From Socialist Worker Review, No. 134, September 1990.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
POSTMODERNISM, the New York Times recently observed, is ‘the intellectual fad of the 1980s and, so far, the 1990s.’ It’s hard to find any aspect of contemporary cultural life which doesn’t get called ‘Postmodern.’
The word is applied to so many contradictory things that it seems to lack any definite meaning. In fact Postmodernism can be seen as the convergence of three distinct elements.
The first is the reaction which has developed in the past 20 years to Modernism, the great revolution in the arts which took place at the beginning of the century.
The ‘Postmodern’ reaction is most obvious in a rejection of the ‘International Style’ – the elongated slabs which came to dominate city centres after the Second World War. ‘Postmodern’ architecture represented a flight from austerity to decoration, from innovation to tradition, from rationality to humour – as in the case of office blocks decorated with classical pillars.
Postmodernism involves, secondly, a specific philosophical current – what came to be known as Poststructuralism, around the group of French philosophers who came to prominence in the 1960s, notably Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
They developed certain themes, the first and most fundamental of which was a rejection of the Enlightenment. This was the project formulated by a number of French and Scottish thinkers in the eighteenth century based on the idea that human reason could both understand and control the natural and social world, a project which Marx sought, critically, to continue.
Reason and truth, the Poststructuralists argue, are in fact illusions. Scientific theories are perspectives reflecting particular social interests. The will to know, as Foucault put it, is merely one form of the will to power.
Reality itself is indeed merely a chaotic collection of fragments dominated by an endless struggle for power shaping nature and society alike. And human beings, as part of this reality, lack any coherence or control over themselves. Thus Foucault saw the individual human subject as a mass of drives and desires brought together by the prevailing power relations within society.
The third ingredient of Postmodernism is the theory of postindustrial society developed by sociologists such as Daniel Bell in the early 1970s. Bell argued that the world was entering a new historical epoch in which material production would become less and less important and knowledge the main driving force of economic development.
The French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard took this idea, and argued that, in the ‘Postmodern condition’ knowledge takes on an increasingly fragmentary form, abandoning all claims to truth or rationality.
This shift reflects what Lyotard calls ‘the collapse of grand narratives.’ The Enlightenment project – as continued by Hegel and Marx, who sought to offer interpretations of the whole course of historical development as a way of showing the conditions under which human emancipation could be achieved – is no longer credible after the disasters of Nazism and Stalinism.
Central to Postmodernism then is the idea of a systematic, comprehensive and very recent change. The world has entered a new social and economic epoch, accompanied by a cultural transformation – Postmodern art, and a philosophical revolution – Post-structuralism. Hence Marxism Today’s claim that we live in ‘New Times.’
None of this stands up to serious examination. But the idea that we live in a new epoch is best exposed by looking as the claim that there is a distinctively Postmodern art.
Probably the best known definition of Postmodern art is offered by the architectural historian Christopher Jencks. Postmodernism, he says, consists in ‘double-coding’, that is, the combination of different styles in the same artwork – of, say, classicism and the International Style in the same building.
This is a strange claim, since what Jencks calls ‘double-coding’ is such an obvious feature of Modernism. Thus James Joyce in Ulysses mingles together different voices, styles and languages – an effect captured in poetry by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. The idea of a distinctive Postmodern art rests on a caricature of Modernism.
The best definition of Modernism is offered by Eugene Lunn in Marxism and Modernism. He isolates four features. First, ‘aesthetic self-consciousness’: Modern art tends to be about the process of artistic creation itself – thus Marcel Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past reconstructs the experiences which led to the decision to write the novel. Secondly, ‘simultaneity, juxtaposition, or montage’: Modern art breaks up the world of everyday experience and then reassembles it in new and unexpected combinations.
Thirdly, ‘paradox, ambiguity, and uncertainty’: Modern art presents a world which no longer has clear signposts or a visible structure. Finally, ‘dehumanisation’: the individual in Modern art is no longer in control of his or her own motives let alone of the world itself.
Now the odd thing is that all these features of Modernism are frequently claimed to be distinctive of Postmodern art. The novels of Salman Rushdie, for example, are described as Postmodern when they are in fact typical of Modernism as defined by Lunn.
It’s often argued that the difference lies in the fact that Modernism was elitist and crassly optimistic while Postmodernism is populist and pessimistic in its approach. But this involves a complete misunderstanding of Modernism as a historical phenomenon. Modernism emerged in the late 19th century especially in those countries experiencing the rapid and uneven impact of the development of industrial capitalism – Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary. It can be seen as a response to the penetration of all aspects of social life by commodity relations. The general fragmentation this involved led to the isolation of art as a distinct, apparently autonomous social practice.
The result was a tendency for artists, alienated from the rest of social life, to focus on art itself, for the process of artistic creation to become the object of art. This usually involved an ironic and detached attitude to reality. Art became a refuge from a social world dominated by commodity fetishism.
This attitude was compatible with all sorts of political commitments, from the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht to the fascism of Ezra Pound. The prevailing mood was, however, the pessimism summed up by T.S. Eliot when he wrote in 1923 of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.’
Modernism nevertheless contained a radical potential. Its key technical innovation was montage, the combination of distinct and apparently incompatible elements in the same work.
The Cubist collages took this to the extent of incorporating bits of the real world – fragments of wood or newspaper – in their paintings. Art ceased to be a window on the world and became, potentially at least, part of the world. The implication was to break down the separation of art and social life which had given rise to Modernism in the first place.
This potential became self-conscious in the avant-garde movements which emerged at the end of the First World War – Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism. Their aim was to subvert art as an autonomous institution as part of the more general struggle to revolutionise society.
‘Dada is German Bolshevism,’ said Richard Huelsenbeck. Or, as Andre Breton, Surrealist poet and philosopher, put it in 1935: ‘“Transform the world”, Marx said; “change life”, Rimbaud [the French poet] said, these two watchwords are for us one and the same.’
This linking together of social and artistic revolution was made possible by specific historical circumstances. It was in the period of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918–23 that the avant-garde movements flourished. The Russian Constructivists in particular – Mayakovsky, Eisenstein, Rodchenko, Tatlin and many others – put their art at the service not just of revolutionary propaganda, but of the transformation of everyday life.
The defeat of first the German and then the Russian Revolutions therefore undercut the base of the avant-garde. Fascism and Stalinism destroyed them, hot merely through repression, but through removing the hopes of social revolution on which the realisation of the avant-garde project depended.
The conditions for the incorporation of Modernism by capitalism since the Second World War was thus created.
The International Style which came to fill the urban skyline after 1945 was developed by architects such as Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, which was set up after the 1918 German Revolution to build ‘Cathedrals of Socialism.’
The developments in various arts over the past twenty years which have come to be known as Postmodernism have little in common beyond a reaction to the incorporated ‘Late Modernism’ which became the dominant cultural style after the Second World War.
They are better seen as variants of Modernism than a break with it. There is, for example, nothing in David Lynch’s brilliant film Blue Velvet, with its powerful sense of an irrational world of violence and desire lurking beneath the banal surface of everyday life, which would have come as a surprise to the Surrealists.
Just as there is no distinctively Postmodern art, nor are we living in a new historical epoch. The most serious attempts to make out the latter claim tend to focus on the internationalisation of capital.
But while capital has undoubtedly become much more globally integrated over the past 20 years, the nation state continues to play a vital economic role. Witness, for example, the American government’s rescues first of the banking system and now the savings and loans industry. Moreover, the internationalisation of capital does not signal a new, stable phase of capitalist expansion; it has rather been a major factor in making the world economy more unstable since the late 1960s.
Granted that the claims of Postmodernism are false, where does it come from? Why has the widespread belief emerged |hat we live in a fundamentally new economic and cultural epoch?
The recovery of the advanced capitalist economies from the world recession of 1979-82, involved an expansion of demand, based on easy credit and higher government spending, which began in the US in the early 1980s and spread to Europe.
Among the main beneficiaries of this recovery were the ‘new middle class’ of highly paid managers and professionals. The 1980s were the decade when the Yuppie flourished.
Secondly, however, many of the new middle class which did so well out of the recovery were part of the generation of 1968.
They had participated in the huge radicalisation of young intellectuals throughout the Western world during the great upturn in class struggle of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And they had also shared in the collapse of revolutionary hopes which took place in the mid and late 1970s as workers were pushed back onto the defensive and much of the far left disintegrated.
The result was the emergence of a substantial social layer that is both economically prosperous and politically disillusioned. They don’t believe in revolution any more (if they ever did), but they don’t have an unqualified faith in capitalism either.
This attitude is well summed up by Lyotard’s declaration of the bankruptcy of all ‘grand narratives’: we can no longer believe in any comprehensive theory which will allow us both to interpret and to change the world.
More than that, Postmodernism involves a ‘routinisation of irony.’ The ironic, detached attitude towards reality which was the property of a small number of highly sophisticated intellectuals when Modernism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century now becomes generally available, mass produced as a way of coping with a world which, Postmodernists believe, can be neither transformed nor uncritically endorsed.
This is connected to the self-conscious adoption of an aesthetic attitude to life. Nietzsche argued that the only appropriate response to a chaotic reality was to make a work of art of one’s own life, to seek to integrate all one’s experiences into a meaningful whole.
This was an idea taken up by Foucault in his last writings, where he often talks of an ‘aesthetics of existence.’ This too became a routine part of middle-class life in the 1980s, in particular in the effort through diet, dress, and exercise to transform the body into a sign of youth, health, mobility.
The politics of Postmodernism is best brought out by the fashionable American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty welcomes the emergence of an ‘increasingly ironist culture’ dominated by ‘the pursuit of private perfection.’
We should stop worrying about knowing and changing the world and concentrate on cultivating personal relationships.
Central to Postmodernism is the denial that it is desirable or even possible any more to engage collectively to transform the world.
How on earth Rorty and Lyotard can explain how the peoples of Eastern Europe got it together to overthrow their rulers is anybody’s guess.
These revolutions and events of recent months suggest that a new chapter in the ‘grand narrative’ of human emancipation has just been opened. As this story unfolds, Postmodernism will become more obviously irrelevant. In the meantime revolutionary socialists must denounce it as the abomination that it is.
Last updated: 12.8.2013