An ontology of the present is a science-fictional operation, in which a cosmonaut lands on a planet full of sentient, intelligent, alien beings. He tries to understand their peculiar habits: for example, their philosophers are obsessed by numerology and the being of the one and the two, while their novelists write complex narratives about the impossibility of narrating anything; their politicians meanwhile, all drawn from the wealthiest classes, publicly debate the problem of making more money by reducing the spending of the poor. It is a world which does not require a Brechtian V-effect since it is already objectively estranged. The cosmonaut, stranded for an unforeseeable period on this planet owing to faulty technology (incomprehensibility of set theory or mathemes, ignorance of computer programmes or digitality, insensibility towards hip-hop, Twitter, or bitcoins), wonders how one could ever understand what is by definition radically other; until he meets a wise old alien economist who explains that not only are the races of the two planets related, but that this one is in fact simply a later stage of his own socio-economic system (capitalism), which he was brought up to think of in two stages, whereas he has here found a third one, both different and the same. Ah, he cries, now I finally understand: this is the dialectic! Now I can write my report!

Any ontology of the present needs to be an ideological analysis as well as a phenomenological description; and as an approach to the cultural logic of a mode of production, or even of one of its stages—such as our moment of postmodernity, late capitalism, globalization, is—it needs to be historical as well (and historically and economically comparatist). This sounds complicated, and it is easier to say what such an approach should not be: it should not, for one thing, be structurally or philosophically neutral, on the order of Koselleck’s influential description of historical temporalities. But it should also not be psychological, on the order of the culture critique, which is designed to elicit moralizing judgements on the diagnosis of ‘our time’, whether that time is national or universal, as in denunciations of the so-called culture of narcissism, the me-generation, the ‘organization man’ of a somewhat earlier stage of capitalist institutionalization and bureaucratization, or the culture of consumption and consumerism of our own time, stigmatized as an addiction or a societal bulimia. All these features are no doubt valid as impressionistic sketches; but on the one hand, they thematize reified features of a much more complicated social totality, and on the other, they demand functional interpretation in order to be grasped from an ideological perspective.

So I am anxious that the account of temporality I want to offer here not be understood as one more moralizing and psychologizing critique of our culture; and also that the philosophical thematics I am working with here—that of time and temporality—not itself be reified into the fundamental level of how a culture operates. Indeed, the very word culture presents a danger, insofar as it presupposes some separate and semi-autonomous space in the social totality which can be examined by itself and then somehow reconnected with other spaces, such as the economic (or indeed such as ‘space’ itself). The advantage of a notion like ‘mode of production’ was that it suggested that all such thematizations were merely aspects or differing and alternate approaches to a social totality which can never be fully represented; or, better still, whose description and analysis always require the accompaniment of a warning about the dilemmas of representation as such. Meanwhile, of course, the very term ‘mode of production’ has itself been criticized as being ‘productivist’, a reproach which, whatever misunderstandings or bad faith it may reflect, has the merit of reminding us that linguistic reification as an inevitable process can never definitively be overcome, and that one of our fundamental problems as intellectuals is that of redescription in a new language which nonetheless marks its relationship and kinship with a specific terminological tradition, in this case Marxism.

So my thoughts on temporality here invite all kinds of misunderstandings, not least in sharing features with slogans that have been influential in other national situations as well. In France, for example, the concept of presentism, le présentisme, has become widespread since its coinage by François Hartog; while in Germany, Karl Heinz Bohrer’s notion of suddenness and the ‘ecstatic moment’ of the present, a good deal more aesthetic and philosophical than cultural, is no doubt a related thought, which should be placed in perspective by the awareness that socially West Germany (I still call it that) is a good deal more conservative developmentally than France or the United States.footnote1 Far subtler than any of these slogans are the analyses of Jean-François Lyotard, whose conception of postmodernism—the supersession of historical storytelling by ephemeral language-games—already moved in the direction of a concept of presentism. His final work on the sublime sharpened this focus in an even more interesting way: for he proposed to add temporality to Kant’s description of the sublime and to describe it as a present of shock, which arouses a waiting or anticipatory stance that nothing follows.footnote2 This is an apt formalization of revolutionary disillusionment—in many ways Lyotard became the very philosopher and theoretician of such disillusionment—and certainly has its relevance to our own moment; but it also illustrates the kind of ideological effect that thematization—in this case, an insistence on temporality—can produce.

But as the terms postmodernism and postmodernity have been abundantly criticized over the years, and have perhaps, in the rapid obsolescence of intellectual culture today, come to seem old-fashioned and out-of-date, I need to say a word about their place in my own work and why I still feel they are indispensable.

My theories of postmodernism were first developed in China, when I taught for a semester at Peking University in 1985; at that time, it was clear that there was a turn in all the arts away from the modernist tradition, which had become orthodoxy in the art world and the university, thereby forfeiting its innovative and indeed subversive power. This is not to say that the newer art—in architecture, in music, in literature, in the visual arts—did not aim at being less serious, less socially and politically ambitious, more user-friendly and entertaining; in short, for its modernist critics, more frivolous and trivial, even more commercial, than the older kind. That moment—of the art that followed the demise of modernism—is by now long past; but it is still that general style, in the arts, that people refer to when they tell you that postmodernism is over and done with. There is now, to be sure, something called postmodern philosophy (we’ll come back to it) and even, as a separate genre, the ‘postmodern novel’; but the arts have since become far more political; and insofar as the word postmodernism designated an artistic style as such, it has certainly become outmoded in the thirty years since I first used the term.

Yet I soon became aware that the word I should have used was not postmodernism but rather postmodernity: for I had in mind not a style but a historical period, one in which all kinds of things, from economics to politics, from the arts to technology, from daily life to international relations, had changed for good. Modernity, in the sense of modernization and progress, or telos, was now definitively over; and what I tried to do, along with many others, working with different terminologies no doubt, was to explore the shape of the new historical period we had begun to enter around 1980.