Eagleton, Terry.

Where do postmodernists come from?

Monthly Review. 47(3):59-70. 1995 July


A comprehensive assessment of postmodernism and its impact on culture is

presented. Postmodernism should not be viewed as a reaction to the defeat

of Communism--it is a response to the "success" of capitalism.

Imagine a radical movement that had suffered an emphatic defeat. So

emphatic, in fact, that it seemed unlikely to resurface for the length of

a lifetime, if at all. As time wore on, the beliefs of this movement might

begin to seem less false or ineffectual than simply irrelevant. For its

opponents, it would be less a matter of hotly contesting these doctrines

than of contemplating them with something of the mild antiquarian interest

one might have previously reserved for Ptolemaic cosmology or the

scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. Radicals might come to find themselves

less overwhelmed or out-argued than simply washed up, speaking a language

so quaintly out of tune with their era that, as with the language of

Platonism or courtly love, nobody even bothered any longer to ask whether

it was true. What would be the likely response of the left to such a dire


Many, no doubt, would drift either cynically or sincerely to the right,

regretting their earlier views as infantile idealism. Others might keep

the faith purely out of habit, anxiety, or nostalgia, clinging to an

imaginary identity and risking the neurosis that that may bring. A small

clutch of left triumphalists, incurably hopeful, would no doubt carry on

detecting the stirrings of the revolution in the faintest flicker of

militancy. In others, the radical impulse would persist, but would be

forced to migrate elsewhere. One can imagine that the ruling assumption of

this period would be that the system was, at least for the moment,

unbreachable; and a great many of the left's conclusions could be seen to

flow from this glum supposition. One might expect, for example, that there

would be an upsurge of interest in the margins and crevices of the

system--in those ambiguous, indeterminate places where its power seemed

less secure. If the system could not be breached, one might at least look

to those forces which might momentarily transgress, subvert, or give it

the slip. There would be, one might predict, much celebration of the

marginal--but this would be partly making a virtue out of necessity, since

the left would itself have been rudely displaced from the mainstream, and

might thus come, conveniently enough, to suspect all talk of centrality as

suspect. At its crudest, this cult of marginality would come down to a

simpleminded assumption that minorities were positive and majorities

oppressive. Just how minorities like fascist groups, Ulster Unionists, or

the international bourgeoisie fitted into this picture would not be

entirely clear. Nor is it obvious how such a position could cope with a

previously marginal movement--the ANC, for example--becoming politically

dominant, given its formalist prejudice that dominance was undesirable as

such. The historical basis for this way of thinking would be the fact that

political movements that were at once mass, central, and creative were by

and large no longer in business. Indeed, the idea of a movement that was

at once central and subversive would now appear something of a

contradiction in terms. It would therefore seem natural to demonize the

mass, dominant, and consensual, and romanticize whatever happened to

deviate from them. It would be, above all, the attitude of those younger

dissidents who had nothing much, politically speaking, to remember, who

had no actual memory or experience of mass radical politics, but a good

deal of experience of drearily oppressive majorities.

If the system really did seem to have canceled all opposition to itself,

then it would not be hard to generalize from this to the vaguely

anarchistic belief that system is oppressive as such. Since there were

almost no examples of attractive political systems around, the claim would

seem distinctly plausible. The only genuine criticism could be one

launched from outside the system altogether; and one would expect,

therefore, a certain fetishizing of "otherness" in such a period. There

would be enormous interest in anything that seemed alien, deviant, exotic,

unincorporable, all the way from aardvarks to Alpha Centauri, a passion

for whatever gave us a tantalizing glimpse of something beyond the logic

of the system altogether. But this romantic ultra-leftism would coexist,

curiously enough, with a brittle pessimism--for the fact is that if the

system is all-powerful, then there can be by definition nothing beyond it,

any more than there can be anything beyond the infinite curvature of

cosmic space. If there were something outside the system, then it would be

entirely unknowable and thus incapable of saving us; but if we could draw

it into the orbit of the system, so that it could gain some effective

foothold there, its otherness would be instantly contaminated and its

subversive power would thus dwindle to nothing. Whatever negates the

system in theory would thus be logically incapable of doing so in

practice. Anything we can understand can by definition not be radical,

since it must be within the system itself; but anything which escapes the

system could be heard by us as no more than a mysterious murmur.

Such thinking has abandoned the whole notion of a system which is

internally contradictory--which has that installed at its heart which can

potentially undo it. Instead, it thinks in the rigid oppositions of

"inside" and "outside," where to be on the inside is to be complicit and

to be on the outside is to be impotent. The typical style of thought of

such a period, then, might be described as libertarian

pessimism--libertarian, because one would not have given up on the dream

of something quite other than what we have; pessimism, because one would

be much too bleakly conscious of the omnipotence of law and power to

believe that such a dream could ever be realized. If one still believed in

subversion, but not in the existence of any flesh-and-blood agents of it,

then it might be possible to imagine that the system in some way subverted

itself, deconstructed its own logic, which would then allow you to combine

a certain radicalism with a certain skepticism.

If the system is everywhere, then it would seem, like the Almighty

himself, to be visible at no particular point; and it would therefore

become possible to believe, paradoxically enough, that whatever was out

there was not in fact a system at all. It is only a short step from

claiming that the system is too complex to be represented to declaring

that it does not exist. In the period we are imagining, then, some would

no doubt be found clamoring against what they saw as the tyranny of a real

social totality, whereas others would be busy deconstructing the whole

idea of totality and claiming that it existed only in our minds. It would

not be hard to see this as, at least in part, a compensation in theory for

the fact that the social totality was proving difficult to crack in

practice. If no very ambitious form of political action seems for the

moment possible, if so-called micropolitics seem the order of the day, it

is always tempting to convert this necessity into a virtue--to console

oneself with the thought that one's political limitations have a kind of

objective ground in reality, in the fact that social "totality" is in any

case just an illusion. ("Metaphysical" illusion makes your position sound

rather more imposing.) It does not matter if there is no political agent

at hand to transform the whole, because there is in fact no whole to be

transformed. It is as though, having mislaid the breadknife, one declares

the loaf to be already sliced. But totality might also seem something of

an illusion because there would be no very obvious political agent for

whom society might present itself as a totality. There are those who need

to grasp how it stands with them in order to be free, and who find that

they can do this only by grasping something of the overall structure with

which their own immediate situation intersects. Local and universal are

not, here, simple opposites or theoretical options, as they might be for

those intellectuals who prefer to think big and those more modest

academics who like to keep it concrete. But if some of those traditional

political agents are in trouble, then so will be the concept of social

totality, since it is those agents' need of it that gives it its force.

Grasping a complex totality involves some rigorous analysis; so it is not

surprising that such strenuously systematic thought should be out of

fashion, dismissed as phallic, scientistic, or what have you, in the sort

of period we are imagining. When there is nothing in particular in it for

you to find out how you stand--if you are a professor in Ithaca or Irvine,

for example--you can afford to be ambiguous, elusive, deliciously

indeterminate. You are also quite likely, in such circumstances, to wax

idealist-though in some suitably new-fangled rather than tediously

old-fashioned sense. For one primary way in which we know the world is, of

course, through practice; and if any very ambitious practice is denied us,

it will not be long before we catch ourselves wondering whether there is

anything out there at all. One would expect, then, that in such an era a

belief in reality as something that resists us ("History is what hurts,"

as Fredric Jameson has put it) will give way to a belief in the

"constructed" nature of the world. This, in turn, would no doubt go hand

in hand with a full-blooded "culturalism" which underestimated what men

and women had in common as material human creatures, and suspected all

talk of nature as an insidious mystification. It would tend not to realize

that such culturalism is just as reductive as, say, economism or

biologism. Cognitive and realist accounts of human consciousness would

yield ground to various kinds of pragmatism and relativism, party because

there didn't any longer seem much politically at stake in knowing how it

stood with you. Everything would become an interpretation, including that

statement itself. And what would also gradually implode, along with

reasonably certain knowledge, would be the idea of a human subject

"centered" and unified enough to take significant action. For such

significant action would now seem in short supply; and the result, once

more, would be to make a virtue out of necessity by singing the praises of

the diffuse, decentered, schizoid human subject--a subject who might well

not be "together" enough to topple a bottle off a wall, et alone bring

down the sate, but who could nevertheless be presented as hair-raisingly

avant garde in contrast to the smugly centered subjects of an older, more

classical phase of capitalism. To put it another way: the subject as

producer (coherent, disciplined, self-determining) would have yielded

ground to the subject as consumer (mobile, ephemeral, constituted by

insatiable desire).

If the "left" orthodoxies of such a period were pragmatist, relativist,

pluralistic, deconstructive, then one might well see such thought-forms as

dangerously radical. For does not capitalism need sure foundations, stable

identities, absolute authority, metaphysical certainties, in order to

survive And wouldn't the kind of thought we are imagining put the skids

under all this The answer, feebly enough, is both yes and no. It is true

that capitalism, so far anyway, has felt the need to underpin its

authority with unimpeachable moral foundations. Look, for example, at the

remarkable tenacity of religious belief in North America. On the other

hand, look at the British, who are a notably godless bunch. No British

politician could cause anything other than acute embarrassment by invoking

the Supreme Being in public, and the British talk much less about

metaphysical abstractions like Britain than those in the United States do

about something called the United States. It is not clear, in other words,

exactly how much metaphysical talk the advanced capitalist system really

requires; and it is certainly true that its relentlessly secularizing,

rationalizing operations threaten to undercut its own metaphysical claims.

It is clear, however, that without pragmatism and plurality the system

could not survive at all. Difference, "hybridity," heterogeneity, restless

mobility are native to the capitalist mode of production, and thus by no

means inherently radical phenomena. So if these ways of thinking put the

skids under the system at one level, they reproduce its logic at another.

If an oppressive system seems to regulate everything, then one will

naturally look around for some enclave of which this is less true--some

place where a degree of freedom or randomness or pleasure still

precariously survives. Perhaps you might call this desire, or discourse,

or the body, or the unconscious. One might predict in this period a

quickening of interest in psychoanalsis--for psychoanalysis is not only

the thinking person's sensationalism, blending intellectual rigor with the

most lurid materials, but it exudes a general exciting air of radicalism

without being particularly so politically. If the more abstract questions

of state, mode of production, and civil society seems for the moment too

hard to resolve, then one might shift one's political attention to

something more intimate and immediate, more living and fleshly, like the

body. Conference papers entitled "Putting the Anus Back into Coriolanus"

would attract eager crowds who had never heard of the bourgeoisie but who

knew all about buggery.

This state of affairs would no doubt be particularly marked in those

societies which in any case lacked strong socialist traditions; indeed,

one could imagine much of the style of thought in question, for all its

suspiciousness of the universal, as no more than a spurious universalizing

of such specific political conditions. Such a concern with bodiliness and

sexuality would represent, one imagines, an enormous political deepening

and enrichment, at the same time as it would signify a thoroughgoing

displacement. And no doubt just the same could be said if one were to

witness an increasing obsession with language and culture--topics where

the intellectual is in any case more likely to feel at home than in the

realm of material production.

One might expect that some, true to the pessimism of the period, would

stress how discourses are policed, regulated, heavy with power, while

others would proclaim in more libertarian spirit how the thrills and

spills of the signifier can give the slip to the system. Either way, one

would no doubt witness an immense linguistic inflation, as what appeared

no longer conceivable in political reality was still just about possible

in the areas of discourse or signs or textuality. The freedom of text or

language would come to compensate for the unfreedom of the system as a

whole. There would still be a kind of utopian vision, but its name now

would be increasingly poetry. And it would even be possible to imagine, in

an "extremist" variant of this style of thought, that the future was here

and now--that utopia had already arrived in the shape of the pleasurable

intensities, multiple selfhoods, and exhilarating exchanges of the

marketplace and the shopping mall. History would then most certainly have

come to an end--an end already implicit in the blocking of radical

political action. For if no such collective action seemed generally

possible, then history would indeed appear as random and directionless,

and to claim that there was no longer any "grand narrative' would be among

other things a way of saying that we no longer knew how to construct one

effectively in these conditions. For this kind of thought, history would

have ended because freedom would finally have been achieved; for Marxism,

the achievement of freedom would be the beginning of history and the end

of all we have known to date: those boring prehistorical grand narratives

which are really just the same old recycled story of scarcity, suffering,

and struggle.

Even the densest reader, may by now have guessed that the condition I am

describing is not entirely hypothetical. Why should we be invited to

imagine such a situation when it is staring us in the face? Is anything to

be gained by this tiresome rhetorical ploy? Only, I think, a kind of

thought experiment by which, putting actual history in brackets for the

moment, we can come to recognize that almost every central feature of

postmodern theory can be deduced, read off as it were, from the assumption

of a major political defeat. It is as though, confronted with the fact of

postmodern culture, we could work our way backward from it until we

arrived at the defeat in question. (Whether it has been, in reality, as

absolute and definitive a defeat as the existence of postmodernism seems

to imply is not at issue here.) This whole speculative enterprise has, of

course, the advantage of hindsight, and should not be taken entirely

seriously; nobody could actually read off deconstruction or political

correctness or Pulp Fiction from the winding down of working-class

militancy or of national liberation movements. But if postmodernism is not

an inevitable outcome of such a political history, it is, for all that, a

logical one--just as Act V of King Lear is not dictated by the four

preceding acts, but is not just an accident either.

But isn't this just the kind of historically reductionist explanation that

postmodernism itself finds most distasteful No, because there is no

suggestion here that postmodernism is only the consequence of a political

failure. It is hard to see how Madonna or mock-Gothic buildings or the

fiction of Umberto Eco are the offspring of such a repulse, though some

ingenious cultural commentator will probably try it on. Postmodernism has

many sources--modernism proper, so-called postindustrialism, the emergence

of vital new political forces, the recrudescence of the cultural avant

garde, the penetration of cultural life by the commodity form, the

dwindling of an "autonomous" space for art, the exhaustion of certain

classical bourgeois ideologies, and so on. But whatever else it is, it is

the child of a political rebuff. Its raising of issues of gender and

ethnicity have no doubt permanently breached the ideological enclosure of

the white male Western left, about whom the most that can be said is that

at least we're not dead, and at the same time taken for granted a

rampantly culturalist discourse which belongs precisely to that corner of

the globe. These valuable preoccupations have also often enough shown a

signal indifference to that power which is the invisible color of daily

life, which determines our existence--sometimes literally so--in almost

every quarter, which decides in large measure the destiny of nations and

the internecine conflicts between them. It is as though every other form

of oppressive power can be readily debated, but not the one which so often

sets the long-term agenda for them or is at the very least implicated with

them at their core. The power of capital is now so wearily familiar that

even large sectors of the left have succeeded in naturalizing it, taking

it for granted as an immutable structure. One would need, for an apt

analogy, to imagine a defeated right wing eagerly discussing the monarchy,

the family, and the death of courtesy, while maintaining a stiff silence

on what after all most viscerally engages them, the rights of property,

since these had been so thoroughly expropriated that it seemed merely

academicist to wish them back.

Postmodernist culture has produced a rich, bold, exhilarating body of work

across the whole span of the arts, and has generated more than its fair

share of execrable kitsch. It has pulled the rug out from beneath a number

of complacent certainties, prised open some paranoid totalities, tainted

some jealously guarded purities, bent some oppressive norms, and shaken

some rather solid-looking foundations. It has also tended to surrender to

a politically paralyzing skepticism, a flashy populism, a full-blooded

moral relativism, and a brand of sophism for which, since all conventions

are arbitrary anyway, might as well conform to those of the Free World. In

pulling the rug out from under the certainties of its political opponents,

this postmodern culture has often enough pulled it out from under itself

too, leaving itself with no more reason why we should resist fascism than

the feebly pragmatic plea that fascism is not the way we do things in

Sussex or Sacramento. It has brought low the intimidating austerity of

high culture with its playful, parodic spirit, and in thus imitating the

commodity form has succeeded in reinforcing the crippling austerities of

the marketplace. It has released the power of the local, the vernacular,

the regional, at the same time as it has contributed to making the globe a

more drearily uniform place. Its nervousness in the face of concepts like

truth has alarmed the bishops and charmed the business executives. It

consistently denies the possibility of describing how the world is, and

just as consistently finds itself doing so. It is full of universal moral

prescriptions--plurality is preferable to singularity, difference to

identity, otherness to sameness--and denounces all such universalism as

oppressive. It dreams of a human being set free from law and constraint,

gliding ambiguously from one "subject-position" to another, and sees the

human subject as no more than the determined effect of cultural forces. It

believes in style and pleasure, and commonly churns out texts that might

have been composed by, as well as on, a computer.

All of this, however, belongs to a dialectical assessment of

postmodernism--and postmodernism itself insists that dialectical thought

can be consigned to the metaphysical junkheap. It is here, perhaps, that

it differs most deeply from Marxism. Marxists are supposed to be

"doctrinaire" thinkers, yet recognize that there can be no authentic

socialism without the rich heritage of enlightened bourgeois liberalism.

Postmodernists are self-declared devotees of pluralism, mutability,

open-endedness, yet are constantly to be caught demonizing humanism,

liberalism, the Enlightenment, the centered subject, and the rest. But

bourgeois Enlightenment is like social class: in order to get rid of it,

you must first work your way through it. It is on this point more than any

other that Marxism and postmodernism are perhaps most profoundly at odds.

Postmodernism has a quick eye for irony; but there is one irony above all

that seems to have escaped it. Just at the time when it was denouncing the

idea of revolution as "metaphysical," scorning the notion of a "collective

subject," and insisting on the dangers of totality, revolution broke out

where everyone had least expected it, as a collective subject of some kind

struck against the "total system" of the postcapitalist bureaucracies. The

current results of that transformation are not, of course, ones that a

socialist can contemplate with any equanimity; but the dramatic upheavals

in Eastern Europe give the lie to many of the fashionable assumptions of

the postmodern West. In a powerfully estranging gesture, they expose

postmodernism as the ideology of a peculiarly jaded, defeatist wing of the

liberal-capitalist intelligentsia, which has mistaken its own very local

difficulties for a universal human condition in exactly the manner of the

universalist ideologies it denounces. But, though postmodernism may be

thus usefully "estranged" by what has happened to the east of it, it was

certainly not caused by that collapse. Postmodernism is less a reaction to

the defeat of Communism (which it anyway long predated), than--at least in

its more reactionary versions--a response to the "success" of capitalism.

So here is another irony. In the crisis-ridden 1990s, it seems more than a

little odd to treat capitalist success as if it were a general and

immutable law of nature. If that is not just the kind of unhistorical

absolutizing that postmodernists so fiercely reject in others, it is hard

to see what is.

Terry Eagleton is Wharton Professor of English Literature at Oxford. His

most recent book is Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish


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