The French Review 64.3 (1991): 504-506.
POSTER, MARK. Critical Theory and Poststructuralism. In Search of a Context. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989. Pp. 172. $29.95.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
As readers can expect from Mark Poster's writings, Critical Theory and Poststructuralism provides a detailed explication of an array of complex philosophical questions bearing directly on current conceptions of critical discourse and practice. Among these are the problematics of critical social theory, particularly as developed by the Frankfurt School, and the interrelationships between this theory and "poststructuralism," a term whose validity "derives from certain vicissitudes of intercontinental intellectual history in the past two decades" (4). However, as this book's subtitle indicates, Poster seeks to ascertiain what poststructuralism might offer to a reconstruction of critical theory within the sociocultural -context- of developments of the late twentieth century. Foremost among these is what Poster designates as the "mode of information," i.e. the "social relations mediated by electronic communication systems, which constitute new patterns of language" (126) as well as new ways in which the subject is constituted within society (128).
As this summary suggests, -Critical Theory and Poststructuralism- requires of the reader a certain familiarity with contemporary critical issues and vocabulary. It is to Poster's credit, then, that rarely is his account ever entangled in terminological difficulties, and the book's overall organization indeed attests to the author's desire for clarity. Chapters 1 and 2 function together to prepare the discussion which will follow by providing necessary background on intellectual debates of the last sixty years, most notably (and respectively) the Franco-German debate on the nature of modernity (versus postmodernity), and the differences between Sartre's and Foucault's concepts of the intellectual. The three central chapters focus on Foucault's later writings (especially, the 1984 essay, "What is Englightenment?," and volumes 2 and 3 of -L'Histoire de la Sexualité-) in order to analyze the question of "self-constitution" (chapter 3), the relation of this concept to history (chapter 4), and the limits of Foucault's development of "self-constitution" in his studies of sexuality in Greece and Rome (chapter 5).
Then, Poster links the central chapters to the problematics of (post)modernism previously developed, first, by illustrating (in chapter 6) how the prison "technology of power," studied by Foucault in Surveiller et punir, may be translated in terms of the contemporary "panopticon" of computerization; then, by explaining (in chapter 7) the advantages that the "mode of information" offers as a conceptual construct for critical theory. The study ends on a methodologically discordant note, the elaboration of a survey of family attitudes (in Orange County, CA) as a means to relate the theory of the "mode of information" to the family. Not only is this statistical analysis inconsistent with the reflective and interpretive method of the preceding essays, its dense display of data, while delineating "what new family patterns have emerged to replace the oedipal family," does not adequately develop the concomitant question of "how families are shaped by the mode of information" (147).
If this project is striking for its masterful situation of poststructuralism, especially of Foucault's later works vis-à-vis both critical theory and the "mode of information," the study's ambitious scope finally exceeds the possibilities of one volume. Poster explicitly acknowledges this since he announces in the introduction that these essays "form a bridge between two of my recent projects: -Foucault, Marxism, and History- (1985) and The Mode of Information (unfinished)" (10). Yet, some chapters read as a promotion for the forthcoming volume, particulary the shift in chapter 4 from an examination of Foucault's conception of historiography to history viewed in terms of the "mode of information." One wonders also to what extent a study that focusses insistently on Foucault's works can truly claim, as the title suggests, to consider the diverse positions grouped under the term "poststructuralism." Despite these reservations, I recommend Poster's book both for the overview that he develops of aforementioned critical and philosophical positions, and for his conscientious, insightful critique of these positions based on his own extended project, i.e. of conceptualizing postmodernity in terms of our lived context within the "mode of information."
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University