APRIL 13, 2013
JEFFREY T. NEALON HAS WRITTEN an ambitious, insightful, and frustrating book. Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism sets itself a daunting task for its slim 227 pages: to assess our new-millennial present with tools from Fredric Jameson’s now-classic essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” first published in New Left Review nearly 30 years ago. Jameson’s essay begins from the author’s disorienting experience of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, which he had visited as a participant in the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, and reaches out across a wide range of instances to delineate a dominant principle that characterizes the culture of the age, which he defines as the age of multinational capitalism. This analysis was subsequently expanded into a prizewinning 1991 book of over 400 pages with the same title. As a Marxist in America, Jameson is an anomaly and a maverick, but smart as can be, and his reach for “totalization” means that he knows almost everything. During a career dating back to the 1950s, he has won the MLA’s three major prizes: for an article (1971), for a book (1990), and for lifetime achievement (2011). Internationally he is even more admired: collected editions of his work have appeared in both Brazil and China.
What does Nealon want from Jameson? Two big things. First, Jameson, as Nealon rightly argues, takes a dialectical, rather than a moralistic, approach to the nexus of culture and economy that he presents. Jameson does not lament the dominance of capitalism — though he does believe it’s “late” and may yet come to an end, having established the preconditions for a more radically free and equal world than it could itself sustain. So Nealon takes Jameson as his authority for asserting that those of us concerned with the culture of the present must not merely decry but also analyze it, and see its energies and positive aspects. I couldn’t agree more, but it’s a hard lesson.
Second, Nealon takes from Jameson a methodological principle of “transcoding” or “overcoding.” As he explains:
[I]f everything in our world exists on the same flat plane, then things that don’t at first seem to have much in common quite literally have to be related in some way(s) — the cultural realm and the economic realm, avant-garde poetry and downtown skyscrapers, for example. Or, to put it somewhat more precisely, one should be able to take the claims and effects that surround the logic of X or Y cultural phenomenon (say, that contemporary literature is open ended, process oriented, not dedicated to the limitations of univocal meaning) and dialectically overcode or transcode these cultural effects in terms of economic ones (that, say, global capitalism is open ended, process oriented, not dedicated to the limitations of univocal meaning).
Here is where things start to go wrong. Nealon’s version of transcoding makes everything the same, relating elements as possessing similar properties (i.e., open ended, process oriented, not dedicated to univocal meaning, etc.), but Jameson’s famous formula in his postmodernism book is that “difference relates.” Nealon seeks the sameness of “homology,” but there are many other different kinds of relationship (including opposition, adjacency, complementarity, transversality) and the thinkers Nealon cites most often (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Jameson himself) have excelled in specifying varieties of nonhomology.
Nealon thus uses the very same terms to characterize both culture and the economy, and he claims it’s the task of critical thinking to do just this. Sometimes it works. This homological imperative makes for a stirring chapter on the university, considered as an economic entity. He points out that contemporary corporate management aims for flat organization, eliminating bureaucratic intermediaries; in contrast, universities over the last 40 years have added mid-level administrators much more rapidly than professors. Nealon thus proposes that we “unlock shareholder value” by “trimming and streamlining the administrative ranks […] and disgorging that excess cash back into the ‘core business’ of teaching and research, thereby turning the university back to the people who bear the real brunt of its success or failure: the faculty and the students.” I agree; I just wish he also acknowledged that much of the administrative growth has come directly in the service of the two major groups that pay for American higher education: governments and parents.
In Post-Postmodernism, Nealon argues that culture has changed since Jameson’s 1980s, and that the economy has, too. He defines a new era: “intensification” marks us now, as “fragmentation” marked the earlier period. In this book, the repeated “post” in “Post-Postmodernism” signals that intensification. (Repetition may be intensifying but may also have other effects. I weary at the verbal drumbeat of “intense […] intensive […] intensities […] intensively” all in half a page on 26; or “intense […] intensified […] intensification […] intensities […] intensified […] intensification,” all on page 31.) Nealon’s attempt at rebranding Jameson’s theory seems a wonderfully bold venture, but how do you make good on it? Why, for instance, does “just-in-time capitalism” replace the “late capitalism” of Jameson’s original subtitle? The phrase “just-in-time” itself dates to the 1980s: Toyota used it to describe a production principle that eventually transformed the Japanese auto maker into the world’s largest corporation, before its reputation evaporated in a 2010 scandal involving not-quite-in-time brakes. But why does this concept describe our current moment better than the previous one? Nealon boldly emulates Jameson’s Bonaventure passage with a bravura reading of another commercial-built environment — in this case, the Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas — and he clearly suggests that “casino capitalism” (the title of a 1986 book by Susan Strange, cited by Nealon in its 1997 reprint and without reference to its title) defines our time. But this “Empire of the Intensities” has nothing in particular to do with just-in-time.
Elsewhere, Nealon grapples with the problem of how to pull our feet out of Jameson’s sticky 1980s into the present. One way that he does not choose would be to remember what the United States feared at the end of the 1980s, at the peak of postmodernism, when Jameson’s book was written: it feared the evil empire of Communism, and it feared the rise of Japan to dominate capitalism. A few years later, both those threats vanished. This might be a clue to periodizing, but Nealon’s history of global capitalism pays little attention to the world beyond the United States. I wonder why he did not choose to use some version of “neoliberalism” in his subtitle, since he highlights the term in his coda. For a global perspective, showing that the US is only one case among many for the various effects of neoliberalism, I recommend a lucid and nuanced essay by the sociologist Peter Evans and the historian William Sewell, which has just appeared in Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era, edited by Peter A. Hall and Michèle Lamont (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
The chapter I found most fully successful and enjoyable, “Commodity,” focuses squarely on the US, and investigates a problem no sooner named than recognized. How could it come to pass that the transgressive and innovative music of the 1960s was transformed into “classic rock” and, in that form, not only continues to gain extensive radio airtime but, even more strikingly, provides the soundtrack for innumerable advertisements and other improbable settings? How can a gym run by fundamentalist Christians come to play Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for its workouts? How does the song “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath, “go from being a confused underground stoner anthem about a mixed-media B-list superhero who goes on a killing rampage, to being a nifty way to sell products and/or boost school spirit?”
Perhaps my admiration for this chapter reveals my own participation in post-postmodernism, since it’s the chapter that most mobilizes the resources of memoir. Nealon uses both everyday ethnography and personal memory: “I’d thought the reign of classic rock was over by the time I graduated from high school more than thirty years ago.” Nealon as cultural studies scholar adds a fact to the memoir; we learn that the category “classic rock” was invented in 1979. The thing is that it “remains a stubborn, really quite singular exception to [the] otherwise iron rule of culture-industry anachronism, the rule of the ‘new.’” How else can the Rolling Stones celebrate a 50th anniversary on tour?
Nealon pursues his question tenaciously. He begins with a possibility that reminds me of Samuel Johnson, who wrote in the preface to his 1765 edition of Shakespeare: “Nothing can please many and please long but just representations of general nature.” In other words, perhaps these songs hit the truth about human life and gave it form. But Nealon argues persuasively that this restricted corpus of classic rock is not self-evidently better than many other works of popular song produced a few years earlier or later. Here he moves from criticism to cultural studies, but he shows the insufficiency of the usual cultural studies arguments. He insists that the key to his question will be an analysis of the music as commodity, but only when freed from the “dialectic of authenticity,” which holds that music must be either cool, or else sold out. Consumers are not dupes; this is the lesson of decades of cultural studies. Yet the overt message is that classic rock represents “authenticity” — which sells.
Nealon assesses several explanations that have some bite, especially the generational claim that “classic rock” is the music of the demographically powerful baby boomers, who buy the products their favorite songs now advertise. Here, he turns again to Jameson to argue that capitalism has learned from culture, so that “the rock ‘n’ roll style of rebellious, existential individuality, largely unassimilable under the mass-production dictates of midcentury Fordism, has become the engine of post-Fordist, niche-market consumption capitalism.” This would have been the place for Nealon to connect his work to that of French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, whose The New Spirit of Capitalism (which updates Max Weber in a fashion similar to what Nealon tries to do for Jameson) is strangely ignored throughout.
Nealon concludes “Commodity” by answering one final puzzle: why should this music appeal to the youth of today, who have no personal investment in the “authenticity” that was its primary selling point in the first place? His answer is that, nowadays, musical taste no longer personally defines the listener; instead, a new eclecticism reigns. This triumph of postmodernism has fully overcome the residual modernist commitment to personal style in consumption and thus defines the intensification of post-postmodernism. This chapter is well shaped and well argued, and is the book’s best demonstration of how to integrate Jameson’s 1980s-based mode of analysis into the 21st century.
Other chapters are less persuasive. From his position as Liberal Arts Research Professor of English at Penn State, Nealon understandably concerns himself with changes in the status of “theory” between then and now. Big theory marked the 1980s in the academic humanities, perhaps even in the culture more generally, as suggested by Jeffrey Eugenides in his novel The Marriage Plot (2011), and we are beyond all that now, aren’t we? Yet the biggest names in theory didn’t build edifices, they undermined them — most notably via “deconstruction,” as practiced by Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man, and the “genealogy” of Michel Foucault. Theory in the 1980s was already dangerously decrepit — not just-in-time but just out of time. Roland Barthes, author of “The Death of the Author,” died in 1980, Jacques Lacan in 1981, de Man in 1983, and Foucault in 1984.
It was in the wake of these deaths that Jameson adapted the concept of “cognitive mapping” from behavioral psychology and gave it a grander purpose: it was to be a means of transcending or escaping the postmodern, the art of finding your way out of the Bonaventure. In the tradition of Hegel and Marx, however much torqued by Adorno and Deleuze, Jameson directed attention away from the endless investigation of texts and back to the big picture. “Cognitive mapping” names the new work both artists and critics must do to recompose the fragmentary scene of the postmodern. This new task called back the powers of representation, despite the many critiques that it had provoked. In 1986, I devoted some pages to arguing that postmodernism, even in the work of Derrida, had by no means got rid of representation, and I still think this true (see my introduction to Postmodernism and Politics). A critique, after all, does not vaporize what it criticizes; think of the titles of Kant’s major works. A massive cultural accomplishment such as The Wire demonstrates that, even without an omniscient narrator, human poetic powers can still give meaningful shape to the complex interconnections of money, power, and life in our world. I think both Aristotle and Erich Auerbach would find this proof that the power of mimesis continues.
Yet Nealon’s book proceeds as if the poststructuralist critique of representation had simply triumphed. The chapter called “Literature” addresses its subject as if deconstruction had called the whole tune. For Nealon, literature functions as interruption, whether to break up totality or to slow down the speed of ideological received ideas. This function, the book argues, made literature “king” for academic postmodernists. I wonder about this supposed fiat that erases the influence of cultural studies and film studies, both of which fomented new programs across many American campuses in the 1980s and 90s, often to the lamented loss of literary close reading. Eyes fixed on the old king he has proclaimed, Nealon insists that the needs and practices of our time supersede this postmodern, language-based notion of literature.
Just as Jameson, in describing the postmodern, crucially quoted the language poet Bob Perelman, so Nealon finds his post-postmodernist poetic exemplar in another “so-called language poet,” Bruce Andrews:
In Andrews’s work, it’s as if the entirety of poetic meter wants to be reduced to spondee — the desire at least is for all stressed syllables all the time. And literature is thereby reduced, like a watery sauce is reduced, to its strongest version: not the job of meaning or edification (“Get busy looking at immaculate doves …”), or even the job of pleasure (“… there is no more reason to limit / ourselves to the customary rhetorical confinement …”), but the austere task of relentless provocation: “fuck your kitchen.”
I like the energy that the critic’s prose catches from the poet’s text, but unless you write monosyllables, it’s just about impossible even to imagine your verse-line as all stress, and the snippets quoted in parentheses show that the poet is happy to use polysyllables to gain his effects. “Fuck your kitchen,” it seems to me, wins power from contrast, rather than by being the epitome of a metrical technique. Heavy-stress verse-making is a long-established device within English poetry. King Lear’s extremity brings Shakespeare to write a blank verse line that deletes all the unstressed syllables: “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” Satan’s pride achieves a fuller syntax in a line by Milton that is hard to read with any remission of stress: “We know no time when we were not as now.” (When you’re arguing chronology against God, it may be necessary to stress even “when.”)
As a survivor of theory’s academic hegemony, Nealon often uses technical, linguistic, and rhetorical terms for his analysis, and I — also a theory veteran, but one old enough to have been a student of language before the boom — find that many of Nealon’s usages jar with mine. He treats synecdoche as the characteristic postmodern critical trope, while I remember the prestige of metonymy in the work of de Man and Lacan. Likewise, the discussion of the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in the writing of Theodor Adorno seems to me misguided. Chiasmus is named for its “X” shape — schematically, a four-term structure of ABBA — while Nealon seems to apply it to simple two-term contradistinction, such as Adorno’s “melancholy science” against Nietzsche’s “joyful science.”
The worst of this, I think, mystifies what it’s meant to elucidate — just the sin that postmodern theorists always used to be accused of. This is a university press book, a work therefore understood as a work of scholarship contributing to a community of learning. But a young scholar or student not already trained in Nealon’s chosen rhetorical terminology has only the resources of the library or Internet for guidance. Nealon does not say what he means by “chiasmus,” and there is no footnote to state the source for his eccentric usage. Maybe there’s an authority behind his definition, but I don’t know what it is, and no other reader will be directed to it. The best of Post-Postmodernism comes off as high-spirited and generous, but in too many places it also seems unnecessarily to restrict its readership to those already in the know. Yet those in the know — like me — will be grumpy that what we know is not quite the same as what Nealon thinks we do. Similar problems arise with higher stakes in the discussion of “interpretation” and “meaning.” In 1985, in my afterword to Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker’s Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, I argued that post-structuralism had produced a “New New Criticism,” and I was far from the only critic of this period who did not fetishize the impossible quest for meaning but instead treated critical debates focused on meaning as themselves a problem to be analyzed socially and historically.
Too often, Nealon discusses big, important issues but paints them with broad strokes, so that fellow-experts will have a sense of missing what they — I — consider important nuances, while beginners will be mystified by the big blur rushing by. I wish that this book had either been much shorter and avowedly essayistic (a book for me) or longer and more pedagogical (for my students). Nealon’s prose often wishes to be informally ingratiating, full of helpful signposts to guide the reader through thorny woods, but it ends up just seeming awkward. As the chapter on “Intensity” nears its end, a paragraph contains in its first sentence the phrase “in fact,” in the second sentence “of course,” and in the fourth sentence “in short.” But to say “in fact” in one sentence raises doubt concerning the veracity of all the other sentences; you only say “of course” because you’re making a contestable claim; and saying “in short” makes what you’re saying longer than if you just said it. This is a book from a major university press, but by the time I completed reading it, I wondered where the editor was.
Nealon’s book shows a sharp and wide-ranging mind, yet its thesis of “intensification” is not sustained so much as repeated. Its best chapter (on classic rock) does not have much connection to the thesis, and the book’s lack of attention to the world outside the United States makes it hard for it to clinch its claims concerning global capitalism. Read it for some challenging provocations, but don’t throw away your copy of Jameson just yet.