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Theorizing the Present Moment: Debates between Modern and Postmodern Theory

Author(s): Douglas Kellner


Source: Theory and Society, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Aug., 1999), pp. 639-656
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3108564
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Review essay

Theorizing the present moment: Debates between modern


and postmodern theory

DOUGLAS KELLNER
University of California, Los Angeles

The postmodern turn in social theory has unleashed furious debates


about the proper methods, models, concepts, and politics that we need
to make sense of and respond to the turbulent transformations within
contemporary theory and society. Advocates of modern theories and
politics such as Marxism, liberalism, or feminism continue to argue
that classical models provide the best optic and tools to understand
and intervene in the contemporary situation; and there continue to be
Weberians, Durkheimians, Parsonsians, Habermasians, pragmatists
and others who argue that we are still in the era of modernity and that
classical modern theories and politics continue to be salient during
the present era. Some postmodern theorists, by contrast, argue that
modern theories and politics are obsolete in the current situation, that
we have entered a new postmodern condition that requires new theo-
ries and politics.'

Postmodern theorists challenge modern conceptions of society,


history, and politics, while advocating new approaches, discourses,
and practices. The postmodern ciritique has elicited a firestorm of
controversy and expanding library of books and articles presenting,
defending, appropriating, or attacking and denouncing postmodern
theory. Yet there is no agreement about what constitutes the terrain of
the postmodern, the construction of a postmodern condition, society,
or culture, or a properly postmodern theory and politics. The post-
modern is thus a contested terrain and a force-field of struggle between
those who would define and occupy it, and those who would discredit
or demolish it.

Increasingly, how one positions oneself within or against the debates


between the modern and the postmodern defines one's own theoretical
and political positioning within the matrix of contemporary theory

Theory and Society 28: 639-656, 1999.


C 1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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640

and society. Whatever one's position on the postmodern debates, it is


clear that the controversy has to do with our conceptions of society,
history, and politics, and our take on the present era. Two very different
recent books argue, for example, that it is the "end of history" that is a
defining feature of the postmodern turn in theory and politics, that
postmodern theory is ahistorical and apolitical, and betrays the progres-
sive impulses of the Enlightenment and the modern tradition. For
instance, a Monthly Review Press book, edited by Ellen Meiksins
Wood and John Bellamy Foster, In Defense of History: Marxism and
the Postmodern Agenda, aggressively attacks postmodern theory and
politics while defending classical Marxian conceptions. In History
Without a Subject. The Postmodern Condition, David Ashley defends
the modern Enlightenment project, but uses postmodern theory to
rethink the project and to analyze defining features and novelties of
the contemporary moment not addressed in classical theorists.2

On the whole, confronting postmodern arguments, modern theorists


can either dismiss them out of hand as so much faddish nonsense that
will soon pass from the scene, undertake polemics that will seek to
discredit the postmodern perspectives in question, while validating
one's previous theoretical and political commitments, or critically en-
gage the new theories to see what is worthwhile and productive in the
new perspectives, to critique what is false, problematic, or pernicious,
and to rethink theory, society, and politics in the contemporary era
accordingly. In the books under review, the Wood and Foster volume
tends to try to demolish postmodern theory while championing a
rather traditional Marxism, whereas Ashley tries to absorb what he
takes to be the most important postmodern themes and perspectives to
develop a critical social theory of the present age that is faithful to the
theory and politics of the Enlightenment. Yet both projects are fraught
with dangers and problems, as negotiating the treacherous mine-fields
of present-day history, society, theory, and politics is full of complex-
ities, pitfalls, and dangers, as both books make clear. In this article,
I accordingly stage a confrontation between classical modern social
theory and the postmodern challenge and will appraise the results to
see what light it sheds on contemporary debates and on the current
configurations of theory and society in which we now live and suffer.

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Marxism, history, and the postmodern challenge

In her introduction to In Defense of History, Ellen Meiksins Wood


provides an exemplary illustration of how Marxists and other modern
theorists should not engage the postmodern turn. In an uninformed
genealogy of the discourse of the postmodern, Wood cites Oswald
Spencer and C. Wright Mills to evoke claims that a fundamental
rupture with the modern era has occurred without mentioning such
figures as Nietzche and Heidegger, who provide more influential cri-
tiques of modernity, Toynbee, who was the first historian to make
claims for a postmodern break, or Adorno and Horkheimer, who
clearly anticipated and even influenced Mills's critique of the En-
lightenment and modernity. She wrongly identifies the emergence of
postmodern theory as an expression and celebration of "the triumphs
of capitalism and the joys of consumerism" (p. 3), whereas many
variants of postmodern theory are gloomy, anticapitalist, and highly
pessimistic, and have to do as much with the vicissitudes of contempo-
rary technology and the turbulent politics of the last several decades,
as with the fortunes of capitalism. Indeed, merely to associate the
postmodern turn with the joys of the affluent society itself covers over
the tempestuous history of capitalism over the past decades, that
includes serious crises, as Wood otherwise notes, and a tumultuous
restructuring (in addition to boom periods), which themselves do not
benefit all.

But the postmodern moment does not just involve transformations in


society and culture, but also theory, and after providing standard
denunciations of postmodern theory for its social constructionism, its
relativism, "even solipsism," and its critique of "'totalizing' knowledge
and 'universalistic' values" (p. 6), Wood writes:

This brings us to the most distinctive characteristic of the new postmodernists:


despite their insistence on epochal differences and specificities, despite their
claims to have exposed the historicity of all values and knowledges (or
precisely because of their insistence on "difference" and the fragmented
nature of reality and human knowledge), they are remarkably insensitive to
history. This insensitivity is revealed not least in a deafness to the reactionary
echoes of their attacks on 'Enlightenment' values and their fundamental
irrationalism (p. 8).

Thus, postmodern theory is marked by a "fundamental irrationalism"


and "fundamental ahistoricism" (p. 9), a "denial of history," which is
"associated with a kind of political pessimism" (p. 9). Here Wood

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seems to forget that a few pages earlier she had associated post-
modernism with the celebration of "the triumphs of capitalism and
the joys of consumerism," demonstrating an inability to portray the
tensions and complexity of postmodern theory, typical of its critics. In
fact, there is a tremendous variety of postmodern theories that are
optimistic and pessimist, and that neither deny history nor exhibit a
"fundamental irrationalism." Surely Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari,
Harvey, Jameson, Rorty, and some of the major texts of even Baudril-
lard and Lyotard engage history, and there are a wealth of contributions
to understanding contemporary society and history from the emerging
postmodern tradition; and while these thinkers carry out differentiated
critiques of various forms of Western reason and rationalism, to say
that postmodern theory exhibits a "fundamental irrationalism" is a
crude burlesque.

Wood's mode of caricaturizing and dismissing postmodern theory is


precisely the same sort of ideological operation that opponents of
Marxism, feminism, and other modern theories traditionally used.
Marxism, for example, was reduced to a few set propositions without
serious textual or theoretical scrutiny, and a strawman model was set
up, which the critic proceeded to attack, covering over Marxism's
complexity, provocations, or challenges, and substantive contribu-
tions. So, too, do modern ciritics of postmodern theory like Wood
undertake their critiques of postmodern theory, reducing it to set
positions, usually presented out of context and readily disposed and
dismissed out of hand.

Most of the contributors to the Foster and Wood reader present


caricatures of postmodern theory on various topics in contrast to
which Marxism emerges triumphant; none engages any postmodern
texts or thinkers in any detail and while the book is titled a "defense of
history," there are no real historical analyses and even fewer engage-
ments with concrete political issues. Instead the discourse is highly
theoretical and is evocative of what Louis Althusser used to denounce
as "theoreticism," merely verbal argumentation that does not engage
concrete problems, sociopolitical issues, and involve any specific and
concrete articulations with political struggle. Instead, there is a verbal
radicalism in these attacks on postmodern theory and politics.

To be sure, some of the articles in the Wood-Foster reader present


interesting takes on contemporary Marxian positions on language,
cultural studies, nationalism, intellectuals, science, class and culture,

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race, feminism, and the environment. Fredric Jameson's "Five Theses


on Actually Existing Marxism" attempts to advance Marxian theory
by incorporating postmodern themes (pp. 175-183), the interviews with
Aijaz Ahmad (pp. 51-64, 98-112) contain challenging ideas on a
variety of topics, and there are some provocative confrontations of
Marxian with postmodern positions on a wealth of topics. Indeed,
the postmodern challenge can be most productive when it confronts
various modern theories with opposing epistemological positions,
theoretical-political critique, or new phenomena not theorized by
modern theory. For Wood and her collaborators, however, the exercise
is structured so that Marxism triumphantly emerges once again as the
master theory of the era, its perspectives able to provide the most
cogent positions on history, politics, capitalism, cultural studies, na-
tionalism, and globalization, as well as race, gender, class, and culture.
Yet the contributions do not engage the current restructuring of capi-
talism or even, except in the most cursory fashion, the contemporary
mutations and forms of capitalism, technological revolution, new cul-
tural phenomena, and new types of political opposition and struggle.
Nor, with some exceptions, do they make any real contributions to
Marxian theory.

Hence, as with so many critiques of postmodern theory, there is in the


Wood-Foster book, little original or new theorizing of history, historical
inquiry, or any properly historical analysis in the collected articles. In
addition, I note that the "end of history" is not a postmodern position,
but a neo-conservative one advocated most (in)famously by State
Department ideologue Francis Fukayama with affiliations with Daniel
Bell's The End of Ideology and Canetti's Masses and People. Of the
postmodern theorists, it is perhaps Baudrillard alone who has aggres-
sively taken up the thesis, although Fredric Jameson suggests an end of
historicism in postmodern culture, a declining ability to historicize.
Jameson, however, is one of the most prominent defenders of histori-
cism ("always historicize!" is in fact his motto) and nowhere proclaims
an "end of history," much less attacking history or historical inquiry
and interpretation.3

I would agree with Jameson that there is an unfortunate decline of


historical consciousness and knowledge in the present era and with
Wood/Foster and their contributors that there is a need for history
and historical analysis more than ever to make sense of the trans-
formations of the present moment. Accordingly, we need serious re-
thinking of history and historical contextualization and analysis of the

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vicissitudes of contemporary society and culture. It is my view that we


are in an era between the modern and the postmodern and that we
should draw on both modern and postmodern perspectives to make
sense of the current situation. It will not do to caricaturize and dismiss
postmodern perspectives aggressively, nor would it be productive to
denounce modern theory and to proclaim grandiosely that modernity
is over, that we are in a new postmodern era, and that all theories
and politics of the past are obsolete and irrelevant. Rather, a more
dialectical optic will analyze both the continuities and discontinuities
of the present moment.

David Ashley's subjectless postmodern condition

In his book History Without a Subject: The Postmodern Condition,


David Ashley sets out to place the fierce and ongoing debates about
the postmodern turn within the context of the vicissitudes of global
capitalism. Quite correctly, he sees that the discourse of the post-
modern and the ensuing passionate battles must be related to socio-
political and economic developments rooted in the trajectory of con-
temporary capitalism. Unlike postmodern litterateurs who focus pri-
marily on the cultural dimension of the postmodern turn or indulge in
ludic theoretical play, Ashley uses the modern/postmodern debates to
discuss key issues of contemporary social theory and politics. This
analysis brings discussions of postmodern theory down to earth and
provides a useful introduction and overview of how the debates about
postmodernism intersect with key questions of contemporary social
theory and politics.

Opening chapters present Ashley's overview of current modern/post-


modern debates, focusing on their reception and unfolding in the
United States, and emphasizing the complex relations between the
postmodern turn and social theory. Succeeding chapters address
"Postmodern Identity and Postmodern Political Mobilization," "Post-
modernity as a Regime of Accumulation," "The Globalizing World
Economy," "Postmodernity and Flexible Stratification," "Reorganized
Capitalism," "The New Professionals," "Postmodernity and the New
Class," and a short "Conclusion." The text is very well written and
engaging throughout and provides a provocative set of discussions
concerning whether postmodern theory, and earlier modern dis-
courses, like Marxism and Weberian theory, do or do not illuminate
the social and political processes of the contemporary era.

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Yet the results are highly disappointing. Although Ashley reviews a


huge amount of secondary literature on various facets concerning key
transformations and novelties of the present age, which illuminate
many of the dramatic social and cultural changes now underway, there
is no sustained analysis or theory of the postmodern. Rather, Ashley
merely summarizes existent literature and positions, rehashes familiar
arguments, and covers well-charted ground. The main deficiency and
most disappointing aspect of the book is that Ashley has no particular
thesis or position of his own on the postmodern turn, nor does he
contront the opposing features of dominant modern and postmodern
social theory and either take a position on one side or the other, or
offer new syntheses.

The title of his book, History Without a Subject: The Postmodern Con-
dition, would seem to imply a thesis concerning the defining features of
the postmodern in terms of the decline of history and the subject in the
contemporary era, but it is never worked out. Ashley does not discuss
in any focused and sustained fashion the disappearance of the subject
in the contemporary era, the vanishing of history, and the end of
politics, although the substantive analyses in each chapter touch on
these issues. A very brief discussion of "the end of history" (pp. 133-
134) and his more political discussions of the fate of contemporary
politics indicate that what is really at stake in the postmodern turn is
the demise of Marxism's revolutionary and emancipatory hopes for a
better future based on the prospects of the industrial working class
creating a socialist revolution. Ashley, correctly in my view, argues
that as a theoretical discourse Marxism is more relevant than ever,
although as a political phenomenon the collapse of Communism and
widespread questioning and rejection of Marxist class politics under-
mine socialist politics. But Ashley has an unstable relation to Marxism,
adopting aspects of its critique of political economy without sustained
deployment of its philosophy and social theory and with a perhaps too
quick dismissal of its politics.4

The notions of "history without a subject" and of "the end of history"


are most evocative of Baudrillard, but Ashley does not adequately
interrogate Baudrillard's thought on these topics, dismissing him as a
"jester" without theoretical significance. Here, too, his discussion of
Baudrillard is partial, failing to analyze in any systematic way his
concepts of simulation and hyperreality and neglecting altogether
Baudrillard's concept of implosion, which I would take as the three
key concepts of Baudrillard's analysis of postmodernity. Ashley also

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confuses Baudrillard's concept of "symbolic exchange," which is a


premodern form that Baudrillard contrasts to modern productivist
societies, with postmodern societies organized around sign-value, sim-
ulation, and hyperreality. He collapses Baudrillard's analysis of sign-
value, developed as a concept describing the system of consumerism
and prestige value in the use and display of commodities within a
system of hierarchial sign-value, into Baudrillard's analysis of sym-
bolic exchange, derived in Baudrillard from premodern practices of
expenditure, excess, play, and cultural activity.5

In addition, Ashley misreads the relationship between Baudrillard and


Debord. While he is quite right to note the importance of Debord and
the Situationist International for Baudrillard's thought, it is wrong to
characterize Debord as "an associate of Baudrillard's" (p. 10). At most,
Baudrillard was an admirer of Debord who briefly associated himself
with the Situationist International. Moreover, Ashley misleadingly
describes Debord and Cohn-Bendit as students of Henri Lefebvre,
"both of whom played a prominent role in the 1968 student and worker
rebellion" (p. 12). In fact, Debord's work with the Situationist Inter-
national influenced the student rebellion, although there are conflict-
ing accounts of the extent to which he did or did not play a leading role
in the rebellion itself. In short, Debord preceded both Baudrillard
and the generation of May '68, was a major influence on the French
scene, including postmodern theory, participated in Lefebvre's semi-
nar, but was not his "student," and, crucially, is ultimately closer to
neo-Marxism than postmodernism.6

In fact, Ashley himself does not offer a conception of postmodernity,


or develop his own conception of the postmodern condition, although
he discusses vast amounts of literature that analyze trends and novelties
of contemporary society that are often taken as providing historical
and empirical grounds for claims of a postmodern break in history.
Ashley opens his account by making not wholly successful distinctions
between postmodernity as a sociohistorical phenomenon, a historical
epoch that succeeds modernity, and "postmodernism," which for Ashley
is both a cultural phenomenon and intellectual discourse and stance
(pp. 5ff). Ashley tends to ignore postmodernism in the arts and cul-
tural forms and collapses postmodern culture, attitudes, and theo-
retical discourses into a concept of "postmodernism," whereas it could
be argued cogently that these components should be more rigorously
distinguished.

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Moreover, Ashley equates postmodernism with an uncritical, highly


affirmative discourse, thus ruling out an oppositional and critical
postmodern theory. He also does not adequately distinguish between
more skeptical and nihilistic postmodern discourses and more affirma-
tive ones, nor does he distinguish between more extreme postmodern
discourses that insist on radical discontinuity and more moderate dis-
courses that call attention to continuities with the modern era as well
as novelties. Because his focus is more on Anglo-American academic
social theory,7 he downplays the radical assaults on modernity,
Enlightenment, and modern theory typical of the more high-powered
and visible French postmodern discourses, which are the subject of
most books on postmodern theory and politics. Ashley emphasizes
instead the perspectives on contemporary society, culture, and politics
of postmodern discourses in contemporary, mostly Anglo-American,
social science literature. And although he has a couple of cursory
pages on postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon rejective of mod-
ernism, postmodernism is more of an intellectual attitude for him that
he defines as an "all-embracing, uncritical orientation" (p. 9).

There are two problems here. By downplaying the significance of


postmodern cultural forms and exaggerating postmodern sociologi-
cal discourses, Ashley misses the major significance of new forms
of postmodern culture and politics, thus engaging neither the new
cultural forms and logic nor the new forms of postmodern politics,
which he tends to reject out of hand. Consequently, his treatment of
the discourses of the postmodern is problematic, exaggerating the
significance of affirmative and uncritical social discourses of the post-
modern, while downplaying the importance of both the highly critical
social, philosophical, and political discourses. Although the affirma-
tive tendency does exist, especially in social and cultural theory, it is
not the only, or even distinctive, postmodern perspective, thus Ashley's
reading occludes more critical, skeptical, oppositional, and even nihil-
istic discourses. Part of the problem is that Ashley exaggerates the
significance of secondary literature within social theory and down-
plays the more highly theoretical and critical discourses, which are
largely French or emerge from cultural theory. Much of his text, for
instance, criticizes the book on postmodernization by David Crook
and his atypically affirmative and apologetic account of postmoderni-
zation, or engages British discourses on the postmodern, such as those
of Lash and Urry and Featherstone, thus providing skewed perspec-
tives on what the postmodern is all about.8

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Curiously, Ashley opens with discussion of "Postmodernism in


America" (chapter 1), but in the book as a whole he mostly discusses
British-influenced discourses within postmodern social theory, some
French theory, and largely U.S. and British social and political trends,
neither analyzing the genealogy and reception of postmodern theory in
the United States nor providing a systematic analysis of contemporary
U.S. society and culture. Ashley expands on his definition of post-
modernism on page 38 to include "(1) the spectacle-commodity
economy and all it entails, together with (2) the uncritical perspective
of many western intellectuals." But the "spectacle-commodity economy"
is precisely that of the modern economy described by Marx, Benjamin,
Debord, and others, and "uncritical" perspectives have marked a cer-
tain class of intellectuals throughout the modern era. Moreover, while
Ashley convincingly argues in a sustained fashion for the continuing
relevance of Marx, he fails, as I argue below, to grasp the crucial
postmodern features of the still capitalist and commodity economy,
thus failing to theorize postmodernity in an adequate and original way.

In defining postmodernism and postmodern theory in terms of an


excessively uncritical and affirmative attitude, Ashley also misses a
significant development in postmodern theory, that is, the crossing of
disciplinary boundaries and development of transdisciplinary perspec-
tives. This move constitutes a potentially critical alternative to the
established academic division of labor and modern theory, which is
specialized, differentiated, and disciplinary, thus occluding the more
interesting versions of postmodern theory and the development of new
types of theoretical discourse and intellectual inquiry. Indeed, certain
forms of postmodern discourse are hypercritical, hence Ashley fails to
distinguish between a critical/oppositional and an affirmative type of
postmodern theory, clearly a key distinction.

Furthermore, without a distinctive conception of modernity and post-


modernity, and of modern and postmodern theory, one cannot really
theorize a postmodern break and it is not clear whether Ashley does or
does not really believe that a significant postmodern break or turn has
or has not taken place. Indeed, the argument that history does not
have a subject is not new and hardly constitutes a decisive criterion of
the postmodern turn. Such an argument was made by Marcuse and
other members of the Frankfurt School in the 1960s against the ex-
cesses of Hegelianism and an idealist Marxism, and was a central tenet
of most post-structuralist theorists. Teleological hopes of an overly
optimistic Marxism were deflated by the Frankfurt School in the

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1940s and poststructuralism deflated exaggerated epistemological and


political claims of modern theory in the 1960s and 1970s.9

The great transformation

Rather than carrying out an analysis of what constitutes the post-


modern, Ashley provides lists of its defining features (pp. 3-4, 236-
237), many of which could characterize modernity, accompanied by a
series of fragmented analyses of contemporary social and political
trends that some theorists argue constitute a postmodern break and
novelty. However, although Ashley presents an extensive review of
literature charting the changes in the economy, polity, society, and
culture at large that constitute for many the shift from the modern to
the postmodern, he arguably misses what is the major determinant
of the Great Transformation that the discourse of the postmodern
serves to dramatize and in some cases illuminate: the development of
new technologies within the global restructuring of capitalism. Like
Jameson and Harvey, Ashley is correctly concerned to theorize the
postmodern in terms of the vicissitudes of contemporary capitalism,
but he fails to capture the key dynamics in the global reorganization of
capital. While he rehearses in great detail the much discussed transition
from Fordism to post-Fordism in the economy, the decline of the state
and modern politics in capitalist globalization, and the rise of new
class configurations and forms of authority, he fails to relate these
developments to the implementation of new technologies in every area
of life from work to education to war.

Symptomatically, in the one discussion in which he cannot avoid dis-


cussing new technologies and the impact of computerization on the
economy Ashley notes parenthetically: "Followers of Piore and Sabel
tend to place a great deal of emphasis on computer-integrated manu-
facturing and computer-aided industry, but the worldwide introduc-
tion of these technologies is very limited to date (Mathews 1989; Fix-
Sterz and Lay 1987)" (Ashley, p. 243). He also cites a study that claims
that the "demand for places in [British Universities] in mechanical
engineering and computer courses fell" (p. 165). But Ashley's sources
here refer to 1980s data and in the following decade there was a
significant incorporation of new technologies into the labor process
and the computer and other high-tech industries became highly profit-
able, helping trigger a major set of mergers between the entertainment
and information industries, creating the basis of a new epoch of techno-

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650

capitalism.10 Ashley cites the mergers in the entertainment industries


outlined in a 1996 issue of The Nation (p. 168), but fails to highlight
the significance of mergers within the entertainment and information
industries (such as the NBC and Microsoft merger), the mergers within
telecommunications, or among various other communications, infor-
mation, and entertainment conglomerates, which themselves point to
the dramatic rise of the information and communications/entertain-
ment sector for contemporary capitalism, producing a new form of
technocapitalism, whose novelties and discontinuities the discourse of
the postmodern dramatizes.

Thus, Ashley fails to confront the contemporary interaction of tech-


nology and capital in the development of the restructuring of capitalism,
globalization, and the technological revolution that are current marks
of the contemporary moment. I would argue that new technologies are
helping transform every aspect of life and are, along with the global
restructuring of capitalism, the major force behind the emergence and
proliferation of postmodern theory and postmodern social and culture
forms. Whereas Ashley is correct to reject both claims of technological
determinism, that technology alone is driving the supposed post-
modernization of the economy and society, and ideological arguments
that the introduction of new technologies is producing more autonomy
and freedom, he fails to see that it is the synthesis of new forms of
economy and technology that is producing a new type of capitalist
society, and that the technological revolution is interconnected with
the restructuring of capitalism and shifts in local and global cultures.

In short, whereas there is much discussion of capital in Ashley's anal-


ysis, there is little sustained discussion of technology, especially of
computer and new multimedia technology, and of the significance of
new technologies for contemporary capitalism. Ashley rightly sees how
capital penetrates every aspect of life, reorganizing the life-world (223-
224, passim), but fails to note the equally dramatic reorganization of
everyday life through new technologies and the synthesis of technology
and capital in the production of new forms of technocapitalist society
and culture. Hence, whereas there are many references to television in
the Index to his book, there are no references to technology or to
computers or new virtual reality and multimedia technology, high-
lighting his systematic downplaying of the role of new technologies in
producing the novelties of the contemporary era and generating the
conditions described as postmodern.

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651

Thus, Ashley fails to capture the dynamics of the technological revolu-


tion in terms of its imbrication in a global restructuring of capitalism
and the explosive force of new technologies, which I would argue is a
key factor in generating the novel phenomena that the discourse of the
postmodern calls attention to and gains its currency and relevance
from. And while Ashley is aware that the reorganization of capitalism
involves disorganization, and thus much turmoil and suffering, he fails
to theorize the move from Keynes to Schumpeter as the master ideo-
logues of the current form of capitalism in which a relentless form of
Schumpeter's "creative destruction" and privileging of the vicissitudes
of the market replace Keynes's form of a highly rationalized and
organized state capitalism.

Although Ashley is right to critique postmodern claims concerning the


"end of production," the end of class rule, and the dissolving of rigid
class domination, he fails to note how the rise of the information
superhighway and new technologies are providing new power and
profit to those with technical skills and competencies and the new
sources of power in the knowledge class and technological elite. Thus,
whereas he discusses a "new class' of postmodern professionals in
education and the service industries, he does not systematically inves-
tigate the new forms of technological and intellectual power in the new
economy and global organization of capital.

On the whole, Ashley's socioeconomic analysis is about five to ten


years out of date. Against postindustrial theory, Ashley correctly in-
sists that manufacturing and industrial production is still more salient
to the world capitalist economy than many postindustrial theories
would admit and that the older forms of class rule persist, while class
divisions are expanding. He also is rightly skeptical of postmodern
claims that "flexible production" somehow benefits workers and cre-
ates a more democratic and fulfilling workplace, pointing out instead
that "flexible capitalism" is another form of capitalist domination. All
of this is still true, but Ashley downplays the growing significance of
new technologies in the capitalist economy and their significance in
every aspect of social and everyday life - for better and worse.

Similarly, his political optic is out-of-date, missing the most salient


developments of the present moment. Ashley is obsessed with the
moment of Thatcher and Reagan, which did mark a sea change from
a hegemonic welfare-state political discourse and practice, to more
market-centered politics. Ashley sees quite clearly the radicalism of

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652

Thatcherism, its subversion of the hegemonic postwar liberal con-


sensus, its differences from traditional conservatism, and its relent-
lessly procapitalist, promarket ideology. He fails to see, however, how
Reaganism manages to contain temporarily the contradictions be-
tween a Thatcherite promarket ideology and more traditional Ameri-
can conservatism and how the resultant split of the Reagan consensus
helped defeat Bush and produce the Clintonian "New Democrat"
matrix.

Ashley correlates the rise of Reaganism and the New Right with
postmodernism, but greatly exaggerates the power of the New Right,
failing to see that Clinton and Blair, while admittedly following the
neo-liberal economic policies of their conservative predecessors, intro-
duced different and more flexible social policies, a more active role
for the state, and more aggressive promotion of new information
technology and the "information superhighway," while rejecting the
New Right social agenda. In addition, Ashley underplays the role of
militarism in the new economy and the development of military tech-
nology and role of military intervention in Reagan and Thatcher's
New Right imaginary, while Clinton, by contrast, has been far less
interventionist and militarist than his Republican predecessors, serv-
ing different sectors of capital, especially in the information and enter-
tainment sectors.'1

The outdated political optic of Ashley's analysis is signalled by the lack


of entries to Clinton and Blair in the index of his book (although there
are references to them in the text). Instead, there are copious references
to Reagan and Thatcher, but Bush also does not appear in the index
and there is surprisingly little discussion of the Gulf war (also not in the
index), a postmodern media spectacle if ever there was one.12 While
Ashley properly notes Thatcher's radicalism and the ways that her
relentlessly promarket and anti-state ideology and practice directly
served the interests of British capital and in a sense subverted tradi-
tional conservatism in its pro-capitalist radicalism, he fails to note the
extent to which Thatcherism alienated the British public, failing to
produce a new hegemonic ideology and bloc, and giving way to the
everwhelming victory of Blair's New Labor party, which by the late
1990s enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

Likewise, Ashley fails to note the contradictions within Reaganism


between a radical pro-market and anti-state discourse and practice
and traditional conservative social politics and rhetoric. While Bush

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653

held together the Reaganist coalition in the 1988 election, the New
Right elements eventually took over the party and their aggressive
ideological agenda at the 1992 Republican convention is blamed by
many as contributing to Bush's defeat by Clinton in the 1992 election.
Similarly, it now appears that the extremism of the Republican Right
after their victorious seizure of Congress after the 1994 midterm elec-
tions led to a blacklash that Clinton was able to exploit in the 1996
election and was able to continue to deploy in the wake of the 1998 sex
scandals and virulent rightwing attacks on his presidency.

Thus, the hegemony of the New Right is nowhere near as seamless and
powerful as Ashley's analysis implies. Yet it should be admitted that in
many respects Clinton's "New Democrats" and Blair's "New Labor
Party" carry out many of the largely business-oriented politics of their
conservative predecessors and may well be more functional for global
capital than the more reactionary conservatives. In effect, then, I
would suggest that a "postmodernization" of politics has less to do
with the triumph of the New Right than with an implosion of business,
politics, and entertainment and a decentering of modern (parliamen-
tary, party, and ideological) politics in favor of more decentered post-
modern politics with the rise of media and cultural politics, identity
politics, and a general fragmentation of the political sphere.

Another problem is that Ashley's political focus is top-down, stressing


state politics and downplaying local and oppositional movements such
as are championed by many postmodern theorists. Ashley's own poli-
tics seem extremely cynical and negative and do not advance any
significant proposals or vision. While he dedicates the book to "Guy
Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, and their generation," there are no Situa-
tionist International high-jinks in Ashley's depressing analysis, no
cultural politics or calls for the transformation of everyday life, and no
activism whatsoever. In fact, Ashley bitterly attacks new social move-
ments and reproduces reactionary attacks on "new academic programs"
and multiculturalism. Replicating the most pessimistic and world-
weary discourses of the Frankfurt School, and some postmodernists,
Ashley opts out of practical politics, substituting relentless and often
one-sided critique and negativism for dialectical analysis of potentially
emancipatory and progressive features of the present moment.

Thus, there are strong echoes of the political pessimism of the most
quiescent period of the Frankfurt School in Ashley's analysis, although
he does not engage Adorno and Horkheimer's dialectic of Enlighten-

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654

ment or Marcuse's analyses, which are both similar and different in


interesting ways to many postmodern perspectives. Yet in some respects,
Ashley's text is symptomatic of precisely the postmodern syndrome that
he often vigorously attacks. Although Ashley describes himself as "an
unreconstructed, unrepentant (and probably nostalgic) modernist,"
(p. 239) he exhibits a combination of bitter irony, harsh sarcasm,
pastiche of previous writers, witty asides, and fragmentary apercus
that are typical of precisely the postmodern writing that he sets out to
critique. Most of his focus is highly polemical, excoriating affirmative
postmodernists and other defenders of the existing order, which puts
him close to a sort of critical or resistance postmodernism reminiscent
of the middle Baudrillard and many of his followers who present
themselves as radical, but whose radicalism generally limits itself to
negative critique rather than advocating specific types of social trans-
formation.

Concluding critical remarks

Yet Ashley's book is often valuable as a sharp critique of postmodern


pretensions and overly affirmative and uncritical takes on the present
age. His book, as well as the studies in the Wood/Foster text, provide
sharp criticism of many trends of contemporary society, especially the
hegemony of capitalism over all aspects of life in the present moment,
thus keeping alive the flame of critical thinking in a depressing and
cynical era. While most of the Wood and Foster contributors are
perhaps overly optimistic and affirmative in their often spirited affir-
mation of Marxian revolutionary perspectives, Ashley provides the
impression of a highly disillusioned and alienated intellectual who
sees no way out of our present dilemma. The book concludes with
confessions of his political hopelessness, as when he writes: "Yet for
the subject caught up in the circuit of capital ... there is no longer any
benchmark against which the totality of the commodity can be chal-
lenged. As mentioned earlier, this is perhaps the best definition of
postmodernism" (p. 231). Ashley's only positive political proposal is
found on p. 233: "rather than lecture those who are merely trying to
locate themselves in the world in which they were placed, critical
theory must encourage subjects to evaluate the consequences of their
own cultural practices. In the present context, this means forcing people
to contemplate, and preferably be made to pay for, the ecological costs
of their behavior."

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655

In summary, while Ashley provides often illuminating overviews of a


huge amount of literature on contemporary social development, fre-
quently convincing critiques of the excesses and misfirings of some
versions of postmodern theory, and a generally convincing sense that
Marxism continues to be of use for contemporary social theory, he
does not develop his own interpretation of the postmodern or a
distinctive synthesis of modern and postmodern theory. Yet Ashley
attempts at least to draw upon the best of postmodern theory to
illuminate developments within the present age. While he is largely
critical of the central claims of postmodern social analysis, he
presents many postmodern perspectives that are useful and attractive,
attempting to create a revitalized critical social theory for the present
age. But ultimately he seems ambivalent and conflicted about the
value of the postmodern turn and does not really define his own
position within the postmodern debates.

Moreover, while Ashley is highly critical of many political tendencies


of the present moment, he does not offer alternative radical perspectives
and the overall impression of his own politics is close to the world-
weary, cynical, and nihilistic anti-politics of a Baudrillard. Unlike
Baudrillard, Ashley presents much sharp, often convincing, political
critique. But his focus on politics is mostly on changes in the state and
capital, on the ways politics from above is shifting, and there is no
focus, as in the best of postmodern politics, on how people are resisting
global capitalism on a variety of fronts from the local to the interna-
tional. Certainly, there is much to be disturbed about in the present
neo-liberal conjuncture, but the sorts of pessimism and defeatism
manifest in many versions of postmodern theory and in Ashley's
critique will not help us produce a better world or overcome the worst
features of the existing one.

Notes

1. For my own take on the postmodern turn, see Douglas Kellner, "The Postmodern
Turn in Social Theory: Positions, Aporia, and Prospects," in George Ritzer, editor,
Frontiers of Social Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 255-286;
R. Antonio and D. Kellner, "Postmodern Social Theory," in Postmodernism and
Social Inquiry, eds. D. Dickens and A. Fontana (New York: Guilford Press, 1994);
and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations
(Macmillan and Guilford Press, 1991); The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford
Press, 1997); and The Postmodern Adventure (New York: Guilford, forthcoming).
2. Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, In Defense of History. Marxism
and the Postmodern Agenda (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997); and David

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Ashley, History without a Subjet: The Postmodern Condition (Boulder, Col.: West-
view Press).
3. Compare Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (New York: The Free Press, 1962);
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free
Press, 1992); Elias Canetti, The Human Provence (New York: Continuum, 1978);
Jean Baudrillard, "The Year 2000 has already Happened," in Arthur and Mari-
louise Kroker, editors, Body Invaders. Panic Sex in America (Montreal: The New
World Perspectives, 1988): 35-44; and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press,
1991).
4. For various takes on the position of Marxism in the contemporary era, in addition to
the Wood and Foster book, see Douglas Kellner, "The Obsolescence of Marxism? "
in Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg, editors, Whither Marxism? (London
and New York: Routledge, 1995), 3-30; and Ronald Aronson, After Marxism (New
York: Guilford Press, 1997).
5. On the end of modernity and advent of a postmodern society of simulacra and
hyperreality, see Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage,
1993); for my reading of these topics, see Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From
Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Cambridge and Palo Alto: Polity Press
and Stanford University Press, 1989).
6. On these topics, see Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Chapter 3; and
Edward Soja, ThirdSpace (Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford, England: Blackwell,
1996), chapter 1.
7. Compare Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Chapter 1.
8. See David Crook et al., Postmodernization (London: Sage Books, 1991); Mike
Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (London: Sage, 1991); and
Scott Lash and John Urry, The End of Organized Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 1978); and Economies of Signs and Space (London: Sage, 1994).
9. On the Frankfurt School, see Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory, Marxism and
Modernity (Cambridge and Baltimore: Polity Press and John Hopkins University
Press, 1989); on poststructuralism, see Best and Kellner, Postmodern Theory.
10. On technocapitalism, see Kellner, Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity, chap-
ter 8; and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure (New York:
Guilford Press, forthcoming).
11. This may be changing; days before his impeachment in December 1998, Clinton
undertook a sustained bombing of Iraq and the following week there were announce-
ments that for the first time in a decade, military spending was to be increased; see
Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1998: Al. And in April 1999, Clinton and Blair
led the NATO intervention into Kosovo that involved a sustained bombing cam-
paign against Serbia.
12. On the Gulf war was media spectacle, see Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV
War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992); and Media Culture (London and New York:
Routledge, 1995), chapter 5.

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