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The Long 1980s

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
p. 13 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0060

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If you’ve ever experienced an uncanny moment of recognition as the familiar tones of a Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones standard prop up a commercial between segments of your favorite television show or play beneath an advertisement prefacing a YouTube clip, then you’ve come face to face with what Jeffrey Nealon calls post-postmodernism. The first “post-” in post-postmodernism does not signify the passing, death, or waning of postmodernism, but the intensification of what cultural critic Fredric Jameson famously identified in the 1980s as a period in which culture and capitalism were collapsing into one another and beginning to share the same logic. Thus, the classic rock anthem that once defied capitalist consumption as herd mentality can now embody the rebranding of consumption as a direct route to individuality and authenticity. Buy this car and you will be young, fast, and free like no one else! The two basic responses to this collapse of culture into capitalism, for Nealon, are what help distinguish postmodernism from post-postmodernism:

I think it’s fair to say that you take a “postmodern” position if such rampant commodification remains, strictly speaking, a ‘problem’ for your analysis (in other words, if commodification functions as a conclusion or end point…). Conversely, if rampant commodification functions as a more or less neutral beginning premise for your analysis of popular culture, your position is “post-postmodern.”

While Jameson’s periodizing impulse depended largely on a negative dialectic, Nealon imagines the “post-post” in positive terms, enacting Jameson’s methodology, perhaps, but relying on an intensification of rather than an opposition to the immediate past.

Nealon’s periodizing work certainly contributes to the field of postwar literary and cultural studies where books such as Josh Toth’s The Passing of Postmodernism (2010) and Mary Holland’s Succeeding Postmodernism (2013) consider the death or life of the postmodern aesthetic in the twenty-first century. However, Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism also expands on the work of critics such as Rita Felski (Uses of Literature [2008]) who have begun to reassess the hermeneutics of suspicion as the primary mode of literary and cultural theory, and offers an alternative approach to the so-called crisis in the humanities addressed by a range of writers, from Stanley Fish (Save the World on Your Own Time [2008]) to Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities [2010]). While the scope of the book’s impact is broad, its focus is clear. Nealon is primarily concerned with how the historical shift created by the conflation of culture and capital only threatens the humanities to the extent that humanities scholars and supporters fail to realize that the one thing this new cultural economy demands is the one thing critical theory does best: innovation. The notion of a post-postmodern moment is so important for Nealon, then, because such a marker creates the necessary distance for the cultural critic to separate herself from the demystifying practices of a postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion and to establish herself as a critic of the moment, one who can read, respond, apply, and think history, literature, culture, and capital in the present.

The book is divided into two major sections, the first devoted to “Culture and Economics,” the second to “Theory Going Forward.” Lively chapters on the economic climate of the 1980s, Las Vegas, classic rock, and the corporate university illustrate the gap between the culture that scholars claim to analyze and their outmoded analytical processes in section 1. Section 2 rereads critical theory as an especially well-suited intellectual tool for adapting the humanities to the new millennial marketplace through chapters on the state of theory today, the interdisciplinarity of literary studies, and the cultural capital (or lack thereof) of literature. The structure of the book embodies the periodizing shift from postmodern to post-postmodern with a brief “Interruptive Excursus” at the beginning of the second section. Nealon uses this interruption to rethink the quintessentially postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion as a hermeneutics of “situation,” a term he borrows from an essay by Christopher Nealon. In conversation with Nietzsche and Adorno, two masters of suspicion, the excursus zeroes in on...

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