Provisional position paper

Dubravka Ugresic tr Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams
Open Letter, 2018

Like a comet with its parabolic orbit, I keep returning after long flights away to the damn postmodernism question.

I’m pretty sure that, whatever it was, it’s over now. Even within bourgeois literary theory, the concept is being phased out, according to some statistical evidence in a paper published in 2011 in the journal TWENTIETH-CENTURY LITERATURE. I hear a reconstructed version of phenomenology is on the come up.

Of course as a Marxist I view postmodernism as a project: the idealist rejection of our materialist dialectical method, arriving at a time when international communism was experiencing its biggest setbacks, namely capitalist restoration in the USSR and then the PRC a decade later, roughly.

However, we have to make a distinction between ideological postmodernism (the French boys) and aesthetic postmodernism. The latter could simply be art after modernism. The obvious and clear meaning of post, is after. But postmodernity doesn’t feel like some decisive turning point. Rather than a chronological demarcation, “post” to me is more about “postness,” which I take to be the recognition that certain fundamental terms are still here, but they have somehow become unworkable.

Some Marxists, like Callinicos, have argued that there is no postmodern art, that it’s just more modernism. It’s true I think that postmodernism does not represent the same kind of rupture that modernism did at the turn of the century. Lenin’s analysis still holds: we’re in an advanced phase of centeralized, monopoly, imperialist capitalism, and in that way we are still living and working under modernity, and the advanced art of our time is still formulating modernity (to use a phrase from Badiou I don’t understand fully but still like).

So we can’t link postmodernity to a new world-historical break called “late capitalism,” like Fredric Jameson does. Every revisionist take on a hypothetical third phase of the history of capitalism doesn’t seem to work. And the dark promise of yet another imperialist war (which our beloved woke members of the literary community are beating the drums for) means this notion is losing more conviction every day.

For now, I accept the use of the term postmodernism to describe literary texts that fall between 1966 and December 26, 1991. (Okay I’m joking a little.) What was the qualitative shift? In short, the contradiction between high art and mass culture resolved itself. High art did not degenerate into pop art. Mass culture did not receive an apotheosis. Both terms liquidate. Of course we still hear discourse about fancy pants Lit Fic versus genre hackwork. But this is a residual division. High fantasy can go to auction for a big publishing house just as well as the next great American novel. There’s a phrase from a paper by Nicholas Brown that could be a slogan for our time: There is no good and bad art, only expensive and cheap art.

LORD JIM by Conrad is a great example. As a novel it is split in two: the first part is a dark meditation on how obscure human motivations can be, and there are tons of little mysteries that lead to digressions and broken up chronology. The second feels more like a pulpy boy’s adventure novel in the tropics. Here is high and low at the moment of its split. Romance and heroism don’t make sense anymore in modern capitalism: they are evicted from regular literature and continue to develop in genre fiction. Modernism’s contempt for both Romanticism and commercial appeal means it has to assert its apartness from the world, to assert its objective formal workings beyond subject and spectator.

Fast forward to the wave of postwar mega novels in the US, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW as the crown jewel. Such an explosion of literary production is both a result of the economic expansion that came with the Cold War imperialist welfare state that carried the US along till the rise of neoliberal policy, as well as a jubilee after the fall of the genre wall. Now we don’t have to worry about our novels keeping pure of populist tropes. When the conditions for high modernism close, a whole new field of possible mixtures opens up. For a couple of decades.

A qualification. Of all the art forms, literature is one of the least affected by postmodernity. Literature and language are even further displaced from the center of bourgeois culture than it already was. Postmodernism is the realm of cinema, photography, architecture, comics and graphic novels. These mediums are “built.” Writing is “liquid.”

In the past I was naive about postmodernism’s anti-humanism. I thought it was cool to problematize and/or dissolve the stable bourgeois liberal individual subject. It seemed like a worthy goal that was only embryonic in high modernism. But now I recognize that, with very important exceptions, modernism and postmodernism are classically liberal in their ideological character. Postmodernism has even worked to restore bourgeois values, which is the feeling I get every time I read John Barth.

This comes from Siraganian’s analysis of Gertrude Stein I posted about. Aesthetic autonomy for the most part feels like a libertarian assertion of individual freedom. Postmodernism preserved the militant experimentation of high modernism but also legitimated didacticism and open political commitment once again.

But is that such a great thing? We hear calls for writing that is more in touch, that cares about representation of the marginalized, that flawlessly transcribes the network of social oppressions as outlined by the petty-bourgeois social justice intelligentsia. But getting that close to phenomena can prevent you from seeing the whole thing accurately. Notice also how the emphasis shifts away from form to the psychology of the readership. I can’t help but notice that the influential writers who are the most savvy on identity politics and systematic oppression and so on, are also the most hardcore advocates of neoliberal economics and for demonizing Russia in order to impeach Trump/start a war. Of course “art for art’s sake” is false. But methinks the stick has been bent too far the other way. “Be intersectional” too often means “stop organizing as a communist. Stop talking about proletarian dictatorship.” Class is supposed to be a “classism” like racism or sexism, a valence of (social) oppression like any other. Despite the fact that class is not a contingent identity but a position constructed by material practice.

Class is not part of the intersection of oppression but the very medium of that intersection. We are too quick to forget that the “systematic” part of systematic oppression is the class structure of economic exploitation. Identitarians obscure this fact by framing ruling class ideologies like white supremacy and patriarchy as the cause of oppression rather than the historically produced results of the division of labor in class society. They can always cry class reductionism when we try to correct this error. They seem to think the Marxist emphasis on production is narrow-minded. I suggest that it is in fact a great broadening of a political horizon circumscribed by bourgeois liberalism.

So in this moment when bourgeois letters are just about completely putrefied; where our most celebrated writers among the social justice crowd are in a permanent meltdown over the 2016 election to the point of hawking conspiracies; where the national literature (fully subsumed under capital at this point) has taken a rightist turn, deploying liberal anticommunism and neoliberal common sense that the customer is always right, as well as a vile mentality of “literary citizenship” and the civic duty to vote for imperialist warmongers (some more ideological programming left over from the Cold War), what is the militant writer to do? What resources from the debris field of modernism and postmodernism can we use as an answer to this situation?

And — good God — what does all this have to do with Dubravka Ugresic’s new novel?

I meant to post about that.  But next time, I guess. Till then, we can make like Robinson Crusoe and do some double book-keeping.


  • Greater willingness for linguistic/structural experiment than modernism…
  • …but more amenable to liberal humanism (“humanism in cooler clothes” was Eagleton’s formulation).
  • A sense that all historical styles are available…
  • …but only as a superficial pastiche, which leads to a loss of meaning and history.
  • A radical questioning of the great tradition and the ruling class ideologies that constitute it…
  • …but it’s obvious now that these progressive challenges serve neoliberal economics.
  • With the collapse of high art elitism, culture has been liberated for the masses…
  • …but at what cost? Modernism is commercialized, literature continues to lose its prestige, relevance, credibility, and reasons to still be read by a broad public.
  • An exhilarating embrace of pop art and the subjective experience of consumer society in the capitalist metropoles…
  • …but it’s an experience of lost meaning, both in life and art; if a novel or painting is now a legitimate commodity form to be exchanged, then that is also what makes it unexceptional; there is no meaning except in whatever hits the psychology of consumers in various market groups; literary criticism is now antiquated; we need only consult publishing agents and insiders who can interpret the market.
  • In literature at least, a focus on ontological confusion: the collision of incommensurable worlds and ways of being…
  • …but the big ideological blinders of the progressive petty-bourgeosie right now are not ontological but rather epistemological (only X identity knows X oppression and only they can resist it as a group, with no room for solidarity from a revolutionary proletarian perspective); and it’s paired with a crude positivism which confuses phenomena for essense (without the anaylsis of class, identity-based oppression can be distorted into a reified “thing” with no material grounding in production).
  • A possibly misplaced happiness when confronting the loss of foundations in modernity, opening the way for individual consumer preferences under the guise of insurrectionary politics (Hot Topic anarchism if you will)…
  • …but that does come with a pragmatic, whatever works mentality; a nice antidote to everyone being down in the dumps about language and representation.
  • Even the best old and contemporary metafiction novels are hard to recommend; who besides a few cognoscenti want to read a novel about other novels?…
  • …but maybe that’s an honest acknowledgement of true exhaustion for our culture; and there are determining factors in what gets translated that may be part of this one tendency.

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