The Political Practice of Postmodernism, or,
Spectacle in the 21st Century

What these gentlemen lack is dialectic!

    Friedrich Engels

The great generalities of idealist philosophy are perfectly capable of becoming incarnate and reincarnated on every twitter feed with the particular, concrete features of some valet or agent provocateur of capitalism.

    RenĂ© Crevel


Postmodernity is the cultural and experiential condition that corresponds to the pyramiding of debt, ballooning of fictitious capital, devalorization of labor-power, and “neoliberal” restructuring that have kept capital on life support since the crisis of profitability, and of the value-form itself, resurfaced in 1973. Postmodernism is this condition of economic unreason, social separation, and historical retardation seen through the smartphone camera of ideology: its reversed, filtered, flattering self-portrait.


If the culture of modernity was shaped by the transient, fleeting, and contingent on the one side, and the standardized, rational, and universal on the other, the dialectical movement between these poles marking the pulse of Becoming, then postmodernity is, far from being its sublation, merely the arrest of that dialectic. If the general thrust of postmodernism can be summed up as ‘a distrust of all metanarratives,’ then it seems to be the ideological affirmation of the freezing of the negative movement that animated the dialectic of modernity.


A rehearsal of language typically used to characterize the condition of postmodernity indeed makes it appear merely a one-sided modernity which has been raised to a fever pitch of intensity: indeterminacy, contingency, ephemerality, relativity, fragmentation, deconstruction, decentering, acceleration, appearance, surface, irony, play, chance, chaos, schizophrenia. All that is solid is suspected of having always been air anyway. Are we living in a fundamentally new world in which labor is immaterial, economies are libidinal, and the subject is dead? Or is this just capital continuing to revolutionize the entire relations of society as it attempts to move around its contradictions, defer its crises, and maintain the appearance of an adequately profitable rate of accumulation against its own secular tendency?


Suspicious of the category of totality, the tenor of postmodernist thought is total suspicion. It is forbidden to speak of general concepts in the belief that heteronomy is thereby overcome, but only the dimension of the concept has been lost to thought, and with it the possibility of theory sacrificed to the demagogic competition of dogmas. However, within the detritus of its squalid eclecticism, the critical theorist can still discern a few general trends. Postmodernist ideology tends to eschew comprehending the relations of the social reproduction of material life in their historical determinacy, to speak in terms of a hazy multiplicity of normativities and differences, powers and subjections, the operations and effects of which it sees as diffuse and ubiquitous. Postmodernist ideology tends to liquidate the critique of society as object no less than society as subject in order to contemplate it as a text or ensemble of discourses, in which dominant narratives discursively reinscribe the normativity that informs their semiotically baked-in presuppositions.


This discursivist turn in ‘Left-leaning’ academic circles was an overcorrection for the alleged sin of Marx's critical theory of society, ‘economic determinism,’ as if ceasing to talk about it could do away with the horrific state of affairs in which the social practice of acting human beings really is perverted into economic forms which apparently act as natural laws over and against them, determining their lives and deaths, with palpably disastrous consequences. Rather, all is a priori declared to be contingent: unstable and indefinitely deferred semiotic babble, language games, simulations, copies without originals, liquid symbolics, floating exchange rates. The result is a nihilistic sort of crypto-idealism strangely satisfied in its amniotic sac of fluids and flows.


How does one approach changing a world discussed as discourse? According to this ideology, through discourse, of course: one problematizes or deconstructs dominant narratives, contests discourses with reverse discourses and articulations of difference, stages discursive interventions that open liminal space for indeterminate semiotic play and emancipatory performance of radical otherness, etc., etc. But what could this really look like in practice?


High postmodern ideology as peddled by Franco-Heideggerean gentlemen and their epigones, was the ideal expression of the real eclipse of revolutionary practice and its theory following the defeat of the last great wave of international proletarian contestation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So why are these stagnant discourses, once fashionable in the academy, worth us discussing at all? They obviously did not cause the past fifty years of calamity. However, harmonizing so well with the fragmentation of the workers’ movement, a stagnant global economy fed at both ends by debt and buoyed by asset-price bubbles blown-up over a shrinking mass of value, its neoliberal ideological alibi, and the attendant postmodern cultural condition, a muddled remix of these ideas has recently achieved a degree of hegemony on college campuses teeming with ‘student activists,’ and subsequently trickled down to the outside world via new global media technologies, and has managed to shape to a surprising degree the contemporary practice of politics.


The postmodernist perspective marries the gestures of sweeping systemic analysis to a creeping sense of personal culpability. In its would-be student Leftist incarnation, it borrows Nietzsche’s pancratic ontology and stands it on its head, transvaluing its values back to what he would consider “slave morality:” all it sees is power and subjection, of which it is afraid. It sees oppressive power operating everywhere, policing difference at the micro-level, reproduced and reinforced in everything we do and say and the ways in which we do and say them. Like a paranoid militiaman, the best it can hope for is to be governed less, to always wriggle to the discursive margins where one can attempt to agonistically articulate difference under the aspect of identity, with no comprehension of the historical constitution of a social totality driven to subsume all nonidentity to itself through the identifying abstraction of exchange, or of how it might be determinately negated by those who constitute it behind their own backs. Even when it wishes to ‘resist,’ the best it can try for is to contest discourses, having no concept of self-reflexive human practice transforming given material conditions yet moving unconsciously in condtradiction with itself, only a monotonous clash of reified forces seemingly utterly external to one another and mysteriously identical to themselves. One must always be wary: oppression is internalized, the prison-house is our very language, the chalice is poisoned, the sin is original, the war of attrition eternal.


The fact that this sort of ideology is so basically incompatible with any emancipatory practice has not stopped several decades worth of Leftists from trying to wed them: in fact, there has long reigned a kind of fetish for ‘action’ for its own sake, regardless of its content or strategic efficacy. The result has been an atomized, incoherent, manic, autocannibalistic political practice, often labeled ‘call-out culture’ after one of its most pernicious tactics, that expends the energies of ‘activists’ in, at best, symbolic gestures and static self-censure, and at worst, the active auto-decomposition of potentially emancipatory movements.


Although not wholly determined by it, the particularities of this political practice are nearly inconceivable without the ubiquity of the new global media technologies of the Internet, the Internet-connected mobile device, and the ‘social media’ platforms that have profitably woven such technologies into the fabric of everyday life. The question is: why does this form foster this content?


The Internet appears as an extreme agent of time-space compression. It is the greatest achievement yet in capital’s turnover-time-accelerating project of the annihilation of space through time, standing on the shoulders of the railway, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the radio, and television. The ‘global village’ is now in your pocket, populated by over three billion people attempting to navigate a mind-boggling chaos of information, image, and representation (that seems to have, rather than ushering in an era of cosmopolitan reason, simply globalized the provincial, tribalistic xenophobia and isolation of village life). Never before has it been possible to communicate with so many people so constantly, and never before has it appeared less clear what communication, action, and interaction really mean. It is a medium for the movement of Spectacle that can easily appear as a parodic exaggeration of what Guy Debord termed the “most stultifyingly superficial” aspects of his concept. It is the attainment of what Henri Lefebvre called “the great pleonasm:” “a closed circuit, a circuit from hell, a perfect circle in which the absence of communication and communication pushed to the point of paroxysm meet and their identities merge.”


The Internet is not Spectacle, but a social relation between people, mediated by Spectacle. It is a means for the perfection of social separation as an image of community.


The ‘social media’ platforms that have proven the key to integrating the Internet into the circuit of capital (as a kind of vast, constant, uncompensated market-research focus group), present a farcical rehearsal of the free market’s dream about itself. Online society breaks down into individual accounts, their holders’ identities broken down into identifiers displayed as assets. ‘Human capitalists’ competing for their personal brand’s market share, the account holders produce ‘content’ – images, bite-sized opinions or quips, fragmentary representations of life, or ‘memes,’ that is, the condensed representation of the social crisis of an excess of representation which mutates by repetition – the value of which is realized in ‘likes’ and ‘shares.’ On some platforms one accumulates ‘friends’ and ‘followers:’ the fictitious capital of status and visibility. Some platforms serve as more direct commodity markets, the commodities being other people: dating and hook-up apps allow one to quickly evaluate assets and initiate transactions ‘IRL.’ Other platforms like LinkedIn nakedly collapse the distinction between mediatized social life and the casualized labor market into one anxious, competitive search for ‘contacts.’


The representation of our selves and our interactions has proven the Spectacle we most want to look at: we spend our lives living through social media, unable to feel that we have experienced events unless they are documented, captioned, liked, and shared into the misty cloud of consumer data. This blurring of pseudo-work and pseudo-leisure is a crowning achievement of Spectacle in the 21st century, which seductively coaxes us: do what you love, love what you do.


That, with the ubiquity of social media, such intense degrees of time-space compression have come to seem quotidian, that we spend our lives seeing through feeds of fragmentary content, snapchatting at once with people across the globe and across the table from us, suggests that the condition of postmodernity has not gone anywhere, as some might argue, but has simply ceased to seem particularly novel. It is simply a given that we exist in a society in which conditions appear to be constantly changing, yet we cannot change the conditions of our social existence.


Such a bewildering condition invites a variety of responses. One can lean into it, becoming an anonymous fragment in the roiling blur of simulation, lost in the every-place and no-place that is the online heterotopia. The result is indeed that kind of ‘schizophrenia’ so famously attributed to the postmodern condition, and so naïvely (or cynically?) affirmed as emancipatory by its intellectual lackeys, whose paeans to the nomad now sound like taunts to the homeless.


The response of many on the Left, infected with postmodern theoretical precepts that mingle awkwardly with underexamined ethical impulses channeled through neoliberal market relations, has been to attempt to carve out niches of fixity in the overwhelming excess of representation and unsettling indeterminacy. Such niche-carving is consistent with postmodernist ideology so long as it does not teeter toward the slippery slope of universalizing narratives and is content to assert only the relative particularity of the niche in terms of the identity of its occupant: as the Occupy mantra went, “I can only speak for myself.” This amounts to a retreat into a politics of Being, that nonetheless would attempt to dodge prescriptive essentialism by emphasizing the apparently voluntary or elective quality of Being, hence the ubiquity of the terminology of ‘identification’ among the call-out culture set: one isn’t gay, one identifies as gay. One isn’t a woman, one identifies as a woman. Such a position follows logically from discursivist idealism. If everything is discourse, then I say I am, therefore I am. The trouble is that some discourses are dominant, others marginal: the postmodernist would be the first to admit that all discourses are undergirded by power relations. This effectively limits the horizon of action to the emotive rhetorical defense of embattled marginal discursive positions’ right to elective Being, while taking care not to offer a prescriptive narrative that would hem in anyone else’s discursive articulation of difference. All of this is incapable of comprehending that there is no emancipatory potential in Being, in attempting to remain something one has become, but only in the absolute movement of Becoming.


As a political practice, this view carves up the world along the lines of hierarchies of relative discursive dominance. Those whose apparent condition of Being is validated by the ‘common sense’ of dominant discourses are in a position of privilege – a heterosexual white person, for example, whereas those whose apparent condition of Being is undervalued, unrecognized, or framed as illegitimate lack privilege – say, a gay person of color. Of course, the forms of social domination to which this model obliquely refers really occur, and must be eliminated at their material roots. But even with the best of intentions, call-out culture sabotages itself by taking Being as its battleground, a battleground where it is woefully underequipped, its only weapons being a postmodern discursivist-idealist theoretical model, and a political practice characterized by an atomizing ethics of personal responsibility. The result is a diffuse Spectacle of “activism,” carried out largely online, that is less of a threat and more of a boon to the autonomized power of capital. After all, recognizing a vast array of identity positions has allowed the hypostatization of those identities as a vast array of niche markets for specialized commodities, and for postmodern radicals to conceive of the consumption of their representation as “resistance.” The heated controversies around the diversity of film casts, the treatment of ‘queer’ characters on TV shows, a pop star’s visibility victories: these are the positive figurations of the dispersal of the proletariat into identity-bound fragments competing over whose image can best be painted into the self-portrait of separate power. In the 21st century, everyone is entitled to their own bespoke Spectacle.


Call-out culture demands the privileging of the voices of ‘the most oppressed:’ those whose conditions of Being are characterized by the greatest number of identifiers that do not enjoy the privilege of validation by dominant narratives. Their voices otherwise silenced, the political project is to listen to them without question, giving them the long-denied opportunity to articulate their difference. This articulation is often seen as an end in itself, a discursive privilege-redistribution scheme. This creates a kind of reverse-discursive difference market, in which participants compete to amass identity-tokens of abjection and marginality to be traded in for rhetorical immunity offered by those who recognize the value of the currency. But because the value of the currency is fixed exactly to its devaluation in the much, much larger normativity market, several paradoxes arise, for one, the fact that gains on the normativity market mean losses on the difference market, so that achieving any real social power means losing discursive power among the fetishists of marginality. Another pressing problem for this political practice is: how does one discipline the majority of individuals who do not recognize the currency rates set by the difference market?


The answer is: not very effectively. Stuck trying to defend its shared marginal discourses against those who do not share them via individual discursive articulations alone, call-out culture has little to fall back on but knee-jerk adolescent strategies like shaming, bullying, scapegoating, mockery, vendettas, tantrums, cliquishness, and online cafeteria politics, which can be easily deflated, ignored, or mocked along similar lines by the blasé postmodern-era reactionary: LOL SJW preheat the oven.


The issue is not only that this practice contributes to the already near-universal trampling and maiming of the independent critical reason, socio-psychological maturity, and capacity for empathic intersubjective communication and recognition that remain the minimum conditions of self-emancipated humanity, but that it is fundamentally misguided and ineffective even at achieving its own putative aims. Unfortunately for those occupying marginal social positions and their very real suffering, the call-out-cultural reverse-discourses are terribly fragile, however vehemently insisted upon, and rely upon surrounding oneself with people with the largesse to consent to share in one’s discourse – true to their postmodern core, they're atomizing, voluntarist, and are constitutionally innoculated by their fetish for endless affirmation of identity (figured upside-down as ‘difference’) against the capacity to think, much less collectively practice, the determinate negation of this social totality and its identifying logic.


Thus the constant and constantly futile necessity of the call-out: a typically social-media-based speech act designed to discipline an individual (often through attempting to leverage shame by pointing publicly to their original sin of privilege) into accepting the discursive currency rates of the difference market. In this speech police action, the offending individual – be they card-carrying bigot, indulger of unchecked privilege, or simply ignorant of call-out culture’s reverse-discursive norms – is made to stand in for the entirety of the system of which they are a symptom. The call-out becomes symbolic proxy war in the good fight against oppression, which tends to end either with the offender chastened, consenting to an expiatory period of privilege-checking until the next slip-up, or driven from the company of the righteous, embittered against these petty sawdust censors (wrapped in the tattered banner of ‘the Left’), perhaps taking refuge in a culturally reactionary Right that can now have its cake and eat it too, able to characterize itself as the poor, besieged victim of all this tsk-tsking while still remaining actually hegemonic.


This practice ultimately encourages self-sequestration in ‘safe spaces’ populated only by those who already share one’s reverse-discursive norms. Such flight reveals a basic admission that the ethical strategy of calling-out in order to guilt individuals one-by-one to concede discursive-right-of-Being to the marginal is ineffective at best and self-sabotaging at worst.


Since perpetual social-media interconnection means that call-outs can be performed constantly, the pious champions of difference can continually slather themselves in the balm of spectacular political agency, when they are in fact simply agents of political Spectacle. A shaming share, an outraged post, a sniping denunciation, all form nothing but a slight froth of self-delusion atop the continued churning of capital.


When the real movement of historical Becoming is abandoned in favor of speech-act-to-speech-act discursive squabbles on the battleground of Being, the articulators of ontological difference, with little in their arsenal except pleadings for respect or fragile attempts at shaming, will always lose. Identity politics swings both ways: in an adversarial identitarian contest, those who can retreat into the well-armed bunker of a Being rooted in place and nativist ethnonationalism, bolstered by tradition and the ideology of received ‘common sense,’ will come out on top, as the recent rise of far-Right geopolitics has demonstrated. When call-out culture practices its postmodern politics of Being, it’s fighting a losing battle on fascist turf.


It has been ruling class interests, first the neoconservatives, and more recently the far-Right so-called populists, that have benefited from postmodernism in political practice. Finding that all meaning, signification, and metanarratives had been reduced to rubble, but unafraid of power and unashamed of privilege, they’ve taken the opportunity to pick up the pieces and put them back together into whatever narratives they found useful. The new far Right has learned how to litter its speech with floating signifiers and craft open, writerly texts, devising a charismatic Being-politics: its audience hears what it wants to hear, projecting its fears, be they about race, place, tradition, fragile masculinity, national ‘greatness,’ moral decadence, job loss, immigration, economic stagnation, onto this protean smokescreen. This resonant ethnonationalist mythography can serve as a popular placebo for the most nakedly inhuman and materially immiserating symptoms of perpetual global capitalist crisis, which liberals babble over with paternalistic lip-service to respect for the diverse identities of the “most vulnerable.” Meanwhile the ruling class — capital’s character-masks and their political costume — consolidates its historical power behind the scenes of this contrived dichotomy that is only apparent, not real. Who cares that the new far Right – idiots telling tales full of sound and fury signifying everything and nothing – is talking hard about racist quasi-Fichtean protectionism which, even if they could implement it, could never revive the “great” heyday of postwar accumulation? Phrase exceeds content, superstructure floats apparently unmoored, liberal technocrats’ incessant fact-checking affects precisely nothing, everything appears as language games, but it’s the ruling class that’s playing to win.


A New Institute for Social Research