The Genealogy of Neoliberal Capitalism and the Atlantic Slave Trade

A few days ago I came across Long Sunday, a group blog whose contributors write, for the most part, on continental theory writ large. Reading the posts there have taken a while because the comments are often magisterial in length (not unlike some of the posts here at SM!)

Quite frankly I am jaw-drop amazed at the high level of discussion there and I am glad I came across this wonderful site. I have been on-and-off following the individual blogs of some of the contributors (such as Fort Kant, Charlotte Street), but having one place to go to get my RSS feed fix will be convenient.

One particular post, begun by Jodi Dean, caught my attention. She has launched a learned discussion about the ways in which neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy of Capital as the Real. Taking cue from Slavoj Zizek‘s concept of the imaginary real, she suggests that this neoliberalist fantasy is so sublime (and subliminal) that when disguised in the language of the Symbolic (economic laws, for example) it tends to obfuscate the institutional violence of state power at both the national and international levels.

Here’s a long quote from this post, which neatly summarizes a paper she has made available online titled “Enjoying Neoliberalism“:

Zizek argues that Capital is Real in several senses: it is the ‘positive condition of hegemonic struggle’ (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 319), it ‘sets a limit to resignification,’ and it determines “the structure of the material social processes themselves’ (Ticklish Subject, 276). But, to assert that Capital is Real is to embrace neoliberal ideology, to accept its premises without a struggle, without inquiry into how neoliberal faith in the market has come to produce a sense of its own inevitability. What is necessary, then, is an account of the neoliberal imaginary allied with the Real.

One might want to claim that Zizek’s elaboration of the Real in terms of an imaginary Real, a symbolic Real, and a real Real and his specification of capital as a symbolic Real (one that operates in terms of basic formulae or persists as an underlying structure) contributes to thinking about capitalism insofar as it points to a logic determining and distorting, that is, forming, the basic matrix of contemporary socio-political life. I disagree. The specification of capital as formulae invests economics with a scientific status, with the ability to formulate laws or truths about the world that tell us how the world functions. Such an investment occludes and naturalizes the roles of governments, both as national states and as international organizations, in creating property rights, establishing corporations, producing a functioning tax system, and sustaining and militarily defending the very infrastructure necessary for business.

As I understand her argument, neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy around the very notions that guarantee it, such as free trade, private property rights, the right for governments to tax and enforce regulation, etc. These elements of neoliberal capitalism, however, are backed by the state’s fundamental power to mete out punishment. In her short essay she explores this idea through a sharp analysis of the shopaholic and the criminal as two prominent subject positions in neoliberal capitalism.

In her discussion she takes Zizek to task for downplaying the role of disciplinary power in neoliberal capitalism while overemphasizing the truimph of unfettered exchange-value. She asks:

How is that we have been taken in by capital? That we find ourselves so entrenched in it that escape seems impossible, a step into oblivion?

To answer this question, Alphonse van Worden, another blogger at the site, delves into the history of the Atlantic slave trade. If Dean argues that neoliberal capitalism produces a sublime fantasy around the institutions of state power, for Alphonse this resonates specifically with the genealogy of emancipatory politics (she brings up the transatlantic slave trade) as integral to understanding the legacy of private property rights.

She makes sure to explain the process of inversion whereby the initial calls for liberating slaves, which were initially a response to the traumatic encounter with the horrors of industrial capitalism, had been usurped by Capital itself in the form of liberal economic thought. For this inversion to be convincing, however, required not only “the revival of antique narratives and the fanstastic and the fabulous” but also the twisting of the political mythology from an image of freedom to that of bondage. This is why she says:

Its a head-exploding irony that the modern concept of ‘freedom’ upon which the idea of ‘free trade’ is built and which is the fairy in its shell was first embodied in sugar industry slaves, who were physically the ‘freedom’ of their proprietors.

Reading this exchange I immediately thought of a parallel discussion about the theory of labor power in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, which was mentioned in the commentary (Alphonse also mentions Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution, which I did not know of but sounds fascinating from a comparativist perspective.)

I am quite enthralled by this bringing together of Zizekian musings on neoliberal capitalism and what seems to me as a more “British Cultural Marxist” look at the history of industrial capitalism. Although I am not fully convinced of Dean’s critique of Zizek (but then she’s read much more Zizek than I have, so who am I to say this), this move to ground a critique of neoliberalism in a nuanced historical materialist sort of analysis is promising. If anything, it blasts through the comforting mythology of neoliberal capitalism that we (or I should really say “I” to be less presumptuous) often wrap ourselves in by tuning into the emancipatory potential of one’s encouters with the acute economic and political inequalities that exist today. This engagement with the Real is for me at the heart of the ethnographic encounter — and perhaps is part of my answer to oneman’s discussion about the disciplinary “moral core” of anthropology.

This discussion also brings back some of the key theoretical issues in the anthropology of political economy (the work of Sidney Mintz immediately comes to mind). It also touches on the anthropology of law, which in rent years has been energized through a double-whammy of Giorgio Agamben‘s reappraisal of Foucault’s theory of biopolitics and the critique of neoliberalism from what I see as a more Anglo-American take on the politics of recognition.

19 thoughts on “The Genealogy of Neoliberal Capitalism and the Atlantic Slave Trade

  1. Pingback: Keywords
  2. Pingback: The Old Revolution
  3. Very interesting. This has some echoes of a talk I saw by David Harvey a couple of weeks ago at the Marxism 2005 conference here in London. He actually looked at the historical lineage of Neoliberalism, locating one of its most important sources in the municipal government of New York City in the mid-1970s.

    There was a good discussion and also some interesting stuff about the more ideological aspects of Neoliberalism, but I would have to look at the notes I took to go into that in any detail. Perhaps when I dig them out…

    I still haven’t read anything by Harvey and they sold out of his books at the conference too!

  4. Kotaji, great hearing from you here on Savage Minds!

    David Harvey’s talk sounds like it is related. And right on too, because I saw him talk on a panel here in New York about a year ago in a conference on imperialism, and he was accompanied by Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose book I referred to in the post.

    The discussion on Long Sunday made me realize that “freedom” is one of the key concepts of our age. It is probably as powerful as what “God” or “the Church” might have meant in pre-industrial Europe.

    So yes, I can see how New York in the mid-1970s could be one of the birthplaces of neoliberalism, since the city is the Mecca of freedom in so many ways. Freedom of financial capital on one level and the “freedom” given to the poor in the form of abandonment to the urban elements, drugs, gang warfare, etc.

    BTW I wonder if his talk was part of this forthcoming book?

  5. I like the project of opening out the ideological and indeed culture-making aspects of “neoliberalism,” though I confess I know too little of Zizek to keep track of all the Reals.

    But a more basic question. What exactly *is* the object of analysis, and how is it manifest to us? “Neoliberalism” seems to be treated as a sort of world-spirit, as an obvious thing whose presence can be clearly seen in different times and places, and in the post above the key move seems to be to “neoliberal capitalism” which then opens up the larger object of “capitalism,” but that in turn gets conflated with a great deal of economic history and indeed a lot of diverse things associated with economy. In any case, when we get a statement like “Neoliberalism is based on the fantasy of free trade,” what exactly is its epistemological status?

    Jodi Dean’s paper looks smart and pulls many interesting things together, but paragraphs 2-4 are a highly schematic, and almost gestural, account that conflates theory, policy, and ideology. Even the theory, which should be directly accessible to any scholar, is instead treated only through one or two layers of commentators. One should always be suspicious when a writer says “as is well known” and provides almost no cites.

    If we are talking about economic theory, there are ways to study that. If we are talking about ideology or actual actions by governments there are ways to study those. I certainly would not assume that these levels map to each other, or even cohere, under a single term. This sort of question should be of interest to anthropologists, who have thought quite a lot about culture and its manifestations in practice, and about how one gathers and assesses evidence about those things.

  6. Marx attacked the notion of capital as “real” in Volume One of Capital, with his discussion of “commodity fetishism.” But for him it was very important to accept the reality of markets. For Marx ideology does not reside in the purely imaginary, but in the actual experience of market relations which serves to make the unequal social relations of production appear as the equal relation between things. I worry that theories of ideology which stray too far from actual experiences begin to sound like “false consciousness.” It isn’t just that reality intrudes to impose itself upon the myth of markets, but markets themselves serve to shape those myths. (As do the rational-legal apparati which serve to maintain the so-called “freedom” of the market.)

  7. Colin: You have a great point about how the term “neoliberalism” is bantered about without much specificity, or even sometimes historicity. I know that economists mean something specific with that term, and I often hesitate using this word mainly because I don’t really know what it might exactly mean.

    So I appreciated your suggestion of separating the “political” elements of neliberalism from its “economic” components. In terms of methodology, it might make better sense to compartmentalize so as to make the analysis easier.

    But doesn’t Marx suggest that unequal economic relationships both ground and are grounded by political power? I think that is one main reason why anthropologists are so drawn to Marx.

    Kerim: I’ve been trying to come up with ways to respond to your comments, but I’m not sure how to do it. Here it goes anyway.

    It fascinates me that what you’re saying resembles Jodi Dean’s critique of Zizek (though you cut to the chase). She feels that Zizek does not account for the disciplinary powers that constrain people, and you warn of analyses that “stray too far from actual experience.”

    But doesn’t your critique fetishize “actual experience”? Just as you point out that Marx saw the commodity as effecting an illusion of reality, wouldn’t it be possible to argue that the market also creates a semblance of “actual experience” which is in fact only appearance?

    If we are to agree that it is this illusion that undergirds our sense of reality, and if this reality is one in which unequal social relations are cast as equal, then perhaps the very concept of equality is an effect of the market. And only things (or people) that are “actual” can be compared with other things so that relationships of equality and inequality can be imagined between them.

    So all this comes to the question of what exactly is “actual experience”? What is the status of “the actual experience of the market” when the market too is robbed of its ontological certainty under the regime of exchange value? For me this is where a theorist like Zizek is, as they say, good for thought.

  8. When I speak of “actual experience” I am really speaking of the limits/constraints/structuring forces of that experience. Lets take an example:

    If you are a worker, you sign a contract with your employer. That contract is shaped by law and by the market. Both of those are based on the fiction that your contract is entered into “freely” and is equitable. We know that the contract is unequitable, and is sometimes even coercive. However, the actual experience of this disjunction between myth and reality will vary tremendously from person to person depending on their individual situation. Someone in mid-level management may feel that they are able to barter their skills for their true value on the marketplace, while an illegal migrant laborer may be working in very different conditions.

    Our ability to imagine the market as real is therefore circumcribed by the constraints of our own experience. These constraints have sociological consequences. We can, for instance, find a correlation between attitudes towards globalization and free markets dependant and people’s class status (it is one factor among many).

    Do you have a citation for Jodi Dean’s work? I’m not familiar with that.

  9. Yes Tak, the talk Harvey gave was based I believe on his forthcoming book (the one they sold out of was ‘The New Imperialism’).

    The thing about NYC was to do with the fact that the city went bankrupt in 1975 and a special management company was brought in to strip out the waste, free from democratic interference. He sees this (the primacy of financial institutions over democratic ones) and the creation of a ‘good business environment’ (eg corporate welfare) as the two main principles of neoliberalism. And they could already be found in 70s NYC, before the SAPs and all that.

    Looking back over my notes there were many interesting points, but the part that is perhaps pertinent here is what he said about neoliberalism’s ideological hold. How, he asked, does neoliberalism maintain its legitimacy in the face of massive evidence of the impoverishment it causes around the world? The most obvious answer is the rightwing media apparatus dominated by big corporations, but at another level, Harvey points out the work done by rightwing thinktanks, who have been working on legitimising the ideas of neoliberalism since the 60s.

    Beyond this though, Harvey sees something in the very structure of neoliberalism itself that aids its own legitimation. In other words, the structure of neoliberalism being highly competitive, volatile and unstable, legitimates its own ideology of the ‘need to be competitive’. And this permeates right through to the individual in society who increasingly feels the {real) need to be competitive in the marketplace. (I think this is similar to the point Kerim is making above).

    Another point he made was that there is a big gap between the ideology of neoliberalism and its practise – in fact strict neoliberal theorists frequently criticise the US state and its role in the economy. I think this is quite a good point actually – it is clear that US administrations (including this one) are not neoliberal fundamentalists and can be protectionist when they see the need. They are pragmatists and for them neoliberalism is a tool (though admittedly they probably buy some of its ideology).

    Final point: David Harvey made an interesting observation about the way that neoliberal-style discourse has entered other fields and even areas that might be considered the domain of the left. In this light human rights discourse can be seen as related to neoliberal ideology. That’s to say that much of the opposition to neoliberalism has now come to be expressed in semi-neoliberal terms.

  10. Hello Tak:

    Just to be clear, I’m mainly trying to get a handle on how Dean’s paper uses the term.

    I’d respectfully dissent from your gloss on my earlier post as a “suggestion of separating the “political” elements of neoliberalism from its “economic” components.”

    Rather, I want to back up a step or two more, and ask what makes us think that there *is* a thing there, called neoliberalism, that has different “components.” I can point to various discursive contexts in which the term arises and in which it does different work (including in papers like Dean’s!) but it does not follow that there is a single underlying *thing* that we’re analyzing. Same problem with the term “globalization.”


    “But doesn’t Marx suggest that unequal economic relationships both ground and are grounded by political power? I think that is one main reason why anthropologists are so drawn to Marx.”

    Why your “But”? Why exactly is Marx’s suggestion in opposition to mine?

    Best, Colin

  11. What if these terms are “indexical” — that is, they simultaneously anchor and depend on context? This would explain why they are both so difficult to pin down and yet inescapably useful.
    ie, they are terms like you/me, that/then, here/there…. it’s impossible to have a conversation without them and yet they are not at all amenable to fixed definition.
    It feels (to me anyway) that anthropologists spend a lot of time beating one another up about this kind of thing, “what exactly do you mean when you say globalization, neoliberalism, modernity, tradition, nature, culture…” (the list is endless) when really the inquiree is trying desperately to talk about something *else* and is using the term under fire as a placeholder, to make sure everyone is on the same page more or less, before they turn to their real point.
    to put it another way, it’s *always* a good question, which sort of means it’s never all *that* good a question… or that’s my feeling, anyway.

  12. Kerim: The Jodi Dean paper is “Enjoying Neoliberalism.” And the way I understand her use of the Foucauldian term “discipline,” it seems like your emphasis on the constraining structures of the political economy resembles her critique of Zizek.

    Ozma: “The Indexicality of Neoliberalism” will probably make for a great journal article!

    Kotaji: Thanks for your clear and concise report on Harvey’s lecture! Right I think why neoliberalist discourse is so attractive to so many people is a promise of equality for all. At least that is what the ideologues tell us, although as Harvey seemed to have noted that even the United States has never implemeneted a pure neoliberal policy.

    BTW I sense that this discussion is related to Ozma’s post on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I think there is a silent nod to Social Darwinism in neoliberalist ideology. Just like the way Diamond relies on genetics to almost justify vast social inequalities along the line of race (according to Ozma), neoliberalism takes economic unevenness and justifies it by claiming the fairness of the market. Because the market treats everyone equally neoliberalism is just and all the devastating consequences too are sanctioned by the invisible hand of god.

    Colin: I apologize for my misunderstanding your comment. My placing you in opposition to Marx was also a result of my misreading. Thanks for the correction!

    On that note, I welcome your pursuit of trying to get a hold of what “neoliberalism” really means. I think we both agree that the term, as it is often used, is amorphous. And as you rightly point out, it denotes something different in different discursive contexts.

    One way “neoliberalism” has been used is to denote some dramatic change in the global political economy from the late 70s, spurred by the fixing of the U.S. dollar to the gold standard at Bretton Woods right after World War II and the creation of institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which were designed to regulate the world economy. (BTW I visited Bretton Woods in New Hampshire last winter…cool place).

    Colin, do you think that Jodi Dean’s references to “neoliberalism” is related to this post World-War II configuration of the global political economy? And if so, which aspects? I think you’re earlier mention of a “world spirit” is right on — something like the Weberian spirit of neoliberal capitalism — but I’d love to hear more about that from you.

    In anthropology, neoliberalism has taken on a specific set of meanings. First and foremost it has to do with the ideology (or the culture) of what is often referred to as late modernity or late capitalism: how certain apparati of the state and the market have produced neoliberal subjects (for example, the special issue of Public Culture edited by Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff titled Millenial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism). Anthropological studies of neoliberalism was spurred also in part by the book The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, and therefore focuses on the way state policies and markets impinge on individuals and their daily life.

    But as always with anthropology certain theories are associated with certain regions, and in this case the studies of neoliberalism has clustered around post-socialist states and developing countries (these countries are often one and the same). The literature has emerged in part as a way to make sense of capitalism in the wake of the socialist state (see, for example, this seminar by Harry West at SOAS, and book such as ) and the failure of economic development plans in “Third Word” countries (see for example Crude Chronicles by Suzana Sawyer and The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson). For example, I haven’t seen any mention of neoliberalism in the anthropological literature on Japan, my current regional focus.

    [This page has some good links, including a paper by Wendy Larner titled “Neo-Liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality” (a pdf file). I welcome the citing of other sites and writings for reference]

  13. Just to clarify — Jared Diamond may be guilty of many things, but he is certainly *not* guilty of using genetic differences to explain the historical trajectories of different societies. It’s more complicated than that; yes, he puts the causal motor in nature but in geography/environment, not genes.

  14. Ozma: re

    “when really the inquiree is trying desperately to talk about something else and is using the term under fire as a placeholder, to make sure everyone is on the same page more or less, before they turn to their real point.”

    I agree that’s what’s often going on. The problem is that the placeholder and “real point” are not logically independent — a lot of assumptions can be smuggled in via the placeholder. In other words there are problems with the “same page” that are avoided in this maneuver. “Neoliberalism” might indeed be indexical — it’s an interesting hypothesis — but that would be a far more severe criticism than the one I offered!

  15. all I was saying, Colin, is that one could spend *all day* on those kinds of questions, just as people of a certain philosophical cast of mind can spend all day thinking about how the introjection of a “you” makes possible the consciousness of an “I”, but what grounds this really, and what are the implications, and how do they fundamentally constrain any possible kind of relational exchange?

    If it is obvious the speaker is really trying to get to another point, to which s/he will never arrive if importuned to resolve these kinds of bottomless Big Questions, I usually feel like strangling posers of queries along the lines of “but what do you mean by ‘the modern’?” But I’ll concede that that just could be my own cantankerousness in operation.

  16. To Tak: There are a number of changes in the 1970s and a variety of terms used to describe them. One obvious marker is the end of the older fixed exchange rate system, and we could work backward to what caused that and forward from its consequences. But “neoliberalism” seems a poor description for the exchange-rate drama of 1971-73, which was accompanied by rather illiberal policies in much of the world (e.g. Nixon’s price controls).

    “Neoliberalism” is a term that, as far as I can tell, comes out of Latin America in the 1980s. Here’s my earliest cite for the term: Foxley, Alejandro. 1982. “Experimentos neoliberales en América Latina”, Colección Estudios CIEPLAN, nº 7 (especial), Santiago, marzo. Has anyone got an earlier one?

    There are various intellectual sources; I would give a lot of weight to Latin American and Indian economists who for various reasons turned against planning and protection in the late 1960s and 1970s. And there are more popular versions, like Hernando de Soto’s _Other Path_, (1986) and Vargas Llosa’s 1990 presidential campaign; Margaret Thatcher is also a critical immediate precursor because she figured out how to win elections on anti-state rhetoric.

    In any case there *is* a set of dense connections between theory, policy argument, ideology, and political rhetoric that one can trace out around “neoliberalism”, but it’s a mainly 1980’s (and since) phenomenon with various intellectual precursors, not least of which is 19th century liberalism. One can also try to connect this discursive complex with actions by governments and other actors over the last couple of decades, but it’s not easy – you can’t read off policy or material reality from political rhetoric. One of the things I learned from work in Mexico a bit over a decade ago is that “neoliberalism” can stand for a lot of different things and is often a rather indeterminate sign.

    So I resist blowing the term up and using it as an obvious description of a material reality, especially of an alleged unified global reality over some period of time. (My reference to a “world spirit” was *not* meant as praise!) I doubt that “global political economy” is like an insect going through distinct morphological stages.

    I’m not sure what Jodi Dean meant by “neoliberalism,” on my reading the term seemed rather elastic. Re anthro etc., I suggest that the same logical problems that afflict the uses of “neoliberalism” afflict “late modernity,” “late capitalism,” “globalization,” “modernity,” “postmodernity,” and a number of other terms that are often, as Ozma acutely suggested, placeholders – often placeholders for history.

    Yes, the governmentality literature contains useful work, in fact I ran across a great paper yesterday: Jakob Vestergaard: “The Asian crisis and the shaping of
    ‘proper’ economies” Cambridge Journal of Economics 2004, 28, 809–827 which draws on it. But there’s a ton of work still to be done to link those insights up to international economy, especially to a notion of a global economy with clear stages. Most of the existing governmentality lit tends to be about a rather small number of countries.

    Have people been reading Anna Tsing’s excellent _Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection_? I’ve found it very helpful, and a useful antidote to a lot of the above-noted problems. It might be a useful basis for further discussion. I’m also just finishing Lisa Rofel’s _Other Modernities_, which strikes me as a good model for taking a powerful term (in this case, “modern,”) and paying close attention to what people are doing when they use it, but without assuming that it refers in an obvious or straightforward way to a state of the world.

  17. Ozma: You are welcome, then, to demonstrate that the term “neoliberalism” is inessential to Jodi Dean’s paper “Enjoying Neoliberalism” (that’s our context) and that she “is really trying to get to another point”. That certainly wasn’t “obvious” to me.

    And if “modern” *or any other term* is integral to the logic of someone’s argument they should be able to defend it. If a category is not essential drop it.

  18. Hi Colin,

    I cheerfully admit that I have not read Jodi Dean’s paper. But I still maintain that this kind of critique is among the easiest to make so should only sparingly be used. It’s a special favorite at talks — you can basically arrive at a 1 pm talk, go into a glazed-eye stupor, and at 1:40 when the speaker stops for questions launch into a “how do you define ‘globalization'” question, complete with supercilious glower, thereby appearing dashingly intellectual without having listened to anything else the speaker has said.

    Asking anyone to be able to substantively defend every last one of their categories is a mug’s game. Anybody can do it. One can endlessly withhold approval: “oh, but I hardly think that covers all the relevant aspects of globalization, now does it?” and thus keep a death grip on the upper hand (pardon the mixed metaphor). I’m sorry, I honestly do believe it is the preferred intellectual gambit of intellectual scoundrels. That’s not necessarily a crack at you — maybe you don’t pull this move on a regular basis. But if you do, well, in the immortal words of shania twain, it don’t impress me much.

  19. Colin, I just downloaded the Vestergaard essay and it is definitely helpful. To pick up just one of many sections I found useful, as it pertains to the discursive construct of “freedom”:

    Once we see that the post-Washington Consensus marks a revival of liberalism rather than a departure from it, we are also able to see that freedom and government are not opposites, though this is the common assumption in modern, liberal societies. This was a key tenet of Michel Foucault’s analysis of liberalism. The developments depicted in this paper confirm this general observation, strongly suggesting that the further economic freedom is extended, the more economic government is required. We need, however, to move beyond simplistic ideas about the relationship between freedom and government. We need to differentiate our notion of freedom as well as our notion of government, and research in more detail their actual and possible future configurations.

    Thanks also for your perspective on economic history of the 70s and 80s. Reading your comment it occurred to me that perhaps neoliberalism is often conflated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed triumph of U.S.-dominated global economy.

    And yes, I have read Anna Tsing’s new book Friction. I too enjoyed the book. The writing is characteristically exquisite and the way she weaves theory with ethnographic description is top-notch. I haven’t read Lisa Rofel’s Other Modernities but I have heard good things about it. Perhaps it might be worth a separate post.

    Now onto the question of “neoliberalism” as an empty placeholder. I’m afraid I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, but when I proposed the title “Indexicality of Neoliberalism” in response to you, Ozma, I was actually thinking of Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, in which the Marxist literary critic argues that the term “modernity” is not a historical period but a narrative category that has to do with time and with the break with its own future.

    Right at the beginning of this short book he mentions that “modernity” may be understood as a linguistic shifter since it means “now” in the original latin modernus and the word to denote the present moment is a shifter prevalent in most languages. Yet he quickly dismisses this argument as reductionist because shifters, according to Hegel, uncritically (and probably undialectically) assumes the philosophical validity of “immediacy.” I lose him here, so let me I quote him in full before I further embarrass myself:

    It can be argued that ‘modern’ demands to be ranged under the category of what Jesperson called ‘shifters’: namely those empty vehicles of ‘deixis’ or reference to the context of the enunciation, whose meaning and content vary from speaker to speaker throughout time. Such are the pronouns (I, Me and you), the words for place (here and there), and of course the time-words (now and them). In fact, well before modern linguistics, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit famously opens with a discussion of precisely such shifters, which as he points out might at first seem the most concrete words of all, until we grasp their portable variability. Yet shifters exist, however incoherent they may be philosophically; and the well-known case of yesterday’s ‘modern’ fashions suggest that the term ‘modern’ might well be included among them. In that case, however, the paradoxes of the modern are reduced to those of the merely new; and the existence of shigers in every known language tends to deprive our current object of inquiry of even that historicality that it was the merit of the preceding model to have underscored. (p.19)

    And here is Jameson’s footnote to Hegel:

    G.W.F. Hegel, Phaenomenologie des Geistes, A-1, on ‘Sense certainty’. The entire work is a polemic against ‘immediacy’; this opening section constitutes a refutation of the latter’s concreteness.

    As a postscript here, I don’t think it is a coincidence that we begin with Zizek’s writing on the Real (as always that which is impossible) and arrive at Hegel’s critique of the immediacy of indexes.

  20. I take it Jameson is saying, if we say the term “modern” is just a shifter, then we’ve indeed solved the problem of having to nail down what it is (by throwing up our hands and saying we can’t solve it)
    that’s a cop-out, because with that logic we might as well not historicize anything.

    I think that depends on what one is up to. If you are a historian and give a talk entitled “this is my big talk in which I will tell the audience what modernity is”, well, sure, you can’t say,

    “it’s a shifter, let’s all go home.” People would be well within their rights to call you lazy.

    On the other hand, if you are an anthropologist and give a talk entitled “Modern methods of oratory among traditional Oopdeedoo speakers”, then I think it’s totally okay to use the terms modern and traditional as place-holders, because really your main point is elsewhere. and if people respond by tuning out the substantive parts of what you have to say but nailing you down on the modern (or the traditional) thing, well, they are being a lazy audience.

    I’m not gonna touch the Zizek/Hegel thing with a 10 foot pole… 😉

  21. Tak: (1) Yes, and what this reflection on the Berlin Wall and so forth shows is that “neoliberalism” may be used as a way of gesturing at History, and it’s a gesture that often has the unfortunate result of compressing history into a single process, in a Hegelian manner. (2) One of the difficulties with “modern” is that it’s used both as a naive synonym for “contemporary” and as an invocation of a complex ideology, albeit an ideology that many of its adherents do not recognize as such. (If one indexically means “this time” versus “that time,” there is no harm just specifying the times.) I’d think that a reading of J. Fabian, who is commonly mentioned here, would illuminate the relevant issues. Since modern is often used explicitly-or-implicitly as part of the dyads traditional|modern or primitive|modern, the underlying question is what work, if any, the ideology of modernity is doing in any particular text, and you would agree that one has to work that out by means of careful reading of the particular text. Jameson’s text is actually a prime example of deep-rooted and deeply-problematic modernist ideology, but doing that would take us too far off track. Aijaz Ahmad’s famous discussion of Jameson in _In Theory_ is a good place to start, and Spivak also has some acute remarks on him in _Critique of Postcolonial Reason_.

Comments are closed.