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Critical Environments

Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside”

1998
Author:

Cary Wolfe

Critical Environments

Argues for a pragmatist orientation for postmodern theory.

Cary Wolfe investigates three of the most significant strains of postmodern theory—pragmatism, systems theory, and poststructuralism—and shows how each confronts the specter of an “outside” not wholly constituted by discourses, language games, and interpretive communities. He then assesses these confrontations in light of an essentially pragmatic view of theory, one that constantly asks what practical and material difference it makes, and to whom, how these issues are negotiated.

Through a set of absorbing, often stunning, juxtapositions and patient, incisive assessments, Cary Wolfe illuminates the central theoretical achievements and complex political implications of three of the most significant intellectual developments of our time: American pragmatism, Continental poststructuralist philosophy, and contemporary biological and sociological systems theory. This is an important, admirable, and immensely valuable book.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Duke University

Taking up the problem that has stalled contemporary theory—its treatment of the object of knowledge, the “outside,” as nothing but what a particular discourse makes of it—this book suggests a solution: a reinvigorated, posthumanist form of pragmatism.

Author Cary Wolfe investigates three of the most significant strains of postmodern theory (pragmatism, systems theory, and poststructuralism) and shows how each confronts the specter of an “outside” not wholly constituted by discourses, language games, and interpretive communities. He then assesses these confrontations in light of an essentially pragmatic view of theory, one that constantly asks what practical and material difference it makes, and to whom, how these issues are negotiated. Wolfe concludes by comparing the pragmatist view of the relation of theory to politics with important work in contemporary post-Marxism. In arguing for a pragmatist orientation for postmodern theory, Wolfe deploys continental critical theory to avoid the nativism and “American exceptionalism” that has traditionally accompanied pragmatist philosophy.

Unique in its collation of major theorists rarely considered together, Critical Environments incorporates detailed discussions of the work of Richard Rorty, Walter Benn Michaels, Stanley Cavell, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Niklas Luhmann, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, and others, and ranges across fields from feminist philosophy of science to the theory of ideology. Wolfe draws on recent work in systems theory to articulate a properly postmodern pragmatism. In doing so, he offers American readers a detailed introduction to systems theory, which he situates and critiques in the broader context of philosophical pragmatism, the theory of democratic social antagonism, and materialist theories of ideology, knowledge, and power. An answer to the widespread charge of relativism leveled against postmodern theory, his work will enhance and inspire new kinds of critical thought.

Critical Environments

Cary Wolfe is the Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University.

Critical Environments

Through a set of absorbing, often stunning, juxtapositions and patient, incisive assessments, Cary Wolfe illuminates the central theoretical achievements and complex political implications of three of the most significant intellectual developments of our time: American pragmatism, Continental poststructuralist philosophy, and contemporary biological and sociological systems theory. This is an important, admirable, and immensely valuable book.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Duke University

An important and ambitious argument. I know of no other study that links pragmatism, systems theory, and poststructuralism in the common enterprise of forging an antifoundationalist account of political praxis.

Michael Bérubé, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cary Wolfe’s exciting book provides several pathways out of the dead ends in contemporary theoretical debates. He demonstrates that Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, in conjunction with American neo-pragmatism and Deleuze and Guattari’s radical empiricism, can describe the foundation-less present without losing all analytical or political bite. Clearly written and passionately argued, Wolfe’s book will delight, instruct, and provoke.

John McGowan, University of North Carolina

Critical Environments

Content

Acknowledgments

Introduction. Nothing Fails like Success: The Postmodern Moment and the Problem of the “Outside”

1 Pragmatism: Rorty, Cavell, and Others
The Island of Belief: Walter Benn Michaels and the Uses of William James
Making Contingency Safe for Liberalism: Richard Rorty’s Evasion of Philosophy
Coming to Terms: Stanley Cavell and the Ethics of Skepticism
2 Systems Theory: Maturana and Varela with Luhmann
Feminist Philosophy of Science and the Detour of “Objectivity”
When Loops Turn Strange: From First- to Second-Order Cybernetics
Between the Scylla of Realism and the Charybdis of Idealism: Autopoiesis and Beyond
Necessary Blind Spots: Niklas Luhmann and the Observation of Observation
Politics, Ethics, and Systems Theory
3 Poststructuralism: Foucault with Deleuze
Rorty and Foucault
A Pragmatics of the Multiple: Foucault with Deleuze
Folded but Not Twisted: Deleuze and Systems Theory

Conclusion: Post-Marxism, Critical Politics, and the Environment of Theory

Notes

Index