The Political Character of Postmodernism

July 16, 2007

In his remarkable history of postmodernism, The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson describes “the idea of the postmodern” at the time of Jameson’s arrival (Anderson’s book is also a study of Jameson) to the debate as “an appanage of the right,” a cultural and philosophical phenomenon in which crypto-reactionary and crypto-liberal ideologies masqueraded as progressive. I wonder: to what extent is this really true? Certainly this is true of most of the visible instances of self-conscious, self-described theorizing about postmodernism in the 70s (except in writing, where the situation is different), but these developments had enfolded earlier and contemporary manifestations which were far from an embrace of a victorious bourgeois society: the Beats, Fluxus, much of the work being done at Black Mountain, elements of minimalism, conceputal art, post-minimalism (or pre-postmininalism, as the case may be), many of the strains of avant-garde American writing. Is it right to call something “an appanage of the right” because it allows for an easy capture by the right? I’m not sure. Indeed, I think there is a story to tell about postmodernism avant la lettre as a critique of a modernist cultural project and associated theoretical positions from the left.

Part of my worry here is that the book may stack the cards so that Jameson’s advent upon a vitiated and sophistic discourse is all the more heroic. But, as T.J. Clark points out in his response to Anderson in the New Left Review, this narrative depends upon a contradictory treatment of Guy Debord’s work and of the SI in general. While Anderson uses the term “spectacle”, and refers to the SI as a modernist avant-garde holdover (a claim that is particularly difficult to swallow, given their critique of surrealism, etc.), i.e. the last avant-garde, he doesn’t consider the extent to which their writing, and that of Lefebvre, while not using the term postmodernism, had arrived at a good number of Jameson’s conclusions by 1970, and worked out similar, if less, um, diplomatic, critiques of the merger of structuralism and phenomenology that was beginning to characterize French thought. Or rather he doesn’t consider it until p. 117 when he writes that “Situationism, which foresaw so many aspects of the postmodern, has had no sequels.” Strangely, the only thing equal to the number of fools who fetishize the SI is the number of otherwise intelligent people who ignore them. Why this is I’ll never know. But I’m not interested here in policing some idea of intellectual property. Rather, this omission problematizes his account of the postmodern as basically conservative, and leads one to ask whether one could not give an account of a continuous left-oriented postmodernism, even if it is one that, by 1978, had made some strange bedfellows.

In places, Anderson’s argument rests upon the notion that actions against modernism and its tenets were basically reactionary, since modernism was the only cultural form of opposition to bourgeois culture (with the exception of whatever strains of viable socialist realism still existed). No doubt, this was true from 1910-1930, but by the 1950s and 1960s in the US, modernist dicta and positions had been mostly assumed by bourgeois culture, as the pages of the Partisan Review or Poetry Magazine from that period make clear. It is one thing to say that Allen Ginsberg poems are incoherent in their politics. It is another thing completely to suggest that a poem like “America” or “A Supermarket in California” is complacent with regard to American capitalism. In the residual modernism in the U.S. of the 50s, a grand revisionism was underway, one that is just now dying a slow and particularly putrescent death, in which Robert Frost and Yeats and the late Eliot and late W.H. Auden were put front and center, and the fringe elements of modernism—Zukofksy, Stein–trivialized as so many failed, quaint or ugly experiments. In art, of course, under the reconstructed socialism of Clement Greenberg, the repression of surrealism, dada, constructivism et al in his Hegelian account of the advent of flatness in painting is what makes Duchamp’s return to the scene from critical exile in the sixties one of the defining emblems of the postmodern turn.

Despite dismissing early on in the book Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism was an emergent tendency within modernism all along, one that became dominant in the 1970s, it seems that he basically takes this position toward the end of the book, when he introduces the supremely useful distinction between ultra-modernism and citra-modernism. Ultra-modernism is the form that, in its attempt to remain faithful to modernist oppositionality, must reinvent it, while citra-modernism is the decorative, sentimental form that accommodates the new age of bourgeois values and total market penetration (more later, perhaps, on the problematic association of the citra- with conservatism). But he seems to indicate that the latter precedes the former. That is, he doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which the citra- was already a tendency within modernism of the interwar period. And the ultra-, seeming to some quarters, to react against modernism, was actually, to others a form of staying faithful to it. At the same time, he doesn’t want to consider, perhaps because of old, smoldering debates about the viability of certain forms of socialism after the war, that many of the theoretical appendices of postmodernism were, regardless of the use to which they were put, originally critiques from within the left, and from the left, about the philosophical and political foundations of socialism at that time. Lyotard’s role in the left communist Socialisme ou barbarie is exemplary here, as is Baudrillard’s relationship to Lefebvre. It goes without saying that the SI is the key example here.

So far, this may sound as if by and large I disagree with Anderson’s account. But I don’t. Indeed, I agree absolutely with his sense that, in postmodernism, “culture has necessarily expanded to the point where it has become virtually coextensive with the economy itself” or, on a related note, that “what postmodernity seemed to spell was something the great theorists of modernization had ruled out: an unthinkable de-differentiation of cultural spheres” (55, 62). I agree, too, about the disappearance of class as a horizon of collectivity in the shift to the tertiary and quaternary sectors of production. And I agree, too, about the vanishing of the political as a horizon. One of his most interesting claims about Jameson (and perhaps his only critique of him) is that separate attention to the sphere of the political is entirely absent there, a phenomenon interesting to consider given the attention to the political that seems to characterize the last ten years of Anglo-American and continental philosophy. Lastly, I agree, ultimately, about the diminishing of cultural alternatives to capitalism as a movement that begins long before ’89. And I agree about postmodernism as the institutionalization and, hence, nullification of artistic critique.

One of the most interesting claims here is that Jameson—rather than the cultural figures he discusses—essentially does the work of providing a coherent aesthetic and political program, that the task of manifesto-making in the more individualistic post-war period had passed from artist to critic. This goes along with his claims about the de-differentiation of spheres, and it connects with the notion that postmodernism represents the (false, because far from utopian) Hegelian endpoint of art’s devolution, and that afterwards all that is left is theory—hence the turn to theoretical production by conceptual artists and the increasing discursivity of American poetry (language poetry, for instance). And this is the eventuality which the SI tried to turn toward a genuinely emancipatory form—“not poetry in the service of revolution but revolution in the service of poetry.” But, if art was becoming theory, and theory could begin to do the work originally allotted to artists, then perhaps Anderson is missing the extent to which the manifestos he finds missing are in the work? A look, for instance, at Ashbery’s poems from the 70s or Amiri Baraka’s from 60s or the output of somebody like Eva Hesse or Robert Smithson, indicates that this is a probable claim.

What, rather, I would like is a corollary account (which may exist already) that attends not only to non-cynical, oppositional forms of early postmodernism (postmodernism avant la lettre) and that details the process whereby these forms get hijacked or co-opted, that analyses the extent to which this failure is immanent to the forms themselves or a function of a system in which modernism, too, would fail and was failing to produce any kind of coherent opposition.

This is the essence, I think, of T.J. Clark’s response to Anderson, that postmodernism was really ultra-modernism once its oppositionality had been neutered, its techniques routinized. Speaking of Adorno’s account of modernism, he writes:

And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.

From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. . . . Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.

Clark’s grim reading of the postmodern is that it is negativity without any hope that such negativity has anything to which it might lead, no urge to totality, and no revolutionary hopes. It can only hope that it is a provocation for something different. Or it can hold its ground and hope that the world changes enough to let it do its work.

Certainly this is right for much of which falls under the heading. The question remains, though, whether the postmodern isn’t also the thing provoked, whether there isn’t also a constructive, world-building aspect that doesn’t fall under the heading of decomposition.

La vie quotidienne, in quotes

June 24, 2007

I’ve been reading the second volume of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, aspects of which are in explicit dialogue with various SI writings and, in particular, Debord. As with the Italian material in my last post, it’s difficult to know whose ideas came first or whether or there isn’t a common intertext that does not immediately suggest itself from this vantage point.

Despite Lefebvre’s critique of structuralism (which, along with critiques of phenomenology, existentialism, he shares with Debord), there’s no doubt that the contemporaneous flourishing of formalism in the social sciences affected him as he set out his own Grundrisse (the first chapter of Vol. II is called “Clearing the Ground”); in this he might be seen as a kind of pre-post-structuralist, capable of saying, in 1961: “If the logical application of the concept of structure disguises the “destructurings” and “restructurings” which are in operation—the changes and actions of the negative—then that too must be submitted” (28). Much more than Debord, Lefebvre sets himself the task of giving a dynamic, and yet spatial, account of the psychic and social asymmetries of capitalism. His is a map that moves.

Everyday life demands a descriptive language that avoids reifying what it holds in its gaze, and which defines the everyday as neither static in time (unchanging) or bounded in space, autonomous. Under the pressure of, on the one hand, the dialectic, and on the other, structuralism—Lefebvre comes up with a rather novel definition of social totality and the everyday:

It is everyday life which measures and embodies the change which takes place ‘somewhere else,’ in the ‘higher realism’. The human world is not defined simply by the historical, by culture, by totality or society as a whole, or by ideological and political superstructures. It is defined by this intermediate and mediating level: everyday life. In it, the most concrete of dialectical movements can be observed: need and desire, pleasure and absence of pleasure, satisfaction and privation (or frustration), fulfillments and empty space, work and non-work. (45)

Against the pieties of a communist criticism which assumes immediate apprehension of totality, Lefebvre anticipates some of arguments of deconstruction and yet still manages, as Jameson will later, to salvage a provisional, friable concept of the total. His nearly monadic concept of “levels” in totality, levels which thread through and are mediated by an interpenetrating totality, solves some of the problems of assimilating dynamic, dialectical theory to the formal concerns of the social sciences. And, importantly, for later theories of artistic and political praxis, it defines the “everyday” as a uniquely undervalued site for resistance, even if the concept always threatens to fall into a kind of hypostatic sterility. The everyday, in his definition, is both a residual level of capitalism—a zone where precapitalist modes of production and relation persevere—and the product of the most advanced forms of manufactured needs, reification and ideology. The everyday is “doubly determined . . . at one and the same time as unformed, and as what forms contain.” As a kind of monadic semi-autonomy, threaded through by the totality of forms, the residual or unformed part of the everyday can be used as a space for resistance, for critique, of the social forms that dominate it. It is an autonomy—an unformed space—that touches on all places in which the individual is not autonomous, is formed. And it is thus a unique space for resistance. Indeed, it might be plausible to claim that Lefebvre defines the everyday in terms strikingly similar to Lukács description of proletarian praxis. Even if Lefebvre is careful to distinguish the everyday from social praxis in general, his privileged area of inquiry is the place where theoretical consciousness and a practical contact with substance—inaccesible for bourgeois consciuosness— come together. In a moment, perhaps, of despair with macropolitical solutions which ignore individuals’ experience, Lefebvre’s is one of the clearest articulations of the micropolitcal as a space of contestation that is not autonomous from the social totality, but in contact with it. Critique of everyday life seeks to determine where, as a level, it intersects larger, extra-ordinary social forms.

Certainly this is what the anti-art of the SI—the dérive, the construction of situations, the assimilation of surrealist techniques to purposes of agitprop, or artistic practice to social research—imagined as a course of action. Where, for instance, do the demands of the capitalist city impinge upon your life as you walk to work, and how can one behave counter to these impingements? But there is a fine dialectical line here, where the attempt to fold the everyday back into the totality can be neatly reversed in a counter-revolutionary formulation, not the becoming-lived of the aesthetic—the very definition of a revolutionary consciousness— but the becoming-aesthetic of the lived. This is, indeed, as Lefebvre notes, precisely what the technological invasion of the everyday—television, radio, mass-produced “fashion”—promises: “In the last fifteen years everyday life has undergone extensive transformations, and this has prompted us to ask whether in fact our aim has not been achieved, in remarkable and unexpected ways, by social practice.”

I am particularly interested in the ways that this problem gets imagined by writers and artists in the late 60’s and throughout the 70s. Take, for instance, Vito Acconci’s work “Service Area,” which was his contribution to the seminal conceptual art exhibition, Information, at the MoMA (1970). Combining Lefebvrian concerns with a Wittgensteinian emphasis on the strangeness of the ordinary, Acconci had all of his mail forwarded to the MoMA and then placed in a transparent receptacle in the center of the gallery. Each day, Acconci would enter the museum, collect his mail and leave. Like his other works from this period, this piece is concerned with the collapse of the private (here, clearly, privation) into the codified space of the public. If mail is the instrument whereby the circulations of capital stitch the public and private together, then perhaps this is Acconci’s attempt to render unto the public what is already public, and thereby secure for himself a freedom outside of the institutional gaze. Or we might think of this as simply a cynical maneuver, a way of contributing to the museumification and administration of the everyday, its penetration by sociologically-enhanced commodity forces. My sense is that both readings are true, and that artists like Acconci—or, for instance, Joseph Beuys— are intersected by impulses running in both directions.

In the arena of writing and the everyday, books like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (Mayer was editor, with Acconci, of the influential mimeo journal, 0-9) provide an excellent corollary example. Both of these works are from the bust years of the late 1970s, and bring the most hyperprecise, exhaustive descriptive powers to bear on the minutiae and excitements of quotidian life—here a sphere that both writers see coded as the domestic and feminine, definitions that they seek to upset by appropriating to this arena forms associated with the extra-domestic or masculine. Both poems are, quite consciously, epics of the everyday, ones that seek to upset heroic, masculinist notions of epic as adventures in the public sphere. Written in a single day (Winter Solstice, 1978) Mayer’s book may be the single strongest attempt to fold the experimental techniques of writing—free association, catalog, ekphrasis—back into the life from which it arises. Of course, since Mayer, who had two young children and a series of concomitant mundane household business to attend to, could not spend the entire day writing (which would, also, leave her without any content), she is forced to take notes during the day, and then, at night, after the children go to bed, set down everything that happened. As much as writing is a prosthetic enlargement of the senses, of the experience of life lived, it is also one that can never be temporally identical with that life. In this, it’s difficult to decide whether or not this is becoming-lived of the aesthetic or vice-versa. Maybe it’s best to think of this as a transitional stage in the approach to such a state, and one that threatens to become assumed, almost instantly, under the sign of literature.


Vito Acconci. Blinks, Nov 23,1969; afternoon. Photo-Piece, Greenwich Street, NYC; Kodak Instamatic 124, b/w film