The Casual Note

The Casual Note

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

2012Posted by pm 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 re-structuration.

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 verso.

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 exhibitions?

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 power?

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 obsessives.


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 universal.


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 meanings.

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 standardization.


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.


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Zhenwei Huang

2011Posted by pm Tue, November 27, 2012 13:17

Zhenwei Huang. Heyday project.

image copyright by Zhenwei Huang

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2011Posted by pm Mon, November 26, 2012 20:41


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2011Posted by pm Mon, November 26, 2012 20:40


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2011Posted by pm Wed, November 21, 2012 14:20

Industrial Port. Barcelona. Spain. July 2011.

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