on postindustrialism and thinking dangerously

Two “posts-” occupy my thoughts this morning. First post-criticism. I’ve suggested that the models of thought operative in post-criticism are tied to the economic collapse, but as always, I’m interested in the need for post-criticism to have emerged in the first place. Post-criticism came about out of growing frustration with how critical theorists deployed theoretical impasse to prevent new thought. Tenured critical theorists, eager to safeguard their own positions by ensuring that a new generation would never achieve tenure-track, let alone tenure, found it profitable to argue that any new theories were insufficiently theorized one way or another. Only microhistories or inconsequential theories would be permitted.

Take for example, a relatively recent colloquium at Columbia, when I proposed to our esteemed visitor (who remains nameless to protect his naive innocence) that the reason that we don’t periodize is because our culture has lost the ability to think of history temporally. He responded brusquely that periodization was simply wrong and that was why we did not do it.

At the same time he still talked about the “modern” and the “postmodern” or the “baroque” and the “renaissance”  as if these were somehow universal categories and not historical periods, that is products of historiography. His desire to extinguish any new theories—no doubt founded on the fact that he couldn’t up with a single idea with any traction in the last fifteen years—had become so dominant in his mind that he was unable to see that he had become thoroughly uncritical.

No wonder the post-critical crowd ran.

Or take another historical problem. Many Marxists became flustered by the idea of post-industrial society (the second “post-” in my thoughts today). For one, they suspected the enthusiasm of many of its proponents, who suggested that traditional class relationships were being remade under it. They also didn’t understand how post-industrial society could fit into their historical framework. After all, Marx didn’t account for it. And, after all, post-industrial society still requires industrial production to reproduce itself, right ?

So now we have a problem. The theory doesn’t mess with the reality. Most of us DO live in post-industrial societies. Take a look at the CIA World factbook’s 2007 estimates of the composition of GDP in world economies.

 United Statesagriculture 1.2%industry 19.8%services 79%
 Chinaagriculture 11.3%industry 48.6%services 40.1%
 Japanagriculture 26.5%industry 26.5%services 72%
 European Unionagriculture 2.1%industry 27.1%services 70%
 Worldagriculture 4%industry 32%services 64%

In not adequately addressing the consequences of a world economy that has long since left manufacturing behind as the dominant sector of production, we shortchanged critical thought on the topic.

What does it mean to be living in an economy that has subsisted on froth for three decades?

Now is not the time for theoretical impasse and microhistories. But can historians and theorists dig themselves out of this situation? The theoretical shut-down of history and theory mimics other conditions of stalemate in society (more on these in a later post), but historians and theorists can think outside that shutdown by thinking not just differently but dangerously. Let’s see if we rise to the occasion.