Can Anyone Even Remember Postmodernism?

If one teaches the ‘postmodern’ moment to today’s students, it is worth remembering that when pomo was a big deal, they had probably not even been born. If ‘retro’ was one of the characteristic style moves of pomo, then there is now even retro-pomo, a kind of meta-retro, or meta-pomo, a return to the return to the return. At the level of style, things really did get out of hand since then.

If there is anything worth revisiting, however, it might be the feeling that the theoretical writing about the postmodern was an afterimage of a kind of cultural mutation, which in turn was an afterimage of a mutation in the mode of production itself. While the theory and the cultural criticism moved on, I’m not sure we ever got to a good discussion about how the mode of production might have mutated, and how big a mutation it might actually have been, let alone what might have caused it.

Still, it is instructive to revisit Fredric Jameson’s early essays on the topic, collected in The Cultural Turn. I vividly remember reading these in the mid to late 80s, from the time I finished my BA degree through BA Honors and a Masters degree. In revisiting these texts I find both certain methodological cues that I think one can still follow, as well as some too tentative diagnoses of what changes had actually taken place.

Jameson certainly had sensitive antennae for some kind of phase shift across the whole cultural scene. Not the last virtue of his intervention, which started as a talk for the Whitney in 1982, is its breath of vision.

As a first approximation to a definition: the postmodern is a series reactions against established forms of high modernism in the university and the museum. There were as many postmodernisms are there were modernisms. Hence there is no one stylistic tic. All seemed however to erode the old high-low art distinction.

Something similar happened in the academy, with the emergence alongside the specialized disciplines of “a kind of writing simply called ‘theory’.” This was the end of philosophy as such. In thought as in art, new forms were called into existence, out of the matrix of all the old ones, to describe a different kind of scene.

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson’s two great slogans are “always historicize!” and “History is what hurts.” His writings on the postmodern rather brilliantly live up to the former slogan, if not always to the latter. For him, the postmodern as a periodizing concept to correlate culture and economy. If something new appears in the former, it is probably an afterimage (itself a Benjaminian image) of some transformation of the mode of production itself.

It is still not easy to even propose this in Marxocological circles, as for these defenders of all things Marxocological, capital is eternal, and only it’s ‘appearances’ ever change. And indeed Jameson does not get far with thinking what might constitute the change. Its symptoms at least have been described by various Marxist authors, as the society of the spectacle (Debord) or endo-colonization (Lefebvre). Jameson will use Ernst Mandel’s rather unsatisfactory term ‘late capitalism.’

The resistance among Marxists to new-period thinking is not hard to fathom. Most such attempts belonged at the time to the right: Daniel Bell’s ‘post-industrial society’, for example. The dominant historical narratives held that either (1) this is still capitalism, or (2) an entirely new social form had replaced capitalism, or (3) both capitalism and socialism had merged into some ‘third way’ compromise. Most Marxists took position (1) against the presumed reactionary content of (2) and (3), neglecting for the moment that (1) was also the position of Frances Fukuyama, for whom this was not merely still liberal capitalism, but liberal capitalism perfected, the last stage of history.

Jameson was in rare company then in at least trying to map out the cultural surface effects of some kind of mutation in capitalism itself. For him it was coterminous with the descriptors of the post-industrial, consumer society, spectacle, and with the historical evidence of the postwar boom in the US, and the Fifth republic in France. Its features included neo-colonialism, the green revolution, and multinational capital. The sixties emerge in this story as a transitional moment. The TV show Mad Men might be a perfect compilation of Jamesonian pomo surface effects.

Jameson: “the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism.” Its features includepastiche and schizophrenia. In a famous argument, Jameson claims that pastiche has supplanted parody. Both are forms of imitation or mimicry. But one can only parody a unique modern style, of which modernism was a veritable catalog. But for Jameson, pomo is an absence of belief in a linguistic norm from which style deviates. There is nothing to parody, as there is no unique style.

That the dominant news form for many Americans is now the ‘parody’ news of the Daily Show or Stephen Colbert would at first seem to contradict this, but on reflection, both shows look more like pastiche. There is no unique style of right wing culture, and these shows succeed by sticking bits of it together more or less indiscriminately. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to tell this pastiche from the original, and it may produce very little by way of ideological alienation-effect. The pastiche is the same as its raw materials – just with a different affect, with more laughs and less rage.

Interestingly, Jameson thinks modernism anticipates this problem. Modernist art creates its own idiolects, and increasingly refused or failed to map their distance from an assumed common form of speech. Now there are idiolects everywhere, but we lack of a regular language from which to parody them. Jameson: “Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor…” (5)

This might be a mark of the death of the subject, or the end of individualism as such. Modernism was still linked to idea of a unique self of which its style could be an expression. There are two theses about what happened to this. Either the bourgeois individual is dead, or he (usually he…) never existed as such in the first place.

Certainly 21st century anxieties have only heightened the sense of the loss of the subject. That selfies are everywhere might more be evidence of the lack of individuality than an excess of it. We still have some quaint reaction against the fact that all our data is just there to provide statistical fodder for state and business algorithms to classify us by.

No wonder modernist art just doesn’t make much sense to today’s students. Jameson: “So the weight of the whole modernist aesthetic tradition – now dead – also ‘weights like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, as Marx said in another context.” (7) We still have the residues of the art, but not the kind of subjectivity that produced it.

In this context one can make sense instead of the work of, say, Kenneth Goldsmith, laboriously copying out whole issues of the New York Times and calling it ‘literature’ or ‘poetry’. Or reproducing Benjamin’s Arcades by copying out the archive, not of Paris in the 19th century, but of New York in the 20th. The outrage this work produces points to a residual desire for some kind of subject that might produce the modernist idiolect, or be capable of recognizing it when an artist produces it. Goldsmith’s work symptomatically shows how far away that might have receded.

Jameson’s own examples were the nostalgia films of the seventies: American Graffiti (1977), Chinatown (1974), even Star Wars (1977). One is tempted to call this “from Lukacs to Lucas.” The historical novel, with its sense of the uneven movement of a social totality through time, is replaced by fragmentary recollections of pasts one longs for or would want to long for. Even EL Doctorow’s novels such as Loon Lake, and Ragtime are included by Jameson in this foreclosure of historical temporarily – a question we will have to revisit a bit later.

Jameson: “If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach…” (1)

Particularly famous is Jameson’s idea of a postmodern architecture. The atrium hotels of John Portman, such as the Bonaventure Hotel in LA, (1977) are his prime examples. This architecture no longer inserts a “utopian language” into commerce. It no longer has its own idiolect that it poses against the city. Architecture instead slips right in, another patch in the pastiche of the commercial city.

By the time we get to Parametric architecture, perhaps we can say that architecture has just about admitted defeat, and no longer claims the power either to transform the city (modernism) or to express it emblematically and narratively (pomo). Rather, it admits that power is elsewhere, no longer to be found in material form at all, but rather in the abstract terrain of information that organizes the whole of space in its image.

For Jameson, pomo had to reckon with the unrepresentable quality of late capitalism: “… the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global, multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.” (16) But perhaps this was temporary. There is no reason a world made over in the image of information as commodity is any less representable than a world made over by the material presence of the commodity. Unless, of course, one is stuck with a theory and an art which still thinks commodities are essentially things….

This brings us to the problem of periodization. Pomo is of course not entirely ‘new’. It is rather a new organization of mostly familiar elements. Jameson: “radical breaks between periods do not generally involve complete changes of content but rather the restructuring of a certain number of elements already given…” (18) Certain minor elements of modernism come to the fore.

Crucial is the transformation of art from a separate realm against mass commodity production into a kind of research and development branch for the whole production chain, or what Martha Rosler calls the “art mode of production.” Where modern art was shocking, and aimed at a bohemia who thought and felt and lived differently, the postmodern is only ever titillating. It is R&D for new kinds of furniture or fashion. The Memphis furniture of Ettore Sottsass, for example.

Jameson: “I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late consumer or multinational capitalism, I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of this particular social system.” (20) The only problem is that Jameson never really has much to say about what that particular social system might be about. His particular talent was for seeing the cultural field whole, not for saying what it implied.

For example, he did give an excellent account of the whole discourse about postmodernism itself. Basically, there are four positions. One can be pro or anti modern; one can be pro or anti postmodern. Which means altogether, there are four positions, which interestingly do not map neatly onto the political left-right divide.

The grid then looks like this:

1. Anti-modernist & Pro-Pomo = Tom Wolfe

2. Pro-Modernist & Anti-Pomo = Hilton Kramer, Jürgen Habermas

3. Anti-Modernist & Anti-Pomo = Manfredo Tafuri

4. Pro-Modernist & Pro-Pomo = Jean-François Lyotard

1. The best known of these position is Wolfe’s popular attacks on modern art and architecture, which called for a retro-pomo that looked longingly back to the old forms. It even gave rise to a derriere-guard. In a less conservative mode would be Ihab Hassan’s celebration of a pomo literature that broke with the modern and which mad begun to grapple with the era of information.

2. Alternately, one could affirm high modernism and oppose pomo. This was the project of Hilton Kramer’s New Criterion. He wanted to eradicate the 60s and produce a new selective tradition, in which modernism was a loyal opposition to bourgeois culture. On the other hand, Jürgen Habermas advocated a high modernism of the left, a modernism as continuation of the enlightenment, universalizing and utopian. He rescued the negative, critical function of modernism celebrated by Adorno, but unlike Adorno thought one could still salvage a kind of enlightenment-modernist project.

3. Manfredo Tafuri repudiated both the modern and pomo, but not in the name of any pre-modern romantic past. He refused modernism’s utopian politics, its transforming of politics into style. For him modernism is a ruse of history, via which the desacralizing tendencies of capital are realized, and pomo is simply an extension of that recuperative tendency. While formulated as a critique from the left, this could easily slide towards a notion of eternal capitalism, always and forever awaiting the total revolution that never comes.

4. Lyotard’s position had a nice twist: he argued that the postmodern always comes before the modern. It is the moment of renewal of the modernist project, although unlike in Habermas, that project is always centrifugal and self-differentiating. Lyotard also had roots in the non-communist left, and while he distanced himself from much of the Marxist tradition, for a while at least it looked like he still had some kind of radical social project in mind. He had certainly grasped the importance of the rather poorly named ‘immaterial’ in the emerging mode of production, whatever it was or is.

Jameson rightly sees a moralizing tendency in much of this, a shortage of analysis. The dialectic, he says, is beyond good and evil. It has to start with a diagnosis of actual social forces, even if his own diagnosis does not get far beyond “emergent forms of a new commercial culture…” (30)

It was none other than Lenin who set the example of identifying a new stage of capitalism. And hence “one might be authorized to invent yet another.” (35) I vividly remember reading this in Jameson in the eighties. And then as now, I wonder why he never actually took that authorization.

Of course one must remember that in the 80s and 90s one had to defend the project of doing any kind of synthetic or abstract conceptual work. Hard as it might be to make any sense of this now that we know we live in the Anthropocene, but in the 80s a lot of people thought that even to attempt to describe social and historical totalities was to oneself be ‘totalitarian’. And of course there is still a kind of left wing denialism that does not want to accept the evident fact that the biosphere is indeed a totality now forcing feedback-effects into every local corner of experience.

Jameson at least defended a concept of totality, even if a rather partial one. “Historical reconstruction, then, the positing of global characterizations and hypotheses, the abstraction from the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of immediacy, was always a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities.” (35) Except that in the Anthropocene, we might now have to spend rather a bit more time understanding the counter-finality of its “blind fatalities.” Jameson is still sounding a rather optimistic note, from Lukacs rather than Sartre here.

One way in which Jameson’s own prose is curiously still modern, is in his insistence on making it new, that only conceptual reformation, or even revolution, can forestall us from mistaking the concept for the thing. Jameson: “In the long run there is probably no way of marking a representation so securely as representation that such optical illusions are permanently forestalled, any more than there is a way to ensure the resistance of a materialistic thought to idealistic recuperation, or to ward off the reading of a deconstructive formulation in metaphysical terms. Permanent revolution in intellectual life and culture means that impossibility, and the necessity for a constant reinvention of precautions against what my tradition calls conceptual reification.” (36)

One might ask at this point why Jameson’s modernist theory remains a high theory. Even if one accepts the principle of constant conceptual reformulation as a tactic against reification, why does this never break out of the habits of thought of existing institutional forms of modernist critique in Jameson? (This is the topic of another essay of mine on Jameson, ‘The Empty Chair.’)

Perhaps we need no longer be so shocked by the tensions in Jameson in a totalizing theory about a period which celebrates difference. His aim was a “a unified theory of differentiation” because “a system that constitutively produces difference remains a system…” (37) This I found particularly helpful, in writing A Hacker Manifesto, as a way of thinking together the real abstraction, no longer just of the commodity in material form but the commodity in informational form, and the way this further abstracting of commodity production both relies on the production of real differences, and yet relentless renders them equivalent in the new property forms of ‘intellectual property.’

Jameson’s “always historicize!” always implied an open-minded approach to periodization. Drawing on Ronald Meek, Jameson shows how the ability to form a synchronic concept of capital as system involved being able to both observe and think stages of economic development. The classic version of such a theory saw four stages:

Hunter-gatherers, pastoralism, agriculture, commerce. What is curious is how, even for certain Marxists, this historical and periodizing sequence falls away, leaving eternal capital as a concept strangely shared by Marxocologicalists and their right ring opponents.

For Jameson, following Meek, it is the uneven development of capital that makes it available for historical thought. For example, the thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment, Adam Smith included, got to see several modes of production co-exist, from highland ‘primitivism’ to lowland agriculture, and the then just taking off capitalism just to the south.

This leads to an important hypothesis: that the waning sense of history in the overdeveloped world is then an effect of universalization of capital, closing out the unevenness of a qualitative type, subsuming all relations under its form.

But Jameson has very little to say about how class and class relations might have changed, even in the over-developed world. We don’t get any further than some gestures about ‘yuppies.’ He says that the class that provides the art is not always an important one, but does this not rather contradict Jameson’s thesis that pomo incorporates art into production itself? If that is the case, then what class is it that makes the qualitatively different information that gets fed from the world of art into production? On this, Jameson has little to say.

If there is ‘agency’ in Jameson’s thinking about postmodernism, it is only that of ‘multinational capital’. But is this still the same old capital? Is it not now much more of an information-based entity than the capital of old? How might this make it a different kind of ruling class? How might this version of capitalism, if that is what it is, be worse?

For Jameson, capital’s old foes vanquished, and it is now able to follow its own path. But perhaps it generates new antagonisms as well. As I put it in A Hacker Manifesto: “information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains.” What Benjamin called mechanical reproducibility, what Debord called détournement, points to the way in which information tends towards some kind of commons. It requires increasingly artificial and even punitive forms of property and policing to turn information into capital.

Jameson: “This is a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the economic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale, including the older forms of labor and its traditional organizational institutions and concepts.” (48) That was the 80s. Perhaps we are now, at least in the over-developed world, fully inside that then emergent form.

The symptoms of the postmodern might now be read as a kind experimental phase where information started to proliferate in both economic and cultural spaces, but had as not yet found either a commodity form or a cultural form. It is not hard, if one looks, to find the uneven development of this, and to use that uneven development to start periodizing again.

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McKenzie Wark

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