A Postmortem on Postmodernism

[Back in 2014, I organized a workshop here at Williams College on Theory After Postmodernism. Having gotten The Myth of Disenchantment off my desk, I’ve returned to my manuscript project (“Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism“) which directly focuses on that subject. Although my comments from the workshop probably won’t make it into the new manuscript, I thought my opening remarks were worth posting here for those interested. I’ve made just a few modest changes.]

In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a catastrophe afflicting European intellectual and cultural life, and he argued that global capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalisms had produced an ethical vacuum. Moreover, he faulted the European philosophical academy for its inability to produce a sufficiently robust moral philosophy to resist the relativizing onslaught. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist had spawned a new type of person, stating: “The postmodern man is an encrusted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism.” While the prose is rather florid, Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch, especially by connecting the postmodern with nihilism and a pervasive ethical disaster, and it is not hard to find thinkers who use similar terms to describe the current era as being in a “postmodern crisis.”[i]

The problem is that Pannwitz wrote this account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. Nor was Pannwitz the only one. The first English book with “Postmodernism” in its title came out in 1926. Indeed, like the almost imperceptible tremors that anticipate a major earthquake, tantalizing references to the “postmodern” or “postmodernists” (Sp. postmodernista) began appearing more than a half century before the term would attain common currency in the 1970s.[ii]

Criticizingpostmodernism” is far from novel. On strictly philological grounds, what these examples show is that the term “postmodern” became lexically available shortly after 1901 when variants on the term “pre-modern” appeared and came into common usage in a number of European linguistic repertoires.[iii] By becoming the quintessential periodization, “modernity” was read as a fundamental rupture from the past, but accordingly it became possible to imagine its future eclipse.

I have another project [“The Myth of Disenchantment”] that challenges notions of “modernity” as rupture,[iv] but what I’d like to do this morning is talk about the function of “postmodernism” in the contemporary Euro-American academy. So while you eat your bagels and drink your coffee, I want to warm up our workshop by sorting through a host of terminology—from deconstruction to poststructuralism to postmodernism and then gesturing toward a simple argument—that no matter how you consider it, the “postmodern” period is over and the central theoretical commitments we associate with “postmodernism” have collapsed. In this respect, I’d like to begin with an autopsy to figure out what postmodernism was, which should help us think about where we should be heading.

[To read more, follow me over the fold]

Continue reading

“Arrival” of the Sinosphere or the Political Unconscious of Space Invaders

 

arrival1

A few weeks ago, I sat down with my buddy Christian Thorne and my delightful wife Dalena Storm to watch “Arrival” (2016). We discussed the movie afterwards and Christian encouraged me to write up my first impressions, so this is meant to be a light post in which I interrogate a movie for its implicit politics. Basically, the kind of thing I say about a movie after a few beers (sorry I’m a total critical theory nerd). Warning: Spoilers.

For all the buzz about the philosophy of language in “Arrival,” the film’s politics have been little discussed. Part of this might be because they are hard to parse. I see this as due to the fact that most “first contact” Science Fiction can be sorted into three different master themes—alien invasion, space ethnography, or stellar revelation—and while “Arrival” is closest to the third, it actually passes through all three. So in what follows I’ll map out the latent politics of different sub-genres of first-contact science fiction and then use that to explore the film’s political unconscious.

If you are curious, follow me over the fold…

Continue reading

The Myth of Disenchantment Errata

Jason-Storm-Myth-of-Disenchantment

The proud author with his advance copy!

The new book–The Myth of Disenchantment–is hot off the press and it looks awesome! Order your copy here (or here in the UK). I’m totally enthralled with the cover image by the excellent Alex Gross and have wonderful things to say about the whole process of publishing with the University of Chicago Press. But there was a small miscommunication during the copyediting phase and some of my corrections never got input. Plus I missed some things (mea culpa).  I’m going to use this page to track errata and typos. I haven’t caught all of them yet. So I plan to update it periodically. The press tells me they’ll be corrected in the second print run.

 

Masterlist after the jump

Continue reading

Positivism and Magical Realism

csm_09_dix_2654_querformat_f7965deee3-copy

Otto Dix “The Seven Deadly Sins” 1933- crop

[Opening Parenthetical: There were no entries on this blog in 2016 and readers may imagine that I’ve gone into hibernation. But 2016 was a crazy year both professionally and personally. Much of my time was spent finishing my new book, The Myth of Disenchantment, forthcoming May 2017 (order on Amazon here). The energy I usually reserve for blogging was mostly spent on Facebook posting about the shit-show that was the 2016 US election. On a personal note there were a few too many deaths and political disasters last year, but the shining ray of light in the dark-cloud of 2016 was my marriage to the ever-delightful Dalena Storm.

In the process of finalizing the book, I had to do a lot of trimming and one of the things left on the cutting room floor was a short section about the connection between the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivism (or Logical Empiricism) and the artistic movement known as “magical realism.” The connection is interesting, but much less robust than the link between famous Positivists, magic, and paranormal research that takes up the chapter. Still I figured some readers might find it interesting as an oddity in the history of philosophy. So it is reproduced here as a small research note.]

Follow across the fold if you are interested.  Continue reading

The Force of Secrecy: Spoilers, Neo-Liberalism, and “The Force Awakens”

star-wars-force-awakens-spoilersIn his commentary on Euclid’s elements (roughly 320 CE), Pappus of Alexandria recounts the strange case of a Pythagorean who was drowned for what amounts to giving a spoiler. It was said that a wayward mathematician of the Pythagorean society shared the Pythagoreans’ most important and secret teaching – that there was such a thing as irrational numbers (like the square root of two) – and paid for the revelation of this confidence with his life.[i] Similarly, in Japan the punctuation used in the Confucian Classics was treated as a form of secret lore, and the Kiyohara and Nakahara noble families guarded closely their readings of the texts for hundreds of years. In so doing, they accrued a prestige nearly equivalent to being the descendants of Confucius. In 1599 Fujiwara Seika exposed this secret for the first time and freely taught his contemporaries the key to the texts. In his case the effect was almost the reverse of that of the unfortunate Pythagorean. Fujiwara wasn’t murdered, but by giving spoilers he effectively cheapened the original secret. After the secret of how to parse the sentences of The Analects was widely known, it became a matter of mere triviality, thereby dooming the formerly prestigious secret tradition to irrelevance and obscurity.[ii]

Nor are these the only examples of societies rooted in secrecy. One can think of numerous groups – from Scientologists to Freemasons to various criminal societies – that build their social cohesion around a shared secret and which have historically threatened punishment for those who disclose these secrets to the world at large.

Although by no means as serious, contemporary Anglophone culture seems to be somewhat united around a prohibition concerning spoilers to “The Force Awakens” (Star Wars Episode VII) with fans texting what are probably joke death threats to those who break this particular covenant without warning. I saw the movie on Friday, and these are my first impressions. They amount to trying my hand at assessing the film’s marketing campaign, and particular the contradictions of its anti-spoiler component.

Please follow me across the fold for some spoilers… more importantly, I’ll be using the sociologist Georg Simmel as a stepping off point to talk about the secrecy/spoilers in global marketing and to assess the film’s implicit politics. Again: WARNING, THERE ARE SPOILERS. Read only if you have been initiated into this secret society or if you think its holy secret is (blasphemy!) trivial.

Continue reading

Capitalist Dystopia Part 4–Racing against the Machine: from the Ends of Sleep to the Ends of Work

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Over the last couple of years, artificial intelligence has been depicted in a surprising number of films—including Autómata (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Big Hero 6 (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015, pictured above), キカイダー REBOOT (2014), Robocop (2014), Terminator Genisys [sic.] (2015), and Transcendence (2014).[i] Although not uniformly apocalyptic in tone, these movies collectively embody a broader current of disquiet about the ethical dilemmas and potential dangers of machine sentience. Nor are these anxieties confined to the typical movie-going public. July 28, 2015, Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and a host of other luminaries signed an open letter cautioning against a “global AI arms race” and calling for a ban on “autonomous weapons. In doing so they lent their weight to the idea that in some respects these cinematic fantasies might be well founded.

But for many social theorists, the graver contemporary threat is not killer robots, but worker robots stripping us of employment and purpose.

In this rather long post, I place contemporary robot-movies in dialogue with an essay by John Maynard Keynes (“Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“) in order to explore a particular contemporary capitalist nightmare—that the very technological innovation that has undergirded modern productivity might in fact be its undoing. More specifically, I want to see how dystopian readings of automation (in particular the automation of mind or machine sentience) contribute to fears of the loss of sleep and the loss of work. Technological optimists should fret not as in a later post I’ll look at acceleration as utopian liberation. But if you follow me across the fold I’ll examine acceleration as despair or we might say as the death drive of the robot apocalypse.

Continue reading

Capitalist Dystopia Part 3——Fissures in Paradise: First World Problems or Micro-dystopias, Bullshit Jobs, and the Seeds of Bourgeois Alienation

Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Fissure–Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Proponents of Neoliberalism have described access to free markets and free trade as a kind of global panacea.[i] It is often said that were the developing world willing to adopt a more laissez faire economic policy it would in short order achieve the quality of life associated with the bourgeois first-world. Restated, the embrace of global capitalism by less developed countries is supposed to provide access to the “American dream” and not merely in terms of Levi jeans and iPhones but resulting in a fundamentally better lifestyle.[ii] Basically, free markets are supposed to equate with freedom and “the good life.” But is that really true? Is the First-World lifestyle really all that? If we could get rid of the world’s poorest slums and produce a lifestyle equivalent to that in the metropol middle class would we all be living in paradise?

In the last entry I explored the exploitative heart of our current world-system. I showed how the underbelly of capitalism is so far removed from the ordinary experiences of average citizens in developed nations that aspects of life in some less developed nations can look downright post-apocalyptic. But I also argued that these seeming disruptions or interruptions of capitalism are the ordinary functioning of the system. In so doing, I was trying to represent real or “developing-world” problems both abroad and even inside the heartland of America. In this entry, I want to expose the dystopian aspects of the first world. I want to show the end product of all that global effort and demonstrate that even this putative utopia has fissures, which expose unsustainable facets of the current world-order. In particular, in this post I want to showcase some “First-World-Problems” or micro-dystopias and explore their amplification or extrapolations.

Continue reading

Capitalist Dystopia Part 2——-A Voyage to the Dark Heart of Capitalism or what can Joseph Conrad tell us about commodity fetishism?

Unicef -

Unicef – “Foto des Jahres” 2011 by Kai Löffelbein –

If you scoured the globe looking for a location to film a post-apocalyptic dystopia, you might on visual grounds alone choose Agbogbloshie, the toxic scrapyard in Ghana where computers go when they die. At this technological graveyard, one can find workers from northern Ghana and the Ivory Coast scavenging through discarded motherboards, damaged keyboards, cracked television monitors, smashed microwaves, and broken cellphones for resalable materials. Fires dot the landscape as piles of ruble are set ablaze in order to disclose the precious copper and aluminum. Pollution seeps into the water and air. Crime is rampant and many of these workers will end up sick from toxic fumes or plagued with later health problems.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Agbogbloshie as specifically post-apocalyptic science fiction. While it has long been a racist cliché to depict Africa as a place that time forgot, Agbogbloshie looks like the future that might appear after a disruption of our world-system. But this e-waste graveyard isn’t capitalism breaking down, instead it is the ordinary functioning of the current system. Indeed, few places showcase the impasses of the system better. This is what makes Agbogbloshie so important for my larger project (to get caught up see the initial prompt “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?” and Part I- “The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?”).

By way of explanation, the term “capitalism” is often tossed about as a vague and intimidating abstraction either celebrated as the essence of progress and wellspring of modern civilization or condemned as the cause of all the world’s ills. But almost nobody agrees on the definition of capitalism or when it first came into being (if ever).[a] Plus, because our current world-system is so vast and complicated, our current problems are maddeningly difficult to even begin to diagnose. So even if you feel a sense that things are wrong, the scale alone might seem to make improving the world neigh impossible.

You’ll get a more explicit definition (or two) of capitalism in a later post. But here I’d like to try to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system and figure out why precisely it is so hard to have sense of the objects in our world and their relationship to this system. To do that, if you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll explore what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.

Continue reading

Capitalist Dystopia Part 1——-The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?

inverted janus Is Walmart Utopia? Restated, might Walmart serve as a contemporary model for a post-capitalist future society? Both formulations of the question sounds equally absurd. Few people actively champion Walmart, and almost no one would depict it as their ideal place. Indeed, according to a recent survey it is “the most-hated retailer in America.”[i] This is not exactly a new sentiment, but nevertheless in Valences of the Dialectic, Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson looked to Walmart forthe shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist.”[ii]  Pressing into the power of the dialectic to reconcile with inherent contradiction, Jameson argued that it was possible to look past Walmart’s failings for the seeds of its utopian potential. If you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll discuss Jameson’s utopian recuperation of Walmart and look at its potential inversions. Taking Jameson’s Valences and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspirations, I’ll attempt to trace the crystalized phantasmagoria of post-Fordist capitalism. I’ll ask–what is our contemporary analogue to the Parisian shopping malls of the nineteenth century? Put differently, I’ll try and liberate the dreams of an escape from capitalism that can be found paradoxically imbedded in the heart of certain capitalist structures. But first we’ll look into the dystopian “mist” that clings to Walmart. Continue reading

Dystopia Revisited (Blogging Unblocked)

[Note: I imagined a weeklong gap between posts, but the work of chairing a department and writing a book got in the way. Sorry. Now that the academic year is over, I’m back at it. To get unblocked and back to blogging, I had to remind myself that I didn’t want these to be a series of articles, but more like a set of quick thoughts/unpolished first drafts. Also, I had originally planned a two-part blog-post about the persistence of utopia, but I was struck by responses to the last entry that challenged the idea that we would want to move beyond contemporary capitalism. So, I want to tarry in dystopian-darkness before returning to utopia.]

Photo Credit Robert Hruzek

A preview:

Where the last post left it: we seemed to be caught in the coils of a particular repetition compulsion — constantly (re)imagining the end of the world, but unable to imagine a possible future that doesn’t include capitalism. (PART I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism is here: it asked “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”).

 

My main objective in this series of posts is to overturn this line of argumentation by uncovering seeds of utopia and tracing alternatives to modern capitalism. But first I want to go in the opposite direction by painting a pessimistic picture of the contemporary capitalist world order. If you are already up on the case against global corporate capitalism you can wait a month or two for a later utopian post. But if you want to understand the contemporary allure of dystopia then read on.

Before settling down to business I want to mention the standard critiques of capitalism – corporate neo-feudalism and increasing wealth inequality; never-ending cutthroat competition; the violence of economic imperialism and oppression; capital’s ability to subvert democracy; money’s role in mediating and cheapening our most personal relationships; the alienation resulting from a life of repetitive specialized labor; the inherent psychological instability resulting from the inevitable boom and bust cycles of the marketplace; and so on. As descriptions of the current-world system these are all fair, but they won’t really connect for many readers and will instead appear to be nothing more than empty abstractions. In the posts that follow, I want to see if the horrors of the current capitalist world-system can be distilled into apprehensible images – like a world reflected in a dewdrop. Restated, I’m looking for concrete symbols by which we can begin to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system.

Over the next three posts (which starting June 16 I hope to post every other week on Mondays or Tuesdays )—I’ll confront the Janus face of contemporary global capitalism (including both corporate dystopia and the dreams of anti-capitalist utopia frozen in capitalist structures), I’ll explore technological junkyards, I’ll ask what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and I’ll excavate Post-Fordist nightmares about flexible labor, automation, unemployment, and the loss of sleep. Then I’ll return to the deferred issue of contemporary utopia.