links for 2007-06-01
What Are We, Chopped Liver?

TPM Cafe: Intellectual Claim-Jumping Watch

I have a serious problem with David Ruccio's showing up here with Economics Outside the Mainstream | TPMCafe. Let me tell you why. We need a little intellectual backstory: Fredric Jameson is a powerful, brilliant, provcative, and thought-provoking cultural critic. The arguments he makes in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism about the relationship between cultural forms and the shape of material life at the end of the twentieth century may be right and may be wrong, may be fruitful and may turn out to be dead ends, but are certainly worth exploring--are properly part of anyone's optimally-diversified intellectual portfolio. Jameson has taken his ideas and hung the word "postmodernism" on them as an identifying label.

Now come David Ruccio and Jack Amariglio (2003), Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 5: It needs to be said straightaway that we do not pursue an approach that sees postmodernisms as a particular world-historical phase, Nothing in our treatment invokes the "postmodern" as the latest stage in "late capitalist" (or "post-Fordist") economics, and especially the process of "globalization."

The main reason for our neglect of this approach is that we reject its basic premises, first, that capitalism has morphed within the past half century into a distinct socioeconomic phase captured by the concept of "late capitalism" and, second, that "postmodernism" as a noneconomic phenomenon illustrates the existence of such a phase, or that postmodernism refers to a historical rupture in the global economy. Since our main objective is to address the ways in which postmodernism currently appears, or could guide new developments, within the discipline of academic economics, we have chosen not to elaborate our objections to this line of thought.

Still, this work is ubiquitous in the fields "outside" of academic economics, a few words on it will put the rest of our analysis into clearer relief. It is not our aim to disparage this literature or to dissuade economists from interacting with it. To the contrary, economists should read it, partly because its picture of present world economic circumstances is so far from the mainstream neoclassical orthodoxy (and so much loser to heterodox, especially Marxist, views), that it can be engaged productively as a bona fide challenge, not only to that orthodoxy, but to cross-disciplinary dialogue. Our own interests in postmodernism and its contributions to the field of economincs, though, lie elsewhere.

The best known advocate of the "late capitalist" approach is the literary and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. Jameson (1991) captures the flavor of treating postmodernisn as the cultural form of the latest phase of capitalist development in his frequent reference to three identifying aspects of "late capitalism": mass communication, a shift in the location and conditions of global production, and the rise of new industries (mostly in information technologies) that allow for the unbroken worldwide expansion of capitalist markets and, hence, profitability...

Let me translate this into English:

  • Everybody else uses "postmodern" to mean one thing.
  • We don't: we object to everybody else's meaning of "postmodern."
  • We won't tell you why we object to everybody else's meaning of "postmodern."
  • Even though we object to it, we don't want to disparage everybody else's work on "postmodernism."
  • In fact, we think economists should read this literature on "postmodernism" that we object to--but do not disparage.
  • Fredric Jameson had considerable intellectual success defining and investigating "postmodernism" as a particular cultural style--a reflection of the changes in the economic base of society brought about by globalization and by the rise of mass communications.
  • We're going to pull off an intellectual claim-jump on Jameson's word.
  • We're going to grab some of the intellectual excitement and voltage that Jameson has generated and loaded into "postmodernism."
  • We're going to do pull this energy over to our side by redefining Jameson's word, and using it as a label for our stuff, which is very different from his, which we object to.

Elementary discourse ethics and intellectual honor demand that Jameson be better treated: "postmodern" is his concept, with a meaning that he has given it, and that meaning should be respected.