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This reader provides a selection of articles and essays by leading figures in the postmodernism debate.
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The debate around postmodernism has a long history. Yet it would be true to say that the contemporary interest in the question dates from 1968, that annus mirabilis which is the great ‘1848’ of modern Europe. After the perceived failures of certain ‘revolutionary’ movements in 1968, a substantial rethinking of the question of cultural politics became not only necessary but also – through a questioning of the ‘modern’ itself – available in new, interesting and challenging, ways. If the logic of a structuralist Marxism was, for whatever reasons, unsuccessful when put into practice, then how might a left-wing politics advance its cause? How can the critic of culture know or predict the political effects of her or his discourse? In short, if a political theory had failed on the occasion of May 1968 to produce the requisite practice, then from now on, how does one safely ground an emancipatory cultural politics? In philosophy, there arises a whole series of ‘anti-foundational’ modes of thinking, already foreshadowed in the early deconstruction of Derrida in his three great 1967 texts. In more general terms, one might say that the critique of a foundational – or, perhaps, ‘totalising’ – theory begins from within theory itself. The general culture faces what Habermas diagnosed in 1973 as a ‘legitimation crisis’.
In the arena of science, there was the beginning of the same problem, though mediated in a slightly different manner. So-called ‘rogue scientists’, such as Paul Feyerabend and Fritjof Capra, had begun to question what we might call the ‘theoreticist’ basis of contemporary science. In the anarchist science of Feyerabend, more attention is paid to the ways in which empirical practice actually deviates from the theoretically reasoned scientific theorem, for instance; and the theorem itself begins to be considered as something carceral, as a ‘form’ which polices the actual ‘content’ of scientific experiment. Knowledge, for Feyerabend and his like, should not be thus ‘imprisoned’ within the bounds of a series of Western rationalist models whose sole purpose is to bolster Western modes of thinking and of representing the ‘truth’ about the world.
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn had proposed a specific way of understanding the procedures through which our scientific ‘models’ for explaining the world change across history. There were, he argued, certain ‘paradigms’ according to which the world could be satisfactorily explained. But, given an expanding scientific research and increasingly exacting testing of specific problems within science, the paradigms always begin to come under pressure, producing less satisfactory, less predictable results. After a long time, when the existing paradigm is seen as increasingly useless, a new paradigmatic model for explaining the world begins to gain sway. This shift between paradigms constitutes the ‘structure of scientific revolutions’. The book bearing this title had enormous influence across all fields of knowledge. It is itself a symptom precisely of a paradigm shift in the field of knowledge and philosophy, away from a model which proclaimed the availability of ‘truth’ towards one which proclaims instead the much more modest ‘pragmatic usefulness’.
Cultural criticism at this moment has begun to go ‘relativist’, so to speak. Since the eighteenth century in Europe, it had been taken more or less for granted that knowledge gave an entitlement to legislation. That is, social and political formations were grounded upon a truthful knowledge about the ways of the world. But after 1968, all such knowledges begin to be deemed ‘local’ and specific to the pragmatic necessities of the specific culture from which the knowledges emanate and whose interests they serve. Now, knowledge does not give power; rather, it is utterly imbricated with power from the outset, and is thus not a pure knowledge at all but a practical knowledge, a knowledge whose raison d’être is power itself. From 1968, the leftist intellectual begins to be suspicious of a knowledge which will legislate for any culture other than the very culture which produced that knowledge in the first place.
Increasingly, the possibility of criticism itself enters into crisis. It seemed that there was a basic alternative. On the one hand, one could retain the idea of a ‘foundational’ criticism, according to which the critic, working from a ‘rational’ ground, might legislate for any and every eventuality and might make all the necessary and determined judgements regarding any cultural practice. On the other hand, this mode of criticism begins to be rejected as a symptom of an imperialist cast of mind, according to which one culture arrogates to itself the right to legislate for all other cultures whose foundations might be radically different.
Once the legitimation crisis becomes articulated in these terms, it becomes more and more obvious to refer to the first model as a European and ‘Enlightenment’ model of criticism. Further, given the fact that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers saw themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘modernising’, the foundationalist mode of criticism became increasingly stigmatised as specifically ‘modernist’. The anti-foundationalist criticism, by dint of the very fact that it subjects modernist thought to speculative pressure, postulates thereby the possibility of an ‘outside’ of modernist thinking.
The word ‘postmodern’ was increasingly used to describe this ‘outside’ of modernist thought; but its meaning was somewhat obfuscated by the prefix ‘post-’, which carried too much the weight of a simple chronological tardiness. The articles here address this situation. Lyotard’s ‘Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?’ not only begins to offer a serious definition of the term, but alludes directly in the title to the history of the question. Lyotard’s title is meant explicitly to call to mind Kant’s famous piece ‘What is Enlightenment?’. To begin to address the postmodern, one has also to address an entire trajectory of European philosophy dating from the Enlightenment. The more immediate ‘local’ reason for this allusion to Kant, of course, is that in the French philosophical institution attention had begun to turn to Kant, swerving away from the extremely influential version of Hegel proposed by Kojève in the 1930s. In his letter of 1985 to Jessamyn Blau, Lyotard maintains a rigorous sense for the troublesome prefix ‘post-’, in the face of its increasingly sloppy chronological usage.
The proper sense in which ‘postmodern’ describes an ‘after’ of the modern really derives from a sociological discourse referring not to modernism but to modernity. Here, Habermas and Jameson share something of the same terrain, in the sense that they both discern the beginning of a shift in consciousness which is appropriate to the contemporary moment. Habermas is much troubled by such a shift, and has maintained a vigilant regard for the serious and continuing elucidation of modernity, in the face of what he sees as a neo-Nietzschean tendency to nihilism in the contemporary validations of relativism. The fragment included here dates from his 1985 lectures, and is a succinct formulation of what Habermas sees as the main dangers for the building of a rational society – dangers which are exacerbated by the postmodern tendency in contemporary culture. Jameson’s piece is the famous, much reworked and much discussed ‘Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, first published in this extended form in New Left Review in 1984 (and subsequently further revised in his book Postmodernism). Jameson seems much more ambivalent about the postmodern: on the one hand, he is deeply suspicious of it as the articulation of a continued capitalism which is branded by covert exploitation and oppression; yet on the other hand he is, by his own admission, more than half in love with the very practices and objects of a postmodern culture which he wishes to expose as politically disreputable. The four pieces together offer a broad survey of a variety of ‘postmodern’ concerns apparent in the work of the three most influential figures in the field of the contemporary debate. They are founding – if sometimes anti-foundational – propositions for all the work which follows.
This is a period of slackening – I refer to the color of the times. From every direction we are being urged to put an end to experimentation, in the arts and elsewhere. I have read an art historian who extols realism and is militant for the advent of a new subjectivity. I have read an art critic who packages and sells ‘Transavantgardism’ in the marketplace of painting. I have read that under the name of postmodernism, architects are getting rid of the Bauhaus project, throwing out the baby of experimentation with the bathwater of functionalism. I have read that a new philosopher is discovering what he drolly calls Judaeo-Christianism, and intends by it to put an end to the impiety which we are supposed to have spread. I have read in a French weekly that some are displeased with Mille Plateaux [by Deleuze and Guattari] because they expect, especially when reading a work of philosophy, to be gratified with a little sense. I have read from the pen of a reputable historian that writers and thinkers of the 1960 and 1970 avant-gardes spread a reign of terror in the use of language, and that the conditions for a fruitful exchange must be restored by imposing on the intellectuals a common way of speaking, that of the historians. I have been reading a young philosopher of language who complains that Continental thinking, under the challenge of speaking machines, has surrendered to the machines the concern for reality, that it has substituted for the referential paradigm that of ‘adlinguisticity’ (one speaks about speech, writes about writing, intertextuality), and who thinks that the time has now come to restore a solid anchorage of language in the referent. I have read a talented theatrologist for whom postmodernism, with its games and fantasies, carries very little weight in front of political authority, especially when a worried public opinion encourages authority to a politics of totalitarian surveillance in the face of nuclear warfare threats.
I have read a thinker of repute who defends modernity against those he calls the neoconservatives. Under the banner of postmodernism, the latter would like, he believes, to get rid of the uncompleted project of modernism, that of the Enlightenment. Even the last advocates of Aufklärung, such as Popper or Adorno, were only able, according to him, to defend the project in a few particular spheres of life – that of politics for the author of The Open Society, and that of art for the author of Ästhetische Theorie. Jürgen Habermas (everyone had recognized him) thinks that if modernity has failed, it is in allowing the totality of life to be splintered into independent specialties which are left to the narrow competence of experts, while the concrete individual experiences ‘desublimated meaning’ and ‘destructured form’, not as a liberation but in the mode of that immense ennui which Baudelaire described over a century ago.
Following a prescription of Albrecht Wellmer, Habermas considers that the remedy for this splintering of culture and its separation from life can only come from ‘changing the status of aesthetic experience when it is no longer primarily expressed in judgments of taste’, but when it is ‘used to explore a living historical situation’, that is, when ‘it is put in relation with problems of existence’. For this experience then ‘becomes a part of a language game which is no longer that of aesthetic criticism’; it takes part ‘in cognitive processes and normative expectations’; ‘it alters the manner in which those different moments refer to one another’. What Habermas requires from the arts and the experiences they provide is, in short, to bridge the gap between cognitive, ethical, and political discourses, thus opening the way to a unity of experience.
My question is to determine what sort of unity Habermas has in mind. Is the aim of the project of modernity the constitution of sociocultural unity within which all the elements of daily life and of thought would take their places as in an organic whole? Or does the passage that has to be charted between heterogeneous language-games – those of cognition, of ethics, of politics – belong to a different order from that? And if so, would it be capable of effecting a real synthesis between them?
The first hypothesis, of a Hegelian inspiration, does not challenge the notion of a dialectically totalizing experience; the second is closer to the spirit of Kant’s Critique of Judgement; but must be submitted, like the Critique, to that severe reexamination which postmodernity imposes on the thought of the Enlightenment, on the idea of a unitary end of history and of a subject. It is this critique which not only Wittgenstein and Adorno have initiated, but also a few other thinkers (French or other) who do not have the honor to be read by Professor Habermas – which at least saves them from getting a poor grade for their neoconservatism.
The demands I began by citing are not all equivalent. They can even be contradictory. Some are made in the name of postmodernism, others in order to combat it. It is not necessarily the same thing to formulate a demand for some referent (and objective reality), for some sense (and credible transcendence), for an addressee (and audience), or an addressor (and subjective expressiveness) or for some communicational consensus (and a general code of exchanges, such as the genre of historical discourse). But in the diverse invitations to suspend artistic experimentation, there is an identical call for order, a desire for unity, for identity, for security, or popularity (in the sense of Öffentlichkeit, of ‘finding a public’). Artists and writers must be brought back into the bosom of the community, or at least, if the latter is considered to be ill, they must be assigned the task of healing it.
There is an irrefutable sign of this common disposition: it is that for all those writers nothing is more urgent than to liquidate the heritage of the avant-gardes. Such is the case, in particular, of the so-called transavantgardism. The answers given by Achille Bonito Oliva to the questions asked by Bernard Lamarche-Vadel and Michel Enric leave no room for doubt about this. By putting the avant-gardes through a mixing process, the artist and critic feel more confident that they can suppress them than by launching a frontal attack. For they can pass off the most cynical eclecticism as a way of going beyond the fragmentary character of the preceding experiments; whereas if they openly turned their backs on them, they would run the risk of appearing ridiculously neoacademic. The Salons and the Académies, at the time when the bourgeoisie was establishing itself in history, were able to function as purgation and to grant awards for good plastic and literary conduct under the cover of realism. But capitalism inherently possesses the power to derealize familiar objects, social roles, and institutions to such a degree that the so-called realistic representations can no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery, as an occasion for suffering rather than for satisfaction. Classicism seems to be ruled out in a world in which reality is so destabilized that it offers no occasion for experience but one for ratings and experimentation.
This theme is familiar to all readers of Walter Benjamin. But it is necessary to assess its exact reach. Photography did not appear as a challenge to painting from the outside, any more than industrial cinema did to narrative literature. The former was only putting the final touch to the program of ordering the visible elaborated by the quattrocento; while the latter was the last step in rounding off diachronies as organic wholes, which had been the ideal of the great novels of education since the eighteenth century. That the mechanical and the industrial should appear as substitutes for hand or craft was not in itself a disaster – except if one believes that art is in its essence the expression of an individuality of genius assisted by an elite craftsmanship.
The challenge lay essentially in that photographic and cinematographic processes can accomplish better, faster, and with a circulation a hundred thousand times larger than narrative or pictorial realism, the task which academicism had assigned to realism: to preserve various consciousnesses from doubt. Industrial photography and cinema will be superior to painting and the novel whenever the objective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly, and so to arrive easily at the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which he thereby receives from others – since such structures of images and sequences constitute a communication code among all of them. This is the way the effects of reality, or if one prefers, the fantasies of realism, multiply.
If they too do not wish to become supporters (of minor importance at that) of what exists, the painter and novelist must refuse to lend themselves to such therapeutic uses. They must question the rules of the art of painting or of narrative as they have learned and received them from their predecessors. Soon those rules must appear to them as a means to deceive, to seduce, and to reassure, which makes it impossible for them to be ‘true’. Under the common name of painting and literature, an unprecedented split is taking place. Those who refuse to reexamine the rules of art pursue successful careers in mass conformism by communicating, by means of the ‘correct rules’, the endemic desire for reality with objects and situations capable of gratifying it. Pornography is the use of photography and film to such an end. It is becoming a general model for the visual or narrative arts which have not met the challenge of the mass media.
As for the artists and writers who question the rules of plastic and narrative arts and possibly share their suspicions by circulating their work, they are destined to have little credibility in the eyes of those concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘identity’; they have no guarantee of an audience. Thus it is possible to ascribe the dialectics of the avant-gardes to the challenge posed by the realisms of industry and mass communication to painting and the narrative arts. Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ does nothing but actively and parodistically signify this constant process of dispossession of the craft of painting or even of being an artist. As Thierry de Duve penetratingly observes, the modern aesthetic question is not ‘What is beautiful?’ but ‘What can be said to be art (and literature)?’
Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch. When power assumes the name of a party, realism and its neoclassical complement triumph over the experimental avant-garde by slandering and banning it – that is, provided the ‘correct’ images, the ‘correct’ narratives, the ‘cor...