Perhaps it is necessary, to be a good sociologist, to combine some dispositions associated with youth, such as a certain force of rupture, of revolt, of social “innocence,” and others more commonly associated with old age, such as realism, and the capacity to confront the rough and disappointing realities of the social world.
I believe that sociology does exert a disenchanting effect, but this, in my eyes, marks a progress toward a form of scientific and political realism that is the absolute antithesis of naive utopianism. Scientific knowledge allows us to locate real points of application for responsible action; it enables us to avoid struggling where there is no freedom—which is often an alibi of bad faith—in such a manner as to dodge sites of genuine responsibility. While it is true that a certain kind of sociology, and perhaps particularly the one that I practice, can encourage sociologism as submission to the “inexorable laws” of society (and this even though its intention is exactly the opposite), I think that Marx’s alternative between utopianism and sociologism is somewhat misleading: there is room, between sociologistic resignation and utopian voluntarism, for what I would call a reasoned utopianism, that is, a rational and politically conscious use of the limits of freedom afforded by a true knowledge of social laws and especially of their historical conditions of validity. The political task of social science is to stand up against irresponsible voluntarism and fatalistic scientism, to help define a rational utopianism by using the knowledge of the probable to make the possible come true. Such a sociological, that is, realistic, utopianism is very unlikely among intellectuals. First because it looks petty bourgeois, it does not look radical enough. Extremes are always more chic, and the aesthetic dimension of political conduct matters a lot to intellectuals.
(Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 196-7)
Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed deal with the politics of literary theory and the importation of French post-structuralist thought into the U.S. Jeffrey Williams, in “Why Today’s Publishing World is Reprising the Past,” examines a recent trend towards reprinting famous classics of yesterday’s theory scene — Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like. “The era of theory was presentist, its stance forward-looking. Now it seems to have shifted to memorializing its own past,” he comments. He explains this partly as the shift from “revolutionary,” unsettled science to the successful institution of a new “theory” paradigm, partly as a result of decreased financial support and increasingly precarious jobs in the humanities. But what seems interesting to me is the shift in temporal orientation itself. Academics play with time in so many ways. Sometimes memorializing the past becomes a strategy for making intellectual progress in the present. Other times, the fantasy of a radical break with the past is the occasion for reproducing the past without knowing it.
One of the most interesting phenomena of post-Reagan academic culture in America is the student perception of “postmodernism.” Or of “postmodern theory” or simply of “theory.” Now, to be honest, I find ‘postmodernism’ useless as an intellectual category. Possibly it remains useful in thinking about art or architecture; I’m not sure. Of course, I recognize “postmodernism” as a term with a well-known, if fuzzy, referent. It designates such French intellectuals as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Lacan, and certain American academics like Donna Haraway or Richard Rorty or James Clifford (in anthropology), and more importantly a whole academic social world, recognizable by its characteristic concerns, idioms, arguments, and styles.
I find it useless, myself, for three reasons. For one thing, it’s too vague to be useful in academic work. It elides all the intellectual, disciplinary, and institutional differences between, say, Derrida and Foucault, or Deleuze and Lacan, or Rorty and Haraway. Second, it’s typically used as a term of abuse, a brand of shame that designates others rather than selves. No one I know self-identifies as a postmodernist (in the same way that there are no self-identified “hipsters”). And finally, it’s seeming like a rather obsolete category at the moment; its famous controversies are behind us and its leading figures are long tenured or deceased. (1971: Foucault debates Chomsky on human nature; Allan Bloom sparks the Canon Wars, and Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings surface; 1996: the Sokal Hoax; 1995-1998, the Bad Writing Contest.)