Frederick James The Limites Of Post Modern Theory

.. ime: Space does not seem to require a temporal expression; if it is not what absolutely does without such temporal figurality, then at the very least it might be said that space is what represses temporality and temporal figurality absolutely, to the benefit of other figures and codes. (ST, 21) What I want to come back to in a moment is the all or nothing rhetoric of Jameson’s notion of postmodern space, the initial qualification that space cannot completely annihilate temporality is immediately undercut by the assertion that, on a representational level, it is precisely spaces ability to absolutely repress temporality that is the issue. I have not time to develop this here but what I would suggest is that there is a discrepancy between the theoretical and the experiential. At a theoretical level Jameson is able to hold open certain possibilities of, what he calls, non-synchronicity, that is of distinct and discrete modes of development within postmodernity.

This, however, collapses at an experiential level whereby Jameson appears to find postmodernism so overwhelming and ubiquitous that he is unable to hold open any possibility for alternative forms of experience. The paradox of postmodern or late capitalist spatiality has been summed up rather well by Stuart Hall, Hall observes that the global now situates itself as the local.3 There is now undeniably a global culture whilst at the same time we find a resurgence of ethnic conflicts and nationalism. Whilst multinational corporations spread themselves across the globe they package and market themselves through specific national identities within individual countries. As a strategy to combat multinationalism, more properly national companies are also increasingly emphasising their local and regional identities. In other words, globalisation masquerading as regionalism. On the one hand, then, we find the complete standardisation of space in a single world market and on the other a celebration of the local diversity. Ethnic identity and life styles are now packaged and sold on the world market as so many options for an affluent West.

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The ideology of a single standardised global market has sold us back a global space and postmodern city as, to quote Jameson, `a well-nigh Bakhtinian carnival of heterogeneities, of differences, libidinal excitement, and a hyperindividuality that effectively decenters the old individual subject by way of individual hyper-consumption’ (ST, 31). As with temporality, therefore, postmodern spatiality appears to fold into its opposite; heterogeneity passes over into homogeneity. What is probably the most standardised and uniform social reality that we have ever known is celebrated in all its diversity and otherness. This rather bleak and pessimistic scenario seems, as I indicated at the outset, to have paralysed Jameson’s political imagination. Faced with the enormity of a fully global capitalism Jameson can only restort to a rather politically vague notion of cognitive mapping; which places the individual subject in the unenviable position of trying to map, or represent, an unrepresentable global system, the totality itself. As this, by definition, is impossible, an individual subjects last resort appears to be the hope for some as yet to be theorised form of political response. Much of the energy of Jameson’s recent writing has revolved around this need to retain a Utopian impulse, to restore a properly Utopian dimension to current cultural and critical practice.

To keep alive the sense of a qualitatively different form of society. It is ironic, remarks Jameson, that whilst we are all too ready to conceive of a complete world ecological crisis we seem to be utterly unable to conceiveof a different form of social organisation. For Jameson, then, we must try to detect and retrieve from within the fragmented, schizoid, and heterogeneous elements of postmodern culture the smallest remnants of a repressed collective experience, a collective experience that will allow us to once more think the alternative to a global capitalist system. What I now want to suggest, is that somewhere along the line Jameson has missed the point. That the situation is not quite as bleak as Jameson paints it and furthermore our only option need not be some undefined utopianism. It would seem to me that Jameson’s pessimism is a consequence of two aspects of his theory, which I will briefly touch upon: firstly, what I have already indicated as the totalizing character of his theory, and secondly, what we could describe as the residual modernism in his discourse.

The first dilemma concerns the lack of mediation in Jameson’s schema, Jameson can breathtakingly move from the experiential to the global in a single sentence and the readings he can generate from discrete cultural artefacts are quite extraordinary. But one gets very little sense of how the one relates to the other. In terms of postmodern spatiality what Jameson wishes to emphasis is the alarming disjunction between the individuals perception of their own bodies and their immediate surroundings and the global environment that we now find ourselves within. Jameson finds this new spatiality particularly disorientating and suffocating, he writes, that postmodern space `involves the suppression of distance .. and the relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places, to the point where the postmodern body ..

is now exposed to a perpetual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed’. Postmodern spatiality is a realm of chaotic immediacy, in which our bodies are bereft of any spatial co-ordinates and are incapable of distantiation. Although, I would venture, that if Jameson paid more attention to the mediating role of institutional, local and national aspects of postmodernism he would find postmodern spatiality a little less bewildering. However, such concerns are ruled out, a priori, by Jameson’s overly totalizing perspective, postmodern spatiality is, by definition, without mediation, I can elaborate on this later if anyone wishes. Quite simply, the problem with this is that it reinstates the position that Jameson and a number of other notable theorist were trying to get away from in the first place. The emphasis on spatial analysis in Jameson’s work, and postmodernism generally, has emerged from a much wider debate within the social sciences and particularly from the work of Marxist geographers in the mid-70s.

The new geographers challenged the privileged position accorded to temporality in social theory, insisting on the necessity of a more dynamic conception of space. Space had always been assigned a secondary position in relation to time; temporality is history, it is dynamic, the site of the dialectics, it is the potential for change and transformation, the historical possibility of revolution. Space, on the other hand, has always been seen as static and inert, space is simply given, a neutral category, an emptiness which is filled up with objects. The new geographers challenged the contemporary conceptions of space insisting that space is not given but produced. Socially produced space, spatiality, is not inert and static but is itself constitutive of social relations. Spatial relations and spatial processes are infact social relations taking a particular geographical form.

Therefore, we cannot simply take space as a given but require what Henri Lefebvre called a unitary theory of space, a theory of space which brings together all its elements: physical space, mental space and social space. What Lefebvre calls the perceived, the conceived and the lived. For the postmodern and Marxist geographers spatiality is differential, conflictual and contradictory, the very antithesis of Jameson’s conception of postmodern space. Whereas, originally the transformation of space was a constitutive feature of postmodernism by the late 80s it had become the constitutive feature of postmodernism. Modernism was seen as essentially temporal whereas postmodernism became spatial. Modernism was valorised as dynamic, the site of history, narrative and memory, in short, the potential for change. Postmodernism the site of pure immanence, immediacy, stasis and above all a disorientating and disempowering realm of space. Space is the place from which no meaningful politics can be conceived.

Despite Jameson’s ostensible intentions space he has once more become negatively defined in relation to time. In an interesting article on the politics of space and time, Doreen Massey has observed how Jameson’s dichotomy of space and time is clearly linked to a second dichotomy, that of transcendence and immanence: temporality is ascribed transcendence and spatiality immanence.4 Faced with the horror of multiplicity of postmodern space Jameson can only vainly call in the wind for new forms of cognitive mapping. This is what I referred to a moment ago as Jameson’s residual modernist sympathies, sympathies clearly indicated in the opening chapter of The Seeds of Time, `The Antinomies of Postmodernity’ with its echoes of Lukcs and the antinomies of bourgeois thought. Jameson comes out of an essentially literary and modernist tradition, his concern with spatiality has always been a concerned with what I called early “conceived” space. Jameson reads space as a text, and the semiotics of space its grammar and syntax. Jameson has no sense of space as either lived physical space or social space.

Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping is founded upon a dialect of perception but it lacks any real sense of the physical and spatial practice that would follow from it. The flattening of space that Jameson identifies as characteristic of postmodernity is itself a symptom of his own theory which sees space simply in terms of representation. By ignoring what Lefebvre called the perceived and the lived Jameson has eradicated from space its differential, conflictual and above all contradictory character. Characteristics that we once more need to restore if any meaningful spatial politics are to be conceived. A reductionism at the level of theory rather than at the level of the experiential.

Finally, therefore, I would suggest that what Jameson’s theory lacks is any real sense of a spatio-temporal dialectic. That is to say, that modernism cannot simply be conceived in terms of a thematics of temporality any more than postmodernism can be conceived as completely spatial. I will conclude by suggesting a few ways in which this spatio-temporal dialectic can be thought of and perhaps offers a more theoretical satisfying position than Jameson’s antinomies. In a recent article on modernity Peter Osborne has persuasively argued that what is unique about the temporality of modernity is its notion of contemporaneity.5 That is to say, modernity designates what is new, and what is new must be distinguished from even its most recent past, the modern will always be that which is new. In other words, “modernity is a qualitative and not a chronological category”. What interests me here is that the temporality of modernity can only be grasped as a dialectic of homogenisation (its contemporaneity) and differentiation (its distancing of itself from other historical epochs). Furthermore this dialectic can only be in relation to modernity’s spatial relations; that is the geopolitics of modernity, the history of colonialism.

Osborne writes: the concept of modernity was first universalized through the spatialization of its founding temporal difference, under colonialism; thereafter, the differential between itself and other “times” was reduced to a difference within a single temporal scale of “progress”, “modernisation” and “development”. As Althusser reminded us, different modes of production project different temporalities, the universalisation of the capitalist system could only take place through the eradication of distinct temporalities, that is to say the colonisation of all sites of pre-capitalist production. Now this in itself does not discredit Jameson’s notion of postmodernism as the latest and purest form of capitalism. But it does begin to suggest a way of conceiving postmodernist temporality beyond the antinomy outlined above. Postmodernism does not represent a complete break with modernist temporality so much as an acceleration of this dialectic of homogenisation and differentiation, or what David Harvey has called “time-space compression”.6 According to Harvey, `the history of capitalism has been characterised by the speed-up in the pace of life’ whilst simultaneously overcoming spatial barriers.

What has happened with regard to postmodernism argues Harvey is that this speed-up has once more accelerated. That capitalism has embarked on one more fierce round `in the process of the annihilation of space through time that has always lain at the centre of capitalism’s dynamic’. But does not Harvey’s assertion that postmodernism is marked by an increased annihilation of space through time seem to be at odds with Jameson’s assertion that space is now the experiential dominant? On the contrary, if space is increasingly eradicated through temporal acceleration then what spaces that remain become ever more important, ever more significant. `The superior command of space’, writes Harvey, `becomes an even more important weapon in class-struggle’. If this is the case, then one can begin to think of the ways in which political struggles now take place, as struggles over space. The recent emergence of road protesters as well as animal rights protests over the transportation of live stock are both essentially spatial conflicts. Questions of Third World development, famine and debt are also spatial in the sense that they concern the particular utilisation and control of space.

I am not suggesting that all traditional forms of struggle be replaced by joining road protesters but I am suggesting, contrary to Jameson, that it is possible to envisage forms of political action within the postmodern spatial paradigm. Some of us may wish to link up these protests with more traditional or orthodox forms of political activity but we disregard them at our peril. We would also need to conceive of a form of spatial politics in terms of the way our urban environments construct and constrain our subjectivity and different forms of social life. The development of shopping centres may provide safe, although that is now seriously questionable, and clean environments to shop but they also privatise what may have previously been public space and our access to that space is now limited and policed. Furthermore, the steadily increasing privatisation of public means that there are fewer and fewer places to freely congregate in the centre’s of cities. In many cities, and Manchester does not appear to be one of them, the homeless in particular are being forced further and further out of sight and out of the commercial districts. I am not articulating a clearly thought out programme here, these are just a few of the areas though that I could conceive of a properly postmodern form of spatial politics emerging. References: 1 Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

2 Fredric Jameson, `The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodern Debate’, in The Ideologies of Theory, Essays, 1971 – 1986: Vol. 2 The Syntax of History (London: Routledge, 1988). 3 Stuart Hall, unpublished paper delivered at the Raymond Williams Day conference Oxford, 1993. [???] 4 Doreen Massey, `Politics and Space/Time’, in New Left Review, no. 196 (1992), pp.

65-84. 5 Peter Osborne, `Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological Category’, in New Left Review, no. 192 (1992), pp. 65 – 84. 6 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).


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