Beyond the postmodern “moment”: Utopianism, aestheticism, and the avant-garde


by P.J. Laska

The first item of interest for any inquest concerning the status of postmodernism will surely be the fact of continuing post-mortem activity of the sort Dostoevsky described in his grotesque tale “Bobok :”  “Prodolzhayetsya  zhizn’ kak by po inertsii”  [The (conscious) life of (the recently deceased) continues as if by inertia]—a phenomenon D. H. Lawrence commented on later in his Studies in Classic American Literature: “Post mortem effects. Ghosts. A certain ghoulish insistency.”  A contemporary example of this phenomenon was voiced recently by Paul Krugman:  “America’s political landscape is infested with many zombie ideas—beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.”  He was referring specifically to the idea that lower taxes on rich people is the key to prosperity.[1]

A second item of interest would be the observation by French philosopher Alain Badiou that there is no postmodern moment. I interpret this as saying that “postmodernism” is best understood as the cultural expansion of a process whose “being” is essentially continuous with the historical extraction and accumulation of capital values in the modern period.  What the term actually denotes therefore is a stylistic cultural phenomenon rather than a distinct mutation of the capitalist system.[2] This observation would then be followed by the counter-insistence of Fredric Jameson that the postmodern moment is sufficiently complex and important to have established itself as the cultural dominant of “late capitalism.”[3] “Late capitalism” is Ernest Mandel’s periodization of the expansion of capitalism in its 3rd historical stage, roughly from the end of the Second World War to the present.[4] Jameson also refers to Mandel’s “late capitalism” as “monopoly,” “multinational,” or “consumerist” capitalism.  In this period, according to Jameson, late capitalism evolved “a dominant cultural logic” whose operative impact was to set in place “a new systematic cultural norm” [PM 6] that “does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it” and “effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future” [PM 46] by destroying the former “semi-autonomy of the cultural sphere and by making “everything in our social life—from economic value and state power to…the very structure of the psyche itself…’cultural’ in some original and as yet untheoreticized sense” [PM 48].

Jameson authored these sentences more than thirty years ago, when he was essaying “to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place” [PM ix].[5] In Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism he finds the capitalist system evolving “a new systematic cultural norm,” as part of the apparatus it uses to manage its social-reproductive metabolism, and identifies four “constituent features” of this new norm: (1) depthlessness; (2) the weakening of historicity (historical awareness); (3) new aesthetic intensities (having to do with a technological concept of the sublime); and (4) a whole new technology (enabling the media and infrastructure of a new economic world system).  Jameson sees this period as completing “the prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas of the planet” [PM 36], and insists that the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism is “historical,” not “optional” and “stylistic” [PM46].  It is therefore not sufficient to subject it to moral judgment:  “If postmodernism is a historical phenomenon then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgment must finally be identified as a category mistake” [Ibid.].  Its historical presence means that moralists (“along with the rest of us”) are now so deeply immersed “in postmodernist space” and “suffused and infected” by its new cultural categories that “old-fashioned ideological critique and indignant moral denunciation” become inappropriate [ibid.].[6]


The exceptional insight and coherence of Jameson’s work in isolating the key features of postmodernism’s “cultural logic” and its purging of dialectic, together with the post-Meltdown financial crisis and subsequent economic stagnation are sufficient to establish that Badiou’s assessment of the phenomenon is correct,[7] and that what Jameson actually established in his insistence on the historical significance of postmodernism is its place in the history of style.  The transition from modernism to postmodernism is more cultural than it is economic.  In retrospect it is obvious that this “cultural dominant” is closer to being an epiphenomenon developing in tandem with the real economic and political dominant than it is a substantial modification of capitalism. While postmodernism’s aesthetic and artistic practices were deconstructive to the point of minimalism and dematerializing to the point of conceptualism, and therefore continued to be reductive of formal constraints, the result was to install the new, but informally operative, canon of hegemonic features that Jameson identifies, features that dovetail nicely with the needs of the Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberal (neo-conservative in the U.S.) agenda.  With this in mind it would be helpful if art and cultural historians changed the name “postmodernism” to the “Reagan-Thatcher Cultural Era,” so that students would be alerted to the historical connection between the deconstruction of texts and art works on the one hand, and the de-regulation of “private enterprise” on the other.  This in turn would help them understand the nature of the 2008 collapse of the bubble economy and the Meltdown of the global financial system that required a massive multi-trillion dollar “bailout” for private capital in the form of “equity injections” of public capital (in addition to the established tax break subsidies that private capital now benefits from) to suspend the system’s freefall into another Great Depression. They would then see the “triumph” of Late Capitalism starting in the 1980’s and continuing to the recent financial Meltdown as a sham accomplishment by means that closely resemble a grifter’s gambit involving the marketing of securities founded on debt that went toxic on that judgment day in October 2008 after the housing bubble burst. They would then be apprised of the important theoretical, and very real, distinction between style and substance.

Given that “late (as in old age) capitalism” is a resurrected and not a new form of the hideously predatory system of social-metabolic reproduction set in place in England in the 17th Century (its present ER condition requiring ever-increasing public subsidies to remain functional and dominant[8] is sufficient evidence) the question left open by Jameson’s monumental study is how this essentially geriatric system, surviving through outright theft and abandonment, mafia-like extortion schemes, and subsidy demands placed on all levels of government, was able to ideologically morph modernism into postmodernism in the first place, thereby creating the illusion that what is moribund not only regenerates, but is capable of recovering productive vivacity sufficient to cope with the problems of social-metabolic reproduction on the one hand and the (heretofore-ignored) global problem of the world community’s metabolism with nature on the other. For Jameson, “the base in the third stage of capitalism generates its superstructure with a new kind of dynamic” [PM xxi]. How can this be?  The base of Late Capitalism essentially flatlined in the Great Inflation of the 1970’s—so where’s the new dynamic? How does stripping the “middle class” by cracking labor unions, downsizing the U.S. workforce and outsourcing entire lines of industry to countries with cheaper labor, which together with deregulation and financialization of the economy, which is the “base” meaning of Capital’s globalization strategy from the 1980’s to the present, constitute “a new kind of dynamic”?  With the hindsight of Epimetheus we can now see it looks more like the old dynamic, the primitive predatory dynamic that made the capitalist class the historical hegemonic replacement of the previous, feudal predatory class.  As such, it was the continuation of a miscreant dynamic that had to be disguised in order for it to succeed.


The “triumph” of Late Capitalism starting in the 1980’s and continuing to the Meltdown of 2008 is now revealed as the sham accomplishment of a bubble economy inflated initially by marketing debt as “asset-backed securities.”  In his book on the causes of the Meltdown[9] Joseph Stigltz noted that “securitization” depended on the greater fool theory and that globalization opened up a whole world of fools. This economic sleight-of-hand was accompanied by “dark markets” and promoted by a communicative competence well-schooled in deceit that successfully disguised the palsied geriatric system with Presidential talk of a “Morning in America,” a strategy that launched the narrative of revitalization based on a return to the roots of the system’s success in a self-reliant “free-market” individualism.  In the 1990’s this covert strategy was fortunate in getting a one-of-a-kind booster shot in the form of revolutionary new digital technology that in less than two decades would enhance research, development and production as well as local and global communications. All these “assets” made the revitalization narrative seem like a credible reality and helped juice the postmodernist narrative of a history-ending global capitalist success that made critical discussion of alternatives seem speculative and “utopian” at best.

One can also speculate that the revitalization narrative’s success and the transition from modernism to postmodernism benefited from the failure of the New Left in the 1970’s to achieve a broad-based popular front uniting socialist and populist support for collective political goals (e.g. a national health system) and for credit and start-up capital to establish an alternative system of co-operative and non-profit economic enterprises.[10] Jameson’s study, however, is centered more on the cultural superstructure and ideological weakening, as his identification and analysis of the four key features of postmodernism indicates. Although his overall analysis is hindered by the supposition that “late capitalism” should not be taken to mean “anything so silly as the ultimate senescence, breakdown, and death of the system as such” [PM xxi], his study offers valuable insight on the ideological wasting within the modernist cultural thrust that contributed to the postmodernist turn.  Perry Anderson, in his wide-ranging study The Origins of Postmodernism hones in on the deeper implication of “the cancellation of political alternatives”  by drawing on Jameson’s observation that: “Modernity comes to an end…when it loses any antonym. The possibility of other social orders was an essential horizon of modernism. Once that vanishes, something like postmodernism is in place.” [11]


The modernist “antonym” had two main aspects and many individual and programmatic forms. It began in the 19th Century with open hostility among educated elites to the accumulationist cruelties and stupidities of the bourgeois-capitalist social formation, and with active and theoretical resistance by avant-gardes seeking a “utopian” alternative.  By the 1980’s the success of the neo-liberal/new-conservative ideology had pushed both aspects of this “antonym” into receivership.  Speaking of the New Left’s defeat in “discursive struggle” (as distinct from “outright ideological conflict” [12]),  Jameson argued that the Reagan-Thatcher resurrection of free market ideology “succeeds by way of discrediting its alternatives and rendering unmentionable a whole series of thematic topics” essential for conceptualizing an alternative.[13] Foremost among the topics discredited is the one labeled “utopia,” which capitalist ideology dismisses as unrealistic and counters with its “non-utopian” consumerist society based on market growth. This paradigmatic “reality-based” free-enterprise fiction is then used to generate anxieties about the loss of commodious living in any “utopian” alternative. The loss of modernism’s “antonym,” to the promise of a global expansion of capitalism’s consumer society, therefore, involves a conceptual loss.

Avant-garde resistance within modernism was vulnerable to this conceptual loss because it had long embraced a literary definition of the alternative as “utopian,” that is, as an optional alternative design plucked from an imaginary tableau.  Utopia in this sense is anti-science.  The word itself (in this spelling) means “no place,” a marker for the fictional and unreal.  But in Thomas More’s book (where the term originates), it also had the alternative spelling “eutopia,” meaning “the good place,” or as More himself phrased it, “a place of felicitie.”[14] In the history of discursive struggle over the centuries the vanguard of capitalist theorists seized on “utopia,” meaning a fictional and unreal “no place,” as the general label for any envisioned alternative to the capital-generating commodity system, while they appropriated and reserved “eutopia=the good place” for designating capitalist societies where commodious living can be obtained by successful accumulators of capital.[15]  Their success marked a cultural revolutionary victory in which the capital accumulation system demonstrated its power to define what is real and what is unreal.  Despite the effort of Marx and Engels to dissociate revolutionary activity from utopian speculative fiction and “autonomous” social experiments and to keep the focus on the concrete “materialist” eutopian task of the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist system and its class-based inequities and iniquities, the conceptual loss persisted.  It surfaced in the New Left resurgence of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The failure of the New Left to dialectically reverse the dominant ideology’s definition of reality, by making the case that the system’s continual failure to deliver more than a restricted accumulationist “eutopia-for-the-few,” demonstrates the fictional utopian character of capitalism’s ideological promise. This result was important for the depthless and delusional postmodernist accommodation that followed.  The mystification of reality evidenced at the opening of full-blown postmodernism  by Reagan’s “Morning in America” political slogan allowed the “moving contradiction “[16] to continue as the hegemonic order up to its present-day system crash.


At the same time as the conceptual loss associated with utopia was playing out in the postmodern globalized market commodification of culture, an aesthetic loss was taking place in association with capitalism’s continuing degradation of environmental quality.[17]  The aesthetic loss that accompanies the destruction of natural habitat is overlooked or little noted in comparison to the weighty and ominous recording of environmental damage, accelerating species extinction, and the ecological disruption of the “round river”[18] circulation of energy within the earth’s life envelope (scientifically designated as the “biosphere”).  This aesthetic loss takes the form of a shrinkage in the scope and quality of sense stimulation that nature offers, particularly within urbanized space as a consequence of compressed design and energy expenditure, together with the massive flow of waste products, depredations of the surrounding countryside, and the non-benign production processes let loose in a society whose “culture logic” entails the complete commodification of material existence. The extraction of fossil fuel to power the global market growth of the commodity system now reduces expanding tracts of land to lifeless rock and rubble.  Global warming and the ocean acidification that decimate reef-building coral, together with deforestation and desertification, reduce ecological diversity, all of which has profoundly negative consequences for environment quality and global aesthetics.  Although they no longer experience nature’s full aesthetic potential in their daily living, the urban inhabitants of late capitalism’s commodified “reality” are not fully apprised of the loss.  Packaged tours and cruises to exotic “get-a-ways” enable them to experience pristine natural settings that have been protected by being commodified. They also have the consumer option to view televised documentaries of natural settings where, for example, it is possible to see the remaining turtles of an endangered species being protected from the commodity market for expensive exotic animal flesh by a wealthy retired entrepreneur.

The “cultural logic” of late capitalism helped to hide this global aesthetic loss by a diversionary development characterized by Jameson as the technological sublime, “a mesmerizing new aesthetic form” that “emerges as the elaborate symptom of the waning of our historicity” [PM, 21] linked to “a radical eclipse of Nature” [PM 34]. Today the idea that Nature has been “eclipsed” emerges as a startlingly delusional outgrowth of the tyranny of design endemic in the aestheticism that carried over from modernism to postmodernism in “the prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm” [PM 48].  Jameson examines the efflorescence of this phenomenon primarily in terms of art and architecture and not in terms of ecology and environmental quality.  For this reason the technological “sublime” and the depthlessness of postmodernist aesthetics are not fully explored.  Even as late as his 1996 “Five Theses on Actually Existing Marxism,”[19] there is no indication that postmodernism’s depthlessness includes ecological blindness to the decline of the global aesthetic gifted to human conscious perception by the natural order. This is in addition, of course, to the depthlessness that rendered postmodernism blind to the looming ecological “rift” between capitalism’s social metabolic order and the Earth system on whose continuing natural productivity it is dependent.[20]  Nevertheless, Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism is inclusive of culture and nature as objects of representation, and on this topic he notes that in our time this “at once opens up a new force field” [PM 170] that presses the question of whether in the period of late capitalism postmodernist representation “constitutes something like the grave of Nature” [ibid.]– “as the latter has systematically been eclipsed from the object world and the social relations of a society whose tendential domination over its Other (the nonhuman or the formerly natural) is more complete than at any other moment in human history [ibid.].


Recent extreme weather events force a different representation, one that reinforces the passing of late capitalism’s postmodernist “moment” and, in a dialectical reversal, turns the representation of the “the grave of Nature” into the grave of the system that attempts to dominate Nature.  It is neither moralistic nor prophetic to state that one of the defining features of the Post-Meltdown era will be an acceleration of climate change with its real-time demonstrations that the entire history of the hubristic unlimited capital expansion project based largely on fossil fuel constitutes a narrative of future-blindness whose margin of error has now been terminated.  In this dawning new era the anthropocentric concept of a sublime “based on a whole new technology” [PM 6] is destined to become as quaint as it is now delusional, and this realization will have an important cautionary bearing on the introduction and use of technology generally.[21] 

The global aesthetic loss associated with environmental degradation on a planetary scale cannot be dissociated from the modernist ideology of aestheticism.  Modern aestheticism is a doctrine of idealist philosophy in which the refined contents of human sensory experience are elevated to a “dimension” where they gain aesthetic value by virtue of acquiring “autonomous” aesthetic form.  The doctrine is anthropocentric in teaching that the creative power of the imagination gives aesthetic form to artistic productions, which then become the most important source of “aesthetic” reception (i.e. sensory experience).  Aesthetic form therefore stands opposed to the working of nature since no similar imaginative faculty is involved in natural production.  This caused a problem for idealist philosophy because nature conveys to the senses what are recognizably the most sublime instances of aesthetic experience. If true aesthetic experience is the product of imaginative activity according to the canonical rules of aesthetic form, as aestheticism maintains, then natural aesthetic form is an oxymoron.  Idealist philosophy dealt with this problem by relegating natural aesthetic forms to the “as if” category.  Natural aesthetic forms are then “appreciated” because they appear to resemble the purposive result of the ordering designs that are present in classical examples of imaginative artistic work.  Peter Burger argues that, “By the end of the 18th Century art as a canonic institution is already fully developed,” but is not yet a full-blown aestheticism because within it there are still “political contents” that “militate against the autonomy principle of the institution.”  For this reason the fully autonomous aestheticism “of art as a sphere that is detached from the praxis of life” does not appear until the end of the 19th Century, when the “self-criticism of the social subsystem that is art” becomes possible, and “the contents” of this sphere “lose their political character and art wants to be nothing other than art.”[22] By the early 20th Century art as an institution was successful in freeing itself from all outside constraints on its autonomy, at which point a crisis ensued, which Burger characterizes as follows: “At the moment it has shed all that is alien to it, art necessarily becomes problematic for itself.  [Its] social ineffectuality stands revealed as the essence of art in bourgeois society,” and its self-criticism begins.[23]

Much of this self-criticism takes place experimentally in modernist and avant-garde art movements and in the various manifestos issued by them, from Dada to Surrealism, continuing into the immediate post-WW II years.[24] From the turn of the century modernist art quickly moved in the direction of abstraction, but “art itself is not being called into question” as it will be in the avant-garde Dadaist movement beginning in 1916.  Art was still subordinated to the canon of traditional aesthetic form, although, as Burger notes, the abstract form of the aesthetic object “eludes judgment by traditional rules.”[25] In the post-WW I years, however, an artistic avant-garde aligned with the political vanguard consciously broke with aestheticism.  In the radical photomontages of John Heartfield, for example, aestheticism was deliberately cast aside. The leading artistic principle was no longer autonomous form but the communication of social and political content, a pedagogical aim in which art recovers a dimension of meaning that is lost under aestheticism.  The importance of this reversal cannot be overestimated.  Walter Benjamin saw it as the key to application of the dialectical method: “For the materialist dialectician discontinuity must be the regulative idea of the tradition of the ruling classes (essentially the bourgeoisie), continuity that of the oppressed classes (the proletariat).” [26]


The only way for the oppressed classes to maintain continuity is to continually recover it for living memory by means of art and culture in which content is equal to form and not divorced from it.  From the ancient world’s empires to the imperialisms that went down in the 20th Century’s orgy of violence, ruling classes have fractured history with dynastic wars. Their interest therefore is in countering this bloody picture by ideological means, of which aestheticism in art is one.  In the late modern era, capitalism goes from Depression to Meltdown, yet the ruling culture presents itself as the stable source of continuity.  Abstraction, ideological screening and repression have their effect on consciousness.  Seen from this perspective postmodernism’s continuation of aestheticism’s “repression of the referent”[27] is not an accident.  As the hegemonic cultural logic of Late Capitalism, postmodernism continues modernism’s original transformation of aesthetics into an ‘ism’ that provides late capitalist society with a set of cultural norms capable of deflecting aesthetic practices away from critical representation and the articulation of social and political content that could have the effect of undermining the system’s legitimacy.  In capitalist societies dominant cultural norms are just that.  Their dominance is supplemental to the real dominant and must be consistent with the dominant power organizing social and economic life for the accumulation of wealth by an extreme minority through practices that stunt the human sensorium, diminish the space of global aesthetics, and transform culture itself into “a vendable commodity.”[28] Postmodernist aestheticism contributed to this end by fetishizing canonical forms and elevating stylistics and innovation at the expense of critical content.  Aestheticism therefore supports the expansion of capital values with aesthetic “laws” divorced from ecological sustainability that place a premium (“better” or “best”) on objects and experiences more costly and difficult to obtain, while at the same time devaluing those that are available or obtainable without extremes of labor and energy.

The waning of historicity that Jameson points to as a fundamental feature of postmodernist culture is actually a recurrence of the Great Amnesia of the 1950’s following the neo-Fascist purge of the Left by McCarthyism, which was interrupted by the brief awakening in the Sixties and early Seventies as a result of the radicalizing Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. The postmodernist “moment” is best seen, therefore, as a repetition of the general national somnolence and retreat based on the delusional idea that not changing anything fundamental about the “American Way of Life” after the defeat of Fascism was the way to reinstate and insure continuity of the “good life.”  Western Marxists like Herbert Marcuse had earlier introduced the concept of “totality”[29] to conceptualize “the new forms of control” set in place in “advanced industrial society” (“society without opposition”).  The concept of a total administration of economic and civil life is used to account for the disappearance of the political vanguard of opposition and the lack of an agent of revolutionary change in the working population (referred to in Marxist theory as the “proletariat”) sufficient to oppose such capitalist administrative solutions on a national scale.  In the “postmodernity” of Late Capitalism the concept of totality downplays the system’s failure to deal with its own maturation.  Explanations employing the concept of totality overlook the fact that capitalism is a dynamic contradictory system in pursuit of what is essentially the utopian unattainable end of continuous accumulation of a value abstraction that translates concretely into power over labor and nature.  Its massive “being” therefore is a being-in-process.


Capitalist society was, is and will remain a class-riven social metabolic reproductive order.  Its ordering principle is predatory in the sense that capital values accumulate for one class only if the production of wealth is not shared by all classes. Thus the system diminishes itself by the very process through which it seeks to enhance itself. The naked expression of this principle is “trickle-down economics,” the now infamous phrase used at the beginning of the postmodernist “moment” by illusionists who saw themselves confidently in command.  Now their confidence looks more like religious faith as a fifth year of stagnation drives them to embrace more militantly that imagined position of strength they were confident would go on forever.  Thus the concept of “totality” represents the loss of the dialectic and the failure to grasp the materialist nature of the problem of capitalist maturity, which should be the core meaning of the term “Late Capitalism,” that is, geriatric and enfeebled and unable to face the looming calamities and dislocations its 250 years of ignorance and excess have now made inevitable.  Instead of converting its substantial technological achievement into the universal benefits of a shorter working day and an end to unemployment, which would enhance the strength and adaptiveness of the entire working population, the system’s organizing principle of proprietary excess continues even though the level of technological development has made possible a general leveling of the accumulationist pyramid.  Harmful artificialities (like the absurdly excessive production of weapons) had to be introduced in order to subsidize production shrunken by “reduced demand,”  and justify a  destructively competitive “fight club” social norm, rather than dealing with the fact that “enough is enough.”  From a rational, mentally healthy point of view, the capitalist fight club principle of social organization appears as a metabolic repetition-compulsion, in which enough is never enough and the population must be set on a forced march to a “progress” that perpetuates insufficiency and metabolic risk in order that an essentially mentally-ill class can continue their addictions to excess, celebrity and privilege. The “break-out” by the youth movement of the Sixties, which cut across class lines, exposed a deep–seated cultural contradiction in which this premise of a cultural “forced march” was challenged but not resolved.  Herbert Marcuse was the most prominent philosophical voice and leading theorist of the movement opposing the fool’s paradise of this metabolically dysfunctional “one dimensional society.”

Marcuse’s writings had a popularity in the U.S. that is nothing short of extraordinary considering the Hegelian-Marxist philosophical tradition to which his thought belongs.  In a paper published in 1967 he claimed that “the place of art in the world is changing, and art today is becoming a potential factor in the construction of a new reality.”[30] Marcuse was not substituting cultural for political forces in the revolutionary process.  Rather, he was saying that once the political forces for change were set in motion, “art, form of the imagination,” could guide the construction of the new society.  By “construction,” he insisted he did not have in mind “the swindle of beautification campaigns,” but was referring to art as a genuine productive force that would bring forth the realization of art while bringing an end to art as unreality and an end to aesthetics as an illusory realm.  In this transformation art would merge with politics and life.  Instead of being a sublimation into unreality of the demands of bodily life, art would become, on the basis of science and technology, a new “reality principle” directing technical progress to the satisfaction of human need.  This is the conception of “art as the architecture of a free society, and of society itself as a work of art.  It is a necessary and valid conception without which the revolutionary process dwindles to a mere changing of the guard.”

In The Aesthetic Dimension [31], his last work, however, there is a falling away from the genuine insight of art becoming a productive force. The utopianism and aestheticism in his thought are now combined with a pessimism and resignation that stands out as a significant departure from his earlier ideas on the role of art in “advanced industrial society.”  The idea of the alienated artist re-appears, as Marcuse now writes that art is a productive force qualitatively different from labor; and its essentially subjective qualities assert themselves against the hard objectivity of the class struggle.  “The writers who, as artists, identify themselves with the proletariat still remain outsiders…. They remain outsiders not because of their non-proletarian background, but because of the essential transcendence of art, which makes the conflict between art and political praxis inevitable” (AD 37). The argument here, if there is one, is unsupported.  The assertion that artists must be outsiders because of the essential transcendence of art rests on belief not fact. The doctrines of utopianism and aestheticism stand in for argument, but the “essential” transcendence of art is precisely what is in question.  Art is essentially a making.  Why is the making of art essentially transcendent?  What does the activity of art transcend?  Hegel held that philosophical thought was able to peer beyond [but not transcend] its conditions. Why is art privileged over philosophical thought in being able to transcend its conditions?


Marcuse has shifted from an earlier, progressive view that allowed for the possibility of an art merged with the process of production as a new reality principle (which does not require artists to be outsiders, but includes them as participants).  The reason for this shift in his position is not to be found in the truism that the creative process of imagination (‘art’) is qualitatively different from the physical action of labor.  In his earlier work Reason and Revolution [32] Marcuse argued for the Marxian view that the alienation of thought and the creative process from the labor process is a socio-historical phenomenon having to do with the rise of the division of labor.  In The Aesthetic Dimension, however, he presents a critique of Marxist aesthetics that places the artistic process in a privileged position and defends the inwardness and subjectivity of art and aesthetics as a counterforce and as a political value.  His main criticism is that Marxist aesthetics de­values subjectivity, whereas it is just this inward separation from material production that “has enabled [art] to demystify the reality reproduced in this process” (AD 22).  Marcuse makes an important point about demystification here, but it is not clear that this is the work of art any more than it is of philosophy or critical thought in general. When he moves, however, to a stronger claim about the truth or goal of art, the contrast is abundantly clear:  “The truth of art,” he says, “lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality…, to define what is real” (AD 9).

The Marxist position in aesthetics holds the contrary view that art does not have this power on its own, separate and independent from revolutionary critical thought and praxis.  Poetic or artistic truth are expressions that have meaning when they are about the quality of a given work of art or craft.  To see in art generally a unique power to transcend reality, even in a symbolic sense, is a mystification.  If we’re talking about transcending a society’s historically developed and socially mediated metabolism with nature why is art in a privileged position to transcend this reality?  Marcuse offers no explanation. Transcendence of an entire way of life is surely the collective work of critical thought, science, art and labor together, not the privileged role of any one activity alone.  The unsupported assertion that activity within a separate “aesthetic dimension” is capable of transcendence apart from science and the labor process is more a statement of faith than a rational judgment.  It was just this sort of “spiritual privileging” of subjectivity that made it necessary for Marxist aesthetics to “devalue” it.  The “devaluation” was necessary to obtain a concept of art that is genuinely participatory and integrated with the full scope of human design capability.  Art outside this integration is not necessarily elitist or “decadent bourgeous” art, but it cannot be seen as “transcendent” in anything other than a personal or spiritual sense. It is not liberating in the revolutionary sense of transcending the way of life that capitalism forcibly maintains today over humanity’s entire planetary metabolism with nature.

Marcuse, who earlier stood confessedly for the Marxist approach, ends up in his “Conclusion” by returning to a position dictated by Freud’s doctrine of an irreconcilable conflict between Eros and Thanatos, symbols of life and destruction. He seems driven to this position by his embrace of a fundamental premise of Freud’s thought, as he explored it in Eros and Civilization.  The Freudian concept of repression divorced art (a sublimation of the pleasure principle) from work (the civilization imposed reality principle), not just from alienated labor, but from all necessary labor.  Marcuse’s acceptance of this Freudian premise turns his conception of an autonomous “Aesthetic Dimension” into an unfounded “ism.”  In fact, art springs just as much from the exertions of labor and is committed just as much to the humanization of labor as it is to uninterrupted joy and the free play and gratification represented by Freud’s pleasure principle.  Furthermore, between these two, work and play, there is the pedagogical function of art as the communication of meaning-content.  In Marcuse’s Freudian utopianism there is a tendency to describe human finalities as though education and working adult life had nothing decisive to contribute to human fulfillment. There is a return to “instinctual structures, primary drives and libidinal and destructive energy” (AD l7).


For Marcuse, then, the ultimate meaning of art is shaped by the utopian vision of the abolition of labor in human life.  As long as there is necessary labor utopianism and aestheticism will be at odds with “established reality,” even if that reality is socialism’s achievement of humanizing with science, technology and art the labor process on which our collective metabolism with nature depends. If one objects that the achievement of a sustainable metabolism with nature based on the socialization of necessary labor makes possible a non-alienated art, Marcuse’s response is similar to Freud’s anthropological speculations in his last works where he hypostatizes two disparate and warring forms of instinctual energy Eros (life) and Thanatos (destruction and death) within each individual that can never be reconciled.  From this metaphysical premise Marcuse deduces two negative conclusions: that “In reality it is evil that triumphs, and there are only islands of good where one can find refuge for a brief time” (AD 47), and “Socialism does not and cannot liberate Eros from Thanatos,” which ultimately means that the process of socialist revolution is “the struggle for the impossible” (AD 72).  The first conclusion can be left to the metaphysical and religious proclivities of the individual. (If death is natural and necessary for life’s continuance, then it is not evil; if it conflicts with belief in eternal life for the individual, then no doubt it is). The second conclusion about the limits of socialism has utopianism as its additional premise. It says that the transcendence of capitalist chaos and oppression is not enough.  Even though each individual’s humanity is bound up with the community of human relationships and does not attain complete development outside them, and art and aesthetics do not stand outside this community of meanings, there is yet some impossible surd that Marcuse says cannot be attained.  But when this is all that remains one can understand why Marxist aesthetics has no further interest in the question.

The utopianism and aestheticism that came together in Marcuse’s last work, together with the misleading concept of totality, is part of the morphing of modernism into the “new cultural aesthetic space” of postmodernism, in which aesthetic styles displace content capable of provoking affect. Jameson describes this as “the collapse of the high modernist ideology of style” into “the imitation of dead styles” (PM 17-18).  But this is not the whole story.  There is also the missing avant-garde and the absence of an aesthetic of resistance to be accounted for.  With regard to the first, Burger maintained “that the avant-garde’s intention of reintegrating art into life praxis cannot occur in bourgeois society, except in the false form of negating art as an institution.” [34] But obviously realization of an intention is not a precondition for activity that is meant to contribute to that realization.  What sustains the life of an avant-garde is a living relation between the aesthetics of production and the aesthetics of reception, such as was present with more or less intensity, for example, in the years documented by Cary Nelson in his Repression and Recovery (1910-1945) and in more detail in Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front in the period of the Great Depression to the election of 1948 [35] when the avant-garde in the arts was linked closely to political vanguards attuned to an aesthetics of resistance. What inhibits the re-formation of an avant-garde and an aesthetic of resistance in poetry and the arts in contemporary society are the residual post-mortem features of the “cultural dominant” identified by Jameson, which persist throughout the institutional and most of the non-institutional cultural landscape.

Hank Lazar’s Opposing Poetries [36] is a sourcebook on critiques of the institutional domination of American poetry in the era of the “cultural logic of Late Capitalism.”  He cites Charles Bernstein’s “official verse culture” as an accurate description of “the dominant institutional network for poetry” and quotes Bernstein’s concise explanation that “what makes official verse culture official is that it denies the ideological nature of its practice while maintaining hegemony in terms of major media exposure and academic legitimation and funding.”[37]  Advancing in the direction of a “Post-Post” aesthetic of resistance and recovery means completing the dialectical negation, the reversal (and burial) of the four key features of Postmodernism and the utopianism and aestheticism on which they depend.  Both of the first two features Jameson identified, depthlessness and the waning of historicity are rooted in the formalism that Badiou saw as “the repression of the referent” and the abandonment of dialectics.[38] The second two features, the technological sublime and the “whole new economic system” are already under assault and are weakening their hold on consciousness. The message of climate change is that the construction designs which gave a semblance of reality to an anthropocentric technological sublime are more realistically and humbly seen as they are pictured in Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias.”  As for the fourth feature listed by Jameson, the Meltdown and subsequent stagnation of the capitalist growth machine effectively counters the concept of “a whole new economic system.”


The relation between late modernism and postmodernism turns out not to have been one of momentous change.  Modifying the norms of a “cultural dominant” is consistent with the underlying dominant as a moment of change in its mode of functioning. From modernism to postmodernism continuity prevailed in the structural design of capitalism’s economic base. What we are witness to in the post-Meltdown era is the rupture of the system’s continuity playing out before our eyes.  Depthlessness and the waning of historicity are in part the twin consequences of high modernism’s autonomous “aesthetic dimension,” the canonical feature of which persisted in postmodernism. As we see in the case of Bernstein’s “official verse culture,” aestheticism is a doctrine of class (higher/lower aesthetic form) that refuses to admit the content of really-existing classes (ruling/subaltern) into its representations of “aesthetic form.”  This by itself reveals a breach between value and practice important enough to merit the Sartrean existential judgment of mauvais foi (“bad faith”), but character flaw is the lesser failing here.  Of greater weight and magnitude is the servile complicity with which aestheticism shelters (even if out of ignorance) a socio-economic dominant that stunts human potential, degrades the global aesthetic, and persists in a future blindness that renders it incapable of coming to terms with the disastrous consequences of its delusional utopian program of unending capital accumulation. As the canonical principle for the institution of art and literature, aestheticism dismisses content that negatively depicts the underlying predatory (and now cannibalistic) system or that envisions its abolition and replacement with a co-operative social formation.

Moreover, it obstructs art conveying this content from attaining ranked recognition.  In poetry, for example, late modernist aestheticism elevated form over content and dismissed works with depth-meaning regarding class, or social and political issues, as outside the canon. This led to an attempt on the part of Charles Olson in the early 1950’s to transcend the confines of aesthetic formalism by introducing an “open field” composition paradigm whose principle was “Form is never more than an extension of content.”[39]  The application of this principle fell short because it failed to deal with the problems associated with selection and range of content. Also, when Olson enunciated it he had already abandoned contemporary domestic political content.  Anderson was correct in citing Olson’s importance for the postmodernist turn in the opening chapter of his The Origins of Postmodernity.  He quotes extensively from Olson’s poem “The Kingfishers” (1949)[40] which Olson conceived as a response to T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”[41] Citing the poet’s self-characterization as “an archaeologist of morning,” Anderson credits Olson with “an affirmative conception of the postmodern”.[42] This evaluation is partially confirmed by another literary critic who finds Olson “deserves close attention because his poems do not conform to what modern critics have argued is essentially poetic.”[43] Olson’s is primarily a pedagogical, expository poetics of investigative content.  It is content-driven, makes form a secondary consideration, and in so doing escapes the artificiality of aestheticism’s “good taste” criterion.  For this reason his poetry gained a measure of depth while much of late modern and postmodern aestheticist poetry exhibits semantic atrophy.

In this positive affirmation of “the postmodern” we find a 5th feature of postmodernity, omitted by Jameson’s early study, which appeared with the waning of the New Left movement in the late 1970’s.  Primarily evident in poetry, it took the form of an outpouring of creative effort by subaltern groups fragmented along local, regional, racial, ethnic, gender and class lines.  One of the early collections bringing attention to this work is the 1987 anthology A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry [44] which spoke to the core-periphery paradigm that marginalized voices outside the predominantly white male literary elite.  This wave of literary pluralism growing up within postmodern culture, but not consciously identified with it, eventually invaded academia, where it was viewed as a threat to traditional Eurocentric aestheticism.  The Ivy League literary critic Harold Bloom, the justice Scalia of American letters, waxed apoplectic in his introduction to the 1998 The Best of the Best American Poetry anthology, raging against “the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us.”[45] Bloom cites with approval the noted cultural critic Walter Pater who by “aesthetic” meant “what is authentic and good.” He seems unaware of what Northrop Frye called the “arid and insipid pseudo-classicism” that attends the efforts of critics “to restrict either what the artist may choose for his subject or the method in which he may chose to treat it.”[46] In any case, Bloom needn’t have been concerned.  The postmodernist character of this literary multicultural “movement” (seen by Bloom as “hordes of camp-followers, afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks”) supervened on its radical positive aspect and turned it toward ascending the academic “heights” rather than, as in the case of the avant-garde of old, toward destroying the institution of depthless aestheticized mock-art (and subsidized mock-poetry).


The aestheticized postmodern academic poetry citadel continues as a hold-over from another era.  As Bernstein’s analysis of “official verse culture” makes clear, it has a deviously distorting effect on expressible content, beyond the now acceptable poetry of multiculturalism, by deselecting the critical work necessary to speak truth to power.  Reversing this fifth feature of postmodernism, dispersal and fragmentation of poetic energies followed by academic neutering, toward the goal of a politically conscious cultural front that recovers participation and continuity toward the common aim of revolutionary change is the leading task for a new radical avant-garde in the arts.  It is possible to foresee, in the “post-post” moment now on the horizon, a radical avant-garde cultural front united with a broad-based popular front and a  political vanguard energized in response to “the evental emergence of the new.”  Frederic Jameson, in what is almost an aside in the introduction to his book Brecht and Method, remarks on “that ultimate frame of the metaphysic or world-view,” noting that “the very notion of a world-view…is the first causality of modernity itself.”[47] I see this as an important historical truth reminding us that before capitalism came to full political power by overturning its historical predecessor, which it labeled scornfully as the “ancien regime,” the way for it was prepared by a scientific conceptual revolution that re-oriented humanity’s self-understanding vis-a-vis the cosmos. The cultural battle now being waged over global warming is an indication that, of necessity, we are now dialectically engaged in the formation of a new world-view, one that is already pressing us to the conclusion that the present publically subsidized ancient regime weighing us down is incompatible with the future of humanity.  This makes the formation of a new avant-garde in the arts all the more essential to the recovery of “a living connection…to the underlying over-all ‘movement of the cosmos’ that…is no longer filtered just through anthropocentric world-views.”[48]

[Note: This first appeared in Issue 37 of the Left Curve.]


End notes:

[1] Krugman, Paul: “Life, Death and Deficits,” The New York Times, November 16, 2012.

[2] This would seem to be the judgment of curators and art historians, who now speak of “art after postmodernism,” “contemporary art” and the “theory of contemporaneity.”  (See Smith, Terry: What is Contemporary Art? (2009) and Contemporary Art World Currents (2011) and Mann, James: “Art after Post-Modernism” (web article, 2012).

[3] Jameson, Fredric: Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism: Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. [Abbreviated PM, with page number references in brackets].

[4] Mandel, Ernest: Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1972, 1983, 2nd edition, 1998.

[5] See Perry Anderson’s The Origin of Postmodernity: [London:Verso, 1998].  His chapter “Capture” traces the origin of Jameson’s study of Postmodernism to “The Cultural Turn,” a lecture Jameson gave at the Whitney Museum in the fall of 1982.

[6] Jameson’s “now” in this passage is the 1980’s.  See the last chapter in Anderson, cited above.

[7] Anderson’s summary is that “Postmodernism is a cultural logic of a capitalism not embattled but complacent beyond precedent” [op. cit. p. 118]. This was evident in the “end of history” and “capitalism forever” narratives that flourished in the decades prior to 2008. Today the hubris is gone and the absence of these narratives is a stunning reminder that a new era is dawning.  The current reversal opens the way for what Badiou calls the “evental emergence of the ‘new’” [Badiou, Alain: The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic, Tzuchen Tho, editor and translator,, 2011, p.xvii]

[8] The New York Times now maintains an archive on corporate and business subsidies [The Times classifies them under “incentive spending”].  Louise Story analyzed this collection of data and published an article in The Times dated Dec. 1, 2012, summarizing her findings and giving us an eye-opening account of capitalism’s growing cannibalization of its own social-reproductive metabolism (i.e. the trillions in budget deficit it seeks to free itself from by “austerity” measures and entitlement “reforms”).  The article notes that The Times “analyzed 150,000 awards” and that “States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race” to get Federal government money with which to lure capitalist enterprises to locate in their jurisdictions.  The amounts are staggering:  local governments “give up” $80+ billion a year, Federal and State governments $170 billion per year.  It seems that the biggest names in capitalism’s “success story” have been receiving the largest welfare checks.

[9] Stiglitz, Joseph: Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, WW Norton, 2010].

[10] See, e.g., Alperovitz, Gar:  America Beyond Capitalism, John Wiley & Sons, 2005.

[11] Anderson, op. cit., p. 92.

[12] Jameson employed these useful expression borrowed from the post-Gramscian culture theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall, in his “Five Theses on Actually Existing  Marxism,” Monthly Review, April, 1996, pp 1-10.

[13] Ibid., p. 4.

[14] Thomas More’s book Utopia was first published in 1514.

[15] The political theorist Russell Kirk, for example, in his Beyond the Dreams of Avarice described More’s Utopia as a “little fantasy,” and says that More certainly knew that “Utopia never was and never will be, and that we are not made for utopia.”  Kirk shows no awareness of the ambiguity in More’s title.  “Eutopias,” places where life is good, certainly have existed and exist now, for people with adequate accumulations of capital. Their enclaves could well be designated as “capitopias.”  Enthusiasts for capitalism, however, as well as a good deal of the academic community writing on the subject, continue to agree with the redoubtable Professor Kirk.

[16] This is Marx’s dialectical characterization of the crisis-bound system structurally incapable of providing global human sufficiency, let alone the planetary stewardship necessary to protect the envelope of life.

[17] The reference here is to “global” aesthetics, that is, to the entire range of the senses, referred to in a collective sense as the human sensorium, and not just to the aesthetic selections encountered in aestheticist art and poetry, which select from the fullness of experience certain formally prized elements.

[18] Aldo Leopold’ in his classic Sand County Almanac employs this metaphor to describe the circulation of life energy through the environment.

[19] Jameson, op. cit. 1996.

[20] See the recent works by John Bellamy Foster, especially: The Ecological Revolution 2009, and The Ecological Rift, Capitalism’s War on the Earth, authored with Brett Clark, and Richard York, Monthly Review Press, 2010.

[21] Technology, for example, which makes possible a prosthetics of remediation, is now being commodified for use in the prosthetics of enhancement for the unimpaired, which contributes in no small part to sustaining the fiction of a technological sublime.

[22] Burger, Peter: Theory of the Avant-Garde, transl., Michael Shaw, Forward by Jochen Schulte-Sassse, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 26.

[23] Ibid., p. 27.

[24] The last “movement” of note is the “Lettrism” of Isou (Isidore Goldstein), who arrived in Paris in 1945 and proposed a new poetry (based the letters on dead poetic language) by dumping all semantic content.  Pastiche, depthlessness and pursuit of an aestheticist technological sublime, in which form becomes its own subject matter, make him a forerunner of postmodernism.

[25] Burger, ibid., p. 74.

[26] Quoted in Jameson’s “Forward” to Volume I of Peter Weiss’ novel The Aesthetics of Resistance: Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, p xliv.

[27] Badiou, Alain: The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic, Tho,Tzuchien, editor and translator, Melbourne:, 2011, p. 96.  Badiou links this repression [refoulment] to the abandonment of the dialectic on the one hand, and formalism on the other.

[28] Anderson, op.cit., p. 55.

[29] In One Dimensional Man [Beacon Press, 1964] Herbert Marcuse characterized the socio-economic totality of capitalist consumer society [Marcuse uses the term “technological “ or “advanced industrial” society] as repressively “de-sublimating.” Using Freudian theory, which sees sublimation of instinctual drives into “higher” cultural forms of expression as civilization’s safety-valve for the repression it imposes, Marcuse saw mass consumption culture as a “total system” that represses while lessening the need for sublimation. Certain pleasures (such as choosing, buying, owning) are expanded, while other, freer expressions that depend on leisure time continue to be repressed and unavailable.

[30] “Liberation from Affluent Society,” in Cooper, David ed., To Free A Generation, Collier Books, 1968, pp. 175-92.

[31] The Aesthetic Dimension, [hereafter abbreviated AD], Beacon Press, 1978.  The book was originally published in German under the title: Die Permanenz der Kunst: Wider eine bestimmte Marxistishe Aesthetik, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1977. Upon publication in 1978 a portion of The Aesthetic Dimension was excerpted and reprinted in the American Poetry Review.

[32] Reason and Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1941.

[33] Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, The Beacon Press, 1955.

[34] Jochen Schulte-Sasse’s introduction to Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, op.cit., pp xli-xliii.

[35] Nelson, Cary: Repression and Recovery, Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison:The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989; and Denning, Michael: The Cultural Front, The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, London: Verso, 1996.

[36] Lazar, Hank: Opposing Poetries, Volume One: Issues and Institutions. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

[37] Bernstein, Charles: Content’s Dream: Essays, 1975-1984. Los Angles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986.

[38] Badiou, Alain, op. cit., p. 96.

[39] “Projective Verse,” in Charles Olson Selected Writings, Robert Creeley, ed., New York: New Directions, 1966, p, 16, Olson credited Creeley with the original formulation of the principle.

[40] Anderson, op. cit., p. 9.

[41] Butterick, George: ‘Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” and the Poetics of Change,” American Poetry, VI, No 2, Winter 1989, pp 56-57.

[42] Anderson, ibid., p.12.

[43] von Hallberg, Robert, The Scholar’s Art, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 2.

[44] Harris, Marie, and Aguero, Kathleen, eds., A Gift of Tongues, University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[45] Lehman, David, Series Editor, The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997, New York: Scribner, 1998, pp 16-17.

[46] Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 114.

[47] Jameson, Federick: Brecht and Method. London: Verso, 1998, p. 12.

[48] Polony, Csaba, “The Issue,” Left Curve no. 36, 2012, p143.


[Thank you Peter for permission to post this]

The writer is poet-philosopher associate of the Left Curve. His recent publications are Night & Day: New and Selected Poems (2010) and The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing (2012).

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