Postponing the Postmodern

By Ben Agger

The term postmodernity has multiple, often contradictory meanings (e.g., see Huyssen 1986; Best and Kellner 1991). It is my argument here that we should treat postmodernity as a utopian category-- as something to be achieved-- and neither as a method of periodization (e.g., Harvey 1989) nor of celebration (e.g., Lyotard 1984; Kroker and Cook 1986). In this sense-- peculiarly, to those who take it for granted that postmodern theory breaks ranks with Marx and Marxism-- postmodernity helps formulate a contemporary version of Marx's own eschatology, which was to lead to socialism and then communism. Saying this does not reduce postmodern theory to Marxism, even assuming that we could settle on a singular version of Marxism. I argue that postmodernism, conceived within the eschatological or "critical" framework of Marxist critical theory, does not betray Marxism but extends Marxism into the late 20th century, formulating postmodernity as the latter-day version of Marx's socialism. In particular, postmodern critical theory is the first narrative to pose a possible utopian future not as a determinate outcome of nature-like social laws but rather as one conceivable discursive accomplishment among many. Shorn of "necessity," postmodernism bridges the global and local, system and action.

This is not to suggest that socialism is, or should be, dropped as a political aim, to be hoped for and fought for. It is rather to suggest that socialism as an "imaginary" (vision, model, blueprint) has lost a great deal of its currency at a time when perestroika is celebrated, albeit falsely, as the triumph of capitalism over socialism and communism. Western Marxists have long understood Soviet command socialism to be a betrayal of Marx's socialist humanism, thus treating the collapse of the Soviet Union not as a referendum on capitalism but as an outcome of state-socialist "contradictions" in an era of "late socialism." Simply because the imaginary of socialism has been tainted by Cold War affiliation to the Soviet experience does not make socialism unworthy as a utopian goal of critical social theory. On the contrary, we need socialism more than ever now that both American and Soviet manifest destinies have been found wanting. Yet we do not have the luxury of simply repeating Marx's 19th century litany of socialism's Aufhebung of capitalism as if the Cold War never happened (and, with it, the many aspects of America's transvaluation of meaningful political discourse into what the Frankfurt School called "affirmative" terminology).

To put this differently, I contend that postmodern theory affords the left a new imaginary with which to revive Marxism at a time when "class struggle" has been assailed from all sides, including by multiculturalists, feminists and people of color. This requires all sorts of theoretical work, demonstrating that one can refashion Marxist categories in light of historical transformations unforeseen by Marx. In that sense, postmodern theory empirically explains changes in capitalism and the world system unforeseen by Marx. Far from opposing or vitiating Marxism, postmodernism is both an empirical revision of Marxism conceived within Marx's original frame of reference and a way of signaling the enduring significance of Marx's vision of utopia-- a society as yet "nowhere." Both of these functions of postmodernism are crucial for critical thinkers and actors who refuse to concede that Marxism has been bypassed by the so-called postmodern.

There is an irony here: Critical (or "left'') postmodernists like Jameson, Aronowitz and Harvey use postmodernism as a way of defending the significance of Marx's world-historical eschatology against other postmodernists like Baudrillard who celebrate postmodernity's break with modernity. Postmodernist battles postmodernist over the Marx legacy, one asserting the possibility of a postmodernity that furfills Marx's dream of a disalienated society and the other offering an existing postmodernity as proof that Marx was wrong all along to posit a disalienated society articulated in terms of classlessness. All of this postmodernist discourse engages the question of what the Frankfurt School and then Mandel called late capitalism, lateness being an issue of historicity resolved differently by theorists who variously defend and abandon Marxism. The fact that "lateness" is an issue at all already vitiates so-called orthodox Marxism, to which western Marxism (Lukacs, Gramsci, Frankfurt School, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir) was a response. The issue of lateness, as I am calling it, acknowledges that capitalism, if one can even use that theoretical construct in the 1990s, needs to be theorized today in ways that trade on Capital but add to it analyses of culture, gender, race, colonialism and the environment, a project attempted by Habermas under the rubric of new social movements theory.

What endures about Marxism is both Marx's understanding of the contradictory logic of capital and his vision of a disalienated society. Already in _Capital_ Marx clearly understood that the so-called fetishism of commodities reified human relationships, producing their representation as relationships among things in nature. This nature-like appearance of capitalism allows capitalism to be represented by economists and social theorists as eternal, rational, necessary, obdurate. One could say that what Marx called commodity fetishism was the first "postmodern" understanding of capitalism, and of capitalism's "lateness," in the sense that it recognized that alienation (here, the economic exploitation of labor power) requires a certain discursive formulation (here, alienation's nature-likeness) in order for it to be reproduced in everyday life. In terms of the issues that Marx addressed in _Capital_, workers reproduce capital by failing to understand the historicity of their lives-- the fact that they are oppressed by capital, which has emerged historically and thus can be challenged. Instead, they experience everyday life as immutable. The everydayness of their alienated lives is concealed in the supposed laws of the bourgeois market economy, which discursively produce the illusion of fair exchange promulgated by the labor contract. Both law and economic theory produce and hence protect this discourse of commodity fetishism, which in turn reproduces itself in workers' quiescence and conformity.

Marx was postmodern avant la lettre in that he understood how texts like economic theory become lives, hence authoring those lives secretly. He interrogated the increasingly permeable barrier between textuality and materiality that gave rise to what he called commodity fetishism. Marx was of two non-contradictory minds here: He argued that the logic of capital is objective in the sense that workers have only their labor power to sell, thus standing on the brink of destitution. But at the same time the logic of capital is subjective and intersubjective-- discursive-- in the sense that culture must produce the representation of alienated experience and practice as nature-like, hence reproducing nature-like society. The objective, subjective and intersubjective comprise a complex totality that cannot be dissected into base and superstructure or economics and culture. Discourse ("fetishism," in the language of _Capital_) supports capital ("commodity," in _Capital_) by robbing capital of historicity, practice, textuality-- discourse. For Marx the solution to this was an unmasking via the critique of ideology. This unmasking revealed the falsehood of certain nature-like representations of capital. Marx was prepostmodern where he undertook this unmasking through a more or less straightforward language of counterfactual critique, laying waste to false consciousness through political education. The Frankfurt School's critical theory, which converges with many postmodern themes (see Jay 1984), no longer took for granted Marx's optimism about how representation could unmask representation on the battleground of competing truth claims. Marcuse in (1964) _One-Dimensional Man_, for example, suggests explicitly that radical discourse is increasingly coopted by an affirmative culture in which dissent becomes lifestyle, hence robbing language of its demystifying and galvanizing power. Although not completely resignatory-- not as resignatory as Adorno in (1973) _Negative Dialectics_-- Marcuse in (1972) _Counterrevolution and Revolt_ gave up on the very New Left social movements that he championed in (1969) _Essay on Liberation_ as the harbinger of a new postmodern sensibility capable of formulating qualitatively different discourse/ practices of late-capitalist everyday life. Empirically, Marcuse was correct: The New Left and counterculture withered on the vine, failing to resist their own commodification as "the 'sixties" became a growth industry capitalizing on yuppie nostalgia: 1960s album rock reissued on compact disk and payable in installments. Theoretically, he, Adorno and Horkheimer exaggerated the totalizing tendencies of the culture industry, which was treated too much as a monolith.

Postmodern theory focuses on the crisis of representation as, in effect, the crisis of late capitalism. No longer should we assume that representation (e.g., the nature-like representation of capitalism in bourgeois economic and social theory) can be demystified through discourse that is not fraught with what Derrida calls undecidability. Representation is no longer possible, if it ever was. It never was possible if by representation we mean the positivist reflection of a world "out there." Today, text and world have blurred to the point of virtual indistinguishability. As Adorno reminds us, though, the indistinguishability of concept and thing is never total; there remains an "indissoluble something" which eludes representation and thus makes truth possible. The kernel of non-identity upon which his negative dialectics rests is remarkably similar to Derrida's own stress on the irreducibility of "alterity" to "presence," making deconstruction possible. Deconstruction (e.g., Eagleton 1983) can be viewed as a political practice if we regard Derrida's work as critical social theory, as I (1994) have argued we must.

In these ways, Marx needs to be extended into a period of capitalism's lateness, using postmodern discourse theory as well as critical theory to show how text and world have become terms of each other, thus making demystifying representation next to impossible. But the same postmodernism that makes way for this engagement with lateness also contains an eschatological moment in its implication of a time and place somehow beyond midnight-- the "post"modern. Postmodernity can be viewed as a furfillment of Marx's dream of disalienation, which he characterized as the end of prehistory (modernity). This is confusing because French theorists like Lyotard have positioned Marx as modernist, thus establishing their own "postmodern" identity as postmarxist—of course, a political posturing. Marx worked within the framework of modernity, attempting to show its dialectical potential for becoming something other. He did not use the term postmodernity. However, as Berman (1982) has argued convincingly, the passage from The ManiSesto about how in capitalism "all that is solid melts into air" is a postmodern phrasing par excellence. Terminology is less important here than meaning. I contend that Marx was trying to tease out the potentials and constraints of modernity through his critique of bourgeois political economy. This augured a break with the modern so dramatic that we scarcely possess the discourse necessary to evoke the disalienated experiences and practices first voiced in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and later articulated by the Frankfurt theorists in their attempt to develop an aesthetic of socialism (Benjamin, in his work on Paris; Adorno, in his appraisal of Schoenberg; Marcuse, in his discussions of ergs).

In claiming the postmodern for Marxism, I am not reducing theory to a singular political program but rather suggesting that Marx foresaw the need to furfill the "project of modernity," as Habermas has termed it. He recognized the lateness of capitalist civilization as an opportunity to preserve the best features of that civilization (e.g., what the Frankfurt theorists called enlightenment) while transcending it in favor of something qualitatively different. Today, this is anathema to those postmodernists who contend that Marxism is politically pernicious, or at least passe, and that Marx embraced modernity uncritically. I think both versions of Marx are wrong; better, they conceal their own interest in producing a neoconservative version of leftism in celebration of the so-called "end of Communism." Even a casual glance at the CIS reveals that their leadership is very far from dealing with the lateness of capitalism as an occasion of emancipation. Instead, state socialism has given way to a helter-skelter venture capitalism in which Russians scramble to survive. In this context, some Russians want to return to Communism.

My eschatological version of postmodernism comes out of left field, especially in the United States, where French theory has been ritualized as downright semio-celebration. The popularity of the "late" Baudrillard, he of (1988) _America_, is a case in point. Where Foucault and Derrida remained committed to a radical interrogation of modernist philosophical and theoretical assumptions, Baudrillard has gone off the political deep end. Whereas his (1981) _For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign_ and even (1983) _Simulations_ made some important points about the semiotics of late capitalism, he has dissolved "reality" into the endless play of simulations and thus lost all basis for ideology critique. Baudrillard dissolves material reality into "simulations," thus replacing the political economy of labor power with the political economy of the sign. A critical theory informed by postmodernism need not choose between these two versions of political economy but, with Horkheimer (1972) in his programmatic 1937 essay on"Traditional and Critical Theory," links material and ideal, economics and culture. The Frankfurt School theorists, as exemplified by Horkheimer and Adorno's (1972) argument in _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, identified the "culture industry" as the institutions and discursive practices bridging base and superstructure.

For postmodernism to embrace a leftist eschatology requires that we historicize modernity in such a way that we recognize within it the possibilities of dialectical transcendence-- radical social change. In this sense, postmodernity is a stage of modernity not yet fully developed. There is a strong temptation simply to equate the postmodern with the present, using postmodernity much the way Daniel Bell (1973) used the term postindustrialism to describe a stage of capitalism based on various information technologies unanticipated by Marx. It is important for postmodernity not to function merely sociologically, as a description of the present and imminent future. Typically, this sociologization of postmodernity is celebratory, defending the rupture with modernity as a rupture with political partisanship and ideological contestation (again, resembling Bell's (1960) argument for the "end of ideology"). I contend that postmodernity must remain an eschatological category precisely because the prefix "post" connotes a resolution of modernist "lateness" in the sense of lying-beyond-modernity. There is another, more nihilist reading of lateness: Postmodernity is late-in-the-day, beyond the possibility of radical social change, a reading approximated by Adorno who, as Ryan (1982) recognizes, is remarkably similar to Derrida in his critique of "identity theory."

The problem with an eschatological version of critical theory is that lateness is seen to precede the dawn of a new world, a rhetoric used by Marx and many other utopians. When the clock strikes midnight, social change is to arrive punctually-- in Marx's terms in _Capital_, suddenly the expropriators are expropriated. But modernity is elastic, containing both the possibility of the Holocaust and of radical social change deserving the prefix "post." The single best reason for calling this radical change postmodern rather than Marxist is that it is incredibly difficult to restore the political currency of Marxist eschatology after perestroika as well as Reagan. Marx was insufficiently dialectical in the way he demarcated the boundary between the modern and postmodern. He failed to see that postmodernity was in fact not a rupture with late modernity-- the clock striking twelve-- but a moment of modernity that exists as a dialectical possibility and not a certainty lying at the end of a lawlike process of socialist unfolding. Postmodernism is usefully ironic in that it stresses the undecidability of discourse and action while at the same time preserving the possibility of meaning conceived dialectically as an engagement with nothingness, meaninglessness, alterity. Postmodernism need not be nihilist if it is conceived within the frame of reference of modernity as an attempt to "fulfill" modernity, establishing a regime of reason, albeit by resolving modernity's lateness in a way that replaces the diachronic timetable of modernist unfolding with the synchronic historicity of utopia. To put this differently, postmodernism ensures that the left proceeds with no cosmic guarantees about the inevitability of radical social change and thus a legitimation of their own vanguardist privileges.

This is scandalous talk for those convinced that Marxism is yet another modernism failing to address the venality and directionlessness of the present adequately. Admittedly, there are few Marxisms that think beyond the 19th century. More important, there are few Marxisms that make irony a principle of dialectical humility and dialogical democracy. The Parisian existential Marxists, especially Merleau-Ponty, anticipated Derrida in their attempt to reconcile Heidegger and Marx. Better than the new French theorists, MerleauPonty, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus reconciled the existentialist and left projects without sacrificing one to the other. Meaninglessness need not thwart action if we understand that history, however devoid of millennial telos, is still available to human deliberation and design. In this sense, postmodernism resists the nihilist tendencies of its own critique of foundationalism—of first principles and assumptions that intend to elude interrogation and critique. The crucial contribution of postmodern theory to the critique of foundationalism and the philosophy of presence, as Derrida termed it, lies in its demystification of totalizing intellectual and political systems that obliterate "alterity" (difference, otherness). In this sense, postmodernism fosters dialogical democracy, recognizing that the good is talk and all talk is good. At the same time, the risks of antifoundationalism are nihilism and relativism that lead to political quiescence.

The U.S. reception of postmodernism has stressed this post-political quietism. Indeed, so-called post-Marxism (see Block 1990) extends from postmodernism in this sense. But the American reception of postmodernism has tended to ignore postmodernism's stress on the linkage between discourse and democracy, a linkage that I contend is precisely the opening of Derrida's critique of western logocentrism to radical politics. Put differently, the American reception of postmodernism suppresses (or simply never learned) the social and intellectual history of French postmodern theory, which emerged out of the 1968 May Movement as a critique of Stalinist and orthodox-Marxist authoritarianism in preference for a radical micropolitics of everyday life (later to emerge as new social movements theory). Far from turning away from politics, people like Derrida and Foucault viewed their own philosophical work as intensely and obviously political, contributing to the heterodox French left project, especially in ways that embrace the feminist and gay/ lesbian movements.

This French version of micropolitics derived from antifoundationalism in the sense that the antifoundationalist critique of western logocentrism provides the moral and political paradigm of democratic community. The French theorists attempted to install deconstructive perpetual interrogation, especially the questioning of and debate over first principles, as a basis of community-- of the good, in logocentric parlance! This issued in a radical micropolitics not at all devoid of values but rather founded on the value of dialogue and discourse themselves. In particular, Derrida and Foucault sought to empower those who have historically occupied the "subject positions" of alterity and otherness, enabling them to enter community and thus achieve political and social power. Deconstruction, as Derrida understood it, is the activity whereby dichotomies are revealed to be hierarchies (e.g., male/female, where to be female means that one is not-male, thus defining women in terms of their "absence" of maleness). Once deconstructively revealed, these hierarchies are to be displaced by the invention of new discourse/practices. A great deal of deconstructive activity has been spent decentering bipolar concepts and practices of gender, a theme central to Derrida's and French feminists' critiques of western phallogocentrism (see Hekman 1990; Agger 1993). The point of deconstructive critique is not purely negative, however, inasmuch as dichotomies/ hierarchies, once deconstructed, would then be displaced by new discursive versions. Thus, deconstruction is at once a negative and positive activity, not only demystifying present discursive practices but also attempting to replace them with "different" ones.

This does not issue in a new foundationalism, however, if deconstructors live up to their own standards of undecidability. That is, the development of new discursive practices that do not trade on sheer dichotomies (only concealing hierarchies) is not an occasion for denying those new discursive practices deconstructive attention. On the contrary, deconstruction ceaselessly seeks to destroy the hardening (reification, in Marxist) of discourse into cant-- and thus power. For example, once left-feminist deconstructors displace the phallogocentric bipolarity of masculinity/femininity in favor of a new trinity of race/class/gender, they risk reifying race/class/gender into an unassailable formulation that does our thinking for us, hence undermining the very "difference" deemed so important by multiculturalists. This is not to decide against multiculturalism, especially where it is grounded in a critique of phallogocentrism, but simply to point out that a good multicultural community would vigilantly protect itself against the reification of its own hallowed concepts that, over time, harden into a code of political correctness.

This talk of the good risks logocentrism-- the bane of postmodernists. But I contend that postmodernism can talk of the good just as Marxism can theorize discourse as a significant political factor in late capitalism. There are many "goods," some less logocentric than others. So powerful has been the logocentrism of the Greeks, who sought the good in a cave, that it is very difficult to rescue moral philosophy and morally-energized social theory (e.g., Habermas) from its conflation with Platonist logocentrism, which set the standard for later versions. I contend that Marx was the "first" postmodernist in the sense that he criticized logocentrism implicitly where, following Hegel although with a materialist intent, he made historicity thematic as an antidote to metaphysics. In other words, Marx was antifoundationalist, opposing speculative philosophy as empirically and politically arbitrary. By the same token, postmodernism makes way for a discursive formulation of the good that turns textuality into a political language game through which power is transacted. When Derrida says that there is nothing beyond the text, I hear him to say that there are no grounds of judgment outside of judging itself-- a necessarily perspectival, undecidable activity. This does not disqualify judgment but only situates judging in the undecidable discursive activity beyond which there are no aprioristic certainties. In Marxist terms, there is only historicity. Indeed, it is abundantly clear that Derrida has done all sorts of political "judging," on behalf of various French and international new social movements that he supports.

Postmodern discourse theory, in its painstaking attention to the significance of discourse, suggests that we should no longer pose Marxism/ postmodernism as disjunctive alternatives. We need a new theoretical mapping that locates Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, environmentalism and anticolonialism on the same cognitive map, as Jameson calls it. To name this overarching cognitive map is somewhat like attempting to map the "outside" of the universe-- a fruitless exercise in metamapping. Perhaps only reflecting my autobibliographical grounding in the Frankfurt School, I would name the "big" map or narrative critical theory, treating Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, environmentalism and anticolonialism as "moments" of critical theory. Although I have much sympathy with Lyotard's aversion to metanarratives as codes of discipline, I am uncomfortable with his dichotomy of big and small narratives: It is increasingly clear that we need both global and local explanations, especially where they are dialectically connected.

Postmodernity, then, is not to be located off the Marxist map, a time after time when leftist eschatological aims no longer apply. Instead, postmodernity is a contemporary formulation of utopia that can only be reached through modernity. It has much the same status as Marx's notion of how socialism would end prehistory. Only with postmodernity will modernity achieve its telos-- dialogical democracy. In appearing to claim postmodernism "for" Marxism I am not making a one-sided appropriation. Marxism is transformed by its engagement with postmodernism and feminism, perhaps beyond recognizability. I contend that it is also revivified now that discursive politics and personal politics matter like never before.


Originally published:
Cultural Studies, Volume 1, pages 37-46. Copyright ~ 1996 by JAI Press Inc. Re"printed" with Permission. ISBN: 1-55938-951-6


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