Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Closed Commercial State: German Idealism and the decolonization of economic relations (part I)


On the 6th October 2016, at the Conservative Party's annual conference, Theresa May gave a speech including a since notorious line, "If you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere". It was calculated to create a pervasive association in her listeners' minds between resistance to Britain's exit from the European Union, for which the country had voted three months previously, and an attitude of irresponsibility at once civic and commercial, uniting those who espoused international liberal-humanitarian ideals (but by implication neglected their own national back yard) with those who ran "international compan[ies] that treat tax laws as an optional extra" into a single category of rootless, unpatriotic cosmopolitans. Thinkers who rejected May's association soon wrote to the newspapers in protest, and T-shirts even began to go on sale online proudly advertising their wearers as "citizens of nowhere". For them, as for so many others who voted against Brexit - including myself - the stakes in this national debate were first and foremost those public values of openness, tolerance and the rejection of xenophobia and parochialism that appeared to align naturally with a decision to remain in the EU. Not shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting off trade with our closest neighbours seemed a pragmatic corollary. Whether these were values shared by multinational commerce or not was hardly the most important consideration. And yet of course it could not be denied that without the economic interests driving power politics being added to post-war high ideals of peaceful federation, the EU would hardly have been realised in the first place as a practical project, or endured as long as it had.


Long before dreams of modern European unity, the same association between an intellectually liberal "open-mindedness" and economic liberalism was made in the early eighteenth century by Joseph Addison - this time, interpreted positively. Addison loved to feel himself a "citizen of the world" - but the place in which he felt most like one was the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City of London:

"There is no Place in the Town which I so much love to frequent as the Royal-Exchange. It gives me a secret Satisfaction, and, in some measure, gratifies my Vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an Assembly of Country-men and Foreigners consulting together upon the private Business of Mankind, and making this Metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth. I must confess I look upon High-Change to be a great Council, in which all considerable Nations have their Representatives. Factors in the Trading World are what Ambassadors are in the Politick World; they negotiate Affairs, conclude Treaties, and maintain a good Correspondence between those wealthy Societies of Men that are divided from one another by Seas and Oceans, or live on the different Extremities of a Continent... I am infinitely delighted in mixing with these several Ministers of Commerce, as they are distinguished by their different Walks and different Languages: Sometimes I am justled among a Body of Armenians: Sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews, and sometimes make one in a Groupe of Dutch-men. I am a Dane, Swede, or French-Man at different times, or rather fancy my self like the old Philosopher, who upon being asked what Country-man he was, replied, That he was a Citizen of the World." (The Spectator, no. 69, May 19th 1711)
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The London Royal Exchange, late 18th c.
A modern liberal reader's incipient discomfort at Addison's sentiments might be strengthened when he goes on to list some of the products brought and mixed together on English soil by virtue of this "private Business of Mankind". To make English marmalade, "the fruits of Portugal are corrected by the products of Barbadoes" - sugar, from cane harvested in Barbados by African slaves; and "the Philippick Islands give a Flavour to our European Bowls" - spices added to the punch-bowl, traded from the Philippines and Indonesia and produced by a Dutch monopoly that ruthlessly exterminated uncooperative indigenous populations before bringing in slaves to replace them. The historical irony in Addison's final sentence is almost painful: "Trade, without enlarging the British Territories, has given us a kind of additional Empire..." Addison did not live to see its full consequences, but his metaphorical empire of trade would be converted piece by piece, and for largely commercial reasons, into a very concretely "enlarged" British imperial domain covering nearly a quarter of the planet's land surface.

Should we blame Addison for not being aware of these extended implications of the trade network he celebrated? And can his ideal of the "citizen of the world" not be separated from the historical accidents, crimes and misfortunes of commercial friction between peoples in his own time? Indeed it can - or so I will argue in this post. Yet one solution repeatedly proposed to the dangers of such commercial friction was not to increase, but to altogether suspend the free trade praised by Addison. This solution cannot be associated only with fascism, totalitarianism, or the impossible Romantic longing for a return to a state of rugged self-sufficiency. Rather, it represents an alternative - one which is politically demanding, counter-intuitive, but not impossible, and perhaps urgently necessary - to the unequal and unstable competitive regime of economic liberalism which has led in the past to the imperial exploitation of entire continents, slavery, genocide, and mass famine, and which in the present threatens the ecological safety of the globe as a whole. And although this alternative seems to bear more resemblance to a Brexit model of economic isolationism than any left-wing cosmopolitan could possibly be comfortable with, those who proposed it did so in a spirit very far removed from xenophobic bigotry.

One example of such an anti-free trade thinker from Addison's own time is Engelbert Kaempfer, author of a History of Japan (1727) that remained for a century and a half the standard reference work for Europeans curious about the country. (I draw here on David Mervart, who also makes the comparison with Addison: "A Closed Country in the Open Seas: Engelbert Kaempfer's Solution for European Modernity's Predicament", Journal of European Ideas 35:3 (2009), 321-9.) At the time Kaempfer visited, during the Tokugawa or Edo period extending from 1600 to 1868, Japan was one of the most deliberately isolated societies in the world. Contact with foreigners was only allowed through Dejima Island in the harbour of Nagasaki, and was carried on very selectively with trading representatives from Holland and China (Kaempfer arrived under the auspices of the Dutch East Indies Company). Any foreigners who arrived on Japanese shores by other means were put to death, as were any Japanese who left and then tried to return. Missionizing and non-official trade were outlawed. Kaempfer himself described Japan as a "closed country", a regnum clausum, and it was via the translation of his works that the Japanese term for Tokugawa foreign policy, sakoku, was originally coined. To be sure, Kaempfer admitted, it must look like a "signal breach of the laws of nature" and a denial of the "society which it was [God's] intention should be for ever among men" to maintain such a policy. And yet he is determined to demonstrate to his readers "the advantages that must and do accrue to the Japanese from the present condition of the Empire" (cit. Mervart, 322).
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Dejima Island, Nagasaki

For Japan at this period was undeniably prosperous, populous, culturally highly developed, militarily powerful, and at peace both internally and externally. Edo, the capital (later renamed Tokyo), may have been the most populated city in the world; with 30 million inhabitants the country as a whole was larger than any in Europe, and more highly urbanized. European scientific and technological knowledge was channelled through contact with the Dutch, whilst Japan's own artistic, religious and aesthetic culture (including the Zen arts) was developed to a pitch of scarcely-equalled sophistication. This was the period of Basho, of Hokusai, Hiroshige, of the flowering of Rinzai Zen under Hakuin Ekaku, of kabuki theatre and of geisha culture. An inhabitant of Edo in the Tokugawa era would hardly have felt isolated, imprisoned, or in need of more cosmopolitan surroundings.

To Kaempfer, then, it was apparent that the Japanese "confined within the limits of their Empire enjoy the blessings of peace and contentedness, and do not care for any commerce, or communication with foreign nations, because such is the happy state of their Country, that it can subsist without it". They had "no reason to entertain any thoughts of invading the rights and properties of others". Contrast the nations of Europe at the end of the 17th century, increasingly committed to expansion through trade, but at the same time with all too much experience of the negative consequences that such expansion brought with it when combined with inequality, competition and national or religious rivalries: "murdering and plundering of each other, ravaging and unpeopling of whole Countries, laying in waste and ruin public and private, sacred and profane buildings, and many other calamities" (cit. Mervart, p. 324-5).

This was no historical coincidence. There was a logic to the association of economic liberalism or free trade and colonial exploitation and conquest, on the one hand, just as there was on the other between peaceful self-sufficiency, political stability and what would later be termed the "closed commercial state". As I will get on to explaining in the second half of this post, the logic of the "closed commercial state" was most systematically developed by the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his 1800 book of that title (Der geschlossene Handelsstaat). In the remainder of this first part, it makes sense to cast a critical glance at the other side of the debate: the intellectual justifications offered for both free trade and colonial policy during the  17th and 18th centuries. In particular, I will concentrate on some aspects of the theory of property developed during this period, above all, property in land. (In this sense, this post fills a gap in an earlier two-part post on this site devoted to the work of Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi - "Reading Karl Polanyi: How wild goats and gold explain the last two centuries of global history" - in which I discussed the artificial process of "commodification" affecting two out of three key "factors of production": labour and currency, but not yet land. For Polanyi, all three are "fictitious commodities": if a commodity is defined as something produced for sale and consumption, then neither labour, nor currency, nor land fulfil that definition in full. Yet in a capitalist economy, all three have their price.) It is also precisely in his theory of property rights, as we will see, that Fichte innovates most radically, and with the greatest consequence for economic policy-making, providing a sophisticated philosophically-grounded alternative to the commodification and reification that afflict liberal conceptions of what it means to own something in the eyes of the law.

When it comes to theories of modern international relations, particularly with regard to their economic dimension, there is probably no better place to start historically than with the Dutch jurist Hugo de Groot (1583-1645), or Grotius, the "father of international law". It is significant that Grotius's career as an authority on the subject began with a case of colonial trade conflict: the seizure of booty by a captain of the Dutch East India Company (the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), Jacob van Heemskerck, from a Portuguese ship Santa Catarina off (what is now) Singapore in 1603. Given that the Dutch and the Portuguese were then at war, one might have thought that such an act would hardly be considered surprising or exceptional from a legal standpoint. Yet the legal status of privateering (piracy conducted to the benefit of a state) was not yet fixed, and so interpreting the Dutch prize within the framework of official hostility between nations was far from automatic. Indeed, as Martine van Ittersum has shown in one of a number of recent articles devoted to this crucial event in the history of international trade, the relevant Portuguese official, the capitão mor based in Malacca, was willing to administer justice quite impartially and give up claim to the booty, given the incident's local context (q.v. van Ittersum, "Hugo Grotius in Context: Van Heemskerck's Capture of the Santa Catarina and its Justification in De Jure Pradae (1604-1606)", in Asian Journal of Social Science 31:3, pp. 511-48).

The Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina, contemporary woodcut

 It was Grotius who stepped in to argue that the seizure was justified specifically on the basis of natural law - a law that could be constructed and applied on purely rational grounds whenever a local established framework of justice was lacking. He produced his treatise De Jure Pradae (On the Law of Prize and Booty), which he privately referred to as "De Indiis" (On the Indies), in defence of Heemskerck's actions and at the behest of the VOC. As numerous historians have observed, Grotius thus immediately becomes important as a defender of nascent Dutch colonialism - not just a pioneering theorist in the abstract of a "law between nations". (The booty whose seizure he defended was worth 3 million guilders, approximately 50% of the VOC's initial capital.) Firstly, by arguing that in a condition of war no individual state's law or magistrate could adjudge the seizure of a maritime prize such as the Santa Catarina, his treatise marked the formalization of the notion of "prize" and thus of the legalized activity of privateering - a formalization which had become necessary in the new age of long-distance trade companies such as the VOC, underpinned by modern financial and legal structures such as stock trading and insurance. As Donald Petrie expresses it, even for merchants whose trade was at risk from privateers, the law of prize "brought a valuable element of certainty to their dealings. If the rules were clear and universal, they could ship their goods abroad in wartime, after first buying insurance against known risks. ... On the other side of the table, those purchasing vessels and cargoes from prize courts had the comfort of knowing that what they bought was really theirs" (The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999), pp. 145-6). International trade was thus made compatible not just with piracy, but also with war.

Secondly, Grotius argued that Heemskerck's act was justified not merely negatively (no-one could say it was wrong) but also positively: it provided redress, and material compensation, for a long-standing wrong done to Dutch rights by the Portuguese monopolization of trade with the East Indies, including driving Dutch commerce off important sea-trade routes. Grotius expressed this as a violation of an important aspect of natural law - the "freedom of the seas", under which title (Mare Liberum) the relevant chapter of his treatise was published in 1609. The Dutch wanted the freedom to sail wherever they liked: to visit new destinations in the Indian Ocean and establishing trading connections with them, to fish in coastal waters off England, perhaps also to involve themselves in trading and settling in America (as they began to do in the year of Mare Liberum's publication). Grotius's treatise defended all this, in the process setting up concepts of property and natural rights to it that were extended by later colonial thinkers such as John Locke. As Barbara Arneil has analyzed, Grotius's arguments constitute both an apparently logical type of reasoning from "natural law" and one "firmly grounded in colonial goals" ("John Locke, Natural Law and Colonialism", in History of Political Thought 13:4 (1992), 588-603 (p. 589)).

The distinctions involved are fairly simple. Property applies to objects. These are of two types: movable, and immovable. How one takes ownership of them, or if one can, depends on what type they belong to: "With respect to movables, occupancy implies physical seizure; with respect to immovables, it implies some activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries" (Grotius, De Jure Pradae, 229, cit. Arneil, p. 589). A ship's cargo is movable, and can thus be physically seized. Territory on the earth's surface is not, and so the only way to take possession of it is through enclosure, or by building on it. The sea cannot be owned through either of these methods of appropriation, and so is intrinsically free: no-one can stop those of another country from travelling across it, as they could if it were land that they had fenced in. These are definitions of "natural" law, we should recall, and operate in the absence of any more developed framework: in a modern European state, it does not suffice to seize an object or build on a piece of land in order to have legal possession of it. But in areas and circumstances where the law of a particular state does not apply, these definitions once again become the basis for decisions on the legality of action.

Those areas and circumstances turned out to be (not coincidentally) perfectly commonplace outside Europe, including on the high seas and in the conditions of colonial conflict or rivalry across "virgin territory" that prevailed for much of the ensuing three centuries. As Richard Tuck comments, "Grotius had provided a useful ideology for competition over natural resources in the non-European world...[including the] right to take what they wanted and protect [it] against threats" (Tuck, Natural Right Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge, 1979), p. 62). In Grotius's later treatise De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), war was justified as a defence of property, as well as of oneself - and property was something one had a right to, a specifically private and modern right. It did not apply to those who lived by holding and using goods in common - such as the native inhabitants of America. Here Grotius drew on the common equation between Native Americans and humans before the Fall. A prelapsarian "state of nature" is concretized in the New World - "This primitive state...exemplified in the community of property arising from extreme simplicity, may be seen among certain tribes in America which have lived for many generations in such a condition" (De Jure Belli ac Pacis, II.ii.2.i, cit. Arneil p. 590).

Not only had the natives of America failed to move past the stage of communal ownership, they had also not learned to appropriate land by enclosing and then truly using it, that is, cultivating it through agriculture. Such land is thus legally open  to appropriation by Europeans: "If within a territory of a people there is any deserted and unproductive soil...it is the right for foreigners even to take possession of such ground for the reason that uncultivated land ought not to be considered occupied" (ibid., cit. Arneil, p. 592). Nomadic or hunter-gathering ways of life are permanently vulnerable, through what Grotius considers "natural" law, to expropriation of their very territorial basis. In a further extension of colonial logic, however, granting the argument from use did not mean that use had to be immediate. Rather, it was perfectly possible for a European state to take legal ownership over a tract of "vacant" or uncultivated land, as long as the intention was to divide that territory up into parcels of land which would soon be put under private cultivation. As Arneil observes, this was the practice of both the Dutch and the English in North America.

Toward the end of the 17th century, John Locke, who in the 1660s and 70s "played an important role in the formulation of colonial policy" in America through his roles as secretary to the Lords Proprietor of Carolina and the Council of Trade and Plantations (Arneil, p. 600), drew similar conclusions about the nature of property in his Second Treatise of Government (1689). Locke cements the idea that the only legitimate form of ownership in the New World is private ownership; since here the pre-existent tradition of common land (as still existed, despite centuries of enclosures, in England) has no legal basis, and ownership in the "state of nature" must be demonstrated by personal labour, that is, cultivation. "As much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property" (Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II.26). Uncultivated land was nothing but "waste", and demanded to be enclosed and tilled: "I aske whether in the wild woods and uncultivated wast of America left to Nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of...land doe in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?" (ibid., II.37).

That Grotius and Locke's conceptions of property relate integrally to their support of European colonialism is not only clarified by their statements and personal circumstances, but also negatively, by the fact that other European writers of the period, who were not in hock to colonial states, resisted their arguments. We have already met one such anti-colonial writer in Engelbert Kaempfer: though the VOC enabled his travel to Japan, his opinion of wise economic policy was diametrically opposed to theirs. Not all Europe was able to jump on the imperialist bandwagon, in any case: Sweden and the German states, for instance, held colonies only briefly and unsuccessfully. Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), a German who spent half his life in Sweden, produced there a work "On the Law of Nature and Peoples" (De iure naturae et gentium, 1672), whose conclusions significantly differed from those of Grotius and Locke. For him America was no state of nature, but a land with "nations" as worthy of respect and diplomatic treatment as those of Europe; there was no natural right that Europeans could assume to free trade or free travel across their lands; ownership rested on consent, not on exploitation, and could as easily be communal as private (Arneil, pp. 594-8).

Pufendorf also contested one of Grotius's most outrageous, and yet subtly persistent, claims to the legitimacy of war on "natural law" grounds: that any country violating the precepts of Nature or natural law could be "punished" for so doing (Arneil, pp. 593-4, 598-9). Such violations could in Grotius's view include anything from cannibalism (an "unnatural" practice of certain South American peoples, "men who were like beasts" in Grotius's eyes) to infringements of the "freedom of the seas" - both by non-Western peoples repelling the peaceful expeditions of Europeans and by empires like the Portuguese, jealous of their trade monopolies. Military intervention did not require the violation of reciprocal rights, but only of what was "natural" - something that, as Pufendorf was aware, could be defined to suit the wishes of those with military power. (As Montaigne famously wrote in his essay "Of Cannibals", 16th-century Europeans in the Wars of Religion had anyway proved themselves capable of far worse than cannibalism: "I conceive there is more barbarity...in tearing somebody limb from limb by racks and torments...than to roast and eat him after he is dead".)

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Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694)

In theorizing property differently from Grotius and Locke, and resisting some of the conclusions they drew from the concept of "natural law", Pufendorf laid foundations for an alternative articulation of property as the meeting-point of justice and economics. They would be developed in the work of later eighteenth-and nineteenth-century thinkers, from Francois Fenelon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Fichte and the theorist of "national economics" Friedrich List - a lineage I examine in the second part of this post.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Girl dancing

Translation of Rilke's Sonnet to Orpheus, II.18:

Girl dancing: all that was spent
You move to life - miraculous offering;
With a whirl at the close, like a tree made of movement,
Sweeping up in itself the seasons' full swing.

Did the tree-top your swirling turned around already
Seem, of a sudden, to blossom with stillness? Above
Was there not sunshine, not summer? - the steady
Radiance of your warmth like love.

But it bore, it bore too, your ecstasy-tree
These are its tranquil fruits, are they not? - the pitcher
Turned in the hand, a vase stroked to maturity.

Glance now, a dark eyebrow's stroke discerning
In what you left us - a blurred picture
Flashed on the wall of your own turning.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Postmodernist or Postmodernisn't?



A post I wrote a few years ago for the website of an artistic collective to which my brother belongs, but which is no longer up there, so am rehousing it here. Having casually thrown into family conversations the idea that postmodernism doesn't exist, I was asked to explain why, and this was the result...



Mike Gane (interviewing Jean Baudrillard in 1991): Many people think of you as the high priest of postmodernism. What do you think of this?
Jean Baudrillard: The first thing to say is that before one can talk about anyone being a high priest, one should ask whether postmodernism, the postmodern, has a meaning. It doesn’t as far as I am concerned. It’s an expression, a word which people use but which explains nothing. It’s not even a concept. It’s nothing at all.[1]

Are you confused about postmodernism? Are you wondering why this word, after looming over cultural discussions for several decades, still obstinately refuses to make sense? Well, you are not alone! No less a luminary of late twentieth-century French philosophy than Jean Baudrillard shares your frustration. But hang on... Wasn’t he supposed to be one of these “postmodernists” – in fact, as his interviewer suggested, their veritable “high priest”? You check Wikipedia: section 3, “Influential postmodernist philosophers”. Look! there he is – no. 6 on the list, three places below Michel Foucault. You decide to double-check with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (they get real academics to write their entries, after all). Both of them are in there too.

Rewind back to 1983. Another interviewer, Gérard Raulet, is asking Foucault about his position relative to various key terms of contemporary intellectual debate. “Postmodernity” gets dropped into the conversation – a “hold-all concept...which quite a few people refer to and which also plays a role in Germany”. But Foucault is confused. He interrupts: “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date”. What! Does he not know what it is either?!

The philosophers are not inspiring confidence; so let’s start our search for the “postmodern” over again somewhere else: with the arts. Enter Leslie Fiedler, charismatic American literary and cultural critic, proclaiming “The Death of Avant-Garde Literature” (in 1964) and the subsequent need to “Cross the Border – Close the Gap” separating high culture from popular culture (in 1970). If the avant-garde was Modernist, its successor would of course be Post-Modernist: “we are living...through the death throes of Modernism and the birth pangs of Post-Modernism”.[2] Modernism was based on the idea of art making progress – furthermore, a kind of progress that only a certain elite class of the population would really be able to appreciate. It reinforced the border and increased the gap between highbrow and lowbrow. 

But in Fiedler’s view, the avant-garde had no way of “progressing” left that could still divide the sheep from the goats: not opposition to fashion, not innovations in technique, not even shock, insult or offensive subject-matter. All these had long since been driven to the point of banality, with “new frontiers” of literary progress now settled by middlebrow “imitators and vulgarizers”.[3] By the end of the 1960s it seemed that a new, more populist and less paralysingly self-conscious spirit was in the air: “apocalyptic, antirational, blatantly romantic and sentimental”.[4]
 
What was needed at this moment was literature employing genres “at the furthest possible remove from art and avant-garde...notably, the Western, Science Fiction, and Pornography”.[5] These were “the basic images of Pop”.[6] Odd choice of genres, you might say, but the principle is familiar. In visual art if not in literature, we know exactly what Pop means: art based on commercial imagery, on strip cartoons, on kitsch. Take Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, one of the first artworks discussed in Fredric Jameson’s famous critique of postmodern aesthetics, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) – their superficial, pastel-grounded glitter contrasted with the profundity and humble significance of Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s boots. 

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But look closer and it becomes obvious why this sort of Pop Art is not a realization of Fiedler’s “Post-Modernism” at all. As Warhol himself claimed, there is no “depth” to his art: all one needs to know about the work is already there “on the surface”.[7] Warhol’s art is not about meaning, or message: it’s entirely deadpan, ironic without trying. That was not what Fiedler was after in turning to Pop genres. If you used them in an ironic way, he pointed out, it would just be another way of showing your sophistication – how you could be cooler than the next guy.

Instead, Fiedler thought Pop imagery genuinely embodied quite profound cultural meanings – political, mythological, even religious meanings. The Western could embody a kind of “mythological innocence” by siding with the Red Indian against “the act of genocide with which our nation began”; sci-fi in the hands of Burroughs, Vonnegut or Kubrick could tackle big themes such as “the Present Future and the End of Man”; above all, Fiedler was attracted by Pop Music, with its protests, fantastical innocence and folksy love of myth reminiscent of “the beginnings of Romanticism”. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and John Lennon had decided not to pour their musical and lyrical talents into the old genres of the avant-garde (though Cohen had started out as a modernist poet, and Zappa as a classical composer), but instead into songs for the masses. They would “close the gap” – and in doing so create “a permanent religious revolution, whose function is precisely to transform the secular crowd into a sacred community”.[8]

Now that is a set of meanings for “postmodernism” that we have completely lost sight of. To you it doubtless sounds more Romantic or hippy than postmodern or “pop”. The reason why it seems that way now, I suggest, is connected partly with philosophy, and partly with politics – the emancipatory politics of the Sixties that culminated in the student revolts of 1968. The student revolutionaries of the Sixties seriously wanted to change the world, and the ideas and music to which they committed themselves reflected that. They had a message, and no art of mere irony was going to be adequate to it. But what Fiedler and the German New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse called “mythology” would help, certainly: how could one imagine a different world, or imagine the coming struggle that would lead to it, without resonant images to inspire, affirm, unite? And if some of those images had forerunners in commercial traditions, or if the songs they sang made some money for their writers – so what?

Over the last decades, there have been few comparable prospects of changing the global political order in the way that the visionaries of the Sixties imagined. And so “high” culture has opted for a different version of “postmodernism” – a version in many respects indistinguishable from the modernism that Fiedler attacked. That has come to include the philosophers mentioned at the start of this post, together with their Parisian contemporaries (Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze) – thinkers who violently denigrated “mass” or “petit bourgeois” culture and proclaimed their undying allegiance to the modernist avant-garde. Their semiotic theories of the “death of the author”, intertextuality, and the instability of meaning have spread throughout art departments and literary seminars worldwide, borrowing the radical aura of the term “postmodernism” while re-establishing all those obstacles to broad artistic communication that Fiedler wanted to tear down. 

And it is the prestige-laden theories of these Parisian modernists that continue to trap the arts, criticism and aesthetics in political limbo – a little elite corner, where the appreciation of “postmodern” art is filtered through an institutionalized theoretical jargon, one whose main effect is to stop artists aspiring to any kind of positive expression of social and political ideals. At a moment when political change is once again on the horizon, perhaps we can persuade artists to contribute to it once more – by reinstating Post-Modernism’s original demands. A new mythology – to close the Gap!
 


[1] Jean Baudrillard, ed. Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (Routledge: London & New York, 1993), chap. 1, “I Don’t Belong to the Club, to the Seraglio”, 1991 interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud, 19-25 (p. 21).
[2] The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 461.
[3] Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 455-6, 459.
[4] Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 462-3.
[5] Ibid., 469.
[6] Ibid., 480.
[7] http://www.artexpertswebsite.com/pages/artists/warhol.php.
[8] Ibid., 485.