Reading Topographies of Post-Postmodernism
by Laura Shackelford
Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism,
by Jeffrey T. Nealon,
Stanford University Press, 248 pp.
The world of things has become a world of signs – a universe that both brings into being and is brought into being by symbolic codes. Perhaps it is for this reason alone that that most symbolic of all codes, the literary text, can foreshadow a future world while the contemporary world suggests the future of poetics.
– Steve Tomasula
Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism restages and reactivates Fredric Jameson’s call, over twenty years prior, for a new situation and new mode of criticism adequate to late capitalism. While reduplicating Jameson’s title, terminology, methods and modes of address quite directly at several points, Nealon’s text, in fact, reflexively redirects Jameson’s methods and concerns. It contraposes Jameson’s “style” of reading postmodernism, to what it describes as the “changed cultural and economic situation” of “just-in-time capitalism,” which Post-Postmodernism identifies as a distinct mode of production emerging around 2001 (xi, xii). Suggesting that we are stuck in the economic narratives and theoretical practices of the 80s, Post-Postmodernism returns to Jameson’s methods to provide a “genealogy of the recent economic past” against which we can more adeptly read the post-postmodernist period (14). Its comparative genealogy explores those still pivotal concepts from postmodernism: “intensity,” “commodity,” “interpretation,” “literature,” “deconstruction,” “university” and “liberal arts,” using these to register mutations in today’s post-postmodernist tendencies and, in this way, to retrace and recalibrate our understanding of these ongoing, unfolding concerns.
Post-Postmodernism joins other recent attempts to reflect back on Jameson’s Marxist project and historical materialisms, more broadly, as a means to look forward and more effectively unfold new kinds of reading more responsive to the present, somewhat altered historical situation and its forceful, biopolitical modes of power. It introjects and creatively recombines Jameson’s reading practices with those that Christopher Nealon, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jane Tompkins, Alain Badiou, Catherine Malabou, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Nietzsche, respectively, recommend and/or practice. Its analyses selectively draw upon a remarkably eclectic, broad-ranging grouping of leftist theorists, including those featured in the collection rethinking A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics (in which an earlier version of the first chapter of the book appeared).
Importantly, its diagnosis of an emergent post-postmodernism, which it adeptly locates in and across cultural and economic practices as varied as “classic rock,” literary studies, Las Vegas, Don DeLillo novels, the corporate university, and conceptual poetry, serves as a productive, open-ended provocation to rethink literature, literary studies, and poetics—in their current relationships to capitalism, their abilities to re-engage the present terrain, and what that might do for the left. Post-Postmodernism tracks the “material links between literary works and their institutional and commercial context,” pursuing “the networks within which writing is located,” the places, purposes, and operations of literature and literary and cultural studies in their complex relations to emergent media, social, and economic systems, a preoccupation Daniel Punday suggests is a “condition of this post-postmodern moment” (“Looking for Writing After Postmodernism”). With this emphasis in mind, I recommend engaging Post-Postmodernism as a much-needed provocation, taking up, even taking liberties with Nealon’s invitation to participate in “periodizing the present, a collective molecular project that we might call post-postmodernism” (15).
Post-Postmodernism is distinctly intensive in several interrelated senses of particular relevance to its aims here, as well as to its diagnosis of “just-in-time capitalism.” Its mode of inquiry is intensive in the sense of a reflexive turning back or inwards to reflect on the very category of postmodernism and the expansion of the cultural sphere Jameson initially theorized, though now from the vantage of our unfolding, post-postmodern present. By recursively replaying key methods and claims from Jameson’s 1984 essay and subsequent book, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, among other work, Post-Postmodernism, amplifies and, thus, transformatively intensifies them in light of shifts in the historical situation and in theoretical efforts to grapple with these shifts since then. Nealon’s recursive turning back and reflexive redoubling of the prior text and several of its notable theoretical methods intend (excuse the pun) to register the difference of the present—in other words, to diagnose the qualitative phase change that has taken place within the systems of late capitalism and to develop more adequate reading practices to address those shifts. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is by overlaying these historical moments and respective reading practices that Nealon attempts to more fully register their distinctness, a positively (i.e., productive, transformative) intensifying reading practice that informs the text and project at multiple—historical, stylistic, methodological, and theoretical—levels.
Rather than moving us clearly beyond postmodernism and postmodern theory of the 80’s and ‘90’s, as many contemporary calls for a new mode of reading, certainly aspire to, the redundant, admittedly “stammering post-post” (viiii) in Nealon’s account, through this accentuation, intensifies underappreciated dimensions to Jameson’s reading practices that, Nealon argues, we may be in a better position to register and more effectively repurpose now that postmodernism has become a thing of the recent, not immediate past. Similarly to other “posts” that remain as cognitive goalposts to mark the tangible contradictions that persist amidst categories such as posthumanism, postcolonialism, or the postdigital, Nealon’s title and methods enthusiastically activate these very complexities, stressing how they exceed, as well as extend, those with which postmodernism already contends. If efforts to understand, let alone differentiate PoPomo and the present situation in the most casual of conversations always lead back to Pomo and its discontents, then, Post-Postmodernism seems to wager, perhaps a more concerted return to Pomo theory from the vantage of the present might, instead, lead to a better grasp on the present and a more positive appreciation of its distinctly PoPomo potentialities and perils.
Readers will likely find the “style of Jamesonian critique” (xi) in Post-Postmodernism familiarly unfamiliar precisely because Nealon’s project is not to fetishistically review or extend Jameson’s framework, as if that remains an autonomous, self-contained theoretical practice unaffected by shifts in capitalism’s operations and historical time. Instead, by reflexively reopening Jameson’s ongoing theoretical methods to the present situation, Post-Postmodernism expands upon Jameson’s prior aspirations to a “dialectical thinking that is both situated and reflexive” as a means to more productively open onto modes of reading the present that are quite distinct from Jameson’s (Valences of the Dialectic 322). In “Ideological Analysis: A Handbook” in Valences of the Dialectic, Jameson states
the dialectic may be said to be thinking that is both situational (situation-specific) and reflexive (or conscious of its own thought-process). Also implied here is the idea that the very nature and strategies of the dialectic will change according to the historical situation and according to the objects or ideologies it seeks to understand or combat. (322)
Following through on Jameson’s retheorization of the dialectic, his endorsement of a historical materialism equally invested in historical periodization and autocritique, Post-Postmodernism reconceives its dialectical methods to better understand and counter the distinct economic and cultural practices of “just-in-time capitalism.”
The methods of intensification Post-Postmodernism devises are explicitly designed to diagnose (in Nietzsche’s sense), and enhance apprehension of, a historical situation in which late capitalism’s own tendencies have intensified, requiring compatible modes of reading and engagement. Post-Postmodernism draws upon and extends prominent work on finance capital and the “new economies” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and others to anatomize and flesh out their accounts with remarkably detailed and engaging analyses of interrelated emergent economic and cultural practices in chapters such as “Intensity: Empire of the Intensities: A Random Walk Down Las Vegas Boulevard.” This chapter opens on the Vegas strip with Hardt and Negri’s claim in Empire that “Capitalism no longer looks outside but rather inside its domain, and its expansion is thus intensive rather than extensive,” and it proceeds to consider its consequence to understanding American empire today as it filters through this contemporary cultural and economic mecca and through films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (25).
In this way, Post-Postmodernism identifies what it conceives as a qualitative intensification of postmodernism in the present. Following up on Hardt and Negri’s accounts of the intensive “new economies,” while further crossfertilizing these with his neo-Deleuzian understanding of “intensities,” Nealon argues that post-postmodernism has amplified the “speed and penetration” of postmodernist tendencies we first became familiar with during the 1980’s, and have been re-experiencing, since 2001, to a qualitatively distinct pitch or key due to their heightened pace and reach (150). Intensification, in Nealon’s account, flags the qualitative shift involved in that “just-in-time capitalism” is increasingly reliant on economic practices that self-referentially turn inwards, circling back on themselves to create value through symbolic manipulation rather than through the production of material objects alone. Finance capital, which produces money by manipulating money is the most obvious example of this kind of “intension” characteristic of the “new economies” as opposed to the “extension” to new physical markets or frontiers more typical of industrial capitalism. These intensive, self-referential, symbolic tendencies have catalyzed capitalism’s growing preoccupation with service industries and the creation of experiences, in distinction from tangible cultural objects. Post-Postmodernism uses the Las Vegas strip as one of its primary examples of the elaborate creation and pursuit of commodified experiential events in contemporary life, yet there is really no need to leave home to realize that even a Red Lobster commercial on t.v. is now proclaiming it’s the “experience” that will bring you back to their “annual shrimp event,” offering experiences one used to expect from conceptual art, not a seafood chain—until now.
Intensification, in both cases, evidences what Post-Postmodernism considers as a pervasive “culturalization of the economic” (41) as the symbolic and service-oriented, informational economies first identified in the 80’s gain unprecedented prominence. Post-Postmodernism explores the consequences of this shift now that economic logics are increasingly intermeshed with the symbolic dimensions and performative logics one is more likely to associate with language, cultural work, and poetics. As evidence, Nealon points to the massive fluctuations of economic value within the “new economies’ ” and finance markets’ dynamic, computation-based, symbolic flows. When the housing bubble burst, for instance, he argues that we began to realize that the value of one’s home is much more a “bardic ‘performative’ than an objective, ‘constative’ entity,” more symbolic than one might have hoped, yet not at all poetic in our usual sense of the term (154). “[T]he world of things has become a world of signs—a universe that both brings into being and is brought into being by symbolic codes,” to apply Steve Tomasula’s eloquent figuration of these altered relays between material and symbolic, and economic and cultural practices, to Post-Postmodernism’s observations here.
Post-Postmodernism’s diagnosis of “just-in-time capitalism” connects the economic intensifications accompanying the expansion of cultural practices and products to a shifting, similarly intensified “paradigmatic ethos” informing subjectivity and affectively intensified modes of consumption in which, Nealon darkly underscores, “[t]he final product, in the end, is you and me” (150, 31). Just-in-time capitalism’s intensive, flexible, computation-based exchanges of information have tightened these relays between subjectivity and consumption, turning us into “prosumers,” as Alvin Toffler presciently termed them (285). On this point, Nealon’s account of post-postmodernism coincides with other recent attempts, such as Nigel Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory, to think through the striking affective and experiential terrain twenty-first century capitalism works to quantify and rerealize. Through this concept of intensification as a “paradigmatic ethos” (150), Post-Postmodernism draws important attention to the growing economic and biopolitical interest in creating, administering, manipulating, and documenting emotional experiences. Most readers are aware of these tendencies, which are quite apparent in the consolidation of Google, Facebook, Zynga, and other social media pioneers as some of capitalism’s most newly intensified frontiers and as remarkably innovative sites for its cultivation of what Andrew Ross terms “free labor” (16). Perhaps less noticeably, they are also fueling the noticeable explosion of fields of affective computing, computational linguistics, and elaborate research and development now surrounding biometric sensing and tracking that enables better quantification, tailoring, and management of a wide range of affective, biologically attuned experiences well beyond social media. Though computer scientists’ and entrepreneurs’ thorough investment in daily emotional experience and in tracking language practices online today is not without its precedents in the history of biopower, it also seems clear that, as Post-Postmodernism suggests, the dynamic interrelations between economic and cultural practices have changed significantly of late. Further, while these intensive tendencies of late capitalism initially provoked surprise, as is evident in Jameson’s and other early analyses of postmodernism, Nealon’s text convincingly reveals how today an awareness of the imbrication of economic and cultural spheres is more often taken as a starting point and given for subsequent analysis and behavior, in spite of lively disagreement about the particular contours to, and consequences of, these entanglements. As a result, suggests Post-Postmodernism, it might now be possible to register and differentiate between distinctly postmodern and post-postmodern modes of embedding economic and cultural production rather than simply bemoaning their seeming conflation.
At this point, you may be wondering what in the world is positive about Post-Postmodernism’s intensification of Jameson and/or the disturbing cultural and economic practices this text energetically anatomizes. Rightly so. Well, a dialectical intensification is also the basis of the immanent, provocational reading practices that Post-Postmodernism recommends (and practices) as a way to better engage and transform the topographies of post-postmodernism, its multileveled call to: “read this way [!]” (168). Reexamining Jameson’s “schizoid,” “style of engagement” in his essay, “Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Nealon excavates a more positive, “neo-Deleuzian (though he’d undoubtedly prefer the adjective “utopian”)” side to Jameson’s dialectical methods. Scrutinizing Jameson’s style—i.e., his holding together of disparate elements in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms—in his reading of Nam June Paik’s video installations, for instance, Nealon focuses in on Jameson’s identification there of “a new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” (7). Reminding readers of Jameson’s own “mishmashing” style in the essay, Nealon superbly suggests that Jameson, in this way, attempts to perform and to “limn” the new mode of apprehending relationship this historical situation seems to elicit and/or call for. Repeating Jameson’s suggestion that our negative inability to map the present, “can also provoke ‘a more positive conception of relationship’ ” (7), Nealon convincingly illustrates how Jameson goes on to perform this emergent mode of perceiving and thinking the relationships between economic and cultural practices, one more adequate to postmodernism and its flows.
Nealon differentiates this positive side to Jameson’s methods from the “negative, stony, finger-wagging” (6) Jameson we think we know and readings of his work amongst other symptomatic “hermeneutics of suspicion,” arguing in the terms provided by fellow literary scholar Christopher Nealon that Jameson’s dialectical methods are, instead, practiced as a “hermeneutics of situation,” as “a kind of reading that proposes texts for our attention because they seem useful for historicizing the present” (25). Nealon insightfully differentiates this incipient “hermeneutics of situation” within Jameson’s work from the symptomatic, postmodernist “hermeneutics of suspicion” with which we are more familiar. The problem Post-Postmodernism finds with the kinds of symptomatic reading practices preoccupied with finding hidden meaning and symptomatically searching for what the text cannot say or its hidden cause (which were made famous by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, leading Paul Ricoeur to coin the “hermeneutics of suspicion” as a laudatory term and later became standards for ‘80’s post-structuralist theory) is that they remain wholly unresponsive to the topographies of late capitalism. In particular, they overlook its tendencies to operate on a “flat plane,” as Nealon insists after Jameson, not according to the surface-depth model underlying symptomatic readings, which still locate the economic and the cultural on separate planes (22).
Post-Postmodernism proposes its own augmentative reading practices, creatively elaborating on Jameson’s dialectical method of transcoding or overcoding (Nealon’s preferred term), as a “hermeneutics of situation” that might move us beyond the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and its oppositional politics to allow more adept engagements with the fact that “[d]ifference in the postmodern world isn’t there to be overcome; it’s there to be intensified” (41). Here, the text references late capitalism’s signature embrace of fluidity, hybridity, and an ongoing, dynamic, anti-essentialist production of difference, noting that in the context of capitalism’s own embrace of multiplicity, hyper-differentiation, and its aversion to stasis and binary oppositions, 1980’s style post-structuralist theory’s critical pursuit of open-endedness, dynamism and non-binary accounts of difference no longer deliver the same force. Modes of ideology critique designed to combat an oppositional, normative politics of exclusion are, for this reason it suggests, significantly missing the mark today.
While Post-Postmodernism’s attention to the centrality of dynamic differentiation to capitalism’s operations of late, not stable binary oppositions, is quite important and in keeping with other accounts of late capitalism and the “new economies,” at this point the text, itself, risks reinforcing an equally limiting distinction between their open-ended, deterritorializing fluidity and dynamism in contrast to the static, exclusionary, normative territorializing logics of industrial capitalism. In demarcating current limits to symptomatic deconstructive and multicultural methods of reading focused on dismantling and hybridizing oppositions at the level of signification, Post-Postmodernism seems to overstate its case for the obsolescence of oppositional political and economic practices. Recognizing and sharing Nealon’s concern here with capitalism’s own remarkable (now computationally enabled) aptitude for de- and re-constructing the very oppositions on which it seemed previously to rely, and for emergent biopolitical strategies that seem to circumvent language altogether by acting directly on bodies in ever more minute, forceful ways, I expected more thoroughgoing engagement with how the political economies of “just-in-time capitalism,” as well as late capitalism and industrial capitalism, have actively rerealized distinct modes and logics of closure and openness, at once, not fully abandoned oppositional or significational methods for intensifying, productive, material ones, for instance. To borrow the language of social systems theory, all of these economic practices can be understood to create “openness out of closure,” to use differentiating logics to facilitate certain kinds of circulation and flows and not others, yet ones which are always premised on certain kinds of constraints, stasis, exclusions, or closure, as I think Nealon would agree. Otherwise, it is quite easy to forget that capitalism’s current open-ended fluidity is premised on an increasingly nuanced and elaborate differentiation of markets, subjects, and experiences, on its “hyper-differentiation,” as Nealon elsewhere acknowledges. In developing this argument against oppositional politics and significational practices and their current discontents, Post-Postmodernism glosses over the untimely persistence of prior economic and cultural practices, in the face of their more striking recalibration. At times, Post-Postmodernism claims that the “postmodern world” as a whole embraces difference and hybridity, as in the passage quoted above, yet elsewhere the text is more careful to acknowledge that well-established oppositional political modes remain key to nation-states, for instance, in spite of their somewhat contradictory relation to economic practices and policies. For example, while an embrace of “difference” appears to be shared by late capitalism and nationalist discourses of multiculturalism today, as Sara Ahmed has argued, nation-states often paradoxically establish the tolerance of difference as a new exclusionary norm that discourages ethnic or race based identifications on that normalizing, now multicultural basis of “loving difference.” Late capitalism’s increasingly differentiated, as well as dynamic, modes of circulation, in other words, frequently refine and extend, rather than wholly contravene the exclusionary, oppositional practices made familiar during the prior period. This complicates any straightforward distinction between old and new economies according to their relative dynamic, difference and fluidity or normalizing stasis, and raises questions about the reach of reading practices not attuned to these complexities. These are insights, I’d stress, that postcolonialism, critical race studies, feminism and gender studies, and science and technology studies contribute, offering additional conceptual resources and reading practices to further expand the affirmative toolkit Post-Postmodernism recommends here.
Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “powers of the false,” Nealon further differentiates his intensifying approach from earlier postmodernist theories and historical materialisms, even Jameson’s, that remain more or less invested in the “weak” or mediating, interruptive force of the false and its limiting modes of challenging hegemonic truth by interrupting or suspending it. His own “post-postmodern” reading practices opt, instead, to pursue the “strong” powers of the false, which affirmatively intensify the “powers of the false as the engine for the emergence of another, different mode of speaking the truth” to “produce effects of truth in an alternate fashion,” and, in this way, “posit different ways of separating out the true and the false” (162).
In his chapter on “Literature,” Nealon realigns literature and literary studies with these productive, affirmative, “strong powers of the false,” in contrast to previous, predominant understandings of literature in terms of the “weak powers of the false,” as a “dialectical other” that subverts the true. Creatively extending Jameson’s practices of “overcoding” in relation to this neo-Deleuzian understanding of power as a production of truth effects in and on bodies, Nealon devises his aggregative method of “overcoding,” of “working out the connections, the sites of homology and difference” between seemingly unrelated economic and cultural practices “and the difference they make” (24). As Nealon explains the basic recipe for this methodology of “overcoding”:
Take one set of cultural claims…and overcode those cultural claims with another set of economic imperatives or explanations. When one then returns to the cultural claims, this intensifies or modifies the claims, and one can no longer dialectically return to the initial, seemingly commonsense claims and see them in quite the same way. (69)
The notably intensifying, aggregative process of overcoding Nealon recommends, which brings modes and discourses of cultural and/or economic production to bear on each other, paradoxically opens onto new possibilities for perceiving the relationships between the cultural and the economic in terms attentive to their complex interweaving today. While Nealon’s recommended post-postmodern reading practices and their “strong powers of the weak” initially seem to give up significant ground in that they actively conflate and confront increasingly overlapping economic and cultural practices rather than, as one might hope, attempting to clarify the precise kinds of relationship between economic and cultural production “just-in-time capitalism” currently co-realizes, these intensifying, affirmative methods are designed to bring their unregistered differences to the fore, and, in this way, to open up alternate modes of producing truth, of differentiating truth and falsity.
Based on Nealon’s own demonstration of such overcoding practices in Post-Postmodernism, these methods generate much-needed perspectives on the literary, the liberal arts, and the infamous corporate university. They encourage us to ask, as Nealon’s text does, what “poetics tell us about the workings of economics and culture rather than vice versa, what roles can literature play other than the ‘other’?” (153). Taking these overcoding operations in the other direction, from economic discourses to cultural ones, facilitates Nealon’s counterintuitive consideration of how the economic logics of corporatization might, in fact, serve academics, if tactically engaged as a rationale for improving the corporate university’s efficiency by downsizing administrative bulk (as opposed to the current predilection to eliminate tenure lines and student financial aid first). Demonstrating this immanent poetics of overcoding at the level of the book’s methodology, Nealon’s text illustrates how socioeconomic and literary questions and their essential, yet vexing interrelations today are quite usefully co-explored through such a poetics of overcoding. Instead of myopically focusing on the interpretation of textual meaning, Post-Postmodernism insists that the “force of literature” as equipment for living (pace Kenneth Burke)
at this historical juncture may precisely lie in intensifying and expanding our sense of ‘the poetic’ as a robust form of cultural engagement or analysis, whose force is enabled not by its distance from dominant culture, but its imbrication with contemporary socioeconomic forces. Within such a rethinking, even literature’s seeming uselessness could be recoded from a stoic, prophylactic avoidance to a positive (maybe even joyful) form of critical engagement with contemporary biopolitical and economic life. (154)
Reading this way, among others, encourages a greater, much-needed appreciation of the work that poetics and the literary can do in engaging with the modes and logics of contemporary capital by attending to the ways that literary and cultural texts work (at once textually, poetically, materially, institutionally, and economically), especially in light of the bioinformatic networks and modes of circulation now defining capitalist circulation.
Post-Postmodernism inventively initiates such lines of inquiry into these entangled relays linking literary and cultural and economic practices in contemporary life through a variety of overcoding practices. It responds to the increasing elaboration and variety of sites and modes of literary and cultural production and their complex relations to the workings of contemporary capitalism and provides a compelling alternative to current efforts to sidestep these shifts and resolutely maintain a conception of the literary and cultural as a minor or peripheral (presumably resistant) “weak,” subversive outside to these operations. Not everyone will want to model their reading practices off the conceptual art of Kenny Goldsmith, one of the examples Post-Postmodernism uses to illustrate how poetics can overcode and document the productive operations and work of the literary and to demonstrate the transformative, material force of language, though most readers who have encountered Goldsmith’s compilation of all of the text from one New York Times newspaper in the book, Day, will agree that it is impossible to read The New York Times in the same way after this. Day’s poetics undertake a unique kind of work we might want to be able to register, even if this doesn’t quite live up to Nealon’s proposition of a “joyful” form of critical engagement.
This example underscores, to me, that such aggregative, productive poetics and their distinct material force are already part of literary and cultural practices today as are a wider range of comparative media practices whose operations are, in my view, equally attuned to the differential, coordinated workings of the literary in complex relation to other spheres of production in the present. Post-Postmodernism’s provocation stresses that such literary and poetic practices have yet to be fully recognized for the work they do or for what they have to teach us about the literary as it responds and acclimates to economic and social systems and their emergent modes of power and it suggests one way we might begin to read the topographies of capitalism again.
Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |
 Nealon’s account of “just-in-time capitalism” as a new mode of production extends earlier characterizations of post-Fordism that identify the importance of “just-in-time production,” the just-in-time inventory systems and other geographically-dispersed communication and distribution networks that facilitate the creation and circulation of customized products on demand, and other kinds of “flexible accumulation” (Harvey). The phrase also seems to rhetorically underscore and register a shift away from prior views that this is a “late” stage of capitalism.
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