Frederick James The Limites Of Post Modern Theory

Frederick James – The Limites of Post Modern Theory The impetus behind this paper has been the recent publication of Fredric Jameson’s 1991 Welleck Lectures, The Seeds of Time.1 As these lectures were delivered a decade after Jameson’s initial attempts to map the terrain of postmodernity it appeared to me to provide an occasion to reflect upon the current status of Jameson’s highly influential and much criticised theory of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism. It also enables me to return to, what I consider to be, one of the most troubling aspects of Jameson’s writing on postmodernism, that is to say, the “waning”, to use Jameson’s term, of the political imagination. As Jameson is probably the foremost Marxist theorist writing on postmodernism and one of the most influential of contemporary cultural critics, I find this paralysis of the political imagination in the face of postmodernism deeply problematic. As most of you are probably aware postmodernism is inherently paradoxical and playful. There is, suggests Jameson a kind of winner loses logic about it, the more one tries to define what is characteristically postmodern the less characteristic it turns out to be.

Postmodernism, by definition resists definition. Theoretically, postmodernism can only theorise its own conditions of impossibility; with neither a fixed subject nor object there can be no theory of postmodernism as such. This paradoxicality is what Jameson now identifies as the antinomies of postmodernity, the aporia or theoretical impasses which mesmerise postmodern theory and unlike the older (modernist) discourse of dialectical contradiction remain unresolvable at a higher level of abstraction. Jameson identifies four fundamental antinomies of postmodernism: time and space, subject and object, nature and human nature, and finally the concept of Utopia. Today I will focus on just the first of these antinomies, what Jameson describes as the foundational antinomy of postmodernism, that is, time and space, and suggest that the failure to think beyond the antinomy is symptomatic of a more general failing in Jameson’s theory as a whole. I shall also venture to suggest that a more dialectical understanding of temporality and spatiality may enable us to move beyond what Jameson sees as the limits of the postmodern. Before engaging with this debate, however, I will briefly recapitulate Jameson’s original thesis and what I still consider to be the importance of his theoretical endeavour.

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Jameson’s initial intervention in the postmodern debate, in a 1982 essay `The Politics of Theory’,2 was primarily an attempt to map the ideological landscape of postmodernism, however, the article concluded on a characteristic Jamesonian note, insisting on `the need to grasp the present as history’. Jameson, then, initially seemed to suggest the possibility of a way through the impasse of the two most influential strains of thought emerging at that time in relation to postmodernism. On the one hand, one encountered an uncritical celebration of the concept by the postmodernists themselves, and, on the other, the charge of cultural degeneracy was being levelled by more traditional critics and older modernists. We must avoid, argued Jameson, adopting either of these essentially moralising positions, and rather develop a more fully historical and dialectical analysis of the situation. Whether we like it or not there was a perception that culturally something had changed, we may disagree on what that change entails but the perception itself has a reality that must be accounted for.

To repudiate such a cultural change was simply facile, to thoughtlessly celebrate it was complacent and corrupt; what was required was an assessment of this `new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself within the social restructuration of late capitalism as a system’. It was this promise to historically situate postmodernism in relation to transformations in the capitalist system and the development of global multinational capital that, for many like myself who at once embraced aspects of postmodern theory whilst remaining critical of its often ambiguous political stance, was probably the single most significant aspect of Jameson’s theory. At the same time, however, the precise nature of the relationship between postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon and late capitalism as a system was left somewhat under-theorised and, for myself at least, this has remained one of the most troubling aspects of Jameson’s theory of postmodernity. That is to say, Jameson’s notion of postmodernism as a cultural dominant, or the cultural “logic” of late capitalism. Very briefly there are three broad uses of the term, postmodernism or postmodernity, to have emerged in the 1980s: firstly, as a cultural category, deriving mainly from debates in architecture but also applicable to the other arts and literature. In this sense postmodernism is defined in relation to modernism and specifically the high modernism of the inter- war years. The second sense concerns the notion of epistemic or epochal transition has taken place.

That is, Lyotard’s much heralded theory of the end of grand universalising narratives. This is also linked to the specifically cultural definition of postmodernism through the idea that the arts can no longer associated with a wider socio-historical project of human emancipation. The whole Enlightenment project, argued Lyotard, has come to an end, how can we still meaningfully speak of human progress and the rational control of the life world after Auschwitz and Stalin’s gulags. This seems to me to be a particularly spurious argument but perhaps we can return to it later. The third use of the term postmodernism has been to define, albeit rather imprecisely, some recent trends within French philosophy, particularly what have been called the “new Philosophies”.

Again I remain rather unclear about what is imputedly postmodern here as many of the philosophical positions adopted are strikingly modernist in tone and substance. Jameson use of the term attempted to straddle or incorporate these debates within a more totalizing theory of postmodernity. That is, Jameson takes postmodernism to be a periodising concept, it is neither a narrowly cultural category designating specific features which distinguish postmodernism from modernism proper; nor a global category designating a new epoch and radical break with the past; rather, the term serves to `correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order’. What has become known as “late” or multinational capitalism. I should, perhaps, point out that the problem for Marxists with the notion of postmodernism, particular in the second sense in which I defined it above, as a new economic and social order, is that at a stroke it abolishes Marxism’s founding premise.

That is to say, its historical emancipatory narrative. Marxism, along with psychoanalysis, is exemplary of the kind of grand narratives that postmodernism has, allegedly, delegitimated. The significance of the theory of late capitalism, as it was developed by the Ernest Mandel, therefore, cannot be understated in relation to Jameson’s overall project. The theory of Late capitalism at once acknowledges a further development and restructuration of the capitalism on a global scale but does not posit a radical break with the past. Late capitalism, consumer society, the post-industrial society, what ever one wishes to call it, is still fundamentally the same economic system. There are two other important factors regarding late capitalism that will concern us later: firstly each successive expansion of the capitalist system entails a corresponding technological revolution.

Secondly that changes in the social and economic spheres involve a change in the spatial paradigm. I will come back to both of these points below. Late or advanced capitalism therefore does not present us with a radically new system or life world; Baudrillard’s world of protean communication networks, simulacrum and hyperreality but rather a restructuration at higher levels of production of the same system. Postmodernism represents not so much a break with the past but a purer form of capitalism, a further intensification of the logic of capitalism, of commodification and reification. Indeed, argues Jameson, late capitalism marks the final colonisation of the last enclaves of resistance to commodification: the Third World, the Unconscious and the aesthetic. Unlike modernism, postmodernism does not attempt to refuse its status as a commodity, on the contrary it celebrates it. Postmodernism marks the final and complete incorporation of culture into the commodity system.

Hence the slippage within Jameson’s work between the two terms, postmodernism and late capitalism, as both come to signify the same object and to be equated with the totality itself. In Jameson’s first extended attempt to specifically define the postmodern, he suggested, that postmodernism was characterised by a new experience of time and space. Our experience of temporality has been radically transformed and dislocated through the dual effects of the dissolution of the autonomous centred subject and the collapse of universal historical narratives. Drawing on Lacan’s work on schizophrenia and the Deleuze’s notion of the nomadic or schizoid subject, Jameson argued that our sense of temporality was now radically disrupted and discontinuous. Without a coherent or unified sense of the subject it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of temporality in terms of memory, narrative and history. We are condemned to a perpetual present, the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In short, Baudrillard’s world of simulacra and hyper-reality, a world without reference or fixed meaning.

The positive side of this, if one can speak of it in such terms, is that individual isolated signifiers appear to become more real, shorn of any residual meaning they become more literal and material in their own right. We now experience moments of schizophrenic intensity rather than modernist duration, of aesthetic boredom and estrangement. The spatial corollary of this loss of temporality has been the pervasive flattening of space. Initially structuralism bracketed the referent and any notion of the referentiality of language, post-structural and postmodernist theory took this a step further and bracketed any sense of a signified. Words, signs, images no longer refer us to anything other than other words, signs, images in endless chains of signification.

Postmodernism, then, discredits all the old depth models of understanding: the hermeneutic of inside and outside, the existential of authenticity and bad faith, the dialectic of essence and appearance, and the Freudian of latent and manifest. Meaning is perpetually deferred, constantly slipping beyond our reach. For the postmodernist, any notion of the real has been banished to the realm of the unrepresentable and the unknowable; what we have left is a limitless plane of immanence. What particularly interested Jameson in postmodern spatiality was its tendency to disrupt our traditional conceptions of space. Postmodern spatiality attempts to dissolve distinctions between inside and outside, surface and depth, front and back. Postmodern architecture does not separate itself from its immediate environment as a monument to its architects Utopian vision but incorporates the vernacular.

It celebrates the diversity of contemporary urban life. Jameson’s debates on space and spatial theory proved to be some of the most persuasive elements of his postmodern theory. Throughout the late 80s he undertook a sustained spatial analysis of contemporary culture. However, these analyses increasingly marginalised questions of temporality. In Jameson’s monumental book on postmodernism, published in 1991, nine out of the ten chapters were predominantly concerned with spatial analysis.

Only one chapter was devoted to temporality and that was too an analysis of the nouveau roman, a form that Jameson alone persists in calling postmodern. This spatial turn within Jameson’s theory is closely tied to what I have described as a waning of his political imagination, or, what Jameson may describe as the failure to conceive of a properly postmodern form of politics. It is also, I contend, as a consequence of his elevation of a particular kind of space, of what Henri Lefebvre has called, the “Conceived” or “Representations of space”, to the detriment of “Lived” or “social” space that Jameson is unable to conceive of politics in spatial rather than temporal terms. I will come back to this in a moment, but first wish to consider Jameson’s recent reflections on space and time in The Seeds of time. In The Seeds of Time, Jameson observes how both postmodern temporality and spatiality are marked by a fundamental paradox.

Postmodern temporality is characterised by an accelerated rate of change, the turn over of fashions, life styles, beliefs even, has rapidly increased over the last twenty or thirty years. What is unusual about this is that it appears to be change without any opposite, it is change without real transformation. As I have already suggested, Jameson sees correlations between postmodernism and the globalisation of the worlds economy. The transition from nationally based economies to a mutlinational economy has been accompanied by a change in both the form of production and regimes of capital accumulation. That is, from Fordist production line methods which entail large factories and long production runs of exactly the same commodity to post-Fordist forms of production which allow for greater flexibility of both production processes and commodities; as well as greater mobility of capital and production bases. Similarly capital accumulation has transferred from large scale investment in infrastructural and capital projects to much more flexible forms of accumulation; share speculation etc. On the one hand, these transformations facilitate the acceleration of the pace of life, everything turns over and changes much more quickly.

On the other hand, these changes are accompanied by the absolute standardisation of the life world. That is to say we can now buy the same commodities the world over. We simultaneously experience an unprecedented rate of change and a complete standardisation of the life world which would appear to be incompatible with just such mutability. We must distinguish, therefore, between change within the system and change of the system itself. In terms of individual experience one can almost daily change one’s life, but at a deeper structural level we appear to be unable to imagine change at all.

Contrary to postmodernism’s celebration of difference, heterogeneity and radical otherness, social life has never been so standardised and `the stream of human, social, and historical temporality has never flowed quite so homogeneously’ (ST, 17). As Jameson puts it, we are now in a situation in which the sheer momentum of change slides into its opposite, into stasis. The deeper logic of postmodernism is that whilst everything is submitted to the change of fashion, the image and the media, nothing fundamentally can change any longer. As Foucault once put it in The Order of Things, we are faced with the monotony of absolute dispersion and absolute difference. In short, temporarlity, argues Jameson, has become essentially spatial. As with his earlier theorisation, Jameson continues to insist that postmodernism can be characterised as a spatial experience.

Further more it is a spatial experience that negates or represses temporality. Jameson writes in The Seeds of T …


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