A Spectre is Haunting the World – Something Sinister… (R11)


From 1960 to 1990 I was absorbed in making a living, paying the mortgage and getting life into some kind of discipline & order, intent on becoming a Good Householder in 4th Way terms, though I certainly didn’t classify it thus at the time. Pre-occupied in this way and content with what I had learned till then, self-calmed even, I missed out on some subtle & not so subtle changes that were taking place around me: I was well settled into what they call ‘modernism’, happy with all its manifestations; it was the proper and only way in music, art & poetry and I knew that individual Kropotkin/Tolstoyan anarchism was the only & proper way to think about constructing a social reality; so I did not notice during all those years that something sinister was underway with the hidden potential to undermine both my beliefs and all the social progress I and many others had taken for granted since 1945.

On the other hand, I certainly knew without thinking about it much that the assumption about the inevitability of the relationship between language and what you could call reality was entirely false – there’s no precise matching; this was implicit in Sartre’s 1948 comment (in What is Literature?) that one novel with fifty readers = fifty different novels – one need say no more about it: post-structuralism, poorly associated with the spectre of post-modernism, is embodied in that formula.

The ‘something sinister’, then, was dangling on the abstract label ‘postmodernism’. Only lately I discover that I’d read its novels (by Brautigan & Barthelme, Calvino & Eco) – even written one myself with a colleague – The Gardener of the Universe) and seen its films (Werner Herzog & the Coen Brothers) and heard its music (Michael Nyman & John Adams & Philip Glass) and thought it all wonderful, but had taken it to be simply an extension of modernism in the line of, say, Conrad, Woolf, The Third Man, & Charles Ives – a long stream of artistic challenges to the simple world of ordinary, normal people. After all the fuss, I find that modernism has been dismissed as revolutionary, radical, and elitist (strange combination…), that the attack now is really on the Grand & sophisticated Narratives that are a threat to the powerbase of the political Right. Since I still believe that modernism persists in an unbroken succession of events into the 21st Century, I see ‘Postmodernism’ as a label for things happening which I associate unquestioningly with the Global Capitalist Real Conspiracy: the supremacy of market forces, fragmentation in the service of domination, the ‘profit before people’ dogma that’s never stated. ‘Postmodernism’ is the business apologist on the radio this morning (7th April 2014) arguing for Britain to remain in the EU while trying to reform it, saying, “What we need to push for is to move things away from support for social change and towards business growth…” What he doesn’t realise is that he’s just substituting the Bilderberg capitalist narrative for the Marxist one; you can’t escape a narrative – all life is a story we tell ourselves…

The fragmentation associated with Postmodernism becomes an excuse for global ‘deregulation’ – letting one’s supporters & donors do just whatever they like: for example, destroy the skyline of London with ridiculously laughable ‘postmodernist’ tower-blocks – investment & flats for foreigners.


Feeling deep in my bones that there was a conspiracy afoot but not being able to label it, something prompted me to pluck a book from my shelves, one that had been waiting to be read for fifteen years, called Postmodern Thought (edited by Stuart Sim). Why this book? At the end of my latest Glob I wrote about Husserl’s ‘bracketing’ (see also (https://colinblundell.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/ bracketing-a-way-of-thinking/); apparently this is claimed as a Postmodernist technique which levels all beliefs, equalises all concepts: values and ideas become, so it is said, interchangeable when you put them in brackets; there is nothing permanent. Now, since I do not believe this, how come one of my favourite thinking mechanisms (the framing of brainwork) has become part of a movement whose outcomes lead to the current drive to destroy left-wing commitment? To deregulation & self-help of the Samuel Smiles variety, to the consignment by the Power Possessors of a very large global contingent of human-beings to the dustbin.

The answer is that I put things in brackets not in some reductionist frenzy but only while I contemplate them there – for ease of contemplation which is how I understand Husserl’s intention – then you effect a synthesis – separation precedes integration… Whatever else it might be, Postmodernism is anti-Hegelian – it presupposes the end of history – no possible synthesis, future perfect. Things are as they are for ever and ever. Right is might.

And so, in this Glob, I use what also turns out to have been appropriated into the postmodernist canon – the technique of cut-up, quotation & autobiography – to construct this long meditative poem done in the style of Pound’s Cantos. It can be defined, if you like, as a bit of anti-postmodern postmodern rhetoric. An endless circle apparently beloved of ‘postmodern’ writers & film-makers.

Does this make me postmodern? I think not. I reject labels – that’s my Being-a-Sartrean-modernist-I at work. There are no periods: time’s all of a piece and things just happen – that comes from my Being-a-follower-of-Gurdjieff-I. Labelling is a random human invention – that, I suppose, is Being-a-post-structuralist-I. It’s axiomatic that words invent meaning, theories and false dichotomies. Bracketing keeps things in check; without bracketing things get all mixed up together – paradoxically that’s how they like it to be for us plebs, imagining that we won’t be able to keep track of their little games.


– it’s a polymorphous abstraction
starting perhaps with Nietszche in modern times
signifying different things
at different times in different minds
on variously different platforms
but most notably perhaps positing
the rejection of Grand Narratives (Marx & Plato etc)
rejection of the big schemata assumed
by one and another to stand for
‘the way things work’
for which it substitutes
disdain for authority
accidentally creating a vacuum for the entry of
the ghostly Authority of the Power Possessors
to take root in anti-foundationalism
(nothing a priori)

calling into question the structures
of cultural certainties
it embraces post-structuralism
seeking to demolish the idea
that the world is intrinsically knowable –
that silly old belief that since
we have a methodological key
to unlock world systems
based on the efficacy & stability of language signs
(signifier & signified – direct connection) –
a neat & tidy grammar of Being in one sphere after another –
take your pick from any cultural certainty:
no loose ends in politics marketing
religion social affairs
you can’t go wrong – there are no false steps
in a structure –
that’s what a structure is otherwise it would collapse –
nothing random –

but (says the post-structuralist)
the analytical techniques themselves
determine the outcomes of the quest:
the questions you ask contain their own answers
(eg those that fit the pattern ‘does God exist?’) –
post-structuralists celebrate
chance creativity & the unexpected –
rigidity of structure no longer rules OK

in post-structuralism
there’s a commitment to finding
and then dwelling on
& unpredictability

system-building is a phrase too far
in de-constructionism too
total control a no-no –
language is an unstable commodity
with slippages of meaning
signs unpredictable
the conjunction of signifier & signified
always a dodgy issue
an unstable phenomenon:
use of words
is tiddly-winks
you simply hope for the best –
creatively & playfully

meaning is fleeting –
it evaporates
as soon as it seems to happen;
meaning is but a seeming
constantly transforming itself
into different meanings

as in humdrum ordinary life even now
Western philosophy
used to be based on the premise
that the full ‘meaning’ of a word
is necessarily present in the speaker’s mind
communicable thus
to a reasonably attentive listener –
this is the metaphysics of being present
one to another – the allure of the idea of a quick swap
one receptive mind to the next
instantaneous meaning transfer:

no such luck – there’s always
some unaccountable slippage

the thing is that reliance on words
for meaning creates meaning
where it could well be that none exists –
for example language creates
categories of difference:
sane v insane
intellectual v the rest
homosexual v heterosexual
words themselves create
(the young child inculcated into
‘liking’ & ‘not-liking’)
political division – left & right

the mechanism of theory
imposes meaning
where there was no meaning before:
Freudian theory for example
id superego ego
an ideational structure
way beyond
the ‘natural standpoint’ of
the common ‘desiring machines’ that we are –
outside any possible theoretical structures

Structure v Actuality –
the Grand Narratives
fix knowledge into a structure
whereas little narratives
(the stories we tell ourselves)
are for the moment specific
individually creative

there was a time when iron & steel
were the commodities of power
but now there’s the mercantilisation
of knowledge – a pluralisation of knowledges
separate realms of a babel discourse

knowledge becomes the world’s
most significant commodity;
its control is political control:
knowledge is power –
who owns the data-banks
legitimises all those new narratives that bewitch us so

without an accepted hierarchy of learning
knowledge becomes merely performative
in a flat network
a heterogeneity of competing
local knowledges
islands of determinism –
after the demise of the Grand Narratives
it’s no longer a matter of discovering ‘the Truth’
but of finding out what works & what pays

how fragile they are –
the Narratives that always seemed so Grand…
you simply have to stop believing in them:
when this happens on a grand scale
they just collapse in on themselves
like a Soviet Union –
all that’s left are mere bare disconnected events
to be assessed & valued
as & when –
absence of absolute criteria;
no foundational matrix
just a thinking and a valuing

then there are ‘differends’ –
completely unresolvable differences
which result in each party to a dispute
inhabiting a different ‘phrase regime’
leaving the forces of techno-science
(usually in the shape of
multi-national conglomerates)
to exert their iron control –
to hi-jack the course of human history –
thought without thinker

what price difference then…
& unpredictability?

small-hearted narrative resistance
is an ethical choice
in the cause of difference

meanwhile all reality and meaning
has become symbols and signs:
‘simulacra’; human experience
a simulation of reality
subject to the make-up of
the ‘new news at the new court’…
exactly As You Like It
not merely mediating reality
nor even setting up deceptive mediations of reality;
not based in a reality at all –
nor do they hide a reality
they simply hide the idea that anything like ‘reality’
is relevant to our current understanding of our lives:

simulacra are the significations and symbolism
of culture and media
that construct perceived reality;
society is saturated with simulacra;
our lives so saturated with societal constructs –
meaninglessness in the infinitely mutable

on the radio a professor of something or other
talks blithely about robots simulating
soldier activities in the defence of the realm
while dressed in chemical resistant clobber;
the interviewer laughs (as interviewers
do when faced with something serious)
about whether the uniform will work
only 90% of the time
then the sports commentator
chunters on about England’s prospects
against South Africa
in some game or the other
and they laugh about women beating
the men at it and then we get horse-racing odds

you can talk about all this philosophically –
it’s the endless conversation of humankind
that floats above and beyond washing the dishes
and looking after the kids
– a consistently updated scepticism
which is in itself a very Grand Narrative!
perhaps the grandest of all…

heretofore there was an assumption
that science was the disinterested
search for facts
but scientific agendas
are set by squabbles & disagreements
empire-building & money –
science is no longer the disinterested study of Nature:
it’s a narrative; a key part
of the social construction of ‘reality’:
we must have missile-guidance systems
the most up-to-the-minute ways
of killing people we don’t much like
must subscribe
to all the latest e-gismos
which we are told
we cannot do without

headline in the New York Times
International Weekly:
‘Face of Science is Reshaped by Billionaires’ –
tycoons fund pet projects
and critics fear skewed priorities

after public spending cuts
laboratories shut down
scientists laid off
and projects shelved –
the practice of science in the 21st century
becomes shaped less by human priorities
or by peer-review groups
more by the particular preferences
of individuals with huge amounts of money –
science a private enterprise;
science philanthropy is hot;
the tycoons seek to reinvent themselves
as patrons of social progress:
private missions into deep space
private wars on disease –
a jumble of private feel-good projects
replace the basic but uninspiring research
into the things that really matter

so whose science is it?
whose knowledge?
in the age of artificial intelligence
cybernetic organisms & cyborgs
the goal is not Truth but Performance:
does it work?
can it do it?
will it make money?

loss of intellectual rigour;
anything goes;
one paradigm as good
as the next;
science a language game
like shopping or politics
philosophy or work

the economic survival of science
depends on new technologies
not simply a desire to know –
it has to perform as a business
minimum in (labour costs
machinery administration)
maximum out
(productivity self-regulation
automation profit)

must aim at economic success
techno-science = capitalism
all language games mean profit

through the 1970’s & 80’s ‘modernism’
was said to be
repressive clinical & self-possessed

the modernist painter
devoted much time to exploring
the nature of the medium itself –
to the flatness of the canvas
its physical reality
the luminosity or opacity
of colour
the shape of paint in & for itself
there was a deep concern
for the nature of the thing in itself
as against the nihilism
of Capitalism
(the social management of ordinary experience)

what if life were simply canvas & paint?
how might you arrange it
in a frame of your own making?
divide up the space so it makes sense –
heart & soul & mind in it?

the post-modernists fail to see it like this:
they harness allegory
parody & narrative quotation
thinking that such things might
revivify art as they understand it…
and so we arrive at pop-post-modernism
as against serious post-modernism
which remains in the modernism mode
now we have a soul-less geometry
a form of confinement –
the visual language of
a multi-national corporation
that knows no better
the square logic of late monopoly Capitalism
soul-less grids of social financial
& governmental networks;
the garish imprisoning spaces of consumerism
& surveillance
the grid itself

Halley 1
Peter Halley

monument to unending movement
the abstract flow of goods
capital & information
the imprisonment of experience
in the techniques of advertising

under late monopoly Capitalism
what was once called ‘going down to the shops’
for a specific purpose
becomes the abstraction ‘shopping’
redefined as urban tourism
commodities its souvenirs;
shopping as a leisure experience
transforms consumption
into something exciting
(art gallery as shopping mall)

are we dealing here with banal art
or an art about banality?
are we dealing with pop-post-modernism
or a serious extension of modernism?

what would Edgar Varèse
have done with a computer?

Halley 2
Peter Halley

periodicity in itself
creates false distinctions –
is it not all just an endless
conversation of humanunkind?
one thing becoming another
world without end?
do we not impose our notions of historicity
on what is all just a savage parade called Time
of which we have lost the key?
and all of us being made fools of –
fools of Time

consciousness becomes marked
by a sense of transcendental homelessness;
being becomes a kind of alienation;
life a form of exile
and loss
in simulated realities

Richard Serra
Richard Serra

the real is composed
of the pictures we make of it
guided by
an experience which is governed more & more
by pictures
in newspapers & magazines
on telly and in the cinema

our experience of reality
is organised & determined
by the images presented to us –
the visual construction of reality
replaces first-hand experience
which begins to retreat –
to seem more & more a trivial pursuit

in one hour of telly-viewing
each of us
will experience more images
than somebody in non-industrial society
would in a lifetime:
the flood of images
changes the brain
and gives you a craving for more

we become locked into the desirability
of commodities
with an emphasis on style novelty & innovation

rubbishing the process
by rubbishing the contrived image
can perhaps re-establish
the truth of live observation
and commitment to things in themselves

Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons

what if we could make a stand
and by-pass the cynical allurements
of post-modernist art
and come to see it as taking off
from where Dada left us
100 years ago – looking foolish
standing by a urinal?

the history of art
has become a vast cultural repertoire
to be raided by ignorant advertisers
looking for a new take
on a product
the promotion of a life-style
being more important than its function

not consuming the media
not watching TV
is a genuine act of transgression

observe the archetypal decentred human
shaped into an extension of small-screen technology
admirably suited to the new era –
product of technological innovation
& ideological uncertainties –
a mirrored reality
with a maximum attention span
of three minutes glued to
a world of fragmented instants
cruising a surfeit of channels
zapping the remote
no connection with time or space or genre
unconcerned with narrative connections
with coherence or rational understanding
constructing a bored & distracted
random bricolage
out of stray bits & pieces
of flickering dots

the post-modern is made to seem
to be a homogeneous movement –
something hooked on to
the last part of the twentieth century –
it turns out to be in itself
a collage of different strands
the combined effect of which
is an attack on intellect
& sensibility
on socialism & utopian idealism –
look through all the nonsense:
take away the labels
and you arrive at the fact
of people doing things

pop goes the post-modern

what others call ‘post-modern’
you could just call an attack on intellect:
for example
the excesses of TV –
recycling bricolage & self-referentiality
parody & pastiche
constant shift between fact & fiction
realism & fantasy
past present & future
with special fx
to warp or wipe out the world
one has known quite well –
TV culture bends the mind
shapes it to its own imaging

the post-modern novel
challenges the norms of narrative unity
and decorum:
dominant features are
temporal disorder; erosion of the sense of time;
pointless pastiche; words as fragments
of material signs; loss of distinction
between logically separate levels of discourse;
loose associations of discourse;
vicious circles

a metaphor of derangement
in the wider society
beyond measurement;
conventions of verisimilitude
and sanity nullified

says the postmodernist:
it’s all been done before…
it’s the end of history
there are no new styles or words;
only a limited number of combinations –
all that’s left to do is to pluck
existing styles higgledy-piggledy
from the reservoir of literary history
and stitch them up
with a little tact

plot is pounded into small slabs
of event & circumstance;
characters disintegrate
into bundles of twitching desires;
settings are little more than
transitory backdrops;
themes become so attenuated
that it’s impossible to say
what’s it’s all about

wholeness & completion
are distrusted
disruption becomes the norm;
uncertainty prevails

quotations pictures diagrams
charts & designs
totally unrelated to any story-line

‘fragments are the only forms I trust’
says Donald Barthelme; wariness
of wholeness…
well – I’ve read & relished
Barthelme & Brautigan
Calvino & Vonnegut & BSJohnson
and never ever thought
to pin a label on them –
it just seemed the way to write a modern novel

‘post-modernism’ is an abstraction
that conceals a multitude
of possibilities;
labelled thus
the methodology in the air we breathe
is appropriated
(no doubt unwittingly)
by the Right (by Capitalism)
as a way of subverting sense
& meaning in the political scene;
deliberate political chaos
& confusion of the electorate

Cantos for the inarticulate

virus words & phrases
leitmotifs & idées fixes
fixed ideas; conventional wisdoms:
‘reducing the deficit’
‘austerity measures’

you may dread that somebody else
is patterning life
feel total engulfment
by somebody else’s system –
invisible plots
conditioning ubiquitous

arises a distrust of fixity
of being circumscribed
being plotted against
so before anybody gets your plot
you change it
and then multiply the plots
so nobody knows what’s being played out

when the whole social scheme
is a plot against its citizen
all the major events of history
are constructed as side-shows
orchestrated by unseen ringmasters
to keep us quiet
in our helplessness

this missing airliner –
how do we know it ever took off?
probably an elaborate hoax
designed to make us feel small
in the face of the ‘search’
that is said to cover
thousands of square miles –
the technologies;
the human fictions

knowledge itself becomes
indeterminate –
a plethora of incommensurate discourses
all values dissolved

in music post-modernism ousted
the notion of art for art’s sake –
the notes themselves for the sake
of the notes themselves: their sounds
the counterpoint…
destroyed the linear paradigm
and substituted cultural relativism
made serious radio into a jolly charade
& chat show with bleeding chunks of music –
‘opera without the boring bits’ –
advertising gimmickry

loss of a clear distinction
between high & low culture
in favour of what’s hailed as
a new sensibility
a new historical moment
a new cultural style

Blake had the answer:
each of us must create our own system
or else become a slave to somebody else’s

has been said to be marked by suspicion
of all things popular
of anything commercial by origin –
so I am a modernist
heart & soul & head & in my bones;
member of the discarded
older generation –
a futile intellectual
stuck in a modernist meta-narrative
concerned with mastery of paint & design
& stave organisation
(though words will always have their way)
patriarchal & imperialist
so it seems –
thus speak the voices
from the sidelines of post-modernism

post-modern culture is a world
in which stylistic innovation
is no longer possible (so they say –
wildly & tastelessly innovating as they say it)
we just imitate dead styles
for the sake of it;
speak through masks
with the voices of styles
in imaginary museums –
the culture of quotations
of images & surfaces
dead ends
a perpetual present
flat & depthless

so now there’s a ghastly assumption
that pop songs are the true soundtrack
of daily life – inescapable
in lifts & airports pubs & restaurants
& shopping malls
that we all want to listen to them

flying ducks & garden gnomes
in inverted commas

Lyotard would no doubt call this
‘svelteness’ – operating freely
without being tied to a grand narrative

in the age of designer labels
all aspects of culture & identity
are subject to packaging
and ‘post-modernism’ – the label –
does the trick
but it provokes a fearsome fuss
paradox & provocation:
but how can ‘modernity’ – the NOW –
ever possibly be ‘post’ anything?

NOW is a long epoch
of historical change
fueled by
scientific & technological imperatives
penetrating every nook & cranny of the errant soul
& of the capitalist market economy

but NOW when every aspect of the past
can be made accessible electronically
mediated packaged presented
& re-presented
it seems that
we are at the end of time
– nowhere else to go
except reproduce;
condemn the consecutive narratives
of the past to the dustbin
and assert the start
of a thousand years of capitalism
& market forces

(‘bad faith’ said Sartre)
is used when we feel constrained
to grasp complexity whole;
but the labels themselves
(like all abstractions)
conceal complexity
lend it a spurious shorthand reductionist

it’s not perhaps that the label
means any single thing (or anything at all)
but just that
in this age (lengthy NOW)
cultural activity
is dominated by the media industry
capable of appealing to the public
over the heads of a cultural elite
a tidal wave
here today & gone tomorrow

we are taken in
packaged labelled
and spat upon –
consumers & customers
whether we like it or not

it’s so difficult to dissent
from a windy amorphous abstraction
escaping into the cracks of language
purporting to investigate
slippages of meaning
while itself slipping through the gaps –
it’s difficult to dissent
from something that seems
to be about dissent –
modernism under new management…
not a programme
still less an intellectual framework
more a mood a feeling in the air
a Zeitgeist
playful & joyous
awkward & petulant
a Dada modernity un-de-re-labled

post-modernism merely an extension
of the critical sceptical
dissenting nihilistic
impulses in modernity –
subjectivist amoral
fragmentary arbitrary
defeatist wilful –
and is there some hidden affirmation?
apart from allowing the forces of Capitalism
to slip in
uninvited unwelcome
unnoticed shadows at the party?
the chaos – bitter logic
that the end of Grand Narratives
is in deregulation
repudiation of story-line…
anything goes

modernism – its narratives –
at least had a dream of a better world
which could be legislated for;
to stand up for that
makes one seem guilty
of wanting to resuscitate
worn-out illusions
the old theoretical frameworks
social movements
condemned by postmodernists

but the nature of exploitation
is unchanged
postmodernism is the obscene logic of late capitalism
symptomatic of it
at this late phase:
capitalism as techno-capital

modernity is an unfinished project;
post-modernism is neo-conservatism
with its systematically distorted
& devious brain-washing
its fragmentation & contingent performance
its ruptures that defy discussion

no apparent chance of synthesis…

Then I found myself starting over again with reflections on Fredric Jameson, Marxist interpreter of Postmodernism…

in postmodernism

premonitions of the future
whether catastrophic or redemptive
are replaced by a sense of the end of this or that –
of ideology
of art
of social class
of socialism
social democracy
and the welfare state

there is supposed to have been
some radical break
generally traced back to the end of the 1950’s
most often related to notions of the waning or extinction
(the ideological or aesthetic repudiation)
of the hundred-year-old modern movement:
abstract expressionism in painting
existentialism in philosophy
representation in the novel
the films of the great auteurs
the modernist school of poetry
seen as the final
extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse
now spent and exhausted –
what follows becomes empirical
chaotic and heterogeneous:
Andy Warhol and pop art
photorealism; four minutes thirty-three seconds of Cage;
the synthesis of classical and ‘popular’ styles
of composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley
punk and new wave rock
in film Godard-post-Godard
experimental cinema and video

but the question has to be asked –
does all this imply
a change or break any more fundamental
than the periodic style and fashion changes
determined by an older high-modernist
imperative of stylistic innovation?

architecture is easier to observe
than words & fleeting images –
it makes dramatically visible
modifications in aesthetic production:
high modernism is credited
with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city
and its older neighbourhood culture
by way of the radical disjunction
of the new Utopian high-modernist building
from its surrounding context;
the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism
of the modern movement
are remorselessly identified
with the imperious gesture
of the charismatic Master –

against which postmodernism in architecture
stages itself as a kind of aesthetic populism
(disneyland gherkin & shard) – it’s a monument
to the overall fascination
with a degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch;
of the TV series and Reader’s Digest culture;
of advertising and motels;
of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film;
of airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance;
of the popular biography;
murder mystery
science fiction or fantasy novel –
materials no longer simply ‘quoted’
but incorporated into the very substance of creation

it’s not just a cultural affair:
theories of the postmodern
bring us news of the arrival and inauguration
of a whole new type of society:
consumer society
media society
information society
electronic or high tech society

every position on postmodernism in culture –
apologia or stigmatisation –
is also at one and the same time
a political stance (implicit or explicit)
on the nature of multinational capitalism as it is now

the periodising hypothesis
tends to obliterate difference
and to project an idea of the historical period
as massive homogeneity
in a setting of inexplicable chronological metamorphoses
but ‘postmodernism’ is not a style –
it’s a pervasive cultural dominant with a range
of very different subordinate features
impossible to assimilate
unless you stick at it

the powerful alternative position is that postmodernism
is itself little more than one more stage
of modernism proper (even of older romanticism) –
that all the features of postmodernism
can be detected full-blown
in this or that preceding modernism:
Gertrude Stein Marcel Duchamp
postmodernists avant la lettre
passionately repudiated
as variously ugly dissonant obscure scandalous
immoral subversive
and generally ‘antisocial’
all attitudes now archaic…

the younger generation of the 1960’s
confronted the formerly oppositional modern movement
as a set of dead classics –
hence the emergence of postmodernism itself
weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living

the postmodern revolt has its very own offensive features –
obscurity sexually explicit material
psychological squalor
and overt expressions of social and political defiance
transcending anything that might have been imagined
at the most extreme moments of high modernism
no longer scandalising
received with the greatest complacency
at one with the official/public culture of Western society

aesthetic production
is integrated into commodity production generally:
the frantic economic urgency
of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods;
aesthetic innovation and experimentation
from clothing to aeroplanes
at ever greater rates of turnover…

there follow varied kinds of
institutional support
for the newer art – foundations & grants to museums:
the extraordinary flowering
of postmodern architecture
is grounded
in the patronage of multinational business

and the whole global postmodern culture
is the internal and superstructural expression
of a whole new wave
of American military and economic world domination –
the underside of culture is blood torture death and terror;
whereas this has always been the case
‘postmodernism’ thrives on it –
is structurally build on it
opposition impossible
a fall back into a view of present history
as sheer heterogeneity random difference
a coexistence of a host of distinct forces
that cannot be gainsaid

a new depthlessness
a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum
a consequent weakening of historicity
– puts the brakes on the idea that there’s a historical purpose
that things are leading somewhere
conspiring to make us think
that we are at the apex of success and correctness
which gives us the right to re-interpret
the inconsequential flux of things

public History and private temporality
both determine new types of syntax
a whole new type of ‘intensities’

a whole new technology –
figure for a whole new economic world system;
mutations in the lived experience of built space itself
requiring reflections on the mission of political art
in the bewildering new world space
of late or multinational capital

it is a bewildering new world space –
we are deliberately kept in the dark
by the postmodernist ruse
of making everything politically chaotic –
and so the question becomes
how to de-bewilder ourselves…

surely unacceptable is
the complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration
of this aesthetic new world
including its social and economic dimension
greeted with equal enthusiasm
under the slogan of ‘postindustrial society’:
current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology
from chips to robots
is of a piece with more vulgar apologetics for postmodernism

likewise unacceptable are moral condemnations
of the postmodern and of its essential triviality
when juxtaposed against the Utopian ‘high seriousness’
of the great modernisms:
no doubt the logic of the simulacrum
with its transformation of older realities into television images
does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism;
it reinforces and intensifies it;
meanwhile for political groups which seek
actively to intervene in history and to modify
its otherwise passive momentum
whether with a view towards channelling it
into a socialist transformation of society
or diverting it into the regressive re-establishment
of some simpler fantasy past
there cannot but be much that is deplorable
and reprehensible in a cultural form
of an image addiction
that transforms the past into visual mirages
stereotypes & texts
effectively abolishing any practical sense of the future
and of a collective project
abandoning any thought of future change
except in fantasies of sheer catastrophe
and inexplicable cataclysm;

yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon,
then the attempt to conceptualise it
in terms of moralising judgments
must finally be identified as a category mistake

the cultural critic and moralist
along with all the rest of us,
is now so deeply immersed in postmodernist space –
so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories,
that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological & moral critique
becomes unavailable –
required is some other way of desuffusing & disinfecting

we could choose to recognise
two different universes of practice:
there’s individual moralising
and there are collective social values and practices;
there’s the historical development of capitalism itself
and the deployment of a specific bourgeois culture…

Marx powerfully urged us to do the impossible –
to think of this development positively and negatively all at once:
to grasp the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism
along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism
simultaneously within a single thought
without attenuating any of the force of either judgment –
henceforth we are somehow to lift our minds to a point
at which it is possible to understand
that capitalism is at one and the same time
the best thing
that has ever happened to the human race
and the worst

it’s all too easy to lapse from this austere dialectical imperative
into the more comfortable stance of the taking up of moral positions
but there’s an urgent demand that we make
at least some effort to think about the cultural evolution
of late capitalism dialectically –
as catastrophe and progress both together…

is it possible that there is some ‘moment of truth’
within the more evident ‘moments of falsehood’
of postmodern culture?
and what are the possibilities of action under the impenetrable fog
of historical inevitability?
and what about the construction of
a genuine political culture of dissent & reconstruction?

and what about the function of culture specifically
since ‘postmodernism’ seems to be inseparable from
and unthinkable without the hypothesis of
some fundamental mutation of the sphere of culture
in the world of late capitalism
which includes a momentous modification of its social function;
there always did seem to be a ‘semi-autonomy’
in the cultural realm ghostly yet Utopian
above the practical world
whose mirror image it throws back in diverse forms

is it not precisely this semi-autonomy of the cultural sphere
which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism?

it might very well seem thus
but we must affirm that the dissolution
of an autonomous sphere of culture
could rather be imagined in terms of an explosion:
a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm
to the point at which everything in our social life –
from economic value and state power
to the very structure of the psyche itself –
can be said to have become ‘cultural’
in some original and yet untheorised sense
which could be quite consistent with the diagnosis
of a society of the image or the simulacrum
and a transformation of the ‘real’
into so many pseudo-events

in the past there’s always been the possibility
of the positioning of the cultural act
outside the massive Being of capital,
from which to assault this last
but now distance in general
including ‘critical distance’ in particular
has very precisely been abolished
in the new space of postmodernism

postmodern minds & bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates
practically incapable of distantiation;
the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital
ends up penetrating and colonising
even Nature and the Unconscious
which did at least offer footholds for a critical response

a situation in which we all somehow dimly feel
that not only punctual and local counter-culture forms
of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare
but also even overtly political interventions
are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed
by a system of which they themselves
might well be considered a part,
since they can achieve no distance from it

we can achieve no distance from it
because we are absorbed in it…

it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising
and depressing original new global space
which is the ‘moment of truth’ of postmodernism

it moves closest to the surface of consciousness
as a coherent new type of space in its own right –
in a disguise especially in the high-tech thematics
in which it is now dramatised and articulated

it’s the third great original expansion of capitalism around the globe
after the earlier expansions of the national market
and the even older imperialist system
which each had their own cultural specificity
and generated new types of space appropriate to their dynamics

a new form of realism
or at least of the mimesis of reality
while at the same time they can equally well be analysed
as so many attempts to distract and divert us
from any reality
to disguise the contradictions
and resolve them in the guise of various formal mystifications

the way things are –
the as yet untheorised original space
of some new ‘world system’ of multinational late capitalism
a space whose negative or baleful aspects are only too obvious –
the dialectic requires us to hold equally
to a positive or ‘progressive’ evaluation of its emergence:
socialism is not a matter of returning to smaller
less repressive systems of social organisation;
the dimension attained by capital
can be grasped as the promise & framework
& precondition for the achievement
of some new and more comprehensive socialism

the pedagogical and the didactic age-old functions of art
can be reinterpeted to suit our age –
perhaps the development
of a new aesthetic of cognitive mapping.

the alienated city is above all a space
in which people are unable to make mental maps
of self or of urban social totality
in which they find themselves:
the traditional markers
(monuments & nodes & natural boundaries – built perspectives)
gone –
there’s no longer a felt direction

the practical reconquest of a sense of place
and the reconstruction of an articulated ensemble
which can be retained in memory
and which the individual subject can map
and remap
project a new cartography
on to larger national and global spaces

the cognitive map is not exactly mimetic –
it works on a higher and much more complex level
as the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship
to a real condition of existence
enabling an individual situational representation
to fit the vaster totality
which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole

right now we are involved in pre-cartographic operations –
itineraries rather than map-making:
diagrams organised around the subject-centred
existential journey of the traveller
along which various significant key features are marked –
pathways & oases & mountain ranges
rivers & monuments
and a nautical itinerary –
sea chart with coastal features noted
for the use of those navigators
who rarely venture out into the open sea

what’s required is a compass
for a new dimension in our sea charts
one which will utterly transform
a problematic itinerary allowing us
to pose the problem of
a genuine cognitive mapping
in a far more complex way;
the new instruments will have to
introduce a whole new coordinate:
a relationship to a totality,
particularly as it is mediated by the stars
and by new operations that track the changes
induced by measurement;
cognitive mapping comes to require
the delicate coordination of existential data
(the empirical position of the subject)
with abstract conceptions of the geographic totality

the map precedes the territory –
the question is who are the map-makers?
and how broad is the territory that will fill the map?

there can be no true maps
of social class and national or international context;
no certainty about the way we cognitively map
our individual social relationship to local,
national, and international class realities
but it’s worth reformulating the problem in this way
in order to come starkly up against those very difficulties
in mapping which are posed in heightened and original ways
by the very global space of the postmodernist
global moment

there are urgent practical political consequences
in depicting the way traditional production has disappeared
where social classes of the classical type no longer exist –
there is an immediate effect on political praxis

the existential positioning of the individual subject
with experience of daily life –
the monadic ‘point of view’ on the world
to which we biological subjects are necessarily restricted
is implicitly opposed to the realm of abstract knowledge
a realm never positioned in
or actualised by any concrete subject
but rather in a structural void

it’s not that we cannot know the world
and its totality in some abstract or ‘scientific’ way;
it’s not that the global world system
is unknowable
but merely that it’s unrepresentable
which is a very different matter;
we thinkers must somehow
invent a way of articulating the gap
between existential experience and scientific knowledge

a historicist view would propose
that the production of functioning and living ideologies
is strictly relative to different historical situations;
that there may be some
in which it is not possible at all –
like the current crisis perhaps

enter the notion of cartography –
an aesthetic of cognitive mapping –
a pedagogical political culture
which seeks to endow the individual subject
with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system –
it will necessarily have to invent radically new forms
not by returning to some older kind of machinery
some older and more transparent national space
or something more traditional and reassuring;
the new political art (if it is possible at all)
will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism,
that is to say, to its fundamental object –
the world space of multinational capital –
at the same time as achieving a breakthrough
to some as yet unimaginable
new way of representing the dichotomy
in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning
as individual and collective subjects
and regain a capacity to act and struggle
which is at present neutralised by our spatial
as well as our social confusion;
the political form of postmodernism,
will have as its vocation
the invention and projection
of a global cognitive mapping,
on a social as well as a spatial scale

6 thoughts on “A Spectre is Haunting the World – Something Sinister… (R11)

  1. It seems like you’ve distilled every book, film, painting, and building you’ve ever studied into this poetic analysis, Colin! I fear much of it was lost on me as I scrolled through, not only due to the inevitable and lamentable gaps in my personal reading and viewing history relative to yours, but much more significantly due to the immense breadth and scope of your philosophical musings here. How hopeful are you that the project you’ve defined in your last paragraph will someday be undertaken, and perhaps even achieved?


    1. Dear Tom

      I suppose that I’ve arrived at the time of life when ‘distilling’ seems appropriate! The ‘poem’ was a kind of personal workout!

      Stefany’s reference to the Tytler Cycle is very interesting. One bit of me (one ‘I’) thinks that civilisation is doomed, returning to ‘bondage’ managed by the hidden forces of the Bilderberg conspirators – strange that the ‘Deficit’ and the need for ‘Austerity’ should suddenly occur all over the western world. Other bits of me (other ‘I’s) are excited by Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that somehow the very effects of Postmodernism could be used to get back to a project constructed in favour of all of humanity. Mindfulness, Self-remembering seem to me to be the way to get there. The question is how to make that more than just an individual thing. The Tytler Cycle, of which I’d never heard before, is stated in terms of 200 year historical trends but I reckon that perhaps it’s more descriptive of day-by-day systemic developments in society or cycles of ‘I’s even. Just musing!

      Perhaps the most one can hope for is to follow the system round back into the upthrust of spirit & contemplation. That’s where many of my ‘I’s rest!



  2. dear Colin
    what do you make of the idea about democracy etc as posited by the Scot Alexander Tytler 200+ years ago in a formula popularly known (apparently) as the “Tytler Cycle”?
    i only recently found it and its known to various american friends, but even a “D.phil” -friend i can share the most intellectual questions with, like me he hadnt come across this before, either.
    google or wikipedia lead to much more information-


    1. Dear Stefany

      Really nice to hear from you. Thanks for the reference!

      A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over lousy fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average of the world’s great civilizations before they decline has been 200 years. These nations have progressed in this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to Complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.

      I notice that there’s a site where this is expressed as a nice graphic system. It’s perhaps an all-too-neat package and I guess that from 1945 to 1979 (Atlee to Thatcher) the UK went from at least an attempt at universal abundance to extreme selfishness since when there’s been a catastrophic & very rapid descent back to Bondage which is where we’re at now. With the so-called ‘communication revolution’ the 200 years has become concertina-ed into cycles of a matter of decades!



      1. Hi Colin I didn¹t get a moment to reply till now- Well it seems to me we are still collectively in the ³what¹s in it for me?² selfishness stage- but it might be interesting to track whether the sequence is happening at different speeds in individual lives? My own life-stage perception is not of bondage ­ there is some poverty around which is and most likely will always be the situation for some, but generally in London there¹s a large number of wealthy people and not all of them merely feather their own nests, plenty of vaguely good public projects get sponsorship. Perhaps our understandings about the idea of ³bondage² differ? I don¹t subscribe at all to any conspiracy theories, ³illuminati², Icke¹s ideas about the Royal family being reptiles, or being controlled by space aliens with some sinister agenda, etc etc… For such a situation, the perpetrators- real hasnamusses, would have to be truly awake!. Most gratuitous cruelty seems to me to be random fearful or reactive nastiness, situated on a low level in terms of personal evolution. Your views could be very interesting about this and assist my search to clarify what it means for our point in civilisation?



  3. Dear Stefany

    Sorry for the delay!

    You say ‘…it might be interesting to track whether the sequence is happening at different speeds in individual lives?’ I think that’s absolutely right. My feeling about the Tytler Cycle is that though it might well have rough & ready application in historical flux (I’m no historian – just a falied O Level history student 1954) individuals always do their own thing; on the other hand the Cycle nicely describes what individuals do go through on a faster or slower basis – the state of play in voting now illustrates this quite well. It’s about the 35% floating voters who at least used to be responsible for changes of government. The London scene you describe fits!

    For me ‘bondage’ is about being transfixed (or being like a wasp in a marmalade jar) by a system of which I heartily disapprove – the current millionaire fascist regime of power possessors who transmit a notion of absolute rectitude so there’s no room for an alternative, no room to manouevre. Personally, I don’t feel in bondage because I withdraw and pull up the drawbridge. So ‘bondage’ for me is an intellectual construct. I feel absolute freedom! But I think Bondage is something in the air. For many the absurd UKIP protest vote is a stupid way out of it. I don’t vote – I spoil my ballot-paper with an essay.

    The examples of Conspiracy Theories you quote are clearly nonsense but the really sinister Bilderbergians are global Hasnamusses who meet regularly & consciously to plan the Global Capitalist Conspiracy – it’s a real conspiracy involving real people like Osborne apparently. It’s documented on the Internet – they are the true Power Possessors. For one thing they have invented this ‘Deficit’ and the resulting need for ‘Austerity’ as a way of rolling back the anti-capitalist forces that have been (if only half-heartedly) on track since 1945. I don’t think that’s a conspiracy in the sense of their being a bunch of reptiles though metaphorically that’s true.



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