Let’s begin by running through the key Popper accusation, one that has stuck and finds its reflex everywhere in various ways – political, artistic, cultural and social etc: Plato the totalitarian. Why?
Popper is ostensibly against two things: historicism, whose birth he ascribes to Heraclitus, who in turn is inspired to his doctrine of all things change, or are in flux by the social circumstances of his time. He hates Plato’s reaction to this doctrine, too. Plato of course maintains, Popper argues, and this is from Aristotle ultimately, that Plato adhered to Heraclitus doctrine of the flux but that he sought to ‘contain’ it. Hence the world of appearances is constantly changing but the Forms – that of which everything that changes is a copy – do not. Popper reckons that ‘Plato held that all perceptible (including social) changes in the cosmos were a symptom of corruption, decay and degeneration, but that it was possible to interrupt this process by ‘arresting all political change’.’
Popper is heavy on looking at the Statesman, Laws and Republic, he is most concerned with how Plato shuts political change down in these dialogues. So he hates historicism because it makes of change a law of history so to speak – well this is what he means and why Hegel and Marx are in the frame of volume two of the Open Society and its Enemies. Thus as a law of history it can be seized on as the justification for communism which in its very specifics is also the end of history – the end of class antagonism – the very strife Heraclitus was responding too and which he made a law out of. Something like this is his position.
Plato, from the other side, as it were, and still for Popper, also wants to shut down change but from the beginning. All change can only be decay if there is the good. I said this above. So the Idea is paramount then and is the only true form of the polis – any politics then, thus the free flow of opinions on how this or that should be otherwise and so on is corruption. In this way Plato is the social engineer par excellence – Popper coined the phrase – insofar as whatever raw material is found it must be made in the image of the Ideal. Hence unfreedom is inscribed in Plato from the beginning – everyone must conform to the ideal or the good. For Popper it reduces to this: ‘a class of armed and educated rulers or guardians stands opposed to the class of those who are ruled and who lack both arms and education.’ Thus conforming to the Idea is what is bad – it’s like that notion of political correctness. But as always this position relies a priori on the known impossibility of the good or the idea. Which, as I keep on suggesting, is quite an ideal position to take.
Clearly things centre around a ruling Idea of the Republic or the ‘good state’ in whatever dialogue. This is justice. Popper says something characteristically ambiguous: ‘Plato throughout presents it in such a way as to overpower any egalitarian tendencies’. Thus Plato understands justice to be against equality, note, and he uses it, Popper continues, ‘to relaunch the claims of tribalism which lead directly to a totalitarian moral theory.’ Popper basically thinks Plato wants to return to an earlier example of tribal hierarchy and so he links the philosophy to social conditions.
Plato, he goes further, ‘identifies justice with class privilege: he holds to be just that which serves the interests of the state, and so justice is a property affecting the state rather than relations among citizens. Whereas we are used to thinking of justice as the absence of privilege (sic), Plato’s concept actually legitimates and justifies the privileges that safeguard the stability and security of the state—including, for example, a rigid division into classes …’
So Plato understood justice as injustice and then of course he had to hide it, ‘Realizing that his theories would clash with the sensitivities of his fellow citizens’, so this story goes. Plato, then, devises a theory of unjust justice and then worries about how it will go over thus, apparently, concerning himself with the opinions of those citizens he has just dismissed in the theory as inconsequential.
Anyway, Popper goes on: ‘Plato promotes a despotic state by showing that his totalitarian model, though disagreeable in appearance, was actually the most just’. So, he shows it or demonstrates it as just? If demonstrated then true, right? Popper has already contrasted this showing with appearance and so he seems to adhere to the usual form of proof and yet this is oddly the wrong way to go.
Thus, Popper continues – and here we see his romantic and blinkered Hellenism or probably Periclesianism to the fore – ‘in response to the challenge of the new egalitarianism and humanitarianism that was forging ahead in the society around him’ (see what I mean – does this really do justice to Periclesian Athens? It’s a myth but it’s also the myth of the present don’t forget – like Arendt, he mines Athens for the sake of the present, for its appearance) ‘Plato came forward with a set of diametrically opposite principles: in his discussion of the path to excellence, he asserted the principle of natural privilege against the egalitarian elimination of all privilege; for individualism he substituted holism or collectivism; and in opposition to the principle of protectionism, for which the state has the task of protecting the liberty of citizens, he argues that it should be the goal of the individual to maintain and strengthen the state. Whither the dialectic?
What is natural privilege? And how would one eliminate it politically – which Popper clearly advocates? Plato is talking about talent, essentially, which is not the same as inheriting wealth or status etc., – things that can be politically curbed but are not and nor does Popper really care for that to be the case: Periclean Athens being the case in point. Talent is tested, so the Republic argues and then one is directed toward what you can do, to what that talent best suits you too.
But it’s not at all set in stone. Some will fail and have to try again, some will transcend their natural positions and change from one to another. Most won’t, true, but why would you want to do something you were not suited too? Don’t most of us naturally try to avoid that anyway?
And surely it must be the ultimate in freedom to do what you are most suited to and to do it well – I always think of pro-surfers. I envy them so much. But I wasn’t suited to it clearly. And yes, a collective subject – but such a subject is not the opposite of the individual even if it is against individualism which is really corruption and in its extreme form as libertarianism which, when it’s not nihilistic, is merely authoritarian anyway, telling us all we can’t organise collectively because it’s against nature or some rubbish.
The subject in Plato here is collective precisely because all are subject to the Ideal as the very condition of their individual freedom to be what they can be. Sure there is structure, even hierarchy but it’s not one founded on goods, money, property, power, strength etc., it’s a hierarchy insofar as everyone occupies distinct places in terms of the Idea. Again the Idea is the predicate that has to be taken seriously as that through which all relations pass and as that which must be produced, here and now, as it were. This is the point of Plato spending so much time in the Republic dialecticising the Idea as common to the collective qua polity and the individual – justice is the same in each. And weirdly, it seems to me, Popper does take it seriously or why would he bother to itemise what he finds to be the horrors of the just city in this way. Instead you’d just undermine the very possibility of the Idea, no? Not mark off items as failed in regard to it. After all, even if this one fails then the assumption must be of another one, if you proceed this way?
The last point he makes is curious – against protectionism? So he is advocating for a strong state to protect everyone – thus the state is priority as protector. Today, they tell us the number one priority is security – that makes us all feel free right? It’s a piss weak Hobbes. Instead, Plato advocates for the individuals to maintain the state as their own, or even in their image. The horror! This seems to me to put the construction of the state in the hands of the individuals qua collective to make the state ideal which would seem to go against the tenor of his earlier point that everyone was predetermined within it?
Anyway, I’m going to stop. Reading Popper is a strange mind game. He says things which ring true but at the same time are patently false insofar as they are loaded and banal interpretations of what it at stake in the dialogues, especially in the conversations within the dialogues. He is horribly and embarrassingly selective, worse than any Heidegger or Derrida in this, both of whom at the very least knew what was at stake in the corpus entire. Popper really cannot grasp the breadth of the discussion he abstracts from to make his already ready made points against it.
It’s not an enquiry or an interrogation it’s a sophisticated and learned hatchet job. It pleases an age that needs to see itself as greater than it is and to see itself inscribed in a historical unfolding or continuity it imagines threatened from all sides by the totalitarian menace of the good, the collective, justice as such. But he does have this and more in common with our other anti-Platonists, who draw from Plato what is necessary to be an anti-Platonist and Popper does also the usual distinction of Socrates from Plato: Socrates the great libertarian anti-authoritarian etc., vs. Plato the exploiter of that freedom in the direction of a collective shackled to the Good – a good which only fails it seems in terms of what its examples lack? Strange. But the underlying assumption is always the same, the idea or the good or the true is impossible a priori, something no-one ever ‘shows’ us. But then they couldn’t because then it would be true or even Ideal.
Ok. I’m pushing my luck but a very quick bit on J-F Lyotard & only insofar as he is to exemplify for us the postmodern condition and as such to be basically what most downstream, institutionalised postmodernists can never be – good at it.
Let me begin, however, with David Harvey. If you don’t know him he is essentially a geographer but this means more than what it meant in high school. I suppose he’s a political geographer and so his work intersects with anthropology and political economy and philosophy too. He is probably most famous now for his recent series of Lectures on Capital spanning a few years, which have been podcast and published in book form. Anyway he wrote a book back in ‘89 entitled The Condition of Postmodernity. Some of you will note this this is the inverse of Lyotard’s famous enquiry entitled The Postmodern Condition: an enquiry into knowledge (which clearly articulated the now normal disaster of university discourse).
It’s interesting I think to think of this word ‘condition’ in the context. A condition is something like a pathology, something you carry within you, something that forms or orders or organises what you are on a day to day basis. He has a condition – you used to hear this. Harvey says something of this sort about this clamour that only increased in the early 1970’s concerning man’s fate – to post-modernly borrow a title of the great Andre Malraux for repurposing:
Harvey says: ‘Once connected with poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and a whole arsenal of other 'new ideas,' postmodernism appeared more and more as a powerful configuration of new sentiments and thoughts. It seemed set to play a crucial role in defining the trajectory of social and political development simply by virtue of the way it defined standards of social critique and political practice. In recent years it has determined the standards of debate, defined the manner of 'discourse,' and set parameters on cultural, political, and intellectual criticism.’
For Harvey, the geographer, it is also a new way of experiencing or occupying space and time and also conditions their relation for us. But I’ll not really go into this, even if you can mark the philosophical import.
So it is new – or proposes itself as such; which means of course there is in the frame somehow and somewhere the old. One thing about postmodernism, and one can hear it in the name, is that what it opposes or rather, and this is more apropos, what it supersedes, is the modern – and so whatever that determination cognates too. Second, we see in this description that whatever this new is, despite how new or what the new even means, it has the power to determine and set the scene. This is its conditioning effect, clearly. But there is a catch because this newness is not about a new something but, as noted, a new power of determination. For postmodernism there is no-thing new under the sun; there is however, and always perhaps, a way for everything that there is to reappear as changed; that’s to say newly perceived under another determination and over and over again or even as newly performed and so on.
This because under this postmodern condition wherein there is no new thing everything is conditioned by its potential to become other to itself – the itself here being only an intransitory condition of the conditional tranistoriness of all things. In my opinion it’s just sophistry – another discursive patron of the flux – but given what it proposes to supersede it appears as new relative to it. Hence, as Harvey notes, sometime in the ‘70’s this infests the social, cultural, educational, political and economic milieu and starts to frame every discourse or be its ultimate test. Institutionalised in the university it quickly became the perfectly liberal ideological handmaiden of a renewed capitalism.
The term itself is not easy to pin down but is supposed to appear in relation to architecture first – a violent refusal of the modernism of Le Corbusier for example. Harvey begins his book in this area, speaking of a 1974 text Soft City, by Jonathon Raban on the life of the City.
The work depicts the city as in fact a theatre, a series of stages upon which individuals could work their own distinctive magic while performing a multiplicity of roles. ‘To the ideology of the city as some lost but longed-for community, Raban responded with a picture of the city as labyrinth, honeycombed with such diverse networks of social interaction oriented to such diverse goals that the encyclopedia becomes a maniacal scrapbook filled, with colourful entries which have no relation to each other, no determining, rational or economic scheme.’ Harvey continues: ‘He rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead a widespread individualism and entrepreneurialism in which the marks of social distinction were broadly conferred by possessions and appearances.’ Hierarchy, fixed relations rationalism of planning of ordering etc., – all are gone out of it or are anathema to it properly considered. No wonder when the architects discovered Deleuze and Guattari they lost their minds!
I don’t need to labour the point – it’s essentially about flows, movements, traverses, nomadism if you like; the city stages an endless performance of heterogeneous, hybrid roles – all are players on the stage or rather, playing on the stage is what we are. So there is this interaction or, what the hell, I’ll say it, intersectionality, whereby the city, which is not, makes us, and we, who are not yet, make the city and this intersection is the postmodern condition. There is not one thing acting on another thing, as it were, there is no thing demanding another thing recognise it as determining, there is only interaction and this produces things, temporary things. In other words, we are the production of discourse itself. Of course this doesn’t say anything about what type of us this would be – liars, fool and killers are as possible as philosophers – or they are equally plausible roles to be performed, right?
Modernism of course didn’t believe for a minute that everything was well held together by some form of a God or other. Its constant refrain is how, to paraphrase Yeats, ‘centres cannot hold’ and modernist artists are always breaking into discrete groups and forming other ones. Baudelaire writes of modern life that it was ‘characterised by the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable.'
Maybe here is the clue: postmodernism affirms the first part as the whole. The immutable, the eternal – thus the Idea or Form cannot hold because it is essentially nothing. Postmodernism supplants modernism – which is ephemerality for all, thus a unity of the ephemeral – in the direction it pointed but would not go. Something like this. So you see the theme and anyway you know it because we have lived it for some time now – or at the best we have lived the tension between this discursive arrangement and what it disavows. Maybe this is what anxiety, which doesn’t lie, names today. That we are never postmodern enough, clinging as we do to some form of it, when in fact it is pure dissolution pure and simple. Postmodernity is neither the lament for the dissolution nor the desire for its cure. It’s the affirmation of the impossibility of both.
In trying to get a sense of what was at stake Terry Eagleton, in typically effusive terms, noted: ‘it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities … in other words, postmodernism is a legitimate reaction to the 'monotomy' of universal modernism's vision of the world. Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, universal modernism has been identified with the belief in linear progress, absolute truths, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production.'
Postmodernism, by way of contrast, privileges 'heterogeneity and difference as liberative forces in the redefinition of cultural discourse. Fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust of all universal or 'totalizing' discourses (to use the favoured phrase) are the hallmark of postmodernist thought. The rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy (e. g. Rorty), the shift of ideas about the philosophy of science wrought by Kuhn and Feyerabend, Foucault's emphasis upon discontinuity and difference in history and his privileging of polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality,' new developments in mathematics emphasizing indeterminacy (catastrophe and chaos theory, fractal geometry), the reemergence of concern in ethics, politics, and anthropology for the validity and dignity of 'the other,' all indicate a widespread and profound shift in 'the structure of feeling.'
What all these examples have in common is a rejection of 'meta-narratives' (large-scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application). Thus for Eagleton, finally, ‘Postmodernism signals the death of such 'metanarratives' whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a 'universal' human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous range of lifestyles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legitimate itself. Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives.’
So this is the refrain from both sides as it were: one finds it problematic, the other celebratory –both agree on the form as it were – the end of metanarratives – the end of History being just such a one given History is itself metanarrative. This end, though, is not history coming to an end – any more than Art stopped being made after Hegel pronounced it finished. Rather the genius of postmodernism is that all posing metanarratives, and preeminently the enlightenment project itself, are simply re-inscribed as narratives per se – one among many. After all, there is nothing to appeal to or to ground any narrative over another. All distinction is a matter of performance; all knowledge is a matter of the power of assertion or as they like to say today – grasping for a lost permanence and finding only an empty utility – is ‘evidence based’. It’s no coincidence at all that neo-liberalism finds all this very amenable to its frankly aesthetic like trajectory. Figures like Schumpeter for example considered the dynamic of capitalism in a not dissimilar way – and this even if it runs under the seemingly immutable slogan that there is no alternative and orients itself to an omnipotent and omniscient figure of the market.
But this brings us to Lyotard – who announced the end of metanarratives for all. The strength, in Nietzsche terms, to forget the past. I’ll just speak from the position Lyotard sketches out in his reply to various critics which is published at the end of the English version of The Postmodern Condition.
Note, he begins with a cross sectional array, a wide spread of discourses across all cultural and political milieu, all wanting to end the experiment. Some are pro-postmodernism in this, others not but the call is weirdly the same: to end the end in a way which would be then a restoration. Lyotard calls it a slackening. The slackening is the call for the end of experiment.
So the terms are worth considering for a second. The slackening is the restoration of order; for an identity, for security, or even for popularity, finding a public. ‘What order’ is a good question and certainly I agree with Lyotard on this: the slackeners who want to end experimentation are not Platonists – as if Plato wasn’t about division or experimentation – but ultimately authoritarian in some way or other. The power of determination (supposed indeterminate as its very power) is at stake here and postmodernism challenges such power integrally – what place can hold such power? etc. The restorers need just this justification or suppose it and postmodernism says there is no such thing.
This return to order is characterised by Habermas for Lyotard: ‘Jurgen Habermas (everyone had recognised him ) thinks that if modernity has failed it is in allowing the totality of life to be splintered into independent specialties which are left to the narrow competence of experts, while the concrete individual experiences "desublimated meaning" and "destructured form", not as a liberation but in the mode of that immense ennui which Baudelaire described over a century ago.’
It’s this Lyotard defends and against the charge that this splintering leads to nihilism, to a debilitating separation from real life, which for Habermas is essentially some kind of unity of experience. Habermas thinks art, aesthetics should play this role of providing the means to unity, that unity is the real, so to speak, almost a priori for any possible subjectivity – the form for Habermas of such, being Kant of course, the form of judgment implying universal assent.
And this is Lyotard’s point here: what sort of unity is this, presupposed as it were as the true real to which the human condition is reflexive. ‘Is the aim of the ‘project of modernity’ the constitution of sociocultural unity within which all the elements of daily life and of thought would take their places as in an organic whole? Or does the passage that has to be charted between heterogeneous language games – those of cognition, of ethics, of politics – belong to a different order from that?’
And if so, would it be capable of effecting a real synthesis between them? The new order is an affective community we might say – all experiment then is to be accounted for in terms of the unity – of a people, or an audience etc., Art must be in relation to X – which stands for this a priori unity, which is then the true life.
Lyotrad is sharp here: he thinks that postmodernism as feted can also be in the service of the restoration, or slackening, as I said. The treatment of the avant gardes is one example – the desire that they hold no motive force, no divisive power. Thus even if their experimental nature cannot be denied ‘it is overturned and turned into the paragon of order by an eclecticism that goes beyond the fragmentary character of the preceding experiments; whereas if they openly turned their backs on them, they would run the risk of appearing ridiculously neo-academic.’
This is a preferred way of having done with real change – make it mere innovation at best and as such something that can be out innovated and made, then, ‘old’, which os course is the greatest curse of all. The material level of production also aids in this of course – evidence you could even say; mechanical production, so photography, cinema etc. A realism, then, which over-codes and derails that of other media.
Thus a new norm assets itself, a new conformity which a painter or writer might try to repeat and thus conform too or if he she challenges the new rule, the new norm, puts themselves at risk of being ignored. Hence real experiment is veiled by the adherence to the real – conforming to innovation is the stop on true change. But you can’t sheet this home to any determination, right? If you aren’t counted to exist it’s merely a matter of the whims of a transient reality.
Lyotard’s theses, then, is that what is really true of postmodernism – which we cannot then equate with what is said of postmodernism as such ( and this I can only find a Platonic distinction, and that is because I am putting it in my terms) is that it refuses to comply in its very form as experimentation at the limit, with innovation as the new real. So the real is not put into question by art but art imposes the new real as art.
‘When power assumes the name of a party, realism and its neoclassical complement triumph over the experimental avant-garde by slandering and banning it –that is, provided the "correct" images, the "correct" narratives, the "correct'' forms which the party requests, selects, and propagates can find a public to desire them as the appropriate remedy for the anxiety and depression that public experiences.’
This realism is unified in money – art is art insofar as it realises profit. This is what counting to exist means. Profit brings together: through art, experiment qua eclecticism; or a people qua an audience giving consent to what they have learned already to conform to. Which is that anything goes in art or politics too, if it yields profit. And thus profit determines consensus on the new, including in science and politics as in culture, art writing etc. Only that which is determined as such to be new is new, everything else is old or impossible. In short, and to bring it back to Plato, what Lyotard is best describing here as reactionary innovations or as a positive slackening, is what Plato called techne – technique if you like. Why, because there is no idea in it. It’s technique because what is essential to it is presupposed, off limits to it, unthinkable by it. It’s just the production of this a priori order; techne is innovation in conformity; its operation, as it were.
With regard then to modernism, he argues that it is the technique essentially of presenting the unpresentable – it’s a sublime form, then; ‘what cannot be presented as itself is what modern art in all its varieties presents – the presentation of unpresentation.’ But for Lyotard this is Kantian, as such, insofar as it supposes a Real beyond the means of presentation (he mentions the infinite as being unpresentable or one of these such things). You see the point is that modernism qua realism ultimately supposes what is off limits to presentation as what is most real. ‘[M]odernity takes place in the withdrawal of the real and according to the sublime relation between the presentable and the conceivable…’ Or: modernism, finally, alludes to something which does not allow itself to be made present.
So postmodernism (you can see what’s coming): it would be what puts forward the unpresentable in presentation – not as unpresentable but as itself, as what it is, which is of course to say that it is not – the unpresentable is not . The gap between object and subject, known and unknown being and appearing is not presented by art or what have you, as Habermas calls for, as subjective unity – but is rendered nothing. There is no Two, no dualism - which it perceives discursively as its great victory.
Lyotard writes: ‘[A] postmodernist artist or writer is in the position of philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determined judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the character of event…’
As event, then, future anterior – so they arrive too late and are of the future at once. Nietzsche’s term ‘untimely’ resonates here. The ultimate point for Lyotard is to get away from claims to the real or reality: classical ones and also modernist ones; one’s that aim to present is to us as what it is; absolute, totalizes a new unity, terroristically, he says. And indeed he says, Kant knew already the price to pay for the illusion of totality, conceived as knowledge of the unpresentable, is terror and Lyotard says the 20th C has provided more than we can take.
‘Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; activate differences and save the honor of the name.’
So you see: against the return to order as such, the order of the one and the conformity it determines vis a vis recognition, witness and not knower makes, then, the infinite variety of experience (paradoxically?) the knowledge of what there is. Which is to say, one is insofar as one is witness to the impossibility of unification of such. Be here now, I suppose we can say. Which is the being of difference after all: not one, not same, neither nor or nini. Give difference its currency. That’s postmodernism.