The Historical Status of Postmodernism Under Neoliberalism

The Historical Status of Postmodernism Under Neoliberalism

Simon During

Simon During proposes to unravel the “layered” history of postmodernism in New Zealand. In so doing, the author of this essay treats postmodernism as “an event rather than a period” and describes postmodernism’s development in the epoch of neo-liberalism.

My heart sinks a little whenever I am asked to talk about “postmodernism” and “postcolonialism.” That is not because they may be dated terms. It is more that they simultaneously periodize and totalize. To use them is to be driven to think about whether we are in postmodernism or in postcolonialism. But history does not move from unified moment to unified moment in this way. And to the degree that it does, such moments do not cover everyone. There is no easily-identifiable we for the proposition “we are postmodern now,” for instance.

As Nietzsche and Foucault, in particular, have argued, historical time proceeds, rather, in genealogies, traditions, institutions, potentialities and discursive formations which may fissure or combine with one another. This means that different temporalities and moments are in play at any one time. And each of these temporalities or moments reaches a larger or smaller population. Each has its own geographical spread and its own range of modalities across space. Each has its own rhythms of intensity. Some endure longer than others. Individuals may be inside several simultaneously.

So I want to think about postmodernism in particular not as a period but as an event. I do not here use that word in its Badiouien sense, as a radical historical break with universalizing force around which loyal activists cluster. No, I mean an event in the historiographical sense: something that happened rather than something that defines an epoch. And, admittedly, something that happened in a sequence that is constituted by earlier events of roughly the same status, and whose narrativization, as invented from within a particular situation, helps constitute our understanding of, and orientation towards, the past.

But I also know that I myself have a track record when it comes to postcolonialism and postmodernism. So I want to begin by explaining the situation in which I once put the terms together using this brief flashback as a springboard to think about postmodernism as an event rather than a period. And then, to end, I will to hint at how we might think about postmodernism now by way of a brief reading of a recent New Zealand novel, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. So, first, a little autobiography.

In 1984, I returned to Auckland after nine years away. I was invited to take up a year’s Visiting Lectureship at the University of Auckland. Since I had trained at Cambridge - then one of the most advanced English departments in the world - and was a tutor at Melbourne - which was leading the charge in the turn to “theory” in the Antipodes - it was thought I could help introduce Auckland to this new and controversial thing, “theory.”

But as it turned out what hit me on my return to New Zealand was something that had little to do with the academic world at all. What struck me was that Maori-Pakeha relations had changed radically during my absence. Not just at the level of the state (with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975) or of politics (with the emergence of a radical anti-colonialist Maori consciousness partly in the wake of the 1981 anti-Springbok protests) or of institutions (the iwi “welcome to country” ritual, for instance, was becoming more routine in late eighties if my memory serves me well) but of everyday life, especially of the everyday life of liberal, educated Pakeha. My peers and family were embracing Maoritanga practically. It was not just relatively trivial things, like the new way Pakeha pronounced Maori words but the way in which they were beginning to think of New Zealand/Aoteoroa as a bi-cultural nation both of whose cultures they might be able to participate in, or, if not, at least affirm. All of this was, at least for me, new and amazing.

At the same time, back in the academic world, the concept “postmodernism” was about to become a strut of an emergent sub-discipline, “theory.” The main driver of this was Fredric Jameson’s essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” published in 1984 in the New Left Review. That same year a translation of Jean-François Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne was published in English too.

So from the beginning it was clear that postmodernism could be thought about in various ways. Jameson thought of it in relation to multinational or “late” capitalism, the latter a term that had circulated amongst sociologists since the beginning of the 20th century, and carried with it the over-optimistic sense that capitalism would come to an end sooner rather than later. For Jameson, postmodernism was now late capitalism’s “cultural dominant,” one which had broken with modernism proper. Its qualities were mainly conceived of as lacks or removals: weightlessness and depthlessness (that is, a removal of transcendental references and existential risk); a loss of autonomy among different cultural and social components or institutions; a creative economy based on play and simulation not on authenticity or originality.

This meant that domains like culture and economy were no longer independent from each other. It also meant that there was no “other” to postmodernism, nothing pressed back on it. Not nature. Not God. Rather, in a semiotic turn influenced by Deleuze, what marked postmodernism was that everything could now be either culturally or economically “coded” and recoded. Culture and money translated into each other seamlessly. Postmodernity, then, was not a region or even a structure with an outside to it, it was an unbounded system or semiosis. What limited it was periodization itself. For Jameson, we begin its cognitive mapping when we mark it off from modernism, understanding it as an epoch within capitalism’s trajectory.

Lyotard, on the other hand, in his pamphlet on the future of the university, thought of postmodernism not so much against modernism as against the enlightenment. He saw it as the triumph of pragmatism, and of efficiency and performativity against the old “grand narratives” in which history ended in humanity’s emancipation, notably the narratives of social progress, of religious eschatology and of knowledge’s scientification. For Lyotard, grand narratives legitimated universal social and political projects. But in “post-modernism” there were no universal projects: rather the world was engaged in many, constantly changing, “micro-narratives” which, almost frictionlessly, sanctioned and encouraged limited enterprises.

My own experience of the new New Zealand was in stark contradiction to all this. In New Zealand, indigenous traditions seemed to be reviving, and an emancipation project based on a critique of colonialism was gaining steam. Nothing much fitted Jameson’s theory of weightlessness and capitalist codings in particular. So one of my first projects as a young theorist in Auckland was to write a piece called “Postmodernism and postcolonialism today,” first published in Landfall a couple of years later. It argued that Jameson’s theory of postmodernism was blind to indigenous liberationary energies in the settler colonies. In that way, it introduced the term “postcolonialism” into the theory world. But I used the term to make a distinction between the “post-colonizers” - the colonizers’ heirs, and the “post-colonized” - the colonized’s heirs - so as to show that the politics of postcolonialism contained its own internal tensions, a distinction which bore the seeds of my later retreat from the field.

Today, I do not hold the views I put forward in that essay. History, I think, proved them wrong. By the 1990s it became clear to me that the Maori Renaissance of the ‘80s was itself in large part enabled by larger (global) forces - in particular, of political and economic transformations that were reordering social conditions and polities in place since 1945. For instance, the emerging bi-cultural New Zealand of the ‘80s was indirectly a product of the EU closing down on New Zealand free trade with the U.K. after 1973. And local postcolonialism took flight on the back of policies put in place by Roger Douglas in 1984, which would soon be called “Rogernomics,” and which gave notice of what was to become the financialized global regime of “neo-liberalism.” Let me give a one sentence summation of this logic: as what had been New Zealand’s old, progressive, paternalistic Fabian state retreated, civil society and market relations came into their own, and Maori were a much more significant force in liberalized civil society than they had been under social-democratic statism.

So post-colonialism, especially but not only in New Zealand, became for me less an autonomous, self-generated movement than a complex function of global mutations. Those mutations were also, on a different level and in different institutions, producing theories of postmodernity. From an analytic perspective, then, postmodernism and postcolonialism were not in opposition: they were effects of a single structure. Lyotard’s book was a primer on undoing social-democracy, and in particular the old university based in values of high cultural transmission and scientific liberation from scarcity and suffering. And Jameson’s theory of boundless capitalism, though it originally came out of the art- and theory-worlds, despite itself reflected the policies of de-regulation which were then being implemented.

But this left open the question of how to re-assess those theories once the full force of neo-liberalism came to be felt. My answer is, as I say, to think of postmodernism in particular as an event of aesthetic and historical substance in an epoch which, if it is to be defined at all, might be defined as that of neo-liberalism. Postmodernism names an event; neo-liberalism a period and a structure - a line of thought that David Harvey and Jeffrey Nealon have explored.

And if we are dealing with events, then, as I also say, we are dealing with events in historical sequences which make sense of them at a particular time and moment. But it is important immediately to add that events of this kind have momentum and create wave effects, which means, to put it differently, that the history of events is layered. It forms not just as a sequence but as an archeology in which old events may continue to exert their force, sometimes for centuries.

What sequence? What substantive events? Let me list the events, thought like this, which constitute something like a history of Western modernity for me personally, but also I think, for many Western scholars and intellectuals today.

The first does not even have a name. But recent scholarship in intellectual history and the history of secularization has shown its importance. It is the moment when, in the 13th century, Parisian theologians begin to contest Aquinas’s scholasticism in the name of nominalism. As a result, God’s relation to the world changes decisively, in a way that reflects, and helps trigger, a new relation between institutional power and populations. In a nutshell: God becomes further transcendentalized and monotheistic. The doctrine of the Trinity loses force. As He abandons the world, the world is increasingly left to its own devices. It is no longer suffused with practical divinity through and through; human beings are no longer vehicles of divine reason. At the same time, another entity begins to displace God’s centrality: Being. God is the same way that the world is, and it is metaphysics rather than theology which is best equipped to analyze the properties of this isness - this Being - which subtends everything that is the case, including divinity.

This turn has political implications but it does not appear to have been politically driven. Drawing on Marcel Gauchet’s work, we can say that the nominalist God as a distant, transcendent ruler of a world ordered by natural law becomes a model for a new kind of state, a non-feudal, sovereign state under an absolute monarch.

It was partly in the interests of such states that the Protestant Reformation - my next event - happens in the 16th century. Now Christianity itself fissures. New confessions emerge which reject the Church’s mediation of God’s relation to the faithful. These confessions group believers in autonomous polities: republics in Geneva and Amsterdam, monarchies elsewhere. Protestantism, and especially its conceptually purest form, Calvinism, further detaches God from the world, so opening up, as Weber famously argued, practices of labor and vocation upon which capitalism will flourish. As Brad Gregory has also argued, the Reformation, in breaking Europe’s intellectual unity, slowly enables tolerance, liberalism, and relativism to become culturally dominant in many states, although only after devastating warfare.

By the time of the Reformation, in Italy, another event was under way: humanism. Classical - not Christian - learning and practices of self were being reinstated among the erudite. Humanist learning and rhetoric was used to legitimize and add charisma to sovereign rulers. But it also brought about a new kind of extended community - the so-called “republic of letters” - which will distribute new ethical and philosophical forms, most notably neo-Stoicism and neo-Epicureanism, which will form the basis of Europe’s secular ethos to come.

In the 17th century’s last decades, the Republic of Letters gives birth to the next event in my sequence: the Enlightenment. Three aspects of this complex, enduring event are worth noting.

It involves a new relation to the natural world. On the one hand, it mathematizes nature; on the other, it regards nature as an object for empirical, experimental inquiry whose results may be useful for human flourishing as well as for commercial enterprises. Second, it offers a new picture of humanity: one capable of benevolence, sympathy and gradual self-improvement on its own account. A new historical narrative attaches to this anthropology: now, in what has come to be called enlightened humanism, history is seen as the unfolding of humanity’s full moral, affective, and productive potential. Third, in the middle of the 18th century, the Enlightenment transforms religious tolerance into religious skepticism, largely because it comes to associate Christianity with corrupt, wasteful government. At that point it will develop what will come to be called critique.

Importantly, as Reinhart Koselleck showed, enlightened critique’s power derives from a power shift in relations between the state and civil society. At one level, finance capital is required to fight the post-Reformation wars of religion, and this in turn requires that states build up public debt. Public debt is owned by members of civil society, which gives civil society power over the state. As a result, it also gives power to the critique of the absolutist state and Christian religion since critique is nurtured in civil society. In the end, therefore, strange as it may seem, critique was empowered by public debt and finance capital. On another level, civil society - and in particular the economy - expands because of colonialism. Enlightened confidence partly follows from colonial exploitation.

The next event in this sequence does not have name either. Let us call it: revolution. Enlightened and humanist thought offered no resistance to the new forms of absolutist state that had emerged in the 17th century. Indeed, for the early enlightenment, the perfect polity was an absolute state whose sovereign adhered to right reason. Democracy, equality, and rights played no important role for it. That changed in the second half of the 18th century when a series of revolutions swept the West. The first was in America, the second, more radical, in France. They created a new kind of civil person: the citizen rather than the subject. And citizens, formally equal to one another, had the right to participate in government. Of course full political democracy was only established from the late 19th century on after struggles against vested interests, mainly borne by labor. But once political democracy was on the horizon in the West, the threat of equality’s extension into other cultural and social domains met with a new kind of resistance.

That resistance marks my next and penultimate event - so-called modernism. It can, I would suggest, be best understood as philosophy, art and literature’s contestation of both democratic and egalitarian principles, and of the anthropology that supported those principles - enlightened humanism.

Modernism meant something only to a tiny proportion of the population: clustered around those whom Matthew Arnold had heralded as “alien,” that is, detached from the working class, the middle classes, or the aristocracy by virtue of their aestheticized and critical sensibilities. Admittedly it was an event in philosophy, but mainly in the arts and literature. It had little or no economic or political stake. Philosophically its core figure was Nietzsche, who mounted the strongest critique of democracy and who presented a new biological philosophical anthropology against humanism. In the arts, as we know, it happened outside of popular and respectable bourgeois culture. Modernism made two key moves, each of which went in a different direction. It exposed art and literature to experiments on form, media, and technology. But it also channeled historical forms and experience which had not been touched by the enlightenment and by revolutionary impulses. That I think is the point of Pound’s Cantos or Joyce’s Ulysses or T.S. Eliot’s recovery of the metaphysical poets. It also involved, at least for some, a return to Christian orthodoxy against democratic and enlightened capitalism. Here Eliot and Péguy led the way.

Postmodernity is best understood as modernism’s exhaustion, that is to say, as the exhaustion of resistance to the principle of equality and liberal tolerance in culture, and as liberal democracy’s colonization of culture. None of the elements of the events I have just listed that might be able to check liberalism and the principle of equality are called upon: not enlightened humanism; not rational, meritocratic progressivism; not conservative modernism. Cultural forms to which tradition, hierarchy, autonomy attach have no active role in postmodernism. This means that it is a larger event than modernism, since it is not merely a product of an avant-garde coterie. It involves high and avant-garde culture folding into popular or demotic cultural forms.

But postmodernity is also divided in two: as I have just pointed out, on the one hand it names an abandonment of high culture and the modernist avant-garde, a generalized acceptance of the principles of egalitarianism and relativity across the cultural field. On the other hand, in the hands of writers, artists, architects, and so on, it has aesthetic guardians - postmodernists - who produce works that allegorize and enact the logics of postmodernity, that is, allegorize the exhaustion of cultural forms that adhered to earlier events in the sequence just outlined. Jameson’s concept of postmodernism is usually directed towards postmodernists not postmodernity, and the qualities he perceives in the latter derive from the qualities he perceives in the former.

Of course postmodernism comes into its own at a precise historical juncture. Communism had faded; Islamic theocratic politics had not yet mounted its jihads. For a moment, capitalism knew no enemies. That was also the moment when neo-liberalism was taking hold in New Zealand but also elsewhere. Neo-liberalism will be congruent with postmodernity as the reign of cultural egalitarianism and relativism, but it is less congruent with the postmodern as an aesthetic program, partly because postmodernism has no truck with the insecurities, precarity, and radicalism that come with neo-liberalism. Indeed, by the turn of the century, literature was less and less programmatically post-modern; rather it was beginning to be - indirectly - structured around neo-liberalism.

Take even a popular literary novel like The Luminaries. It was written from the heart of the contemporary, global literary machine: Catton is a graduate of a prestigious U.S. creative writing program; and her novel won the most renowned Anglophone literary prize. At the same time it is written from the margins, by a New Zealander and a woman, and about the margins of the margins: South Island’s West Coast (the second Booker Prize-winning novel set there, amazingly enough). That is because in today’s world literature machine, marginality is path into the center. Integration is what counts.

As to Catton’s novel itself: it would be just possible to present it as postmodern. Its relation to history and the Victorian sensation novel is one of pastiche for instance. But it seems to me not as much a product of an aesthetic program but rather as an unconscious expression or “symptom” of the neo-liberal social system. To begin with, the novel is set in Hokitika’s goldfields, where primitive accumulation and materialism rule. No community, or even society, exists there yet: at best it forms a network in Caroline Levine’s sense. Individuals group in transient constellations and alliance, but life, like the gold-digging itself, is largely solitary, radically insecure. Gold - or “colour” it is called - is the base of a superstructure which goes not much further than a rough, masculinist marketplace where law and government barely function, and which is open to violence, fraud, magic. It is a distillation of neo-liberal society.

This society is represented in a narrative form remarkable for its generic inclusiveness. Unlike the literary novel in modernism’s wake, The Luminaries does not reject genre. Indeed, it joins and connects many genres, some popular, some literary - which is also to say that the received hierarchy of genres, which carries with it a hierarchy of readerships, is all but absent here. In this regard, it adheres to the principle of equality.

What marks it out, then, is its ageneric formal complexity, which is largely a complexity of plot and the organization of time. Plot comes first in The Luminaries, as it does for modernist novelists as different from one another as Kafka and Elizabeth Bowen. But here plot has two levels: it is the narration of incidents but also the shifting of astrological conjunctions as they influence events - astrology in part because it does not belong to the sequence I have just outlined, not to Christianity, not to enlightenment, not modernism. It has no historico-archeological significance. Rather, its effect is to problematize the characters’ freedom and agency. The novel’s plot is, diegetically, caused by the position of the stars, by non-human forces. But the novel’s astrology can be read allegorically, as a sign of something else - namely, of the determining force of the 19th century West Coast social system in all its primitiveness. This is a world in which individual agency has been subsumed by relations between things and the play of chance, by constellations put in place by where the money is.

Plot may matter most, but characterology counts too. In fact, many of The Luminaries’ characters have remarkably thick subjectivities and interiorities, described in complex and sophisticated psychological terms, just like the characters in an Elizabeth Bowen fiction say. But these subjectivities do not determine the course of events in the plot, which is a remarkable undoing of the classic novel’s structure - namely, narrative’s adequacy to characterology and vice versa. This undoing of the relation between character and plot is not a postmodern effect. Rather, it has something to say, I think, about the redundancy of deep interiority and the process of social reproduction under neo-liberalism, in which we find highly individuated, carefully cultivated and mapped selves - but with diminished capacity to control life trajectories.

Last, as we have seen, with regard to literary genre and the cultural marketplace, the novel is committed to egalitarian principles. But the diegesis itself is not. It is the gentry who triumph here: the university-educated, Edinburgh lawyer Walter Moody, and the young Emery Staines, whose style is somewhat Arnoldian. Both are exceptionally articulate, both are to some degree elevated from the hard materialism that rules the diggings. This can be read as part of the novel’s simulation of Victorian fiction, but it points in another direction too. It hints at the novel’s accession to the legitimacy of social hierarchy, but not in the Burkean spirit - as if filiative cultivation and politeness were bearers of important cultural values - rather just because under neo-liberalism the rich command the poor. In postmodernism as an aesthetic, class relations did not matter. In neo-liberalism, as in the novel, accepting principles of equality and relativity at the level of culture turns out to be quite congruent with oligarchy’s flourishing.

What about postcolonialism? The novel has one Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare. He operates in a different economy than the Pakeha and Chinese characters. His is the economy of pounamu not of gold, an economy that is organized around Maori rituals and an honor code, not greed, materialism, and instrumentalism. And it is Te Rau Tauwhare who in the end kills the novel’s melodrama villain, Francis Carver, out of loyalty to his friend Crosbie Wells, and who thus enables the story’s happy ending.

All this carries a whiff of postcolonialism: a wishful story about Maori codes trumping Pakeha ones. And yet the point is that Carver’s murder, which comes as a complete surprise and seems detached from the plot’s elaborate astrological charting, is not narrated: it is merely implied. It happens off stage. It allows for a happy ending but, buried as it is, it will not change anything. It belongs to the shadows and does not denote any resistance to the gold town’s hard materialism. In that way it stands as a sign of how postcolonial hopes and desires are swallowed up by neo-liberalism’s progress.

Let me end by summing up my argument. I have suggested that postmodernism as a literary/aesthetic moment was part of an event whose enabling condition was emergent neo-liberalism. As an event, it needs to be understood in narrative relation to other events with similar status in Western history, but whose force it dissipates. Postmodernism no longer holds, however, as The Luminaries helps us see. In putting my argument, I have refrained from critique, but were I to move in that direction, I would point out that, even after postmodernism, old, faded events can, as it were, be used to make judgments on newer ones. More particularly, that humanism, enlightenment, and modernism, symptomatically evacuated by The Luminaries, retain a residual critical power over neo-liberalism.

Works Cited

Catton, Eleanor. The Luminaries. London: Granta Books, 2013.

During, Simon. “Postmodernism and Postcolonialism Today.” Landfall 39.3 (1987): 366-80.

Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Gregory, Brad. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review I.146 (1984): 53-92.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Lyotard, Jean-François. La Condition Postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. Paris: Minuit, 1979.

Nealon, Jeffrey. Post-postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Just-in-time Capitalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Penguin, 2002.