U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Culture in Postmodernity; Or, the Historical Logic of the Culture Wars

One of my summer tasks was to write a proposal for the book I’ve been researching on the culture wars. In this process, I’ve been thinking a lot about the broader historical logic of the culture wars. Why was culture in the specific sense of the word—literature, film, curriculum, museums, art, etc.—at the heart of a political firestorm? From there, several related questions arose. Had culture shifted as a concept? If so, could we tie such a shift to what theorists have conceptualized as the displacement of modernity? Is the culture of postmodernity the historical logic of the culture wars?

As part of the paper I will be giving at the upcoming annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference—a paper I title “Moderns Versus Postmoderns: The Culture Wars and the Future of the Left”—I’ve been reading several of the philosophical interventions into the debates about postmodernism made by Marxists such as Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Nancy Fraser, Terry Eagleton, and Perry Anderson. It is my contention that they offer the intellectual historian a better understanding of the culture wars. By attaching the intellectual and cultural particulars of postmodernity to the political and economic transformations of what they wishfully termed “late capitalism,” these Marxist critics anticipate my contention that the culture wars allowed Americans space to articulate and contest the discombobulating effects of postindustrial capitalism and postmodern epistemologies.

What is meant by postmodern epistemologies—or more specifically, “postmodernism,” which Jameson sub-titles “the cultural logic of late capitalism” in his famous 1984 New Left Review article? Jameson contends that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good,” or when “‘culture’ has become a veritable ‘second nature.’” In short, in postmodernity, culture takes precedent. Culture is everywhere. Culture is not something we become—as I wrote about in an earlier blog post on the “Intellectual History of Culture as Becoming”—culture is what we are. We are shot through with culture.

In thinking about the etymology of culture, Terry Eagleton’s works are extremely helpful, especially his 2000 book, The Idea of Culture. (I came to this book after reading, on the advice of Scott McLemee, The Task of the Critic, a lengthy interview with Eagleton about his intellectual biography.) For Eagleton, culture first became a political project when the state began to sponsor it. This was a thoroughly modern project: the state sought to cultivate its subjects, to give them culture. Such acculturation was necessary for citizenship. Subjects needed culture before they could be political. The state wanted to form individuals, as Eagleton argues, “into suitably well-tempered, responsible citizens. This is the rhetoric of the civics class, if a little more highly pitched.”

But such a notion of culture no longer seems viable given the postmodern scattering of grand narratives, including the grandest of them all, nationalism. I quote Jameson at length: “If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.”

In the words of Perry Anderson, whose 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity serves as an extended review of Jameson’s writings, the postmodern unavailability of grand narratives, especially the Marxist narrative of class struggle, resulted from the following: “The receding of class conflict within the metropolis, while violence was projected without; the enormous weight of advertising and media fantasy in suppressing the realities of division and exploitation; the disconnection of private and public existence…” Getting to the heart of postmodern epistemologies, Jameson writes: “In psychological terms, we may say that as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience: never in any previous civilization have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of being and of the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless.”

Then how does the implosion of grand narratives—or the explosion of heterogeneity and hybridity—lead to the culture wars? In spite of the postmodern notion of culture as everywhere and yet nowhere, older, modern notions of culture persistently creep back into the collective consciousness, as the return of the repressed. Culture in this modern sense is a normative way of imagining society. The problem, though, is that normative ways of imagining American society have multiplied. The national narrative, always contested, has given way to various ethnic, racial, religious, and other identity-based narratives, which often lay claim to the national narrative in new and innovative ways. This is the breeding ground of cultural conflict. So, perhaps postmodernity is not the death of the grand narrative, but the multiplication of mini-grand narratives?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Timothy Brennan’s relatively new (2006?) book, *Wars of Position* has a somewhat different perspective on the meaning of the academic left (and by extension the culture wars) in the late 1970s and 80s than you will find most places. i recommend it.

  2. Andrew, interesting stuff, and I love some of your phrases here. So, I like David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity quite a bit. If I remember correctly, Harvey doesn’t see postmodernity, or postindustrialism or “late capitalism” or what have you, as the end of modernization, but as a marked shift in the modernization process. In that sense, he recognizes that postmodernity is continuous with modernity in many ways, though he doesn’t quite go so far as some scholars who have claimed that postmodernity is simply an intensification or speeding up of modernity (e.g. Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern). But he also makes careful distinctions between postmodernity and postmodernism, the latter referring to various aesthetic, literary, and intellectual responses to postmodernity, which do represent a sharp break from modernist movements.
    All this is leading to a question for you. How were/are the culture wars of the late 20th century (postmodernity) different in form and texture from the culture wars of the early 20th century (modernity), like the battles against Hollywood, or the Scopes trial, or the rise of right-wing populism in movements like the Klan? By that question, I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t different, but I’m interested in how you see them as different. Is it because late 20th- century culture warriors aren’t just responding to the “discombobulating effects of postindustrial capitalism,” but also to “postmodern epistemologies,” specifically the implosion of the grand narrative? Is there a way to distinguish between the culture wars as a reaction against the effects of postindustrial capitalism (which seems like more of a Thomas Frank argument) and the culture wars as a reaction against postmodernism as an aesthetic and intellectual movement? Or can’t we because culture is everywhere? Or, I guess, if so, what does that mean exactly?

  3. This for me is one of those cases where you must decide if accepting some of the conclusions requires you to accept the premises. I think there’s something to be said for the postmodern view of culture as being omnipresent. As I’ve often said, the one thing I think postmodernists have right is the notion that any text can be used to comment on any other text. It’s what lets me get away with quoting Yoda in my dissertation.

    Beyond that, I don’t find postmodernity very convincing. In the simplest sense of “modern” meaning what is now or present, the idea of being “postmodern” is a non sequitur. One can’t be beyond where one exists, since one can only exist in the present. (Technically, I suppose, one can only know in the present that one exists. And no one bring up eternalism.) Metaphysically, then, postmodernity falls at the first hurdle since it’s a name for something which literally cannot exist.

    In epistemological terms, is the supposition that the main structral feature of contemporary culture is the demise of “grand narratives” any kind of epistemology at all? If that is so, the assumption has to be that thinking in terms of “grand narrative(s)” is a characteristic of modern as opposed to pre- and post-modern man. Now I grant that people use various grand narratives to make sense of the world they inhabit. But as Leo points out, the proliferation of other narratives (or, rather, of people offering other narratives) has hardly spelled doom for traditional grand recits.

    Nor am I convinced that postmodern epistemology really addresses how people know what they know since it’s confused about what they know. You quote Jameson as saying the grand metaphysical preoccupations have never seemed so bereft of meaning. Besides defending the philosophical pretensions of our fellow humans, let me defend the kind of society which has made the diminishing of such concerns possible. Surely it is preferable to the one in which the good and great were able to sit around all day congratulating themselves for being good and great while the other 99% of humanity toiled for them.

    Moreover, the implication of the shattering of grand narratives is that there was at one time a unity which society/culture/humans a) recognized and b) aspired to. Then like Babel the narrative shattered leaving each human imprisoned in a whirlwind of words swirling around his or her mind. Postmodernity has expelled us from the prelapsarian Eden of modernity. Or perhaps not.

    Rather, one could argue that it was modernity that shattered the void. Donne complained when he perceived “all coherence gone” because “new philosophy calls all in doubt.” That was 1611. According to Eagleton, state intervention in culture is a modern project, the design being to inculcate in individuals the necessary ideas and outlook to make them good citizens. How, I wonder, would he account for Christianity, which makes far greater claims for doing the same thing, and did so long before there was such a thing as modernity? An alternative (and to me more compelling) understanding of modernity would be to see it as founded in a categorical rejection of the classical and Christian doctrine that there exists a telos towards which mankind may and must be directed in order to achieve a common good in which they all partake in order to realize their true nature as human beings.

    If ever there was a master narrative, that was it. One that was far more entrenched than anything displaced by postmodernity. In that regard, the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment were far more consequential culture wars than anything that passes under that name today. And the Reformation actually had wars; plenty of them.

  4. Nor is the economic critique original. The development and expansion of capitalism over time is a distinct, identifiable historical phenomenon. But for the reasons stated above, I don’t think there’s anyting about “late” capitalism that makes it postmodern. It’s just how it is now. Besides, people have been complaining about its deleterious effects on the human personality since long before Adam Smith came along. “The disconnection of private and public existence” was being criticized in 1660. The literature and the historiography on classical republicanism are replete with discussions of the fear that the advent of commerce and homo economicus circa 1700 would corrupt the human personality by rendering it partial and surrendering the pursuit of human excellence; that satisfied by the pursuit of filthy lucre men would retreat into their cottages to count their spoils, foregoing their civic obligations as citizens. Early modern diatribes against “luxury” can be more scabrous and scathing than modern critiques of capitalism. (There’s a reason Pocock argues this language eventually made its way into socialism.) Then it was new and threatening. But is it really so bad to allow humans to have a private existence distinct from their public persona, so that, having that private existence, the state may no longer claim their whole being as its own? Indeed not, and it must be considered one of modernity’s greatest achievements.

    Certainly the founders of the United States considered it so, and they erected a regime designed to unleash the multifarious talents of its citizens in the mode and manner of their choosing. They embraced the new economics and the technology and science that made it possible. On this one too Leo is right; America has always accepted, even embraced, technological change. The lingering nostalgia for bygone, simpler times exists, but it always seems to find itself extolled by those who are the least affected by what they decry. It’s easy to compose paeans to the yeoman farmer when all the actual work will be done by slaves. Americans landed on this continent looking to make a buck. The only thing that’s changed is how, and how many.

    I close with some theoretical questions. Is there a useful distinction to be drawn between postmodernity and Marxism. All the authors mentioned are Marxists. What makes for the affinity? Is postmodernity simply what is derided by its critics as cultural Marxism? Does postmodernity actually offer a proper critique of capitalism, or does it borrow that from Marxism? Can the two be disentangled, that is, is a non-Marxist postmodern cultural analysis possible, or must one start from the premise of late capitalism? So I end with this one: Marxism and postmodernity: which is the tail, and which is the dog?

  5. Varad—

    It seems to me that you switch rather freely from accusing the postmodern condition/postmodernity/postmodernism of not existing at all (in the sense of being distinguishable from some broadly defined modern condition), to saying that it does exist and is a good thing. I think the point is at least in part that ‘in postmodernity’ there is a shift in value–for instance, commodification begins to appear to many people as a positive good, as the obvious means of self-realization, say.

    I think this point is related to your question about Marxism. Although I haven’t read through this whole argument, and I haven’t read any of it recently, my sense is that many of the early theorists to use the term ‘postmodernism’ (I think Lyotard in particular) meant the word in no small measure to indicate a surpassing of Marxism. When he talks about grand narratives, what he really means is the class struggle. The interventions of those discussed above, Jameson, Anderson, and Harvey, are all Marxists who are either rejecting the notion of postmodernity, or admitting that something has changed, but that none the less, Marxism is still useful. Jameson, for instance, more or less thinks that it is only now (in the period usually called postmodern, since about the 1970s) that there is really a single unified global market, which is to say that the totality actually exists, which is to say that critique and revolution are in fact *finally* really possible (he’d make more distinctions than that). Harvey has a very sophisticated reconstruction of Marx’s political economy, updated to ‘contemporary’ conditions (again the 1970s, but still relevant–it’s about real-estate bubbles!).

  6. Eric –

    You raise several intriguing points about why Marxists find postmodernity an appealing concept. If I read you correctly, Jameson, Anderson et al. can use postmodernity to vindicate Marx in either the observance or the breach. They can deny postmodernity and confirm Marx as modernity’s true prophet; or they can say, yes, postmodernity did change modernity, and it is these changes that revive the Marxist project and vindicate Marx’s prophetic vision. Quite the historical irony, then, given what you say about how the “grand narrative” that was surpassed was Marxism.

    As for my position, I don’t perceive any contradiction in it. I argue throughout that conceptually postmodernity is metaphysically and epistemologically inchorent. I also challenge it on empirical grounds; that is, on the basis of its proponents’ understanding of history. It is here perhaps that you think I am being inconsistent. But my case on this score is that what the theorists in question identify as structural features of the postmodern condition can more plausibly be attributed to modernity instead, whether it be something they lament (diremption between public and private) or applaud (the collapse of grand narratives). It is these changes I vindicate (for example, the seeming trivialization of metaphysics); but they are the consequences of modernity, and it is on those grounds that I am praising them.

    The intellectual muddle I detect in postmodernity is, I propose, the result of postmodernists’ failure to draw distinctions properly. It is not between modernity and postmodernity where the sharp line must be placed, but between pre-modernity and modernity. A sign, perhaps, of how natural modernity has become to us that we see changes within it as more consequential than the changes that led to it.

    From the foregoing it should be clear that at no point can I acknowledge the postmodern condition, let alone say that it is good, as I firmly belive there is no such thing.

  7. I guess I’d say not that these marxists really find postmodernism appealing, so much as that they find themselves obliged to in some way confront the claim, going under the label ‘postmodernism,’ that something fundamental has changed about the world and/or how we experience it, some time in the second half of the 20th century.

    Although I simply agree with you that much of what is sometimes called postmodernism is really just modernism, that much of what is said to be distinctive about ‘our time’ is really not, that many so-called postmodernists make deeply confused and perhaps meaningless assertions about the world–as much as I agree with all this, I would caution that periodization is always easier to contest than to support.

    Also, in terms of the project that Andrew is talking about here, it seems to me that if there is a time and a place where something like postmodernism exists, surely it is indeed the late 20th century in north america. even if one were to assert, and i think it would be reasonable to do so, that postmodernism is a distinctively western and perhaps even ‘liberal academic/intellectual’ worldview or situation, then it still is a very relevant and useful frame in which to discuss the culture wars. again, in terms of Andrew’s project, the concept and practice of ‘culture’ seems to me like exactly the sort of thing that would change, radically, between the continental european 19th century (where ideas come from), and the anglo-american late 20th century (where they went to die). postmodernism is a plausible enough name for this difference.

    A question for Andrew: isn’t it plausible that the only reason the US academy was amenable to discussions of the postmodern collapse of master narratives (and grand ones) was the culture wars themselves?

  8. Thanks to Amy, Varad, and Eric for your challenging comments. I will not attempt to address most of not all of your questions, concerns, and criticisms.

    By citing David Harvey’s work “The Condition of Postmodernity,” Amy anticipates my response to Varad. I should have been clearer in the differences between “postmodernity” and “postmodernism,” and in how the Marxist writers I discuss view the two. Per Harvey, postmodernity is the total social condition of “late” or mature capitalism, which began in or around the 1970s. It is the objectively observable advance or shift beyond modernity. It can be defined by the final globalization of capitalism, the commodification of everything, or the new enclosures, and the end of history and all such grand narratives that served as critiques of capitalism. This condition can be seen in cultural changes, such as the hybrid architectural forms that became common by the 1970s, which combined all sorts of historical genres in un-ironic fashion, as if such obliteration of history and form were the norm. The Marxist critics that I write about in the post—Jameson, Anderson, Eagleton—all understand postmodernity in this sense to be real, if I may use that antiquated pre-postmodern term, to various degrees. Jameson, for instance, set the terms of our understanding of postmodernity, even though he sees continuity between modernity and postmodernity, and even though he loathes postmodernism for its inability to critique postmodernity and capitalism.

    So what is postmodernism? As Amy points out, this is the cultural form of postmodernity, found in literature, architecture, film, and theory. Postmodernists embrace and even celebrate the condition of postmodernity. Or at the very least, a postmodernist no longer thinks about alternatives to capitalism. This is the end of the grand narrative that is so disturbing to the Marxist critics of postmodernism—because they still think the narrative of class struggle is imperative to our understanding of the world, even in (or especially in) the condition of postmodernity. Although Foucault hardly celebrated capitalism, he is a postmodernist theorist by the standards of Jameson because for Foucault, subject dissolves into object. If the project of modernity offered humans subjectivity or “agency,” then postmodernism is a return to a premodern epistemology or teleology in which everything is determined, this time by the total force of capitalism and its technological superstructure instead of by God or tradition. Cont…

  9. This version of postmodernism might sound to a non-Marxist a lot like Marxism. But as Eagleton makes clearer than anyone, Marx was not a determinist nor was he anti-subjectivity. Rather, Marx prioritized the individual in more authentic ways, by obliterating the economic barriers to individual freedom, namely, capitalism. Marxism and liberalism are thus both modern projects of subjectivity, albeit with different understandings of individual freedom. Postmodernists, on the other hand, think that human freedom is just another discourse and should be surrounded by square quotes—because “human freedom” suggests a non-existent human subject. The critique of postmodern feminists like Judith Butler by someone like Nancy Fraser is based on the fact that a political project like feminism (or socialism for that matter) can hardly be built without human subjects. In short, Marxists are critical of postmodernism mostly because it has meant the death of criticism in the sense that the Marxists understand it—criticism of capitalism. This speaks to Varad’s point about the fact that early moderns were critical of capitalism. Of course they were. But postmodernists are not. Celebrating transgressive cultural forms is hardly anticapitalist. This signals change.

    Now let me try and briefly respond to the questions posed by Amy and Eric, which are very similar in nature. How does postmodernity relate to the culture wars? And does the collapse of grand narratives make intellectuals more amenable to engaging in the culture wars? These are very difficult questions that I’ve been seeking to answer. In part, the answer lies in the expansion of intellectuals as a group, both in terms of numbers and influence, consistent with my argument that the history of the culture wars is mostly intellectual history (which is not the same thing as saying the culture wars are manufactured by elites, what political scientists like Allan Wolfe argue). That said, I think there have been profound enough changes in social relations since the 1960s to say that how people think about the past, present, and future is also profoundly different, and that such a shift creates the sort of turbulence that leads to cultural conflict. I know the case has been made about the sense of vertigo that accompanied the experience of the Civil War and the rise of corporate America in the late 19th century. Menand and Livingston, among others, make this case. But I think changes since the 1960s have been more existentially profound. This is partly about the crumbling of Jim Crow, overt patriarchy, the family, etc, cultural and political explosions that lead to postmodernity in ways that demand further explanation. But it is also about changes to capitalism. Let me conclude with the following Terry Eagleton passage (which I should have included in my blog post, and which opens up more questions): “In the postmodern world, culture and social life are… closely allied… in the shape of the aesthetics of the commodity, the spectacularization of politics, the consumerism of life-style, the centrality of the image, and the final integration of culture into commodity production in general.”

  10. Thanks for your definitions and your very lucid explanation of the Marxist critique of postmodernism, Andrew. It’s a nerdy pet peeve of mine when people use terms like postmodernity and postmodernism (or for that matter, modernity and modernism) interchangeably, because doing so can so easily confuse the issue in just the way you’ve described. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the changes since the 1960s have been existentially more profound than those at the turn of the 20th century, but that’s perhaps why we each study the time periods we do. I mean, you could substitute “modern” for “postmodern” in Eagleton’s quote, and it could have been written by a number of cultural critics in the early 20th century. But anyway, we don’t need a century face-off for your work of trying to unravel the complexity of the late 20th century culture wars to still have import. I still have questions for you about the various connections you are making between postmodernity, postmodernism, and what we know as the culture wars — especially since you see those wars as an intellectual battle, but not one manufactured by elites. That sounds right to me, but I look forward to seeing how you lay it all out.

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