As we proceed with our inquiry into the origins of the Epistemic Left, we turn to the journal that most fully embodied the values of left Theory in the United States: Social Text.
[We know, of course, that Social Text is today best-known as the venue within which the Sokal Hoax of 1996 was perpetrated. Suffice it to say, here, that that hoax had comparatively little to do with the first decade of Social Text’s history. In fact, one could exhaustively reconstruct the history of that hoax without saying very much of any value about why Social Text was started or how it functioned prior to the mid-1990s].
Founded by Stanley Aronowitz, John Brenkman, and Fredric Jameson, and developed in three geographically discrete hubs (Irvine-La Jolla; Madison, Wisconsin; and New Haven, Connecticut), Social Text published its inaugural issue in Winter of 1979.
How did it announce its arrival to the world?
Social Text framed its mission, broadly, as providing a forum for the consideration of “problems in theory.” (Here, perhaps, is one possible anchor as we seek to define what we mean by “Theory” in our broader inquiry into the history of the Epistemic Left). Social Text’s Prospectus took pains to underline the journal’s “Marxism”: with “Marxism” to be understood “in the broadest sense of the term.”
The unique circumstances of the moment (identified, anticipatorily, as “the 1970s and 80s”) created felicitous conditions for a renewal of historical materialism. Cold War anti-communism no longer colored every consideration of historical materialist thought. Liberalism “had proven itself bankrupt,” while the specialized academic disciplines found themselves in the throes of a thoroughgoing epistemic crisis (“in which traditional methods and presuppositions” had broken down).
Political exigencies had rendered “renewed theoretical investigation of revolutionary possibilities… in the advanced countries” newly urgent. In this light, only the “dialectical framework” of Marxism was adequate to the task of theorizing late twentieth century capitalism.
But Marxism, at the same time, could not be expected to provide all of the answers.
In view of the recent “development of all kinds of theoretical work bearing on culture, sign systems, social relations, power structures, and epistemology––theories which range from semiotics and Lacanian psychoanalysis to information and systems theory, Habermas’s critical pragmatics, Foucault’s political technology of the body, Derrida’s deconstruction, Althusserian structuralism, and Chomskian linguistics”––Social Text would strive to incorporate new ideas and methods while eschewing Theory’s tendency to suppress or repress history. Social Text-ian Marxism would reinvigorate historical materialism by dedicating itself to “dialectical thinking,” resituating texts and practices “in the immense life history of human society from its tribal origins to multinational consumer capitalism and beyond.”
This understanding of critique––the cultivation of a “distinctively Marxist problematic”–hewed closely to that of the classical phase of the Frankfurt School. Social Text would insist upon “the unique dynamics of capitalism as a system that cannot be reversed from within,” attend to “the dominant role of social classes in historical change,” recognize “the primacy of social being over consciousness,” demand “the interrelation of theory and praxis,” and commit to “the necessity of interpreting history in terms of modes of production”: not as “some litany to be repeated but rather define problems and directions of research that need to be worked out afresh and reinvented in terms of today’s situation.” (This language, one senses, must have been contributed by Jameson––he was often critical of Marxist “litanies” that functioned as fetters on free thought).
Analysis would aim at “disclosing the capacity for struggle,” or, conversely, “the tendency toward blockage” in “methodologies and researches.” I think (if I may be allowed to editorialize) that the “methodologies and researches” declension here represents something of a short circuit (or perhaps reflects the perils of writing-by-committee). What was likely meant (I am guessing) was: “we are interested in disclosing the capacity for struggle and/or the tendency toward blockage in a given set of cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic practices.” In any event, Social Text would serve, primarily, as an intellectual home for new kinds of interpretation of phenomena out there in the world rather than as a site of Theorists reflecting Theoretically on Theory itself. (This, I think, is where the actual practice of Social Text deviates farthest from popular perception).
Contemporary capitalism had developed “historically unique forms of repression, integration, and reproduction.” This “new capitalist machine” called for “new modes of critical and utopian thought” and for “new emancipatory impulses” as well as “new forms of struggle.”
Perhaps the most suggestive territory mapped by the Social Text editors was the specification of new areas of interest: 1) “Everyday Life and Revolutionary Praxis”; 2) “The Proliferation of Theories”; 3) “Symbolic Investments of the Political”; 4) “The Texts of History”; 5) “Ideology and Narrative”; 6) “Mass Culture and the Avant-Garde”; 7) “Marxism and the State”; 8) “‘Consumer Society’ and the World System.”
In the next essay, I will explore this eightfold agenda in further detail—here, I think it is worth pausing to consider whether or not this itinerary serves as a guide to the Epistemic Left’s preoccupations in the decades that followed. I invite readers to reflect on this in the comments below.
“Prospectus,” Social Text, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 1-181.
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