Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Post-Postmodernism

Nealon's historicist critique of postmodern theory - written, thankfully, by someone with an understanding of and sympathy for that theory - provides us with an orientation that disabuses much Anglo-American academic work of its faux-radicality and would-be Leftism. Valuable as it is, however, Nealon's Post-Postmodernism only identifies a starting point for contemporary analysis of the culture-theory-capitalism nexus, and limits its political recommendations and interventions to the Humanities and their survival under a dominant neo-liberalism.  

I. Nealon's Argument

My first encounter with Nealon was his article "Post-Deconstructive" in 2008 - included as a chapter of Post-Postmodernism - and I think it's a good point of departure.

"Post-Deconstructive" begins with a quote from Hardt and Negri in Empire:

"...the postmodern and postcolonial theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. Power has evacuated the bastion they are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists thus find themselves pushing against an open door" (Empire 300). 

Nealon goes on to argue that the "master binary" uniting postmodern theory in all its forms is a preferences for "openness" over the "closedness" of totalitarianism in politics and totalisation or essentialism in philosophy.  Even postmodern theoretical opponents (Derrida and Habermas, for example) nonetheless subscribe to some version of this open-good/closed-bad setup.

Nealon notes, however, that this binary has its unspoken ground in Cold War Fordism, i.e. the disciplinarity and binary exclusiveness characteristic of the 20th Century nation state. In an era of globalised, neoliberal capitalism, open/closed no longer has critical purchase: contemporary capitalism "no longer primarily demands or seeks a kind of mass conformity, sameness or totalisation. Rather, today's cutting-edge capitalism celebrates and rewards singularity, difference, and openness to new markets and products." (118).

In short: in a world whose economic logic begins from capital flows, undecidables, speculative futures, differential values - that no longer even remembers the gold standard - essentialism is no longer being problematised or critiqued; it's simply gone. Nealon's quite relentless argument in Post-Postmodernism it is argue that any critical discourse that postures at radicality by "pushing against the open door" of Fordist discipline, the Nanny state et cetera (at least in the West) is or should be gone as well.

As such, Nealon's text bears witness to a "general movement away from the postmodern metaphorics of socially constructed mediation (the literary problem par excllence, filling gaps and working through undecidabilities), to examining more direct modes of biopolitical and economic manipulation. From a focus on understanding something to a concern with manipulating it - from (postmodern) meaning to (post-postmodern) usage, one might say." (148).

To use proper names, Post-Postmodernism wants to mark and account for the shift in the Anglo-American Humanities from a Derridean (or rather, a De Manian) deconstructive criticism of essentialism, totalitarianism, et cetera to a generalised Deleuzianism (of flows, transformations, usages et cetera). Not as such a movement out of postmodernism (if we mean by postmodernism the French theory of the 60s and 70s) - hence the affixing of another "post" - but a shift from its "negative" (deconstructive and interpretative) to "positive" (biopolitical and economic) poles. That is, the global neoliberal situation has necessitated, at the level of criticism, a movement from the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (concerned with infinite interpretation conditioned by the (im)possibility of meaning) to the "hermeneutics of situation" (which asks how a given situation works, and how it can be changed). As Nealon refrains, the shift is from "what does it mean?" to "what does it do?" - the notorious passage from Anti-Oedipus arguing for precisely this shift is diligently cited.

Nealon's historical schema is rather Hegelian:

1. Modernism. Subjects reflect on their experience and this reflection, in its authenticity, has critical and political valence. In short: subjects produce meaning. Whether or not modernism actually ever was this remains open (see Ranciere, see Barthes).

2. Post-Modernism. "Hermeneutics of suspicion" as negation of modernism; examination of the (im)possibility of authenticity, reflection (see Gasche's Tain of the Mirror) and "totalising" meaning. Note that the placement of (im) in brackets does not, at least in its Anglo-American form, straightforwardly maintain a "positive" moment for post-modernism, because meaning is treated as an ineliminable illusion, guaranteeing the ineliminability of the negative work of critique. In this negative moment, literature is, in Nealon's vocab, a "spoiling move" that "undoes" claims to transparent, univocal, totalising et cetera meaning (more on literature's relation to philosophy below).

3. Post-Postmodernism. Result of the "determinate negation" of modernist authenticity. The terminology valorised by post-modernism in opposition to and as a result of its critique of modernism is generalised: flux, flow, singularity, simulacra, event, contingency, desire, non-identity, performance et cetera become, both within the academy and outside it, a "new immediacy," something "obvious" to interpellated (neo-liberal) subjects. In other words, post-postmodernism is the positive result of the postmodernist critique. Nealon is keenly aware - as Hegel himself would be - that this determinate negation takes place both in and outside thought. In other words, a dominant neo-liberalism and a now hegemonic academic post-postmodernity reflect the same historical process.*

Nealon's analyses extend along three axes:

1. The work of exploring the symptoms of the exhaustion of the "hermeneutics of suspicion." The attempt to present "the conditions of possibility and impossibility" of transparent, univocal totalizing meaning in a literary work is exhausted not because this hermeneutic produces untruths (difference is prior to identity et cetera), but because it's hardwon insights have become givens under neo-liberalism - as the very structure and ideology of neo-liberalism - and is therefore no longer effective or critical under neo-liberal capitalism.

Take Jameson, for example. If one thinks that uncovering the imbrication of capitalist production in cultural production produces a "shocking" critical insight, one is postmodern, insofar as one still holds in some way to the "modern" position that cultural production should be autonomous. One is post-postmodern, on the other hand, if one takes this imbrication or contamination as one's starting point, thereby disavowing the modernist ethics of autonomy and resistance that nourished postmodernism posthumously. We start from Jameson - he becomes in a sense both ineliminable and redundant. This is then broadened out to "Big Theory" in general:

"Jameson postmodernism hasn't at all failed or been overcome, but rather triumphed in a way similar to other classics of the late twentieth-century theory canon. Think of Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" or Judith Butler's gender performativity: these are no longer concepts that you have to sell labouriously to freshmen. They already know this stuff; in fact, they live it. Postmodernism, performativity, and the death of the author are no longer 'emergent' phenomena, but they've become 'dominant' ones." (64).

2. Developing a hermeneutics of situation. This, the more "positive" component of Nealon's work, is I think less impressive. An "Interruptive Excursus" in the middle of the book presents re-readings of Nietzsche and Adorno as thinkers of transformation rather than hermeneuts of suspicion. I think this work is redundant in many ways, and possibly confuses what is important in Nealon's first or "negative" axis of argument.

Redundant because, if Deleuzian rhetoric is, as Nealon claims, now hegemonic in the academy, there's little value in extending or redoubling its claims. In fact, it would be possible to recover a "transformative" Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan et cetera (Nealon in fact does as much with Derrida in his essay in Between Deleuze and Derrida) because suspicion of essentiality and an ethics of transformativity have always come more or less together in post-structuralism (see for example Deleuze's Nietzsche), even in Late Derrida's "transcendentalist" pole.** What has been surpassed in Derrida, Lyotard et cetera in the first, post-modern phase of its reception - not the work of these thinkers themselves. Granted, the transformational impulse is more submerged in Adorno than in Nietzsche, but arguably only because Adorno, unlike Nietzsche, had at least some image of collective change and the enormous barriers capitalism raises against it.

As such, Nealon's attempts to give us a "transformative Nietzsche" and "transformative Adorno" also I think confuse or make legible a confusion in Nealon's approach - sometimes it appears as if the problematic of transformativity is a cultural, economic and theoretical given, at other times the ethics of transformativity is afforded some critical, avant-gardist force - a logic yet to be generalised et cetera. More on the ambiguity of Deleuzian rhetoric below.

3. Thirdly, Nealon examines literature's function in relation to post-modernism and post-postmodernism. In postmodernism, Literature is a "spoiling move" - it is above all a contestation of modern philosophy's claim to totality (i.e. the straw-man Hegel), and to a "modern" society similarly structured around poles of essence and non-essence. As Nealon puts it, "Language and literature were king in the postmodern era precisely because they were the most economical markers for the experience of a social world where essentialism had lost its explanatory focus."

In post-postmodernism by contrast, Nealon presents poetry as a "provocation" or a "performance." The problem here is (1) nothing within contemporary poetry itself stops it from being read through the deconstructive lens of anti-totalisation - literature's spoiling move can be a provocation, and vice-versa; and (2) there is very little to say about literature when its content is effaced. Instead, Nealon's reading of Bruce Andrews amounts to little more than a litany: Andrews' post-LANGUAGE poetry is "ceremonial, passive, aggressive, communal, seductive, repulsive, humorous, persuasive, insulting, praising, performative, and much more." It is all these things, but to list a string of antinomies or ironies (passive, aggressive ... seductive, repulsive ... praising, insulting) is no step forward for the critical discourse around poetry, like the results of a New Critical reading without the close bit. And what is "provocation" other than a "critique" that no longer needs (or has not begun) to justify its own first principles?

What is gestured toward in a footnote is a linking of literature to the history of democracy as representation - quoting Derrida in Acts of Literature - that in turn leads one to a consideration of Ranciere. But this alternate post-postmodern gesture - wherein literature is part of an expanding sphere of representability, linking modernism and postmodernism  in one "aesthetic regime" (where post-postmodernism would be the site of enunciation of this regime) - is not examined. If one is looking to consider literature's place in the field of forces called liberal democracy - rather than continuing to interpret individual literary texts - Ranciere's work is an excellent place to start (hence, of course, his popularity with a Anglo-American academy concerned to do just that).

II. Some (more) criticisms 

I hate to criticise in the name of a proper name, but for all Nealon's adroitness, the casual style as evidence of easy-to-hand mastery of the canon,*** seemingly missing (or at least massively under-examined) is an understanding that post-postmodern theory has an major and obvious antecedent in praxis philosophy - the interminable interpretation of meaning v. usage as transformation sounds a lot like Marx's Eleventh Thesis. How a generalised neo-Deleuzian position differs from or advances on the Marxian insight doesn't get any sustained treatment.

From this lacuna emerge two related issues: (1) the limitation of scope to the humanities and (2) the question of normativity. If we agree that capitalism has to be transformed from within, what norms should guide us in this transformation? Our generalised Deleuzianism (or our reception of Deleuze) is perhaps limited here. As Balibar argues in the Philosophy of Marx, the intervention Marx can make into contemporary humanities is not a theory of change (we all have those) but as an attempt to think the change of change - how to change in a way not pre-programmed by capitalist development.

1. Nealon's book ends with a reflection on the humanities and its future. Given the limitation in Nealon's scope, it's easy to point out the too-obvious irony: shifting the theoretical question from "what does it mean?" to "what does it do?" doesn't by itself do anything but get publications in academic journals - and indeed one of Nealon's concerns is to argue that "the hermeneutics of suspicion has waned as an effective post-postmodern research agenda." This is of course correct - and I have had similar, paternal warnings from elsewhere - but it doesn't count as a political response to the post-post situation, which Nealon knows is necessary.

The limitations of Nealon's approach become clearer in his argument for the continuation of humanities: our best bet is not to insist on the kind of "citizen-building" and "cultural capital" arguments that have justified English departments in the past, but to embrace and speak the language of neoliberalism - or to recognise and capitalise on the fact that to an extent theory already does. While I agree that nostalgia has not proven itself to be a particularly effective response to neo-liberal attacks, Nealon runs the risk of losing any normative standard from which to judge capitalism's excesses.

2. As such, Nealon's final, dissatisfying conclusion is the result of two antecedents or inheritances running together: (a) the Foucauldian-Jamesonian recognition that nothing is outside power relations, and while Nealon recognises this is a necessary starting point, a kind of anti-moral tonic (and attributes it in some way to Marx) he doesn't confront the obvious problem of normativity that emerges from it and; (b) a Deleuzian or pseudo-Deleuzian vitalism and individualism leads to an ambiguous celebration of the post-postmodern form of biopower as well as the foreclosing of the consideration of collective solutions.

This is to me the ambiguity of the text, which I think reflects on the Deleuzian hegemony more generally. Is "the re-tooling of subjectivity" described as the logic of Las Vegas and contemporary capitalism straightforwardly identifiable with the "becoming-" and "lines of flight" touted by the Deleuze of anti-Oedipus, or does Deleuze's position remain one with critical purchase?
I am not in a position to gauge answer this yet. At present, however, I would like to fully disable (as Nealon at times sometimes intimates) the avant-gardist and ostensibly radical appeal of Deleuzian rhetoric (which does not of course mean the abandoning reading Deleuze and his ephebes), so that the crucial question of anti-capitalist organisation can come into view. Ironically or not, the thematic of organisation is foregrounded in Deleuze himself in Hardt's little book. Again, it would be a question of the reception of Deleuze - a Deleuze read for models subjective intensity v. a Deleuze read for new forms of anti-capitalist organisation.

* Read the first chapter of Jameson's Political Unconscious to know why I don't just say "dominant neo-liberalism conditions/determines academic post-postmodernity." And the "process" is the totality of the movement, against any vulgar economism. 

** Even in the late Derrida, the "absolutely Other" or "Impossible" in a given field is deployed to interrupt and transform that field. See Paul Patton's essay in Between Deleuze and Derrida.

*** I'm not going to talk about his style - except to say that I've noticed the same kind of swashbuckling in other works of American scholarship, even ones which don't examine pop culture (Comay's Mourning Sickness for example). Don't be fooled, however: this swashbuckling is not piratical. Rather, it's a modulation of the demonstration of mastery expected of Academics, this time expressed by the ease of the movement from the personal (contraction of "I am" to "I'm" and beginning arguments with "OK, it seems to me that...") to the pseudo-technical theory-speak that impressed a younger me and rightly frustrated others ("the hybridization of post-sovereign affectivities reterritorialize the performative (de-)construction of consumer ipseity" et cetera and blah).

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