Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity

I'm just going to try to make a brief summary here of the book's organization and major arguments and through-lines; later I'd like to dilate a bit on a problem I had with a crucial inconsistency I see in Anderson's treatment of the postmodern w/r/t the modern, and I'll posit why I think that inconsistency exists. But that'll be another post entirely.

The Origins of Postmodernity was begun, as Anderson tells us in the foreword, as an appreciative prefatory essay for a collection of Fredric Jameson's essays, The Cultural Turn. Anderson did turn in a foreword for that book, but he also produced this, an effort to "offer a more historical account of the origins of the idea of postmodernity than is currently [1998] available [and] tries to set its different sources more precisely in their spatial, political and intellectual settings, and with greater attention to temporal sequence—also topical focus—than has become customary" (vii).

Anderson presents a quick introduction to the prehistory of the term "postmodernism": it arose (as did 'modernism') in the Hispanophone intellectual world, which to the world of the English/French/German core, looks not much different from the periphery. Or is the periphery: Anderson credits Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan poet, with coining "modernismo" in, Anderson underlines, a Guatemalan journal. "Postmodernismo," too, has its origins in "the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930's," with the Spanish writer Federico de Onís getting the credit for the neologism. (De Onís does not appear to have an English wikipedia page, but there is a Spanish page, which tells us that as a Columbia professor, he helped bring Lorca and Mistral to New York.) To Anderson, the Hispanic origin of these terms was a curious case where "the backward pioneered the terms of metropolitan advance." (Interestingly, the term "transmodernism" or "transmodernity" has been coined I think independently by two Hispanophone thinkers: Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, a Valencian philosopher, and Enrique Dussel, an Argentine philosopher. Magda's use of the term was, I believe, precedent {1989}, but it does not seem that Dussel picked it up from her when he employed it starting, I think, in 1992 or thereabouts.)

At any rate, de Onís also theorized a bifurcation in the set of reactions to modernism: postmodernismo was "a conservative reflux within modernism itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women" (4). Postmodernism was a fading light, however, to be succeeded quickly by ultramodernismo, its opposite, an intensification of "the radical impulses of modernism to a new pitch" (ibid.) Anderson returns frequently to this basic division. (Actually, the Spanish wikipedia page for "postmodernity" does an even better job than Anderson describing de Onís's definition for postmodernismo. I don't want to embarrass myself translating quickly, so if you read Spanish, check it out.)

Anderson then races through a number of names, all of whom picked up the term postmodernism basically as if new: Charles Olson, Toynbee, Irving Howe, Harry Levin, Leslie Fiedler, the journal boundary 2 (which I think is treated too desultorily), various architects. Ihab Hassan's 1971 usage takes up a bit more of Anderson's time, although he doesn't seem to feel that Hassan's theories bear much revisiting. Similarly, Lyotard is dismissed both for the initial incoherence of his conception of "The Postmodern Condition" and also for his subsequent reactions to events which called into question the original formulation. Anderson deals with him capably, but also turns him into a stark dead end.

Habermas is similarly wrung out by the force of Anderson's analysis, but Anderson leaves the reader feeling that a little more engagement with Habermas on his own terms might still be worthwhile; after seeing Anderson dispatch Lyotard or Hassan, I had no desire to read them. Anderson leaves Habermas standing as an almost worthy opponent.

After Habermas, the way is clear for the hero of this tale, Fredric Jameson. (The term 'man-crush' is not inappropriate here, and I would certainly pay to see Jameson and Anderson in a bromance, noxious as the genre is.) Jameson's early books are examined in detail in order to note the nascent growth of the ideas which would coalesce in his work explicitly treating postmodernism, starting in 1982. Later in the book, Anderson will also examine Jameson's place within the tradition of Western Marxism, itemizing Jameson's affinities to each of its greatest thinkers. If Anderson is occasionally adulatory, he is always exceedingly precise in his praise and clear as to the point and grounds of his compliments. These sections dealing with Jameson's formation are among the best parts of this book, as good as any bildungsroman.

Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism is then taken apart in five pieces:
  • first, there is the title of the essay/lecture (later also the book): "Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism."

    the anchorage of postmodernism in objective alterations of the economic order of capital itself. No longer mere aesthetic break or epistemological shift, postmodernity becomes the cultural signal of a new stage in the history of the regnant mode of production (54-5)

  • second, Jameson traces the effects of late capitalism on the collective psyche, introducing a few concepts which became canonical tropes:

    Among the traits of the new subjectivity, in fact, was the loss of any active sense of history, either as hope or memory. The charged sense of the past—as either ague-bed of repressive traditions, or reservoir of thwarted dreams; and heightened expectancy of the future—as potential cataclysm or transfiguration—which had characterized modernism, was gone. At best, fading back into a perpetual present, retro-styles and images proliferated as surrogates of the temporal (56)
    Two famous phrases, the 'hysterical sublime' and the 'waning of affect' resulted.
  • Anderson notes that, where Hassan, Habermas, Lyotard and others stayed within fairly tight disciplinary boundaries in theorizing the emergence of a postmodern sensibility or a postmodernism, Jameson is comprehensive in his command of discourses and his ability to forge a single framework in which they all have their place.
  • the fourth move consists in organizing these previous insights into an analysis of the "social bases and geopolitical pattern of postmodernism" (62)—asserting that the vertical organization of class had become indefinite (Anderson: "Those above have the coherence of privilege; those below lack unity and solidarity" {ibid.}) while a geographic expansion of the market brought a "sudden horizontal enlargement of the system" (62-3). Jameson sees these two developments working together to smash the aesthetic elitism of modernism in favor of, in Anderson's words "a culture of accompaniment, rather than antagonism, to the economic order" (64).
  • The fifth move Anderson limns in Jameson's project is Jameson's absolute refusal to take a moral stance on postmodernism, alongside an admonition that doing so was "an impoverished luxury" (65) and that (again in Anderson's luminous words), "mere excoriation was no more fruitful than adhesion" (64).
What Jameson laid out, then, was "a totalizing comprehension of the new unlimited capitalism—a theory adequate to the global scale of its connexions and disjunctions—…the unrenouncable Marxist project" (65).

Anderson then outlines some of the better-known or better-articulated responses to Jameson's work, including David Harvey, Alex Callinicos, Terry Eagleton. He provides a nice mini-history of painting's transformations starting with abstract expressionism, but most worthwhile in this chapter is a re-engagement with Jameson, this time a little critically. Anderson notes in Jameson "a reserve towards the political conceived in a strong sense—that is, as an independent domain of action, pregnant with its own consequences" (128). Anderson makes an epigraph Jameson gave to Marxism and Form stand convincingly for the principal modes of his work. The epigraph from Mallarmé reads (in Jameson's translation): "only two paths stand open to mental research: aesthetics, and also political economy" (125). Politics is assumed to be contained in the materialism Jameson pursues, therefore, and need not be considered independent.

Anderson makes nice work of returning to Jameson's study of the Western Marxist tradition and notes a lack of attention paid to Gramsci, perhaps the most directly and vigorously political among them. Anderson is gracious in describing this lack as a reserve, but he feels that this reticence to attack anything specific within postmodernism (either of the political or the aesthetic variety), is seriously detrimental to the project of critique. Anderson lays down the law to Jameson:
Jameson's marriage of aesthetics and economics yields a wondrous totalization of postmodern culture as a whole, whose operation of 'cognitive mapping' acts—and this is its intention—as a placeholder of dialectical resistance to it. But its point of leverage necessarily remains in that sense outside the system. Inside it, Jameson was more concerned to monitor than to adjudicate… The aesthetic and the political are certainly not to be equated or confused. But if they can be mediated, it is becaue they share one thing in common. Both are inherently committed to critical judgment: discrimination between works of art, forms of state. Abstention from criticism, in either, is subscription. Postmodernism, like modernism, is a field of tensions. Division is an inescapable condition of engagement with it (132-5)
As I said, I am hoping to say more about one particular move that I perceive as an inconsistency on Anderson's part in a later post, but I am also planning on reading Jameson's actual text sometime this year, and hopefully Harvey. I will also probably be looking at a few of Jameson's essays which Anderson references.

Anderson's little book does not stray too far from its original intention—appreciating and contextualizing, even just introducing Jameson's work. One should not read it hoping for a Baedeker to the metastases of postmodernism in the various arts and sciences, however. The book would be more aptly titled were a possessive adjective inserted: this is The Origins of Jameson's Postmodernity. Yet it is extremely well-written, the critique of Habermas is really great if scant, and I can't imagine a work that gives a better preparation for digging into Jameson; I really feel attuned to both his strengths and his evasions, and I feel extremely well-equipped to examine his arguments.

Update (3/22): The second part is here.

1 comment:

Commonplacing said...

It's a curious thing that de Onis receives the attribution. The first reference to postmodernism is actually found in 1926, in a book entitled "Postmodernism and Other Essays" by the Catholic theologian Bernard Iddings Bell. Drolet tells us that:

"Bell's postmodernism embodied ideas he believed to be superior to those associated with the modern era, such as the modern faith in the power of reason to free the human spirit from bondage arising out of ignorance and prejudice. Postmodern ideas would supersede modern ones. And they characterized the era that would follow on from the modern age; they defined the post-modern age. When Bell spoke of postmodernism he referred to something that was both ideological and historical. It was a body of ideas and a new epoch."

"Bell considered postmodernism too be an intelligent alternative to the two rival ideologies that dominated western societies in the 1920s: ideologies that, despite their fundamental differences, shared values that he believed made them quintessentially modern. These were, according to Bell, liberalism and totalitarianism. Bell believed liberalism and totalitarianism shared a faith in mankind's ability to discover the underlying principles that govern nature and societies through the right use of reason. The discovery of these principles or laws empowered individuals, liberating them from the obscure and uncontrollable forces of nature. It bestowed upon them a knowledge that served to promote wealth creation and increase national power. But Bell believed that liberalism's and totalitarianism's faith in reason brought about the impoverishment of the human condition rather than its improvement..."

This is from Michael Drolet's introduction to his "The Postmodernism Reader" (2004).