Farewell to Postmodernism

Social Theories of the Late Left

by Bartosz Kuzniarz (Author)
©2015 Monographs 324 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 7


In the late 1960s, a whole pantheon of thinkers regarding themselves as radicals stole a part of the anarchic praxis of late capitalism, turned it into philosophy, and with the resulting set of views turned against the foundations of the system in a purportedly radical gesture. Postmodernism was the name for the superficially revolutionary culture which then came into existence. The thought of the late left appears as the subsequent response to the cunning of the system.
The main figures of Farewell to Postmodernism are Perry Anderson, David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek. The book provides an encyclopaedic introduction to their work, while at the same time seeking to grasp the current trajectory of radical thought.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Two Orthodoxies
  • Naming the System
  • The Late Left
  • Chapter One: Perry Anderson: Chronicle of a Certain Death
  • Against Pseudo-Empiricism
  • West of Berlin
  • The Merciless Laboratory of History
  • The Bulwark of Postmodernity
  • A Becalmed Universe
  • The Current of the Great River
  • Chapter Two: David Harvey: From Crisis to Postmodernity
  • Historical-Geographical Materialism
  • Three Pillars of Crisis
  • Accumulate!
  • s/v
  • Man
  • Time
  • Space
  • A Flexible Regime
  • Time-Space Compression
  • A Shattered Whole
  • From Here to Eternity
  • Chapter Three: Fredric Jameson: Capital is Sexy
  • Our Political Unconscious
  • Three Levels of Analysis and Three Phases of Capitalism
  • The Beginning of the Siege
  • The Time is out of Joint
  • Coward!
  • Reification
  • The Mirrors of Postmodernism
  • The Principle of Hope
  • Socialism for the Rich
  • Journey to the Center of Fear
  • The Moment of Truth
  • Maps Found in the Future
  • Chapter Four: Terry Eagleton: Socialism And Redemption
  • The Intersection of Worlds
  • What comes after theory?
  • The Will versus the Body
  • Saints and Dogs
  • The Emperor’s New Clothes
  • Culture and Culture
  • Illusions of Postmodernism
  • The Ethics of Socialism
  • Political Love
  • Chapter Five: Slavoj Žižek: Sola Fide!
  • Socialism on the Couch
  • If There is No God
  • Postmodern Ideology
  • Marx through Freud
  • The Lacanian Critique of Marx
  • The Correction of Christianity
  • Christianity versus Judaism
  • Christianity versus Buddhism
  • The Revolutionary Act of Love
  • Invisibility and Repetition
  • Conclusion: An Impossible Utopia
  • Bibliography


Two Orthodoxies

The term “postmodernism” has long functioned as a concept known in German as the Kampfbegriff (or “tendentious term”). To call somebody a “postmodernist” – much like calling him or her a feminist or a new-ager – has not simply been to establish the person’s place on the map of the contemporary humanities. Instead, the word has made it possible to denigrate and stigmatize the person, or at least to imply the ridiculous and even impertinent nature of his or her views. Therefore, the concept has not merely served a descriptive purpose, but also constituted a weapon for discursive combat. In an opinion piece published in a Polish weekly magazine, the poet Jacek Podsiadło coined the satirical corruption “pstrodemonizm” (roughly translatable as “motley demonism”), which offers a good reflection of the general attitude that has dominated for years towards authors associated for one reason or another with postmodernism. The message is clear. A postmodernist is somebody with a motley and eclectic hodgepodge of ideas in his or her head. This irrational chaos fosters nitpicking criticism and demonization of a reality otherwise on the upward swing. Fortunately, there is nothing much to worry about in the long run. At worst, postmodernism represents a kind of French intellectual disease. The condition is contagious, but it will suffice to change our diet for one richer in rational argument for the pathological process to enter a rapid remission. According to this reassuring diagnosis, the foundations of postmodernism lie in the exigencies of academic fashion, and not in any real social processes.

This position makes even more sense when we observe that very few thinkers have shown any desire to define themselves as postmodernists. Those who are most frequently associated with postmodernism have not only tended to write about it in a strongly critical tone, but have often completely dissociated themselves from the entire trend. For instance, Michel Foucault makes the following ironic remarks in an interview on the subject: “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date. … I do not understand what kind of problem is common to the people we call postmodern or poststructuralist.”1 Jacques Derrida is no less direct: ← 7 | 8 →

These [postmodernism and poststructuralism] are catch-all notions into which the most poorly informed public (and, most often, the mass-circulation press) stuffs nearly everything it does not like or understand, starting with ‘deconstruction’. I do not consider myself either a poststructuralist or a postmodernist. I have often explained why I almost never use these words, except to say that they are inadequate to what I am trying to do. I have never spoken of ‘the announcements of the end of all metanarratives’, let alone endorsed them.”2

Clearly, there is no shortage of coquetry involved in both cases. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at least until a certain moment the semantic shadow of the concepts of postmodernism and postmodernity – leaving the differences between them aside for the time being – was exceptionally vague and seemingly characterized by an unlimited elasticity. Consequently, it is no surprise to find that thinkers treating their work with any seriousness have been reluctant to lend their own names to such an enterprise.

Of course, there have also been those who have exhibited a profound belief in postmodernism. Among them, the leading figure has been Jean-François Lyotard, with his famous interpretation of the era in The Postmodern Condition (1979). The French philosopher begins with the idea that “scientific knowledge cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative, kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all.”3 People believe in the discoveries of science not because the clarity of the scientific evidence convinces them, but because they are supported by the authority of an historical narrative accepted in advance as valid. William Blake once taught that “truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.”4 Accordingly, hypotheses on the spherical shape of the Earth had little chance in a world dominated by a narrative acknowledging an established hierarchy of heavenly spheres, while technological innovations took a long time to gain acceptance in a Chinese society obsessed with tradition. In Lyotard’s view, the happy connection between science and the grand narratives persisted in Europe until the nineteenth century, when the scientific demand for truth was applied to two grand narratives that had legitimized western knowledge since the Enlightenment: the emancipation narrative, according to which the progress of knowledge would finally free humanity of all injustice, and the speculative narrative, which understood history as the gradual manifestation of within it of ← 8 | 9 → rational Spirit. This whole process soon turned out to be extremely unfortunate. The very thing thanks to which science could count on support for its universalizing claims to relevance turned out not to meet the criteria for scientific objectivity. The grand narratives began to submit to a rapid process of deconstruction. As if this were not bad enough, by destroying the authority of the grand narratives, science indirectly undermined its own authority, which soon began to suffer even more from the discoveries made by scientists themselves, who began to visit the “catastrophic” realms of theoretical insolubility with increasing enthusiasm in the twentieth century. Lyotard claims that the result of all these processes was that scientific language disintegrated into isolated sections that no longer fit together, a set of “games” or local and ephemeral dialects. At the same time, Lyotard argues in perhaps the most dubious of his “discoveries” that the social bond has followed the same path of fragmentation.5 Since no person, religion, ideology or even modern science is able to tell us how things really are, the social universe turns fluid and begins to bear all the hallmarks of transience.

Therefore, the disintegration of the grand narratives means that we have awoken in a reality devoid of a center, in which nobody has a privileged voice, while the whole trick in science and in life comes down to inventing the most “paralogical” and conceptually fruitful ideas. This turns out to be a battle fought through ← 9 | 10 → aesthetic visions, or even, in practice, through advertising slogans, though Lyotard denies that paralogy could have anything in common with market innovations. After all, for the French philosopher, the entire postmodern landscape takes on an optimistic and anti-systemic hue. Moreover, if it should occur to anybody to come to an agreement with others that certain moves should be impermissible in the postmodern game, or that certain slogans should be forbidden, however fruitful for new ideas they might be, Lyotard levels an unequivocal accusation: “Terror!” (“By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him”6). According to this philosophy, any attempt at sticking the floating fragments of the world back together again, any attempt at constructing a whole, requires impermissible violence. Admittedly, Lyotard sometimes has second thoughts, for instance, when he observes that “the temporary contract is favored by the system due to its greater flexibility, lower cost, and the creative turmoil of its accompanying motivations – all of these factors contribute to increased operativity.”7 Nevertheless, he ultimately presents a highly positive evaluation of the “postmodern condition” he describes.

In summary, scholars usually talked about postmodernism in two ways in the mid-1980s. On one side were the mockers and radical skeptics, who regarded postmodern writing as humbug and the mere product of an intellectual fashion, predicting its swift and deserved end, after which rational beings would be forbidden to mourn. On the other side were those who believed in postmodernism, perhaps even to excess, seeing in it, like Lyotard, a festival of difference and the coming of the long-awaited kingdom of freedom. What was lacking was an intermediate position that would treat the new mood seriously and perhaps acknowledge the qualitative difference of contemporary societies, while approaching the ecstatic invocations of the followers of postmodernism with healthy suspicion. Something had clearly changed, but were these changes serious enough to speak of an entirely new kind of social bond? Or would it have been better to fit the description of the contemporary world into a strangely familiar narrative that had already been in progress for a long time?

Naming the System

Despite the lack of official sanction, the category of postmodernism has proved surprisingly enduring. Folk wisdom tells us that improvised arrangements often last the longest, but the fact that even the most vicious attacks have not managed ← 10 | 11 → to uproot the concept of postmodernism from the language of the contemporary humanities gives us cause to wonder – not to mention its constant presence on the pages of daily newspapers and in the vocabulary of the more ambitious television programs. Clearly postmodernism’s “to be or not to be” has been determined by more serious and objective factors than the will of the most influential participants of public debate. With the passage of time, postmodernism has not only developed dynamically in the strongholds it captured as early as the 1970s, such as literary writing and architecture, but it has also made bold sorties into domains closer to what the Marxist tradition has designated the socio-economic base. In this context, it is worth citing the periodization introduced by Steven Connor, who delineates four stages in the development of postmodern thought.

1. From the 1970s until the early 1980s, a process of accumulation took place. In various domains, mostly independently, “something began to happen.” Ihab Hassan wrote about a new literary sensibility. Charles Jencks heralded the arrival of the postmodern style in architecture. Jean Baudrillard described the structures and myths of the emerging consumption society. Daniel Bell first observed the symptoms of the end of “traditional” industry” and later described the contradictions into which capitalism falls when the decadent lifestyles of the modernist avant-gardes spread to the masses of jaded consumers in the guise of free-market choice. Lyotard announced the end of the great legitimizing narratives that had dominated the philosophical tradition in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth. Despite this diversification, Connor suggests that the thematic dominant of postmodern discourse in the 1970s was literature.

2. In the mid-1980s, the previously independent threads began to form more coherent wholes. The process of synthesis began. Here, Fredric Jameson’s works undoubtedly took the leading role, especially his breakthrough essay Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Various collective works published in the early 1990s were also highly significant in providing a more precise definition of the spirit of the times. Anthologies in which the fields of philosophy, literature, politics, architecture and religion appeared side by side allowed scholars to perceive more clearly the affinity between the changes taking place within these separate disciplines. Admittedly, these links had already been intuited, but certainly not delineated in any theoretically rigorous manner. The bulk of postmodern writing in the 1980s was devoted to architecture.

3. According to Connor, the next phase in the development of postmodernism commenced in the mid-1990s, when the discourse reached the stage of autonomy. At this time, the initial question about the existence of something called postmodernism disappeared. Postmodern writing adopted the dubious habit of self-reference. As Connor writes, “postmodernism became the name for the activity of ← 11 | 12 → writing about postmodernism.”8 Then for the first time the idea began to slow in its growth, while simultaneously entering colloquial language as a word meaning “a loose, sometimes dangerously loose, relativism.”9 This process was also linked with the politicization of postmodernism. Under the slogan of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism, the word triumphantly entered the vocabulary of public debate.

4. Finally, in the second half of the 1990s, the stage of dissemination began. The motifs developed by the discourse were not just autonomous, but also became social facts, interwoven with the fabric of human life. As a result, postmodernism ceased to be an academic or discursive phenomenon, transforming itself into a tangible social reality. We might say that postmodernism had finally fulfilled the expectations expressed by some of its theorists, as it truly became post-modernity.10 It is no surprise that in the same period practical questions gained importance for many thinkers. The question increasingly arose as to whether postmodernism was merely a call for radical pluralism and a departure from one’s own system of values or whether it might be possible to extract certain positive prescriptions for human conduct. Questions of ethics and morality were at the center of attention. According to Connor, “in recent years the word ‘ethics’ has come to have the same authority and reach as the word ‘text’ had during the 1970s and 1980s.”11 Emmanuel Levinas was somewhat unexpectedly to become the patron of the “ethical turn” within postmodernism – its rediscovered founding father.

Upon closer inspection, Connor’s periodization might well create almost as many problems as it resolves – which would not be unusual for this kind of historical typology. Nevertheless, it allows us to define the framework and capture ← 12 | 13 → the developmental dynamics of a concept that for many almost by definition has been doomed to remain unclear. This clarification also shows how far from the truth were those in the 1980s who described works on postmodernism as gibberish and accused authors of “postmodernist” books of opportunism. Since that time, postmodernism has managed to escape the academy and to become an element of our everyday reality, making the journey from the syntax of avant-garde poetry to the shape of the televisions we buy, from postmodernism to postmodernity, providing sufficient evidence for us to regard the news of its death as highly exaggerated. In many different respects, the beautiful disease of postmodernism is in better shape than ever.

Connor’s periodization is highly significant to my reflections for yet another reason. Specifically, I have in mind its affinity with what I would define as the postmodern narrative, which leads from the intoxicating dance on the grave of bourgeois culture in the 1970s through to the first decade of the third millennium, where the scattered patches of discovered territory began to come together to form the map of an enormous continent encircling the entire Earth in contradiction of the previously prevailing geography. We have gone from micrology to historical syntheses, from mimetic immersion in the fluid element of modernity to attempts at submitting its schizophrenic flow to ethical control. Could any of the theorists writing at the end of the 1970s – who dismissed the idea of “the whole” with “emancipatory” fervor – have predicted that their works would not constitute the final notes of History, but rather the first strains of the hymn of a New Empire? Yet the postmodern narrative – the reconstruction of which will form one of the fundamental aims of this work – has precisely taken the following form. At first, fascinated by new vistas, we immersed ourselves in something that seemed to be devoid of logic and borders, allowing the element to carry our bodies in accordance with the laws of its own peculiar gravity along the fluid mass of currents cutting across it. After a certain time, we realized that the changes were organizing themselves according to repetitive cycles. Still in isolation, some of us began to keep intimate diaries, boldly reconstructing the landscapes in our direct vicinity from the stimuli reaching our bodies. When somebody stuck his head out in a flash of intuition, it suddenly became clear that above the nocturnal word of libidinal raptures the reality familiar from nineteenth-century novels still existed in a veritable mega-structure, while the whole subterranean blind man’s bluff was like a super-modern, made-for-television version of Plato’s cave. Now that enough time has passed for us to have read one another’s diaries, the moment has come for summations and a settling of accounts. The fluid element has turned out to be a system. We find larger and larger fragments of the map in our hands. In the future, we plan to make good and responsible use of it. Perhaps this narrative still carries traces of wishful thinking. Perhaps a full map of the system ← 13 | 14 → remains in the distant future, not to mention any meaningful use of such a map in practice. Nevertheless, all thinkers who have rigorously occupied themselves with the subject of postmodernism, simultaneously attempting to acknowledge its historical uniqueness and to approach it with healthy skepticism, have reached the conclusion that it constitutes a chapter in a fundamentally well-known history that has been in progress for a long time. Moreover, postmodernism appears to such thinkers as a final product of thought rather than an initial premise. Accordingly, one would need a great deal of ill will to maintain that the stunning success of the concept had resulted exclusively from the activity of institutionally powerful and stylistically skillful (even the staunchest opponents are prepared to accept this) dogmatists. Anderson, Jameson, Harvey, Eagleton and Bauman would happily abandon the concept of postmodernism if only a suitable substitute appeared. But nothing of the sort looks likely. In his introduction to the 1990 edition of The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey observes that in spite of his own sincere desire to brush aside the fuss surrounding postmodernism as yet another of the many intellectual fashions arising in the second half of the twentieth century, he has capitulated in the face of the unwanted concept’s persistence. In his essay on “Marxism and Postmodernism,” Jameson confesses with a certain resignation:

I occasionally get just as tired of the slogan of ‘postmodernism’ as anyone else, but when I am tempted to regret my complicity with it, to deplore its misuses and its notoriety, and to conclude with some reluctance that it raises more problems than it solves, I find myself pausing to wonder whether any other concept can dramatize the issue in quite so effective and economical a fashion. “We have to name the system”: this high point of the sixties finds an unexpected revival in the postmodernism debate.12

In case any doubt might still exist on this point, we should specify at once that the system whose almost unrepresentable yet powerful presence has plagued postmodern discourse for years is contemporary capitalism.

The Late Left

The thesis that all postmodernist paths leads to capitalism might be controversial. After all, according to Lyotardian orthodoxy (since we have already fought off the first orthodoxy, which denied postmodernity any right to exist), the constitutive ← 14 | 15 → characteristic of the postmodern condition was supposed to be the twilight of all grand narratives. Moreover, today’s world genuinely gives the impression that it has disintegrated into parts. The inhabitants of the large cities can testify to this, as they strive with growing anxiety to find the guiding thread of their lives at the age of thirty-five. So can the inhabitants of Calcutta slums, as they jealously devour the color images of this western neurosis from television screens passed on the street. But does it necessarily follow from this that all metanarratives have come to an end? According to Lyotard: “Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: you listen to reggae; you watch a western; you eat McDonald’s at midday and local cuisine at night; you wear Paris perfume in Tokyo and dress retro in Hong Kong; knowledge is the stuff of TV game shows.” Thus far everything seems to fit into the theoretical framework of the end of grand narratives, but the following sentence causes problems: “But this realism of Anything Goes is the realism of money: in the absence of aesthetic criteria it is still possible and useful to measure the value of works of art by the profits they realize. This realism accommodates every tendency (…) so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power.”13 The question arises as to how we might reconcile the claims asserting the imperialism of capital with the list of dead grand narratives to which, alongside the emancipatory and speculative narratives discussed in The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard later added the Enlightenment, socialism, Christianity, Hegelianism, and, most surprisingly in this context, capitalism.

The French philosopher does not leave this question entirely unanswered. In his view, the capitalist narrative of emancipation from poverty through technological and industrial progress was weakened by the crises of 1911 and 1929, but the final coup de grâce to the idea that the free play of supply and demand would foster the general enrichment of humanity came with the crises of 1974–79.14 Of course, Lyotard is not blind. He does not question the triumph of “capitalist technoscience over the other candidates for the universal finality of human history.”15 However, he claims that capitalism has triumphed almost in a casual manner. After all, it has not demanded any particular legitimation. It has prevailed on the model of Benjaminian religion as pure cult, without invoking any project or even ideal of human society. Consequently, there can be no talk of grand narratives in this case. Admittedly, capitalism is omnipresent and all-embracing, “but as necessity rather than finality.”16 It is difficult not to notice the ← 15 | 16 → rather loose nature of Lyotard’s construction here. The superiority of capitalism over the metanarratives disqualified by “Auschwitz” (among others, socialism and Christianity) is ultimately based on the fact that capitalism has no desires and yet still works. It makes no prescriptions and sets no goals, but people behave under its influence as if their behavior were guided by a coherent Idea with a clear method in its madness. Today the tyrant has no name, while his hand remains invisible – this is the joyful news of postmodernity. Lyotard’s notion would incline us to conclude that unconscious and self-satisfied slavery had begun to appear as the height of human freedom.

Yet if we connect all the diagnoses that feature in Lyotard’s work in a state of artificial though clearly intentional separation, an image of reality appears in which contradictory tendencies combine in a synthesis resembling a fusion reaction. Two atomic nuclei that should repel each other fuse together under the influence of the temperature around them into a single whole, thus creating gigantic and otherwise unattainable amounts of energy. E pluribus unum! We shall return later to the themes of a multiplicity that collapses into a socio-political monolith and a Being whose name is Legion. For the moment, we should simply observe that a full image of the postmodern condition must include, on the one hand, postmodernism, frenetic fragmentation, games, paralogies, local identities, Babel, Babylon, pragmatism, relativism and the mixing of languages, and, on the other hand, the imperial command of capital over global reality. Lyotard would not, or could not, understand that these two descriptions not only remain non-mutually exclusive, but in fact constitute two sides of the same coin. The grand narrative ← 16 | 17 → of capitalism continues at the beginning of the twenty-first century, though in a different (postmodern) key from its previous forms.

This idea was first developed by the English-language left, or the late left as I shall henceforth describe it: Fredric Jameson (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) in 1991, David Harvey (The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change) in 1992, Terry Eagleton (The Illusions of Postmodernism) in 1996, and Perry Anderson (The Origins of Postmodernity) in 1998. For a while, their theories developed in the background to Lyotard’s seemingly canonical interpretation. In Poland, for historical reasons, familiarity with their views was even weaker. Yet they remain among the most important and often read thinkers of our times. On the question of postmodernism, they share at least five theses. First, we are living in postmodernity. Second, postmodernity ultimately comes down to capitalism. Third, since postmodernism remains inseparable from the late-capitalist economic base, its abolition can only come with a change in the dominant mode of production from capitalist to non-capitalist, or with some other qualitative shift within capitalism itself. Fourth, socialism constitutes the best road out of postmodernism. Fifth, theory is indispensable to the establishment of socialism, though the place of theory within this process and its preferred form or character remain open to question.

The concept of the “late left” that I shall use in this work is obviously not uncontroversial. Perhaps even the name itself is paradoxical. The nature of the change suggested by the word “late,” as any leftist sympathizer will note, suggests a mood of exhaustion and melancholy more than it entices with visions of the triumphal new day whose announcement has always formed a part of the socialist tradition. After all, it is no accident that successive generations of leftist authors from the middle of the last century sought to outdo each other in announcing the birth of a “new,” more radical and finally authentic left. “New left” suggests a turning point, while “late” suggest impotence. One might fight or come out onto the streets for the “new left,” but the “late left” introduces an atmosphere of sadness and decline. Personally, I hope that this interpretation of the word “late” is not an anthropological necessity – after all, one might ascribe to it both weariness and the courage emerging from mature thought – though it would be difficult to deny that the word looks slightly out of place in the context of leftist politics. But how else or with what other phrase might we convey the logic of a change that has introduced a new element to a specific historical sequence (the old, new and this newest left), while dissociating itself from the connotations of the earlier elements in this progression with a direct, “quantitative” increase in radicalism, emancipation and power? Fredric Jameson struggles with a similar problem, as he attempts to justify his use of a notion of late capitalism taken from the Frankfurt School and Ernest Mandel: ← 17 | 18 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Kapitalismus Utopia christliche Soziallehre Marxismus Postmoderne
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 321 pp., 1 graph.

Biographical notes

Bartosz Kuzniarz (Author)

Bartosz Kuźniarz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Contemporary and Social Philosophy at the University of Białystok (Poland). His main interests include the philosophical, social and theological aspects of the capitalist economy.


Title: Farewell to Postmodernism