postmodern permutations

for Thresholds 18, Summer 1999

Kazys Varnelis

I begin nearly every semester by asking my students to categorize the period we live in: modern, postmodern, or something entirely different. Since I began asking this question three years ago, the results have been remarkably consistent. Out of twenty students, typically two will claim that they are modern, one will admit to being postmodern, and the rest will be left baffled. The numbers may vary a little each semester, but are largely consistent. Having talked with faculty members in other institutions who have tried this exercise, I’ve found that the results are also independent of the locale.

Yet, even if arguments for supermodernity, for a long modernity or, for the existence of a radically new temporal period could be entertained, I would like to suggest that our contemporary condition is postmodern. The response to the student poll would seem to confirm this, given that one of the commonly held attributes of postmodern culture is a lack of historical consciousness. 

“Postmodernism” remains a bad word among architects, evoking images of ponderous maroon pediments, flesh-colored keystones, and linoleum floor tiles laid out according in a faux-Egyptianesque pattern. But as I will argue in this essay, stylistic postmodernism is only one of a number of possible architectural manifestations of the postmodern condition and is not by any means the postmodern condition’s fullest realization. As other narratives in critical theory appear exhausted, the idea of the postmodern condition may be useful to us as an explicatory framework for understanding contemporary culture. Rather than searching for the Zeitgeist for a new style, my concern here is with the implications of the postmodern condition for the relations between architecture and capital. Quite recently (and perhaps even now, in architecture), turning to the postmodern would have been as surprising in theoretical circles as advocating the postmodernist style in avant-garde architecture, for if the postmodern was a dominant concept for critical discourse in the 1980s, by the early 1990s it seemed thoroughly depleted. It was in that context that in 1993, Hal Foster, one of the founders of the discourse on the postmodern, was led to ask “Whatever happened to postmodernism?” This question was strategic: even though it is clear that Foster keenly felt the end of postmodernism’s life as a productive concept in cultural theory, his goal, elaborated in his subsequent book The Return of the Real, was to bring back postmodernism as a critical force. Centering on the revivification of a dead concept, Foster’s project by necessity became a historiographic operation. Foster borrowed the idea of Nachträglichkeit, or deferred action, from Freud as a structure for his historical narrative. For Freud, subjectivity itself was thoroughly historical: we do not simply live in the momentary present, fully comprehending everything all at once. Rather, our subjectivities are constructed through the anticipation and reconstruction of traumatic events. Hence Foster replaced the Hegelian (modernist) historian’s idea of the fully-unfolded and immanent now with a Freudian (postmodernist) historical model. Every moment, in such an historical model, is both palimpsest and prophecy: subject to an intertextual drive in history, the present must be understood in its relationship to the past while its understanding is subject to future, as yet unwritten interpretations.[1] As with any trauma in the Freudian model, a significant historical change must be revisited and worked through in order for us to come to terms with it. Thus, instead of seeing postmodernism as a historical moment with a bounded beginning and end, the postmodern historian looks also to anticipations and reconstructions of the postmodern. This historiographic framework served Foster well, allowing him to divorce postmodernism from its traditional locus in the 80s and bring it back to the early 90s with a new critical force.

The model of deferred action can explain why, even with all of our keenly developed critical faculties, it is impossibly difficult to historicize the recent past. When, to take another example, the fashion for theory of the early 90s can be given a historical explanation, it will be not only because that movement is dead but because that movement needs to be revisited to satisfy the needs of the present. This is why even though the death of high theory has been proclaimed and its sponsor, Assemblage has been cancelled, there is not yet a legitimate drive in the present necessitating a revisitation of the recently experienced traumatic moment. In the Freudian model, the choice of the traumatic object one revisits is never innocent. There is a reason in the present for every return. Likewise, the conditions of the present undeniably alter the past so that any return cannot, by nature, be a recovery. Any return is motivated and filtered through the fantasies and drives of the present.[2]

For this essay I would like to continue Foster’s operation of returning to the postmodern, although six years after Foster’s article, my own operation, marked by both physical and cultural distance from early 1990s Cornell, is itself more of a return than a continuance. Indeed, my present need, to explain the cultural condition of millennial Los Angeles, is obviously very different from that which motivated Foster. Foster’s interest is in reviving postmodern art practice, an oppositional postmodernism that would critique the official culture of modernism and suggest new ways of practicing. Thus, Foster argues from the position of a cultural producer or, more specifically, from the position of a critic endorsing artists. Foster’s interest is to define the means by which the artist could remain a resistant subject. Although I am no doubt colored by my position in the late nineties boom economy of the West Coast, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that, since Foster wrote his essay, the very idea of the resistant subject has evaporated from cultural practices. Of postmodernism, Foster writes, “…we did not lose. In a sense a worse thing happened: treated as a fashion, postmodernism became démodé.”[3] Much the same could be said of the artist as resistant subject.

Thus, a certain distance necessarily emerges between our projects. Now the historical-theoretical project I am proposing here needs to be clearly marked off from the happy advocates of globalization who conclude that with the completion of the global market economy, ideology and history have come to an end and we should not worry, just be happy.[4] But of course we should worry. As I write this essay, cruise missiles are being launched at Belgrade, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing their homeland under the greatest duress, and Russian warships are entering into the Mediterranean for unknown purposes. From a post(Soviet)colonialist perspective, the idea of a purely positive globalization is impossible. Indeed, if globalization is teaching us anything, it is that the larger structural contradictions are emerging similarly everywhere. It may be as expensive to buy a condo in parts of St. Petersburg, Bombay, or Phnom Pehn as in Los Angeles, New York, or London but at the same time we now know that just as the first world is in the third, the third world is firmly established in the first. The disparities between rich and poor in the first world only grow as certain parts of cities – and indeed entire regions - become wired with the newest advances in telematics while other, less attractive areas exit the world stage, their infrastructures doomed to decay and collapse. So too, the backlashes of fundamentalism and tribalism will not, it is clear, leave us any time soon. Rather, they are likely to spread and indeed it appears that the real differences within the largest economic units – the United States, the European Union, Mexico Canada, but also China and the Commonwealth of Independent States – will only increase over time. After Oklahoma City, this seems inescapable.[5]

If an easy, delirious enjoyment of the New World Order is impossible, it is also important to understand that the position of the cultural producer as resistant subject is inescapably compromised. As Marcuse explained, the resistance the artist offers is precisely what makes the artist attractive in commodity culture.[6] Either the artist offers Utopia (a way out) or the artist acts as a therapeutic intellectual, a shaman who one turns to become a better person.[7] Here it is tempting to follow Marxist architecture historian Manfredo Tafuri and argue that architecture’s mission is over because of this loss of critical force.[8] For Tafuri, architecture failed its historical mission because it was unable to present its promise of solving the problems of the city since that solution properly belonged to the realm of politics. Within the bounds of his argument Tafuri was convincing, but his linear and deterministic view of history rammed all architectural production into one teleological sequence. As a consequence, despite Tafuri’s diagnosis, architecture continued and indeed flourished in the aftermath of its purported “death.” Certainly if architecture could withstand the loss of Utopia, it can also withstand the loss of Utopia’s kin, the architect as resistant subject and the work of architecture as Micro-Utopian locus of resistance.

 Art and architecture, like all human creations, are socially constructed. They can offer neither a state of grace nor absolution. If this loss of architecture as Religion is an uncomfortable truth, following Nietzsche and Sartre, it is nothing more than an aspect of that one nausea-inducing truth – the truth is that there is no Truth - that we have to recognize as the foundation of all human culture. Art may offer us moments of reconciliation and may even have a Utopian impulse within it, but even as it does so, it cannot offer a steady state of grace. Eventually all art will be recuperated and absorbed by the ever-expanding scope of capital. 

But the history of the recent attempt to make art and theory the last bastions of resistance to capital demonstrates that a critique of resistance is itself virtually unnecessary. By now, the project of critical art and critical architecture is thoroughly exhausted. After its heyday with Deconstructivism in the late 80s and its successors, high theory and conceptual architecture, in the early 90s, the movement largely ran out of steam. The avant-garde turn to Deleuze and Guattari can be seen in this light. As Foster points out, Deleuze and Guattari’s advocacy of schizophrenia is deeply problematic for Left theory. Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge that the disruption of the whole armored self into a schizophrenia of flows and fragments is accomplished most efficiently, outside of true clinical schizophrenia, by the effects of capital itself. If the most critical moment attainable is that of capital, resistance becomes futile. At the most advanced stage of theory then, resistance comes to an end.[9]

Even when successful on its own terms, resistance through aesthetics not only can’t escape capital, it depends on it. The funds necessary for participating in the project of resistant art and the leisure-time necessary for its production are made available only to those who are relatively wealthy on a global scale. A successful oppositional work (be it an aesthetic or theoretical product) is more highly valued by the gatekeepers of culture – academics and critics – than one which fails to be “critical.” Even if this value is not necessarily readily convertible into currency - although it often is through grants and well-endowed professorships, exhibitions and commissions - it takes part in what Pierre Bourdieu calls the market of cultural capital.[10] Thus, although I find Foster’s idea of returning to the postmodern immensely attractive, in the end I am unable to return to the argument for an oppositional postmodernism per se.

Instead, for the remainder of this essay, I would like to explore the historical framework set up by another key theorist on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson. In his foundational essay on the topic, “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capital,” Jameson is interested less in drafting a programme for a postmodern art than in diagnosing a cultural condition. Jameson’s choice of the Bonaventure Hotel to discuss postmodern architecture in this essay is telling. Not only is the building no great work of art, it would appear to be a work of late modernism, not a typical example of “postmodernist” architecture. By picking the Bonaventure, Jameson breaks the link between the postmodern cultural condition and any specific artistic practices of the moment. As I will argue in this essay, if postmodern architecture was an early - albeit not the first - manifestation of the postmodern cultural condition, it was not the last. Today we continue to operate in the postmodern cultural moment. Hence, architecture’s role in the postmodern becomes essential for architects engaged in more reflective forms of practice. 

Jameson shaped his narrative by following economist Ernest Mandel’s conclusion that a new economic order, which he termed late capitalism, had developed in the postwar era. Late capitalism was not by any means an end to capital but rather was defined by capital’s extension to the last remaining uncolonized areas. If, under modernism, architecture and the other aesthetic realms still resisted commodification, then late capitalism’s most important consequence, Jameson stressed, would be the colonization of these last enclaves of resistance.

According to theorist David Harvey the transition from monopoly capitalism to late capitalism can also be seen as a transition from Fordist to post-Fordist ideologies of societal organization.[11] Under Fordism, capitalism concerned itself with the development of mass production, consumption was downplayed, conformity was encouraged, and the maintenance of hierarchy was insisted upon. But a production-oriented approach could only sustain a certain level of economic growth. So long as thrift, utility, and responsibility were deeply engrained in the cultural mindset, the velocity of money remained at a steady energy level. On the other hand, if decisions began to be made on the basis of fashion and desire was allowed to flow more freely in the capitalist dream world, a radical increase in the flow of capital could be take place.

It is here, then, that I would like to locate the transition to an architectural condition of postmodernism as a way of retroactively re-reading the 1960s turn away from modernism and projecting the postmodern into the 1990s. Although as Jameson points out, the conditions of Late Capitalism, i.e. the global marketplace, were in place by the end of the 1940s, the cultural turn to postmodernism took a bit longer to emerge. The remnants of the conformist, one-size-fits-all Fordist ideology was still in play in the 1950s, albeit waning amid the fascination with tail-fins and in-home entertainment. By the 1960s, however, the radicals, hippies, and Situationists proposed that (Fordist) capitalism inhibited the free pursuit of desire. From a structural perspective, however, this historical moment should be seen not so much as a moment of effective political critique as the adolescent growth pains of a young consumer-oriented economy.[12] It is at this point that the first end of (modern, Fordist) architecture took place. Young people rejected the traditional values and structures of society, architecture among them. As architecture schools withered away into environmental design departments, power went to the people. Hippies began building ad-hoc communes, dome villages, and drop-out instant cities. Hip, disposable and inexpensive, the architecture of the counter-culture was not solely some idealistic and pure moment of D.I.Y. ethic. Rather, it made clear that the future role of architecture would be to serve as a marker of difference in a society where difference was increasingly valued. While under Fordism, the modernist ethic provided a uniform cell in a housing block for everyone, under post-Fordism, individuality would be encouraged in every field of cultural production, including architecture. The exhortation to “Let it all hang out!” would thus be expressed in architecture by people fleeing into the woods, the desert, or to the urban frontier to make their own architecture.

Postmodernist architecture, which as noted above, still inspires deep fear for designers today, was the expression of the moment when the irrepressible baby-boomers who so earnestly seemed to believe in their own rhetoric in the 60s turned into the Reaganite yuppies of the 80s. The societal change they promised took place, but not as the boomers expected. The transition was not away from capital but within capital. The old, modern economy of industry, Fordism, rational decision making, mass-production, passbook savings, and hierarchy was replaced permanently by the new, postmodern economy of information, Post-Fordism, marketing research and manipulation, just-in-time production, perpetual credit card debt, and a hierarchically-flattened, diffuse corporate structure. Yet postmodernist architecture initially retained the sixties promise of resistance. Where the drop-out architecture of the 1960s allowed resistance to “the Man” through its off-grid but nevertheless informationally rich and highly-coded approach, postmodernism offered resistance through myth and the authenticity inherent in the history of architecture. Postmodernism, offered architecture as an information-rich diversion, a consciously highly-coded practice catering to the fashion-savvy and information-hungry consumer.

With its promise of a return to myth and history, postmodernism offered an artificial depth to depthless culture. For architects it created the idea that architecture was not just some kind of ersatz engineering, but instead insisted upon a practice based on the knowledge of the discipline’s history. Only an architect could know the past well enough, or so the theory went. The architect had gone to Rome, seen the Villa Adriana, understood the subtleties of the Piazza Navona, and had drunk from the sacred springs of Michelangelo. Nevertheless, as the postmodern architect’s ability to historically quote became a means by which she was valued in the academy and in the culture-hungry marketplace, the promise of resistance was compromised.

Similarly, in the late 1980s, deconstructivist architecture gave value to those architects best able to resist the overtures of the market. The most valued work was deliberately difficult and impenetrable, bolstered with opaque and obscure “theoretical” justification and rewarded the reader by validating his or her cultural competence. And yet, for all of the talk of resistance, these architects did not avoid the market, but rather participated in the most uniquely post-Fordist development in recent architecture: the media-driven practice. Nevertheless, given the cultural value given to resistance, for some of the first media-driven architects – Eisenman, Tschumi, and even, in the end, Libeskind – the deconstructivist movement proved to be a means by which they could build.

Thus these first three forms of postmodern architecture - 1960’s ad-hoc, postmodernism, and deconstructivism – and their successor, the project of conceptual/theoretical work of the early 1990s proved unable to escape the market. It was, finally, the moment of resistance that gave these projects value in the post-Fordist market. Resistance itself, noble sentiment that it may have been, was ultimately a symptom of the Post-Fordist turn. So what, then, might an architect do today? If simple resistance is futile, we might turn to more complex and compromised positions. Instead of turning inwards onto the history of the profession or to autonomous resistance, an architecture cognizant of the demands of postmodern culture might engage with the more advanced structural developments of the post-Fordist world.

Here we can turn to Jameson again, for it is to Jameson’s credit that against the gloom of twentieth century Western Marxism, he has forced us to explore the Utopian impulse within capital. As Jameson explains, the postmodern cultural product has two moments: it attempts, but fails, to allegorically map capital, which has now replaced God as the unrepresentable Totality, and it embodies a Utopian moment that projects beyond the current world system.[13]


[1] See Hal Foster, “Postmodernism in Parallax,” October 63 (Winter 1993): 4-20.

[2] As a way of understanding the history of the recent past, a postmodern historian might do worse than choose to explore the continuing role of the return. Thus, the postmodern historian might begin by asking why some of the Deconstructivists felt the need to return to Russian Constructivism? Or why Rem Koolhaas feels the need to return to what he himself calls the “banal” modernism of Stone, Harrison, and Niemeyer? Why the return, so common in the neo-avant-garde, to Rowe or even more surprisingly to the formerly discredited idea of the “diagram”? Why the Situationists, the Palm Springs School, and so on?

[3] Foster, 4.

[4] See for example Hans Ibelings, Supermodernism: architecture in the age of globalization, (Rotterdam: NAi, 1998). Although Ibelings understands the problems of resistance, he is uninterested in thinking through the theoretical consequences of this change. The result is a book that, by his own admission, sounds remarkably like a project from the least critical moment of the high modernism.

[5] The differences throughout the world also threaten the common project of Left theory. From a post(Soviet)colonialist position, and indeed for a sizeable portion, if not a majority, of the world’s population, the commonly held idea that capital is bad and that an alternative must be sought needs to be radically questioned. The binary terms (Marx is good, capital is bad) axiomatic to Western theory are laughable for much of the world. Thus when a recent prominent American Marxist theoretician began a lecture in Moscow with quotations from Marx, the audience’s response was howls of laughter. The reaction wasn’t meant to be rude, however, they thought the theorist was trying to be funny.

[6] Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” Negations, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968; originally published in German in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. VI (1937)) 88-133.

[7] See for example, two collections of essays by young critics that target the role of the artist as therapeutic intellectual: Grant H. Kester, ed. Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: essays from Afterimage, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1998) and John Roberts, ed. Art has no history!: the making and unmaking of modern art, (London ; New York: Verso, 1994). It must also be said that there is an ever-present danger of mistakenly seeing the role of the historian/critic as the last position of resistance. This is, of course, something Tafuri does but he is by no means alone. For the historian to assume the role of the omniscient narrator, the last position of resistance, is irresponsibly coercive. Displacing resistance from the artist to the historian doesn’t solve any problems, it only creates a debate that uses bigger words.

[8] Tafuri’s seminal works are his groundbreaking essay, “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology,” Contropiano 1 (January-April 1969), reprinted in K. Michael Hays, ed., Architecture Theory Since 1968 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 2-35 and his three books on modern architecture: Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976); Theories and History of Architecture, (New York: Harper and Row, 1980); and The Sphere and the Labyrinth, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987).

Coming from a different political perspective, architectural historian Colin Rowe was also instrumental in shutting down the modern mission of realizing Utopia. See Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1978).

[9] Foster, 10. Foster does seem to ignore Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that not only does capital deterritorialize, it violently reterritorializes. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 34-35. Yet his argument cannot be so simply invalidated. Under the Post-Fordist regime, capitalism too seems to have adopted deterritorialization over reterritorialization.

[10] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984); Homo Academicus, (Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1988); and Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature, European Perspectives, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). 

[11] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

[12] See Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool. Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[13] See the above article by Jameson and also Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981).

Accepting the inevitable necessity of capitalism for now is something of a precondition to abandoning Adornian narratives of ivory-tower resistance and makes possible Jameson’s decision to explore the utopian within capitalist culture is something that Marx himself advocated. For Marx, after all, capitalist society was an absolutely necessary historical stage albeit one to be surpassed. See for example, the passage “Capital as a Revolutionary, but Limited Force” in Karl Marx, The Grundrisse (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 94-95.