Against Postmodernism (Fredric Jameson)

A post-modern literature and (even) theory is taking on clearer or more deliberately asserted definition. In the last few years the number of books written on the subject of postmodernism has proliferated. Among them Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism1 will probably have the effect of shaping and filling out our sense of the phenomenon as much as any other. In critiquing the book I can address the current literary movement or moment with some specificity.

In general or in the end, I shall say that Jameson’s postmodernism describes a flattening, a thinning, a leveling out, of the human experience just when and just because technology is saturating us with stimuli. Strangely, because what is happening cannot be registered, accounted for, analyzed, conceptualized, it somehow ceases to “happen.” Each happening, each participant, disappears into the clamorous stew. No insides/outsides, of course, nor beginnings/endings nor entrances/exits; no differentiation since all is always all ways differing. Nothing can be said, nothing can be “seen,” “understood,” “thought”—not because we have been muted, blinded, lobotomized, but because we have discarded/jettisoned tainted receptors. We “must not” speak in certain outmoded terms, and what we can do is determined and delineated already by an apparently institutionalized, unspecified (but recognizably Derridean or post-Derridean) anti-ideological ideology. The case is flawed; the situation described is unacceptable if it exists.

Here is a key passage from a section in the last chapter called “The Production of Theoretical Discourse.” To this passage I offer reservations and objections which represent my response to the book as a whole. Jameson is proposing an “aesthetics of this new ‘theoretical discourse’” (39l) appropriate to postmodernism.

Throughout these pages I have insisted on a characterization of postmodern thought—for it turns out to be this that we used to call “theory” in the heroic discovery period of poststructuralism—in terms of the expressive peculiarities of its language rather than as mutations in thinking or consciousness as such (and, ineffable or linguistic by turns, it would finally have to be dramatized by some larger social-stylistic characterization of the type of the culture critique). ( 391 )

Modernist “theory” is discovered to have been, after all, simply “thought” (but what is thinking?). Postmodernist “thought” (which is referred to a few lines later with the cumbersome “ideolect” “‘theoretical discourse’”) differs from “heroic” poststructuralist thought, not because thinking or consciousness has changed but because language has, or rather its “expressive peculiarities” have (another cumbersome example of, I suppose, such peculiarities of expression); and since postmodern “thought” is sometimes beyond language, sometimes not, the way to express it would have to be to dramatize it: the old representation gamble. The vehicle: a relatively new (modern) socio-aesthetico-anthropologico-Marxism. A fairly formidable order, especially when the aesthetics of the enterprise are spelled out:

An aesthetics of this new “theoretical discourse” would probably include the following features: it must not emit propositions, and it must not have the appearance of making primary statements or of having positive (or “affirmative”) content. (391-92)

The serpent is biting its tail again; claiming itself devoid of presuppositions, incapable of knowledge, precluded from positive content, this “language” which “expresses” this “aesthetics” nevertheless “emits” directives, mandates, prohibitions. The “aesthetics” is something of a manifesto. Without ground or authority, whence these “must not”s? The passage, continuing, gives several replies; first:

This reflects the widespread feeling that inasmuch as everything we utter is a moment in a larger chain or context, all statements that seem to be primary are in fact only links in some larger “text.” (We think we’re walking firmly on solid ground, but the planet is spinning in outer space.)

I certainly agree that the “whence” of the “must not”’s is not the ground or authority of philosophical propositions or even of philosophical “thought” which might wander away from rational propositions. It is “feeling,” here, that authorizes the project, or, perhaps I have missed the emphasis: “widespread feeling.” Consensus, perhaps. But I doubt that we “feel” or consent to share the feeling that the catastrophe, i.e., Nietzschean thought—which broke up the “ground” in the West, discharging both metaphysical and rational “authority—if it may indeed have proceeded from itself and proved itself by asserting itself, existing in and overpowering by the power of its own vision and passion, was due to or tended toward”feeling" or “widespread feeling.” Nietzsche’s word for such primordial historical disjunctions as Jameson is tracing in modernism-postmodernism was “irruptions”; Foucault’s was “epistemes.” However, the event of disruption so called in each case seems eminently more primordial, farreaching, overarching, than Jameson’s thinned-down, leveled-out “widespread feeling,” where language and/or the voice (“everything we utter,” including formerly “primary” statements) all but disappear into a “moment” and a “chain or context” of a “larger ‘text.’” The ineffable triumphs, not as meaning or vision or will or power, but as context, text. An example represents (“dramatizes”) the situation: what we take for the ground under foot is (really) a spinning planet. I’m sure the chain must continue: what we take for a spinning planet is (really) a _____. (And “really”?)

This looks like the old seems/is appearance/being riddle. The problem is interpretation. Let us return from the regressive parenthesis to the “text,” where the problem, or the postmodern solution, with which we are familiar by now, is “text”2 itself, a writing-in-itself, writing without author or referent and unrelated to truth or being, except as the renunciation of these, as we continue:

This feeling also entails another one, which is perhaps only a temporal version of the preceding intuition; namely, that we can never go far enough back to make primary statements, that there are no conceptual (but only representational) beginnings, and that the doctrine of presuppositions or foundations is somehow intolerable as a testimony to the inadequacies of the human mind (which needs to be grounded on something, which in its turn proves to be nothing but fiction, religious belief, or, most intolerable of all, some philosophy of “as if”).

We note that “intuition” is given as a synonym for “feeling”; the old rejected vocabulary is recycled as ciphers. To the first feeling a second “temporal version” is added. It is “intolerable” that the human mind is inadequate, requires grounds, foundations, beginnings—fictitious, religious or rational. This “feeling” or “intuition” that we cannot return to a beginning, that there are no beginnings, and that grounds “prove” to be a chimera—this “feeling” or “intuition” with its dis-grounded “proofs”—is our new ground, proof, that we should, no, “must,” obey a new “primary requirement of language”: i.e., (not to speak or even to write but) “to frame utterances” such that they elude the denounced categories. The paragraph itself, as it continues, shows us the method:

Any number of other themes can be mobilized to enrich or inflect this one, such as the idea of nature and the natural as some ultimate content or referent, whose historical obliteration in a postnatural “human age” then centrally characterizes the postmodern as such. But the crucial feature of what we have called a theoretical aesthetic lies in its organization around this particular taboo, which excludes the philosophical proposition as such, and thereby statements about being as well as judgments of truth. The much-decried poststructural swerve away from truth judgments and categories—comprehensible enough as a social reaction to a world already overpopulated with such things—is thus a second-degree effect of a more primary requirement of language, which is no longer to frame utterances in such a way that those categories might be appropriate. (391-92, emphasis mine)

Here Jameson gives the features of the modern (Nietzsche-Heidegger) moment when things fell apart, the same features as they turned into the Derridean project, i.e., the deconstruction of the fatally flawed logocentrism: the impossibility of escaping the concept conceptually, the impossibility of an alternative to the concept; thus, the acceptance of the fact/necessity of play—in the sense of instability (play in the supporting axle, in the steering wheel) and of improvisation (dancing under the gun), the endeavor springing from and toward a dreadful joy—juissance at the brink of the abyss, awake.

And now we have the “postmodern” sequel: the project of using the language (which has been proved and demonstrated to be incapable of producing what can no longer be conceptualized as expression for what can no longer be believed to be articulable understanding) for generating what Jameson calls provisionally “feeling” or “intuition.” The idea seems to be that various “groups” are expected to use the only language available, empty linguistic markers, now called “idiolect[s] or ideological code[s],” to schematize a field; a “certain demographic ‘pluralism’” develops. Now, as Jameson’s paragraph demonstrates, a thinker or writer (both words are mere markers) draws from whatever combinations of so-developed “languages” he chooses, as he traces out a sort of “foreign language” for his (non)thinking or (non)writing. Thus, here, Jameson, using the phrase “group adherence” appends: “viewed from a different and more sociological perspective.”

Is this what Derrida meant by letting words “slide”? This bricolage of blunt-edged, wilted language seems an unlikely sequel to the work of the writer who taught us, it seemed for the first time, to read what we were writing.

Jameson’s language attempts a precarious balancing act—a daring blind-man’s-bluff knockabout through the obstacle course, an un-Derrida-like but Derrida-directed (-commanded, -choreographed) dance on the tip of the pen—the trick of “making sense” or making an appearance or effect of sense (what Jameson calls “feeling” and “intuition” here) out of (by means of) nonsense, i.e., language itself, false words, fated syntax; both tied fast and inextricably to an embarrassing semantics, to representation, metaphysics, ontology, teleology. Since and after Derrida’s work it has become a rudiment of academic discourse to negate the concept: to do so conceptually, until something better (other) happens. Something other (worse) is happening. It is exhibited here in Jameson’s postmodernism where we can examine it at our leisure.

At this point in his book Jameson has already been through all this, has worked through this postmodernist difference. In Chapter X, pointing out the postmodern in architecture, he describes a postmodern structure created by an artist in California; an architectural space is constructed around an old house, appropriating it unchanged, pp. 119-20:

There are . . . other ways in which the theoretical issue of reference might be framed: most notably, a perspective in which the room itself—characteristic of that mainstream American society and social space into which the Gehry house has been inserted—stands as some last minimal remnant of that older space as it is worked over, canceled, surcharged, volatilized, sublimated, or transformed by some newer system. In that case, the traditional room could be seen as some feeble, ultimate, tenuous reference, or as the last stubborn, truncated core of a referent in the process of wholesale dissolution and liquidation. . . .

I want to add that this conception of reference, which is social and spatial all at once, has real content, and can be developed in very concrete directions. For example, the above described enclave space is in fact a maid’s room and thereby becomes invested at once with the content of various kinds of social subalternity, remnants of older hierarchy in the family, and gender and ethnic divisions of labor.

The old “meaning” is indeed “feeble,” “tenuous,” a “stubborn, truncated core of a referent”; but it is not providing the weaver, the weaving; it is undergoing a workover, a cancellation, etc., a transformation . . . a dissolution and liquidation. If we demand to see in some detail this overworking, transforming, annihilating (we can see at this distance that the processes—or at least the metaphors—are physical, psychological, chemical or alchemical); if we object that we cannot agree that the “social and spatial” (and Marxist) notions “social subalternity,” “hierarchy,” and “gender and ethnic divisions of labor” can be called “real content” developing in “concrete directions” (when is a direction concrete?); then we receive our answer in the next paragraph. The new space and the old space have been shown to be engaging in a kind of dialectic opening up a new space, a postmodern space: a “radically new spatiality beyond the traditional and the modern alike which seems to make some historical claim for radical difference and originality.” (Note that history, root, and origin are appropriated without overworking, transformation, or dissolution.)

The question of interpretation arises when we try to evaluate this claim and propose hypotheses as to its possible “meaning.” Put somewhat differently, such hypotheses necessarily constitute transcoding operations in which we frame equivalents for this architectural and spatial phenomenon in other codes or theoretical languages; or, to use yet another kind of language, they constitute the allegorical projection of the structure of the analysis models. . . . (120)

“Interpretation” is “put differently” as a “transcoding operation,” which “frames equivalents” of the “phenomenon” in other “codes or theoretical languages.” Then it is put into “yet another kind of language”: allegory (hammered into a phrase as clumsy and ugly as the former transformation of interpretation). This is embarrassing. Will any group of people, educated or not, submit to such junklanguage!? We have not moved; we have only claimed to move. We have devised eyesore detours to get back to meanings we claim to have renounced.

Jameson is trying to satisfy the conflicting, equally-imperious imperatives of a post-deconstruction anti-theoretic theoretic as well as a Marxist ideology and a currently fashionable political correctness, all all the more binding and irresistible for the disappearance of “depth,” emphasized throughout the book. Gone are Derrida’s absencings, spacings, the dizzying arbitrarinesses as ground (abyme) for free-play, improvisation. Technology has turned consciousness to chaos, reflection to deflection, action to reaction.

Jameson’s text is not successful at the tightrope it hazards. It is not depthless, though it is sometimes facile, sometimes trivializing. Nor has it given over subjectivity, or distancing. It has not abandoned theory. It is essentially a traditional conceptual work, picking its tortuous, self-defeating way, trying not to make tracks, trying to snuff out the tracks (“it must not have the appearance of making primary statements or of having positive [or ‘affirmative’] content”)—across the minefield. If it fails, if it self-destructs, it has the advantage, at least to my mind, that it destroys or disturbs the illusion it was working to create, as well—an apparition it called “postmodernism.”

We wander through a ghosttext of dead, or buried, “meanings,” kicking up enough vibrations to comprise a “text.” It can be read as a postmodern post-writing (postmortem) suicide note; but only if we read the meanings back into the words. The disgraced, disowned, banished “meanings” (we’re in charge of discharging “man” from Eden this time) provide, in a kind of retrospect, all the possibilities of the “text”—what gets woven and what weaves, interchanges, exchanges, adheres, coheres.

Words are used in the place where something nameless but indispensable disappeared, used to appear, and in fact continues to appear, reappears—a mysterious “referent” that has lost its concept and its meaning. For example we can read: “For alongside the perspective in which [my emphasis of an example of”ineffable" or empty language—or metaphor] my language comments on [unable to assert, affirm] that of another, there is a somewhat longer vista [the metaphor is holding] in which both languages derive from larger families that used to be called weltanschauungen, or worldviews." Thus Jameson identifies what it is that he is re-calling (as) “code.” Language is working perfectly effectively to “call” up what we have “~called” a “referent”—is appealing to something in “experience” or in “consciousness”—but with the difference that the magnitude, the “depth,” the human experience, so called, is denied, so that its echo is all that resounds in its place.

The ground is not “ground,” but we are still standing. The point is not to, obediently, fall, or to spend decades working through the rational implications of a rational impasse or conundrum once we are satisfied that the passage is closed. The alternative is to look to see what is supporting us if it is not “ground,” to see what we are doing if we are “standing.” We have gotten into the habit of “looking” and “seeing” rationally, and only poets and crazies have continued to look otherwise. The poets and crazies have now, for the most part, been institutionalized—the poets in the academy, the crazies (probably more than a few poets among them) in the prisons and wherever the homeless go at night. Perhaps this is the time to take another look at their way of relating (to?) the world.

  1. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

  2. See p. 77 for “text”: “It is, of course, no accident that today, in full postmodernism, the older language of the”work“—the work of art, the masterwork—has everywhere largely been displaced by the rather different language of the”text," of texts and textuality—a language from which the achievement of organic or monumental form is strategically excluded. Everything can now be a text in that sense (daily life, the body, political representations), while objects that were formerly “works” can now be reread as immense ensembles or systems of texts of various kinds, superimposed on each other by way of the various intertextualities, successions of fragments, or, yet again, sheer process (henceforth called textual production or textualization). The autonomous work of art thereby—along with the old autonomous subject or ego—seems to have vanished, to have been volatilized."