Marxism's major-general

The Origins of Postmodernity - The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought
November 6, 1998

Perry Anderson is one of the most commanding figures in British intellectual life of the past 35 years. Since the astonishingly bold and inclusive essays he and Tom Nairn launched upon the innocent nuclear disarmers and espresso drinkers of the New Left clubs in the early sixties, he has remained a figure of crucially formative power in the motley, uneven and far-from-complete-coming-to-maturity of a British intelligentsia of the academies.

Pretty well single-handed, he fashioned an entirely new syllabus of western Marxism; he built a cadre of deeply impressive and serious-minded lieutenants who gave New Left Review its hospitable and, within the church, ecumenical synod.

Above all, he forged his own distinctive and distinguished idiom, a prose as unmistakable and assured, as stamped with the stylish signature of his mannerism and of his manliness, as any of those in his chosen tradition whom he praised with a courtly generosity touched, it may be, by his Irish origins and anyway exceptional amongst the grudging circles of the senior common room.

Still in his mid-thirties, he had devised the academic discipline of Marxist cultural studies in his own image. It was Anderson who defined, with such a terrific flourish, such eloquence and, at times, scornfulness, the sacred texts, the subject matter, the key concepts and the idiom of the discipline. Finally, he gave it his own classic, drastically revising Immanuel Wallerstein, incorporating Ernest Mandel, and situating the thought and example of Antonio Gramsci at the centre of all subsequent Marxist historiography. This was in 1975.

Since then, he has of course continued to write as prodigally and fluently as before. But perhaps he spotted what was happening before anybody else, and found that he could not sustain the drive of his impassioned critique against the penury of English empiricism and on behalf of what he boldly called in Passages "the freedoms of Marxism". Perhaps he had visions of the coming emptiness when no nation state would be left to profess its Marxism, and the cultural logic of state capitalism, in Frederic Jameson's famous phrase, would herd all thought towards the mindless pleasures of consumerism.

It may be so. For his several books since his magna opera cast hither and yon in search of the drama which would furnish him with plot and character. The wonderful essays collected in English Questions and A Zone of Engagement speak a benison over many whose work had been excoriated in earlier days, and offer an equable, always lucid exposition of thinkers - David Lockwood, W. G. Runciman, Quentin Skinner - absolutely not of his kidney. It came to seem that convictions as well as concrete went down with the Berlin Wall.

The new book, short as it is, makes it clear that this is wrong. It does so, however, at desperate cost. At the expense of his own spirit, he re-canonises the tradition he has spent his life affirming, but is left at the end with only one name to affirm and one lamp to hold up amid the encircling gloom.

On the way, Anderson provides us with some of his most typically compressed as well as dazzlingly illuminating expositions. To nobody's surprise, he turns out to be fully informed on the surprisingly lengthy provenance of postmodernity, tracing it by way of Arnold Toynbee (of all people) and the shaggy, vatic Whitmanism of Charles Olson and the ditto of Leslie Fielder to the later Jean-Francois Lyotard and the architects around Robert Venturi whose property the concept really became.

When Anderson comes to Habermas he engages, if only briefly, with the pilgrim who set himself to defeat the Apollyon of anti-Enlightenment, and finds much, of course, to catch his sympathy. But he also finds that the girders of Habermas's vast theoretical roofing cannot do any more than enclose without differentiation the radical contradictions of capital and culture. The "life world" of domestic affirmation resists but cannot inflect the instrumental frightfulness of money and power. Habermas is struck on the wrong side of this abyss.

The hero and only survivor of Anderson's pithy tale is Jameson. It is generous of Anderson to make him so, and one sees the point. Jameson, as Orwell put it, takes a header into the cesspool. Not only that, as Anderson also notes, he boisterously enjoys his dip. Like no other critic of his stature, he practises close reading of the underground movies, the cartoon novels, the crazy buildings, the S and M wardrobes which are the stuff of late capitalism's cultural logic according to his theorem. And like Cobbett, he has a name for the enemy still capable of quickening the blood of our opposition.

In the end, however, Jameson's experience is bookish and his culture is taken off-air. Determined to affirm solidarity but deprived of a party, he can only love America, lovable and hateful as it is. He does not see, and Anderson cannot tell him, that the victors of the class struggle are the petit-bourgeois of the rich world, and that there is more intellectual help to be found in David Lockwood and Anthony Giddens than in Adorno.

What one finally longs for is Anderson's own, grand account of our cultural logic. As his recent essays about his father in pre-revolutionary China indicate, he has a lovely touch in the evocation of domestic culture and, moreover, his gifts as well as his authority would give a much-needed refinement as well as a critical grip to some of the more simple-minded excesses in a compilation such as Stuart Sim's not very Critical Dictionary.

No doubt such things are well-intentioned, even, in the case of the well-known Fontana volume, indispensable. But among honest essays by various hands, particularly Sue Thornham's on feminism, there is too much low-level endorsement of exactly the errors against which Anderson sets his face. The special crassness of attitude transpires with the usual coarseness in the essay on film where Marilyn Monroe mutates into the woman "punished and domesticated by death or marriage ... as the ... form was pulled back into ... reproductive patriarchal relations".

These concrete cliches have solidified the mind of the generation which should provide our next, best, most public-spirited and idealistic intellectuals. Perry Anderson is now one of the very few people left with the style and the signature to change things.

Fred Inglis is a fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

The Origins of Postmodernity

Author - Perry Anderson
ISBN - 1 85984 222 4
Publisher - Verso
Price - £11.00
Pages - 143

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