Book review article

Postmodernism, ideology and politics

Mike Cormack


Geoffrey Bennington, Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Jim Collins, Uncommon Cultures: Popular C unwire and Post-Modernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

David Harvey, The Condition off Postmodemity: an Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Linda Huteheon, The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Andrew Ross (ed.), Universal Abandon?: The Politics ox Postmodernism. Edin-burgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989.



In the early and middle 198(1s, the debate about postmodernism tended to be structured around the extremes of, on the one hand, its dismissal as the nostalgic and poverty-ridden culture of advanced capitalism which had no redeeming political or critical value (Habermas, Jameson, Eagleton) and, on the other hand, Lyotardian and Baudrillardian descriptions of an information society in which traditional systems of meaning and social organization were being transformed. Poised somewhat uneasily between these extremes were those writers (such as Linda Hutcheon, Dick Hebdige and Charles Jencks) whose enthusiasm for postmodern cultural products was tempered by an awareness of their political ambivalence, and of the philosophical shortcomings of the Freneh theorists. The debate has moved on since then but the problem of postmodernism's political implications remains and is an important strand linking the five books under review, appearing sometimes as a major theme and sometimes as a background issue.

The problem has two dimensions. At the practical level there is the question of the nature of political activity in a postmodern age in which totalizing theories have been brought into question. At a more philosophical level there is the question of how postmodernism is situated ideologically, and whether it is complicit with, or critical of, the representational practices of late capitalism. Alongside these issues


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546 Media, Culture and Society


is the broader problem of precisely how postmodernism is to be defined if the concept is to have any useful analytical value. This last question is, if anything, even more difficult to answer now than it was five or ten years ago, which in itself suggests that a real debate is taking place.

The degree of semantic complexity and overload surrounding the term 'post-modernism' at the moment signals that a significant number of people with conflicting interests and opinions feel that there is something sufficiently important at stake here to be worth struggling and arguing over. (Hebdige, 1 988:1 82)

Going by title alone, the book which seems to offer most in this direction is Linda Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism. Appearances, however, are deceptive. Readers of her earlier book, A Poetics of Postmodernism, will not find much new material here. The emphasis is still on the novel, although the later book has rather more on photography, but many of the examples are the same and the overall argument has not developed. For Hutcheon, here (as in the closing chapters of her earlier book in which these issues were first dealt with) the political dimension lies in postmodernism's critical stance, in particular its use of parody and self-reflexivity to subvert ideological certainties. In this she follows Hal Foster's well-known account of a 'postmodernism of resistance' (Foster, 1984:xii). However this is wedded to an acceptance of its necessary lack of a practical political programmer

Postmodern art cannot but be political, at least in the sense that its representa-tions—its images and stories—are anything but neutral, however 'aesthet-icized' they may appear to be in their parodic self-reflexivity. While the post-modern has no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action, it does work to turn its inevitable ideological grounding into a site of de-naturalizing critique. (Hutcheon, 1989: 3)

For a concept which claims to identify the dominant cultural current of the age, this is a severe limitation, pariticularly since, as Hutcheon herself admits, audiences may not even be aware of the 'de-naturalizing critique'. She follows Charles Jencks in using the notion of double-coding to describe the way in which postmodern art both 'legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies' (Hutcheon, t989:}vl). The text becomes coded both as ironic, self-conscious art, and as straightforward, unproblematic, even celebratory, pastiche. She adds to this the concept of 'de-doxification', postmodernism's undermining of received opinion, its revelation of the natural as historical and ideological.

Hutcheon is, however, unable to give satisfactory solutions to the questions suggested above. The possibility of a political programme of any kind is denied and her ideological situating of postmodernism is inadequate, depending as it does on the ignoring of the movement's more obviousby conservative manifestations— what Foster calls the 'postmodernism of reaction' (Foster, 1984:xii). Hutcheon has very little to say, for example, about architecture, advertising or popular television, and to rely on a double-coding, which for many becomes single-coding, is effectively to abandon any radical ground. Part of her problem is the lack of an adequate theory of ideology to account for the complexity of postmodernism. Various references suggest an unproblematic adoption of Althusser (see, for example, pp.6, 33, 108 and 133) including a monolithic conception of a dominant ideology which the work of the postmodern artist allows us to perceive.

Hutcheon's strategy of emphasizing postmodernism's critical potential is one reaction to Jameson's description of postmedernism as “the cultura; logic of late



Cormack, Postmodernism, ideology and politics 547


capitalism'. Another reaction is to deny Jameson's analysis in its entirety and to assert that the postmodern age is fundamentally different in its economic, social and cultural structures, not just as the dialectical continuation of modernism and industrialism, but as based on a completely different problematic. The classic development of this view is in I,aclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy which attempts to develop a postmodern (and post-marxist) political programme. In Uncommon Cultures Jim Collins argues for such an approach (although nowhere does he refer to Laclau and Mouffe). Rejecting any theory of a dominant ideology as now untenable (and, incidentally, tending to conflate it both with conspiracy theories and with mass culture theories), he gocs to the opposite extreme. Postmodern fragmentation and decentring imply! for Collins, an account of ideology as based in a multiplicity of self-legitimating discourses which conflict and compete with one another. In this he is indebted (beyond Laclau and Mouffe) to Lyotard's account of an agonistics of language games (Lyotard, 1984:10), although he does not make this clear. A more obvious (and acknowledged) source is Foucault whose use of the concept of discourse stands behind ail of these writers to a greater or lesser degree. The problem with Collins' discussion is that it becomes difficult to see the value of using the term 'ideology' at all. Discourses must, of course, be intimately bound up with questions of power and domination (as Collins makes clear), but if we are faced simply with a host of unconnected discursive ideologies competing with each other, then we seem to be very close to a conventional pluralist account. In addition, Collins defines ideology without any reference to social or economic background. His first attempt at explaining it is typical .

Fictional texts become. at this point, doubly 'ideological' in that they vehiculate a particular political position, but also promote themselves as forms of discourse, generating their own set of values, sustaining their own stylistic uniqueness, constructing very particular subjects. (Collins, 1989:6)

If ideology is reduced to 'political position', without any account of its origin, then the concept's meaning is diluted to the point at which virtually all analytical force is lost.

This quotation also, incidentally, illustrates a rather symptomatic move by Collins. He frequently writes as though agency, in particular ideological agency, was a property of non-human artefacts which therefore seem to have a life of their own. Texts 'promote themselves', languages 'assert their status' (p. 83), discourses are 'offering themselves' (p. 37). Systematically removed from Collins' own discourse is the link between the forms of human life and the discourses in which these are instantiated. The discourses become free-floating systems in the ether of an impoverished and fragmented social world. Presumably Collins could argue that various discursive practices might be aligned together, thus enacting a process of hegemonic ideological domination, yet he does not do this, preferring to stay with a theory of complete ideological fragmentation, allied with a decentred subjectivity according to which we are subjected to contradictory interpellations which never seem to add up to any coherent form of address. For Collins, however, this does not entail the complete abandonment of the notion of subjectivity. 'While a unitary culture may have disappeared, unitary discourses constructing very specific sub-jects have only intensified. The category of the subject remains highly viable in large part because it has never been so hotly contested' (Collins, 1989:144).

But it is not clear what is at stake in this contestation if subjectivity is only an affect of such contradictory discourses—certainly not political agency, since that presupposcs some kind of centred subjectivity. Collins blurs the line between, on



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On the one hand, subjectivity, and on the other hand, the ideological address to the subject (Althusser's 'interpellation') which can be traced in cultural products and practices. By assuming that the former is only constructed and maintained by the latter he sets himself unanswered problems, such as describing how the subject becomes constructed in the first place, particularly since he wants to emphasize the power we have to choose between competing discourses. This problem becomes clearest when, for all his talk of decentred subjectivity, his account begins to fall back into what seems to be very much like the traditional centred subject of human-ism, the only difference being in the kind of text with which the subject interacts. With Universal Abandon?, the collection of essays edited by Andrew Ross, we reach a more intricate debate. The hook is the first of a proposed series on cultural politics edited by the Social Text collective and is concerned, as Andrew Ross puts it in his introduction, with 'the ethical question of postmodernism, a question about its political "horizon" (or lack thereof)' (p. xiv). He formulates this question as 'in whose interests is it, exactly, to declare the abandonment of universals?' (p. xiv). Contributors to the volume were asked 'to respond to what they saw as the most significant political issues to have emerged out of their work within and around the postmodernism debates' (p. xvii). Apart from an item by Jacqueline Rose and a piece on feminism by Nancy Fraser arid Linda Nicholson (which was written for another book, as well as being published in the postmodernism issuc of Theory, Culture & Society), all the essays, as well as the two interviews with Frederic Jameson and Cornel West, were written specifically for this collection. At least one other essay, however, has been previously published, despite lack of acknowl-edgement here (Abigail Solomon-Godcau's essay on postmodern photography has appeared in Screen).

As might be expected in a collection covering such a broad area, the specific subject matter of the contributions varies greatly. Similarly, the contributions to the debate about postmodernism and ideology vary interestingly, although the positions already described (the opposition between postmodernism as radical critique or as conservative endorsement) are much in evidence. Frequently this is expressed as the critical theorist's disappointment in (and sometimes puzzlement with) the postmodern text. Thus Meaghan Morris concludes from a discussion of the film Crocodile Dundee that it:

has a reconciliatory, cohesive force quite at odds with the analytic spirit usually claimed for bricolage-appropriation and yet a zestful, entrepreneurial optimism that differs (at least in its shameless avowal of competitive ambition) from the lugubrious celebration of a lost past predicated so often for (or by) the conservative postmodernism (or antimodernism) with which it nonetheless shares many elements of racial, sexual, and political hostility. (Ross, 1989:124)

This comes over most strongly in Abigail Solomon-Godeau's interesting essay on postmodern photography. She notes how she and others had championed the photography of Sherry Levine (whose most famous work has been her photographs of famous photographs—a practice which seemed to challenge simultaneously both the institutional commodification of art photography and its most basic signifying codes) only to come up against the artist herself who situates her work in an almost traditional way.

I never thought I wasn't making art and I never thought of the art I was making as not a commodity. I never thought that what I was doing was in strict opposition to what else was going on -- I believed I was distilling things, bringin out what was being repressed. (Ross, 1989:199).


Cormack, Postmodernism, ideology and politics 549

Lawrence Grossberg tries to move the debate on by working on Jamesor comment about postmodernism's 'waning of affect' and redescribing this as; increasing gap between meaning and affect which seems to separate aspects of livz experience from ideology.

Contemporary ideological structures seem incapable of making sense of certa affective experiences. The latter cannot be represented because they ha) apparently been determined elsewhere. in a different scene. These affects moments are 'free-floating' and autonomous, rather than being stitched into tl structures of meaning and subjectivity that make our lives intelligible. (Ros 1 9X9: 1 8())

I le goes on to discuss Bruce Springstecn's music as an example of this. The

problem here (expressed in a way which recalls Collins' 'discursive ideologies') that a particular theory of ideology is scen to have limitations and so certa experiences are given a privileged status out with the confines of that theory. more appropriate reaction might be thought to be a revision of the theory itself order to explain cultural life more adequately.

The essays which deal most overtly with postmodernism's relation to ideolo and politics are those of Chantal Mouffe, Stanley Aronowitz and Ernesto Lacla Pouffe argues the position which she and l aclau have developed elsewhe accepting a postmodern rejection of totalizing theory, and replacing it with concept of 'radical democracy' in which decentred subjects are concerned wi localized issues and difference is valued ovcr any universalized explanate narratives. By incorporating the concept of hegemony, Mouffe avoids the me obvious pitfalls of Collins. Hegemonic articulation allows for some kind

theorizing of power and domination which Collins' discursive competition cann deal with. However Collins' problems over the origin of the subject and t evacuation of the concept of ideology are not answered here. In addition therc an implicit utopianism which surfaces occasionally, as in the following.

What emerges are entirely new perspectives for political action, which ncith liberalism—with its idea of the individual who only pursues his or her os interest—nor marxism—with its reduction of all subject-positions to that class—can sanction, let alonc imagine. (Rosss 1989:35)

Aronowitz is surely correct to point out that if this account avoids polity universals, it certainly does not avoid ethical ones. The postmodernist lack political direction is a consequence of the total rejection of metanarrative, a what is suggested by Mouffe's account, rather than this total rejection, is a ne for an awareness and acceptance of an unfounded metanarrative. In a similar wK the consequence of the decentring of the subject in cultural life should not be t abandonment of the concept of agency, but rather an awareness of the contingen of that concept and its dependence on metanarratives.

Ernesto Laclau's essay is one of the most interesting in the collection. 1 attempts to answer the criticism that postmodernism does not engage with t practice of politics by reversing the argument. If there are no acceptable totalizi political narratives, then political practice becomes all the more important.

If, however, there is no ultimate ground, political argument increases importance because, through the conviction that it can contribute, it its constructs, to a certain extent, the social reality. Society can then be understo


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as a vast argumentative texture through which people construct their own reality. (Ross, 1989:79)

But if this clears a space for political action, it does not help in defining what that action should be. Laclau goes on to talk of 'emancipatory possibilities' (p. 80) although how these could be given the positive value he accords them, without appeal to some kind of metanarrative of human nature, is not clear. Once again ethical universals seem to be involved.

Many of the issues surrounding the notions of ideology, subjectivity and identity become particularly sharply focused when feminism is brought into dialogue with postmodernism. In Universal Abandon? this happens most obviously in the essay by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson in which they suggest how each side can provide a partial critique of the other. Postmodernism provides a critique of feminism's tendency towards metanarrative, and feminism provides a dimension of social criticism which postmodernism lacks. Similarly, in another essay, Laura Kipnis suggests that feminism can function as the political conscience of post-modernism'. However, none of these writers is able to solve the contradiction between the 'universal abandon' of postmodernism and the assumptions which underlie the various feminist programmes of action. This leads us on to Jacqueline Rose's contribution in which a real interrogation does take place. Starting with Oliver Sacks's book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, she questions the use of psychic metaphors by theorists such as Jameson and Lyotard, using a psychoanalytic feminism to conduct a symptomatic analysis. What is revealed in the work of these influential theorists of the postmodern is an almost Machereyan 'structuring absence' concerning sexual differentiation. What is revealed in Rose's work is that metanarratives (whether feminist or psychoanalytic) can still be used to interrogate the postmodern (this is a general point, but is particularly applicable to postmodern literature and film) with productive results (that is, they produce explanatory narratives of some force). The denial of metanarrative then begins to seem comparable to the process of repression.

When we reach David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity, the debate attains a high level of sophistication. In the space available here it is impossible to do justice to the breadth of reference, the commanding use of detail and the subtlety of argument revealed in this book. Suffice it to say that The Condition of Postmodernity will surely become the essential starting point of any future debate on the subject. Harvey develops the notion of 'flexible accumulation' to demon-strate that since the early 1970s we have been living in a stage of capitalism which, far from exhibiting any fundamental qualitative economic change, is explicable in terms of an expanded Marxist economics.

[Flexible accumulation] rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. (Harvey, 1989:147)

Such economic change has given rise to a particular kind of culture.

The emphasis upon ephemerality, collage, fragmentation, and dispersal in philosophical and social thought mimics the conditions of flexible accumulation. And it should not be surprising either to see how all of this fits in with the f emergence since 1970 of a fragmented politics of divergent special andA a I `7.,~‡ i nterest groups. (Harvey, 1989:


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This may sound like an over-simpic reflection model of ideology but his discussion of cultural forms shows that such a criticism is inappropriate. He argues that the postmodern age has been subject to the experience of 'time-space compression' (most obviously demonstrated in the 1987 stock market crash in which instantaneous decisions—perhaps 'reactions' is a better description—were passed round the world via a communications network based on computers and satellites). Such a time-space compression he sees as an essential aspect of postmodern cultural artefacts. Interestingly, Harvey cites precedents for this, thus belying the notion that the current era is unlike anything that has gone before. He argues that the period following the economic crisis of the late 1 840s and the decade leading up to the First World War were both typified by a process of time-space compression which resulted in dramatic cultural changes. This leads him to suggest that the phenomena covered by the term postmodernism represent one pole within capitalist culture, the other pole represented by modernism in all its forms (rang-ing from Fordism in the economic sphere to metathcory in the political and philosophical spheres). Thus current conditions are brought within an overarching theory which has a complexity and power beyond that of the writers on post-modernism to whom he is most indebted (such as Jameson and Eagleton). A simple but instructive contrast with the earlier writers lies in the films which Harvey discusses as typical of the postmodern. Whereas Jameson mentions American Graffiti, Star Wars and Body Heat, Harvey chooses Blade Runner and Wings of Desire, thus engaging with films much closer to what is conventionally regarded as the postmodern, and which do not allow a facile dismissal as the culture of nostalgia .

Harvey's answers to the questions mentioned earlier manage to avoid on the one hand a fatalistic or celebratory postmodern acceptance of fragmentation and on the other hand a simple rejection in the name of traditional Marxist analysis. His comments on a 'radical democracy' style of small-scalc, local politics is typical.

In clinging, often of necessity, to a place-bound identity, however, such oppositional movements become a part of the very fragmentation which a mobile capitalism and flexible accumulation can feed upon. 'Regional resist-ances', the struggle for local autonomy, place-bound organization, may be excellent bases for political action, but they cannot bear the burden of radical historical change alone. (Harvey, 1989:303)

The notion of time-space compression is particularly useful as a characterization of current economic and cultural phenomena, and, although Harvey does not make this move, it is instructive to apply it to notions of postmodern subjectivity. The idea of a decentred subject can then be seen as one more example of this, with the subject compressed to vanishing point leaving only the marks of its address. What Harvey's analysis suggests is that this vanishing subjectivity is a feature of cultural phenomena, not of any underlying reality. The ideological subject of capitalist society has not changed substantially—only the ways in which it is addressed and represented in discourse have changed. For Laclau and Mouffe, of course, this is enough since they deny the subject any reality beyond discourse. However, as Harvey's persuasive arguments suggest, such theorizing is vitiated by its self-contradictory denial of metatheory.

With the appearance of the texts mentioned above (and the many others in the current postmodernism publishing boom), earlier writers such as Lyotard and Baudrillard have tended to be phased out of the argument. In Lyotard's case this is unfortunate since in this country he has so far been known largely through one

work only --The postmodern condition. Geoffrey Bennington’s useful guide to



552 Media, Culture and Society

Lyotard's output makes clear how atypical that book is. With a publishing career ranging from articles about the Algerian situation in the 1950s to discussions of Kant and Wittgenstein in the 1980s, Lyotard deserves more than simply being known as the author of one fairly short and much-flawed text. The problem for the non-French reader is that much of this output has not yet been translated. Bennington tries to get round this by providing an introduction which is also a commentary (with many long quotations) on three of Lyotard's major works— Economie libidinale (1974), Discours, Figure (1971) and Le Différend (1984). He has certainly produced a useful book but one which is most appropriately read simply as commentary. Once translations of the three works are published (The Differend is already available and Discourse, Figure is forthcoming), it will prove its worth, but until then its readership will be much reduced. It is certainly not the student text which the introduction suggests (and some might regard its paucity of comments on The Postmodern Condition as a lost opportunity). Interestingly, in the light of the other books reviewed, Bennington argues the case for Lyotard's political importance, although this comes down to the same lack of political action as we found in Hutchcon. 'Lyotard is fundamentally a political thinker, to the precise extent that he contests the totalisations fundamental to most ideas of politics' (Bennington, 1988:9). That 'precise extent' may not be enough to deal with the post-postmodern world of the 1990s during which, in Europe at least, political grand narrative seems to be increasing in popularity.

Where does all this Icave the debate about postmodernism, ideology and politics? A de-narrativized politics is a politics of futility—it is precisely 'grand narrative' which converts random reaction into collective action. The danger for the postmodernist is that failure to recognize the nature of contemporary economic trends will only encourage these same trends. However, once the current situation is contextualized in an economic and cultural history, as David Harvey has done so convincingly, then not only is the complexity of postmodernism's ideological situation clarified, but the possibility of collectivc political action returns. Rcsitu-ated as part of a grand narrative postmodernism can be re-integrated into practical politics .


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