Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism

Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism

by Jeffrey Nealon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804781459
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Nealon is Liberal Arts Research Professor of English at Penn State University. He is the author of Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction (1993), Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity (1998), The Theory Toolbox (2003), and Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications since 1984 (Stanford, 2008).

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POST-POSTMODERNISM or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism

By Jeffrey T. Nealon


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8145-9

Chapter One



Any political philosophy must turn on the analysis of capitalism and the ways it has developed. —GILLES DELEUZE, Negotiations

How Soon Is Now?

After the economic meltdown of fall 2008, it may have seemed for a moment like the era of unbridled faith in free-market or neoliberal capitalism was waning. When the US government orchestrated huge bailouts of the private sector, it might have seemed logical that the slick era of "small government and big business," born in the Reagan 1980s and intensified through the Clinton '90s, was definitively over and that we were on the verge of a retooled era of mid-twentieth-century Keynesianism. When Paul Krugman can wonder out loud in the New York Times magazine, "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?," you'd almost have to conclude that, more than a decade into the new millennium, 1980s-style neoliberalism was soon to be a discredited thing of the past.

This of course turned out to be wishful thinking, or at least sadly mistaken—neoliberal capitalism was temporarily discredited, maybe, but is hardly a thing of the past. In the wake of the bailouts, the budget and debt battles in the US were fought and won not by liberal Keynesians offering a government-backed New Deal 2.0, but by free-market conservatives who take their neoliberal mantras directly from the 1980s book of Reagan: "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem," as Reagan infamously put it in his 1981 inauguration speech. Likewise, what we saw in the financial meltdowns and the budget-cutting debates that followed were not really changes of course or swerves away from market dictates at all—quite the contrary. What you see when you see a government bailout of private industries is not so much the beginning of a brave, new socialism, but simply the other shoe dropping: with the privatization of wealth on a massive scale comes the socialization of risk on an almost unthinkable scale, $1.2 trillion of what amounts to "success insurance" loaned out to private companies in public, taxpayer funds. Ultimately, these bailouts were not the abandonment of free-market ideology, but simply the other face of the privatized, free-market coin we've become so familiar with since the 1980s.

Indeed, it feels a lot like the 1980s both economically and culturally these days. Even the fashion and entertainment segments of CNN are '80s saturated: the hottest new radio format is "all '80s," with several stations having gone from the ratings cellar to number one in about the time it takes to play the extended dance remix of "Tainted Love." On the fashion front, the runways and malls are filled with '80s-style fashions-I recently saw a designer-ripped T-shirt that said, somewhat confusedly, "Kiss Me, I'm Punk," and the skinny tie has made its inevitable comeback. All kinds of diverse media (from Iron and Wine's post-postmodern cover of New Order's 1984 "Love Vigilantes" to Hollywood fare like Hot Tub Time Machine and Wall Street 2) stocks our collective iPad with reminders that we both have and haven't come a long way since the 1980s. But, as always, the real confirmation comes in the TV commercials: Joe Jackson urges us to Taco Bell "One More Time," while the Clash add rebellious street cred to the Nissan Rogue. I swear not long ago I heard the Smiths, whose myopic '80s anthems to frustration were perhaps second only to American Music Club for their sheer misery quotient, playing over an upbeat commercial for a sport utility vehicle.

While the return of the '80s is hardly surprising—how long could the nostalgia industry keep recycling '70s hip-huggers?—it remains a decade with something of a PR problem. Put most bluntly or economically, the '80s are haunted by the specter of Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech in the 1987 film Wall Street. It's difficult for the '80s to shake its reputation as the decade in which self-interested capitalism went utterly mad; indeed, it's hard to imagine the '80s without conjuring up pictures of cocaine-addled yuppie scum with slicked-back hair and suspenders, floating worthless junk bonds to finance leveraged buyouts (LBOs) that callously ravaged what was left of "good jobs" in industrial America. Mary Harron's 2000 film version of Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 American Psycho cannily tries to replay some of the madness of the 1980s—the kind of madness thoroughly documented in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's Barbarians at the Gate, on the mother of all LBOs, 1988's KKR hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco.

The '80s, in short, was the decade when the dictates of the market became a kind of secular monotheism in the US, thereby opening the door to the now-ubiquitous "corporatization" of large sectors of American life: welfare, media, public works, prisons, and education. In fact, such a market dictatorship, honed in the many palace coups that were '80s LBOs, has become the dominant logic not only of the US economy, but of the fast-moving phenomenon known as "globalization." Downsize, outsource, keep the stock price high—those are the dictates of the new global version of corporate Survivor.

Indeed, it seems clear that the American TV hit Survivor and its clone shows can be dubbed "reality" television only if we're willing to admit that reality has become nothing other than a series of outtakes from an endless corporate training exercise—with the dictates of '80s management theory (individualism, excellence, downsizing) having somehow become "the real." In fact, the exotic, "primitive" physical locations of Survivor argue none too subtly for the naturalization and universalization of these corporate strategies. Watching Survivor, it seems as if GE's corporate template for the '80s—"eliminating 104,000 of its 402,000-person workforce (through layoffs or sales of divisions) in the period 1980-90" (Jensen 2000, 38)—had somehow become the way of nature. In the end, Survivor's "tribal council" functions simply as a corporate board, demanding regular trimming of the workforce, until finally the board gets to award a tidy executive bonus of $1 million—with all decisions along the way having been made according to an economist's notion of subjectivity, what Michael Jensen has dubbed the "resourceful, evaluative, maximizing models of human behavior" (194).

On further reflection, then, maybe it's not so much that the '80s are back culturally, but that they never went anywhere economically: the downsizing and layoff mania of the '80s—designed to drive up stock prices and impose market discipline on corporate managers—has now simply become business and cultural orthodoxy, standard operating procedure. Following Survivor's lead, one might call it "reality," a rock of the real as tailor-made for the boom cycles as it is explanatory of the bust cycles that inevitably follow them. Less dramatically, one could say that the economic truisms of the '80s remain a kind of sound track for today, the relentless beat playing behind the eye candy of our new corporate world—a world that's been shocked by recent downturns, but one that has hardly abandoned the monotheistic faith that markets are the baseline of freedom, justice, and all things good in the world, for so-called liberals and conservatives alike. For a concise version of this mantra, one need look no further than Barack Obama's remarks in the summer of 2008: "I am a pro-growth, free market guy. I love the market. I think it is the best invention to allocate resources and produce enormous prosperity for America or the world that's ever been designed."

This across-the-board and continuing acceptance of '80s-style market principles is, it seems to me, one of the primary reasons why one might want to "periodize" the '80s, to steal a phrase from Fredric Jameson. Because to periodize the recent past is, of course, simultaneously to periodize the present: to begin figuring out how the cultural, political, and economic axioms of today (mandates only beginning to take shadowy shape) are related to the axioms of yesterday (mandates on which we should presumably have a better theoretical handle).

At this point, the reader might wonder how, why, or even if Jameson's work offers us a privileged path forward, insofar as today's postmodern materialists of the neo-Deleuzian variety tend to think of Jameson as someone dedicated to an old-fashioned—been there, done that—methodology: namely, dialectics. Well, like Foucault's nagging historical questions concerning power and exploitation (as he insists in his "Intellectuals and Power" dialogue with Deleuze, it took the entire nineteenth century for us to get a handle on what exploitation was, and surely it will have taken the twentieth and some chunk of the twenty-first before we have any workable sense of what "power" is), I wonder whether a certain positive Jamesonian itinerary surrounding the work of historicization or periodization remains unexplored or underexploited. We all know about dialectical method's attachment to the work of the negative; but surely any such work of negation must, in a dialectical system, be compensated for by an affirmation. What about this less-discussed "affirmative" Jameson? For a sense of that neglected Jameson, we need look no further than another '80s icon, his famous essay "Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (1984).

Holding at bay for a moment the many constative things we know or think we know about what the essay means or what it wants (a new totalization, a negation of consumer culture, a cognitive map, a return to this or that style of modernist subjectivity), I'd like to suggest that we concentrate instead on the essay's performative aspects—looking quite simply at how the essay does its work. For me, rereading Jameson's "Postmodernism" highlights a contradiction of the sort that we can only assume is intentional—antinomy being precisely the kind of shifting quicksand of an Abgrund on which dialectical thinkers influenced by Adorno often build their homes. In short, if Jameson is indeed a thinker of dialectical, progressive totalization (of the kind familiar from an old-fashioned reading of Hegel), then he certainly doesn't practice what he preaches. The style, range, and sheer volume of reference in the essay are anything but restricted or developmental in a recognizable sense—there's certainly no Hegelian movement from sense certainty, to unhappy consciousness, to the heights of knowledge, absolute or otherwise. Instead, from the opening paragraphs and their mishmashing of punk music and the minimalist song stylings of Philip Glass, through discussions of Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Heidegger and Derrida, E. L. Doctorow, Bob Perelman, the Bonaventure Hotel, Duane Hanson, Brian De Palma, and so on, we get less an analytical snapshot or critical dissection of postmodernism than a jump-cut-laden video starring it. We are presented, in other words, with many, many modes of postmodern cultural production but hardly any sense of postmodernism's sublated "meaning." And the hasty list of examples just provided doesn't even try to account for the heavy volume of seemingly passing reference so characteristic of Jameson's style on the whole: in the Austinean sense, he "uses" Doctorow or Warhol in "Postmodernism"; but he in addition "mentions" a truly dizzying array of postmodern cultural productions that would seem to have very little or nothing in common: Ishmael Reed, Godard, John Cage, Reader's Digest, Foucault, John Ashbery, Stanley Kubrick, Chinatown (both the Polanski movie and the San Francisco neighborhood referenced in Bob Perelman's poem "China"), Robert Wilson, David Bowie, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and William Gibson—as well as what must be the only extant reference to B-list movie actor William Hurt within the canon of poststructuralist theory.

On what's become the standard reading of this essay, the wide range of Jamesonian reference does indeed harbor a performative point, but it's largely a negative one: we, as readers, are meant to experience the dizzying array of centerless "intensity" produced by this laundry list of cultural productions; and as we try to deploy our outmoded categories to "read" or make sense of this puzzling, affectless flat surface, we're led inexorably to Jameson's conclusion: we need a new cognitive map. Without it, we're stuck with a meaningless and monotonous march of shiny, contextless consumer images. On this reading, the very intensity of the Jamesonian barrage—so much postmodern cultural production, so many examples—is meant not so much to highlight the positive (if sinister) force of postmodern cultural production, but instead to solicit our (modernist, all-too-modernist) inability to respond.

Fair enough, and—mea culpa—I've advanced just such a reading of Jameson elsewhere (1993, 144-52). But here I'd like to highlight the fact that there's another Jameson, one lurking beside (or maybe even in dialectical opposition to) the negative, stony, finger-wagging one we think we know. In classical dialectical fashion, Jameson insists that this negative inability can also provoke "a more positive conception of relationship":

This new mode of relationship through difference may sometimes be an achieved new and original way of thinking and perceiving; more often it takes the form of an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness. I believe that the most striking emblem of this new mode of thinking relationships can be found in the work of Nam June Paik, whose stacked or scattered television screens, positioned at intervals within lush vegetation, or winking down at us from a ceiling of strange new video stars, recapitulate over and over again prearranged sequences or loops of images which return at dyssynchronous moments on the various screens. The older aesthetic is then practiced by the viewers, who, bewildered by this discontinuous variety, decided to concentrate on a single screen, as though the relatively worthless image sequence to be followed there had some organic value in its own right. The postmodernist viewer, however, is called upon to do the impossible, namely, to see all the screens at once, in their radical and random difference; such a viewer is asked to follow the evolutionary mutation of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (who watches fifty-seven television screens simultaneously) and to rise somehow to a new level at which the vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship. (1991, 31)

There's a lot going on here, in one of Jameson's most overt statements concerning "a more positive conception" of "what used to be called relationship" in and around postmodern cultural production. Most striking in this passage is Jameson's neo-Deleuzian (though he'd undoubtedly prefer the adjective "utopian") call for "a new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness." Not a lot of nostalgia or mourning there.

Perhaps less obviously, this paragraph also constitutes the essay's most overt moment of reflexive self-thematization. We readers of Jameson are positioned as the hapless viewers of Paik's rapid-fire video installations: "bewildered by this discontinuous variety" of cultural stuff that Jameson so quickly offers us, we tend "to concentrate on a single screen"—this or that specific example—"as though the relatively worthless image sequence to be followed there had some organic value in its own right." However, this critical failure, far from being the negative and inevitable point of Jameson's essay, is overtly thematized as the trap to be avoided in reading it: "The postmodernist viewer, however, is called upon to do the impossible, namely, to see all the screens at once, in their radical and random difference; such a viewer [who is also Jameson's reader—mon semblable, mon frère et soeur] is asked to follow the evolutionary mutation of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (who watches fifty-seven television screens simultaneously) and to rise somehow to a level at which the vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship." Rather than primarily constituting a requiem for the non-schizo, somehow-still-centered mediating functions of modernist subjectivity, Jameson's essay is a call for revolution in this thing that can no longer be named by its quaint, old-fashioned handle: consciousness. On a performative reading—which will allow itself to speculate concerning constative effects only by first taking into account performative form—Jameson's work is far more schizo than it is centered, more "postmodern" than it is "modern." And this ambitious formal agenda should hardly surprise us, as Jameson is certainly a thinker who's had more than his share of things to say about the political and theoretical implications of "style."


Excerpted from POST-POSTMODERNISM or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism by Jeffrey T. Nealon Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface: Why Post-Postmodernism?....................ix
1. Post-Postmodernism. Periodizing the '80s: The Cultural Logic of Economic Privatization in the US....................1
2. Intensity. Empire of the Intensities: A Random Walk down Las Vegas Boulevard....................25
3. Commodity. The Song Remains the Same: On the Post-Postmodern Economics of Classic Rock....................43
4. University. The Associate Vice Provost in the Gray Flannel Suit: Administrative Labor and the Corporate University....................66
Interruptive Excursus: Rereading. On the "Hermeneutics of Situation" in Nietzsche and Adorno....................87
5. Deconstruction. Postdeconstructive? Negri, Derrida, and the Present State of Theory....................113
6. Interpretation. The Swerve around P: Theory after Interpretation....................126
7. Literature. Can Literature Be Equipment for Post-Postmodern Living?....................146
Coda: Liberal Arts. Not Your Father's Liberal Arts: or, Humanities Theory in the Post-Post Future....................171
Works Cited....................213

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