Blog Image

The Casual Note

Fredric Jameson – The Aesthetics of Singularity: Time and Event in Postmodernity. Georg Foster Lecture 2012 transcript.

2012 Posted on Wed, October 22, 2014 17:54

Fredric Jameson – The Aesthetics of Singularity: Time and Event in Postmodernity

Georg Foster Lecture 2012


(transcript by the casual note)

I want to say a little more today about
the theory of postmodernity and perhaps augmented in some new and
unfamiliar ways in the direction of finance capital for example and
in that of politics and globalization.

First I need to clarify… correct some
misconceptions which can be clarified by disentangling postmodernity
itself from postmodernism. The latter is essentially adjectival as
you can see, and it mainly characterizes aesthetic production when
not philosophy itself.

This is the sense in which people say
that postmodernism is over and done with and we now have
neo-conceptualism or some other style or fashion.

But on my view postmodernity is a
historical and a periodizing concept; one way of naming the third
stage of capitalism or the age of globalization or the era of finance
capital and so on and so forth.

I think that people begun to become
aware that we were entering a new historical moment around 1980, but
I also think you will agree that used in this periodizing fashion it
wouldn’t make much sense to argue that postmodernity is passe unless
by that you meant we were entering a whole new stage of history; a
whole new historical epoch which I think we haven’t begun to do yet.

So while it seems to me perfectly
proper to talk about postmodern architecture and the postmodern
novel, and to theorize those forms as we’ll do in a somewhat
different way in a moment, I think they have to be grasped as
symptoms of that transformation which is postmodernity as a whole –
we might say expressions of its structure, but after all symptoms are
also expressions and the diagnostic word perhaps better captures the
dimension of the unconscious at work here; the dimension of the
artistic phenomena which demands decipherable and interpretation.

Meanwhile, the postmodern has also
frequently been understood as a way of thinking or even a kind of
philosophy, and I think there are thinkers out there who actually
call themselves postmodern philosophers and who characterize what
they do as postmodern philosophy. And I suppose I have no objection
to that, and as far as the tenets of this new kind of philosophy are
concerned I assume they include anti-foundationalism,
anti-essentialism and the proposition that truth in not a
representational matter – something often stigmatized by older
fashion philosophers and other enemies of the postmodern as
relativism (a terrible thing).

Add constructivism to all that – and
I don’t mind endorsing it myself, but I have to add that as far as I
am concerned philosophy itself is a symptom of postmodernity, like
art, and that postmodern philosophy is not a new kind of truth but
rather simply an expression and a symptom of that whole new system
and structure which I’ve been calling postmodernity as such.

So what I propose to do here tonight is
then to examine in turn various kinds of symptoms or expressions of
postmodernity in the realms of the aesthetic and of taste, in that of
economics, in that of concepts of social phenomenology and finally in
that of politics (if we get that far).

But my remarks about philosophy will
also make it clear why I think that the claims of all its sub-fields
are equally null and void: Marxism and psychoanalysis are not
philosophies but rather something else, but political philosophy or
what passes for it is as dead as a door nail, and so is aesthetics
and as for ethics as such n’est pas non plus (that [dead] also).

It is at any rate with aesthetics that
we begin, because I think it will clarify this title and make and a
little more clearer why I thought it useful and suggestive to range
so many other topics – the economic, the social, the political –
under this ostensibly aesthetic rubric.


And with that we may proceed to this
disreputable thing which is aesthetics or the science of beauty, and
to those peculiar kinds of art produced today which are so different
from the various traditional kinds that some times one wonders
whether its worth using the same word for all of them and that would
be yet another reason for abandoning aesthetics as such.

Now, many distinguished art critics
have evoked the volatilization of the art object in resent times and
I’ll simply presuppose all those discussions by taking as my
principle example or exhibit of contemporary art the installation as
such. We don’t do easel paintings any more or statutes but we do
often come upon these spacial exhibits in which various disparate and
unrelated kinds of objects are somehow juxtaposed. Say, a hip of
painted pebbles, a framed picture on the wall maybe a rusty lawnmower
and a dead bird, a sample of graffiti and an antic arm chair or a
sofa. Non of these objects is the object-a itself, so if this
collection is a work then its logic lays in their interrelationship;
in their interrelationality. But where is that relationship? In space
to be sure – this is a spacial art. But is it in our minds and our
purely private associations? Paintings often have style and bare the
mark of a subjectivity, but the arrangement of the installation is
utterly impersonal and in that sense style-less, even though
presumably it corespondents to someones choices, although it is not
itself an idea or a theme or a statement.

We can draw a few initial conclusions
from these first observations. First of all clearly enough the
installation marks a significant disintegration of the old classical
system of the fine art system de Beaux Art if not its complete

In a movement characteristic of the
postmodern the arts which in modernity developed in a regime of
differentiation – each art tending to its a kind of autonomy or
semi-autonomy in its own right – the arts now in the postmodern
reverse that direction and conflate, falling back on one another in
new and unexpected symbiosis. So it is that photography, once the
poor cousin of painting, has become a major art in postmodernity but
has also known all kinds of hybridizations and graftings with the
other arts.

This would be something of the
equivalent of the supercession of fiction by non-fiction in
literature, and it is of course an unsurprising development in the
society of the spectacle where we are already bombarded by thousands
of images a day in real life.

But it should also be remembered that
photography is also an abstraction of the visual and the tactile and
the bodily. This matter of postmodern abstraction would be crucial as
you shall see.

Meanwhile the hybridization of the arts
gives us yet another reason why the search for some unique density
and perfection in any given art is no longer a viable ambition.

Two more developments need to be
mentioned at this point. If the individual arts no longer have any
telos or momentum of their own as they did in the modern, then it
also becomes somewhat more comprehensible why the avant gards should
have seized to exist today. Clearly this vanishing of the avant garde
as such – perhaps cobra and situationism where the last of the
species – has other determinants as well and in particular the
weakening of collective structures and the crisis of politics – I
mean of party politics insofar as the vanguard party had a
fundamental relationship to the vanguard artistic movements and vice

But has anything taken the place of the
avant garde on the current scene? I believe that here again the
installation gives as a clue, for does this as semblance of
heterogeneous objects and items in a momentary constellation not have
its macro equivalent in the very contemporary museum itself with its
heterogeneous shows and its ingeniously themed and equally ephemeral

The conclusion is inescapable: the
collective avant garde has in our time and in postmodernity been
replaced by the single figure of the curator, who now becomes the
demiurge of these floating and dissolving constellations of strange
objects we still call art.

In that case, maybe we don’t have great
artist any longer, we have great curators. And maybe we need to look
more closely at this novel and creative figure today, whose
structural position maybe expected to have an equivalent in other
realms of the information society such as medicine or the university,
business administration and government itself.

…Ah,…political leaders are all
curators! If that, some times bad curators…


If for Adorno the virtuoso conductor
was the very image of the emergent dictator in 19th century bourgeois
politics – I think he has thinking of Napoleon the Third – what
may not the curatorial world have to tell us about our own systems of

But since I seemed to disparaged
philosophy a moment ago, I probably have some moral obligation to
suggest that what has replaced philosophy in our own time, namely
theory, is also perhaps a kind of curatorial practice. Selecting name
bits from our various theoretical and philosophical sources, and
putting them all together in a kind of conceptual installation, in
which we marvel at the new intellectual relations there by
momentarily produced – Deleuze is a figure of that kind; a very
exiting figure.


But there is a nastier side of the
curator yet to be mentioned, and that can easily be grasped if we
look at installations again and indeed entire exhibits in the newer
postmodern museums, as having their distant and more primitive
ancestors perhaps in the happenings of the 60′. Artistic phenomena
equally spacial; equally devoid of personal style; equally non
objective; equally ephemeral and relational. The difference lays not
only in the absence of humans from the installation – and indeed
save for the curator from the newer museums as such – it lays in
the very presence of the institution itself. Everything in
contemporary art is subsumed under it. Indeed the curator may be said
to be something like its allegorical embodiment or personification.


In postmodernity we no longer exist in
a world of a human scale. Institutions have in some sense become
autonomous, but certainly in an other they transcend the dimensions
of any individual whether master or servant. Something that can also
be grasped by reminding ourselves of the dimension of globalization
in which institutions today exist, the museum very much included.

But these institutions are no longer to
be conceived along the lines of the machines or the factory, or in
terms of what used to be called the state. Communications technology
requires us to think of them as informational institutions perhaps,
or immense cyberspace constructions.

Yet the reminder of the happenings also
suggest yet another characteristic of the newer art, and of the
installation in particular, and also explains why these newer works –
if we can still call them that – are at any rate no longer objects
whatever else they may be. But now we can see a little better what
they really are: they are not objects because they are in fact
events. The installation and its kindred production are made not for
posterity nor even for the permanent collection, but rather for the
now and for a temporarily which maybe rather different from the old
modernist kind.

This is indeed why it has become
appropriate to speak of it not as a work or a style, not even as the
expression of something, but rather as a strategy or maybe a recipe;
a strategy for producing an event; a recipe for events.

And jumping ahead to politics for a
second, can we not see the great mass demonstrations (think in text
they are mentioned as flash crowds, flash mobs – the equivalent of
just such events rather different from the old fashioned
revolutionary conspiracies) symptoms of a different temporality
rather than signs of the emergence of something like the people or
even direct democracy I think?

One final observation before we try to
say what kind of event these postmodern artistic happenings might be.
I mentioned technology a while back. Did I add that in our postmodern
age we not only use technology, we consume it? And we consume its
exchange value along with the rest of its more symbolic essence. Just
as in an older period the automobile was consumed as much for its
libidinal value and its symbolic overtones as for its practical use
value, so today, but in a far more complex way, the computer and the
internet and their ramifications – already well integrated into
utopian political fantasies – have replaced an older artistic and
cultural consumption which they have both modified and supplanted. We
now consume the very form of communication along with its content.


But this distinction between form and
content now brings me at least to the essentials of what I want to
observe about art today in what is not only a postmodern but also a
theoretical age.

The great Polish science fiction writer
Stanislaw Lem once wrote a series of book reviews of imaginary books;
books from the future which neither he nor anyone else would ever
write. It was a prophetic gesture because it demonstrated that you
could consume the idea of a book with as much satisfaction as the
real book itself.

How then to characterize the spirit of
the newer works? I want to go back to that older category of art
criticism which invoked the inspiration – Einfall, the Idea for a
work – and to adapt it to this newer production for which the idea
is a kind of technical discovery, or perhaps an invention in the
sense of the contraptions of the lonely crackpot inventor or


Art today is generated by a single
bright idea which combining form and content can be repeated ad
infinitum until the artist’s name takes on of a content of its own.

Thus the Chinese artist Xu Bing
conceived the idea of making up conjectures of lines or strokes that
looked like real Chinese characters, but were utterly without
meaning. We might think of nonsense words or even […] made up
language, yet these western phenomena really have no equivalent for
the visual dimension of the Chinese system. This was thus a
remarkable conception, or Einfall, a discovery of genius if you
like, provided its understood that it constitutes neither a formal
innovation, nor the elaboration of a style, nor is it
auto-referential in the modernist sense or even aesthetic in the
sense of altering or estranging perception or intensifying it. The
question that interests me is whether we can call this art conceptual
in a now older and henceforth more traditional sense, because I
understand the older conceptual art as the production of physical
objects – lets say a set of stones – which flex mental categories
by pitting them against each other (as maybe like Hegel’s
determinations of reflection and the greater inner logic). But these
categories, whether we can express them or not, are somehow universal
forms (in the older conceptual arts) like Kant’s categories or
Hegel’s moments. And conceptual objects are therefore a little like a
antinomies or paradoxes or […] in the verbal philosophical realm.
Occasions for strange kind of meditative practice.

But postmodern neo-conceptualism is not
at all like this. With Xu Bing and the rest of the postmodern
artistic production, for which I take him to be paradigmatic, it
seems to me that the situation is wholly different. His texts are as
it were soaked in theory: they are as theoretical as they are visual,
but they don’t illustrate an idea nor do they offer material for a
meditation or a mental or conceptual exercise. A concept is there but
its singular, and this conceptual art is nominalistic rather that


When we look at works of this kind we
are engaged in a theoretical process, that is what we consume is no
longer a purely visual or material entity, but rather the idea of
such an entity.

What the artist now creates in not the
work, in whatever older or newer sense, today we consume the idea of
the work as in Lem’s imaginary book reviews. And the work itself, if
we can still call it that, is a mixture of theory and singularity.
Its not material (we consume it as an idea rather as a sensory
presence) and its not subject to aesthetic universalism either,
insofar as each of these artifacts reinvents the very idea of art
itself in a new and non-universalizable form, so that it is in that
sense even doubtful, as I said before, whether we should continue to
use the general term art at all for such singularity effects.


Now, I haven’t forgotten that I
promised to draw some analogies, indeed relationships, between this
new kind of art and other contemporary practices such as some new
kind of postmodern economics. But I can’t resist inserting here a
different kind of example of the postmodern aesthetic event. It will
be brief, as the portions are in any case so small. I refer to
postmodern cuisine as its exemplified in Ferran Andria’s now famous
restaurant El Bulli, in what sometimes is called – I don’t think he
likes it – molecular cooking.



Now in all of this, I haven’t lost
sight of my own starting point which is actually not aesthetic but
economic, and indeed turned on that peculiar form of the singularity
which is called the derivative.

The postmodern text – to use a more
neutral term than work – the postmodern artistic singularity
effect, if you prefer, is of the same unique type as that unique one
time financial instrument called the derivative – such is what I
want to argue tonight.

Both are at least in part the result of
the situation of globalization on which multiple determinants in
constant transformations at different rates of speed, henceforth make
any stable structure problematic, unless its simply a pastiche of the
forms of the past. The world financial market is mirrored in the
world art market thrown open by the end of modernism and of its
eurocentric cannon of master works along with the implicit or
explicit teleology that informed it. Now to be sure, anything and
everything is possible but only on condition it embrace ephemerality
and consents to exist but for a brief time as an event rather than as
a durable structure – and I think the rotting away of the shark in
that Damien Hirst famous thing is kind of an allegory of that
process. No description of the postmodern can omit the centrality of
the postmodern economy which can succinctly be characterized as the
dominance of finance capital over old fashion production.

Now, I follow Giovanni Arrighi in
seeing the emergence of a stage of finance capital as a cyclical
development in capitalism. As Fernard Braudel famously put it (it was
the starting point for Arrighi’s work) “reaching the stage of
financial expansion every capitalist development in some sense
announces its maturity” finance capital, Braudel said, “is a sign
of order”. Arrighi’s three cyclical stages can be described as an
implantation of capital, a stage of production and development,
finally a stage of saturation and financial speculation after which
capitalism moves to fresh territory. Jumping from Genoa, Spain, the
Netherlands, the low countries, England, United States and in his
book he was thinking of Japan but later on he discovered that it was
to China that it was all really moving.


So any satisfactory kind of
postmodernity will require us to read a proper description of finance
capital under the record – which we can’t do right now – but I
want to limit myself to this single illustration of the process,
albeit a significant one indeed, and that is the strange and unique
mutation of traditional insurance and investment into what’s called
the derivative. It’s not possible to project a concept of the
derivative – a general concept is general; a universal. It’s not
possible to project a concept of the derivative for reasons that will
shortly emerge. Any example of the derivative will thus be
non-exemplary and different from any other one, and yet perhaps a
very oversimplified model from a fine book from (Edward) LiPuma and
(Benjamin) Lee on the subject can give a sense of it along with its
indissoluble relationship to globalization. So this is what they,
LiPuma and Lee, imagined.


They imagined an United States
corporation contracting to provide ten million cell phones to a
Brazilian subsidiary of a South African corporation. The interior
architecture of the phone will be produced by a German-Italian
corporation, its casings by a Mexican manufacture and a Japanese firm
will also provide other components. So here we have at least six
different currencies and their exchange rates are in perpetual flux,
as is the standard norm in globalization today, so the relationship
of each of these exchange rates to the others has to be guaranteed by
a kind of insurance. That makes many different insurance contracts –
maybe six or seven, I think more – and its this entire package of
distinct insurance contracts which will make up that financial
instrument which is this unique derivative in question. Obviously the
situation and the instrument will always in reality be far more
complicated than this, but what’s clear is that even taking the old
fashion futures market on crops for example as a kind of simplified
primitive ancestor, there will never be another derivative quite like
this one in its structure and requirements. Each one is unique. In
fact its more like a unique event, than it is a contract; something
with a stable structure and a juridical status. Meanwhile, as these
authorities point out, it only can be inspected and analyzed after
the fact, such that for knowledge this event exists only in the past.
The authors conclude pessimistically that there can never be genuine
regulation of a transaction, since each one is radically different.
In other words there can really be no laws to moderate the dynamics
of this kind of instrument, which no less an authority than Warren
Buffet has called the financial equivalent of the Nuclear Bomb.

Now, the objection may be raised that
there is a contradiction between my cultural analysis of the time of
the postmodern – a world without a future – and my use of the
example of the derivative, which itself very pres icily descends
from the old fashion futures markets themselves, which where and
remain permanently bids on future prices and thus on the future as
such. In other words, I’ve been arguing here and elsewhere, for a
kind of contemporary imprisonment in the present, a reduction to the
body if you like; an existential but also a collective loss of
historicity in such a way that the future fades away as unthinkable
or unimaginable, while the past itself turns into dusty images and
Hollywood type pictures of actors in wigs and the like.


Clearly this is a political diagnosis
as well as an existential or a phenomenological one, since it is
intended to indite our current political paralysis and inability to
change, let alone to organize the future and future change. Yet my
illustration or symbol or allegory for all this is the derivative,
which as I say in fact is a decedent of these old future markets
which where in essence bets on the future; the future of meat, cotton
and grain. So even though derivatives may be more complex, in the
sense that they seem to be bets on bets rather than on real harvest,
do they not contain a dimension of futurity which refutes the
phenomenological description of postmodern temporality I have
diagnosed. In fact, the economic analysis of derivatives have
themselves insisted on the way in which in each present of time the
derivative redefines value and, as if it where, remakes the world in
its own image every instant. But that may be to complicated an
argument to recapitulate here.


But we can certainly ask ourselves what
genuine futurity; what a genuine sense of history; what historicity
is in the first place. Common sense, whether on the dynastic or the
familiar level, grasp futurity in terms of the generations. And there
certainly seems to be a return to some strong sense of the radical
brake between the generations in current politics and social life.
And this was indeed Heidegger’s view of history in Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time): the generational. I’ve also argued that daily life
today thinks in terms of a kind of bracketed dystopia, the old sense
of progress is gone and nothing but disaster in nature as well in
society is on the horizon, but not right now.

For the business men, whose the short
term temporality is organized around categories of success and
failure, the future is a kind of narrative one, offering multiple
scenarios as they call them, multiple possible outcomes which as in
war games must each one be played through and planned for with
alternate fall back escape roots. I myself feel that for the moment,
in our current situation a genuine sense of history can only be
reawakened by some presiding vision of Utopia which lies beyond the
horizon of our current realities and which permits the operation of a
kind of dual strategy if you like: one for the present crisis and one
for the organization of the future.


But in a way that brings as to our next
topic, in many ways our central one, for is this dual strategy not
yet another attempt to coordinate the universal and the singular, and
have not our philosophers –at least the political ones – been
trying to invent that strange and inconceivable beast, conceptual
centaur-unicorn, which is the universal-singular. At any rate, it is
the very notion of singularity as such which is today at the center
of all the concerns I developed here; a concept quite different from
possibility, potentiality, virtuality or even actuality, and which
seems to me to have four quite different and even antagonistic

The first one is philosophical, and
indeed derives from the old nominalism debates in the middle ages, in
which singularity is opposed to particularity. The latter is an
individual item which one can nonetheless subsume under a general
idea or category – that’s particularity and in that sense the
particular always goes hand in hand with the general. Singularity
however proposes something unique which resists the general and
universalizing. In that sense it can have no content as an idea and
is merely a designation for what resists all subsumption: it is the
existentialists perpetual cry against system and the anarchist fierce
resistance to the state. I argue that in whatever form singularity is
one of the dominant value categories of postmodernity and that
paradoxically, or perhaps even dialectically, in a spacial age
singularity has become an Event; or a form of temporality. That’s the
first meaning of this word I think.

Then there is no doubt the scientific
use of the word, where it doesn’t seem clear to me whether
singularity means something beyond physical laws we know, or
something anomalous which has not yet been explained by scientists
which will eventually fall back under an enlarged scientific law of
some kind yet to be theorized. What is useful here is then the notion
of a singularity event, like a black hole, which as in the financial
dynamics of derivatives we just outlined lies on the border between
an unrepeatable event in time of some sort, and a unique structure
which may come together just once, but which is nonetheless a
structure of some kind and thereby susceptible to structural analysis
(that is to say something universal or general).


Now in science fiction – this is the
third meaning – this clearly becomes the dominant ambiguity but
rather than with the black holes and subatomic peculiarities of the
physicists, it’s linked to computers and artificial intelligence.
Here the singularity is projected as a leap, or evolution, a mutation
of some sort, something that can be dystopian or utopian according to
the context. Dystopian singularity will be the emergence of a
mechanical species that transcends the human in its intelligence and
malignity, as in the Terminator series or Battlestar Galactica.
Utopian will then be the emergence of the post-human in the hitherto
human species; a kind of mutation of the human in a new hybrid or
android type of superhuman intelligence within our own human nature.
Ray Kurzweil has become famous for its prediction of a very specific
singularity, namely the date at which, as in the Terminator,
artificial intelligence will catch up with human agency and pass it
by and we will enter a whole new era whose struggles have been
recorded in those films and TV series that I’ve mentioned. This kind
of singularity is the very epitome of a return of the repressed of a
future we are no longer able to imagine, but which insists on marking
its immanence with nightmarish anxiety.


So this science fiction notion of
singularity is itself a sign of the absence of historicity I’ve been
invoking here. On the other hand an astute colleague points out to
me, that the derivatives of which we’ve spoken and we’ve called
symptoms, would not themselves have been possible before advanced
computers made their operations too complex for the individual human
mind. So perhaps, despite the take over, the singularity has already
happened and we just don’t know.

The fourth use of the term is
philosophical in another sense – it takes us back to medieval
philosophy and its debates on nominalism and on universals as I’ve
said – those issues are still very much alive today as Adorno’s
insistence on the creeping nominalism of today’s capitalism
testifies. But as I’ve so insistently taken postmodern philosophy as
yet another symptom of postmodernity along with art, food,
derivatives and so forth, it seems best to move directly to the
social struggles of which postmodern philosophy is so often the
expression and the vehicle in which the struggle against universals
inherent in the very concept of singularity, is revealed to be a
struggle against hegemonic norms and institutional values as such.
Universals are felt to be normative and thereby oppressive and
exclusionary, particularly when it comes to minorities. If you posit
universals and thereby a universal human nature in other words, you
are already affirming a norm from which all deviations, whether
collective or individual can be denounced and condemned. And to
denounce such norms, becomes a burning political issue as in identity
politics and the politics of secessionists groups and marginal or
oppressed cultures. For at the outside limit, the hegemonic or
oppressive norm can reach genocide and the ideals of ethnic
cleansing. While we can also witness it in a more positive form
everywhere as a reaction against standardization, against imperialism
and against the deterioration of national autonomies under
globalization. Yet even this seemingly legitimate resistance to
oppressive norms and universals remains dialectically ambivalent. The
most dramatic examples are to be found in the areas of feminism and
gender preference, for to assert universal rights for women is also
necessarily to challenge cultures in which another status for women
is prescribed; the doctrine of universal human rights is still a
doctrine of universals.


Yet the repudiation of such universals
is equally contradictory, for just as individual cultures can
challenge the universal norm of an ascribed human nature – nowadays
is generally an American one – so also women can challenge the
universalizing norm inherent in this or that cultural custom or law.


Now we have very little time to deal
with what is perhaps our most important topics: the transformations
of subjectivity and lived experience in the postmodern and the
transformation of politics.

As for subjectivity itself and personal
experience I’ve already mentioned a kind of displacement from the
experience of time (in the postmodern) to that of space. But surely
the center of our subjective experience – our phenomenological or
existential experience – has to remain temporal. We would then in
that case need to see what temporality feels like under the regime of
space, and I think this involves something more drastic than the
older Bergsonian critique of spacial experience in terms of some deep
time; of the Elan Vital. I think it could be argued that all the
fascination of modernism with deep time – not only in Bergson but
also in Thomas Mann or Proust – that such fascination derives from
the unevenness of the modernizing world; the coexistence of slower
village or rural temporalities with the dizzying repetitive of the
big cities and of industrialization. But modernism is in that sense
the expression of incomplete modernization and we can draw the
conclusion that the postmodern is what we get when modernization is
complete. When the country side is abolished, that is to say when the
peasantry have become wage workers, and the older agriculture has
been transformed into agrobusiness. Now, in this more complete
modernization, even the difference between industrial labor and the
life of the city of bourgeois is lost: everyone is middle class;
everyone has become a consumer; everyone is unemployed; everything
has become a shopping mall; space has become an infinite extension of
surfaces which are images, and difference – a temporal phenomenon
as Derrida insisted – has given way to identity and


You will observe that this is still
only true in a few privileged spaces and countries in the world, but
that makes my point, namely that what constituted uneven development
locally and nationally has now been projected out onto a global
scale, culture itself becoming a space of uneven development.

The connection to globalization is now
clear. This sense of global or world scale could not have been
possible in the modern period; the period of imperialism, of
metropolises and colonies. It could only have become possible after
decolonization. In the present context we must also speak of business
rather than national liberation – its not even of immense new
multinational corporations vastly beyond anything Lenin had in mind
in the older modernist period – we must speak of the communications
technologies which make these gigantic business transnationals
possible and this is a topic which leads to many directions.


McLuhan would certainly have identified
the computer and the internet with fundamental modifications of
subjectivity and he would have been right. The cultural specialist in
media technology would then have their own word to speak on its
transformation of the body and phenomenology of the object world. It
seems to me no accident that cultural theory today – cultural
studies – has been so radically transformed by the technological
perspectives of the new media. We’ve already underscored the
significance of finance capital in this connection, however it
remains to stress the way in which in computerization spacial
distance is now translated into a virtual temporal simultaneity and
in which here too space abolishes time. Investments, speculation, the
selling of of whole national currencies, divestments and
acquisitions, the commodification of a future you can buy and sell.
The newer communication technologies have accelerated these processes
to the point where the passage of time, Bergsonian duree, has been
virtually eliminated. As can be imagined, such an eclipse of time
passing, seriously modifies human experience if it does not gravely
amputate it. In the twentieth century the film maker Ken Russel
predicted that in the twentieth-first century standard feature films
would ran no longer than fifteen minutes. And in a sense he was
right, and popular culture gives us many hints about this phenomenon
whose equivalent is the disappearance of plot. Action films today
really have no plot, the latter is a pretext for explosive events
that fill up minute after minute the present of the viewing. I call
this the end of temporality; the reduction to the body and the
present. What sought for is an intensity of the present. The before
and after tents to disappear. And clearly enough this is something
that happens to our sense of history as well. No previous societies
have had as little functional memory; as little sense of the
historical past as this one. And clearly the disappearance of the
past entails the disappearance of the future as well in the long
term: nobody believes in long term societal change any longer; our
present is hemmed in by an evaluation of the past as either failed or
successful modernization, and by conception, the future, as impending
natural and ecological disaster. Such are only some of the
consequences of a primacy of space over time in postmodernity.

All of this has much to do with the
transformation of the individual subject today, and I think finally
at the stirrings of this kind of postmodernity this is why the
structuralists and the post-structuralists spoke of the death of the
subject by which they meant it in less melodramatic language, the
increasing fragility and vulnerability of the older bourgeois
individualism, its deterioration under conditions of large scale
institutions and the decline of that capitalist competition which
brought individualism into being in the first place as an acquisitive
and aggressive ego and a powerful and Oedipal identity.


All the features I’ve attributed to
some properly postmodern subjectivity are to be understood in terms
of that process: the reduction to the present; the body as some last
reality to survive the exhaustion of bourgeois culture; the
mutability and changeability, variability of mood replacing the self
confident stances of an older emotional system. How much the more so
then will not subjectivity be transformed when opened to the
vicissitudes of that even vaster landscape which is globalization
itself. No longer protected by family or region, or even by nation
itself and national identity; the emergence of the vulnerable subject
into a world of billions of anonymous equals is bound to bring about
some still momentous changes in human reality.


In hindsight we can look at
globalization, or this third stage of capitalism, as the other side
or face of that immense movement of decolonization and liberation
which took place all over the world in the 1960. The first two stages
of capitalism – the period of national industries and markets,
followed by that of imperialism and the acquisitions of colonies,
the development of some properly colonial world economy – these
first two moments where characterized by the construction of
otherness on a world scale. First the various nation states organized
their populations into competing national groups who could only feel
their identities by way of xenophobia and the hatred of the national
enemies; who could only define their identity by an opposition to
their opposite numbers. But these nationalisms quickly enough took on
non national forms as particular in Europe – but and in lots of
other places – as various minorities and other language speakers
evolved their own national projects. Then, in that gradual
enlargement, which is not to be confused with the latter
globalization, the systems of imperialism begun to colonize the world
in terms of the otherness of their colonized subjects. Racial
otherness, and a eurocentric or americanocetric contempt for
so-called underdeveloped or weak or subaltern cultures, partitioned
so-called modern people from those who were still pre-modern, and
separated advanced or ruling cultures from the dominated. Within this
moment of imperialism, modernity, the second stage of capitalism, a
world wide system of otherness is then established.


It will be clear then that with
decolonization all that is gradually swept away. Those subaltern
others who couldn’t speak for themselves, let alone rule themselves,
now for the first time, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, speak on
their own voice and claim their own existential freedom.

Now suddenly the bourgeois subject is
reduced to a quality with all those former others and a new kind of
anonymity reins throughout world society as a whole. Billions of real
people now exist, and not just the millions of your own nation or
your own language.


Now what all this have to do with
politics? I’ll conclude with a few remarks on the political in
postmodernity; remarks which are descriptive which don’t pretend to
offer any solutions or even my own personal opinions and positions on
the subject. But since we were talking about space, I’ll put a very
simple proposition to you, namely that today all politics is about
real estate. Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land
grabs on a local as well as on a global scale. Whether you think of
the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the
politics of raw materials and extractions, or whether you think of
ecology, or the problems of federalism, citizenship and immigration,
or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as
well as the bettonvilles, favelas and townships, and of course the
movement of the landless, today everything is about land. In Marxist
terms all these struggles result from the commodification of land and
the dissolution of the last remnants of feudalism and its peasantry
replaced by industrial agriculture or agrobusiness and farm workers.


Now where is time in all this? It is to
be found in the new flash crowds enabled by cell phones and texting.
The new mass demonstrations of Seattle and Tiananmen, of eastern
europe, of Tahrir square and of Wisconsin and of course of Occupy.
These truly mark the emergence of what my friends Michael Hardt and
Tony Negri call multitude, but they are no longer the politics of
duration. They are the politics of the instant; of the present, of
what Negri himself has called constitutive power as opposed to
constituted power. Postmodernity in general is characterized by this
new kind of present time; a reduction to the present; a reduction to
the body. In this new dialectic of omnipresent space and the temporal
present, history, historicity, the sense of history, is the looser;
the past is gone; we can no longer imagine the future; its clear that
this waning of history confronts those of us still committed to
radical systemic change with some very real political problems and
perhaps this is the moment to break of this survey.


Zhenwei Huang

2011 Posted on Tue, November 27, 2012 13:17

Zhenwei Huang. Heyday project.

image copyright by Zhenwei Huang


2011 Posted on Mon, November 26, 2012 20:41



2011 Posted on Mon, November 26, 2012 20:40



2011 Posted on Wed, November 21, 2012 14:20

Industrial Port. Barcelona. Spain. July 2011.