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New Left Review I/186, March-April 1991

Kate Soper

Postmodernism, Subjectivity and the Question of Value

Within the circles influenced by and sympathetic to postmodernism there has of late been discussion as to how long an engagement with traditional criteria of truth and value can be deferred. [1] The recent ica conference on ‘Values’ (December 1990) is a reflection of this more self-questioning postmodernist mood. Arguing that although liberating, and even democratizing, in its refusal of hierarchy, the postmodern condition was paralysing in its deconstruction of all ‘principled positions’, the conference stated its aims as: ‘to assess whether there is now a gradual shift away from these manifestations of postmodernity, towards a reassertion of value, and to look at the implications and effects of this shift across a spectrum of cultural, aesthetic and political fields.’ This article is based on a talk given at that conference; it will be included in a collection of the conference papers to be edited by Judith Squires and published by Lawrence and Wishart. It has been suggested that the eclecticism and relativist logic of postmodernism is inherently self-stultifying—or at least incompatible with a defence of these modes of cognition as some form of political and cultural enlightenment. Hence their advocates are delivered into a condition of theoretical paralysis: they can neither argue for the ‘truth’ or knowledge status of the forms of argument they have employed to expose the mistakes and self-delusions of foundationalist metaphysics, nor lay claim to any emancipatory values in liberating a left politics from the disquieting assimilations of identity concealed within its collectivist and humanist ‘grand narrative’.

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