Postmodernism: Periodisation, Permutations & Spectres

Postmodernism as a philosophy is most generally associated with two fundamental principles: anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism. These may be characterised as the repudiation of metaphysics, that is, of any ultimate system of meaning in nature or the universe; and as the struggle against any normative idea of human nature. It promotes a skepticism toward sweeping universal, absolute truth (with a capital T) and grand narratives that are promoted by those in power. It seeks to deconstruct traditional ideas of narrative structures in a grander project of breaking down authority as a whole, and to build non-hierarchical ways to consume information. Can our present predicament, where “post-truth” and Trump reign, be characterised as one that is “postmodern”? And does the 20th century and its spectral “end of history” narrative still haunt our current orientation towards the future?

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Fredric Jameson, in interrogating an ontology of the present, approaches our postmodern moment as one of temporality, which should provide both an ideological and phenomenological description so we can appropriately analyse our social totality without the recourse to moralism. In a 2015 article titled ‘The Aesthetics of Singularity’ for the New Left Review (Issue 92), Jameson brilliantly summarises the historical context of postmodernism and how it animates our present:

Now in a sense many of the modernists also believed these things (most of them, for example, are already to be found in Sartrean existentialism). But for the most part, the modernists tended to express such principles in accents of anguish or pathos. Nietzsche’s battle cry about the death of God was their watchword, along with various laments about the dis- enchantment of the world, and various purely psychological accounts of alienation and the domination of nature. What distinguishes postmodern philosophy, in my opinion, is the disappearance of all that anguish and pathos. Nobody seems to miss God any longer, and alienation in a consumer society does not seem to be a particularly painful or stressful prospect. Metaphysics has disappeared altogether; and if the ravages to the natural world are even more severe and obvious than in the earlier period, really serious ecologists—the radical and activist kind—do something about it politically and practically, without any philosophical astonishment at such depredations on the part of corporations and governments, inasmuch as the latter are only living out their innate instincts. In other words, no one now is surprised by the operations of a globalized capitalism: something an older academic philosophy never cared to mention, but which the postmoderns take for granted, in what may well be called Cynical Reason. Even increasing immiseration, and the return of poverty and unemployment on a massive world-wide scale, are scarcely matters of amazement for anyone, so clearly are they the result of our own political and economic system and not of the sins of the human race or the fatality of life on Earth. We are in other words so completely submerged in the human world, in what Heidegger called the ontic, that we have little time any longer for what he liked to call the question of Being.

To avoid the confusion of postmodernism as an artistic movement, or its usage in literary critique (the “postmodern novel” genre), Jameson hones in on the term postmodernity: encapsulating not a style, but a historical epoch; a structural differentiation amongst economic forces, political practices, and ruling ideologies. The predominance of space over time. The ascendance of information technology and the global relocation of production. Postmodernity, then, is a periodic placeholder for the mutation of various spheres of human activity – from economics to politics, the arts to technology, daily life to international relations – that fundamentally changed the way in which they operated in comparison to the previous Fordist Keynesian regime. Modernity and its teleological suppositions of progress and development, towards utopian ideals of societal transcendence and perfection, had run its course and were ideologically defunct by the turn of the 1980s.

It was globalisation, as Jameson understood it, which “formed, as it were, the substructure of postmodernity, constituted the economic base of which, in the largest sense, postmodernity was the superstructure.” His hypothesis was that globalisation is the third stage of capitalism, which proceeded the previous two periods that were structurally geared towards industry, monopoly and imperialism. Unparalleled in history, capitalism now functioned on a global scale, harnessed by a technological revolution. Postmodernity was the realm that corresponded to the subsequent globalisation (and financialisation) of capital. As Jameson put it: postmodernism functions as the cultural logic of late capitalism.

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It should be noted that the prevailing (western) pessimism about the course of history, where one might cite the failures in democracy and the chaos in markets and the Eurozone, are obviously not new. It could be said that this pessimism was accentuated with the failure in Vietnam, where the US was unable to bring stability to a region with democracy. At the time, with the belief that democracy the ideal political structure of the postwar world, Vietnam was a serious blow to the liberal intellectual establishment in their project towards creating an intellectual framework for reading history. Combine that with the recessions of the late 1960’s through the 1980’s and the chaos in the post-colonial world, and you get the pervasive pessimism about the future of history. This pessimism continues to this day, and if anything, postmodernism attempted to respond to and address these particular problems during the latter 20th century.

From a philosophical-historical perspective, there are deep reasons for being relativists (Weber) and nihilists (Nietzsche), but there are also deeper reasons for not being relativists and nihilists, from Spinoza to Hegel, from Marx to Lukacs. Beyond all appearances, there exists an unsuspecting solidarity between the postmodern ‘relativistic’ skepticism which sees the acceptance of the total inexistence of an ultimate philosophical truth and the scientistic arrogance which proclaims the normative uniqueness of the positive sciences. This increases the susceptibility of science to relativistic and nihilistic forces. Indeed, the transition of scientific knowledge from a deterministic basis to the acceptance of chance and contingency precludes from establishing a true ethical and philosophical foundation, which is instead the knowledge of the procedural possibilities designed and pursued by humankind as a whole. This has resulted in the appropriation of the best tools of science and technology by the holders of economic powers, and its subservience to the forces of the nihilistic-capitalist market.

Through the philosophical rationalisation of the renunciation to change the world, the postmodern coincides with a condition of “fully developed nihilism” which traces the original loss of the foundation, the anguish arising from such a loss, the resignation due to its condition of irreversibility, and the inevitable conclusion that this world is the least bad or the only possible and acceptable one for the multiplicity of lifestyles experienced by the eradicated individual. This postmodern perspective probably also helps to explain the success enjoyed by Eric Hobsbawm’s definition of the 20th century as the “short century”, or the “end of history”, which unconsciously feed the desire of definitively wanting to rid ourselves of the numerous problems and implications that the 20th century had left us with.

The tragic nihilism resulting from the fragmentation of grand narratives is thus reformulated as “euphoric nihilism”, able to find the real genesis of pluralities and differences, as the kaleidoscopic multiplication of forms of knowledge and of existence. Could it be, that through a Nietzschean process of the de-realizing transformation of “truth” into a “fable”, the postmodern elation of the fragmentary, of the indeterminate, of the pluralistic, of de-centralisation – signals the secret acceptance of existent as it is ( even if hidden under the intoxicating euphoria of the “polytheism of values”), as the expression of an age which has stopped believing in God but not in the market?

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