What We Have

David Bromwich

  • The Origins of Postmodernity by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 143 pp, £11.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85984 222 4
  • The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-98 by Frederic Jameson
    Verso, 206 pp, £11.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85984 182 1

Post-Modernism entered the public mind as a fast-value currency in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in the field of architecture, where its association with gimmicky tropes of visual play (the logo-in-the-sky of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the phonejack-in-the-sky of the AT–T Building in New York) gave plausibility to the promotional prose. AT–T was the work of Philip Johnson, the friend of Andy Warhol, and so the publicity came with a background story ready to hand. The Post-Modern would be the art-historical movement that went beyond art by stopping short of art. Where Modernism was enchanted by affinities with the art of the past, and offered itself as a climactic annunciation, Post-Modernism would be ‘traditionalesque’: a little of this tradition, a little of that, whatever pleases the eye (but not too demandingly), or diverts the mind (but not into thought).

Broader traits were added as opinion-makers in the lesser arts fell into step. The Post-Modern is a matter of façade, they said, without any promise of depth. It soaks up and squeezes out but does not judge the commercial culture it is compelled to treat as a second nature. This claim, too, had been made first in architecture, by Robert Venturi: ‘The main justification of the honky-tonk elements in the architectural order is their very existence. They are what we have.’ Eventually, Post-Modernism itself would be given a honky-tonk logo and shorthand promo: around 1992, its friends and enemies alike began to call it Pomo.

Academic journals of theory – where the omission of the adjective ‘critical’ often counts as a Pomo gesture – agree that mass culture has become what we have. What exactly is meant by this? The honky-tonk elements were part of the juice in every Modernist art apart from architecture: ‘Under the bam/Under the boo/Under the bamboo tree’, lines that T.S. Eliot copied with deadpan dryness into ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, could be heard a few years later as the refrain for Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien’s dance number in Meet Me in St Louis, not because Vincente Minnelli stole the idea from Eliot but because both were freely borrowing from the same source. Given the absence of novelty in Pomo’s fondness for popular culture, the new insistence on what-we-have could only be taken as an affirmative gesture. An embrace of the high-tech lifestyle of the very rich was another of the things affirmed, as Perry Anderson suggests when summarising an argument by Charles Jencks:

In a society where information now mattered more than production, ‘there is no longer an artistic avant-garde’ since ‘there is no enemy to conquer’ in the global electronic network. In the emancipated conditions of today’s art, ‘rather there are countless individuals in Tokyo, New York, Berlin, London, Milan and other world cities communicating and competing with each other, just as they are in the banking world’. Out of their kaleidoscopic creations, it was to be hoped, might emerge ‘a shared symbolic order of the kind that a religion provides’ – the ultimate agenda of postmodernism.

This desublimation of the aesthetic – long the dream of ad-men and curators, on whom it confers a much-needed quantum of hipness – also pointed a larger moral. After a century and a half of Romanticism and Modernism, with their perpetual avant-garde, a final reconciliation was being prepared between art and commerce.

Post-Modernism has sometimes seemed to fascinate Marxists like Anderson and Fredric Jameson because it offers a bottomless pool of examples to prove the decadence of late capitalism. Its specimens on this view are important to sample because they instruct us in the ‘logic’ of current events, in which a new culture, engendered by bourgeois society itself, is hollowing out and destroying the bourgeois life-form and making way for something different. We cannot, says Jameson, assume that the next thing will be better, we can only begin to guess what it will be, but the destruction is interesting. Thus his writing is prey to alternate tremors of horror and eschatological dread. At some point, the dread tips over into ‘euphoria’, a word Jameson uses in a special sense, with overtones of hysteria, monotony, and the ecstasy of the risen consciousness. Then again, his interest in the décor of Pomo has sometimes wrapped itself in the buoyant nonchalance of a practised flâneur. It seems on balance more a Hegelian than a Marxist stance, in which sheer wonder predominates, wonder that the most arid and stifling of present-day tendencies are working nevertheless to furnish a future for someone.

The Origins of Postmodernity began as an introduction to the essays by Jameson collected in The Cultural Turn, but Anderson’s interest grew until it generated a separate pamphlet. He writes about Jameson with enthusiasm and a touch of awe. He is not an aesthete, and it is his sociological and historical asides, rather than his judgments of poetry and painting, that have an air of unaffected intensity. The family resemblance between the two writers lies in a certain encyclopedism, a weary knowledgeability and a ready scorn for the trimmers whose glamour they are deft at exposing. A protective manner which brooks no rival goes with their burden of resistance to the structures of late capitalism. The prose of both theorists admits occasional garish patches to bring out the essential grotesqueness of the subject as they see it: Jameson’s style is likened by Anderson to ‘magnesium flares in a night sky’, and when he himself speaks of ‘a general encanaillement of the possessing classes’, of ‘disneyfication of protocols and tarantinisation of practices, the avid cortèges of the nocturnal underpass or the gubernatorial troop’, he is sending up flares of his own. Yet these lights and shadows leave some objects shrouded in darkness. One may read widely in Jameson in particular without coming across a description of political equality or freedom, or any non-capitalist ideal he thinks might now be carried over from theory into practice; and when his statements of solidarity do emerge, they quickly turn into rehearsals of academic alliances, or broad-gauge exhortations of unity. Among the ‘more progressive features of the post-modern’, he says, are ‘its populism and pluralising democratisation, its commitment to the ethnic and the plebeian, and to feminism, its antiauthoritarianism and anti-élitism, precisely its anti-bourgeois features’. The yoking of feminism into such a catalogue – as if the movement for women’s rights and women’s autonomy had marched under the banner of Pomo – is a very forgetful play to the gallery.

In The Origins of Postmodernity Anderson continues to be what Jameson largely ceased to be in his writings of the Eighties and early Nineties, a patient expositor of ideas, and the book gives the best short account that has yet appeared of the uses of the word ‘Post-Modern’ and the programmes the idea has served. The first half is also an excellent primer on the long prehistory of Pomo. We are reminded that Ihab Hassan made a preliminary canvass of Post-Modernist literature as early as 1971, but later came to deplore a touch of fraudulence in the sell: Post-Modernism, he wrote, looking back, ‘has become a kind of eclectic raillery, the refined prurience of our borrowed pleasures and trivial disbeliefs’. This note of regret is a common feature in the work of several former evangelists, most conspicuously Jean-François Lyotard, who said in a late interview about The Postmodern Condition: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people.’ And yet when Lyotard wrote, ‘Development is not an invention of human beings. Human beings are an invention of development,’ he had touched an optimism that would appeal to many successors, including Jameson.

The tone of Anderson’s narrative alters perceptibly in the third chapter, entitled ‘Capture’. This deals with Jameson alone and the synoptic power with which he has grasped all of Post-Modern culture in a single thought: ‘The electronic unification of the earth, instituting the simultaneity of events across the globe as daily spectacle, has lodged a vicarious geography in the recesses of every consciousness; while the encircling networks of multinational capital that actually direct the system exceed the capacities of any perception.’ That is Anderson’s sentence not Jameson’s, but it is often hard to tell, as the descriptions move from paraphrase to panegyric. In Jameson’s capture of the Post-Modern, we see

a concept whose visionary origins were all but completely effaced in usages complicit with the established order, wrested away by a prodigious display of theoretical intelligence and energy for the cause of a revolutionary Left. This has been a discursive victory gained against all political odds, in a period of neoliberal hegemony when every familiar landmark of the Left appeared to sink beneath the waves of a tidal reaction.

Anderson admires in Jameson’s style ‘the spacious rhythms of a complex, yet supple syntax’, and ‘the sudden bursts of meta-phoric intensity, exhilarating figural leaps with a high-wire éclat all their own’, which ‘stand as emblems of the bold diagonal moves, closer to a poetic than analytic intelligence’. A little further on, Jameson will be crowned the successor at once of Lukács and Mallarmé, the man in whom ‘the vocation of Western Marxism has reached its most complete consummation’.

In so curious a question of science and taste, no resolution could be fair, no evidence quite complete, but here is a small reminder of those spacious rhythms:

This identification of the class content of Postmodern culture does not at all imply that ‘yuppies’ have become something like a new ruling class or a ‘subject of history’ – merely that their cultural practices and values, their local ideologies, have articulated a useful dominant ideological and cultural paradigm for this stage of capital.

Irregular music in a higher strain may fall into a different cadence – ‘the hallucinatory intensity of smeared colour in the grimy numbness of routine, the bitter-sweet taste of the erotic in a world of brutalised and exhausted bodies’ – but when he writes like that, Jameson does so with a certain piety. His evocative passages owe something to Mailer and DeLillo. The wish to produce such effects incidentally goes against his stricture that ‘all beauty today is meretricious.’ Anderson is much impressed by this pronouncement, but beauty is found in life far more than in art. If we avert our eyes to escape the seduction, what will our eyes be good for? Jameson’s one-liner itself contains a meretricious echo of Adorno’s sentence about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz – ‘meretricious’, considering the incommensurate contexts.

The Cultural Turn is a book of essays on the Post-Modern, some of which have appeared in earlier books by Jameson, and it pays a price for thematic unity by omitting some of the best things he has written in recent years, among them his appreciations of the architectural writings of Manfredo Tafuri and the novels of Philip K. Dick. Still, these essays show him to be, unlike Lyotard, only a part-time mystagogue – a characteristic moment being his speculation that the free-floating euphoria induced by Pomo architecture is to be understood as a correlative of the free-floating capital of financial markets. Jameson shares with many literary historians the belief that there is progress in the arts, and that progress means specifically advances in technique. Picasso, Proust and Eliot from this point of view ‘do not work any more (or are positively harmful)’. In any but the conventional terms of progressive storytelling, one would be hard-pressed to say just what sort of harm could be meant. The answer seems to be the harm of retrogressive techniques.

Anderson gives a clear summary of Jameson’s idea that the distinctive Post-Modern style is pastiche, and he helps the uninitiated to know what pastiche is by calling it ‘blank parody’. It is an attractive formulation until one thinks of the nighttown scene of Ulysses, or Duke Ellington’s ‘Harlem Air Shaft’, or Lenny Bruce’s riff on a Thirties prison breakout movie, all of which are certainly pastiche and as certainly pre-Pomo. As for Jameson’s thesis that Modernism itself is ‘cancelled realism’, it seems a plausible clue to the relationship of Kafka to Flaubert, or of Kurosawa to John Ford, but will be found a clueless guide to Proust and his relationship to a single precursor. We are advised by Anderson to think hard about Jameson’s suggestion that we may ‘grow new organs to expand our sensoria and our bodies to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions’. But that directive is not uniquely Post-Modern. It has its own past, in Futurism and Surrealism, and in Marshall McLuhan. The truth is that Jameson’s resources are vast and confusing even to his warmest partisans. He has become a theorist so prolific of suggestions and so abortive of distinctions as almost to defeat commentary. His mind is a first-rate reservoir, always freshly stocked with ideas, with an unfaked erudition drawn from French and German sources as well as English – full of reminders, on-the run paraphrases, speculations or aperçus, which are tantalising in exact proportion to their ambiguous pertinence. His worst vices are imprecision of reference and description, a habitual grandiosity both of phrasing and conception, and the frequent substitution of catalogue for interpretation and analysis.

Of the imprecision some examples should be given. To stick to Jameson’s many citations from movies, an essay in The Cultural Turn asserts that American Graffiti is set in the Fifties, but it is not. The moment is the early Sixties (the cars are a definite clue) and the difference does matter: the boy going off to college is on a longer journey than anybody knows. Again, Jameson finds in Body Heat a reduction of local signifiers, meant, he thinks, to place the movie in a timeless nostalgic moment, ‘an eternal Thirties, say’. The description is half-true of Body Heat, but the noir films it pays homage to were just getting off the ground with The Maltese Falcon in 1941, and the great examples of the kind, from Wilder, Lang, Siodmak, Tourneur, Hathaway, almost all belong to the Forties and Fifties. You may say that in these cases he is off only by a decade, or two. But the imprecision relates to a certain lack of curiosity. In his description of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, now a celebrated text in the Pomo canon, one encounters the following sentence with an odd parenthesis: ‘Let me quickly conclude all this by returning to the central space of the lobby itself (with the passing observation that the hotel rooms are visibly marginalised: the corridors in the residential sections are low-ceilinged and dark, most depressingly functional indeed, while one understands that the rooms – frequently redecorated – are in the worst taste).’ The phrase ‘one understands that’, if it means anything, means that Jameson never looked into one of the rooms: that, too, would explain why so capable a taxonomist allows the passage to trail off on the anti-climactic ‘in the worst taste’. With one look into a motel room in The Big Heat, Gloria Grahame said it better: ‘Hey, I like this, early nothing.’

The problem with a polymath theorist like Jameson is that he is apt to forge a dozen links or ‘diagonal moves’ for every step of the way on which any single reader could vouch for his competence. One follows three or four of these moves, and raises an eyebrow about one or two, and wonders if the doubts really matter. So it is with something like relief that one turns to a Jameson exegesis that is not a rhapsody on a hotel mall some people have seen and some have not, and not a collage of quotations from disparate works which no one else has sighted along quite his tangent, but a meditation on an experience common enough to be shared by almost everyone. Here is the explanation in ‘Culture and Finance Capital’ of the changing function of the movie preview:

I want to begin by recalling Ken Russell’s seemingly jocular remark, that in the 21st century, all fiction films will last no longer than 15 minutes apiece: the implication being that in a Late Show culture like our own, the elaborate preparations we used to require in order to apprehend a series of images as a story of some kind will be, for whatever reason, unnecessary ... Everyone who still visits movie theatres has become aware of the way in which intensified competition by the film industry for now inveterate television viewers has led to a transformation in the very structure of the preview. The latter has had to be developed and expanded, becoming a far more comprehensive teaser for the film in store for us. Now the preview is obliged, not merely to exhibit a few images of the stars and a few samples of the high points, but virtually to recapitulate all the plot’s twists and turns, and to preview the entire plot in advance. At length, the inveterate viewer ... is led to make a momentous discovery: namely, that the preview is really all you need ... The preview is a new form ... whose generic satisfactions are distinct from the older kind.

It is an ingenious hypothesis and wholly compatible with a premise of lesser Pomo theorists – the universal substitution of representation for reality, of montage for narrative and sample for whole. Yet the hypothesis is wrong, and the evidence is false. The typical preview now does not tell much of the story of a movie, but even forty years ago it told you something. In fact, previews have become louder and longer because the movies are louder and longer. They are gripping in the way Jameson and the rest of us find them gripping because they have been strongly influenced by video. The longest interval a camera is allowed to dwell on a face in close-up in a TV action series has been reckoned at three seconds. In a movie of some ambition, it may still be permitted to extend to five. Previews cut this down to one or two, and while galvanising the retina with high-speed cuts, they whack the nerves and eardrums with the slam and reverberation of Dolby Sound. There have to be more of them now, because there is no second feature, and extra time in the theatre is part of what people expect for their money. Meanwhile, the audience makes roughly the same use of the opportunity that it always did. The better you liked the preview, the greater the probability that you will see the movie.

The past two decades for Jameson have seen many trips to movie theatres and many trips around the world. How much credit should be given to the expansion of his itinerary to include Asia, Africa and Latin America? After 1982, when, as Anderson narrates his career, Jameson presented at the Whitney Museum the ‘founding text’ of his Post-Modernism, he ‘was to reflect on Soseki and Karatani in Japan; Lu Xun and Lao She in China; Sembene in Senegal and Solas or Barnet in Cuba; Edward Yang of Taiwan and Kidlak Tahimik of the Philippines’. Most Western readers will have to take on trust the significance of these venues and the distinction of the works mentioned, their representative status in the cultures from which they emerged, and the background of competing works against which Jameson has picked them out and said some appropriate words. Travellers to the Soviet Union as late as the mid-Eighties were surprised to learn that the two American novelists most congenial to Russian taste had long been Hemingway and Jack London. Their idea of a great Southern writer was then, as doubtless it remains, Margaret Mitchell first and Faulkner a distant second. If Jameson were to arrive tomorrow in Oaxaca, there to address an enraptured seminar on the Tunisian counterparts of Margaret Mitchell and Jack London, which of his Anglophone interlocutors would know the difference?

When he passes clear of this circuit for long enough to reflect on familiar entities, Jameson can still ask questions that show the force of a genuine teacher. ‘It seems to be easier to us today,’ he writes, ‘to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.’ It is a true and disturbing thought, and would make a subject for a different book than any he has written yet, a work of social criticism and moral psychology. He can still quote Adorno stirringly: ‘Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed.’ May the same then be true of art? Adorno himself thought so: it was why he spoke of art as the promise of a never realised happiness. The resonance between these statements about art and philosophy by the great aesthetic theorist of Modernism should prompt second thoughts about the Post-Modern conceit of having gone beyond art. It is exactly as imaginable as the idea of going beyond thought. ‘There is no other way,’ wrote Ashbery with bitter accuracy in his ‘Self Portrait’,

                            and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.

The sublimity of conception, never to be confused with success of a single work, which Jameson picks out as the defining trait of Modernism, was not born with Modernism and it did not die there.

If one tries to say where the Marxist-Post-Modern encounter has gone wrong, the answers are not altogether predictable. Cultural theorists like Jameson and Anderson are liable to overrate the importance of the political commitments of high-profile artists and critics and philosophers, to say nothing of adepts with less definite portfolios. This tendency is a natural accompaniment of their intellectualism. But it leads them to overrate in turn the social influence of works of art and philosophy and political thought. At the same time, they now underrate the effects of ideology – the ‘bridge of excuses’, as Havel called it, between a government and a people or a culture and its participants. What is missing in their account is any evidence of the feelings, or even, for it would be something, the false consciousness of the feelings of people implicated in the system. All that is submerged in a theory whose demand is that people be known as obedient consumers, or exploited consumers whose revolt can only emerge through modified acts of consumption. Some interesting questions have no chance of being answered in this explanatory mode. Are people willing participants in the mesh of images that is offered to those who accept it as a total environment? And are they so all the way down the line: from the morning TV montage of global hotspots, to the afternoon trip to the cashpoint, to the evening dose of the mood-altering drug?

Political and literary critics are succumbing faster than necessary to the cant of the virtual. The surrender may be carried out with complacency by a theorist innocent of ideas, for whom it signifies only the triumph of engineered sensations. It must be undertaken with a more troubled satisfaction by a Marxist. On the current view, Post-Modernism, site of total delusion and total reification, enters history to complete the work of decomposition already in progress in the global market. The pleasure of the result relates to an old slogan, ‘Don’t build on the good old days, build on the bad new days’, a slogan that matched a policy of the Thirties – the attack on ‘social fascism’ – by which the German Communist Party broke down social democracy in order to stage a purer confrontation with the Nazis: a strategy that at its first trial did not work out well. Perhaps its second will be luckier.

Or perhaps, like the architects Pomo has always written footnotes to, the Marxists are now looking East. Empson tells us that in a composition class he taught in Communist Peking, his students would sometimes write: ‘The Americans are very wicked because they are so material, and the Russians are very good because they are so material.’ An unconscious switch between meanings was necessary to produce the irony there, but a similar exercise could come to be performed with a conscious will by the properly knowing. It would have the perfection, the flatness, the enigmatic simplicity of a Zen koan. The banality of Post-Modernism is so good because it is so material.