Within the past seven years, we have witnessed what looked briefly like the implosion of the global financial system followed by a wave of protest movements challenging the neoliberal consensus, but business as usual has returned, indeed with a renewed sense of inexorability. Capitalism is both broken and all-pervasive, and while it has produced the technological conditions for a world of universal welfare and minimal work, it is at the same time the agent of ever more extreme inequality and immiseration, especially among the populations of the Global South. The global financial system to which we are all beholden has never been more opaque in its operations, or more transparent in its effects. And although the language of capitalism and class has resurfaced in public discourse—from Occupy’s “we are the 99%!” to Thomas Piketty’s unlikely best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century—nothing seems to impede the totalizing reach of the profit motive. Capitalism has wholly saturated our world; it now threatens to extinguish it.
Meanwhile, where is theory in the American humanities? The latest violent reminders of capitalism’s global dominance have coincided with various “turns”: toward a “neutral” practice of description (from structure to surface); toward the empirical as opposed to the interpretive; toward an “ethics,” as opposed to a politics, of reading; and toward the souls of objects, as an explicit rejection of questions of subjectivity and subjectivization. Where the stakes are higher, it is in new forms of metaphysics, revitalized vitalisms, cybernetic fantasies, or attempts by the (digital) humanities to incorporate the new “technologized scientism,” as Alain Badiou has called it,1 into its methods: to keep up with the world as it is and not be left behind. Theory today, where it still exists, often presents itself as having modest or circumscribed ambitions attuned to surface effects or aiming for piecemeal results. Or, on the flip side, it invests in new kinds of ontological and metaphysical approaches that dispense with history, cultural specificity, and periodization entirely. In short, at the very moment we most need a political critique of culture, we are busy disavowing the tools that might deliver one.
The new mutations of capitalism—often associated with the economic transformations of the 1970s—have been given many names. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s Border as Method catalogs some of them, including “disorganized capitalism (Lash and Urry 1987), flexible accumulation (Harvey 1989), late capitalism (Mandel 1975), the knowledge economy (Drucker 1969), post-Fordism (Aglietta 1979; Lipietz 1992), cognitive capitalism (Moulier Boutang 2011; Vercellone 2006), neoliberalism (Harvey 2005; Touraine 2001), [and] empire (Hardt and Negri 2000).”2 Seb Franklin’s recent Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic adds to this list the information economy (Porat 1977), the third wave (Toffler 1980), the network society (Castells 1996), the new spirit of capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005), and control society (Deleuze 1990). The list can be expanded yet further: attention economy, semiocapitalism (Berardi 2009), and the hyperindustrial epoch (Stiegler 2014). What is indexed by this “frenzy of periodization,” as Franklin calls it, is not just a new form of capitalism but its extension into every aspect of our lives—our attention, our affects, our cognition, and our social relations.3 A point made by Fredric Jameson over thirty years ago—that the logic of late capitalism has become precisely cultural in a new way—would appear to have been resoundingly confirmed in the period that postdates his analysis of postmodernism.4
Postmodernism: the term itself is conspicuously absent from the list above. In 1984, Jameson used the term to name what he called the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” Since this issue endeavors to reactivate this notion of “cultural logic” and to argue for its timeliness (again or still), it is worth briefly reflecting on the demise of the cognate term with which it was originally associated.5Postmodernism, a victim of its own celebrity, was too often used to signify one of two things: an inventory of aesthetic tropes specifically associated with the last decades of the twentieth century,6 or a reductive concept of epistemological relativism.7 These uses of the word failed to grasp it as the cultural logic that linked aesthetics, knowledge, and political economy. They mistook its symptoms for the thing itself. Both of these (mis)uses of the word, furthermore, took postmodernism to be a relatively stable framework that could be readily applied to a given object rather than what it was for Jameson—a conceptual problem that needs to be continually reexamined in relation to emergent and frequently contradictory phenomena.
What Jameson called postmodernism was never merely a question of a particular style or, for that matter, a genre of theory. Rather, it served as a signifier for the constellation of tendencies that tied together dominant modes of cultural production against which we might begin to register genuine forms of resistance. For Jameson, one could not stand outside postmodernism; it was in some sense the name for the current conditions of thought. But this did not mean that we should embrace it uncritically. As he argued, “it was not possible intellectually or politically simply to celebrate postmodernism or to disavow it.”8 Jameson may have become associated with postmodernism, but he was also a vocal critic of what he took to be its main tendencies, reading its tropes historically albeit with the insistence that a loss of historical consciousness was a characteristic of postmodernity that infects even the discourses that try to resist it. An avowed Marxist and historical materialist, Jameson never repudiated what was one of the central metanarratives that postmodernism itself had presumably dispensed with. The famous directive with which he opened The Political Unconscious—“Always historicize!”—was not to be suddenly abandoned in the wake of a culture that seemed no longer to be able to think historically. On the contrary, it took on a renewed urgency.
Postmodernism, as Jonathan Beller puts it in this issue, has “lost its pizzazz.” This fact risks obscuring the interest that Jameson’s writings on postmodernism still have for us today, an interest that may inhere as much in what they no longer seem to adequately describe as in what still feels relevant to our current moment. If postmodernism is no longer with us, is there a better name for what we still wish to thematize, for reasons we will explain, as the cultural logic of contemporary capitalism? How might we distinguish the present imbrication of culture and political economy from that which Jameson described three decades ago? Does the cultural logic of the era before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the establishment of the eurozone, and the War on Terror still resemble our own? Or would an updated account of cultural logic need to take significant stock of developments such as the mass surveillance of civilian telecommunications; the ubiquity of computing devices, social media, and the cloud; the (globally uneven) mainstreaming of queerness and other reconfigurations of twenty-first-century identity; the ongoing legacies of imperialism and the violence of racialization; and the technological and economic transformations of the private and public spheres, if indeed they can still be said to be distinct? Meanwhile, what of this operation itself—the critical operation of periodization, of naming the system, locating the historical novelty of the present moment of capitalism as it is expressed in our television shows, our architecture, our technological platforms, and modes of discourse? Is this still a useful critical procedure, or is the desire for periodization itself a symptom of the cultural logic of late capitalism, as Franklin suggests?9
Cultural logic: the term is a theoretical provocation. Amidst the characteristic pluralism and diversity of the contemporary field of cultural production—comprising architecture, film, postbroadcast television, literature, journalism, social media, and the arts: a nonexhaustive list—can we discern an underlying logic (or logics, as the case may be), which is to say, a system of coherent patterns and relations that would be indexed to the singular economic system that currently fills all possible spaces, namely, capitalism? A cultural logic in this sense might overlap with what Foucault called a dispositif, or “apparatus,” conditioning the field of the intelligible and perceptible and tying together, in Foucauldian terms, the discursive production of knowledge and the operations of power (or, in our own preferred terms, class interests), as well as modes of subjectivation and what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.”10 It might equally bear on what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,”11 especially in that it invokes the aesthetic as one of its modalities. As Bernard Stiegler, among others, has argued, capitalism works directly on the sensory or sensible life today, and “artistic and spiritual questions have become questions of political economy.”12 Like these cognate theoretical terms, the term cultural logic is not merely empirically descriptive. It is a term of political analysis that is precisely historical: the cultural logic that becomes “hegemonic,” as Jameson sometimes puts it, under given conditions—that is, the current stage of global capitalism—is also available as a domain of contestation, resistance, and activism, even as it makes the critical distance typically implied by those terms appear outmoded.
The formidable challenge, in Jameson’s account of postmodernism, was to register the unconscious attempts to think alternatives within a dominant cultural logic in which they seem unthinkable. One way this takes place in his own work is through an ongoing commitment to the notion of utopia; another is through an “aesthetic” to which he gave the name “cognitive mapping”—the necessary attempt to give form to an ungraspable world system, and itself a new form of class consciousness motivated by a utopian impulse to imagine alternatives. The gambit, both at the time of Jameson’s writing and for our current and potentially distinct moment, is that the formal features that recur in current cultural production might index in some way (more complex than simply reflecting or expressing) the deeper logic of the new global system and, indeed, the tendencies that anticipate possibilities on the horizon for new modes of organization. As Jameson once put it, “All postmodern theory is . . . a telling of the future, with an imperfect deck.”13
As familiar as these questions of base and superstructure, economy and culture may be, there has been a lack of serious interest in tackling them in contemporary theory. As we have noted, there certainly have been attempts to name what is novel about the current economy, as well as attempts to provide some kind of diagnosis of the cultural zeitgeist. But the goal, as Jameson made clear, was never “another disembodied culture critique.”14 In what follows, our contributors address these issues from two distinct angles. The first concerns the “meta” question of method, in a context of the various depoliticizing turns referred to above. Some reflect on the legacy of a Marxist cultural criticism, whose enduring—and indeed renewed—value animates their work. In his article, for example, Alexander R. Galloway offers a Jamesonian reflection on ontology and metaphysics, restoring to the latter the question of history. From a different perspective, Jennifer Bajorek, in an article on West African art, argues that an analysis of the cultural logic of capitalism today needs to reorient itself away from the Euro-American cultural reference points that, she contends, have been fundamental to the elaboration of Marxist cultural theory in the West. In his contribution, Beller reads the demise of the term postmodernism as symptomatic of the effacing of capitalism and its operations, an effacing that (because it is a meaningful “invisibility”) clearly challenges the value of mere description. In a similar vein, Alberto Toscano’s article explores the absence of an analysis of capitalism or class politics in the discourse on the Anthropocene and in contemporary photographic images of the built environment, absences that demand that we venture well beyond the surfaces of appearances. Each of these writers offers an explicit critique of current trends in the humanities while insisting on, and sketching out possibilities for, politically engaged alternatives.
The second line of inquiry attempts to delineate some of the substantive features of the cultural logic in question. The attempts at naming the new socioeconomic structure all suggest a world in which, as Franklin puts it, “a supposedly frictionless concept of information functions as a sovereign concept” at the same time as “ever-growing rates of exploitation, expulsion, incarceration, and destruction [appear] in the fissures and at the margins of this world.”15 Some of these complexities are tracked in the articles by Sulgi Lie, who identifies a shift from the economy of desire to one of drive in contemporary film, and by Amy Villarejo, who, surveying the (post)televisual landscape, addresses the new mainstreaming of queerness in the distributed forms of television across a range of digital platforms. Bajorek and Toscano, meanwhile, expand the purview of cultural logic to global and planetary arenas. Bajorek considers the reflexive awareness of the “NGO aesthetic” as it is inscribed into and challenged by African artworks that cognitively remap the terrain of contemporary cultural logic. Toscano’s analysis of the trope of depopulation in manufactured landscape photography, meanwhile, offers a searing critique of the periodizing concept of the Anthropocene in its argument for a Marxist concept of human activity under capitalism, which is crucial to conceptualizing history.
As Galloway reminds us in his contribution to this issue, Jameson noted that “interpretation” had “fallen into disrepute” as far back as 1971. Jameson is one of the few prominent voices to consistently foreground both the value of interpretation—largely rejected by poststructuralists and analytic philosophers alike and, by his own analysis, anathema to postmodern culture—as well as its persistence even in the modes of discourse that try most strenuously to escape it.
Despite this minority position, it is a testament to Jameson’s influence in American academia during the 1980s and 1990s that in Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s 2009 introduction to a special issue of Representations on “The Way We Read Now,” Jameson’s Political Unconscious is taken to model the dominant reading strategy that the “now” of their title performatively dispatches to the dustbins of history. In the place of “symptomatic reading” or “ideology critique,” which they place under the sign of Jameson, Best and Marcus extol the virtues of what they call surface reading, advocating for it by describing its rise as an empirical fact (rather than, say, a methodological commitment with ideological implications). According to Best and Marcus, Jameson is guilty of glorifying criticism as a “heroic endeavor” that requires dismissing the surface of texts and aggressively “correct[ing]” them by decoding their hidden messages. The injunction to “Always historicize!” is for its part described as a paradoxically “transhistorical imperative whose temporality matches the eternity Augustine ascribed to God.”16
Surface reading, write Best and Marcus, “strives to describe texts accurately” and, in so doing, to avoid an “adversarial relation to the object of criticism.”17 Against the adversarial and the “paranoid,” the authors advocate what they describe as an “ethical” stance of “receptiveness and fidelity to the text’s surface, as opposed to suspicious and aggressive attacks on its concealed depth.”18 Here the “ethical” stands in for, and indeed displaces, the political. (Moreover, the ethical injunction is apparently not self-binding, since the authors’ own reading of Jameson’s Political Unconscious is rather more aggressive than it is accurate.)19 In an epilogue to Best and Marcus’s special issue, Emily Apter and Elaine Freedgood reiterate that “there is considerable consensus” among the issue’s contributors that “symptomatic reading does not do very well as a standalone heuristic and might well be wished away.”20 Far from joining this “consensus,” our own special issue is the product of a shared counterconviction that to read is already to inscribe oneself within a history that wrests from the present “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”21 There is no such thing, we submit, as “simple” or “faithful” description, just as there is no act of reading that is not political. This is itself a political statement, made at a time when the stakes for how and what we read in the academy are high, and not a divine injunction or transhistorical truth. And while we think Best and Marcus offer a reductive account of the method they associate with Jameson, we are in any case not afraid to be “suspicious and aggressive,” under historical conditions that call for nothing less.
In an arguably parallel development, witness the recent special issue of differences criticizing queer theory’s investment in what the editors describe as an overattachment to the “politics of oppositionality” and to a position of “antinormativity.”22 The whole field of queer theory, the editors allege, has been based on the mistaken premise that norms are violent and that queer theory’s purpose should be to resist or unsettle norms. On the contrary, they aver, norms are heterogeneous and pluralistic, even “play[ful].”23 The implicit target of their polemic seems to be the political orientation of the field, to which one of their contributors counterposes, for example, “the value of a descriptive view of sexual practices and sexual communities” modeled on post-WWII social science.24 This renewed emphasis on avowedly apolitical formalism in literary studies and on description in queer studies arises in tandem with object-oriented ontology and associated modes of new materialism in philosophy. These developments in contemporary theory—for all their internal heterogeneity and nuance—evince a collective desire to move away from the political investments of what is disparaged as cultural studies and from its associated practices of ideology critique and symptomatic reading. We are tempted to read this desire as itself symptomatic of the cultural logic of contemporary capitalism.
“The way we read now,” to take the title of Best and Marcus’s special issue, is changing. So too are the ways we watch, the ways we communicate, and the ways we think. What resources do the humanities afford us for understanding these changes? With new and powerful computational tools at our disposal, the possibilities of data mining or what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading”25 are in their infancy. The turn to the social sciences as well as the hard sciences has become de rigueur in the increasingly digital humanities. Poststructuralism is out; cognitive psychology and literary Darwinism are in. On the one hand, those still committed to “the literary” take refuge in lowering the stakes—whether quarantining an analysis of form from questions of politics, or emphasizing personal experience and affect, or framing their goals in ethical (rather than political) terms, such as in the oft-pronounced preference for “reparative reading.”26 These practices cede ground to the sciences in the imperative attempt to understand the way we (as in all of us, not just academics) really do read now.
On the other hand, in committed criticism—for example, the kind regularly practiced in Social Text—there is increasingly an emphasis on “the social over the text,” as Anna McCarthy put it in the journal’s thirtieth anniversary issue in 2009.27 Perhaps the text was felt to be too much a privileged object of the kind of criticism now disparaged as “postmodern” (the “text,” Jameson once wrote, is a “postmodern category and phenomenon which has replaced the older one of a ‘work’”).28 In Social Text, textual analysis has in fact suffered the same fate as the discussion of works (of art): in the same anniversary issue, Susette Min observed that “art’s power as cultural resistance and convivial exchange has been viewed with skepticism and increasing cynicism . . . by the editorial board of Social Text in recent years, as evidenced by the virtual absence of essays that directly engage with art and aesthetics.”29 That art and literature are no longer able to offer leverage in terms of criticism or resistance is a point apparently agreed on both by those who continue to pay attention to form and textuality and by those who do not or, conversely, by those who are still invested in a politics of dissent and by those who maintain (like the advocates of surface reading) that such investments lie outside the scope of literary criticism.
The political impotence of art and aesthetics—and, presumably, of reading and criticism—under conditions of “real subsumption” has recently been celebrated by Steven Shaviro, who claims that what he calls “accelerationist art” makes good on Kant’s formula for the beautiful, “purposiveness without purpose.”30 According to Shaviro, where resistance, transgression, subversion, and presumably revolution are anachronisms of the twentieth century, today all art can hope to do is to “intensify . . . the horrors of contemporary capitalism,” not in order to get beyond them or even to better understand their cultural logic, but in a useless, which is to say aesthetic, gesture of empty affirmation. For Shaviro, this strategy at least “offer[s] us a kind of satisfaction and relief, by telling us that we have finally hit bottom, finally realized the worst.”31 And yet, paradoxically, contemporary art, especially the work curated under the guise of Documenta and other massive international art fairs, appears more “political” than ever. As Jameson notes in the interview in this issue, “in a sense, everybody’s political. But that does not mean that our ‘political’ art works as politics.” The contradiction between the avowed politicality of contemporary art and its apparent purposelessness—or indeed, its intensified circulation as a privileged form of capital—may well confirm Shaviro’s point, or it may point us toward some new configuration of aesthetics and politics on the horizon. Jameson adds: “I don’t think anybody knows what a successful political—truly political—art would be, one that would have an effect.”
Is it possible to insist on the value of looking at art, reading texts, interpreting culture, without detaching form from politics, and without simply finding there the confirmation that things are as bad as they possibly could be? Against such dystopianism, whatever its good intentions, and against reactionary modes of formalism both old and new, we hold onto Jameson’s insistence on historicizing, an insistence that keeps the dialectic (i.e., critical negativity) alive, rather than proclaiming its collapse into a airtight world of “real subsumption.” After the demise of postmodernism, our issue seeks to regenerate strong interpretive strategies grounded in a philosophy of history.
What can the “formal tendencies” of the contemporary cultural landscape, to borrow Amy Villarejo’s term,32 tell us about political economy today; about history and its foreclosures and possibilities; about class relations and the exploitations that animate them as well as the utopian fantasies they harbor; about the imaginaries that order our world but only incompletely determine its horizons? We maintain that formal analysis need not be formalism, and we remain committed to the notion that form can render insights into the complex cultural conditions that produce it. In the twenty-first century, whether or not we are still “postmodern,” it remains possible, and indeed an imperative, to read cultural form and political economy together in their collusions, intersections, codeterminations, and tensions.
Periodizing the Present
For Jameson, the term postmodernism, as the prefix post-implies, was also a term of periodization. In an article in the New Left Review, and again in the interview that appears in this issue, Jameson states that he now thinks the term postmodernity is less amenable to misunderstanding.33 “It would have been much clearer,” he says in the interview, “had I distinguished ‘postmodernity’ as a historical period from ‘postmodernism’ as a style.” Postmodernity is not a precisely delimited historical occurrence but corresponds to the hegemonic conditions, political, economic, and cultural, that we now associate with neoliberalism, conditions that are consolidated, says Jameson, “around 1980 or so, in the Reagan/Thatcher era, with [for example] the advent of economic deregulation, [and] the new salience of globalization.” Of course, the point of periodizing, which Jameson has always insisted was both necessary and necessarily inadequate, is not simply to describe or amass data: it does not mean to “recognize [the past] ‘the way it really was,’” as Benjamin once put it.34 To “always historicize!” does not enjoin us to a historicism conceived as an act of simple description. It means, rather, to understand the contingency of a set of conditions that present themselves as timeless and inevitable.
Postmodernity, the term Jameson now favors, is one possible name for the third stage of capitalism. As the story goes, sometime in the 1970s (though Ernest Mandel, it should be noted, dates the emergence of “late capitalism” to the end of WWII),35 after the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system, and following the dissipation of the political and utopian energies of the 1960s, a new period emerged that no longer seemed adequately described by the word modernity. The latter corresponded to monopoly capitalism, the second stage of capitalism theorized by Lenin, marking a shift from the period of market capitalism known by Marx himself to one characterized by imperialism, Fordism, industrialization, and modernism in the arts. We have since moved to and possibly beyond the third stage, where monopolies have further morphed into transnational corporations, and in the era following decolonization, imperialism has been supplanted by new forms of neocolonialism or endocolonialism.
Postmodernity refers as well to a period increasingly dominated by a service, knowledge, or information economy, or what Hardt and Negri have called affective or immaterial labor.36 It signals an era of finance capital increasingly untethered from production, an economic logic in which capital, as Jameson put it in 1998, “like cyberspace, can live on its own internal metabolism and circulate without any reference to an older type of content.”37 Its exemplary form is the mutant monetary entity known as the derivative. Following Giovanni Arrighi, Jameson reminds us that finance capitalism is a third stage that signals an impending crisis: capital’s endless drive to expansion involves conquering or subsuming ever new regions, but once the markets of those new territories become saturated, capital resorts to speculation, leading inevitably to a crisis and a shift in the center of power. Finance capital is, of course, nothing new; as Arrighi points out, it is the third stage in a cycle that has been repeated with a series of centers from Genoa to the Netherlands to Great Britain and, from WWII at least until the end of the twentieth century, the United States.38
With the global saturation of capitalism seemingly complete, have we arrived at a breaking point? As Jameson puts it: “With globalization this search for fresh territory would seem to have come to an end, and thus to some well-nigh terminal crisis.”39 Is a new system that can no longer be called capitalist on the horizon? Since 2008, this is not an uncommon claim, as certain prominent left-wing intellectuals including David Graeber, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Paul Mason, and even some right-wing financial journals have argued in recent years, though of course to different ends. Jameson is often fond of reminding us that the end of the world was easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. Today, this remains true but only because the end of the world, namely, the ecological disaster wrought by the Anthropocene, is perhaps all too easy to conjure. Indeed, as Naomi Klein has insisted, perhaps the end of capitalism is becoming easier to imagine today only because it has become clearer that it may be the only way to prevent the end of the (natural) world.40
As for culture in this third stage, the “make it new” of modernism, the provocations of the historical avant-gardes, and an obsession with authentic time and experience have given way, Jameson argued in his famous essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” to the logic of pastiche and to a time sense increasingly subject to spatialization in an eternal present. The articles we have gathered address these and other formal tendencies that have emerged or been altered in contemporary culture, as well as the persistence of older forms. Sulgi Lie’s article “From Shame to Drive: The Waning of Affect; or, The Rising of the Drive-Image in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema” takes up this idea of a postmodern eternal present and measures it against current formal tendencies through a close reading of two recent Hollywood films: Shame (dir. Steve McQueen, 2011) and Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Though Hollywood, and indeed cinema itself, are no longer necessarily contemporary “cultural dominants,” Lie argues that the zombie-like Hollywood film can yet tell us something about the “political unconscious of contemporary capitalism.” Lie revisits Jameson’s notion of the “waning of affect” (rephrased, in the interview here, as a shift from emotion to intensities), through the psychoanalytic concepts of desire and drive: according to Lie, Shame and Drive represent two different ways of managing the contemporary “rising of the drive” and the demise of what he describes as the humanist subject of desire. In both films, the drive is formally inscribed as a stasis or a “presentism”: both attest to the loss of historical consciousness that Jameson already diagnosed in the 1980s. (For this reason, the films disclose that the cultural logical of contemporary capitalism is even “more postmodern that the old postmodernity of the 1980s was.”) But Lie’s reading demonstrates that there are political stakes to competing aesthetic strategies and, indeed, to the way criticism takes the measure of those strategies. It is critical reading that puts the negativity back into a text that otherwise seems to disclose, as Jameson observes in a discussion of Adorno, “an absolute reduction to the present and a mesmerization by the empirically and sensorially existent.”41
Adorno is also a privileged interlocutor in Amy Villarejo’s analysis of television after the digital conversion, “Adorno by the Pool; or, Television Then and Now.” In surveying the contemporary media landscape, Villarejo shows how Adorno’s analysis of midcentury television offers tools that remain useful well beyond their historical context. Surprisingly, the Frankfurt School theorist becomes, in Villarejo’s hands, a kind of queer theorist of the televisual apparatus. Building on the argument of her 2014 book Ethereal Queer, she shows how desire and identification are cut to the measure of a televisual time that continues to structure ostensibly “post-televisual” media. Villarejo demonstrates how capital’s transformations of contemporary television and digital media platforms have produced a “diffuse paraprofessional orbit” in which amateur production takes on a new salience, which in turn enables new forms of queerness to proliferate on large and small screens. This is not, to be sure, simply a form of progress—Villarejo shares Adorno’s skepticism about that term. But nor is twenty-first-century televisual queerness merely a symptom of late capital’s relentless domestication and appropriation of all aspects of existence. The cultural logic of contemporary capitalism is sufficiently complex and contradictory that it behooves us to remain attentive to its “unpredictable intersections rather than engag[ing] in wholesale dismissals or appraisals.” Thus, Villarejo avoids a totalizing cynicism while suggesting that any grand narrative of the present will remain inadequate to the complicated nexuses of culture and capital, identity and difference, desire and its commodification that might form elements of a current cultural logic.
Jameson has frequently suggested that postmodernity might be taken as something close to a synonym of globalization. The discovery that “there is no outside” to global capitalism, as Hardt and Negri claim,42 meant the continued reach of certain forms of Western, especially American, popular culture over the entire globe, but also that the West was no longer the West. According to Jameson, “the system of Otherness” that had emerged in that second stage of capitalism, the era of colonialism, had given way to “a world of billions of anonymous equals.”43 The initial examples of postmodern symptoms came mostly from the West, but as he expanded his work on a “geopolitical aesthetic” in the 1990s, he located many of the most promising and politically productive examples at the periphery of the world system.44 In her article in this collection, “Beyond the ‘NGO Aesthetic,’” Jennifer Bajorek considers the critical vantage afforded by the periphery at a moment of profound transformation. She explores the possibility of a Marxist cultural analysis from the perspective of West Africa, a putative “last frontier of capitalism” that, as she contends, has “leapfrogged the old, familiar forms of industrial production and of social organization.” Through the work of Nairobi-based artist, Sam Hopkins and the Urban Mirror collective, Bajorek explores the trope of the “NGO aesthetic,” a term used by Hopkins, to examine Africa’s situatedness within a contemporary global economy. These are examples of what she calls “spatial tactics,” through which these artists plot, adapt to, and make productive use of the conditions that derive from Euro-American economic and political power, variously manifested through international aid efforts, uneven commercial development, regular power shortages, digital infrastructures, and reconfigured public and private divisions in corporate holdings and urban development schemes. An analysis of cultural logic primarily from the vantage point of the West, argues Bajorek, remains inadequate to contemporary conditions.
With “The World Is Already without Us,” Alberto Toscano dilates the critical purview from a global to a planetary perspective. He challenges the periodizing concept of the Anthropocene, “this strange new name for our present” that, in subsuming all events under a geologic time scale, collapses human history into a natural event. (The end of nature, a related but not identical concept, was previously theorized by Jameson under the sign of postmodernity, when the full saturation of capitalism left no residual spaces outside of modernity.) As Toscano argues, narratives of the Anthropocene tend to exclude human activity, namely, politics and history, even as they privilege mankind as a “geological agent,” quoting anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus. Tellingly, capital is absent in such notions of the Anthropocene, and Toscano, via Jameson’s reading of Marx, links its occlusion to the operations of capitalism itself, which erases the traces of the past as historical occurrences, though the material remnants of past production remain. Capitalism, for Toscano, produces a “violently endless present” increasingly, though imperceptibly, occupied by dead labor: the replacement of living, human labor with machines. He reads the aesthetic trope of depopulation in the manufactured landscape photography of Lewis Baltz and Edward Burtynsky as antonymic indicators of capital’s tendency to disappear itself. According to Toscano, such images reflect an ideology embedded within the natural sciences–derived notion of the Anthropocene. He describes this, following Jameson following Sartre, as an “antipraxis”: “man altered, alienated by man-altered landscapes, in which all praxis seems to be snuffed out, abstracted, extinguished.” In lieu of the term Anthropocene, Toscano favors Jason W. Moore’s Capitalocene, which restores capitalism, instead of ecological disaster or human agency, as the central agent in historical change. Though, as he notes, the Marxist subject of history has become one of “tired mockery,” replaced by the Anthropocene’s subject of nature and other theoretical currents, the task of comprehending it remains politically and intellectually urgent.
It was one of the strengths of Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism to consider theory itself as a symptom of the cultural logic it sought to analyze. Whether through theories of technology and new media, affect theory, theories of biopolitics and control, posthumanism, speculative realism, or accelerationism, recent philosophy has seen a turn away from critique and historicization in favor of an increasing focus on a non-Marxist form of materialism frequently framed in metaphysical terms. The theory of the Anthropocene is one example of contemporary theory that questions the distinction between nature and history that was so central to the tradition of Marxist thought exemplified by Jameson. Despite its weakness as a political slogan, as demonstrated by Toscano, it should remind us that the ontological turn in recent theory is by no means necessarily antipolitical. Quentin Meillassoux, perhaps the most influential figure in the new related movements of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, is deeply indebted to his former teacher Alain Badiou, whose return to ontology has been in the service of a militant philosophy of the event. Meanwhile, one of the major activist theoretical texts of the recent decades, Hardt and Negri’s Empire, rereads Marx through a Spinozist and Deleuzian ontology. On the one hand, some of these latest philosophical trends can be recognized as what Jameson has called “regressions of the current age”45 in which pre-Marxist modes of thought are repackaged with new names. On the other hand, we must consider seriously whether some of these shifts constitute a necessary attempt to cognitively map our current moment of global capitalism, which permits no outside perspective.
In “History Is What Hurts: On Old Materialism,” Alexander Galloway suggests that these new materialist philosophies call for a rethinking of “old materialism,” namely, the historical materialist methodology that characterizes Jameson’s writings. Rather than simply pitting historical materialism as practiced by Jameson against the idealisms of metaphysics, Galloway asks instead whether an ontology underpins Jameson’s relentlessly dialectical writings, however much Jameson himself might resist the term. As Jameson himself frankly acknowledges in the interview in this issue, escaping metaphysics is easier said than done, and what gets thrown out the front door tends to creep back in through the window. Engaging with over four decades of Jameson’s writings, from Marxism and Form (1971) up through the present, Galloway unpacks the unwavering commitment to dialectical thought, critique, and interpretation and reveals a methodology firmly marked by a modern (as opposed to postmodern) paradigm of critical and historical thought that always returns to the question of ground, or what Jameson called in The Political Unconscious the “absolute horizon” of the political. Having elsewhere analyzed the affinity between the ontologies of various new materialist philosophers and post-Fordist capitalism, here Galloway probes the Marxian materialism that helped shape his own intellectual trajectory and locates its difference from new materialism in its axiomatic commitment to thinking the conditions of possibility for ideology and politics.
This commitment is on full display in Jonathan Beller’s wide-ranging and polemical survey of contemporary theory and the fate of postmodernism, “Texas-(S)ized Postmodernism; or, Capitalism without the Dialectic.” Postmodernism, Beller argues, has lost its cachet not because it has ended but rather because it has been fully realized. The current moment is an intensification of postmodernism, but Jameson’s analysis had yet to come to terms with the full implications of post-Fordist digital culture. Mounting an impassioned argument for a revitalized Marxist cultural criticism and a renewed poststructuralism and postcolonialism adequate to our current moment of what he calls “computational capital,” Beller also insists, in an implicit critique of Jameson, on the centrality of race and gender to political economy. Referring to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and Silvia Federici’s “Wages against Housework,” he argues that race and gender should not compete with the analysis of class, nor should they be added on to it; rather, they are constitutive of capitalism from the very start: “Maybe those who ply (and play against) the institutional and para-institutional spaces of theory might study these phrases: racial capitalism, sex/gender capitalism. They may provide tools to subvert the whitewashing of the revolutionary theory commons; they insist upon dialogue.”
As these articles collectively attest, new configurations of race, gender and sexuality, information, and ecology in the twenty-first century offer critical vantage points for exploring the cultural logic of contemporary capitalism, in which they are complexly privileged terms. But their centrality to our contemporary cultural logic does not mean that they wear their meanings on their sleeve. David L. Eng, for example, has shown how a certain liberal narrative in the US maintains that the public sphere is “color-blind.”46 To challenge such narratives—to understand them as, yes, symptomatic of the cultural logic of contemporary capitalism—means to venture beyond “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding.”47 Maintaining a skeptical distance from the shiny surfaces of what we still want to call postmodernity, the articles that follow aim, from a range of critical perspectives and with diverse investments, to reactivate the question of the relation of cultural and aesthetic forms to economic and political conditions, in a global context and with an eye to periodization. In so doing, they revisit, but also redefine, the possibilities for a Marxist mode of cultural analysis—in other words, for a political critique of culture.
The reason it seems to us that Jameson’s Postmodernism—unlike the term itself—is not in fact dated is that, like Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” half a century earlier, it is fully aware of its own historicity. In addition to mapping emergent phenomena in the then-current moment, Jameson also maintains an eye toward what remains to be thought and is not yet fully understood: the “empty chair reserved for some as yet unrealized, collective, and decentered cultural production of the future.”48 It was with this attentiveness to historicity in mind that we organized this special issue, to sketch the variegated contours of the current cultural landscape and to reinstate the future as an open question.
The articles here do not deliver a unified analysis of a singular cultural logic. They do, however, all acknowledge that the contours of such a logic, or logics, are defined by the inexorability of contemporary global capital. And they put politics at the center of their sophisticated practices of reading. Far from presenting a unified view, the aim of this issue is to examine these questions from a range of disciplines, national locations, and critical perspectives, taking the anniversary of Jameson’s postmodernism essay as an occasion to reflect, in short, on the function of criticism in the humanities today.
Mezzadra and Neilson, Border as Method, 80–81. This list is referenced by Fredric Jameson in the interview in this issue.
Franklin, Control, xiii.
We might recall here Jameson’s words of caution regarding a similar “frenzy”: “The frenzy whereby virtually anything in the present is appealed to for testimony as to the latter’s uniqueness and radical difference from earlier moments of human time does indeed strike one sometimes as harboring a pathology distinctly autoreferential, as though our utter forgetfulness of the past exhausted itself in the vacant but mesmerized contemplation of a schizophrenic present.” Postmodernism, xii.
The decline of postmodernism seems to have coincided roughly with the turn of the millennium—if not specifically with 11 September 2001. It took less than two weeks following 9/11 for a writer for the New York Times to declare the end of the legitimacy of not only postmodernism but also postcolonialism. See Rothstein, “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers.” According to Rothstein, both pomo and poco, as he abbreviated them, were philosophies dictated by moral relativism, and 9/11 (we all surely agreed) was no time for moral relativism. Tellingly, Rothstein’s examples, from Edward Said and unnamed others, did not, as he supposed, corroborate the accusation of relativism. On the contrary, the unpardonable sin of these thinkers was that they denied American exceptionalism by considering the violent history of American foreign policy in their concerns for how the US government would respond to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
For example, in the last decade, the journal Twentieth Century Literature has put out two special issues dedicated to the end of postmodernism: After Postmodernism: Form and History in Contemporary American Fiction (vol. 53, no. 3, 2007) and Postmodernism, Then (vol. 57, nos. 3–4, 2011); and while essays in both these issues refer liberally to Jameson, postmodernism is understood most prominently here as a literary style associated with irony, self-referentiality, and textual play.
While the use of the term postmodern within the arts has a stronger pedigree, the conflation of postmodernism with poststructuralism and, even more incoherent, with cultural Marxism has been one of its more vexing misappropriations.
Jameson himself was never convinced by the lateness of so-called late capitalism but used the term merely to signal his debt to Ernest Mandel, whose book of that title was an early attempt to frame the parameters of capitalism’s “third stage” (see below).
Williams, Marxism and Literature, 128–35.
Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, 12–13.
Franklin, Control, 15.
Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 5–6, 17, 15. The authors begin their analysis with the claim that the collection “represent[s] neither a polemic against nor a postmortem of symptomatic reading” (3). This is perhaps to reassure us that they are performing the respect and modesty as critics they are advocating for, all evidence to the contrary, at least where Jameson is concerned. Nonetheless, the polite surface of their text betrays a deeper investment in the demise of a “symptomatic reading” they render in caricatural terms.
Ellen Rooney makes a similar point in “Live Free or Describe.” She focuses in particular on what she sees as Best and Marcus’s misreading of Althusser’s conception of symptomatic reading, though she also says, “Jameson’s critical impact appears in some way to be the privileged object” (125).
Love, “Doing Being Deviant,” 78. (Our questioning of this move does not detract from our appreciation for Love’s larger contributions to precisely the political critique of culture.) For two sharp retorts to the special issue’s challenge to politicized queer theory, see Jack Halberstam, “Straight Eye for the Queer Theorist,” and Lisa Duggan, “Queer Complacency without Empire,” on the Bully Bloggers site. For a still timely critique of the “descriptive” in post-WWII sociology, see Ferguson, Aberrations in Black.
Moretti, Distant Reading, 47–49.
“Reparative reading,” which Best and Marcus claim for the camp of surface readers, is what Eve Sedgwick counterposed to “paranoid”—or symptomatic—reading, in an essay (“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”) that is itself a masterpiece of paranoia. Like all influential concepts, Sedgwick’s “reparative reading” has been taken up in a variety of ways and can thus be described, quite literally, as generative. We would submit, however, that the ethical stance of reading it propounds cannot itself be simply taken at face value, not only because it patently performs the very aggressiveness and suspiciousness it disavows, but also because its emphasis on precisely an ethics of reading (rendered in personalizing and psychologizing terms) tends to displace the question of the political. For a smart discussion, see Love, “Truth and Consequences.”
Jameson, Postmodernism, xvii.
Shaviro, “Accelerationist Aesthetics.” In an interestingly counterposed argument, Jacques Rancière has also recently returned to Kant to suggest that the discourse of art as it emerged in German romanticism has an egalitarian core, namely, that its purposelessness or uselessness for practical life is an enabling condition of its political dimension. See Rancière, “The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge.”
Villarejo, Film Studies, 149.
Hardt and Negri, Empire, 292.
Jameson, Cultural Turn, 161.
Arrighi, Long Twentieth Century, 27–84.
Hardt and Negri, Empire, 190.
See Jameson, Geopolitical Aesthetic. It should also be noted that the formulation of Jameson’s initial conception of postmodernism, as Perry Anderson pointed out at the time, emerged through an engagement with international audiences. Following a talk at the Whitney Museum in 1982 called “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” “Jameson first set out his ideas on postmodernism comprehensively in a lecture course in Beijing in 1985, and published a collection on the subject in China some years before he produced one in America. His account of ‘Postmodernism and the Market’ was tested out in Seoul. We owe the major text on ‘Transformations of the Image’ to an address in Caracas. Settings like these were not a matter of chance. Jameson’s theory of postmodernity has won a growing audience in countries once of the Third or Second World.” Anderson, Origins of Postmodernity, 75.