The postconceptual condition

Or, the cultural logic of high capitalism today

RP 184 () / Article

Those with long enough memories will no doubt recognize the crossed syntax of my title. It mimics, first, that of a text which, while in historical terms still recent, is nonetheless already antiquated, even if not yet sufficiently so to have acquired the ‘revolutionary energies’ that André Breton and, after him, Walter Benjamin sought in such objects: Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. It is thirty-five years now since the first publication of that ‘seemingly neutral review of a vast body of material on contemporary science and problems of knowledge or information’, which proved to be (in Fredric Jameson’s phrase) ‘a kind of crossroads. [1] Yet those, like Jameson, who took the road called postmodernism have long since had to retrace their steps or accustom themselves to life in a historical and intellectual cul-de-sac. The post- modern episode, as we might call it, an episode in the history of criticism, enlivened theoretical debates for little more than twenty years (1979–1999) and, retrospectively, its fate as a periodizing category had already been sealed by the fall of state communism in Eastern Europe ten years previously (‘1989’) and the rise of theories of globalization that followed – before Jameson’s 1991 magnum opus, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (source of my second borrowing) had even appeared. [2]


How very late, it now seems, still to have been periodizing capitalism as ‘late’ in 1991, at the verymoment of its most powerful renewal. In using the term ‘late capitalism’, Jameson was in part alluding to Adorno’s use of it, best known from his 1968 address to the Congress of German Sociology, ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?’ (Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft?), where the emphasis falls more heavily on the retention of the concept of capitalism than on its internal periodization. In the meantime,Ernest Mandel’s 1972 Late Capitalism had provoked a broader revival of the term, originally coined by Werner Sombart back in 1902 in his Modern Capitalism. It is important to remember that capitalism was first declared ‘late’ quite so long ago – although it was the 1916 edition of Sombart’s book that was more influential in this respect, taking the onset of the First World War as its periodizing break: from ‘high capitalism’ (Hochkapitalismus) to ‘late’. Mandel would subsequently move that break forward again, to the end of the Second World War.[3]

Jameson had called his book on Adorno from the previous year Late Marxism, with perhaps more irony than he was aware. But even as liberal a Marxist as Jürgen Habermas used the term ‘late capitalism’in the 1970s, in the title of Legitimationprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (1973), for example – a usage that was effaced by its translation into English three years later,[4] in a manoeuvre presumably designed to avoid frightening the sociological horses, with which Habermas’s work was at that time being corralled. Today, Sombart’s periodizing scheme continues to circulate mainly through the title of a collection of Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire (A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism), reinforcing the association of the ‘high’ with European capitalism in its mid nineteenth-century bourgeois form.[5] Yet Baudelaire’s writings resonate as much with life in Hong Kong and Shanghai today as they do with the Paris of the 1850s. In fact, there are good reasons for reviving the term ‘high capitalism’ as a description of the present, in which capitalism appears far from entering a phase that could usefully be described as ‘late’ (let alone turning into a form of communism all of its own – the so-called ‘communism of capital’ – as some currently dream). The term has the added virtue of conveying a certain hubris and hence the imminence of a fall (‘financial crisis’), albeit only a cyclical one, while ‘late capitalism’ struggles to rid itself of the progressivist illusion of an approaching natural death, along with the ennobling aesthetic connotation of ‘late style’(Spätstil) – its source as a historical term, dating back to Winckelmann.[6] Jameson drew on these associations in his book on Adorno, trading on the latter’s interpretation of Beethoven, but he neglected their implications for his periodization of capitalism itself as having its ‘late’ period.

The naturalistic connotations of late capitalism allowed the prefix of Jameson’s ‘postmodernism’ surreptitiously to anticipate a post-capitalism (that was not to come), at the same time as it functioned as the cultural marker of the end of the social-democratic welfare state and the purported rise of ‘a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world’. This intimation of an end to come was ultimately its redeeming, utopian feature (that little bit of utopia tucked away in the superstructure of the dystopian capitalism of ‘blood, torture, death and horror’). Jameson would use it to exit postmodernism, back to a relatively orthodox form of Utopia Studies.[7] A revival, deepening, multiplication and complication of discourses of the modern – with ‘multiple’,‘alternative’ and ‘postcolonial’ modernities at the fore– accompanied and followed the decline of the category of the postmodern.[8] Yet, revitalizing and illuminating as this process has been in various respects, effectively replacing the concept of postmodernity with that of a singular, complexly internally differentiated global modernity,[9] the renewal of discourses of the modern has not been sufficient, alone,to grasp the most distinctive cultural features (that is, the lived novelty) of the/our historical present.The equivocation here is crucial: the/our, two terms whose referents are seemingly the same, but whose meanings are most definitely not. Indeed, it is here,in the movement of the difference between these two terms (the ‘the’ and the ‘our’) – the objective and the subjective sides of the concept of history – that theproblem of history as a category of modernity resides.‘History’, one might say, simply is the movement of this difference.[10] How best, then, after the dissipation of the post-modern illusion, to characterize the cultural form of this condition, the/our historical present, or the cultural logic of high capitalism today?

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