Fredric Jameson understands the presence of [the] sedimented historical tradition when he argues that all works of popular culture have utopian dimensions that enable them to critique contemporary power relations. But even Jameson relegates the historical work of popular culture to a ‘political unconscious’, an uncomprehending desire to give concrete form to the absent cause that might make sense out of the incoherence of a world without believable historical narratives. But the ‘empty chair’ that Jameson believes to be waiting for a future history and politics is already occupied. George Lipsitz, Time Passages footnote1
But is this what an achieved utopia looks like? Is this a successful revolution? Yes, indeed! What do you expect a ‘successful’ revolution to look like? It is paradise. Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the US is a paradise. Jean Baudrillard, America footnote2
A new, strange and remarkable era is upon us. Revolutions so long anticipated that they had grown unreal now shatter assumptions in every corner of the Left. But these are emphatically not the uprisings expected by grizzled Cold War social democrats or by ever-youthful Trotskyist dreamers. The revolutionaries can be seen crooning ‘All You Need Is Love’, perhaps phonetically, from the Bulgarian; or wearing ‘I Love New York’ sweat shirts, figuratively or literally crying out for the necessary technology and the postmodern ambience to attain a mass subjectivity that no Leftist of any description would have imagined, let alone demanded, forty years ago. Television historian-critic David Marc puts it this way: liberal intellectuals had two enemies since 1950, Communism and Television; now that Television has conquered Communism, no one quite knows what to think or do about it.footnote3
We may be forgiven if we are, under these extreme circumstances, inclined to treat Jean Baudrillard as an early guide to post-modern or post-historical space who, however, despaired too early, and on that account came to identify with the landscape which his perceptions had by now flattened out into a limitless plain. His sparkling earlier works, which marked a break with the Left’s productivist visions and in some ways summarized the New Left’s cultural insights, have ‘arrived’ at a moment when readers far from radical most appreciate their savour. A now soul-weary Baudrillard is at long last discovered
But even the trail of a comet is a part of the comet, and the glare of Baudrillard’s trajectory casts light on the ideas and events around it. We can see them best as the mirror of a ‘mass society’ critique developed in the 1950s academies and still basic to conservative or liberal hand-wringing about commercial popular culture. Coming from the other direction, a critique of Marxist traditions, Baudrillard and his fellow-thinkers brilliantly inverted the conclusions of both. They paid, however, a heavy price for this stroke. They could manage their perceptions only at an overwhelmingly symbolic level, without much feeling for class, and even less for race or gender. Theorized in this fashion, both worker and capitalist, white and non-white, male and female existed in an abstract form, just as history existed only to be swept away.
A newer school of radical thought, long in the making, can see the writings of Baudrillard (along with those of Lyotard and Castoriadis among others) as a useful and inevitable phase now ripe for transcendence. The ‘eternal present’ of postmodernism becomes a provocative ilusion whose penetration reveals a rich vein of scarcely observed micro-realities constituting nothing less than a hidden ‘inner history’ of our times.footnote4
George Lipsitz, who may be taken as a spokesman for the newer tendency, believes that the more politically consistent theoretical efforts of Fredric Jameson and others have gone far to set the scene for this next stage of interpretation, but without escaping the distancing of postmodernism discourse from either historical detail or political practice. At stake is the notorious crisis of historical memory—the extreme difficulty of recovering collective memory, and hence collective political sensibility—in the postmodern age of polyvalent
Placed against each other, America and Time Passages suggest, then, where we have been theoretically since the 1970s and where we may be going. Hardly anything will help us more in the many-sided dialogue of what we, in the West, have to contribute specifically, beyond material and moral support, to the great changes at hand in the East. Our work will also help prepare one side of our own political trajectory.