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Postmodernism: A World-System Explanation

Albert Bergesen

I want to propose a world-system explanation for the cultural movement known as postmodernism. [1] This current in Contemporary art and thought is international in scope, and I will argue, produced by the capitalist world-economy. The key sociological observation is that the emergence of a belief that we are in a postmodernist phase in culture does not occur within a social vacuum. It appears precisely at the time when the larger world economy is shifting from the dominance of a single hegemon (the United States) to a world characterized by a growing plurality of power and heightened economic competition in what could be called a balkanizing capitalist world economy. It is not an accident then, that-postmodernism appears in the 1970s, precisely when the United States begin to decline, for postmodernism is the international culture of hegemonic decline and the growing plurality of national power within the world-system.

During the years of American hegemony the leading styles of modern art originated in New York and were dominated by American artists (even if refugees from Europe). By the late 20th Century this is no longer the case. Leading artists are scattered internationally: from Germany there is Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, from Britain Lucien Freud, from Italy Francesco Clemente or Sandro Chia. And, New York is no longer the absolute center of art. Cologne, for one, is a serious rival for leadership in modern art. In short, the world of art is increasingly multicentric in the styles produced, in artists, and in centers. This is not an accident, for the politics and economics of the world-system are also increasingly multicentric. Politics and art go hand in hand, and the balkanization of the world-system is seen in the balkanization of world artistic practice and the ideological legitimation of the era of post hegemony as one of multicentered multicultural expression.

The political economy of post hegemony is not a void, and neither, therefore, is the cultural condition of postmodern art. Therefore, the critique of postmodernity as an expression of cultural nihilism is wrong. Following hegemony is the world-system's cyclical return to accelerated interstate rivalry and a growing struggle for hegemonic succession, such that post-modernism represents an early manifestation of heightened inter-capitalist rivalry and accentuated national consciousness at the expense of more universal and non-national cultural expression that was the high modernism of a purified abstract art in culture and generalized theory in social Science during America's hegemonic years (1940s-1970s). The post-1970s assertion of a multi-cultural flowering of many national, ethnic, racial, and gendered voices, that is, of difference, reflects the decline of the material base of the hegemon's once totalizing abstract and universal cultural categories which constituted the artistic framework within which concern with the human condition was expressed during the Cold War years.

The trans-societal scope of American hegemonic economic and political domination took the cultural form of domination through the trans-societal, trans-group, non-grounded, abstract painting, the glass box formalism of the International Style in architecture and the popularity of very abstract social theory, as in Talcott Parsons. In this Situation when only the general or universal exists, interests and identities are masked, suppressed, or simply disappear from national consciousness. Then, with hegemonic decline, various nationalities, groups, genders, and ethnicities begin to find cultural space as they can once again assert their own identities in the cultural practices of art, architecture, and social theory. With American decline and a growing plural competitive world we see the appearance in world culture of multiple competing voices. In short: the absence of a dominant hegemon in political economy, the absence of a dominant master narrative in ideological and cultural discourse; no hegemon, no logocentricism; no hegemon, no privileging of any one discourse or national expression above any other. Those are the cultural assumptions of postmodernism. The world-system point here is that this change in world cultural consciousness reflects the plurality of economic powers that is the condition of post-hegemony in the capitalist world-economy. There is, then, a clear map between the new multicentric world political economy and the new multicultural postmodernism.

Postmodernity is post hegemony. The 1990s cultural world is a global political economy without an American hegemon ordering international politics and economic order. This political multicentricism is expressed in the new dominant world ideology that emphasizes the equality of all positions, all voices, all groups, and all modes of expression, that is multicultural post-modernism. In art and architecture it is form without a deep structural determination or ordering principle, as leading positions here, and in critical thinking, literature, and the human sciences, now praise discursive disorganization as the moral successor and path of emancipation from the firm, fixed universals of modernism. Ideas of infinitely regressing signifiers, play, irony, and unstructured difference, are now the moral high ground of cultural discourse, and modernism is indicted as a mask covering and repressing the identities of nation, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference.

But postmodernism should not be seen as ideological liberation but rather the next phase in the world-system's cultural cycles. That is, postmodern artistic expression may be an advance over the universal grid of cultural space produced under the condition of a single hegemon during the 1940s-1970s, but it is also the early phase of what will become a vicious 1930s-like nationalistic love of race and country when the crisis prone world-system passes to the convulsive phase of national rivalry and war. This process of global reorganization that is now beginning can be seen in the economic restructuring forced by the rise of new Centers of economic power (Germany and Japan) and American industrial decline. In past world-system cycles this phase has produced a particularism and realism in culture and an intense nationalism as nation-states use a love of country to mobilize their populations in the frenzied competition and conflict of the B-Phase of economic downturn and crisis. While the late 20th Century expression of group identity is refreshing, when it turns to race and national hatred, and is pressed into Service for inter-state rivalry, then it is something quite different. This is not to demean today's multicultural surge, but to try and understand our own cultural discourse by identifying its place within a larger set of world-system dynamics.

  • [1] For a discussion of postmodernism see: Charles Jencks (ed.), The Post-Modern Reader, London: Academy Edition 1992; Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992; Scott Lasch and Jonathan Friedman (eds.), Modernity and Identity, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1992; Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1989; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1990.
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