Letters to the Editor: Postmodernism and History; Prison Labor

— Tyrone Williams and Alex Lichtenstein

IS THERE A place for postmodernist cultural values in politically progressive movements? Is there more to postmodernism than its convenience as fodder for the political right, which tags every cultural movement it dislikes (from feminism to multiculturalism) with the dreaded label? Is its dismissal by radicals who see in it yet more proof that academics are irrelevant at best—and obstacles at worst— valid?

I want to argue that postmodernism is, first and foremost, outside the realm of politics proper. Because it is outside politics and inside the world (history), it can be used only as a weapon against dogmatism—either of the right or left.

There are many manifestations of postmodernism. In general, one can trace postmodernist values back to the late 19th century: the early Impressionists in painting, the late novels of Henry James (e.g. The Golden Bowl), the music of Anton Bruckner, etc.

We find larger examples of postmodernism in the French poet early 20th century Apollinaire, the German painterpoet Kurt Schwitters, the improvisational strategies of jazz—and in our time, the novels of Robert Coover and Ronald Sukenick, the Language poets (Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino, etc.) and atonal (Schoenberg) and serial (Elliot Carter) avant-garde music.

What they all have in common is a well-honed suspicion of the production of meaning in general. This does not mean, as so many believe, that there is “no meaning” (to a statement, a novel, or an event, like war). Nor does it mean that “everything goes,” that one can say anything about a work of art or historical event (e.g. the Holocaust deniers).

It does mean that the production of meaning is always contingent, uncertain, subject to revision or alteration. There is nothing magical about why these changes in meaning can occur. They occur because of temporality, because time is movement, motion, passage, and when that movement is fixed as meaning in a text we call it history.

This is why there can be, and are, so many interpretations of the same historical events (war, famine, epidemics, riots, rebellions, assassinations, etc.). None of this means there is always dispute about what happened—though this too can be subject to debate. More often than not the debate is about the meaning of what happened.

Now when debate is stifled, snuffed out, dogmatism reigns. This is not necessarily bad or counterproductive. In fact, the marshalling of opinion and stifling of dissent is precisely what allows large-scale events (like war or revolution) to occur. Those historical events caused by humans—riots, wars, rebellions, etc.— occur because a group of people agree on a certain action.

Obviously, the larger the group the more likely one will get dissent. The Civil Rights Movement was much more unified in its early stages than it was when its ranks began to swell after a few initial significant successes. Ditto for the Black Panthers.

It is precisely (as I have argued elsewhere) this inverse relation between group size and dissent that makes, for example, Afrocentricity a movement much more potent and dangerous to the established forces of culture, economics and politics—on the right and the left—than the vague, more encompassing, nebulous currents of multiculturalism.

Because postmodernism is less hierarchical than the modernism it now accompanies without superseding, because it insists that meaning is only contextual, specific and local, the grand narratives of Thomas Paine and Karl Marx, for example (as Marx himself gradually realized), can never serve as a blueprint for the radical right or the radical left.

Rather, postmodernism entails for us, the left, that Marx be reread, criticized and changed to suit our new situations, our new contexts. It means that the relation between capital and labor must be reexamined (as it already has been and still is in open, progressive quarters in certain publications and writers like In These Times and Michael Moore).

And if the movement toward liberation from the yoke of capitalist exploitation gets slowed down because there are too many voices, too much dissent, so be it. Solutions, like meaning, are only transient, temporary. Beware those who insist they're final.

Tyrone Williams
Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH

IN AN ERA which has seen a massive growth in the “prison-industrial” complex, I am pleased that Paul Ortiz has brought my book on the history of southern convict labor to the attention of readers of ATC.

In his review of Twice the Work of Free Labor (ATC 72, Jan.-Feb. 1998) Ortiz correctly notes that I associate convict labor in the New South with modernity and economic “progress” rather than backwardness. And unlike many mainstream academic reviews, his recognizes that the turn to labor coercion in the late nineteenth-century South was a reaction to southern working-class resistance to full proletarianization.

That said, I would like to correct Ortiz's exaggerated claim that I “carefully avoid any hints of worker agency” among convicts.

Admittedly, my book emphasizes the immense power wielded by capitalists, the state and prison authorities to define the convict system and exploit the fruits of prison labor. But careful readers will discover that I also claim that the profitability of leased convict labor, and convict coal mining in particular, consistently came up against the barrier of convict resistance to total exploitation.

Indeed, I suggest that ceaseless sabotage, slowdowns, arson and even outright rebellion made convict coal mines woefully “inefficient.” The resulting corporal punishment deemed necessary to get work out of leased convicts often provoked state intervention, and thus helped lead to the “reform” instituted in the form of Progressive Era chain gangs.

Ortiz is right that I am skeptical about the degree of agency one can attribute to southern convicts; but he is incorrect to suggest that I entirely ignore the part convict resistance played in shaping the evolution of the brutal prison system that made them its victims.

Alex Lichtenstein
Associate Professor of History
Florida International University, Miami

ATC 74, May-June 1998

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