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Six— Toward Some Postmodernist Populisms: A Prescriptive Postscript
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Six—
Toward Some Postmodernist Populisms:
A Prescriptive Postscript

Viewed from one perspective the trajectory of this book has brought us ever closer to the (con)text of social movements and political action; and that is surely one of my intentions. But on another level that trajectory is an illusory one, since we have never really left the realm of academic, literary critical discourse—even this kind of "politerature" is still only polite rature , only a limited erasure of domination that can but does not automatically lead to wider domains of political action. Thus I want by way of conclusion to summarize some of the strategies emerging from my readings and suggest ways that they might be implemented in broader arenas of democratic contestation. I start with questions about the current roles of the literary intellectual in society and about certain currently dominant literary critical gestures that circumscribe those roles. Then I move into an analysis of various attempts to characterize our "postmodern condition" as a way into an argument for the kinds of counterhegemonic cultural/political activities I think we need in this particular and peculiar historical moment. My aim is to resist various kinds of critical and political sectarianisms by suggesting that certain habitually counterposed strategies actually need one another. To do so requires that I bracket some substantive political and theoretical differences, but I have no doubt that partisans of particular positions will be quick to resurrect those differences that matter. My hope, however, is that I can provoke them to do so in more creative, less debilitatingly agonistic ways.


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W(h)ither Intellectuals?

What is to be (un)done in order to bring literary theory and criticism to bear more cogently on political questions? As I hope my readings have demonstrated, I do not think there is a simple or singular answer to such a question. But surely if a tendency toward theoreticism has sometimes been part of the problem, anti-intellectualism will not be part of the solution. As Frank Lentricchia has argued, calls for a more engaged literary and cultural criticism must not and need not lead to anti-intellectualism or even anti-academicism, for it is illusory and self-denigrating for academic intellectuals to ignore the fact that we are situated in universities where there is much work to be done.[1]

At the same time, we need to think and act on the basis of a concept of the "literary" intellectual that is multileveled, that recognizes that there are a number of different audiences toward which we can and should address ourselves, perhaps beginning but not ending with the academy.[2] We need, on one level, to be what Foucault called "specific intellectuals," fighting on the important ground of our own particular, academic turf, as teachers teaching critical modes of reading, thinking, and acting, as colleagues struggling to dismantle professional, disciplinary, and institutional barriers to radical action, and as employees struggling within the hierarchical educational apparatus. But just at the moment when many have sought to use this notion of the specific intellectual to replace the older, indubitably sullied notion of a "universal intellectual" (one who presumes to speak for Humanity but tends in fact to speak only for a privileged portion of it), political conservatives have embraced the figure of the public intellectual as a base for a popular assault on the (limited) gains made by groups marginalized by race, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexuality. Setting these "special interests" against universal principles, conservatives have revealed how the solidification of the margins into "specific" "identities" and "communities" have made them vulnerably isolated. This suggests that without some horizon of public interest, based in certain (more legitimately) universalist claims, it may be impossible to create a counterhegemonic bloc. Every local site opens onto some set of universal(izing) principles; what matters is which particular universals get deployed and in whose interests. This need not entail the positing of a single , universal set of principles or values, however, but could instead posit a play of particularity and universality at work within a variety of semi-autonomous political movements whose inter-


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action could provide insurance against reductive universals even as they sought tentative consensus on mutually enabling general principles.[3]

Moreover, as a number of critics have suggested recently, the choice between "specific" and "universal" intellectual is not a simple either/or; there is no easy way out of the multiple positions "we" (variously, unevenly) inhabit.[4] "Western" intellectuals, for example, like other citizens of the world, are caught in transnational capitalism's universalizing webs as well as in specific locations of power/resistance. Thus while we may wish to abandon a false universalism, that universalism may not be about to abandon us.[5] Indeed, the pressures of hegemony may be asserting themselves most fully just at those points where privileged white males claim with such abandon to have become decentered, or claim to celebrate (without representing) heroic marginals and minorities. And the disciplinary apparatus may be at work most forcefully at those points where the most brilliant critical minds of a generation cross every intellectual border except the one policing the boundaries of academia and its discourses.

Thus Janice Radway, Edward Said, and Cornel West, among others, are quite right to call for academics to seek out wider, popular audiences whenever possible, to accept responsibility for putting our theories and rhetorical skills into practice in the test of public dialogue.[6] We need to be more insistent in using our academic positioning to open space for the voices of social movement resistance. We also need to involve ourselves (or involve ourselves more fully) in those movements, neither denying nor exaggerating the particular intellectual skills we possess but offering them in contexts that will inevitably also reveal the blindnesses our knowledge has produced in us. Edward Said publicly advocating the rights of the Palestinians, Cornel West bringing his counterhegemonic voice into African-American churches, Janice Radway engaging in dialogue about feminism with romance-novel readers offer three very different but equally suggestive models of "literary" intellectuals breaking out of professional confines in order to profess more efficaciously.

In talking this way I realize that I risk the danger of further entrenching the false notion that the university is a wholly otherworldly place, or at least that it is not part of what I have been calling the wider world. This notion is false both because it occludes the work of universities as servants of the state and of corporate capitalism and, more importantly, because it hides the ways in which social movement resistance does take place on campuses. Of course universities have been the site of social


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movements; indeed in many instances they have played key roles in their development and diffusion. It is even possible to argue that there are social movements at the level of knowledge going on in universities. But while various kinds of political struggles go on in the university on a variety of levels, they are all to one degree or another forced to compromise with institutional structures designed to reproduce existing social relations. I have defined social movements by contrast as always extrainstitutional, as structured by a certain refusal to settle for compromise solutions and by a resistance to all final acts of representation. The academic institutions of today are very different from what they were thirty years ago, and those changes were made possible by events outside as well as inside the university that employed non- and sometimes even anti-academic modes of struggle. My point is simply that these changes are now in danger of being lost if that history is forgotten and the battle is restricted to the realm and modes of academic contest alone.

The proliferation and intertextual elaboration of theory has at times led us to forget that this recent period of rich theoretical activity itself was to a great extent enabled by first the rise and then the relative decline of the first wave of new social movements in the 1960s. The new theory was enabled initially by social movements in the sense that the agenda of anticolonial, antiracist, antisexist concerns that animates much recent theory, as well as the critique of leftist orthodoxies and the distrust of centralized institutions and totalizing discourses, were the core of the radical democratic activity in the sixties.[7] While not all the new theoretical work was openly or progressively political, all of it benefitted from space opened up in the academy by concrete struggles by anticolonial movements, by women, by African-Americans, and by a host of others who asked new questions that forced reconceptualizations of virtually every field in the humanities and social sciences.

The new work was enabled by these movements in a second sense in that their (relative) decline in the seventies sent people back to the drawing board of theory, and led them to begin the "long march through the institutions" that has done much to strengthen the academic base of the American left. But the march through the institutions also has taken its toll by helping define "Theory" in narrowly philosophical terms, cutting it off from various other forms of critical thinking (including literature itself as theory), and by institutionalizing theory in ways that draw it within disciplinary matrices that isolate it from social movements (which are themselves theorizing entities).[8] The very success of Theory within the


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academy has tended to give it an illusory aura of autonomy that further insulates theorists from social movement activists and deepens the suspicions of some activists that theory is not of practical importance.

When confronted with such claims many of my colleagues resort to the one (and usually only) theory they share with Ronald Reagan—the "trickle down" theory—in this case, the theory that theory eventually trickles down from the heights of academic conferences and abstruse books to water the grass roots. I think there is some truth to this, but surely we can do better than we have done at facilitating this process: and surely part of the problem of this model is that it describes a one-way flow of knowledge. We need a model of our enterprise that recognizes academia as one crucial site of political activity and protects it as one crucial site of theoretical activity, but a model that guards against the complacency that emerges when we in universities imagine ourselves to have a monopoly on theory or exaggerate the importance of our academic battles.

Formalisms and Their (Dis)Contents

Let me make these criticisms more specific by looking at five interrelated, overlapping theoretical and rhetorical tropes or "moves" that have contributed to complacency, that have made it difficult to connect theory to social movement practice and social movement theory to critical practice in recent years. All five of these moves have been and can still be quite productive (indeed I have used all of them to one degree or another in previous chapters). But I believe that as currently practiced they often provide more distraction than illumination and insight.

The first and overarching move has been carelessness in how we extend the notion of "text" out of the literary into other social realms. This projection of text into the wider social landscape has been an immensely useful rhetorical gesture for countering naive, unmediated empiricism, and for uncovering the discursive construction of objects, facts, events, practices. But this process, intended to help rescue the social world from reification, has too often instead subsumed the social into a reified, formalist notion of literature (or textuality). This is a tempting move for those of us whose main action in the world is the manipulation of words, but exaggerating the importance of textual criticism (narrowly conceived) tends to divert attention away from those points where textual power is deployed in the wider world, and away from strategies for deconstructing the linguistic and extralinguistic institutional bases of dis-


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courses. Even institutions can sometimes fruitfully be seen as the instantiation of metaphors, but the key word here is instantiation not metaphor. Deconstructing Moby-Dick can be part of, but should not be confused with, deconstructing the Leviathan of the American state.

The "virtual reality," video game war in the Persian Gulf provides a graphic example of how important "textual," semiotic warfare has become. In the form of representational strategies carefully constructed by White House media experts to fit into existing media storytelling, a "literary" war of signs was crucial in enabling the very real, very deadly effects of the more literal war.[9] But even as this confirms the emphasis of recent theory on the textual construction of reality, it points up how useless such analyses are if they are not also tied to theories and strategies for gaining access to the social means of reality reproduction, and theories and strategies for expanding the constituency of resisters.

A second, related set of critical miscues entails certain fusions or confusions of "literary" representation with political representation. This problem has two dimensions working in rather opposite directions. One consists of arguments that attempt to aestheticize politics by projecting allegedly "antirepresentational," avant-gardist strategies (literary/critical) onto larger sociopolitical realms.[10] While I am sympathetic to these efforts (they are akin to and inform what I have been doing here), it seems to me they greatly underestimate the inherent conservatism of everyday life (even under "postmodern" conditions), ignore those moments when relatively stable representations serve struggles against domination, and fail to take seriously enough the fact that different social domains work by different logics. At least in the hands of epigones, such positions seem to degenerate into celebrations of difference for difference's sake, ambiguity for ambiguity's sake. What is needed is not the elimination of ambiguity and certainly not of difference but a more careful search for those points where ambiguities are strategically necessary to specific political contexts and where differences arise from the need to differentiate specific oppressions.

The equally dangerous reverse side of this trope conflates literary representation with political representation by projecting the latter onto the former. Getting literary representation for the previously invisible can be one step toward changing the political balance of powers (and thus projects like the truly canon-challenging Heath Anthology of American Literature , for example, are immensely important). But this kind of representation does not translate automatically into representation in the political sense. There is even a danger that this new representation of


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"minorities" will be used as a substitute for serious challenges to those wider systems of power. The new discourse of "multiculturalism," for example, can either be used to force a total reconceptualization of the narrow version of the literary and cultural past called "the Western tradition," or it can be used to confirm marginalized peoples in subcultural ghettos that divide and conquer, offering separate, but not equal, representation. Terms like multiculturalism are already being used by those who wish to "administer" and "manage" diversity to create a more pliable student body and work force. And they are being used to "integrate" selected representatives of "minority" groups into the cultural and economic system without significantly altering the power ratios that keep most group members in the underclasses. Literary representation can serve either to create multicultural elites and the illusion of political progress, or serve as one wedge for broader social change. It can accomplish the latter only if we do not exaggerate the connection between the literary and the political.

The next three rhetorical moves I want to criticize all concern the radical questioning of the individual subject as social agent in recent theory. One dimension of this move entails the effacing of historical actors by translating them into abstract "Others" or abstract forces of "difference" that putatively challenge Western metaphysics or Man or the West itself. This move has been useful in undoing a number of reified categories of "Western" thought, but it is an extremely imprecise, even evasive, strategy at the level of sociopolitical action. This vagueing and vogueing of the "Other" has a tendency to efface those historical "subjects" who have been actively "decolonizing" the West during the last three decades thereby further distancing academic critics from the only forces capable of actually, not just textually, deconstructing domination. Even some "organic intellectuals" associated with liberation movements have been confused by this theoretical slippage, but I think it is primarily those removed from the stakes of lived and theorized (as opposed to merely theorized) marginality who have perpetuated this effacement (sometimes going so far as to play "marginal" the way some Westerners used to "go native" in the not-distant-enough past).[11]

Part of this confusion has arisen from a failure to translate fully from the political and cultural (con)texts of France into the very different (con)texts of the United States. Particularly among younger scholars, textual Otherness has become not only a substitute for but an obfuscation of "other," more consequential political struggles. Cornel West puts the issue this way:


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Americans are always already in a condition of postmodern fragmentation and heterogeneity in a way that Europeans have not been; and the revolt against the center by those constituted as marginals is an oppositional difference in a way that poststructuralist notions of difference are not. These American attacks on universality in the name of difference, these "postmodern" issues of Otherness (Afro-Americans, Native Americans, women, gays) are in fact an implicit critique of certain French postmodern discourses about Otherness that really serve to hide . . . the power of the voices and movements of Others.[12]

We need, therefore, a far more (con)text-specific sense of centrality and marginality, otherness and the dominant, one that continually seeks to trace textual heteroglossia back to its origins in specific social sites of contestation for meaning and/as power.

A fourth move that a number of theorists are re-thinking is the related critique of "essentialism" that has become normative, indeed seemingly essential, in many "postmodern" discourses. As Diana Fuss argues, essentialism (a belief in the "real . . . invariable and fixed, essence" of a category, an object, or an identity) is "deeply and inextricably coimplicated" with its supposed opposite, constructionism.[13] There are very important political stakes in bridging the gulf between essentialists and constructivists, because the two are often equated with social movement activists and academic theorists, respectively, a move that reinforces a debilitating theory/practice split.[14] As Fuss suggests, we must avoid asking reductive questions like, is this text or argument essentialist (and therefore "bad"), and ask instead, for what purposes is a seemingly essentialist position put forth. Terms like "strategic essentialism" that have been used to challenge this kind of questioning are helpful, but only if they do not make the condescending assumption that those deploying these strategies do so unintentionally. The deployment, for example, of a collective identity (woman, gay, African-American, native) is most likely to be recognized as strategic from inside that collective where intimate knowledge of internal difference is greatest; it is on the outside that such gestures are most likely to be mistaken as essentialist. Seemingly essentialist gestures are a necessary, recurring epistemological moment in organizing, one that is never wholly superseded by the equally necessary moments when internal diversity must be stressed.

The fifth and final theoretical move in need of re-envisioning is a complex corollary of the essentialist and "Other" questions: the problem of the dissolving "subject" in relation to political agency. This generally entails replacing an exaggerated notion of subjective self-creation with an


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exaggerated notion of determination of self by language. The postmodern critique of "Western Man" as heroic bourgeois individual has been essential in undoing "essentialist" positionings that have been politically counterproductive. But it is far from clear that a politics without a subject, or without an active notion of human agency, can be a politics at all. Those who theorize a "decentered subject" and who are anxious to further this decentering must face the contrary fact that for many of those "subjects" marginalized by current hegemonic structures, achieving subjecthood is a key moment in the radicalization process. Truly decentering the straight, white, male, Western, capitalist self may well depend on a strengthened sense of subjecthood on the part of those who have for so long been subject to that dominant Self.

As Chela Sandoval has argued, in one of the first and most lucid re-conceptualizations of marginalized subjects, this does not mean a reconstruction of the centered Western Self because those on the margins have never had the luxury of such a unified self. In Sandoval's specific example, women of color have always had to engage to one degree or another in a complex negotiation of identities or layers of identity in order to survive in the interstices of straight, white, male power. Like W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of "double consciousness," Sandoval's argument acknowledges that multiple subjectivities are virtually structured into the consciousness of those "othered" by the dominant. But she suggests that realization of an "oppositional consciousness" is achieved only through active political engagement in which identities shift to fit specific, tactical, and strategic needs, possibilities, and limits. Oppositional consciousness entails a constant creation and re-creation of identity, but it is a far more active and self-conscious form of being than that conceptualized as the decentered subject. It is less a question of being centerless than of having multiple tactical centers from which to resist both marginalization and the co-optive centerings offered by dominating forces.[15]

As a number of theorists have suggested, a new social movement politics is needed that creates and maintains an irreducible plurality of subject positions even as it seeks to articulate "equivalences," points of discursive alliance, across collective subjects.[16] But this means seeing both representation and identity as ongoing processes that sometimes must be strategically stabilized, that cannot always be in a state of deconstructive transformation. Those in positions of privilege need to see marginalized "subject positions" as real, active, self-conscious, theorizing, resisting, embattled, unstable, collective, and individualized political actors, not


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abstract resisting force-fields or subjects-in-process of becoming someone's avant-garde fantasy.

If recent critical revolutions have not exactly taken place "in the realm of Pure Spirit," the five theoretical moves I have just outlined do seem to have led at times to discourses full of sound and sometimes fury but signifying (almost) nothing. By contrast, the best of recent theoretical and literary work seems to me to have emerged from critics and writers who experience oppression on a daily basis and who tend for that reason to have fairly direct ties to ongoing movements. Recent efforts by feminist critics, for example, to interweave class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and the domination of nature into their analyses, while also evolving a range of strategies to deal with different levels and sites of struggle, from the seminar to the streets, have been spurred largely by demands from movement constituencies that the diversity of women be acknowledged and theorized (a fact, again, sometimes effaced by the fetishizing of feminist theory as an autonomous force). What I read as the relatively greater political clarity and power of much feminist and antiracist criticism suggests that the context of an ongoing social movement is a key element needed to shape literary and cultural criticism, not in the narrow sense that one must write always for an audience of social movement activists, but rather in the sense that contact with movements can generate questions that remind theorists of the difference between changing theories and theorizing change.

Through a Glass Building Darkly

The critique of theoretical moves just outlined can be seen as part of a broader effort that attempts to rethink and resituate the concept(s) denoted by the term "postmodernism." I want to clarify the wider political-theoretical base for my critical position by briefly engaging several American critics whose differing but overlapping perspectives on the "postmodern condition" make clearer the political stakes of that debate and the political stakes of my advocacy of "postmodernist realism."

Fredric Jameson's essay "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" provides a particularly provocative point of entry into the debate since, as his title suggests, Jameson sees postmodernism not as one style among others but as nothing less than "the cultural dominant" corresponding to and aiding the (re)production of "late capitalism." For Jameson, postmodernism is the culture that emerges from


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mass-mediated, multinational capitalist production, a culture he reads as a virtually seamless web of hegemonic form. He argues, therefore, that "every position on postmodernism in culture . . . is also and necessarily an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism."[17] I think this latter argument is largely correct, and I want here to explore the political implications of various readings of postmodernism, beginning with the politics implied in Jameson's own position.

For Jameson the symptoms or elements of postmodernism as they appear in aesthetic forms and everyday life include the waning of affect; the fragmentation of subjectivity; and an effacement of history that results in a preference for nostalgic, "retro" art forms that "mimic" or "cannibalize" earlier styles and stylistic eras. Time becomes lost in space; history becomes a history of styles without reference to any social grounding. The central generic postmodernist term for Jameson is "pastiche," a "neutral" form of parody, one without satiric, critical content. As with all forms of postmodernism as he defines them, "pastiche" lacks a norm, let alone a utopian possibility, against which to measure itself. Postmodernism is at once full of all histories and cultures, and utterly empty, having transformed them all into interchangeable codes with no more meaning than the disconnected sentences of a schizophrenic.

At the level of theorizing, postmodernism is characterized by the replacement of depth/surface models with the structural play of surfaces. Jameson offers five examples of what has been lost or challenged: the "hermeneutic model of inside and outside," the "existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity," the "dialectical [model] of essence and appearance," the "Freudian model of latent and manifest, or of repression," and the "great semiotic opposition of signifier and signified." For Jameson what has been lost with these models is the purity, if not the very possibility, of critical distancing from capitalism as the site of domination.

While somewhat anxiously acknowledging the danger of inducing passivity or despair through such a "totalizing" analysis, Jameson claims that it is only by positing such a dominant that one can identify, using Raymond Williams's terms, "residual" and "emergent" forms of resistance to this dominant. In this regard, Jameson's most provocative thesis is no doubt that various forms of postmodernist and poststructuralist "theoretical discourse" bear all the markings of this cultural dominant, that in celebrating a certain aleatory heterogeneity of textualized images and "intensities" these writers are in fact celebrating the "logic" of mul-


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tinational capitalism. Postmodernism is the cultural logic of multinational capitalism, a new mode of production wherein, in Guy Debord's phrase, "The image has become the final form of commodity reification."[18] The cultural or superstructural sphere, according to Jameson, is at once greatly expanded and totally eliminated. One can either see the cultural as swallowing the political economic, or the reverse. The result, he claims, is the same: a process of near-total reification. Jameson's most striking metaphoric emblem for this process is the mammoth Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, a postmodern monolith that at once repels the city around it by creating within its walls a self-sufficient minicity cure fortress, and simulates the surrounding city on its mirrored surfaces. Inside such a disorienting edifice "our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically (let alone theoretically) incapable of distanciation."[19]

Jameson includes among the victims of postmodernism the very possibility of any even "semi-autonomous" cultural sphere, the possibility of any critical "aesthetic distancing." Instead he posits a situation in which all "critical distancings" including "specifically political interventions" are immediately reabsorbed into the postmodern, late-capitalist system. The anxiously repeated assertion near the end of his essay that he does not want his totalizing analysis to be seen as encouraging passivity before the inevitably long march of the dialectic only confirms to me that, despite a final rather obscure gesture toward some new "as yet untheorized" didactic art, political paralysis is precisely what Jameson's logic would seem to dictate.[20]

Jameson's analysis provides one of the most powerful negative readings of postmodernism, and he is therefore right to say his perspective can be made useful as a backdrop against which to posit attempts to define resistive forces in postmodernity. But there are several aspects of Jameson's position that make it a less than ideal vantage point for observing and furthering such resistance. To begin with, his position is ultimately (in the last instance) economistically reductive and undialectical. Seeing postmodernism as the extrusion of a new phase of capitalist production needs to be balanced against the internal evolution of aesthetic forms and representational practices, which themselves act upon economic and social relations. Similarly, his strong privileging of class relations leaves little room for such elements as race, gender, and nationalism as independent or at least semi-autonomous causal factors. Moreover, even within the realm of political economy Jameson's model is not the most useful one; in The Condition of Postmodernity , a book


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that is to a large extent an elaboration of Jameson's general thesis, David Harvey argues that postmodernism more closely resembles the relative chaos of an as yet still experimental new regime of "flexible accumulation" than some homogenous third stage of capitalism. Yet, Harvey joins Jameson in too quickly shutting down rather than opening up debate about new political economic developments, a closure that in turn short-circuits possible new configurations of the cultural sphere.[21]

Jameson's position has also been criticized as unduly globalizing. A number of Third World and postcolonial intellectuals have questioned the theoretical hubris in finding postmodern cultural imperialism everywhere in such a way that various local knowledges and anticolonial discourses are seen as merely mirrors of Western hegemony. Indeed, from the point of view of these critics it is Jameson who is the bearer of cultural imperialism rather than its critic as he postmodernizes realms that may seem to share certain features but that serve very different purposes in Third World (con)texts, including in the domestic Third Worlds within the United States. Stuart Hall has quipped that postmodernism is how the world imagines itself to be America.[22] While this is surely true in part, particularly of certain well-publicized French postmodern thinkers, it is equally true that often postmodernism has been about how America imagines itself to be the world; that is the danger raised by sweeping gestures like Jameson's.

In order to posit his wholly incorporated postmodernism, Jameson must also homogenize and exaggerate the oppositional quality of "high modernism" (a position that does not bother to distinguish between the politics of Dada and of T. S. Eliot, for example, is homogenizing in the extreme). In a rather stark, binary opposition modernism plays hero to postmodernism's villain. This is misleading on both ends, for surely if modernism had been as oppositional as he suggests it could not have so easily become canonized, and if postmodernism allows "no distanciation" from the ideological, it is difficult to account for the obvious, ongoing oppositional effects of Jameson's own powerful writings.

Thus, the problem with Jameson's otherwise highly suggestive and useful story is that, rather than making it possible to clarify the resistive power of the "residual" or the "emergent," as he claims is his goal, these possibilities are often obscured by the very brilliance of his presentation of the incorporative powers of postmodernism. To find such resistance one must look both more carefully inside and more widely outside of the postmodernism he analyzes. While keeping in mind Jameson's cautionary tale of the cunning of postmodernism, one must also ask whether,


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while all of us may in some degree be caught in the webs of the postmodern cultural dominant, some may be less entangled than others (webs are, after all, traps riddled with holes). We can begin to locate these possible pockets of resistance by first looking at the opposite side of this question, by asking: who is most caught in the webs of postmodernism?

We Shall Not Be Mauved

Critic Fred Pfeil, partly in response to what he calls Jameson's "magisterially" performed reading of postmodernism, has offered an alternative perspective on postmodern culture, one that attempts specifically to answer the question of who produces and who consumes the bulk of postmodernist texts.[23] Pfeil suggests that Jameson's extremely abstract version of a political-economic analysis of the forces shaping the "cultural logic of late capitalism" will simply leave readers, as he puts it, waiting "to catch the next Kondratieff wave," the next great crash of capitalism against the shores of its own internal contradictions. He accepts much in Jameson's phenomenology of the postmodern, but he wants to discuss it with greater particularity as to its origins, and greater sense of possibility regarding its resistability:

For underneath the apparent naturalness and inevitability of "postmodernism" and "late capitalism" . . . lies another level of unnatural, willed and contingent reality—the reality of the "conjuncture." And such a distinction is crucial for us as cultural and political agents, for the "organic" in all its achieved naturalness is always the effect of innumerable conjunctural struggles won and lost, on the cultural, political, and economic levels alike. . . . What follows is an analysis of postmodernism not as an inevitable effusion of an entire mode of production but as a cultural-aesthetic set of pleasures and practices created by and for a particular social group at a determinate moment in history.

Specifically . . . postmodernism is preeminently the "expressive form" of the social and material life experiences of my own generation and class, respectively designated as the "baby boom" and the "professional-managerial class" or PMC.[24]

Pfeil offers the following definition of the "PMC," drawn from the work of Barbara and John Erhenreich: the professional-managerial class consists of "salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be broadly described as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations."[25] Pfeil goes on to demonstrate that the PMC, made up of perhaps as much as 80 percent of the employed 35–45-year-olds in


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the United States in 1990 (and a similar proportion in most advanced capitalist states),[26] remains a politically ambivalent, ideologically fluid population whose indecision produces and is produced by ambiguities in the class position of its members. That ambiguity can perhaps best be indicated by noting that different critics have referred to this same group as either "the new working class" or "the new middle class."

Where Jameson's analysis characteristically does not rise to the level of the concrete in which empirical readership of postmodernist productions could be an issue, Pfeil argues convincingly that the professional-managerial class finds its "structure of feeling" expressed in and partly produced by the kind of works Jameson calls postmodernist. Raised for the most part in a world saturated with mass-mediated images, amidst a "ceaseless process of the consumerized self's construction, fragmentation, and dissolution at the hands of a relentless invasive world of products," as the "primary target . . . of the commodified messages . . . beamed out by the U.S. culture industry," reality comes to the PMC "pried loose from its point of origin in any genuinely social discourse or personal experience, distorted and crystalized into an infinitely manipulable, reproducible fragment which . . . may be rubbed up and recombined with any other and then returned, as intrusively and insidiously as possible to the consciousness of the privatized consumer/viewer to be recognized and chosen [as his/her own]." Eventually such mass-mediated reality becomes for many a substitution of "the always-shifting pseudocollectivity of 'life-style' . . . for the public realm lost."[27] In this context, recognition, at the level of "high cultural" postmodernism, of an aesthetic of fragmentation, confirms reality for the PMC. But Pfeil's point is that it is often not a wholly comforting or comfortable recognition.

While not disproving the hypothesis that postmodernism is our cultural dominant, Pfeil's analysis raises certain political strategic possibilities obscured in Jameson's picture. Where Jameson sees postmodernism as a generalized condition of late capitalism, as a more profound penetration of capitalism into cultural realms still left semi-autonomous in the earlier era of "high modernism," Pfeil sees a more dialectical logic at work in postmodernism. Noting that postmodernism is in many respects the successor to the sixties counterculture, he sees in its products many of the same ambivalent gestures toward incorporation and resistance found in the counterculture itself. Drawing on the work of the Birmingham school, Pfeil views the counterculture as a utopian prefiguration (as in other contexts has Jameson himself), and he finds that logic still at play in postmodernist works like those of performance artist Laurie Anderson


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or the rock group Talking Heads. Where Jameson sees aimless pastiche, Pfeil sees anxious ambivalence, a gesture toward utopian redemption of cultural refuse that knows itself to be a failed gesture, that precisely senses but does not wholly succumb to the immense forces of incorporation Jameson elaborates. What the baby-boom PMC will make of that knowledge is an as yet undecided political and cultural question.

A number of important strategic implications (mostly left unstated) flow from Pfeil's line of argument. Most obvious of these is simply the fact that struggle over the political direction that the PMC is to take is of immense importance. Leftists should now once and for all shed their guilt about organizing among this class (often their own). One key component of such organizing will be the revival of a strategy begun (too) late in the sixties by the New Left, the strategy of forming political organizations in all the various professional or vocational sectors of the PMC.[28] One aspect of this struggle needs to begin at the most basic level of countering the discourse of the "yuppie," a term that obscures the less affluent lives of the vast majority of members of the PMC by assimilating them into the upper class, and contributes to the suppression of insight into the more fruitful class alliances open to the PMC (alliances with those other groups who own little but their actual or potential labor power).

In all the industrial countries the PMC has contributed a great deal to the growth of radical democratic new social movements.[29] It is also this class that has contributed most to the new modes of mass-mediated mystification that do so much to maintain domination. Thus, an important contest needs to be waged in particular for the hearts and minds of those members of the PMC who work in the consciousness industries (advertising, mass media, etc.) that do so much to shape imagined reality not only for their class but for other classes as well.

Pfeil's "conjunctural" analysis is an improvement on Jameson's more Hegelian version of class struggle because, though he is reluctant to speculate or make recommendations about "the aesthetico-political future of postmodernist cultural works," Pfeil points out that the "possibility that much of what we now call postmodernism might be turned and engaged in more progressive political directions is finally a function of the extent to which [alliances with lower classes] are constructed . . . [along with a] concomitant new public sphere."[30]

One need not raise the specter of banal political art to argue for more engaged versions of postmodernism. Indeed, as a number of critics close to the scene of postmodernist production have noted, such works already


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exist and critics have an obligation to further such work and to call for more work like it.[31] Craig Owens, for example, has analyzed one of the figures who figures prominently in Pfeil's account, Laurie Anderson, as a kind of crypto-feminist whose work is becoming less crypto and more feminist all the time, in part because of the responses to her work by feminist critics. This kind of argument helps open up the "inside" of postmodernism I mentioned above by distinguishing between differing postmodernisms and postmodernists, suggesting certain strategic arenas where postmodernist works have been and can be politically affective and effective. Owens cites Jameson as a critic whose protection of Marxism as the "master narrative" of History makes it impossible for him to see in many works of postmodernism a much-needed dismantling of oppressive aspects of the Western tradition, oppressive traditions with regard to race, gender, and the exploitation of nature in which Marxism itself is also implicated. Owens shows, for example, how the pastiche-like use of mass-mediated images in much feminist art is quite distinct from and opposed to the flatly ironic use of such images in Warholian postmodernism. Where Jameson sees in postmodernism an attack on the very capacity and will to theorize and totalize, critics like Owens see (in some versions) the strategic deployment of postmodernist devices to attack particularly oppressive totalizing theories that assign marginal roles to all but white male theorists.[32]

Of Cyborgs and Salt Eaters

As a number of feminist critics have suggested, the discourse on postmodernism has until recently been dominated by men, both in the most obvious sense that men have tended to monopolize the verbal space of the postmodernism debate, and in the more important sense that much of the discourse on postmodernism itself can be seen as an evasion of feminist critical concerns (Owens and a few others notwithstanding).[33] As Meaghan Morris has argued, this elision works on at least two planes. On the one hand feminist contributors and precursors to the postmodernism debate have been ignored or effaced, and on the other hand the debate itself has tended to diffuse feminist critique into the vague concerns with Otherness, difference, marginality, and so on that I discussed above.[34] Each of these terms has more politically specific meanings within feminist theory, and that ground has been obscured by the kind of discussion presented in such postmodern theorists as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Derrida. The efforts of Jameson, Pfeil, and others to polit-


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icize the postmodernism debate have not fully overcome these initial evasions. But work by feminist, antiracist, and postcolonial critics has begun to specify some of the political possibilities and limits of postmodernity as condition and postmodernisms as strategies.

Feminist theorist Donna Haraway, for example, has offered in her "cyborg manifesto"[35] a seriously witty and ironic political myth to take advantage of certain features of postmodern culture that might be and to some degree are being turned against multinational, patriarchal capitalism. While accepting much of Jameson's analysis, she reads late capitalism more dialectically as a mode that in the process of trying to create a high-tech postmodern "informatics of domination" has destroyed many of the naturalizing, reifying constraints of liberal humanism, especially the constraints upon women entailed by their "encodation" as "natural." She argues that the current stage of transnational, postmodern capitalism includes a radical restructuring of social relations of science and technology. Chief among these restructuring processes are transgressions of boundaries between humans, animals, and the techno-mechanical that have important destabilizing effects on a number of repressive humanist ideologies, particularly on ideologies of "nature" that have policed gender boundaries.

Haraway sees gender boundary transgressions as particularly important in the light of the increasing centrality worldwide of women's labor in emerging political economic structures, a transformation that makes it more imperative than ever that feminist analysis be at the center of any counterhegemonic political struggle. Her metaphor for the ambiguous relation to technology structured into this process is the "cyborg," the cybernetic organism that is part human, part machine, an entity that marks our inextricable entwinement with technological systems but also our potentional liberation from "classed," "raced," and "gendered" notions of human nature. Cyborgs can take the menacing form of robocops, but they can also become forces of quite dramatically nonessentialist resistance that can take advantage of liberatory possibilities in this period of transition to some new high-tech political economy.

Haraway's argument that the "informatics of domination" has integrated women into the printed circuits of the new high technologies is not a return of the repressed "labor metaphysic" of Marxism with its guaranteed link between class and consciousness, however, but rather one that sees semiotic and material struggle as inextricably integrated. It is necessary, for example, if sources of resistance are to be found, to understand not only the economic matrices but also the various indigenous


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cultural traditions and constructions of gender identity that shape Malaysian or Mexican women on the high-tech assembly line.

If one refuses to engage the forms of postmodern technoculture altogether, Haraway suggests, one has eliminated the possibility of talking to the large numbers of people deeply shaped by those forms. Yet if one accepts those forms as thoroughly dominant, one also runs the equal risk of ignoring sources of resistance partly outside the postmodernist dynamic. Haraway is aware of this problem and thus takes some care to suggest that hers is only one among many possible "myths" and strategies. Following in the path of a number of Third World critics, her work acknowledges that hypothesizing a seamless, universal postmodern condition may simply be a kind of inverted rebirth of Western Man. While she is not always as clear as she might be about the extent to which her analysis applies to only certain arenas of the current world system, Haraway clearly understands that the postmodern condition is subject to uneven development and capable of manifesting itself very differently among different social sectors and actors in differing cultural matrices.

What critics who wish to find liberatory possibilities in postmodernism tend to slight in their sometimes fruitful attempts to appropriate the appropriators is the political potential of what Raymond Williams has called "residual cultures." Just as the original Luddism was not simply reactionary but also anticipatory and prefigurative of future labor struggles, elements of high-tech Luddism are called for alongside, and sometimes in place of, "cyborgian" struggles to democratize elements of the high-tech political economy. If we can no longer, after a period of important theoretical self-examination, point to and appropriate traditions with epistemological innocence, we can nevertheless find numerous ways to (re)construct "traditions" as arguments against the current, imperfectly dominant system. The powerful political impact of recent work recovering/creating women's, ethnic, and gay histories, for example, is evidence against overly generalized notions of postmodern ahistoricity.

There is real danger in positing a relentless postmodernity that has swept away all previous traditional knowledges and cultures. It is one thing to argue that postmodern conditions have blurred or eliminated a number of "borders" (national, ethnic, cultural, etc.), but quite another to argue that the subjects and objects crossing those borders are thereby hegemonically homogenized or transformed into heroic postmodern nomads.[36] The cultural "deterritorialization" process of transnational capitalism is an uneven, multilayered set of developments, full of resistances and transformations as well as incorporations.[37] Haraway, for example,


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finds in such diverse sources as science fiction literature, recent theoretical/autobiographical works by women of color, and ecofeminist direct actions, the creation of new spaces at once inside and outside the cultural dominant, spaces marked by a creatively "monstrous" acceptance of elements of the dominant that ironically inverts its values, while also drawing sustenance from the reinvention of subjugated knowledges and traditions.

A dynamic of intertextual, interactive residual-dominant-emergent moments is at work in these processes as it is in each of the "literary" texts I examined in earlier chapters. And a similar process is at work in what seem to me the most vital recent works of postmodernist realism, a new wave of texts by feminists of color. In novels like Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters , in multigeneric, cross-lingual texts like Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso pot sus labios and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza , in the films and autobiographical/theoretical writing of Trinh T. Minh-ha, in the massive community murals of Judy Baca, multiple, fractured identities and multiple, fractured histories are played against desires for connection and integrity.[38] These texts, like the work of Chela Sandoval discussed above, see identity as at once given and constructed, as something to be used against domination (a map to the interstices of power) and as an opportunity for self-(re)fashioning. Their "otherness" emerges from a history of oppression, and (re)turns that oppression into historically specific differences that provide solidarity for resistance and liberation. These theoretical texts are also clearly rooted in oppositional counterpublics where they play an active role in articulating and furthering acts of collective self-definition as a basis for collective action for change. Texts like these interactively arise from and create social movement audiences that prevent their dissemination into postmodern babel. They are exemplary reminders that it is in the struggle to create collective subjects-in-resistance that what I call postmodernist realism is doing its work.

Pop Goes the Avant-Garde

Just as claims about the postmodern collapse of national, ethnic, and cultural differences are exaggerated, so too is the oft-heard claim that postmodernism has collapsed the distinction between "high" and "popular" culture. Fred Pfeil, in the article cited above, offers a subtler analysis of this process. While noting that elements of popular culture increasingly have been drawn into high art forms, he suggests that high-, middle-, and


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lowbrow planes of postmodernism exist ("Einstein on the Beach," the David Letterman show, TV commercials). This seems undeniable, and because each of these different levels generates different kinds of cultural capital for different groups, we need to contest differently on each of these planes based on analysis of the varying audiences and aesthetic logics they entail.[39]

That analysis begins with a reassessment of the era of what Jameson calls "high modernism." As Andreas Huyssen has argued, "modernism" and "mass culture" arose simultaneously at the turn of the last century, with the former acting in part as a symptomatic response to the apparent banality and conservatism of the latter.[40] While not all modernist art was politically weighted to the left (sometimes as in Eliot or Wyndham Lewis it moved rightward), virtually all of it was antibourgeois. And included in modernism was a powerful left avant-garde position (Dada, surrealism, Brecht, etc.). In the postmodern era lines between high and low culture have become blurred (but not erased) both because much avant-garde technique has been absorbed by mass or popular culture, and because the avant-garde itself has become canonized in conservative ways.

What has occurred is not the total collapse of modernism and the avant-garde but rather a recognition that "art" has become inextricably entwined with "commerce," leading to two quite different, equally "postmodern" responses. One response, represented best perhaps at the level of aesthetic production by Andy Warhol and in theory by Jean Baudrillard, in effect accepts and celebrates the transformation of all art into capitalist hyperreal image commodities such that all the world becomes a kind of kitschy aesthetic playground.[41] A second, resistive postmodernism, represented by artist/activist/theorists like Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls and much AIDS art-activism, takes the utter commodification of even the most avant-gardist art as a problem that can be solved only by political-economic as well as cultural transformation. Work like Haacke's and Kruger's remains avant-gardist in the sense that it is often formally innovative and is directed primarily at a relatively small audience of connoisseurs, but it has lost the avant-garde faith in the revolutionary potential of aesthetic form in itself to effect change and turns instead (or in addition) to questions of aesthetic function (questions about the transformation of art into cultural capital for corporations, for example, are at the core of Haacke's work). I think this kind of work is quite important (as my attention to some "elite" texts in the chapters above suggests), but this should be seen as only one plane of "postmodernist realism."


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Political contestation is needed not only on the level of a (redefined) avant-garde, but also at the middle- and lowbrow levels of popular culture. As John Fiske points out, while the cultural avant-garde has sometimes been and can continue to be more politically radical than popular culture, it has also, virtually by definition, been more politically contained:

Popular culture is progressive, not revolutionary. Radical art forms that oppose or ignore the structures of domination can never be popular because they cannot offer points of pertinence to the everyday life of the people, for everyday life is a series of tactical maneuvers against the strategy of the colonizing forces. It cannot produce the conditions of its existence, but must make do with those it has, often turning them against the system that produces them. Radical art tries to create its own terms of existence, to free itself from the status quo. It has an important place in the system of culture, and some of its radicalness may filter through to, and increase the progressiveness of, popular art, but it can never, in itself, be popular. Indeed, Bourdieu (1984) argues that radical art is bourgeois and lies outside the bounds of popular taste, while Barthes (1973) suggests that avant-garde art can only cause conflict between fractions of the bourgeoisie, but can never be part of class struggle. The political effectivity of radical art is limited by an inability to be relevant to the everyday life of the people, and, by the same token, any radicalness of popular art is equally limited by the same requirement of relevance.[42]

The conditions of postmodernity may at once have transformed (or perhaps only clarified) the role of the avant-garde and opened up more radical possibilities for effective aesthetico-political intervention.[43]

In the struggle over the future of the baby boom generation the avant-garde may have an important role to play, especially where avant-garde artists (like Laurie Anderson or Keith Haring) seek out wider audiences. But formalist elitisms among avant-garde artists and critics continue to inhibit their effectiveness through exaggerated stress on formal innovation in which avant-garde cultural production is portrayed as the only valid form of cultural representation, and through exaggerated claims for the political efficacy of such formal experiments.[44] Particularly in the more modest role of intraclass agitation, radical forms can prove progressive if articulated to particular political struggles (as, for example, in the work of some New York artists to resist the gentrification of certain neighborhoods by members of the "yuppoisie," among whom were some putatively avant-garde artists, or the adaptation of Barbara Kruger's graphic style by the Gran Fury collective of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—ACT UP).[45]

Alongside and intertwined with this cultural agitation is the generally


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less radical but much more far-reaching struggle over the meaning and direction of "popular culture." As Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, and, following them, Fiske have claimed, much popular culture represents a constant, if usually moderate, state of counterhegemonic rebellion against various powers that be. Looked at from the point of view of reception/articulation, rather than only from the point of view of production/distribution (which is clearly a mass-market, capitalist process that does have real constraining effects), popular culture is full of populist (especially anticorporate, antihierarchical) energy. This energy, like populist sentiment in general, is not inherently progressive, however. And unlike Fiske, I think that more often than not this disruptive energy is hegemonically redirected into safe forms of rebellion. But my argument is that this need not be the case, especially if more energy from the critical and aesthetic avant-garde were to be directed toward contesting the articulation of the popular.[46] As Andrew Ross has convincingly argued, the failure of intellectuals to contest on the ground of popular culture has been politically disastrous.[47]

Obviously serious difficulties stand in the way of realizing such a project, for the forces of postmodern incorporation of resistance are formidable, though not as densely woven as critics like Baudrillard and Jameson (from very different positions) suggest. In a culture where the production of "differences" has become highly commodified, the production of substantive representations of difference is a fraught task. The monopoly mass media and other forces of (post)modernization relentlessly transmute and absorb older value systems and current positive differences, but they do so unevenly and imperfectly. When a new source of resistance emerges, as in the rich ghetto culture of graffiti art, break dancing, and rap music, for example, the system's mass media are quick to cannibalize the phenomena as a source of stylistic renewal, as a new form to use to sell its products and as a new "image product" in its own right. But such acts of incorporation are always incomplete, stimulating in turn new sources of resistance.

Hip-hop culture is a complex hybrid that is at once recognizably postmodern and deeply rooted in African-American traditions. The struggle is in using the latter to direct the energies of the former. Two typical responses vitiate such possibilities. One response tries to portray hip-hop as some authentic, folk form beyond criticism. The other points to its use in commercials and sees it as already totally incorporated. Stressing the former tends to leave unchallenged the sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and narrowly nationalistic dimensions of some hip-hop productions,


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whereas stressing the latter ignores the very real moments of antiracist resistance still alive despite commercial incorporation of some aspects of hip-hop style. Both sides have part of the truth but each exaggerates the uniformity of an extremely mixed phenomenon.

Rap music, to take one example, is a complex layering of sounds that is also a complex layering of residual, dominant, and emergent forms. Rap uses contemporary technology to pastiche white and black popular culture in ways that can be appropriately labeled postmodern. But it does so to create communally and politically charged texts of resistance, ones that have not only politicized much of America's inner-city youth but have also to some degree helped politicize elements of the PMC's cultural avant-garde whose attempts to appropriate some of hip-hop's energy often led to an education in the realities of ghetto-barrio life.

At the same time, rap builds on and sometimes educates its audience about a rich history of black musical and oral art that has been a source of resistance to racist white power for four hundred years. Rap is deeply rooted in older black vernacular forms that are themselves part of a tradition of resistance working through counterincorporation of dominant forms, a process of counterhegemonic appropriation at least as old as the adaptation of Christian hymns as codes for the underground railroad's resistance to slavery.

That the tradition of resistance behind hip-hop culture is not always known to hip-hop audiences or to the artists themselves (though some hip-hop texts include Afro-centric history lessons and others patch in, for example, excerpts from the speeches of King and/or Malcolm X) is a sign not of some inevitable postmodern loss of historicity but of a general amnesia in American culture that has long served to erase all (unpleasant) memories of resistance. The proper response is not despair at inevitable postmodern incorporation, but the intensification of work to create movement (con)texts that provide both historical genealogies and clearer political directions for these strong new efforts to define and "fight the powers that be."

Beyond Actually Existing Populisms

The importance (as well as the limits) of cultural radicalism can be seen by looking at the history and future of political radicalism in the United States generally. In an analysis that dovetails interestingly with Michel de Certeau and Fiske's characterization of cultural resistance in everyday life, Richard Flacks has argued that the "left tradition" of democratic


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radicalism in the United States has been more successful through cultural than through traditionally political modes of contestation. In his brilliant reinterpretation of American radicalism, Flacks argues that the left has often exhausted itself in pursuit of revolutionary forms of action/rhetoric in nonrevolutionary situations, situations in which the immediate appeals and problems of everyday existence have kept ordinary people from achieving the degree of political engagement called for by the left. One ironic effect of this process has been that the American left has underestimated its own accomplishments by failing to note more incremental or delayed transformations brought about by radical activity. In effect, the left has failed to see through the smoke-screen thrown up by "mainstream" politics to hide its impact, and it has failed to look for changes in the right places (i.e., at the socio-cultural level rather than at political institutions).[48]

What the parallel analyses of the avant-garde and the left tradition suggest is that both have often squandered progressive cultural and political possibilities (and failed to credit themselves for victories) through the search for large-scale "forms" of dramatic, revolutionary change. At the most obvious level of comparison, this has meant a homology between avant-garde aesthetics (including much postmodern theory) and vanguard politics, though of course these two tendencies have imagined themselves to be worlds apart. It has meant a homologous revolutionary elitism that has amounted to a peculiar self-disciplining and self-limiting of radical energies. Radicals have thereby failed to take seriously the opportunities offered by a series of populist moments, both at the level of culture and at the level of more explicitly political action.[49]

What this suggests to me is the need for a new cultural/political "populism," new in the sense that it must deal with the particular postmodern conditions we have been examining, and populist in the sense that it seeks to become a truly counterhegemonic, popular force. Populism, of course, is a complex, ideologically contradictory political concept. The left has been rightly suspicious at times of populism because its progressive and reactionary versions have often been intermingled. But I would argue that this desire for ideological clarity or purity has contributed much to the left's marginalization, and should be replaced by efforts aimed at re-accenting moderate and perhaps even right populist moments in more progressive directions.

To suggest an agenda for exploring these issues, I want to begin by looking at what one might call, with fully appropriate irony, "actually existing populism" (i.e., a self-identified contemporary American left


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populist movement.[50] As is true of the actually existing socialism I am invoking, this self-identified populism is a contradictory, problematical, rather than an unambiguously exemplary, model (though in a very different way than existing socialisms). The "new populism," as defined by its most prolific spokespersons, Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, refers to the resurgence of localist, community-centered organizing in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States.[51]

In Evans and Boyte's construction the new populism is distinguished from other leftist organizing by claiming greater commitment to building on existing community ties, through churches, neighborhood groups, civic organizations, and so on. Though many are socialists, these theorists/organizers claim to strive for a less "ideological" approach, building analysis up from concrete circumstances. Believing the prime source of America's antidemocratic, "antipolitical" politics to reside in reliance on the technocratic elites of the liberal, interest-group pluralist state, they eschew petitioning of the state and stress instead self-reliant political organizations in the realm of civil society.

The strength of this position (as evidenced by the numerous large and small citizen activist networks laboriously chronicled by Boyte) is in the ability to build on (while transforming) existing (and usually eroding) community groups. They also build philosophically upon a popular tradition of liberal and radical American antistatism and anticorporatism that can be a real resource for the left. And they turn assaults by "modernization" on the family, the church, the neighborhood, and the workplace into sources for criticism of capitalism (as opposed to the "new right's" efforts to blame these things on feminism, welfarism, etc.). Evans and Boyte, and the populist left position they represent, make the significant point that much of the left, immersed as it is in the language of relentless critique, has cut itself off from important "traditional" sources of resistance. Both Boyte and Evans have activist roots in the Civil Rights movement, and they understand that much of the power of that movement came from the ability of Southern blacks to adapt existing cultural institutions, particularly black churches, to the purposes of a movement of radical transformation. Building on and re-directing, rather than severing, roots was a key to the vast mobilizations accomplished. One need only point to the extent to which Catholic and Protestant churches have proven themselves the backbone of virtually every major left movement in recent years to see that this remains an important lesson for organizers.

But as Boyte and Evans have admitted, communitarian groups with


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strong traditional ties are also vulnerable on a number of fronts. In particular, they are in danger of two kinds of co-optation. They can either be transformed into the kind of liberal interest groups they attempt to replace, given that, as we saw with the New Left, the eschewal of "ideology" often leaves little room for long-range social analysis. Or they can become defensive, conservative communities bent on excluding others from their new-found power. This danger is particularly strong when, again, in the interests of being "nonideological," abstract appeals to community insufficiently acknowledge what Boyte and Evans to their credit admit, that "communities can be open, evolving, and changing—or static, parochial, defensive and rigid. They can encourage new roles for those traditionally marginalized or powerless within their midst or they can reinforce traditional patterns of patriarchy, racial bigotry, homophobia, and exclusivity."[52]

A third, still more devastating possibility is not mentioned by Boyte and Evans: that even if successful at maintaining their independent, noninterest-group status, citizens groups may be serving the state inadvertently by helping to stabilize sectors of the poor and marginalized. Moreover, confinement to locality may be as much an effect of transnational capitalism as a form of resistance to it. As David Harvey argues it:

The . . . dilemmas of socialist or working-class movements in the face of universalizing capitalism are shared by other oppositional groups—racial minorities, colonized peoples, women, etc.—who are relatively empowered to organize in place but disempowered when it comes to organizing over space` In clinging, often of necessity, to a place-bound identity, however, such oppositional movements become a part of the very fragmentation which a mobile capitalism and flexible accumulation can feed upon. "Regional resistances," the struggle for local autonomy, place-bound organization, may be excellent bases for political action, but they cannot bear the burden of radical historical change alone.[53]

The closeness in language between the "new populism" and Reagan's "new federalism" has led to exaggerated attacks from the left on the "new citizens movement," but such critiques are not without ground.[54] A more fruitful approach than simply attacking this position, however, would stress the way that the complementary counterforces of feminist and class- and race-conscious populisms with more national and even global perspectives are key to making this new localist populism truly democratic. And it would acknowledge that many "new populists" themselves call for such global thinking and acting alongside and amidst localism.[55]


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Nevertheless, parallels between right and left populisms should give pause. In effect, the left "new populism" is in as much danger of embracing dominant forms (from a different angle) as are some uncritical proponents of the postmodernist ethos. They are in danger of playing into the new conservatism as the strategic deployment of a nostalgic version of America's past (including many elements celebrated by left populists) as a cover for the relentless (post)modernizing forces of transnational capitalism. There is delusion in any localist, ground-up communitarian organizing that believes it can ignore ideology or state and global capitalist forces. It is extremely doubtful that localities can ever generate the economic resources for such ground-up social reorganization; decentralization must proceed simultaneously with a strategy of democratic struggle over the central economic institutions of the state and "private" sectors, and no contradiction should be seen in using existing institutional structures of the welfare state (which provide vital services to many people) as part of a protracted transitionary process.[56]

At the same time, the similarities between right and left populisms make it crystal clear that so long as the new right struggles to cynically utilize "residual" elements (i.e., "traditional family values"), the left must struggle to build upon the best, most generous, and justice-serving "residual" elements in our traditions, rather than only deploying in exclusivist and elitist fashion politically and/or culturally "advanced" positions.[57] Parochialism is no less a problem for the vanguard and the avant-garde than for populist communitarians. And a left that wants to be truly counterhegemonic cannot afford to do without any of these strands.

This left-conservative "new populism" needs to be set within and against other populist strands (which do not necessarily use the label), including the (conflicted) grass-roots and electoral components of the Rainbow Coalition, various American "green" political groups modeled on Germany's die Grünen , and the antinuclear, peace, solidarity, and ecofeminist direct action movements. All of these groups themselves contain strong internal tensions between culturally traditional and culturally experimental factions, but generate political agendas that agree in opposing a whole panoply of contemporary injustices.

The strongest counterhegemonic project is most likely to emerge from a strategically mobilized play between traditional ways threatened by (post)modernization and new possibilities opened by capitalism's most recent sundering of its own ideological structures. Against new versions of an abstract socialist "labor metaphysic" or an equally abstract "citizen metaphysic" or an equally abstract "formalist metaphysic," the left needs


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strategically and ironically to play tradition and (post)modernity, rooted community realisms and floating transcultural postmodernisms against each other. Irony here is about the willingness to faithfully hold in theory and practice to "contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true."[58] And politics here is about knowing those points where the immediate, purist pursuit of one's full cultural-political agenda undermines the very means of achieving any significant part of that agenda.

Within this really ironic or ironically realist politics, leftist cultural intellectuals play an important role in mediating various levels of the cultural apparatus, helping build counterhegemonic public spheres in and beyond the academy to strengthen and expand movement cultures as semi-autonomous (con)texts of articulation and action against the material/symbolic conditions that generate hegemonic realisms and postmodernisms alike.[59] There is room in this process for critical (re)articulations of texts ranging from the most classical to the most avant-garde, the most elite to the most popular;[60] or, more to the point, there is room for the kind of reading strategies that erase these distinctions as class-based categories, extending the democratic appropriation of high culture and intensifying the radicalization of popular culture.[61] Particularly important to these efforts is support for mediating cultural institutions like the Alliance for Cultural Democracy, the Feminist Press, and dozens of similar efforts that link academics with community-based cultural-political activists.


In the course of his tour de force reading of postmodernist architecture as embodied (entombed?) in the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Fredric Jameson speaks of a "false populism" resident in the eclecticism of the postmodern aesthetic. This is an important point about the way in which certain elite elements of the postmodern avant-garde offer their audience a sense of superiority even as they offer nothing but empty pastiches of the presumed emptiness of most "popular culture." This is one of the ways that "high culture" does not erase its difference from the "popular" but maintains a class-based difference that mirrors "popular culture" at a self-consciously different level of a postmodernist cultural dominant.

But against this "false populism" and against the towering and disorienting image of the hotel itself, one can set a truly populist image that is in fact a part of this same landscape. Looked at from a slightly lower


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angle of vision than offered anywhere in Jameson's analysis, one can see a mural in the line of sight of the surrounding neighborhood's view of the hotel. The mural is the work of Chicana artist Judy Baca, who, using multiracial crews of male and female youth, has covered Los Angeles with literally miles of mural conveying the history and political struggles of the diverse ethnic populations of the city. The mural is one of many acts through which the local neighborhoods reclaim turf taken by the aesthetico-capitalist bandits who built the Bonaventure. The Bonaventure is indeed locked into its glossy postmodern self-reflections, but what is reflected there when one looks more closely is a city and a nation riddied with sources of contradiction, resistance, and transformation. While conservative postmodernism continues to write its paeans to the surfaceness of surfaces, postmodern subjects continue spraying very different messages on the surfaces of our cities: these graffiti writers too are forming the conditions of our postmodernity through messages of resistance and through the struggles for justice from which they arise.


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