Friday, February 12, 2016

Postmodernism: the cultural logic of late capitalism

Anthropologist David Harvey, invoking the thesis of another scholar, calls postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism." This thesis will require some analysis and justification, starting with what postmodernism means. Although there is no definite agreement on the term, the term is generally used to suggest that there is a real fragmentation and ephemerality to our personhood, our society, our economic and political systems, and our era and that this ephemerality and fragmentation is therefore basic to the human condition.

To understand more clearly what this means, contrast this way of thinking with a naive view. On the naive view, there are definite answers involved in understanding what a person is, how our society operates and its institutions operate, and what our place in the world is. It might not always be easy to uncover the facts of the matter but there are definite answers, according to the naive view. The Enlightenment project from the 18th century onward was an attempt to talk about these subjects and, to the extent possible, make these subjects amenable to scientific study.

The modernism of the late 19th and early 20th century did not necessarily contradict the attempts to conduct rational or scientific inquiry, nor to challenge the possibility of creation and representation in the sciences and arts, but it did try to show the limits of rational and creative intelligibility. Still, even on the modernist view, any inconsistencies, ironies, or downright contradictions were taken to be problems of knowledge, not really to the way the world fundamentally works. The modernist project did not rule out the possibility for deep inconsistencies in the nature of reality but the burden of proof would have to be on anyone who wanted to demonstrate them.

Postmodernism, however, a movement from the 1970s onward, proposed that the ironies, inconsistencies, and contradictions of everyday life were rooted in the way the world works. According to the postmodernist project, we have a difficult time inquiring and creating because there is no fact of the matter. There is instead superficial relations that we spot. The world just is one big ball of contradiction, no matter how you slice it. So is the human being. And so is language.

Comparing modernism and postmodernism, Harvey expresses the language issue this way:
Whereas modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relation between what was being said (the signified or 'message') and how it was being said (the signifier or 'medium'), poststructuralist thinking sees these as continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations.
Certain contradictions appear within the postmodernist project (ironically accepted because postmodernism can admit of all contradictions!), especially involving the actions and behaviors of postmodernist thinkers and artists themselves. On the postmodernist view, if it is true that all there is in the world is this sense of loose connection and superficiality among fragments of understanding and thinking and creating, no political project is entailed. Yet several of the thinkers and artists are left-wing and call for resistance to and suspicion of what they think of as oppressive regimes and institutions. Perhaps the only consistency to the thinking among the postmodernists is that there is no end-goal any of the social or political resistance is trying to achieve.

Harvey writes:
The simple postmodernist answer is that coherent representation and action are either repressive or illusionary (and therefore doomed to be self-dissolving and self-defeating), we should not even try to engage in some global project.
But if this much is true, why advocate resistance at all, especially if there is no fact of the matter?

Postmodernists' theory of personality is in general the view that there is no deep self, only a success of thoughts and sensations in time. Personality traits are not real nor is there any deep sense as to what a human being is as a possessor of rights and responsibilities. Also, since there is no deep self or sense of what a person is, there can be no real oppression, on the postmodernist account, of anyone.

Continuing with Harvey:
A number of consequences follow from the domination of this motif in postmodernist thought. We can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense, because to be alienated presupposes a coherent rather than a fragmented sense of self from which to be alienated. It is only in terms of such a centred sense of personal identity that individuals can pursue projects over time, or think cogently about the product of a future significantly better than time present and time past.
Quoting another source, Harvey writes that postmodernists have transferred the acceptance of the possibility of the "alienation of the subject" to the acceptance of the "fragmentation of the subject." In other words, in past times, a person was seen as someone who has rights and freedoms, which can be given and taken away. He or she can also have meaningful work and a meaningful life, or fail to. Alienation was a possibility because a grander conception of who the person is was possible. Not so anymore, the postmodernists say. Now, all we are supposed to accept is that people are at best one lived moment after another: "The immediacy of events, the sensationalism of the spectacle (political, scientific, military, as well as those of entertainment), become the stuff of which consciousness if forged," as Harvey writes.

With the triumph and celebration of surface appearances in the world and with the self, it becomes unclear in what sense the scientific enterprise is meaningful anymore, a good life or good work is meaningful, what the importance of art is, and so on. Harvey frames the problem in the following way:
[H]ow can we build, represent, and attend to these surfaces with the requisite sympathy and seriousness in order to get behind them and identify essential meanings? Postmodernism, with its resignation to bottomless fragmentation and ephemerality, generally refuses to contemplate that question.
And as postmodernism as a movement has progressed, it has been very much inclined, at least more and more, to accept the status quo and to profit from it. Harvey writes that "much of postmodernism is consciously anti-auratic and anti-avant-garde and seeks to explore media and cultural arenas open to all." The artistic representations of postmodernism have been re-appropriated for corporate interests and have become part of common culture. This fragmented conception of self and society has become so generally accepted that, as Harvey writes, quoting another source, "the vaunted fragmentation of art is no longer an aesthetic choice: it is simply a cultural aspect of the economic and social fabric," citing advertising as the new popular domain of postmodernism and "the official art of capitalism."

What to make, then, of Harvey's claim that postmodernism is "the cultural logic of late capitalism"? Here he is quoting political theorist Fredric Jameson, who has written extensively on the topic of postmodernism. Late capitalism is the period of capitalism human beings are supposed to have entered some time since the mid-20th century onward. (It is debatable if this part of the characterization is correct.) Cultural logic is here meant the way in which our culture thinks of our everyday practices. To call postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism" is to say that it is the way we cannot help but think about the world or create new forms.

Scant evidence has been given so far as to how this thesis can be true. More to come from Harvey's book The Condition of Postmodernity.

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