Pomo/epistemic/revelatory/activist ethnography

John L.McCreery (jlm@TANUKI.TWICS.CO.JP)
Tue, 18 Jan 1994 22:29:26 JST

Dear Friends,
When I joined this discussion, the spotlight was on
"Postmodernism." Our discussion led on to "epistemology." The
holidays intervened. Once they were over, the pressures of
work andQdare I say it-an insidiously addictive computer game
called "Spaceward Ho!" diverted my attention. Now "revelation"
and "active ethnography" are the issues before us. In the
meantime, however, a book shipment has arrived from the
States and I find myself reading Frederic Jameson's
_Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism_ and
finding that what Jameson has to say bears on all these topics.
As Jameson sees it, Postmodernism is characterized by the
disappearance as a cultural ideal of the unique and autonomous
self that modernism ascribes to each human individual. The
modern self is sharply bounded and distinct from the world
around it. Its postmodern equivalent has lost its separateness
and thus its coherence. In the world of which the postmodern
self is a part, history has collapsed, leaving behind a rubble of
allusions we are free to combine however we like. Jameson
writes, and I quote,

"I have found Lacan's account of schizophrenia useful here not
because i have any way of knowing whether it has clinical
accuracy but chiefly becauseQas description rather than
diagnosisQit seems to me to offer a suggestive aesthetic

"...Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the
signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series
of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or meaning....What
we generally call the signifiedQthe meaning or conceptual
content of an utteranceQis now rather to be seen as a
meaning-effect, as that objective mirage of signification
generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers
among themselves. When that relationship breaks down, when
the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have
shizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated

A little later, he writes,

"Older discussions of the space, function, or sphere of culture
[most notably Herbert Marcuse's classic essay "The
Affirmative Character of Culture"] have insisted on what a
different language would call the 'semiautonomy' of the
cultural realm: its ghostly, yeet Utopian, existence, for good or
ill, above the practical world of the existent, whose mirror
image it throws back in forms which vary from the
legitimations of flattering resemblance to the contestatory
indictments of critical satire or Utopian pain."

"What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not
precisely this semiautonomy of the cultural sphere which has
been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism....we must go on
to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of
culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a
prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to
the point at which everything in our social lifeQfrom economic
value and state power to practices and to the very structure of
the psyche itselfQcan be said to have become 'cultural' in some
original and yet untheorized sense."

"It also suggests that some of our most cherished and time-
honored radical conceptions abou the nature of cultural
politics may thereby find themselves outmoded. However
distinct those conceptionsQwhich range from slogans of
negativity, opposition, and subversion to critique and
reflexivityQmay have been, they all shared a single,
fundamentally honored formula of 'critical distance.' No theory
of cultural politics current on the Left today has been able to
do without one notion or another of a certain minimal
aesthetic distance, of the possibility of the positioning of the
cultural act outside the massive Being of capital, from which
to assault this last. What the burden of our preceding
demonstration suggests, however, is that distance in general
(including 'critical distance,' in particular) has very precisely
been abolished in the new space of postmodernism."

I note the following implications in what Jameson has to say:

(1) Epistemology is a distinctly "modern" concern with how the
self, conceived as something apart from the world, can
nonetheless no something about it.

(2) A rigorous postmodernist will have no epistemological
worries. But neither will s/he have "knowledge" in any
coherent form.

(3) The alternative s/he will come up with can at best be a
pastiche. It makes no sense to talk of "theory" or expect
coherence in the fragments of which the pastiche is made.
Prophets, psychotics and scientists will all have equal claim
to "revelations."

(4) Postmodernists will value "participation" in whatever
events/experiences happen to catch their fancy, but without a
"project" to guide their efforts, they will only be able to "act
out." In all but the shortest of short runs, their efforts will be
both politically and scientifically sterile.

As I have written privately to Erenreich, for myself I prefer
the position of Bakthin, in the "Response to a Question from
_Novy Mir_,

"_Creative understanding_ does not renounce itself, its own
place in time, its own culture; and it forgets nothing. In order
to unerstand, it is immensely important for the person who
understands to be _located outside_ the object of his or her
creative understanding--in time, in space, in culture. For one
cannot even really see one's own exterior and comprehend it as
a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real
exterior can be seen and understood only by other people,
because they are located outisde us in space and because they
are _others-."