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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prefixated on Postmodernity

Posted by Andrew Seal on 03/22/09 at 07:52 PM

Perry Anderson’s short study, The Origins of Postmodernity, is brilliant on a number of fronts and in a large number of ways, but I want to address a specific issue I have with the way Anderson (along with nearly everyone else who addresses “postmodernism") makes use of prefixes to simplify more complex analytical work by deploying a combination of spatial or temporal metaphors, figured as prefixes ("post-", “pre-”, “citra-”, “ultra-"). This simplification has the added bonus of a masked illocutionary force that often directs an affective response predicated on the spatial and/or temporal relationship established in the prefix. The prefix moves the reader to a new spatial or temporal position in relation to the term prefixed, using this reconfiguration to gesture toward an appropriate attitude or (more literally) stance.

This strategy is not just Anderson’s, nor did he invent it, but it is particularly noticeable in a critic who is otherwise so rigorous. The relative weakness of other critics makes this particular weakness disappear; in Anderson, it obtrudes.

Of course, at its most basic lexical level, a prefix like “post-” does imply a simple temporal relationship: post-x is an event or complex of events that comes after x. Of course, “after” has different valences; it is a word that is highly dependent on context and affect. Louis Menand gets at this in his recent New Yorker review of a new biography of Donald Barthelme: “Consider two possible definitions of postmodernism. It can mean, ‘We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.’ Or it can mean ‘No one can be a modernist now. Modernism is over.’” Even this really does not open up the spectrum of connotations that can attach themselves to such a simple prefix.

Anderson’s study is, in effect, an attempt to determine what the proper connotation of “post-” is. Anderson builds up a narrative of the history of the idea of postmodernity such that it culminates with Fred Jameson’s comprehensive formulation of the term: “[Jameson] redrew the whole map of the postmodern at one stroke—a prodigious inaugural gesture which has commanded the field ever since” (54). The book is divided into kind of oddly named sections emphasizing this basic arc: “Prodromes,” which excavates the prehistory of the term; “Crystallization,” which takes a longer look at the dominant conceptual paradigms for the postmodern immediately preceding Jameson’s “prodigious inaugural gesture”; “Crystallization,” which concerns the specifics of Jameson’s revision of the term; and “After-effects,” which measures subsequent theorists against Jameson and also takes note of Jameson’s responses to his own work, most of all to a slight adjustment to his aversion toward explicit judgments about the value or danger contained in postmodernity. But the last section also contains Anderson’s critique of Jameson on just that latter point—what Anderson refers to Jameson’s “reserve towards the political conceived in a strong sense” (128). That notion of ‘reserve’ is precise; it reveals that Anderson’s critique amounts to a (justifiable) frustration with Jameson’s refusal to give the “post-” in “postmodern” a direct and politically actionable connotation. Anderson doesn’t really accuse Jameson of quietism, which would constitute in itself a connotative weighting of the term, just of reserve—a suspension of solid valences of any sort.

Jameson’s reserve is, however, far more politically aware than Anderson gives him credit for, I feel. Within Anderson’s argument lies a crucial equivocation about a term that is superabundantly relevant to conceptions of both modernity and postmodernity: that is, hegemony.

In many instances, Anderson insists on a definition of hegemony as a non-total system: referring to Raymond Williams as his source, at one point he argues “Any hegemony… was a ‘dominant’ rather than a total system, one virtually ensuring—because of its selective definitions of reality—the coexistence of ‘residual and ‘emergent’ forms resistant to it. Postmodernism was a dominant of this kind, and no more” (64). Later, in reference to Harvey’s formulation of “flexible accumulation,” Anderson notes approvingly that Harvey is not arguing for any notion that flexible accumulation has suddenly usurped all prior modes of production; despite the emergence of this new regime, “[n]one of this amounted to any fundamental change in the mode of production as such… Nor, indeed, could flexible accumulation itself be described as universally dominant; more typically, it coexisted in mixed patterns with older Fordist forms, and even the shifts from one to the other were by no means always irreversible. What had critically altered, however, was the position and autonomy of financial markets within capitalism, outflanking national governments, which spelt systemic instability of unprecedented kind” (79-80). (One may now feel that such a prediction understated the case.)

Similarly, Anderson at various junctures derides the notions of a radical epistemic break between modernism and postmodernism: “postmodernism as a distinct set of artistic practices—let alone a cultural dominant—was largely a figment. Virtually every aesthetic device or feature attributed to postmodernism—bricolage of tradition, play with the popular, reflexivity, hybridity, pastiche, figurality, decentering of the subject—could be found in modernism. No critical break was discernible here either” (80). Elsewhere: “The postmodern had never completely superseded the modern, the two being always in some sense ‘deferred’, as so many prefigured futures and reclaimed pasts: (101). When Anderson is speaking from this position, the hegemonic force of postmodernism or postmodernity is not absolute: it is not an all-inclusive condition of time or space. Fragments of the past remain and resist being subsumed by the present; spatially, the strength of postmodern forms varies and can even be itself dominated by ‘residual’ or ‘emergent’ forms antagonistic to postmodernism.

Yet at other times, Anderson beats the drum for a ludicrously totalized notion of hegemony, and even temporalizes this notion as the explicit effect of the emergence of postmodernity: “Where modernism drew its purpose and energies from the persistence of what was not yet modern, the legacy of a still pre-industrial past, postmodernism signifies the closure of that distance, the saturation of every pore of the world in the serum of capital” (55). An absolute hegemony is, in other words, the grounding condition for postmodernity; postmodernity is only emergent once hegemony as a categorical condition can lay claim to potential absoluteness. “Modernity comes to an end, as Jameson observes, when it loses any antonym. The possibility of other social orders was an essential horizon of modernism. Once that vanishes, something like postmodernism is in place” (92). Elsewhere, Anderson focuses this “vanishing” in the evaporation of a distinctive bourgeois culture: “Postmodernism is what occurs when, without any victory, that adversary [the bourgeois] is gone” (86). At one point, he even boils it down to marking when men stopped wearing hats (85), sort of echoing George W. S. Trow, among others.

At two points, it seems Anderson is trying to split the difference from a steroidal version of hegemony that is predicated on the absence of alternatives or “antonyms” and Williams’s understanding of hegemony as something that inevitably produces alternatives by the strange particularities of its representation of reality. In speaking of Ernest Mandel’s book Late Modernism, a vital influence on Jameson, Anderson (in one of his limited hegemony moments) says: “Uneven development is inherent in the system, whose ‘abrupt new expansion’ has ‘equally unevenly’ eclipsed older forms of inequality and multiplied new ones ‘we as yet understand less well. The real question is whether this unnevenness is too great to sustain any common cultural logic‘“ (121, my emphasis). This may in fact be the “real” question that Jameson is asking ("cultural logic” here referring explicitly to the title of Jameson’s book), but it is not always the question Anderson seems to be asking. A “common cultural logic” is a long way from the absolutism of “closure” or “saturation” or “victory.”

The other point is when Anderson ventriloquizes Jameson a little, responding to the idea that “influence, however, is not necessarily dominance. The presence of significant groups of artists, or clusters of buildings, whose references are clearly postmodern does not ensure any local hegemony. In the terms Jameson himself uses, after Raymond Williams, the postmodern could well be only ‘emergent’—rather than the modern being ‘residual’” (121-122). Anderson’s response is that “it would be open to Jameson to reply that the global hegemony of the postmodern is just that—a net predominance at world level, which does not exclude a subordinate role at the national level, in any given case” (122). Anderson then makes an argument about television—that its existence solely in postmodernity and its consequent lack of a “modernist past” along with its geographic penetration opens up postmodernity to a potential hegemony even stronger than the “net predominance at world level.” Television is, at the very least, what makes postmodernism a more pervasive—and invasive—"common cultural logic” than modernism ever was.

That is, I suppose, a fairly strong argument, but I still don’t see it as a justification for the even more potent notions of hegemony which Anderson descries: television’s role in eroding a distinctive bourgeois culture was not definitive, and certainly not causal, and if it’s the absence of that particular “adversary” that he wants to hang the possibility of a totalized hegemony around, I don’t really think television is up to the task.

Related to the hegemony problem, there is also a persistent periodization problem at work in the act of defining postmodernism. It’s sort of a chestnut of scholarship of the postmodern that everyone has a different date for when it began or emerged or hatched or whatever. The problem emerges in full force in the inevitable move from simply picking a date to isolating a set of attributes which can be analyzed together as a coherent package; once you start combining these attributes, you find that they don’t match up temporally, like a handful of straws of different lengths. Or as Anderson has it, “The history of the idea of the postmodern, as we have seen, starts well before the arrival of anything that would readily be identified as a form of the postmodern today. Nor does the order of its theorization correspond to the order of its phenomenal appearance. The origins of the ntion of postmodernism were literary, and its projection to fame as a style was architectural” (93-4). “Historically modernism was essentially a post facto category, unifying after the event a wide variety of experimental forms and movements, whose own names for themselves knew nothing of it. By contrast, postmodernism was much closer to an ex ante notion, a conception germinated in advance of the artistic practices it came to depict” (93).

Immediately after these statements, Anderson goes into a rather tedious but masterful account of painting’s particular transition from modernism to postmodernism. This narrative ends in frustration, though, precisely because of the periodization problem:

However the transformation of the visual is mapped here, connexions and oppositions are intertwined. This history is still too recent for detached reconstruction, that would give all its contradictions their due. But a mere ad hoc nominalism is clearly insufficient too. The shifts in painting suggest a wider pattern. Some provisional way of conceptualizing what seems to be a constitutive tension within postmodernism is needed (101).

What is this conceptualization? Well, it looks like nominalism to me: Anderson on the very next page suggests that what is needed to untangle these conflicting connections is “another pair of prefixes—internal to postmodernism” (102). In fact, he gets the pair from the French Revolution: “citra-” vs. “ultra-”. Anderson defines these prefixes in light of the fact that “the ubiquity of the spectacle [is] the organizing principle of the culture industry in contemporary conditions, which above all now divides the artistic field. The seam between the formal and the social typically lies here. The citra-modern can virtually be defined as that which adjusts or appeals to the spectacular; the ultra-modern as that which seeks to elude or refuse it” (105).

The fact that I haven’t really seen this picked up and run with by any other theorist probably says more about the necessity of this conceptualization than any critique I could make, but I was rather taken aback by Anderson’s out-of-nowhere faith in mere prefixes as a tool—no matter how “provisional"—for arranging the most crucial terms of a terribly complex “pattern” into some productively interpretable shape.

The particular prefixes he chose, however, reveal the origins of his precipitous leap into nominalism: citra- and ultra- are (as you could probably tell from the French Revolution context—they were used by Robespierre) about the creation of partisanly fierce divisions (simple translation: “on the near side of” and “on the far side of"). It is at this juncture in the book that Anderson is beginning to marshal his arguments for a critique of Jameson’s “reserve,” and a vocabulary needs to be created that will equip his arguments for an action on behalf of division ("Postmodernism, like modernism, is a field of tensions. Division is an inescapable condition of engagement with it” {135}.) Anderson’s deployment of new prefixes to loosen an analytical knot in postmodernism is really a way to move the pieces into a new, metaphorically rich arrangement that strongly suggests a proper position to be taken with regard to the whole—a correct stance which can now be occupied once things have been “mapped” appropriately—this side, that side—where do you stand?

The need for a proper stance—particularly one that is affectively appropriate—is clearly applicable to many more concepts than modernism/postmodernism. We are beset by an obstacle course of prefixes in every analytical endeavor, but the question of what function the appendage of a prefix serves rarely seems to be part of those endeavors. I believe that it is highly tied to the same problem that Anderson runs into—he needs to arrange everything so everyone knows what the proper stance is. In many instances this is even more affectively overdetermined than “postmodernism"—think of the emotional valence of a term like “post-racial” or “post-feminism” or even more, “post-feminist.” The words hosting these prefixes carry enormous affective charge, and the addition of a prefix seems to me to be a way of testing out a societally approved stance to be taken toward the original term. “Are we ‘post-racial’?” is actually a coded way of asking if we can establish a stance of wary self-congratulation toward the history of racism and race-making. I’m not sure that Anderson isn’t caught up in a similar venture with regards to modernism and postmodernism.

The desire to establish specific positions within postmodernism will lead, ultimately, to a desire to occupy the most privileged position—viewing it from above, a position which will tend to emphasize the extent and pervasiveness of postmodernism rather than its irregularities and its unnevenness. Could Jameson’s ‘reserve’ be seen as a way of refusing to establish specific positions or stances within postmodernism in order not to be tempted to rise above it and overlook those irregularities and unnevenesses? Could his notion of cognitive mapping be a true alternative to the type of critique Anderson begins to employ in the last fifth or so of the book? Anderson accuses Jameson of being interested only in “monitoring” postmodernism, not “adjudicating” it—but Anderson’s path to the judge’s bench skips over some enormous gaps. Jameson’s path seems much more open both to the Williams understanding of hegemony (with its apparent emphasis on lived experience—the idea of a “net global dominance” is kind of pointless if you don’t know how it’s lived in specific locations) and to a non-coercive arrangement of the elements of postmodernism—one which doesn’t force you into positions or stances by a crude lexical tool like the prefix.


Late Modernism is a book by Tyrus Miller. What you’re thinking of is Late Capitalism, a sound contender for most-referenced, least-read.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/24/09 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yep, sorry. That was what I meant. Got too wrapped up in the whole “modernity” fixation, I guess.

By Andrew Seal on 03/24/09 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I had a question about cognitive mapping--the reference pins the idea to Kevin Lynch, but I’m relatively certain--let’s say 85%--that Jameson’s mapping was related to Walter Benjamin’s use of mapping which predates the Lynch.  At least, the mapping of urban spaces based on lived experience part. Am I wrong?

I agree that the terrain of pre-fixes has gotten arduous and unclear.  I think it reveals a weakness in how we classify periodicity, as you note, among other things.  But.

It also points to another way in which theoretical jargon has side-stepped direct reference in order to escape critique and engagement, consequently devolving down into meaninglessness.

But hey--that’s just my opinion. 

For the record: SHAKESPEARE was post-modern according to Jameson’s definitions.  The printing press inspired bricolage, collage, self-reflexive, irony.  It’s all there. 

Why does our work as cultural and literary critics continually have to step back and step back and perform an analysis of itself, each step back claiming to be more “meta” than the one previous?  What purpose does it serve? 

Back in the days of blue screen Word Perfect, I’d use the f9 key analogy: REVEAL CODES.  Everyone wants their work to hit the f9 key on everyone else’s. 

I think your work on pre-fixes here is interesting and sort of gets at the problem in a satisfying way--but it also threatens to be a part of the problem as well.

By Jennifer on 03/28/09 at 11:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"REVEAL CODES” - could be the name of a journal.

By Bill Benzon on 03/29/09 at 07:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I’m hoping that this kind of analysis is groundwork for something more productive in the future; rather than merely hitting f9 on Anderson, I’m hoping to isolate the weaknesses of his mode of critique so that I don’t repeat them when I’m later trying to address the problems he’s analyzing.

At least, that’s my hope. I am in perfect sympathy with your frustration at that all-too-common intellectual habit of walking away satisfied after a structure has been toppled. That wasn’t my intention, although it certainly isn’t clear from the above.

By Andrew Seal on 03/29/09 at 08:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

@Bill now there’s a thought…

@Andrew--Thanks for responding.  Yes, I sense the sympathy there which is why I bothered to comment in the first place. It’s tempting to throw away the past 30 years or so and start over, isn’t ?  :) I guess we can’t quite do that.

But I do feel like contemporary scholars are unnecessarily encumbered by the weight of recent scholarship--which actually constipates (excuse the metaphor) research in two ways:  in one way, we can’t spend enough time going back to philosophical roots.  So many scholars don’t realize their “new” problems are really very old ones.  St. Augustine (via Plato and Aristotle) was dealing with the issue of the so-called “post-modern” subject some centuries and centuries ago.  (History...doomed to repeat...yadda yadda.)

In another similar but different way, we are prevented from going forward, for having to grapple with a rather unweildly inheritance in order to be deemed academically relevant.  It’s a rather maddening catch 22.  But I appreciate where you are going with this.

By Jennifer on 03/29/09 at 09:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jennifer, Jameson does rely on Kevin Lynch for the definition of “cognitive mapping” in Postmodernism. He says that it spawned a whole “low-level subdiscipline,” which I’ve never quite understood; and he’s not talking about the hippocampus-style cognitive mapping the some people study. Almost 20% of the references in the google books corpus to Lynch’s book also mention Jameson.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/29/09 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for that--I have some sort of Benjamin Mapping hangover I can’t shake, though.  I’m pretty sure he was a bit fixated on social urban maps based on one’s personal experience of the city--yah?  It would seem, then, that Lynch must have debt to Benjamin, though I’m sure you’re right that Jameson leans heavily on him.  Especially if the Google Oracle says its so.  ;)

I should probably just shut up and do the work myself.  Thanks again.

By Jennifer on 03/29/09 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Given how little of Benjamin had been translated in 1960, and also from my memory of reading the book, which is a quite conventional work of urban geography, I’d say that Lynch was not influenced by Benjamin in any way. Jameson, however, clearly was, and I think saw Lynch’s term as syncretically useful.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/29/09 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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