Theories of the Postmodern - Fredric Jameson

The problem of Postmodernism -how its fundamental characteristics are to be described, whether it even exists in the first place, whether the very concept is of any use, or is, on the contrary, a mystification -- this problem is at one and the same time an aesthetic and a political one.

The various positions that can logically be taken on it, whatever terms they are couched in, can always be shown to articulate visions of history in which the evaluation of the social moment in which we live today is the object of an essentially political affirmation or repudiation. Indeed, the very enabling premise of the debate turns on an initial, strategic presupposition about our social system: to grant some historic originality to a postmodernist culture is also implicitly to affirm some radical structural difference between what is sometimes called consumer society and earlier moments of the capitalism from which it emerged. The various logical possibilities, however, are necessarily linked with the taking of a position on that other issue inscribed in the very designation Postmodernism itself, namely, the evaluation of what must now be called high or classical modernism. Indeed, when we make some initial inventory of the varied cultural artifacts that might plausibly be characterized as postmodern, the temptation is strong to seek the "family resemblance" of such heterogeneous styles and products not in themselves but in some common high modernist impulse and aesthetic against which they all, in one way or another, stand in reaction.

The architectural debates, however, the inaugural discussions of Postmodernism as a style, have the merit of making the political resonance of these seemingly aesthetic issues inescapable and allowing it to be detectable in the sometimes more coded or veiled discussions in the other arts. On the whole, four general positions on Postmodernism may be disengaged from the variety of recent pronouncements on the subject; yet even this relatively neat scheme, or combinatoire, is further complicated by one's impression that each of these possibilities is susceptible of either a politically progressive or a politically reactionary expression (speaking now from a Marxist or more generally left perspective). One can, for example, salute the arrival of Postmodernism from an essentially antimodernist standpoint. A somewhat earlier generation of theorists (most notably Ihab Hassan) seem already to have done something like this when they dealt with the postmodernist aesthetic in terms of a more properly poststructuralist thernatics (the Tel quel attack on the ideology of representation, the Heideggerian or Derridean "end of Western metaphysics"), where what is often not yet called Postmodernism (see the Utopian prophecy at the end of Foucault's The Order of Things) is saluted as the coming of a whole new way of thinking and being in the world. But since Hassan's celebration also includes a number of the more extreme monuments of high modernism ( Joyce, Mallarmé), this would be a relatively more ambiguous stance were it not for the accompanying celebration of a new information high technology which marks the affinity between such evocations and the political thesis of a properly postindustrial society. All of which is largely disambiguated in Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, an otherwise undistinguished book report on the recent architectural debates by a writer whose own New Journalism itself constitutes one of the varieties of Postmodernism. What is interesting and symptomatic about this book, however, is the absence of any Utopian celebration of the postmodern and, far more striking, the passionate hatred of the modern that breathes through the otherwise obligatory camp sarcasm of the rhetoric; and this is not a new, but a dated and archaic passion. It is as though the original horror of the first middle-class spectators of the very emergence of the modern itself -- the first Corbusiers, as white as the first freshly built cathedrals of the twelfth century, the first scandalous Picasso heads with two eyes on one profile like a flounder, the stunning "obscurity" of the first editions of Ulysses or The Waste Land -- this disgust of the original philistines, Spiessbürger, bourgeois, or Main Street Babbitry, had suddenly come back to life, infusing the newer critiques of modernism with an ideologically very different spirit whose effect is, on the whole, to reawaken in the reader an equally archaic sympathy with the protopolitical, Utopian, anti-middle-class impulses of a now extinct high modernism itself. Wolfe's diatribe thus offers a textbook example of the way in which a reasoned and contemporary,  theoretical repudiation of the modern -- much of whose progressive force springs from a new sense of the urban and a now considerable experience of the destruction of older forms of communal and urban life in the name of a high modernist orthodoxy -- can be handily reappropriated and pressed into the service of an explicitly reactionary cultural politics. These positions -- antimodern, propostmodern -- then find their opposite number and structural inversion in a group of counterstatements whose aim is to discredit the shoddiness and irresponsibility of the postmodern in general by way of a reaffirmation of the authentic impulse of a high-modernist tradition still considered to be alive and vital.

Hilton Kramer's twin manifestos in the inaugural issue of his journal, The New Criterion, articulate these views with force, contrasting the moral responsibility of the "masterpieces" and monuments of classical modernism with the fundamental irresponsibility and superficiality of a Postmodernism associated with camp and the "facetiousness" of which Wolfe's style is a ripe and obvious example. What is more paradoxical is that politically Wolfe and Kramer have much in common; and there would seem to be a certain inconsistency in the way in which Kramer must seek to eradicate from the "high seriousness" of the classics of the modern their fundamentally anti-middleclass stance and the protopolitical passion which informs the repudiation, by the great modernists, of Victorian taboos and family life, of commodification, and of the increasing asphyxiation of a desacralizing capitalism, from Ibsen to Lawrence, from Van Gogh to Jackson Pollock. Kramer's ingenious attempt to assimilate this ostensibly antibourgeois stance of the great modernists to a "loyal opposition" secretly nourished, by way of foundations and grants, by the bourgeoisie itself, while signally unconvincing, is surely itself enabled by the contradictions of the cultural politics of modernism proper, whose negations depend on the persistence of what they repudiate and entertain -- when they do not (very rarely indeed, as in Brecht) attain some genuine political self consciousness -- a symbiotic relationship with capital. It is, however, easier to understand Kramer's move here when the political project of The New Criterion is clarified; for the mission of the journal is clearly to eradicate the sixties itself and what remains of its legacy, to consign that whole period to the kind of oblivion which the fifties was able to devise for the thirties, or the twenties for the rich political culture of the pre-World War I era. The New Criterion therefore inscribes itself in the effort, ongoing and at work everywhere today, to construct some new conservative cultural counterrevolution, whose terms range from the aesthetic to the ultimate defense of the family and religion. It is therefore paradoxical that this essentially political project should explicitly deplore the omnipresence of politics in contemporary culture -- an infection largely spread during the sixties but which Kramer holds responsible for the moral imbecility of the Postmodernism of our own period. The problem with the operation -- an obviously indispensable one from the conservative viewpoint -- is that for whatever reason, its paper money rhetoric does not seem to have been backed by the solid gold of state power, as was the case with McCarthyism or during the period of the Palmer raids.

The failure of the Vietnam War seems, at least for the moment, to have made the naked exercise of repressive power impossible and to have endowed the sixties with a persistence in collective memory and experience that it was not given to the traditions of the thirties or the pre-World War I period to know. Kramer's "cultural revolution" therefore tends most often to lapse into a feeble and sentimental nostalgia for the fifties and the Eisenhower era. In the light of what has been shown for an earlier set of positions on modernism and Postmodernism, it will not be surprising that in spite of the openly conservative ideology of this second evaluation of the contemporary cultural scene, the latter can also be appropriated for what is surely a far more progressive line on the subject. We are indebted to Jürgen Habermas for this dramatic reversal and rearticulation of what remains the affirmation of the supreme value of the modern and the repudiation of the theory and practice of Postmodernism. For Habermas, however, the vice of Postmodernism consists very centrally in its politically reactionary function, as the attempt everywhere to discredit a modernist impulse Habermas himself associates with the bourgeois Enlightenment and its still universalizing and Utopian spirit. With Adorno himself, Habermas seeks to rescue and recommemorate what both see as the essentially negative, critical, and Utopian power of the great high modernisms. On the other hand, his attempt to associate these last with the spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment marks a decisive break indeed with Adorno and Horkheimer's somber Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which the scientific ethos of the philosophes is dramatized as a misguided will to power and domination over nature, and their desacralizing program as the first stage in the development of a sheerly instrumentalizing worldview which will lead straight to Auschwitz. This very striking divergence can be accounted for by Habermas's own vision of history, which seeks to maintain the promise of "liberalism" and the essentially Utopian content of the first, universalizing bourgeois ideology (equality, civil rights, humanitarianism, free speech, and open media) over against the failure of those ideals to be realized in the development of capitalism itself. As for the aesthetic terms of the debate, however, it will not be adequate to respond to Habermas's resuscitation of the modern by some mere empirical certification of the latter's extinction.

We need to take into account the possibility that the national situation in which Habermas thinks and writes is rather different from our own: McCarthyism and repression are, for one thing, realities in the Federal Republic of Germany today, and the intellectual intimidation of the Left and the silencing of a left culture (largely associated, by the West German Right, with "terrorism") has been on the whole a far more successful operation than elsewhere in the West. The triumph of a new McCarthyism and of the culture of the Spiessbürger and the philistine suggests the possibility that in this particular national situation Habermas may well be right, and the older forms of high modernism may still retain something of the subversive power they have lost elsewhere. In that case, a Postmodernism which seeks to enfeeble and undermine that power may well also merit his ideological diagnosis in a local way, even though the assessment remains ungeneralizable. Both of the previous positions -antimodern/propostmodern, and promodern/antipostmodern -- are characterized by an acceptance of the new term, which is tantamount to an agreement on the fundamental nature of some decisive break between the modern and the postmodern moments, however these last are evaluated.

There remain, however, two final logical possibilities, both of which depend on the repudiation of any conception of such a historical break and which therefore, implicitly or explicitly, call into question the usefulness of the very category of Postmodernism. As for the works associated with the latter, they will then be assimilated back into classical modernism proper, so that the "postmodern" becomes little more than the form taken by the authentically modern in our own period, and a mere dialectical intensification of the old modernist impulse toward innovation. (I must here omit yet another series of debates, largely academic, in which the very continuity of modernism as it is here reaffirmed is itself called into question by some vaster sense of the profound continuity of romanticism, from the late eighteenth century on, of which both the modern and the postmodern will be seen as mere organic stages.) The two final positions on the subject thus logically prove to be a positive and negative assessment, respectively, of a Postmodernism now assimilated back into the high-modernist tradition. Jean-François Lyotard thus proposes that his own vital commitment to the new and the emergent, to a contemporary or postcontemporary cultural production now widely characterized as "postmodern," be grasped as part and parcel of a reaffirmation of the authentic older high modernisms very much in Adorno's spirit. The ingenious twist, or swerve, in his own proposal involves the proposition that something called Postmodernism does not follow high modernism proper, as the latter's waste product, but rather very precisely precedes and prepares it, so that the contemporary Postmodernisms all around us may be seen as the promise of the return and the reinvention, the triumphant reappearance, of some new high modernism endowed with all its older power and with fresh life. This is a prophetic stance whose analyses turn on the antirepresentational thrust of modernism and Postmodernism. Lyotard's aesthetic positions, however, cannot be adequately evaluated in aesthetic terms, since what informs them is an essentially social and political conception of a new social system beyond classical capitalism (our old friend "postindustrial society"): the vision of a regenerated modernism is, in that sense, inseparable from a certain prophetic faith in the possibilities and promise of the new society itself in full emergence. The negative inversion of this position will then clearly involve an ideological repudiation of modernism of a type which might conceivably range from Lukács's older analysis of modernist forms as the replication of the reification of capitalist social life all the way to some of the more articulated critiques of high modernism of the present day. What distinguishes this final position from the antimodernisms already outlined above is, however, that it does not speak from the security of an affirmation of some new postmodernist culture but rather sees even the latter itself as a mere degeneration of the already stigmatized impulses of high modernism proper.

This particular position, perhaps the bleakest of all and the most implacably negative, can be vividly confronted in the works of the Venetian architecture historian Manfredo Tafuri, whose extensive analyses constitute a powerful indictment of what we have termed the "protopolitical" impulses in high modernism (the "Utopian" substitution of cultural politics for politics proper, the vocation to transform the world by transforming its forms, space, or language). Tafuri is, however, no less harsh in his anatomy of the negative, demystifying, "critical" vocation of the various modernisms, whose function he reads as a kind of Hegelian "ruse of History" whereby the instrumentalizing and desacralizing tendencies of capital itself are ultimately realized through just such demolition work by the thinkers and artists of the modern movement. Their "anticapitalism" therefore ends up laying the basis for the "total" bureaucratic organization and control of late capitalism, and it is only logical that Tafuri should conclude by positing the impossibility of any radical transformation of culture before a radical transformation of social relations themselves. The political ambivalence demonstrated in the earlier two positions seems to me to be maintained here, but within the positions of both of these very complex thinkers. Unlike many of the previously mentioned theorists, Tafuri and Lyotard are both explicitly political figures with an overt commitment to the values of an older revolutionary tradition. It is clear, for example, that Lyotard's embattled endorsement of the supreme value of aesthetic innovation is to be understood as the figure for a certain kind of revolutionary stance, while Tafuri's whole conceptual framework is largely consistent with the classical Marxist tradition. Yet both are also, implicitly, and more openly at certain strategic moments, rewritable in terms of a post-Marxism which at length becomes indistinguishable from anti-Marxism proper. Lyotard has, for example, very frequently sought to distinguish his "revolutionary" aesthetic from the older ideals of political revolution, which he sees as either Stalinist or archaic and incompatible with the conditions of the new postindustrial social order; while Tafuri's apocalyptic notion of the total social revolution implies a conception of the "total system" of capitalism which, in a period of depolitization and reaction, is only too fatally destined for the kind of discouragement which has so often led Marxists to a renunciation of the political altogether ( Horkheimer and Merleau- Ponty come to mind, along with many of the ex-Trotskyists of the thirties and forties and the ex- Maoists of the sixties and seventies).

The combination scheme outlined above can now be schematically represented as follows, the plus and minus signs designating the politically progressive or reactionary functions of the positions in question: With these remarks we come full circle and can now return to the more positive potential political content of the first position in question, and in particular to the question of a certain populist impulse in Postmodernism which it has been the merit of Charles Jencks (but also of Venturi and others) to have underscored -- a question that will also allow us to deal a little more adequately with the absolute pessimism of Tafuri's Marxism itself. What must first be observed, however, is that most of the political positions which we have found to inform what is most often conducted as an aesthetic debate are in reality moralizing ones that seek to develop final judgments on the phenomenon of Postmodernism, whether the latter is stigmatized as corrupt or, on the other hand, saluted as a culturally and aesthetically healthy and positive form of innovation. But a genuinely historical and dialectical analysis of such phenomena -- particularly when it is a matter of a present of time and of history in which we ourselves exist and struggle -- cannot afford the impoverished luxury of such absolute moralizing judgments: the dialectic is "beyond good and evil" in the sense of some easy taking of sides, whence the glacial and inhuman spirit of its historical vision (something that already disturbed contemporaries about Hegel's original system). The point is that we are within the culture of Postmodernism to the point where its facile repudiation is as impossible as any equally facile celebration of it is complacent and corrupt. Ideological judgment on Postmodernism today necessarily implies, one would think, a judgment on ourselves as well as on the artifacts in question; nor can an entire historical period, such as our own, be grasped in any adequate way by means of global moral judgments or their somewhat degraded equivalent, pop psychological diagnoses. On the classical Marxian view, the seeds of the future already exist within the present and must be conceptually disengaged from it, both through analysis and through political praxis (the workers of the Paris Commune, Marx once remarked in a striking phrase, "have no ideals to realize"; they merely sought to disengage emergent forms of new social relations from the older capitalist social relations in which the former had already begun to stir). In place of the temptation either to denounce the complacencies of Postmodernism as some final symptom of decadence or to salute the new forms as the harbingers of a new technological and technocratic Utopia, it seems more appropriate to assess the new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself with the social restructuring of late capitalism as a system. As for emergence, however, Jencks's assertion that postmodern architecture distinguishes itself from that of high modernism through its populist priorities may serve as the starting point for some more general discussion.

What is meant, in the specifically architectural context, is that where the now more classical high-modernist space of a Corbusier or a Wright sought to differentiate itself radically from the fallen city fabric in which it appeared -- its forms thus dependent on an act of radical disjunction from its spatial context (the great pilotis dramatizing separation from the ground and safeguarding the novum of the new space) -- postmodernist buildings, on the contrary, celebrate their insertion into the heterogeneous fabric of the commercial strip and the motel and fast-food landscape of the postsuperhighway American city. Meanwhile, a play of allusion and formal echoes ("historicism") secures the kinship of these new art buildings with the surrounding commercial icons and spaces, thereby renouncing the high-modernist claim to radical difference and innovation. Whether this undoubtedly significant feature of the newer architecture is to be characterized as populist must remain an open question. It would seem essential to distinguish the emergent forms of a new commercial culture -- beginning with advertisements and spreading on to formal packaging of all kinds, from products to buildings, and not excluding artistic commodities such as television shows (the "logo") and best-sellers and films -- from the older kinds of folk and genuinely "popular" culture which flourished when the older social classes of a peasantry and an urban artisanat still existed and which, from the midnineteenth century on, has gradually been colonized and extinguished by commodification and the market system. What can at least be admitted is the more universal presence of this particular feature, which appears more unambiguously in the other arts as an effacement of the older distinction between high and so-called mass culture, a distinction on which modernism depended for its specificity, its Utopian function consisting at least in part in the securing of a realm of authentic experience over against the surrounding environment of middle- and low-brow commercial culture. Indeed, it can be argued that the emergence of high modernism is itself contemporaneous with the first great expansion of a recognizably mass culture ( Zola may be taken as the marker for the last coexistence of the art novel and the best-seller within a single text). It is this constitutive differentiation which now seems on the point of disappearing: we have already mentioned the way in which, in music, after Schönberg and even after Cage, the two antithetical traditions of the "classical" and the "popular" once again begin to merge.

In the visual arts the renewal of photography as a significant medium in its own right and also as the "plane of substance" in pop art or photorealism is a crucial symptom of the same process. At any rate, it becomes minimally obvious that the newer artists no longer "quote" the materials, the fragments and motifs, of a mass or popular culture, as Flaubert began to do; they somehow incorporate them to the point where many of our older critical and evaluative categories (founded precisely on the radical differentiation of modernist and mass culture) no longer seem functional. But if this is the case, then it seems at least possible that what wears the mask and makes the gestures of "populism" in the various postmodernist apologias and manifestos is in reality a mere reflex and symptom of a (to be sure momentous) cultural mutation, in which what used to be stigmatized as mass or commercial culture is now received into the precincts of a new and enlarged cultural realm. In any case, one would expect a term drawn from the typology of political ideologies to undergo basic semantic readjustments when its initial referent (that Popular Front class coalition of workers, peasants, and petit bourgeois generally called "the people") has disappeared. Perhaps, however, this is not so new a story after all: one remembers, indeed, Freud's delight at discovering an obscure tribal culture, which alone among the multitudinous traditions of dream analysis had managed to hit on the notion that all dreams had hidden sexual meanings -- except for sexual dreams, which meant something else! So also it would seem in the postmodernist debate, and the depoliticized bureaucratic society to which it corresponds, where all seemingly cultural positions turn out to be symbolic forms of political moralizing, except for the single overtly political note, which suggests a slippage from politics back into culture again. Here the usual objection -- that the class includes itself and that the taxonomy fails to include any (sufficiently privileged) place from which to observe itself or to provide for its own theorization -- has to be reckoned into the theory as a kind of bad reflexivity that eats its own tail without ever squaring the circle. Postmodernism theory seems indeed to be a ceaseless process of internal rollover in which the position of the observer is turned inside out and the tabulation recontinued on some larger scale. The postmodern thus invites us to indulge a somber mockery of historicity in general, wherein the effort at self-consciousness with which our own situation somehow completes the act of historical understanding, repeats itself drearily as in the worst kinds of dreams, and juxtaposes, to its own pertinent philosophical repudiation of the very concept of selfconsciousness, a grotesque carnival of the latter's various replays. The reminder of this interminability is then staged in the form of the inescapability of the plus and minus signs that emerge from their local slots to bedevil the external observer and to insist ceaselessly on a moral judgment excluded in advance from the theory itself. The provisional act of prestidigitation whereby even this moral judgment is added to the list of pertinent features, by a theory momentarily able to get outside itself and to include its own external boundaries, scarcely lasts as long as it takes for the "theory" to re-form and serenely to become an example of what the closure it proposes and foretells is supposed to look like.

Postmodernism theory can thus finally rise to the level of the system itself as well as its most intimate propagandas, which celebrate the innate freedom of an increasingly absolute self reproduction. These circumstances, which forestall in advance any foolproof theory of the postmodern that can be recommended unreservedly as a weapon let alone a litmus paper, demand some thoughts about an approximate proper use that does not lead us back into the self-indulgence of this or that infinite regress. In this particular new enchanted realm, however, the false problem may have become the only place of truth, so that reflection on the impossible matter of the nature of a political art in conditions that exclude it by definition may not be the worst way of marking time. Indeed, I imagine (and the pages to come may or may not confirm) that "postmodern political art" might turn out to be just that -- not art in any older sense, but an interminable conjecture on how it could be possible in the first place. As for the dualisms of the modern/postmodern, which are considerably more intolerable than most garden-variety dualisms, and thus are perhaps immunized in advance against the misuses of which such dualism are infallibly the mark as well as the instrument, it may be possible that the addition of a third term -- absent from the present work, but mobilized elsewhere in a related one may serve to convert this reversible scheme for registering difference into a more productive and portable historical schema. That third term -- call it "realism" for the moment and for want of something better -- acknowledges the emergence of the secular referent from the Englightenment purging of the sacred codes, at the same time that it accuses some first setting in place of the economic system itself, before both language and the market go on to know declensions of the second degree in the modern and imperialism. This new -65- third term, then, earlier than the others, holds them together with whatever fourth terms are hypothesized for the various precapitalisms and affords a more abstract developmental paradigm that seems to recapitulate its chronology out of all chronological order, as in film, or rock music, or black literature, for example.

What rescues the new schema from the aporias of the dualisms enumerated here then also offers a kind of intellectual training in leaving the dates out, a kind of ascesis of the diachronic in which we learn to postpone the final gratification of the chronological as a mode of understanding, a gratification that would in any case involve getting out of the system itself, of which, however, the two or three terms rehearsed here are the internal, infinitely substitutable elements. As long as we cannot do that -- and in the face of some justified reluctance to deploy a third term (itself as internally conflicted as the other two taken together) -- only the following simple and hygienic recommendation can be proposed: namely, that the dualism be used in some sense against itself, like a lateral field of vision requiring you to fix an object you have no interest in. So it is that, rigorously conducted, an inquiry into this or that feature of the postmodern will end up telling us little of value about Postmodernism itself, but against its own will and quite unintentionally a great deal about the modern proper, and perhaps the converse will also turn out to be true, even though the two were never to have been thought of as symmetrical opposites in the first place. An ever more rapid alternation between them can at the least help the celebratory posture or the old-fashioned fulminatory moralizing gesture from freezing into place.

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