Dr W Large

The End of Postmodernism


What is wrong with Postmodernism? Negri and Hardt’s answer to this question is political, rather than a matter of meaning or definition. It is not that postmodernism does not grasp something important; rather it is politically naïve and irresponsible. It does not realise that the very thing that it is criticising and undermining no longer exists, and rather than threatening the status quo it has become part of it. This is because postmodernism is identical to the late capitalism. Rather than the cause of change and movement in history, it is the symptom of a passage to a new kind of power. The Empire itself is postmodern: ‘Postmodernism is indeed the only logic by which global capital operates.’[1]

      The problem with the postmodern critique of power and society is that what it takes to be the form of power, modern sovereignty, no longer exists. The empire does not operate by identities and fixed oppositions; rather it functions through the very fluid subjectivities and micro-differences, which postmodernism celebrates. This means that postmodernism, rather than being on the side of the weak and the victims of global capital, is on the side of the powerful and victorious, and rather than being the critique of global capital is one of the symptoms of its triumph.[2] What we need to do is break out of the opposition between the modern and the postmodern, and to do this we need to look at the very source of the production of difference and new subjectivities. This requires a material critic of postmodernism, which takes the spectacle to be a cause, whereas it is only the effect of global capital.

      Identities and their opposition to one another determine modern sovereignty. Postmodernism challenges these identities by emphasising singularity and difference. Thus, in his introduction to Location of Culture, Homi Bhabba argues that we need to think cultural difference beyond the opposition of fixed identities or race, gender and sexuality.[3] It sees itself, therefore, as attacking the certainties of the Enlightenment. But in so doing it collapses the complexity of the history of the Enlightenment into the form of modern sovereignty. Yet, as we have seen from the previous lecture, the history of the Enlightenment is not the same as the formation of modernity. Modern sovereignty is a reaction against history, not its cause or production. In confusing the history of Enlightenment with modern sovereignty, postmodernism also confuses itself with history. It sees itself as the origin of last the stage of a long historical period, whereas it is in fact the symptom of this period. The real source of history is the multitude, creative subjectivity, and the latter is the cause of the revolution against the medieval structures of power. As we saw, Negri and Hardt call this the ‘revolutionary plane of immanence’, in which for the first time, people begin to see themselves as the creative origin and producers of history – the heavens have descend to the earth.

      Modern sovereignty is a reaction against this revolutionary creativity, and it attempts to control and determine it through a new transcendental apparatus of power. What postmodernism is criticising is this transcendental apparatus, which has its culmination in the State. In this sense, postmodernism is important. Yet it never reaches the revolutionary plane of immanence, which was the original cause of the reactionary effect of modern sovereignty. It thus confuses an effect with a cause. This explains why it is very good at diagnosing the problems with sovereignty, but it is not very good at explaining what the alternative might be. This is because the form of power that it is criticising no longer exists. Postmodernism would only be revolutionary (and revolutionary here means actually having something to do with reality) if the form of power that existed today were modern sovereignty. It is criticising identities and oppositions that no longer exist, or at least, are beginning to dissolve away. What is the point of criticising binary oppositions, when these oppositions themselves no longer have any purchase on reality, and the very difference and singularity that postmodernism celebrates is actually the same as the new kind of power that has emerged with the end of modern sovereignty? Postmodernism, rather than criticising power, is merely one more instrument in its ideological structure. Rather than seeing postmodernism as the solution, we must see it as a symptom of the end of modernity and the passage to new kind of sovereignty, which Negri and Hardt call the Empire.

      The example that the authors use to show the failed political project of postmodernism is the work of Homi Bhabha.[4] Post-colonialism is an attack on the oppositions of colonialism. The nature of this critique is both social and political: social, because these oppositions are not real, and political, because to celebrate difference is to promote social change. Culture, therefore, by definition, is hybrid, and colonial national identity is merely ideological. Nonetheless these national identities never work perfectly, precisely because they never completely equate with the reality of people’s lives. On the contrary, ‘hybrid subjectivity’ is the reality. The political program of Postmodernism, therefore, is the celebration of this ‘hybridity’. The outcome of this struggle is not the collapse of community, as the colonial ideology would claim, but the creation of a new kind of community, a new kind of internationalism which affirms difference and singularities. The problem with Bhabha’s critique is that like all postmodern theory it only recognises one kind of power, which is the power of modern sovereignty that operates through binary oppositions. It then asserts its radicality by calling into question this kind of power. Yet if this power no longer exists, then its ability to effect political change is severely limited.

      Negri and Hardt have a different diagnosis of postmodernism, as we have already seen. Rather than the solution to contemporary power struggles it is merely a symptom of a passage to a different kind of power, the power of the Empire, and this power is a fundamentally different kind than modern sovereignty, so different that it is in fact looks remarkably like postmodernism: ‘Empire is not a weak echo of modern imperialism but a fundamentally new form of rule.’[5]

      Many of the concepts of postmodernism have an uncanny resemblance to the discourses that celebrate global capital, which in are turn anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist. As Fredric Jameson writes,

What has happened to aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.[6]

For global capitalism the more difference there is the better, and rather than supporting cultural identities and binary oppositions, it destroys them. Think of modern marketing which connects to all kinds of micro-subjectivities and fragmented markets in order to sell its products. Think too of the new management speak and organisational structures that celebrate ‘horizontal management’ as opposed to the old style of ‘vertical management’, and which appear on the surface to celebrate the creativity and imagination of their employees.[7] Such freedom, however, is an illusion, let alone for all the other areas of the globe in which human beings are suffering for the sake of our so called’ liberated society’. It is a false liberation, for in doing away with modern sovereignty, global capital merely institutes a new kind of order, which is perhaps even worse, and which permeates every aspect of our everyday live: the society of control and biopolitics. Most postmodernism theories are completely oblivious to this historical change, and do not realise that they are celebrating the new power, rather than the victims of this power. They are fighting old battles that global capital has already destroyed, and thus are aligning themselves with the victors rather than the losers of history. Postmodernism, the authors agree with Frederic Jameson and David Harvey, is just a ‘new phase of capitalist accumulation.’[8]

This critique of postmodernism is a materialist one. Its argument with postmodernism is that is it is essentially ideological, which is the same as saying that it never gets to the reality or even the reality of the idea. Postmodernism, at least with last capitalism, is firmly on the side of consumption, the consumption of images and the spectacle. Where we should be, on the contrary, is on the side of production, the production of reality and truth. To be on the side of the production is ask how the reality of the world itself has come about, rather than how this reality represents itself. First of all, this reality is the produced by global capital. What postmodernism celebrates, therefore, even when it thinks that it is being radical, is the triumph of global capital.

But even this level of reality is not deep enough for Negri and Hardt. Their commitment to a Marxist tradition, leads them to assert and insist that capital, even though it presents itself as the mysterious origin of everything, is in fact a product of greater ontological reality. For Marx this was labour, for Negri and Hardt, it is the creative constitutive power of the multitude:

The real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will. Mobility and hybridity are not liberatory, but taking control of the production of mobility and stasis, purities and mixtures is. The real truth commissions of Empire will be constituent assemblies of the multitude, social factories for the production of truth.[9]

The multitude is the key both to understanding the Empire, since it has been born in reaction to it, and also the possibility of a new future, where globalisation and capital exist for the sake of human creativity, rather than human creativity for the sake of globalisation and capital.

[1] Antoni Negri and Michel Hardt, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001) p. 151.

[2] Negri and Hardt emphasis this point at the end of the chapter by highlighting the suspicious fact postmodernism as an intellectual and political movement tends to be language of the elite, where as the poor are more committed to truth and real political change. See Ibid. pp. 154-6.

[3] Homi Bhabba, Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 1.

[4] Especially his Location of Culture.

[5] Empire, op. cit., p. 146.

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991) p. 4.

[7] As described by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) 173-88. As he writes, ‘The only general point of agreement is that something significant has changed in the way capitalism has been working since about 1970.’ Where as for Bhabba it is as if we were still living in the Imperial Age of the 19th C.

[8] Empire, op. cit., p. 154.

[9] Ibid. p. 156.