Barbara Ehrenreich on the Move to Postmodernism in the 60s

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Fear of Falling, by Barbara EhrenreichIn her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the emergence of the postmodern mindset as it blossomed in college campuses in the 60s, without ever using the term:


In the intersection of the left and the counterculture, a new kind of political ideology emerged. It was definitely of the left by its hatred of corporate power and the military-industrial complex, but too wary of government to be socialist. It was altruistic in its commitment to the downtrodden, but too invested in a vision of personal liberation to be dour and self-sacrificing. It was egalitarian, but in a way that went far beyond the reach of law or Supreme Court rulings - demanding and envisioning nothing less than the abolition of all hierarchy - whites over blacks, teachers over students, parents over children, and (by the late sixties) men over women. It was, of course, utopian, contemptuous of mere reform, and committed to a startling, total transformation that would bring human social arrangements into line with human needs and desires. 


The same themes were echoed in the antiauthoritarianism of the German student left, the levelling spirit of the Chinese Red Guards, and the anarchic ebullience of the French student movement, which demanded no less than "All Power to the Imagination!" At the most general level, the worldwide student movement of the sixties represented the aspirations of the first generation to come of age after a half century of world war, genocide, and global depression: to put aside the gloom of history and live, at last, in full freedom and genuine equality. 


Even those intellectuals who did not depend directly on the university for their income and prestige had reason to fear this new left that respected no hierarchies, not even those based on "objective knowledge" and expertise. To all of them, professors and pundits, the student movement demanded, in so many words (and sometimes in these very words): Why should we listen to you? What do you know about American society compared to a black woman on welfare, a Southern sharecropper, or, for that matter, a Vietnamese peasant whose village has just been devastated by American firepower? What is your vaunted objectivity but a mask for privilege, your expertise but an excuse for power? 


And if the professionals' claims to authority were not respected, then what Midge Decter saw as the "power and prestige" that made the middle class a social elite would be lost. Physicians and attorneys, sociologists and scientists would have no more standing in the world than mechanics or secretaries.


Many spokespersons for the backlash hinted at this frightful possibility, but Robert Brustein, professor of drama at Yale, confronted it squarely in an attack on the student movement titled "The Case for Professionalism." If students and professors were to be "coequal," as the students seemed to want, then all respect for an "inherited body of knowledge" would be gone, and professionals would find themselves with no more authority (or importance) than "amateurs." The result, he warned would be a "bleak futureā€¦ of monochromatic amateurism in which everyone has opinions, few have facts, nobody has an idea."

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  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Thursday, 13 December 2012 03:49 posted by Joe Corbett

    thanks tj. the dialectic of enlightenment is when the cold hard facts of reason that initially set us free from superstition and the oppressive relations of the feudal church become the chains of another kind of blind faith and social oppression: the cunning of scientific reason and its scholastic expertise that is used by 'professionals' to lead us into war and organizes auschwitz and global ruin for the twisted short-term benefit of a few.

    i think the postmodern leveling of knowledge is a continuation of this dialectic aimed at liberating us from the corrupt forms of modern expertise disguised as enlightened reason. the important thing is that the dialectic not stop at this stage of development.

    post-postmodernism on the other hand carries the dialectic one step further and is not content with mere leveling, but seeks to return (at a higher level) to an enlightened reason based on visionary or holistic reason rather than 'the details of the devil', so to speak.

    this is where an integral approach is necessary in the on-going liberation of consciousness from the material constraints of its own imperfection.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 13 December 2012 19:03 posted by TJ Dawe

    Joe - excellently said. The kernel of critique of postmodernism is there in that excerpt, with those lines from "the Case for Professionalism" and I'm indebted to you for fleshing it out so well, from an Integral perspective.

    It's easy to critique postmodernism without acknowledging its valuable contributions to our discourse and thinking, and the same goes for modernism. The limits of these systems of thought should certainly be brought to light, but it seems a truly Integral perspective - in a very literal sense, integrating - values these stages while keeping in mind their drawbacks.

  • Comment Link james warren Sunday, 16 December 2012 15:35 posted by james warren

    The deluge of the 1960s has already tsunami-ed up around us and has already receded. It has left us wet, damp or drying.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Sunday, 16 December 2012 20:07 posted by TJ Dawe

    James - could you say more on this? Are you saying that the influence of postmodernism has soured, or disappeared since the 60s?

  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Monday, 17 December 2012 04:28 posted by Joe Corbett

    actually james, the rising tide of postmodernism, in the sense of the leveling of knowledge and the decline of expert opinion, is very much alive today and in fact we are literally drowning in the fragmented images of a shattered grand narrative of western progress through science and capitalist democracy.

    this time around however its not the politically correct halls of academia or the counter-cultural left that carries the postmodern banner but the neoconservative right-wing of tea party global warming deniers and anti-evolutionists, led by fox news and the corporate punditry of mainstream media, not to mention every internet blogger and talk-show radio host who spew their two cents into the information overload.

    its not that all of these agents are themselves postmodern, most of them are not, but this is the general systemic condition of postmodernity and the cultural logic of late capitalism where all knowledge, no matter how dubious or corrupt, is exploitable material and legitimate fodder for the public sphere. the consequent collapse of reason and decline of collective meaning and purpose are something we are all-too familiar with.

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