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  • Currency Exchanges: The Postmodern, Vattimo, Et Cetera, Among Other Things (Et Cetera)
  • Tony Thwaites

[O]ne of the more striking features of the postmodern is the way in which, in it, a whole range of tendential analyses of hitherto very different kinds—economic forecasts, marketing studies, culture critiques, new therapies, the (generally official) jeremiads about drugs or permissiveness, reviews of art shows or national film festivals, religious “revivals” or cults—have all coalesced into a new discursive genre, which we might as well call “postmodern theory,” and which demands some attention in its own right. It is clearly a class which is a member of its own class, and I would not want to have to decide whether the following chapters are inquiries into the nature of such “postmodern theory” or mere examples of it.

(Jameson, Postmodernism x)


Is there such a thing as the list in general, the general idea of the list? Lists, after all, resist the general as much as they hint at it. Rather than name a general and finite principle of ordering, the list gives a series of specific cases which is potentially endless. It is tempting to say that this is an endlessness in principle, but principle is precisely what the list suspends, for the moment at least, and until further notice, which we have to admit may never come. The figure of the list is asyndeton, usually defined as the absence or omission of conjunctions,1 but in fact far less committal and more slippery than either of those figures of lack might suggest. Asyndeton refuses to be drawn on lack or presence; it renders indistinguishable the absent, the present-but-unstated, the withdrawn, the obvious, the causal, the consequential and the inconsequential. The asyndetic is not what is absent so much as what refuses to go away: the nagging possibility of connection beyond mere juxtaposition. Lists are thus neither coherent nor incoherent, but work on an unstable margin somewhere between both possibilities, which haunt them both as their possibilities and as the conditions making them possible.

Nevertheless, even though the list may suggest the possibility of a general principle, all that is necessary for it to be a list is mere collocation: the minimal and obvious commonality that its elements are grouped together in this list, here, now. Happenstance perhaps. A list may be no more than a disjunct set, the meeting point for things which would share no internal necessity if it were not for the possibility that the very silence of asyndeton makes that boundary between internal and external a somewhat leaky one, subject to all sorts of osmotic exchanges. The list is provisionally (even though that provisionality is quite indefinite in its extent) held together by the very act of listing. It awaits its principle, which lies somewhere in the future and in the past, as something which is yet to be fully determined but which will be installed by this future act as having always already been there, in the will have been of the future anterior. Structurally, the necessity of the principle cannot help but be retroactive, and thus it carries within it the traces of the contingent, the adventitious. This is why, even in its arrival, this principle remains an awaiting, the purest of happenstance. Such a event need not have occurred, in the sense that it is predictable from none of the predicates of its components; but that it has occurred installs it retroactively as necessary: this is what had to happen for the present, this present, to arrive.

As John Frow points out (10), the list is one of the recurrent rhetorical devices of writing on the postmodern. It would be easy to propose a meta-list of postmodern texts which rely somewhere in their argument on the potentially inexhaustible listing of postmodern things: we would have the cultural critiques of Jameson or Lyotard, the political economy of Harvey or Aglietta, the geographics of Soja, the literary theory of Hutcheon, the celebrations of Hassan. In the list’s suspension of the principle which seems at times almost coterminous with discussion of the postmodern, it is not surprising that, as Frow says, the very...

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