Monday, December 15, 2014

Frederic Jameson, ‘End of Art’ or ‘End of History’?

I am at my parents’ house in New Jersey. I am spending time with my family. I don’t have enough time to blog today so I am posting an essay by Frederic Jameson, which I remember liking. It is called ‘End of Art’ or ‘End of History’? It’s a part of a collection of his essays called The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998 (Verso, London 1998). I am reading things like this a lot and other things that are not like this. Maybe this is something that will be of interest to some of you.

The format is left from the copy paste which might look weird but it might make it easier to read on smartphones in this format. I’m not sure. If it is not, sorry. There are some copy glitches too, sorry.

Enjoy, talk to you next week. Spend time with your families if you like them.

'End of Art' or 'End of History' ?

The debate about the 'end of history', assuming it is still on,
seems to have driven out the very memory of its predecessor,
the debate about the 'end of art', which was hotly pursued in
the sixties, now some thirty years ago, it is strange to think.
Both of these debates derive from Hegel and reproduce a
characteristic turn in his thinking about history, or in the form
of his historical narrative, if you prefer: I trust we are by now
far enough 'along in our consciousness of the narrative structure
of historicity that we can forget about hoary old chestnuts about
the evils of totalization or teleology. At any rate, the excitement
about the Fukuyamal Kojeve contribution - welcomed fully as
much by a certain Left as by a certain Right - shows that Hegel
may not be as old-fashioned as people used to say and think.
Here I want to compare these two highly suggestive and
symptomatic debates and try to determine what that comparison
has to tell us about the historical conjuncture in which we
find ourselves. I have consistently argued, over the last few
years, that that conjuncture is marked by a dedifferentiation of
fields, such that economics has come to overlap with culture:
that everything, including commodity production and high and
speculative finance, has become cultural; and culture has equally
become profoundly economic or commodity oriented. Thus it
will not surprise you to learn that conjectures about our current
situation can be taken as statements about late capitalism or
about the politics of globalization. But maybe that is to get a
little ahead of ourselves here.
So let's close our eyes, and by a powerful trance-like effort of
the imagination try to think our way back into the halcyon era
of the 1 960s when the world was still young. The simplest way
of approaching the 'end of art' debate can be discerned via a
recollection of one of the hottest fashions or crazes of those
bygone years, namely the emergence of the so-called happenings,
discussed by everyone from Marcuse to the Sunday supplements.
I never thought much of happenings myself, and
would tend to recontextualize them in the large movement of
theatrical innovation generally: for what we call the sixties -
which may be said to have begun (slowly) in 1 963, with the
Beatles and the Vietnam War, and to have ended dramatically
somewhere around 1 973 -75 with the Nixon shock and the oil
crisis, and also with what is again derisively known as the 'loss'
of Saigon - was amongst other things an extraordinarily rich
moment, the richest since the 1 920s, in the invention of new
kinds of performances and staging of all the canonical playbooks
inherited from the cultural past of world literature
generally: it suffices to mention the Hallischer Vfer, let alone
Schiffbauer Damm, Peter Brook or Grotowski, the Theatre du
soleil, the TNP or Olivier's National Theatre, and the off Broadway
theatre of the New York stage, let alone the production
of Beckett and so-called anti-theatre, to conjure back a
whole universe of playacting and representational excitement in
which, clearly enough, the so-called happenings necessarily take
their place.
I hope it will not be misunderstood if I follow a number of
historians of the period in suggesting that it was an era of great
performances and creative mise en scene, rather than one of an
original composition and production of new dramas (despite
the prestige of the few genuine playwrights like Beckett whose
names stud the rosters of the era): new stagings of Shakespeare
around the globe, in other words, rather than new and unimaginable
Shakespeares on all kinds of unlikely stages of the
world-theatre ( but let's not waste our time in the amusing
exercise of thinking of the names of the exceptions, like Soyenka
or Fugard) . All I wanted to suggest at this point was that
theatrical practice in this period stands at a certain minimal
distance from the texts it presupposes as its pretexts and
conditions of possibility: happenings would then push this
situation to its extreme limit, by claiming to do away with the
pretext of the text altogether and offering a spectacle of the
sheerest performance as such, which also paradoxically seeks to
abolish the boundary and the distinction between fiction and
fact, or art and life.
At this point, I must also remind you of what everyone in our
kind of society today tries to forget: namely that this was a
passionately political period, and that innovations in the arts,
and in particular innovations in the theatre, even those of the
most aestheticizing and least politically aware performers and
directors, were always driven by the firm conviction that
theatrical performance was also a form of praxis, and that
changes in the theatre, however minimal, were also contributions
to a general change in life itself, and in the world and the
society of which the theatre was both a part and a mirror. In
particular, I think it would scarcely be an exaggeration to
suggest that the politics of the sixties, all over the world and
specifically including the 'wars of national liberation', was
defined and constituted as an opposition to the American war
in Vietnam, in other words, as a world-wide protest. Theatrical
innovation then also staged itself as the symbolic gesture of
aesthetic protest, as formal innovation grasped in terms of social
and political protest as such, above and beyond the specifically
aesthetic and theatrical terms in which the innovation was
Meanwhile, in a narrower sense as well, the .very deployment
of the theory of the 'end of art' was also political, insofar as it
was meant to suggest or to register the profound complicity of
the cultural institutions and canons, of the museums and the
university system, the state prestige of all the high arts, in the
Vietnam War as a defence of Western values: somethIng that
also presu,pposes a high level of investment in official culture
and an influential status in society of high culture as an
extension of state power. On my view, this is truer today, when
nobody cares any more, than it was in those days, particularly
in an exceedingly anti-intellectual United States. Hans Haacke
is then perhaps a more fitting emblem of that view of things
than most of the artists of that period; but the political reminder
is at least useful to the degree to which it identifies a left-wing
provenance for the theory of the 'end of art', in contrast with
the markedly right-wing spirit of the current 'end of history' .
What did Hegel himself mean by the 'end of art' - a phrase
he is unlikely to have used himself in quite that sloganeering
fashion ? The notion of an immanent 'end of art' is in Hegel
something like a deduction from the premises of several conceptual
schemes or models which are superimposed one upon the
other. Indeed, the richness of Hegel's thought - as with any
interesting thinker - stems not from the ingenuity or the
pertinence or any particular individual concept, but rather from
the way in which, in the thinker in question, several distinct
systems of concepts coexist and fail to coincide. Imagine models
floating above each other as in distinct dimensions: it is not
their homologies that prove suggestive or fruitful, but rather the
infinitesimal divergences, the imperceptible lack of fit between
the levels - extrapolated out into a continuum whose stages
range from the pre-choate and the quizzical gap, to the nagging
tension and the sharpness of contradiction itself - genuine
thinking always taking place within empty places, these voids
that suddenly appear between the most powerful conceptual
schemes. Thinking is thus not the concept, but the breakdown
in the relationships between the individual concepts, isolated in
their splendour like so many galactic systems, drifting apart in
the empty mind of the world.
Characteristically, Hegel's models or subsystems are all compulsively
tidied up into those triplications which the contemporary
reader needs to disregard - as a kind of weird and obsessive
numerological superstition - in order to make this densely
tortuous text1 interesting for herself. Relevant for us at this
point are but two of the famous triadic progressions: that of
absolute spirit - or rather the movement towards that absolute
of 'objective spirit', as it passes through the three stages of
religion, art and philosophy; and that of art itself, as it passes
more modestly through the three more local stages of the
symbolic, the classical and the romantic . . . towards what?
Towards the end of art, of course, and the abolition of the
aesthetic by itself and under its own internal momentum, the
self-transcendence of the aesthetic towards something else,
something supposedly better than its own darkened and figural
mirror - the splendour and transparency of Hegel's utopian
notion of philosophy itself, the historical self-consciousness of
an absolute present (which will also turn out to be that selfsame
allegedly prophetic notion of the so-called 'end of history' )
- in short, the shaping power o f the human collectivity over its
own destiny, at which point it founders (for us here and now)
into an incomprehensible, unimaginable, utopian temporality
beyond what thought can reach.
No doubt other subsystems in Hegel's immense dictee - the
compulsive graphomanic lifelong transcription of what some
daimon of the absolute muttered to him day-in day-out at the
very limits of syntax and language itself - could be profitably
added to the mix of these superscriptions. But it will be enough
today to convince ourselves of the secret and productive discrepancies
between these two, that otherwise seem to have so much
in common: marching as they do from the only obscurely and
unconsciously figural, through the assumption of the sheer
autopoiesis of the play of figuration as such, towards the sheer
transparency of an end of figuration in the philosophical and
the historically self-conscious, in a situation in which thought
has expunged the last remnants of figures and tropes from the
fading and luminous categories of abstraction itself.
I believe that it is the peculiar emergence of the 'sublime' in
the wrong place in these various schemes and progressions that
gives us the deeper clue to Hegel's thinking. Let's try to work
through them In . a flat-footed and deliberately literal, oversimplified
and unimaginative fashion. In that case, the first moment
of history - religion, pre-Christian religion, or better still, nonWestern
religion as such - is one in which humanity thinks and
is collectively conscious without genuine self-consciousness: or
rather, to be a little more precise, since consciousness without
self-consciousness is a kind of contradiction in terms - in which
humanity is collectively conscious but only unconsciously selfconscious:
in short, in which it thinks in images and figures; in
which it makes external forms and shapes, the mass and variety
of matter as such, think for itself and rear up, deliriously selffashion
itself into the fetish-logic of the great classical religions,
very much in the later sense and spirit of Feuerbach and Marx
himself. I wish we had time to examine Hegel's remarkably
resourceful evocations of Indian ornament and Egyptian hieroglyph,
which return over and over again like leitmotiven in
Hegel's lifework, and offer the ultimate clues as to his own
conception of the figural and figuration as such.
The more familiar version of all this, however, the one you
know already from so many carefully controlled contemporary
approaches to a single local zone of Hegel's system, is our old
friend the pyramid: the mass of matter in which somewhere a
little spark of living spirit dwells; that monumental outer shape
whose very form - too vast to articulate the differentiations of
concrete thinking as such - nonetheless designates, as over some
immense distance, the indwelling presence of the form of
consciousness itself. Body and spirit no doubt; matter and mind;
except that it would be better to say that these barren conceptual
oppositions and dual isms ultimately derive from the deadend
of religious figuration, than that, the other way around,
Hegel's notion of the problematical structure of religion replicates
and reproduces the most banal inherited philosophical
stereotype of the tradition.
What happens now, however, is unexpected: instead of the
logical and predictable outcome - that matter would simply
transcend itself in spirit, that figuration would disengage itself
from its material trappings and at once into abstract thought as
such - the next step is one in which figuration is as it were
distracted in its ultimate mission and destiny and mired even
more dangerously within matter and the body itself. It is the
moment of the Greeks - of classical art - which scandalously
erupts and disrupts the teleology of human history and the
movement from Asia to Western Europe, from the great Other
of the Eastern religions and empires to the masterful centred
self of Western philosophy and capitalist industrial production.
The Romans fit that scheme, but not the Greeks, who offer a
dangerous and tantalizing, misleading vision of the new and
ultimate human age: of a world in which only human measure
obtains and the human body itself constitutes the very source
and fountainhead of political philosophy; a kind of corporeal
humanism in which the secret Pythagorean harmonies of the
golden mean suggest a rationality of the human body itself and
its proportions, and for the briefest of instants delude us into
thinking that the final form of a truly human world and of an
achieved philosophy has been reached.
Hegel must denounce the idolatry of this outcome, in order
to get history moving again; he must throw a sop to the classical
passions of his contemporaries, while gently prodding them to
move on, and quietly but insistently reminding them that
Christianity still remains on the agenda, along with Tacitus's
Germania, and breathes a peremptory authority capable of
surmounting and overriding all such lingering classical
As for Christianity itself, and the now dominant Germanic
fact of Western Europe, it is important to remember that for
Hegel and his contemporaries, it is scarcely even to be thought
of as a religion any longer: its triadic obsessions and trinitarian
logics pass via the Reformation over into the abstractions of
German classical philosophy, of the objective idealism of
Hegel's own generation, sufficiently trained in dead theological
categories and their immanent dialectical movement, to defiguralize
all that faint persistent sacred decoration at the speed
of the Cartesian coup de pouce into the henceforth secular
profundities of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel himself. It is the
tortured individual body of Christ2 that will serve as the
decompression chamber through which a generation obsessed
with Greek bodies disintoxicates itself and passes over into the
rather different pleasures and satisfactions of abstraction as
such, and what these Germans call the Absolute: the individual
body was not really meaningful after all, but rather the human
collectivity, with whose apotheosis Marx will complete the
Hegelian system, stalled on its way to the end of history by the
unexpected regression of the ultramodern Prussian state into
despotic and fanatical reaction.
Thus, ChristIanity seems to dissolve fairly effortlessly into
classical German philosophy, j ust as the Germanic tribal tradition
seems to lead directly into modernity itself: if you place
Luther and Protestantism squarely in the middle of this historical
development, the idea may seem less parochial, let alone
chauvinistic. But there is clearly a problem with the final stage
of Hegel's tripartite scheme: what he calls the Romantic form
of art. It is a formal problem: to begin with, he needs this stage
to constitute a dialectical climax to the Aesthetics. Whatever
kind of historical narrative the dialectic may have been - and it
was certainly as fresh and stunningly paradoxical in its day as
the competing historical narratives of Derridean supplementarity
or Freudian Nachtraglichkeit in our own - it clearly required
the third stage in some satisfying sense as fully to realize the
preceding ones as to dissolve them and pass on into something
Christianity, again, will provide the hinge on which an
unconvincing solution is arranged: for medieval art can now
stand as the strong content of the Romantic form, as the most
original raw material of this aesthetic modernity; while the
medieval nostalgia of the contemporary German Romantics -
the Schlegels, whom Hegel hated, the converts who confused
Italy with Roman Catholicism, the Nazarene painters and the
various exiles southward of the Alps - these weak survivals of a
medieval Roman Catholic culture that was genuinely 'Romantic'
( or modern, in the broader sense of Hegel's world history)
help prove the point by fastening art helplessly to an inescapable
medieval and Christian mission, while testifying to the debility
of such nostalgic revivals in the present day (let's say 1 820 or
so) and thereby demonstrating the urgency of a transition into
some dialectically new and different era, and the claims of
philosophy to replace this sorry aesthetic floundering with
something more vigorous and decisive. The ambiguity extends
into Hegel's very use of the word Romantic, not generally a
positive epithet under his pen: those for whom the German
Romantics, and in particular Friedrich Schlegel again, have
today come to be seen as precursors of peculiarly contemporary
practices and thoughts of our own, will have no great trouble
maliciously diagnosing Hegel's distaste for the Romantics as the
anxiety of competition and the prescient sense of the dangers
offered by Romantic irony and self-consciousness to the sway
and claims posed by the dialectic itself.
In any case, whatever reading one chooses to make of Hegel's
final stage of art, few historical prognoses have been so disastrously
wrong. Whatever the validity of Hegel's feelings about
Romanticism, those currents which led on into what has come
to be called modernism are thereby surely to be identified with
one of the most remarkable flourishings of the arts in all of
human history. Whatever the 'end of art' may mean for us,
therefore, it was emphatically not on the agenda in Hegel's own
time. And, as far as the other part of the prophecy was
concerned, the supersession of art by philosophy, he could not
have chosen a worse historical moment for this pronouncement
either; indeed, if we follow the practice of Hegel and his
contemporaries in identifying philosophy with system as such,
then few will wish to deny that in that sense, far from being a
forerunner of a truly philosophical age, Hegel was rather the
last philosopher in the tradition: and this in two senses, by being
utterly subsumed and transfigured in and by Marxism as a kind
of post-philosophy, and also by having occupied this philosophical
terrain so completely as to leave all later purely philosophical
efforts (which in our own time have come rather to be
identified as theory) to constitute so many local guerrilla raids
and anti-philosophical therapies, from Nietzsche to pragmatism,
from Wittgenstein to deconstruction.
Yet there is another sense in which Hegel was right and truly
prophetic 􀛵bout all this, and it is this secret truth, this moment
of truth in the utterly aberrant and seemingly misguided, that
we must now try to grasp. 'Philosophy,' said Adorno, in one of
his most famous aphorisms, 'philosophy, which once seemed
obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed'.
It is true that the 'end of philosophy' did not figure among our
official topics here, but Adorno's extraordinary remark offers a
richer picture of the 'end' of something than anything we have
hitherto confronted: an end which is a realization, which can be
missed, and whose omission results in little more than a sorry
afterlife and second-best, which is however still essential (the
other 'end' of philosophy, as far as Adorno was concerned, the
supersession of philosophy by positivism and anti-theory, is for
him so pernicious as to call forth 'critical theory' as a way of
keeping the negative alive in a period in which praxis, the unity
of the negative and the positive, itself seems suspended) .
All o f which i s to say that i t was History, rather than Hegel,
that was wrong: from this perspective the dissolution of art into
philosophy implies a different kind of 'end' of philosophy - its
diffusion and expansion into all the realms of social life in such
8 1
a way that it is no longer a separate discipline but the very air
we breathe and the very substance of the public sphere itself
and of the collectivity. It ends, in other words, not by becoming
nothing, but by becoming everything: the path not taken by
Perhaps in that case it is worth asking how, according to
Hegel, art itself should have ended in this triumph, which is also
another kind of end, of philosophy as such, and which did not
happen. 'Just as art', Hegel says,3 'has its " before " in nature
and the finite spheres of life, so too it has an " after" , i.e., a
region which in turn transcends art's way of apprehending and
representing the Absolute. For art still has a limit in itself and
thereby passes over into higher forms of consciousness. This
limitation determines, after all, the position which we are
accustomed to assign to art in our contemporary life. For us art
counts no longer as the highest mode in which truth fashions an
existence for itself '; and he goes on to evoke the Islamic and
Judaic ban on graven images, along with Plato's critique of art,
as the historical motive force for mistrust of figuration which
will fulfil itself in the 'end of art' . But Hegel's very language
warns us not to take this formulation too literally either, as
meaning the utter disappearance of art as such. Indeed, Peter
Burger has written much of interest, speculating on the types of
decorative artistic productions (Dutch still lifes, for example)
which Hegel thought would survive the 'end of art' and furnish
or embellish the lifeworld of a stage of realized philosophy.
Yet the crucial sentence suggests something rather different:
'For us art no longer counts as the highest mode in which truth
fashions an existence for itself [die hochste Weise, in welcher
die Wahrheit sich Existenz verschafft] ,. This is the sentence that
alerts us to a reversal of Hegel's judgment by History which is
as dramatic as the one Adorno's dictum underscored for philosophy
itself: for surely what has defined modernism in the arts
above all is that it laid peremptory claim to a unique mode 'of
apprehending and representing the Absolute' and that it was
indeed for us or at least wished to be for us par excellence 'the
highest mode in which truth claws its way into existence' (to
give a somewhat different rendering) . Modernism very precisely
found its authority in the relativization of the various philosoph-
ical codes and languages, in their humiliation by the development
of the natural sciences, and in the intensifying critiques of
abstraction and instrumental reason inspired by the experiences
of the industrial city.
But the ways in which the authority of philosophy was
weakened and undermined cannot be said to have simply
allowed art to develop and persist alongside it, as some alternative
path to an Absolute whose questionable authority remained
intact. In this sense Hegel was absolutely right: an event took
place, the event he planned to call 'the end of art'. And as a
constitutive feature of that event, in fact a certain art ended.
What did not conform to Hegel's prognosis was the supersession
of art by philosophy itself: rather, a new and different kind of
art suddenly appeared to take philosophy's place after the end
of the old one, and to usurp all of philosophy's claims to the
Absolute, to being the 'highest mode in which truth manages to
come into being'. This was the art we call modernism: and it
means that in order to account for Hegel's mistake, we need to
posit two kinds of art with wholly different functions and claims
on truth.
Or rather, we do not need to, because those two types of art
had already been theorized and codified in Hegel's day, and we
have already commented on the rather suspicious nature of his
dealings with the theory in question, which as you will already
have guessed is that of the distinction between the Beautiful and
the Sublime. I agree with any number of commentators - but
perhaps Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has put it most strongly -
that what we call modernism is in the long run to be identified
with the Sublime itself. Modernism aspires to the Sublime as to
its very essence, which we may call trans-aesthetic, insofar as it
lays a claim to the Absolute, that is, it believes that in order to
be art at all, art must be something beyond art. Kant's account
- a peculiar afterthought and codicil to his more conventional
thoughts on Beauty - amounts to an extraordinary premonition
of modern art in a period in which little enough else foreshadowed
it, and might fruitfully be re-explored for its implications
for both the philosophical (he calls it 'moral') and the effective
dimensions of the modern generally. That is unfortunately not
something we can pursue any further here, where it is rather a
8 3
somewhat different consequence that must be underscored:
namely that the art whose 'end' Hegel foresaw is, in the light of
Kant, to be identified as Beauty. It is the Beautiful that comes to
an end in this significant event, but what takes its place is finally
not philosophy, as Hegel thought, but rather the Sublime itself,
or in other words the aesthetic of the modern or the transaesthetic
if you prefer. And of course, very much in the spirit of Peter
Biirger's suggestion, this supersession is accompanied by a lowlevel
persistence and reproduction of any number of secondary
forms of the Beautiful in all the traditional senses; the Beautiful
now as decoration, without any claim to truth or to a special
relationship with the Absolute.
But if you have been willing to go this far, perhaps you will
be prepared to take another step further, or rather a leap, into
our own time, or rather our own yesterday, of the 1 960s and
the happenings, and that particular contemporary 'end of art',
to which it is time to return. Now, however, I think that we are
in a better position to identify this particular 'end of something':
it can only be the end of the modern itself, or in other words
the end of the Sublime, the dissolution of art's vocation to reach
the Absolute. It should be clear, then, that whatever this
particular historical event is, it will scarcely present much
similarity to that older and earlier 'end of art' in which
philosophy failed to live up to its historic vocation, and in
which it was left to the Sublime to supplant the merely Beautiful.
The end of the modern, the gradual setting in place of postmodernity
over several decades, has been an epochal event in its
own right whose changing and shifting evaluations merit some
study in themselves.
I was going to say, for example, that this second 'end of art'
was scarcely to be imagined as having opened the way to the
final realm of philosophy any more than its very different
nineteenth-century equivalent had. But if you think of the
dissolution of the modern as a lengthy cultural process, which
began in the 1 960s, and whose 1 9 80s' unveiling as a new gilded
age does not perhaps give us its final word either, then other
conjectures and historical interpretations seem possible as well.
What for example of the emergence of Theory, as that seemed
to supplant traditional literature from the 1960s onwards, and
to extend across a broad range of disciplines, from philosophy
to anthropology, from linguistics to sociology, effacing their
boundaries in an immense dedifferentiation and inaugurating
that long-postponed moment as well in which a Marxism that
had established its credentials as an analysis of political economy
finally earned its right to new ones in the analysis of
superstructures, of culture and ideology? This grand moment of
Theory (which some claim now also to have ended) in fact
confirmed Hegel's premonitions by taking as its central theme
the dynamics of representation itself: one cannot imagine a
classical Hegelian supersession of art by philosophy otherwise
than by just such a return of consciousness (and self-consciousness)
back on the figuration and the figural dynamics that
constitute the aesthetic, in order to dissolve those into the broad
daylight and transparency of praxis itself. The 'end of art' of
this period, the waning of the modern, was not merely marked
by the slow disappearance of all the great auteurs who signed
modernism in its grandest period from 1 9 1 0 to 1 955; it was
also accompanied by the emergence of all those now equally
famous names from Levi-Strauss to Lacan, from Barthes to
Derrida and Baudrillard, that adorn the heroic age of Theory
itself. The transition was not characterized by an abrupt shifting
of gears, in which a preoccupation with the narrative sublime,
for example, suddenly gave way jarringly to a return to the
study of logical categories: rather Theory emerged from the
aesthetic itself, from the culture of the modern, and it is only in
the dreary light of, the old anti-intellectual distinction between
the critical and the creative that the movement from Mayakovsky
to Jakobson will seem a downward curve, or that from
Brecht to Barthes, or from Joyce to Eco, from Proust to Deleuze.
In these senses, then, and with the significant replacement of
the term philosophy by that of theory, perhaps it might be
argued, about this particular contemporary 'end of art', that
Hegel was not so terribly wrong after all; and that the event in
question could at least partially be grasped as a dissolution of
figuration at its most intense into a newer form of lucidity
which unlike the older philosophical system now attempted to
make a place for praxis itself.
If so, however, then the description is only partially correct,
and the setting in place of the postmodern also has another
dimension to which we have not yet done justice. For Hegel's
transitional schema involves the fate of several terms: the
function of the Sublime, the modern, of the one half of art, is
taken over by Theory; but this also leaves room for the survival
of art's other half, namely the Beautiful, which now invests the
cultural realm at the moment in which the production of the
modern has gradually dried up. This is the other face of
postmodernity, the return of Beauty and the decorative, in the
place of the older modern Sublime, the abandonment by art of
the quest for the Absolute or of truth claims and its redefinition
as a source of sheer pleasure and gratification (rather than, as in
the modern, of jouissance) . Both Theory and the Beautiful are
constituent elements of that 'end of art' which was the postmodern:
but they tend to block each other out in such a way that
the seventies appeared to be the age of Theory, where the
eighties revealed itself as the moment of garish cultural selfindulgence
and consumption (which began indeed to include
signed and commodified Theory itself in its lavish feasts) .
Art thus, in this new age, seems t o have sunk back t o the
older culinary status it enjoyed before the dominance of the
Sublime: yet we must remember that in those days, which are
still largely filled with the processes of secularization and with
the replacement of a feudal or cultic ancien regime culture with
a bourgeois one, the field of culture is still shared by even more
ancient forms of religious figuration, which have in our own
time utterly vanished as such. We must therefore add a significant
qualification to this identification to postmodernism with
Kant's and Burke's conception of the Beautiful: this has to do
with education, the public sphere, and the cybernetic or informational
age; and it requires us to underscore a remarkable
historic development in our own time, namely the immense
expansion of culture and commodification into all these fields -
politics and economics, for example - from which it was so
rightly differentiated in the daily life of the modern period. The
great movement of dedifferentiation of postmodernity has in
other words once again effaced these boundaries (and, as has
been said, makes the cultural economic at the same time that it
turns the economic into so many forms of culture) . This is why
8 6
it seems appropriate to evoke an immense acculturation of daily
life and the social generally in our own postmodern moment;
and also what justifies prophetic descriptions of our society as
the society of the spectacle or of the image - for I would want
to argue more generally that this acculturation has taken
essentially spatial forms which we tend, crudely and not
altogether accurately, to identify as visual. This is not the
position generally held, I think, by those who either deplore or
celebrate 'an end of art' identified with the end of literature, the
canon, or reading as such, and superseded by mass culture in
general - a non-Hegelian and moralizing position which generally
fails to describe the new moment in a systemic way. But the
return of the Beautiful in the postmodern must be seen as just
such a systemic dominant: a colonization of reality generally by
spatial and visual forms which is at one and the same time a
commodification of that same intensively colonized reality on a
world-wide scale. Whether the Sublime, and its successor
Theory, have that capacity hinted at by Kant, to restore the
philosophical component of such postmodernity, and to crack
open the comQ,lodification implicit in the Beautiful, is a question
I have not even begun to explore; but it is a question and a
problem which is, I hope, a little different from the alternative
we have thought we were faced with until now: namely whether,
if you prefer modernism, it is conceivable, let alone possible, to
go back to the modern as such, after its dissolution into full
postmodernity: And the new question is also a question about
Theory itself, and whether it can persist and flourish without
simply turning back into an older technical philosophy whose
limits and obsolescence were already visible in the nineteenth
But now we need to move on to an even more complicated
topic - one that turns, not merely on the end of art, but
seemingly, on the end of everything; namely the so-called 'end
of history' itself. We have unfortunately no time to retrace the
fascinating story of this motif: which originates in a certain
'epochality' in Hegel, his sense that a whole new unparalleled
era was beginning; which is then readapted by the Russian
emigre Alexandre Kojeve - an admirer of Stalin and later on an
architect of the European Common Market and the European
8 7
Economic Community, whose 1 930s lectures on Hegel are often
credited as the source for what came to be called 'existential
Marxism'; finally, the version of 'the idea with which [Francis]
Fukuyama startled the world's j ournalists in the summer of
19 89', as Perry Anderson puts it - in short, the notion that at
the end of the Cold War capitalism and the market could be
declared the final form of human history itself, a notion to
which piquancy was added by the position of Fukuyama in
George Bush's State Department. Fortunately, however, the
history of this concept has been written as definitively as anyone
might now wish, in Anderson's book A Zone of Engagement,4
so that we do not have to review the details here, as entertaining
as that might be.
Two features of the story need to be retained, however, and
both relate to historical materialism. Those conversant with a
materialist and dialectical interpretation of history will for one
thing not be likely to make the more naive objection to
Fukuyama, namely that, in spite of everything, history does go
on, there continue to be events and in particular wars, nothing
seems to have stopped, everything seems to be getting worse,
etc., etc. But insofar as Marx evoked his version of the end of
history at all, it was with two qualifications: first, he spoke not
of the end of history, but of the end of prehistory; that is to say,
of the arrival of a period in which the human collectivity is in
control of its own destiny, in which history is a form of
collective praxis, and no longer subject to the non-human
determinisms either of nature and scarcity, or of the market and
money. And, second, he imagined this end of prehistory not in
terms of events or individual actions but in terms of systems or
better still (his word) modes of production. (Nor did he teach
the inevitability of any particular outcome; a famous phrase
evokes the possibility of 'the mutual ruin of the contending
classes' - a rather different end of history, surely - while the
equally famous alternative of 'socialism or barbarism' obviously
includes a fateful warning and an appeal to human freedom.)
Still, the Marxist view, that of the supersession of one mode of
production by another, by insisting on radical difference
between that kind of systemic event and those events which are
more ordinary historical actions or happenings, makes it clear
8 8
how history would be expected to continue eventfully even after
the radical change of socio-economic systems or modes of
production themselves.
Oddly enough, however, neither Fukuyama nor Kojeve argue
for their ends of history in that historical-materialist or systemic
way: indeed for people accustomed to the more materialist
Hegel of the early Jena economic writings or of the Hegel taken
up into Marx himself, they serve as a useful reminder of another
basically idealist (if not necessarily conservative) side of Hegel
(and perhaps even of existential Marxism) , namely that which,
via the struggle between master and slave, insists on the motor
of history as a struggle for recognition. Kojeve's insistence on
the Hegelian motif of 'satisfaction' ( Befriedigung), his consequent
(almost Girardian) emphasis on the results of social
equality and the end of hierarchy, turn the triumph of capitalism
back into social psychology and existentialism rather than the
superiority of the mode of production itself. Later theorists
combine 'the two motifs that Kojeve had opposed as alternatives:
no longer a civilisation of either consumption or style, but
of their inten:hangeability - the dance of commodities as bal
masque of libidinal intensities' .5 But Fukuyama's identification
of democratic institutions and the market, scarcely an original
one even in itself, returns us to social psychology and may stand
as a challenge to contemporary or postmodern, late-capitalist
Marxism to work up a properly materialist analysis of commodity
consumption as well as of the group rivalries of the struggle
for recognition 􀀌 consumerism and ethnic civil wars - which
together characterize our own particular era. Marxist theory
needs to provide interpretations of all these things - of ideology
and class struggle, of culture and the operation of the superstructures
- on the vaster scale of contemporary globalization.
The spirit of the analyses will have a continuity with the older
ones, so triumphantly elaborated at the end of the modern
period: but the terms will necessarily be new and fresh, given
the novelties of the enlarged capitalist world market which they
are designed to explain.
I believe, however, that the historical significance of Fukuyama's
essay is not really to be found in Hegel or Kojeve, even
though I also think we have something to learn from them:
namely, a relationship to our own present which I will call
'epochality' and by way of which we defend the historical
meaning and significance of the present moment and the present
age against all claims of the past and the future. And this is all
the more significant a lesson given the splendours of the
preceding period of modernity against which we find it so
difficult to defend ourselves, preferring to ward off the
unpleasant feeling of being epigones by means of sheer historical
amnesia and the stifling of the sense of history itself. To work
out a relationship to the modern which neither amounts to a
nostalgic call to return to it nor an oedipal denunciation of its
repressive insufficiencies - this is a rich mission for our historicity,
and success in it might help us to recover some sense of the
future as well as of the possibilities of genuine change.
But the usefulness of Fukuyama does not lie in that particular
direction, I think: rather it is to be found by juxtaposition with
another influential American essay that appeared almost exactly
one hundred years earlier, in 1 8 93, and which equally spelled
out the end of something. This is to suggest that, despite the
appearances, Fukuyama's 'end of history' is not really about
Time at all, but rather about Space; and that the anxieties it so
powerfully invests and expresses, to which it gives such usable
figuration, are not unconscious worries about the future or
about Time: they express the feeling of the constriction of Space
in the new world system; they bespeak the closing of another
and more fundamental frontier in the new world market of
globalization and of the transnational corporations. Frederick
Jackson Turner's famous essay, 'The Frontier in American
History',6 is thus a better analogy; and the impossibility to
imagine a future to which Fukuyama's conception of the 'end
of history' gives voice is the result of new and more fundamental
spatial limits, not as a result of the end of the Cold War or of
the failure of socialism, as rather of the entrance of capitalism
into a new third stage and its consequent penetration of as yet
uncommodified parts of the world which make it difficult to
imagine any further enlargement of the system. As far as
socialism is concerned, a different Marx (that of the Grundrisse
rather than that of Capital ) always insisted that it would not be
on the agenda until the world market had reached its limits and
things and labour power became universally commodified. We
are today far closer to that situation than in the time of either
Marx or Lenin.
But the notion of the 'end of history' also expresses a blockage
of the historical imagination, and we need to see more clearly
how that is so, and how it ends up seeming to offer only this
particular concept as a viable alternative. It seems to me
particularly significant that the emergence of late capitalism (or
in other words of a third stage of capitalism) , along with the
consequent collapse of the communist systems in the East,
coincided with a generalized and planetary ecological disaster.
It is not particularly the rise of the ecological movements that I
have in mind here (despite the environmental excesses of Soviet
forced modernization, the measures demanded by any consequent
ecological movement could surely only be enforced by a
strong socialist government) ; rather, it is the end of a Promethean
conception of production that seems to me significant, in
the way in which it makes it difficult for people today to
continue to imagine development as a conquest of nature. At
the when the market suffuses the world, in other
words, and penetrates the hitherto uncommodified zones of
former colonies, further development becomes unthinkable on
account of a general ( and quite justified) turn away from the
older heroic forms of productivity and extraction. At the
moment, in other words, when the limits of the globe are
reached, notions of intensive development become impossible
to contemplate; the end of expansion and old-fashioned imperialism
is not accompanied by any viable alternative of internal
Meanwhile, the second feature of the new situation that
blocks our imagination of the future, lies in its sheer systematicity:
in the way in which, with the cybernetic and informational
revolutions and their consequences for marketing and finance,
the entire world is suddenly sewn up into a total system from
which no one can secede. It is enough to think of Samir Amin's
suggestive term 'delinking' - opting out of the world system -
to measure the resistance of our imaginations to this possibility.
These two blocks, then - the taboo on Prometheanism and
on the value of intensive development and industrialization; the
impossibility of imagining a secession from the new world
system and a political and social, as well as economic, delinking
from it - these spatial dilemmas are what immobilize our
imaginative picture of global space today, and conjure up as
their sequel the vision that Fukuyama calls the 'end of history',
and the final triumph of the market as such. Turner's pronouncement
about the closing of the frontier still offered the
possibility of an imperialist expansion beyond the borders of
the now saturated continental United States; Fukuyama 's prophecy
expresses the impossibility of imagining an equivalent for
that safety valve, nor even of an intensive turn back inside the
system either, and this is why it was so powerful an ideologeme,
an ideological expression and representation of our current
dilemmas. How the various 'ends of art' are now to be coordinated
philosophically and theoretically with this new 'closing'
of the global frontier of capitalism is our more fundamental
question, and the horizon of all literary and cultural study in
our time. This, with which I now have to end, is where we
ought to begin.