Negri on the postmodern

On Politics of Subversion. A manifesto for the Twenty-First century by Antonio Negri, trans. James Newell (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989)

Notes by Erik Empson, 2002

The argument here states that modernity is a finished project, one positive feature of the crisis of modernity being the challenge to a theodic and vanguardist idea of history, a 'progressive concatenation'. Yet there is something distinctly innovative about postmodern world, which can be understood in a far richer way than the banal and pessimistic overutres in Baudillard or Lyotard (libidinal economy) which share the notion of the postmodern as the pluralism of languages, uncertainty of judgement and distintegration of received forms of communication.

A comparison is drawn between postmodernism and the romantic reaction to the enlightenment. In asking whether postmodern is such a new romanticism, a postive and negative side are outlined. Negri is right here to pose that the negative postmodern moment is a POLITICAL crisis, moveover, one based almost completely in the culture of the left. This crisis is felt within the world of symbolic exchange, commodification and crisis of meaning. But behind this lies a deeper, philosophical or metaphysical crisis - a lack of orientation within being - in short an end to the certainty of purpose and progress.

Although eclectic, postmodernism has a descriptive power, strengthened by the collapse of disciplinary boundaries. Communication is the 'preferred realm' of postmodern because it lacks ontological reference.

"Postmodernism, then, lies in the awareness of this circularity of being, in this continuous circulation of commodities(which is so fast as to ecome indecsribable), in this complete divorce between the sense and meaning of propositions and actions, and finally in the absence of any possible way out of all this (NOtes virilio, Speed and Politics) Postmodernism is a world made up of an infinity of atoms that contingently forma an existence(and they could equally destory it); it is a symbolic, imaginary and simulated order; but there is no reality with which it can be comapred, it itself is reality."(pp 202-203)

A strong paralell can be drawn here between Negri's idea of the postmodern and the idea of the spectacle advanced in the 60s by Debord. In the latters conception, the unreal is the real, and nothing lies behind it. Negri here to seems to invoke a radical immanence to actuality, nothing in the above conception is suggestive of a realist order lying beneath the depicted surface of fragmentatary particles. Positing the contingency of this new order, paradoxically, does seem to require a causal explanation (ee). But this state of affairs is understood to be the postivie aspect of postmodernism, where human societyis faced with a new problem, one that predominates 'not only in the field of production, but also, and above all, in the field of communication.' These insights however, concerning the immense power of this transformation, must be related to real subjects, and for Negri, paradoxically, those who have gone furthest in this are the Frankfurt theorists of communication and action (Habermas, Tugendhat, Apel). These theorists have done the most to restore 'absoluteness to the linguistic and communicative perspective, identifying and describing its transcendental qualities'. (pp 203)

A familiar theme is then introduced, the transformation of productive society, the totalisation of the capitalist labour process and the transformation of society into a factory regime. These Marxian notions of real/total subsumption, perform what post-industrialism or post-fordism do for so many other postmodernisms, reaffirm an economic determination to new social forms. In Negri's sense, postmodernism does mystify this moment, as it tries to eliminate its antagonistic dynamic. The enormous contradiction of the social, which has as its basis the complete abstraction of labour, lies in the connection this has with the dissolution of singularities and the re-constitute of communal, free activity. Negri talks of Niklas Luhmann's simplification of the complexity of the political in systems theory which consists in "abstracting the antimonies which have ontological foundation, in incorporating them in a project of simulation, in short, in redefining them according to a schema which is substituitive of reality". This substition for the real tries to posit a lack of contradictions within contemporary society. Indeed this seems to characterise the postmodern, in which contemporary soceities do not solve the contraidctions of capitalism, but transpose them through notions of fluidity and communciation, into a simulated universe. Despite this, a more mature society is hinted at in the increasing richness of 'administrative approaches and juridical definitions'(206).

Strangely enough, neo-liberalism is cited as an application of the postmodern political model. Herein the state as facilator of the smooth running of the system through its liberalisation is contrasted to the fact that this process reveals its opposite: namely that atomistic individuals are not the basis of society, rather the reality behind this formality, is that of the collective individual.

In conclusion, Negri offers that postmodernism be read as the 'mystified ideology of the new collectivities'. Despite the 'ambiguity' of this project, postmodernism alludes to the 'scientific determination' of new subjectivities in a Marxian manner.(206)Characteristic of these new forms is the flexibility of te working day and intersubjective communication operating in a new spatial dimension. "The real paradox is that the more mobile and flexible the human quality is, and the more abstract the productive capacity is, the more collecitve the world and the subject are." Postmodernism reflects in real terms what the romantics documented in formal terms.

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