The Birth of Altermodern

I RECEIVED A CRASH COURSE IN POSTMODERN THOUGHT during my first semester at Swarthmore College. In a lesson that was to be repeated throughout my undergraduate education, the professor opened the class by admonishing us to reject binary thinking. As the class was staring at her dumbfounded, she divided the chalkboard in two with a thick vertical line and asked us to name the dualisms that structure our world. After she provided a few examples to get us started – male/female, white/black – we jumped into the game, calling out binaries one after another: rich/poor, smart/stupid, human/animal, cool/lame, skinny/fat … The game went on until the board was full and the air saturated with chalk dust. Pausing a moment, our comparative literature professor asked us if we noticed anything odd about the list we had constructed.

Looking at the chalkboard, we saw an easy answer: on the left of the line were “good” terms – cool, skinny, rich, smart, white – and on the right were their counterparts, the derided terms. In an instant, our class grasped an essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation. At least that was the intended goal.

In light of the traumas of modernity, where millions were slaughtered because they fell on the wrong side of the imaginary Aryan/non-Aryan divide, the project of deconstructing binaries should have been a positive development. In fact the primary way of disturbing categories – pointing out that the primary term is only defined through exclusion of the other – might have effectively stalled the pseudo-scientific Nazi eugenic project. The problem with the postmodern approach, however, was that it came too late. While it could have offered a way out of the genocide of World War II, by the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.

Consider the twisted fate of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a text long hailed as revolutionary because of its emphasis on fluidity, hybridity and multiplicity as anticapitalist tactics of resistance. The book has served as a handbook for leftist activists, anarchists and culture jammers since its French publication in 1980. And Michel Foucault, the archetype of politically engaged French leftist philosophers, even went as far as to declare that “perhaps one day this century will be known as Deleuzian,” a statement that was taken to prophesy the inevitable victory of our May ‘68 inspired anticapitalist struggle.

And yet according to Slavoj Žižek in the final chapter of his book Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, the exemplars of Deleuzian philosophy are not the anarchists but the late-capitalists: “In short, and stated even more pointedly, the thought of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, the ultimate philosophers of resistance, of marginal positions crushed by the hegemonic power network, is effectively the ideology of the newly emerging ruling class.” For Žižek, the misapprehension of Deleuze as a philosopher of resistance has led to the awkward situation where major alterglobalization theorists are espousing a suspiciously similar rhetoric to that of the globalizers. Singling out Naomi Klein, Žižek continues, “So, when Naomi Klein writes that ‘[n]eo-liberal economics is biased at every level toward centralization, consolidations, homogenization. It is a war waged on diversity,’ is she not focusing on a figure of capitalism whose days are numbered? Would she not be applauded by contemporary capitalist modernizers? Is not the latest trend in corporate management itself ‘diversify, devolve power, try to mobilize local creativity and self-organization?’ Is not anticentralization the topic of the ‘new’ digitalized capitalism?”

The significance of Žižek’s stinging critique of Klein is that it effectively tars an entire lineage of leftist political theory leading from Deleuzian multiplicities to Hardt and Negri’s multitude. And in light of there having been no compelling response to Žižek’s critique, it is hard not to doubt the postmodern tactics we’ve been using. Could it be that while we’ve been smashing boundaries and crossing borders, consumerism has quickened its global expansion by piggybacking on our identity-blurring efforts?

And now, entering a new era of humanity where postmodernity is slipping into altermodernity, we find that the binaries we rejected are not only blurring but finally collapsing. Unable to say with any certainty what is real or virtual, human or animal, organic or genetically modified, some wish to resuscitate again, but this time with nostalgia, the failed antimodern project of shattering distinctions. While the chorus – composed now of cyberpunks and activists joined by capitalists and technocrats – rejoices in the indistinguishable difference between online and offline, organic and synthetic, man and machine, the most crucial distinction of all – that between resistance and complicity – is collapsing as well. Unless we can discover a way to critique the system without furthering the system, we shall be lost.

It takes courage to insist that in the coming era differences do matter – like the difference between comrade and consumer, human and glutton or the good life and consumption – and that without a return to the genocidal modernist project, we can forge a new path that gathers its strength from the difference between spiritual wealth and material greed.