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Author: Peter Joseph Kalliney
Title: Book Review
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 2001

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Source: Book Review
Peter Joseph Kalliney

vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Peter Joseph Kalliney

University of Michigan

Perry Anderson. The Origins of Postmodernity. London and New York: Verso, 1998. 160 pp. $65.00

Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London and New York: Verso, 1998. 128 pp. $50.00

With The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson, a relative neophyte to the subject, has at last provided a lucid intellectual history for a field plagued by methodological confusion and argumentative indecision. Better known for his Althusserian Marxism and fierce polemics while editing New Left Review during the 1960s and 70s, Anderson shows in this most recent work—originally conceived as an introduction to Jameson's collection and best read "in conjunction with the volume that inspired it" (vii)—a somewhat softer edge, making no secret of his admiration for Jameson's work. [1] Meanwhile, Jameson himself offers a more eclectic and restless narrative of the postmodern, a script in which no clear heroes emerge and the only antagonist, multinational capitalism, remains shadowy and peripheral, ominously stalking the varied cultural fields in the book's purview. And make no mistake, this is probably Jameson's greatest scholarly attribute: his ability to synthesize so many disparate intellectual and artistic strands into coherent meditations without resorting to absurd generalizations or abstract sophistry gives his insights the sharp edge that so many less ambitious critics lack.

Anderson begins the bookat his best, uncovering the obscure and tremulous origins of the word "postmodernism." As few of us may have expected, the term, like its predecessor, modernism, was first used in Latin America, "born in a distant periphery rather than at the centre of the cultural system of the time" (3). Federico de Onís coined the phrase in the 1930s to describe a "conservative reflux" within modernism, while he used the term ultramodernismo to describe the continuation and supersession of modernism's radical impulses in newer works of art (4). Though the term would not gain widespread currency until the 1970s, Anderson reminds us that these two features of postmodernism—the place of its intellectual genesis (the "periphery") and its latent conservatism—would play important roles as the concept developed and mutated in the western academy.

By the 1970s, several enthusiastic supporters of postmodernism emerged from a variety of disciplinary and artistic backgrounds. Anderson identifies the publication of two texts as central: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Stephen Izenhour's Learning from Las Vegas (1972) and J. F. Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition (1979). Though very different in style, scope, purpose, and intellectual tradition—Venturi was a practicing architect and Lyotard a French philosopher—these two books describe and celebrate the essential features of postmodernism: anti-high modernist, playful, more mimetic than parodic, pop-cultural, eclectic, iconoclastic, and distrustful of "meta-narratives" (Lyotard), especially the scientific and the political. By making relativism a tenet of intellectual practice, philosophers such as Lyotard discarded older styles of truth claims in favor of more plastic verities. Art had become irreverent, making free use of "kitsch" and plagiarism.

Aside from those who completely resisted the idea of postmodernism and rejected its existence—these skeptics receive little treatment in Anderson's history—postmodernism found its foil in Jurgen Habermas. As a prelude to Jameson's interventions, Anderson takes almost an entire chapter ("Crystallization") to discuss the debates between Habermas and Lyotard during the 1980s. Though it is helpful in mapping some of the coordinates of postmodernist debates, this section reveals Anderson at his nastiest. Anderson takes pains to document, in full, Lyotard's wavering political commitments, "less than limited" knowledge of the natural sciences (26), and "uncharacteristically weak" arguments (32). He openly laughs at the "intellectual fragility" of Lyotard's later ruminations on astrophysics (34). Though he treats Habermas with unusual respect in comparison, he sees the debates between these two philosophers as a mere preamble to Jameson's work. Anderson, who typically practices a careful brand of marxist history, provides an unusually teleological account of Jameson's contributions. Where we might anticipate a narrative pregnant with possibilities and contradictory forces, Anderson insists that this story could only lead to Jameson and his magisterial work on postmodernism. Given Anderson's own emphasis on the chaotic, demotic impulses of postmodernism, this type of historical narrative seems oddly out of place.

Anderson sets the stage for Jameson's arrival thus, describing The Cultural Turn's first essay, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," as an essay whose "nucleus" of thought "redrew the whole map of the postmodern at one stroke" (54) when published in 1984 as "Postmodernism—The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." [2] If a little overdramatic, Anderson does discern five essentially innovative features of Jameson's argument, the most significant being the breadth of postmodernism's influence: not simply an artistic development or a theoretical paradigm, the concept of postmodernism describes a whole cultural system which signifies changes in all forms of social life. As Jameson argues, some of the "formal features" of postmodernist culture—he uses architecture, film, literature, and all kinds of theory as evidence—express "the deeper logic of this particular social system" (20). Although The Cultural Turn pursues any number of arguments in its eight essays, we could call this Jameson's most profound contribution to cultural theory: that evolutions in artistic and cultural forms indicate a wider system of social changes, involving realignments of political and economic forces on a global scale.

The simplicity and sheer magnitude of such an argument does not immediately betray, however, the complexity, determination, and rigor with which Jameson pursues his course of inquiry. Relying on an immense canon of architecture, philosophy, economic and social theory, literary studies, and history (to much of which he only alludes), Jameson makes some compelling arguments about the relationship between art and social life more generally. In "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," for instance, Jameson relates developments in architecture to our cognitive abilities as a whole, suggesting that individuals, confronted by fantastically rapid alterations in the built environment (wrought by multinational capitalists and their land speculators), have lost the cognitive ability (dubbed "cognitive mapping") to orient themselves in this new world. In "Marxism and Postmodernism," Jameson, responding to accusations that his interest in postmodernism means an abandonment of marxism, furthers this argument by suggesting that cognitive mapping should be read as code for "class consciousness"; all along he had been proposing a new and heretofore unimagined mode of political action for the nigh global proletariat (48-9). With his final two essays, "Culture and Finance Capitalism" and "The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism, and Land Speculation," Jameson taps a richer and more elegant vein of thought by strengthening the bonds between two related arguments. On the one hand, the emergence of multinational corporations and "excess" of finance capital indicates a third phase of capitalist development. [3] On the other hand, he argues that the difference between "high" and "low" forms of art has been erased in the process of commodification; more importantly, this erasure has simultaneously facilitated the "globalization" of the capitalist market. This is the cultural turn: just as aesthetics have been co-opted by the market, so has the market turned to culture to accelerate its rate of growth.

"Transformations of the Image," the collection's longest essay, displays many of the book's strengths and limitations. Jameson masterfully deploys Kant and Foucault, among others, to discuss how contemporary revolutionary aesthetic theory must confront the assimilation of beauty into mass communications and the commodity form.

Despite all the essay's provocative insights—most illuminating is his reading of nostalgia and film, in which he criticizes historical filmmakers for substituting mere stereotypes in place of substantive critical content—the conclusion signs off on a fairly weak note as Jameson bemoans the universal commodification of all aesthetic modalities. Even during the period of late modernism, he argues, "there were certain zones of art exempt from the commodifications of commercial culture" (135). After taking such pains to demonstrate, with some precision, the ideological consequences of aesthetic choices, the need to posit some halcyon past, now irretrievably lost, seems surprising. [4]

This final move indicates more than a round condemnation of capitalism and the modes of beauty it inscribes. More importantly, it adumbrates the exhaustion of the intellectual energy required for the continuation of debates about the postmodern. The cultural turn, after all, may be less a turn towards and more a move away from the postmodern which, failing as a legitimate "creative resource" (135), has ceased to inspire its foremost critic. This, however, does not signal defeat for Jameson or for the Left more generally. As Anderson argues in the final section of his book, while the crowded Left of the 1960s bristled with confidence, Jameson retained an astutely tactical distance from his objects of study, preferring a more calculated approach to his work. As the Left has become "increasingly isolated and beleaguered, and less capable of imagining any alternative to the existing social order," Jameson has adopted an attitude of cautious optimism, speaking more directly about the immediacy of contemporary political and cultural changes (136-7). If we should not expect the creative impetus within postmodernism to provide the critical negation of commodity production, from where will this intellectual energy arise? Perhaps we will have to wait for Jameson's next book.

1. In many respects, Anderson's very laudatory assessment of Jameson's work on postmodernism seems out of place. In 1984, while reviewing Marshall Berman's classic study of modernism, All that Is Solid Melts into Air, Anderson pulls no punches while critiquing the utility of modernism as a periodizing concept. Though fairly generous to Berman himself, Anderson suggests that "Modernism [sic] as a notion is the emptiest of all cultural categories" (112). He continues: "The futility of the term, and its attendant ideology, can be seen all too clearly from the current attempts to cling to its wreckage and yet swim along with the tide still further beyond it, in the coinage 'postmodernism': one void chasing another, in a serial regression of self-congratulatory chronology" (113). That Anderson so eagerly (though correctly, for the most part) accepts Jameson's definition and analysis of postmodernism seems inexplicable. See Perry Anderson, "Modernity and Revolution." New Left Review 144 (1984): 96-113.

2. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism—The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-93.

3. Jameson relies heavily on Earnest Mandel's Late Capitalism for this argument.

4. This argument also seems at odds with much of Jameson's earlier work, particularly Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971)and The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).