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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 263-278

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Remembering the Spruce Goose:
Historicism, Postmodernism, Romanticism

Alan Liu

We enter the great, white dome and gather in the reception theater. Computer-coordinated slide projectors whir to life to tell us in a rapid montage of images and voices the Story. "A success story, a driving power, a dynamic tycoon, the envy of Wall Street, a world-record-breaking pilot, the toast of the nation: a man who could make things happen," the voices recite. "Who was this man? Howard Hughes. His mission: to build the world's largest airplane. . . ."

The story draws to a close; the screen rises slowly; we walk through the space of the screen to see—alone in its black, reflecting pool—the Plane.


Whether we read Baudrillard on Disneyland, Jameson on the Hotel Bonaventure, Lyotard on the "Pacific Wall," or Virilio on Howard Hughes, we know that Southern California—more broadly, the North American Pacific Rim—has become the commonplace of the postmodern world. 1 Installed all along the arc that runs up from La Jolla through Anaheim, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Bill Gates's or David Lynch's Washington, to William Gibson's Vancouver are [End Page 263] the topoi—small as a microchip or large as the LA sprawl—of the postmodern dystopia. This dystopia appears variously on phenomenal, psychosexual, socioeconomic, and other planes as the society of "simulation," "hyperreality," "hyperspace," "depthless surface," "cyborg couplings," "flexible accumulation," "schizophrenia," "speed," and so on. Perhaps most fabulously, it appears on the historical plane as "the end of history"—as the fabled new world order, that is, where the completion of history's work rewards us with a leisure of pure representations of history modeling the past (in Jameson's words) "as fashion-plate images that entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time." 2 Postmodern buildings thus wear façades of history, postmodern cities fill with gentrified Old Townes or Retro-Malls, postmodern TV goes Nick-at-Nite, and everywhere on the LA dial we hear Oldies Rock. As Baudrillard says in his 1985 essay "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened," "History itself is or was only an immense model of simulation." 3

I wish here to install in the postmodern canon yet another Pacific Rim commonplace. But I do so to challenge the very theory of the commonplace that underlies postmodern thought. The theory is that at the center of popular culture there is a commonplace that once functioned as an agora but that is now dysfunctional—that no longer grounds the truth-difference between agora and allegory, reality and hyperreality; that fractures the universality of ethical standards; that similarly scandalizes the generality of aesthetic criteria; and that at last revokes the very language-pragmatics designed to negotiate agreement upon (and between) truth-, morality-, and art-claims. The village square of the global village, in short, has been emptied of the kind of founded, integral cognition—total cognition, we may say—that once made the sensus communis a closed circuit of the true, good, and beautiful. And so in the agora where people once spoke the mutuality of their cognition and hence recognized each other there remains only something other than total cognition.

Or more precisely (and this is the particular trauma of postmodern theory), there remains an agonic contest between two forms of other-than-total-cognition. One, the antagonist, is the Weberian regime that Lyotard names "performativity" and Habermas the "colonization of the lifeworld": the modernizing regime, in other words, that in the abeyance of total cognition reifies just one faculty of cognition, the truth-function, into an "instrumental rationality" capable of absorbing all other faculties into a bureaucratized, [End Page 264] "expert"-culture of specialized subsystems. 4 To vary upon Max Weber's "iron cage" image: society becomes something like a computer motherboard on which dedicated ethics and aesthetics chips now serve the truth-processor at the top of the instrumental hierarchy. The second form of "other-than-total-cognition" is then the tragic or sublime agonist of postmodern theory...