbia University Press.
- Schaub, Thomas H. “Secular scripture and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Renascence – Essays on Values in Literature 61.3 (Spring 2009)
- A. Clare Brandabur – Department of Comparative Literature, Fatih University, Istanbul – contributed this review to PalestineChronicle.com.