Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Beauty of a Social Problem (E.G. Unemployment)

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Beauty of a Social Problem (E.G. Unemployment)

Article excerpt

In his new book on volume one of Capital, Fredric Jameson remarks that in the "affluent post-war 1950s and 1960s," Marx's idea that capitalism would eventually begin to polarize society into a "smaller and smaller group of capitalists" and "an ever larger percentage" of the poor "was the object of much mockery" (Representing 71). Today, he points out, no one's laughing. And, in fact, the laughter should, if we had been paying attention, have begun to fade as early as 1977 when the (relative) income equality that had prevailed since the end of the war began turning into the stunning rise in inequality that has prevailed ever since. In 1984, for example, when Jameson published, "Postmodernism: the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," the top 10% of wage-earners in the US earned about 37% of all income (up from about 34% in 1977 and including capital gains); now the figure is more like 50%. (1) So insofar as our interest is in periodizing ("then") postmodernism, the first thing to note is that its consolidation into a more or less identifiable set of theoretical commitments and artistic practices is more a phenomenon of the years since the mid-'70s (economists sometimes call it the period of the Washington Consensus) than of the ones before (which they sometimes call the period of the Treaty of Detroit). (2) And the second is that if, with the advantage of hindsight, we think about postmodernism not only in relation to what Jameson in 1984 called "multinational capital" (Postmodernism 3) but, more specifically, in relation to the rise in inequality that has accompanied what today we more usually call neoliberalism, we can perhaps say something useful about postmodernism as a theory of knowledge, as a theory of the ontology of the work of art, and most obviously, as a theory of social organization And finally, the useful thing I want to say is that the essence of the postmodern has been precisely its theorization of equality, by which I mean its disarticulation of difference from inequality and, more generally, from conflict and contradiction.

Of course, there's an important sense in which a pre-77, post-77 distinction is arbitrary. On the one hand, it's not insignificant that The Postmodern Condition was published in 1979 or that the art critic Douglas Crimp "first found it useful to employ the term postmodernism" (Crimp 108) in the 1979 revision of his catalog essay to the groundbreaking "Pictures" show of 1977 or that if you produce a Google ngram for "postmodern," the word doesn't really get off the ground until 1978. On the other hand, many of the crucial practices, positions, and arguments--ranging from the critique of the author and the autonomy of the work of art to the invention of human capital and the fetishization of education as the key to social justice (3)--were put into place in the more immediate post-war period. My idea in insisting on the late '70s, then, is not so much to establish a serious discontinuity between before and after (much less to invoke a kind of nostalgia for the distinctive injustices of the affluent society) as it is to suggest that only from the standpoint of the developments that became visible in the late '70s can we see which of the inventions of the post-War period really mattered. And the point of invoking the rise of economic inequality (rather than, say, the mainstreaming of affirmative action in 1978 (4) or the quadrupling of the number of creative writing programs between 1975 and 1984 (5) or the rise of legal immigration from 385,000 in 1975 to 1,826,000 in 1991 (6)) is that it helps us to see what the new positions and the practices turned out to do. To put the point as teleologically as possible, in helping us see what postmodernism was for, it helps us see what postmodernism was, and is.

We can get at the same phenomenon analytically rather than chronologically by starting not with economic data but with a relatively straight-forward and authoritative statement of postmodern aesthetics, in effect, an account of what Crimp and others meant when they started to use "the term postmodernism. …

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