Frederick James – The Limites of Post Modern Theor
yThe impetus behind this paper has been the recent publication of Fredric Jameson’s 1991 Welleck Lectures, The Seeds of Time.1 As these lectures were delivered a decade after Jameson’s initial attempts to map the terrain of postmodernity it appeared to me to provide an occasion to reflect upon the current status of Jameson’s highly influential and much criticised theory of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism. It also enables me to return to, what I consider to be, one of the most troubling aspects of Jameson’s writing on postmodernism, that is to say, the “waning”, to use Jameson’s term, of the political imagination. As Jameson is probably the foremost Marxist theorist writing on postmodernism and one of the most influential of contemporary cultural critics, I find this paralysis of the political imagination in the face of postmodernism deeply problematic.
As most of you are probably aware postmodernism is inherently paradoxical and playful. There is, suggests Jameson a kind of winner loses logic about it, the more one tries to define what is characteristically postmodern the less characteristic it turns out to be. Postmodernism, by definition resists definition. Theoretically, postmodernism can only theorise its own conditions of impossibility; with neither a fixed subject nor object there can be no theory of postmodernism as such. This paradoxicality is what Jameson now identifies as the antinomies of postmodernity, the aporia or theoretical impasses which mesmerise postmodern theory and unlike the older (modernist) discourse of dialectical contradiction remain unresolvable at a higher level of abstraction. Jameson identifies four fundamental antinomies of postmodernism: time and space, subject and object, nature and human nature, and finally the concept of Utopia. Today I will focus on just the first of these antinomies, what Jameson describes as the foundational antinomy of postmodernism, that is, time and space, and suggest that the failure to think beyond the antinomy is symptomatic of a more general failing in Jameson’s theory as a whole. I shall also venture to suggest that a more dialectical understanding of temporality and spatiality may enable us to move beyond what Jameson sees as the limits of the postmodern. Before engaging with this debate, however, I will briefly recapitulate Jameson’s original thesis and what I still consider to be the importance of his theoretical endeavour.
Jameson’s initial intervention in the postmodern debate, in a 1982 essay ‘The Politics of Theory’,2 was primarily an attempt to map the ideological landscape of postmodernism, however, the article concluded on a characteristic Jamesonian note, insisting on ‘the need to grasp the present as history’. Jameson, then, initially seemed to suggest the possibility of a way through the impasse of the two most influential strains of thought emerging at that time in relation to postmodernism. On the one hand, one encountered an uncritical celebration of the concept by the postmodernists themselves, and, on the other, the charge of cultural degeneracy was being levelled by more traditional critics and older modernists. We must avoid, argued Jameson, adopting either of these essentially moralising positions, and rather develop a more fully historical and dialectical analysis of the situation. Whether we like it or not there was a perception that culturally something had changed, we may disagree on what that change entails but the perception itself has a reality that must be accounted for. To repudiate such a cultural change was simply facile, to thoughtlessly celebrate it was complacent and corrupt; what was required was an assessment of this ‘new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself within the social restructuration of late capitalism as a system’. It was this promise to historically situate postmodernism in relation to transformations in the capitalist system and the development of global multinational capital that, for many like myself who at once embraced aspects of postmodern theory whilst remaining critical of its often ambiguous political stance, was probably the single most significant aspect of Jameson’s theory.
At the same time, however, the precise nature of the relationship between postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon and late capitalism as a system was left somewhat under-theorised and, for myself at least, this has remained one of the most