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.

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