Late Registration: Universal Agency & the Cultural Logic of Compulsion / Cliff Mak

Paul Klee,  A Man Sinking Before the Crown (Ein Mann versinkt vor der Krone) from the series Inventions (Inventionen), 1904. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The following is part of a forum on Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

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[1.] In its mania for synthesis, the subject has forgotten to include what can never be systematized, what thwarts and resists reflection, namely, its very existence and its constitutive and mutually exclusive passions: faith and despair.

[2.] What this means, of course, is that if one knows one is in despair and seeks by one’s own means to extricate oneself from despair, one will only become more fully steeped in that despair.

—Judith Butler, “Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair” (1993), collected in Senses of the Subject (2015)


Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) concludes with a 120-page tour de force that begins with a diagnosis of the broadest political problematic of late capitalism—the insurmountable gap between micropolitics and collective action—and ends with a tentative solution via a new aesthetic that can adequately represent social totality to the postmodern (non-)subject. Jameson proposes to merge, somehow, the cognitive mapping envisioned by urban planner Kevin Lynch—wherein the “mental maps” people create of the cities in which they live only reveal their inability to do so and hence, also, their alienation—into a larger, positive ideological project. Instead of futilely pursuing any further the representation of socialist triumph in the age of late capitalism, Jameson offers the use of an asymptotic “narrative of defeat” to “even more effectively… [cause] the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit.” Like a scene, I imagine, out of Arthur Gordon Pym.



While today, over a quarter-century later, talk of “cognitive mapping” and even postmodernism itself seems quaint, the fundamental terms of Jameson’s problematic have become more urgent than ever. As exemplified by the exasperating infighting of the Democratic Party and articulated by Asad Haider’s timely book, the task now, in a time of ascendant fascism, is to clarify for the left the relationship between identity politics and collective organization. For Haider, this means discarding the enraptured individualism of identity for a new emancipatory universalism. What is seen as a “passive” or “reactive” politics of injury and victimhood must be exchanged for an “active” politics that recovers the true spirit of intersectionality and unfailingly demands freedom for everyone, untrammeled by the limitations of gender or, especially for Haider, race.



Certainly, one is beguiled by this movement from passivity to activity, but the straightforwardness with which Haider imbues it—tellingly, Haider’s major contemporary example of such active universalism is the exceptional airport protests of January 2017 against the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban—belies his book’s unacknowledged relationship to the rhetoric of complexity itself. On one hand, identity politics in the hands of campus activists has become “baroque and unnavigable” (35). (Here, Haider’s argument troublingly resembles Angela Nagle’s in Kill All Normies, another recent critique of identity politics from the left that finds it, especially in its “Tumblr-liberalism” variety, convoluted and overly fixated on victimhood.) On the other hand, identity politics routinely oversimplifies: not only, for instance, passing over the “complicated mathematics” that must go into the calculus of racially-suspect university tuition hikes but also, in its pedagogical/ideological drive, reducing race into an epistemologically “obvious” category when, implicitly, it is the opposite (race is not obvious) that is obvious to Haider (43, 46).



What Jameson helps us to remember is that the movement from passivity to activity, determinism to voluntarism, the local and particular to the systemic and back again, has always been a difficult problem to conceptualize. Even before Marx and Kant, theologians tackled the same antinomies in the language of predestination; indeed, isomorphic questions have continued to rear their head in the form of theological postmodernisms such as liberation theology and the various modern fundamentalisms, and importantly, in more traditionally modernist, modernistly traditional form, different fascisms. For Jameson, these are all reminders that religious “belief” is not just a pseudo-conceptual mystification of the structural relation of an individual to historical forces but, more specifically, even (or especially) in its most negated form, the “cornerstone of the modern and […] its most deeply cherished superstition about itself” insofar as its modernity is premised upon the valorization of its difference from pre-modern, more traditional “others.” Historical agency, in the eyes of the moderns, is still premised on the implicit belief that they have superseded other peoples’ backward reliance on belief.



But what happens when, in the era of postmodernism, the valorization of difference itself disappears, indeed when it might seem, to some, that all categories of otherness—such as race—must be left behind or, at least, drastically demoted in the name of the universal? How then should we represent the conditions of our own agency—that is, “belief”—to ourselves? The premonitions of an answer, I propose, are detectable in Jameson’s hopeful gesture towards cognitive mapping; except here what I have in mind is not exactly Lynch’s spatial mapping but rather a cognitive disposition in which spatiality has been completely exhausted and therefore the only things left to map are the mechanisms of mapping itself. It is, perhaps, now less a matter of representing our ineffective attempts to situate ourselves within a global totality and more one of grasping the inadequacies of the metalanguages and codes by which we might map in the first place.



One of the more curious aspects of Postmodernism, which Jameson treats as prima facie true or intuitive, is the frequent equation of late-capitalist consumerism to forms of individual compulsion. Thus not only is the preeminence of the photographic image in postmodern culture seen as an “addiction,” along with the general transformation of resignation to capital’s inertia into its own kind of pleasure, but critical activity itself is described as “compulsive”—both as a positive comparison in the realm of aesthetic taste and as that which is conspicuously missing in the realm of the political, a lack so pronounced that it becomes a window into our political unconscious: the “self-congratulatory rhetoric of pluralism” must reckon, Jameson writes, with its “radically incommensurable and contradictory” relationship to the “tendential immiseration of American society (filed away under the rubric of ‘drugs’).” In other words, one can’t help but come away from Jameson with the sense that postmodernism is simply the name we have given to an era in which we can’t help ourselves, both in terms of material reality and the ideological metalanguages we construct to talk around material reality. Jameson, of course, is not the first to make these kinds of comparisons, but the striking conflation of what are more readily understood in Marxist fashion as structural effects with acutely individual psychic/cognitive conditions or behaviors becomes interesting insofar as it points the way toward understanding a submerged, contemporary form of agency. Namely, a kind of apology for freedom and autonomy that rests precisely on the fantasy that all freedom has been removed, that all possible avenues of action have been determined in advance, and that therefore the only agency left is the choice between faith and despair, as if such a choice were one worth making.



As I take it, the theological is a metalanguage for negotiating the possibility and value of finite individual agency in relation to the infinite, whether this is understood as God, the social, the collective, or the historical. As Judith Butler has explicated, this comes out forcefully in Kierkegaard’s engagement with Hegel. In order to make the horizon of the infinite real to the individual, it must be made concrete. For Hegel, this means the individual synthesizing the infinite in such a way that they are able to systematically position themselves within the realm of infinite possibility. But for Kierkegaard, this means that the infinite, once psychically actualized, becomes finite and can no longer be “definable as infinite possibility.” The horizon of infinite possibility required to give meaning to individual agency at the abstract or imaginary level paradoxically becomes inaccessible the moment it is internalized at the level of an individual’s psyche and cognition and made into a knowable resource for that agency. The name Kierkegaard gives to the psychic struggle in the face of this paradox is despair; faith, on the other hand, is “precisely the affirmation that there can be no resolution.” Religious belief, of course, at least in Kierkegaard’s estimation, precipitates the movements of both faith and despair in its axiomatic assertion of the ultimate unknowability of the infinite. But what happens when, in the realm of the political, the individual believes that all avenues of possibility are, indeed, already known in advance, or, at least, prematurely deemed known, and therefore also circumscribed? What forms of agency are there left for the individual to cognize? To what avenues of action and expression do they feel themselves compelled, unable to cognize anything otherwise?



One major development in the years since Postmodernism’s publication is, of course, the Internet. This is, perhaps, not entirely unanticipated in the book: at a few points, Jameson not only gestures toward the new allegorical function of the word processor but also suggests that our postmodern experience of both capital and history is akin to being plunged into a bewildering computer game. And Alan Liu has detailed how in the years since the entirety of corporate culture has been re-organized around informational or “encoded” discourse. What we are witnessing with our specific forms of ascendant fascism, however, is the bleeding-over of the informational not just out of the corporate and into the realm of the social (i.e. social media as the material culmination of neoliberalism’s subsumption of the public within the private) but more fundamentally into the cognitive imaginary itself. From the rhetoric of the President and neoconservative pundits (many of whom aspire to a kind of intellectualism specifically defined by its repugnance towards academic systematicity and accountability) to the aesthetics of alt-right Internet trolls (see M. Ambedkar’s excellent catalogue of such forms in Post-Office Arts Journal), the prevailing fantasy is that “the Left” has left them with no choice but to react offensively, inflammatorily, violently.1 As if the byzantine, overly-intellectualized casuistries of bogeymen such as “political correctness” and “social justice warriors” (SJWs) have predestined all possible courses of action and thinking as problematic and off-limits in advance. Thus we observe not just the gaslightingly casual baldness of such rhetoric on national television but also the more-and-more focused aesthetic representations of inescapable encodedness in Internet meme culture—whether the fatalistic/nihilistic/dank despair of Pepe the melancholy stoner frog (the troll as animal disgusted by its own instinctual, non-volitional, addiction-ridden body), the alt-right trope of both SJWs and trolls themselves as “autistic” and unable to control their own actions (what distinguishes the troll in his own mind is his ability to “weaponize” his autism; Trump emerges as the troll’s champion in that his “autistic screeching” is fully actualized and therefore even free to troll his own trolls from time to time), or the more recent coinage of the “non-playable character” (NPC) as a way to describe the pre-programmed scripted-ness of the Left (the troll as protagonist in a video game; his choices are limited by the parameters of the game, but the NPC-SJW’s are even more so). It is in these domains that we should recognize a rear-guard cognitive mapping at work and reflect on the ways in which it can and must be outflanked.



What will, perhaps, be remembered as Haider’s most provocative and controversial claim is his suggestion that, far from being a merely infamous aberration, Rachel Dolezal might actually be understood as the “typical case”: “she exemplifies the consequences of reducing politics to identity performances, in which positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming political… Passing, in this sense, is a universal condition. We are all Rachel Dolezal; the infinite regress of ‘checking your privilege’ will eventually unmask everyone as inauthentic” (80-81). While I am not yet convinced that race, as a category, is so lacking in suppleness that an infinite regress through the ranks of privilege and authenticity exhausts it, we still might recognize that such a notion of race—which we can also observe at work in the rhetoric, aesthetics, and persons of similarly divisive public figures such as Kanye West or David Clarke—operates at its extreme on the fantasy that race is surmountable and adaptable insofar as it is reducible to a set of discrete, exchangeable parameters, as if one could, having mastered or played through the utility of one’s own identity, belatedly—because one has not had any choice in the matter—look up “whiteness” or “blackness” on Wikipedia and live accordingly.

Maybe we could still make it to the church steps
But first, you gon’ remember how to forget
After all these long-ass verses
I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept

—Kanye West, “Bound 2” (2013)


  1. M. Ambedkar, “The Aesthetics of the Alt-Right”, Post-Office Arts Journal (Feb 2017), http://baltimore-art.com/2017/02/11/the-aesthetics-of-the-alt-right/.