Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Only Just Returned – Jameson on Postmodernism at Iowa

Edit: Finally got this reposted.  Feel free to rehost and let me know.  Jameson at Iowa, MP3.  And if you can help me figure out how to get a free rapidshare account, let me know, I absolutely can't figure it out.

I just got back from the Ida Beam Visiting Professor Public Lecture, delivered by Fredric Jameson.  I’ve seen a number of lectures by brand-name intellectuals over the years at Iowa, and some of them, it must be said, have been really phoned in.  While I can’t say Jameson was some sort of impassioned attack dog, his talk was extremely useful, progressive, and thought-provoking.  A couple of topics in particular caught my ear, as Jameson commented on the internal contradictions of anti-essentialism, and on the transformative effects of communication technology on finance, particularly in the realm of finance.  Given some controversy I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks here at Iowa, I think it’s also worth delving into the question of Jameson’s accessibility (spoiler: I think he was in many respects a great model for clarity combined with seriousness).

It has been made before, but it was nice to hear Jameson rehearse a problem that I find absolutely crucial for us to confront – namely, the problem of reconciling a radical political anti-essentialism with itself.  Anti-essentialism, in its rejection of race, nation, or sex as the basis from which individual features are derived, must also reject any regime or ideology that attempts to impose such normative standards on others.  In that moment, anti-essentialism becomes just the sort of universal it abhors, as when assertions of universal human rights end with the elimination of particular local laws or customs.  I’ve yet to hear any really good suggestions for resolving or negotiating this difficulty at the heart of contemporary politics, or for that matter a really good explication of what exactly is going on at the epistemological level.  Jameson didn’t really offer the explanation I’m waiting for, as this was just part of his larger argument about singularity vs. universality, and their essential tension.

Jameson’s most provocative point related the market in commodity futures to the predominance of space over time in postmodernity.  In other words, his argument is that, thanks to a certain kind of insurance against risk provided by the futures trading market, and even moreso the infinitely mutable market for unique derivative products, “the passage of time, deep time . . . has been virtually eliminated.”  This struck me as an extremely strange claim to make in the wake of one of the most wrenching economic events of modern history, one made possible exactly because of the delusion that the future could be kept at bay with economic instruments.  If Jameson has made this claim elsewhere and defended it more thoroughly, I’d be curious to see it.  As it is, I lay pre-emptive blame at the feet of Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, whose book Jameson referenced in the course of this discussion.

There was a slight but important weakness to a further argument he made about finance, when he described contemporary derivatives as so complex as to put them in the category of the singularity (which he equated more with a Badiou-esque Event than with the sci-fi “singularity” of artificial intelligence’s sudden self-consciousness).  What was less than clear here for me was whether he regards the singularity as a really occurring Event or as an ideological construct.  Certainly, he later went on to include the notion of the singularity as itself supporting the elimination of time, insofar as it reduces the ability to truly project into the future.  This was further suggested by his reading of the sci-fi, robots-will-kill-us-all version of the Singularity as a symptom of our inability to engage with the future.  But doesn’t this suggest that if we really looked at the derivative, got past the ideological barrier that pushes us to conceive of it as a singularity, we might find just the sort of rational projection that the wizards of Wall Street claim has been there all along, against all empirical evidence?  I think this is something that I’ll have to come back to and listen again.  At any rate, it was unclear, and thus appropriate that it was followed up with the banal, generalizing claim that culture has ever had as little consciousness of the past as we do currently.  This is one of those things that falls into the category of “sweeping claims you can get away with when you’re famous, but no graduate student could ever put past their under-40 advisor.”

The speech was certainly provocative enough to send me back to Jameson in a big way (and well timed, since I’ve been extremely slack on academic reading lately).  It was also, all things considered, relatively inviting.  Jameson came across in person as extremely affable and down to earth, and though largely serious was generous with the kind of mild self-deprecating humor that can really allow an audience to relate to a scholar with apparently somewhat arcane interests.  He approach as a speaker was also notably straightforward – he even followed the old public speaking adage about previewing your points as part of your introduction.  Most notable for me and my concerns, however, was a particular moment when he performed the absolute model of an accessible public intellectual.  In the midst of a recounting of the fundamental antifoundationalism/constructivism at the heart of postmodernism, he took a moment to give a brief, clear, but simultaneously somewhat poetic definition of constructivism – “The sense that nothing is natural, and that human feelings and institutions are all social and historical constructions.”  It was an extremely brief aside, took next to no time out of his speech as a whole, but made an entire section of his speech at least potentially available to an audience that would not have otherwise been able to do much more than smile politely.  I’m not sure he did this because he had taken specific note of the audience, but it included a number of undergraduates, including (I think) a student who’s currently taking my introductory course in Communication Studies at the local community college.  It’s hard to know how much any individual not already familiar with the debates of theory would have been helped by this individual moment, but I think it forms a good model for how we, with just a little consciousness of what we’re saying and who we’re talking to, can broaden the audience for deep philosophical reflection.


Matt said...

Thanks for this write-up, David. Good stuff. Perhaps most useful to me was his demotion of the term "postmodernism" because of its aesthetic connotations and his promotion of the term "postmodernity" which refers to a whole systemic cultural condition.

I have to say, though, that I found his talk harder to follow than you did. And I say that as someone who has read Jameson and was furiously taking notes. Yes, he previewed his points up front, but even that was needlessly confusing, what with the 1a and 1b, and 2a and 2b, and so forth. Moreover, he failed to return to these points consistently throughout his talk, and even apologized for not doing so.

I think you're right to point out that the whole thing was maybe operating at a bit too high a level of abstraction. I was thinking the same thing. It would have be nice if he had used some more specific examples. For instance, when he mentioned the Chinese artist (whose name I'm blanking on right now) who paints faux Chinese characters, that really helped him drive home his point about operations supplanting style. I do agree that his aside about social construction early on was great, I just wish he would have done more of this. The undergrads I was sitting next to got up and left as soon as the talk was over. My sense is that they got lost five minutes in. We can – we must – do better.

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