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Postmodernism Is (What Postmodernism Is)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In the meantime, there is postmodernism to contend with. In certain arguably suspect ways, the foregoing sections of this chapter, as well as the remainder of this volume, refer to “postmodernism” as if it were an already-defined, well-established, universally agreed-upon thing. Which, from one perspective, it is: in its popular usages, which are numerous and widespread, the term has taken on an almost prosaic regularity. “Postmodern,” the root term, seems to indicate a chronological period that begins with the Holocaust, or the dropping of the first nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Kennedy assassination, or the election of Ronald Reagan, or some other moment of cultural trauma, but that is in any case witnessed in its fullest flowering in the 1970s and 1980s and is generally considered still to be in evidence. “Postmodernity,” its first cognate term, seems likewise to indicate the specific cultural and material conditions of existence during this chronological period, circumstances that include but are by no means limited to a shift from monopoly capitalism to multinational capitalism, a decline in industrialism and concomitant rise of some “third-wave” electronic business culture, and a transformation of the primary arena of political economy from the nation-state to the “global village” (see Toffler; McLuhan). Finally, “postmodernism” seems to indicate a loosely defined and yet recurrent set of cultural manifestations of or responses to the conditions of postmodernity, styles that are evidenced in fragmentation, pastiche, parody, self-referentiality, and other highly ironized modes of discourse.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Of course, the three terms are used far more interchangeably than I suggest here. To be certain, the discourse of postmodernism is laden with contradictions: as a phenomenon, postmodernism is either specifically aesthetic or more generally cultural; it is either revolutionary or reactionary; it is either the end of ideology or the inescapable conclusion of ideology. It is, as Stephen Connor has pointed out, the authoritative pronouncement of the death of all authority, the totalizing vision of the impossibility of totality, the master narrative of the end of all master narratives. It is expressed in architecture, art, literature, the media, science, religion, and fashion, and at the same time it is equivalent to none of these. It is both a continuation and intensification of what has gone before and a radical break with all traces of the past. It is, above all, simultaneously critical and complicit (see Hutcheon). This swarming contradiction and complexity, however, rather than confusing the issue of what, precisely, postmodernism is, may make it more comprehensible. That all conversations about postmodernism seem to degenerate into a debate about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, whether one is “for” it or “against” it, is the most postmodern gesture of all: for, among the many things that postmodernism is, it is none more than the discourse of itself. A welter of the self-referential, postmodernism is more or less precisely what postmodernism is.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Moreover, it is a discourse determined by the concept of obsolescence, even as obsolescence is conversely determined by the discourse of postmodernism. Postmodernism, like the anxiety of obsolescence, is a reality created by its own discourse; as John Barth might have it, all this talk about postmodernism has been enough to create “the considerable cultural fact” of its existence. Like the death of the novel, whether it exists or not is beside the point; that so many critics and writers seem to agree that it exists–even without agreeing on what it is–is the more interesting phenomenon. Charles Newman refers to postmodernism as “a terminological fiction” (16), a notion I like, invoking as it does both fictitious terms and fictitious terminations. Both postmodernism and the anxiety of obsolescence are informed by a rhetoric of postness, the sense of a culture that has suffered a radical break. And in both cases, the cultural sense of terminus evoked by the discourse serves not to illuminate but to obscure a kind of social reality.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Postmodernism has fed within the academy what David Simpson calls “an industry of definition and sub-definition” (1); this industry is not an offshoot or a by-product of the concept but the concept itself. While this volume thus resists the notion that “postmodernism” itself can be precisely defined, such definitions are de rigueur for any text that employs the term. This ritual generally involves a look back through the history of the term’s usage in the interests of uncovering either an originary meaning truer to the critic’s interests or a new, evolving meaning that shifts the term to its current employment. In what follows, I similarly explore that history, but not with the intent of discovering what “postmodernism” means. Defining the term in this sense presupposes its existence as a sign, however unstable, for some real referent that exists in the world as we know it. On the contrary, postmodernism is not a thing but a discursive function; my interest in the history of postmodernist discourse is not in what “postmodernism” means but in what it does (see Connor 10). One thing it does, according to Connor, is provide a common language for an academy in crisis. As the study of “high culture” has, throughout the modern period, become steadily less revered as a focus of intellectual pursuit, institutions previously dedicated to studying such high culture have begun to protect themselves with theories that describe what has “gone wrong” with the contemporary. Yet as Connor suggests, if the reorganization of cultural priorities “produces a sense of resentment at being pushed from the centers of power and influence, it can also offer the customary consolations of life at the margins” (12). The terms of this discourse begin to sound a bit familiar: as with the anxiety of obsolescence, a predatory popular culture has presumably shoved an older cultural institution from a position of centrality to a position of marginality. And as with the anxiety of obsolescence, both claims are dubious: the utopian vision of a past in which the intellectual pursuits of the “high” represented by the traditional academy were central to cultural life is a revisionist history; blaming changes in contemporary culture for the marginalization of academic pursuits is equally questionable. But the discourse of postmodernism and its attendant theorizations of the contemporary create a protected space within which the academy can function. Hence the importance of defining that so-slippery term; the debates about its meaning are its meaning.[34]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This is not, however, to endorse the cynical view Charles Newman promotes of postmodernism as a wholly vacant concept caught up in cycles of academic self-validation, postmodernism as a theory that, like many such intellectual concepts in the age of inflation, possesses solely exchange value and is devoid of use value. Rather, as Connor suggests, examining the critical discourses of postmodernism reveals how they themselves function as responses (and hoped-for solutions) to Jurgen Habermas’s “legitimation crisis,” providing new “criteria of value” under which choices can be made (Connor 8). The problem rests in the frequent lack of engagement of those criteria with what one might think of as political or social reality. This lack of engagement is read by Christopher Norris (following Perry Anderson, in that endless chain of academic citations) as a result of the fall of Marxism: “a recourse to theory is typically the response of any marginalized fraction of dissident intellectuals, excluded from the mainstream of political life and left little choice but to cultivate a range of more or less hopeful alternative visions” (Norris 1). Here again, postmodernism becomes a protective measure, one of the consolations of life on the margins.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This sense of postmodernism as a replacement for a failed Marxist vision is arguably the case for that most influential of postmodernists, Fredric Jameson. Jameson entered a debate already in play, of course. As most histories indicate, the first real theorization of the term (which had begun cropping up significantly earlier) began in the late 1970s with the exchange between Jean-François Lyotard and Jurgen Habermas.[35] Already the rhetoric of the histories becomes deceptive, however, as the “exchange” was in appearance (and follow-up) only; Habermas probably was not aware of the publication of La Condition postmoderne at the time he was working on “Modernity–An Incomplete Project.” Thus, the only “exchange” rests in Lyotard’s response to Habermas, “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?” (see Anderson 37). Nevertheless, despite the radical differences between these two perspectives–for Lyotard, postmodernism is anarchic, an aesthetic recuperation of the sublime; for Habermas, it is a reactionary perversion of the Enlightenment project–their conjunctions say far more about the nature of postmodernism. As Perry Anderson suggests, their interventions were

Permalink for this paragraph 0 strangely indecisive. The original background of both thinkers was Marxist, but it is striking how little of it they brought to their accounts of postmodernity. Neither attempted any real historical interpretation of the postmodern, capable of determining it in time or space. Instead, they offered more or less floating or vacant signifiers as the mark of its appearance: the delegitimation of grand narratives (dateless) for Lyotard, the colonization of the life-world (when was it not colonized?) for Habermas. Paradoxically, a concept by definition temporal lacks periodic weight in either. . . . The net effect was a discursive dispersion: on the one hand, philosophical overview without significant aesthetic content, on the other aesthetic insight without theoretical horizon. (45)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 These oddly hollow theories highlight the difficulty of accommodating postmodernism to a socially engaged criticism. As Anderson notes, the concept is “by definition temporal” and yet is impossible to historicize. (Does it really come after? After what?) The problem, of course, is that dogged “post” and the hyphen that frequently follows it. Despite Newman’s contention that the hyphen is the term’s “most distinctive feature” (17), the atemporality of the concept and the vacancy of its signifiers lead one to suspect that the hyphen, when used, is misplaced: “post-modernism” might better be conceived of as “postmodern-ism,” an almost metaphysical belief in a thing called the postmodern.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Into this muddle, enter Jameson, who quickly complicated the issues in this debate with the 1984 publication of his essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” and the 1991 publication of the volume bearing the same name. Jameson’s postmodernism accedes to many of the formulas already employed by Lyotard and Habermas in their initial offerings, pointing to, among the “constitutive elements” of postmodernism, a “depthlessness” that has resulted from the destruction of the depth models or master narratives that had previously informed and structured cultural life, including the hermeneutic model of inside and outside, the dialectical model of essence and appearance, the Freudian model of latent and manifest, the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity, and the semiotic model of signifier and signified (see Jameson 12). Jameson further links postmodernism to the rise of the simulacrum and the weakening of historicity, notions that both draw from earlier models. However, Perry Anderson, in The Origins of Postmodernity, argues that in five decisive moves Jameson redrew the entire map of postmodernism, creating, in a sense, the territory over which subsequent postmodernist battles would rage (see Anderson 49). First, and most importantly, Jameson linked postmodernism to the economic order of late capital; by locating postmodernism through an already existing framework of cultural materialism, Jameson situated it historically–in both the small- and large-H senses. Second, Jameson focused much of his discussion of postmodernism on contemporary changes in the lived experience of the subject, a subject now “decentered” and “fragmented” beyond repair. Third, Jameson furthered one of the constituent impulses of Lyotard’s La Condition postmoderne by expanding postmodernism as a concept to describe the whole spectrum of the arts, as well as the discourse flanking it, seeing an “immense dilation” of the sphere of culture and the “effacement” of the “frontier between high culture and so called mass or commercial culture” (Jameson x, 2). Fourth (though fifth in Anderson’s enumeration), Jameson manages to explore postmodernism without falling into the sort of good thing/bad thing position taking that nearly all variants on this debate degenerate into, insisting on the one hand that “every position on postmodernism in culture–whether apologia or stigmatization–is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (3), and on the other that postmodernism as a “cultural dominant” subsumes all positions both for and against within its protean ooze.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Throughout Anderson’s description of Jameson’s significant contributions to the debate, however, in which Jameson’s additions to the discourse seem to have far greater life than that discourse’s ostensible object, we can see what Steven Connor refers to as “the self-conscious density of the debate itself, which began to cast a progressively longer and longer shadow over its alleged object of analysis” (6). That shadow produced some notable blind spots. Given Jameson’s own insistence that every position on postmodernism is inherently a political position, I want to spend some time considering Anderson’s reading of Jameson’s fourth decisive move on this new postmodernist front. Anderson claims that Jameson explores, where Habermas and Lyotard before him had not, the social bases and geopolitical patterns of postmodernism. While it is unquestionably true that Jameson lays out the cultural bases and geopolitical patterns of postmodernism–pointing, for instance, to “the deep constitutive relationships of [the features of postmodernism] to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (6)–Anderson’s claim for genuine consideration of the social order on Jameson’s part is questionable. Phillip Brian Harper, in Framing the Margins–which is revealingly subtitled The Social Logic of Postmodernism, a pointed contrast with Jameson’s “cultural logic”–indicates the shortcomings of the Jamesonian project, along with those of Habermas and Lyotard:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 However differently they might interpret the political meaning of subjective fragmentation, though, all our theorists conceive of that meaning in terms of macro-level social and economic structures, leaving aside considerations of more contingent political phenomena, in particular those having to do with the social identities of the various subjects who manifest fragmentation in the postmodern context. (9)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What Harper refers to as “macro-level social and economic structures”– such as that globalizing technology that Jameson reads as a figure for the economic world order–might best be subsumed within the category of the cultural, given Jameson’s sense of that sphere’s dilation to both accept and self-identify with commodity production generally. Jameson’s location of postmodernism within the economic structures of late capital functions, then, as a specifically cultural postmodernism, taking its politics wholly on the macro level, from a post-Marxist perspective.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This cultural postmodernism can be contrasted, with Harper’s help, with a more properly social postmodernism that genuinely attempts to account for those “more contingent political phenomena” that occur on the level of the subject. Taking again the example of postmodernism’s much-hailed “decentered subject,” Harper explores Jameson’s thinking about the implications of this subject. As Jameson indicates, the existence in the postmodern of a de-centered subject suggests either that a shift has occurred, and a once-centered subject has been decentered by the postmodernist forces at play, or that a veil has been lifted, and we postmoderns can now see the centered subject for the fiction that it always was. Unfortunately, this reading of the past and present status of the subject excludes a key social consideration:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It appears logical enough to juxtapose the atemporal quality of the post-structuralist position against the contextual specificity dictated by the historicist one, but when we consider the case of a number of socially marginalized and politically disenfranchised groups in the United States, it becomes clear that a sort of timelessness is actually inscribed within the historicist analysis: Granting the historicist claim for a “once existing centered subject,” it must also be acknowledged that, for certain groups in the United States–people of African descent, for instance–the historical status of such a subjectivity is precisely that of never having existed, due to the historical distribution of the power to conceive of oneself as a centered, whole entity. Jameson’s positing of the historicist perspective as fundamentally opposed to a conception of the centered subject as never having existed indicates a deep fault in the theory of the postmodern subject, an oblivion into which the experiences of marginalized populations have been cast, effectively untheorized. (Harper 11)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 By failing to consider the importance of social positionalities in arguing for the historically specific state of the postmodernist subject, Jamesonian postmodernism ignores the social construction of that subject. A truly social postmodernism, such as that explored in Harper’s text, heightens the political stakes involved in postmodernist discourse by acknowledging within its theories the effects of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Harper again:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Rather than conceiving that fragmentation as deriving solely from the various technological, economic, and philosophical developments that I cite above as reorienting our idea of human subjectivity in the late twentieth century, I would like to suggest that postmodern decenteredness may actually be a function of the increasing implication in the “general” culture of what are usually thought of as socially marginal or “minority” experiences. (11″“12)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Insofar as the discourse of postmodernism tells us anything useful about the life-world or has any real political efficacy, it is thus less in confronting a totalizing set of technological and economic obstacles to centered subjectivity than in interrogating the manner in which social relations, and changes within those relations, contribute to the experiences of the contemporary subject.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I suggest that the choice on the part of the postmodernists to consider the former and not the latter, while perhaps not conscious, was also not innocent.[36] The failure on the part of the major players in the postmodern debate to consider those socially marginal experiences in the formation of their predominantly cultural discourse highlights the function of the discourse of postmodernism, particularly in its position within the framework of the discourse of obsolescence. The political shifts in contemporary critical thought– particularly those since the late 1960s–highlight “difference” as a site of progressive activity. This often-disparaged turn to “identity politics,” exacerbated by the seeming collapse of Marxism in the 1980s, threatened to close a number of largely white male critics out of the vanguard of contemporary discourse. These critics’ turn, in response, to a cultural postmodernism obsessed with shifts in the structures of technology and of economics, is a self-protective gesture, an attempt to find prolonged political relevance in a radically changing social structure.[37] Thus we turn again to Christopher Norris’s comment, with a slightly different emphasis: “a recourse to theory is typically the response of any marginalized fraction of dissident intellectuals, excluded from the mainstream of political life and left little choice but to cultivate a range of more or less hopeful alternative visions” (1). In this context, the self-diagnosis of the ills of marginalization on the part of a group of theorists overwhelmingly both white and male becomes quite politically charged. It also becomes increasingly clear that the discourse of postmodernism is cultural criticism’s expression of the anxiety of obsolescence.

  • [34] See Connor: “Critical debates about postmodernism constitute postmodernism itself “ (20).
  • [35] See, particularly, Anderson. See also Hutcheon; Connor; Harper.
  • [36] None of this is to suggest that no adequate work has been done on the conjunction of postmodernism and these other more socially contingent discourses. One immediately thinks of Harper’s admirable model, along with those of bell hooks, Jennifer Wicke, Homi Bhabha, and many others. It is revealing to consider, however, that many of these scholars self-identify with the more socially mobilized discourses of African American studies, feminism, postcolonialism, and so on, rather than with postmodernism.
  • [37] See, most pertinently, bell hooks’s “Postmodern Blackness”: “We should indeed [be] suspicious of postmodern critiques of the ‘subject’ when they surface at a historical moment when many subjugated people feel themselves coming to voice for the first time” (para. 9).
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