It seems that above all, the question of postmodernity -- which question
is now several decades old, as the term first appeared in a C. Wright
Mills essay in the 1960s -- is the question of style *as constitutive*.
The notion "constitutive", as it is used today by analytic philosophers,
first appeared in Kant's *Critique of Pure Reason* as "regulative
principles of reason": under this heading Kant included notions
pertaining to causality and materiality without which everyday
observations about the world could not be coherently thought. It is
used to good effect by Donald Davidson in discussing the philosophy of
psychology deriving from Bayesian decision theory/marginal-utility
economics, but has also appeared in a more sinister aspect as a dike
against the "fashionable nonsense" associated with the French
intellectual Sixties and Seventies.
Without seeking to completely "overdetermine" the apple cart, I will
begin by saying that this seems to completely miss the point of that
period's "new Nietzsche", which was to point out the amalgam of
modernism and mass culture had already made style an integral part of
the cognitive environs and that existentialist plainsong fell back
behind its own object. But what is this to us today? Honestly, nearly
everything, and in no very pleasing way; but there are a few cultural
landmarks (and recent aesthetic techniques) which suggest that a bit of
aesthetic apperception is still possible, and I would like to suggest
that something more rewarding than "reconciliation of the spirit with
itself" can be on the agenda as a result. With what does consideration
of "post-postmodernity" have to begin?
The answer I can come up with is "the reflexive closure of futurity",
but this requires some explanation as it is unlikely to please anyone.
The philosophy of time is an abysmal subdiscipline, from which tense
logics deserve to thoroughly liberated; but in this essay I will develop
these themes by considering the work of Niklas Luhmann, whose work is
still not as well-known in the United States as his work deserves to be.
This is partially because, like Juergen Habermas, Luhmann was a
follower of the sociologist Talcott Parsons, who has been almost
completely forgotten: and although one relevant essay of Luhmann's is
"The Future Cannot Begin", we cannot even begin with this until the
power of Parsons' scientific vision is understood.
Parsons' best-known work, *The Structure of Social Action*, is a
compendium of the views of "classic" sociologists: but even then Parsons
was a systematic thinker, not a systematizer, and the architectonic
dimension of his work increased over time. In fact, it seems to me
illuminating to say that the mature "systems theory" of Parsons is
*nothing but* architectonic, in contrast to the "anti-systematic"
approaches that were arising at the end of Parsons' life; Parsons' aim
was to develop the structures of social life, right down to the level of
individual experience, out of operations performed on formal automata
which play a constitutive role in social interactions. Although the end
result is often decried as arid and meaningless (and if you feel this
way about Parsons, you shouldn't read Luhmann), Parsons actually
developed many powerfully explanatory models of *trans-interactive*
social phenomena (structural features that cannot be subsumed under the
exchange of information and other delights between individuals).
Where Parsons' theory fails is in explaining "what it's like" to engage
in practical behavior in society (which encompasses both works and
days), unlike the "ethnomethodology" of the sociological Sixties in
America and Bourdieu's "reflexive sociology" of practice. Various
theories of the "micro-macro link" between social systems and
interaction were bruited in the 80s; but to me it seems that Luhmann's
Parsonsonianism is the most fruitfully considered one, because Luhmann's
program incorporates popular reflections on the "postmodern condition"
into structural-functionalism in a way sociologists in general failed to
do. For the curious, Luhmann *was* Hegel after Derrida; and thusly
examining what he has to tell us in the light of postmodern aesthetics
may be informative, if not quite as exciting.
In Germany, where he is well-read, Luhmann is often accused of being
technocratic: a very popular book containing a series of discussions
between Habermas and Luhmann was titled *Systemtheorie: Theorie der
Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie?*. But "social technology" in this
sense does not mean technology in society -- rather the understanding of
society as a sort of machine, of which the instrumental manipulation of
physical machines forms only one part. Luhmann avoided Wittgensteinian
objections to "super-rigid machines" as models of meaning not only
by not talking to Wittgensteinians, but by decentering "social physics"
from a "great chain of being" centered on the individual humanistically
considered, and constructing microsocial systems out of operations
performed upon larger ones (the largest, society in general, being a
nearly perfect analogue of the Derridean text: it is simply what no
communication is outside).
As a result, the individual that counts for social purposes -- and this
in a "constitutive" rather than "constructionist" sense -- is a
composite of characteristics acquired as *stipulated* parts of social
systems: not only "labels", but also relational properties: in the
terminology of analytic philosophy, we learn to attribute
*counterfactual* properties to people based on their utterances and
beliefs ascribed to them. We must for the purposes of social
interaction attribute some such properties, on pain of not being able
to communicate at all: this problem, posed by Parsons as "double
contingency", forms not the explicatum of Luhmann's theory of
interaction but its explicatum. The problem of double contingency is
what is preserved in observing social interaction; and preserved, not
"sublated", sublimated, or subliminated it often is in interaction itself.
This is all very enlightening to me, but a feeling people often have
reading sociological treatises (a feeling they should probably have more
often) is "What can that possibly mean?" And this is the problem of
double contingency, which I mentioned *first* in the high-sociological
style. Why? Well, as I said Luhmann's point is not that "socialization"
is the only way we can come to know other people -- perhaps we can't --
but in fact that the question of any other way does not even make sense.
From the perspective of Rousseauist concern with the authentic voice,
this seems "bass-ackward"; and this is rather clearly the intent of
Luhmann and other writers who employ such "front-loading" techniques.
Are they "problematizing" concepts, questioning widespread assumptions?
No, they are trying to get you to think of the issue in a certain
way, and by means which are devious on the printed page. So it's really
bad, even if intellectually empowering. But is there a remainder beyond
Yes; what "closure under interaction" guarantees is not that you never
learn anything new, but that there is a dimension of linguistic *power*
beyond information communicated directly or indirectly --
"perlocutionary force" -- which can be coherently thought about. And
so what the widespread realization of such a phenomenon would bring
about would be the coming of Fichte's fourth age, the age of will to
power *or science*; and this would be postmodernity. But Luhmann goes
this one further, and excludes another possibility: the concrete future.
This is not the actual future; pure postmodernists maintain
surprisingly stable beliefs about the continuity of time and
institutions, and make statements about what it is they expect will
happen in a more-or-less despairing tone. But Luhmann argued very
seriously that modernity could
only persist, not be replaced, on the grounds that thought without *real
abstractions* gathered from social systems could not occur; this is the
future which cannot begin. (Horkheimer and Adorno's prescription "the
only cure for enlightenment is more enlightenment" appears positively
Brechtian in this light.)
Well, what would such real abstractions be in a period where eternal
fixities have subsided (known to Marxist theoreticians as "late
capitalism")? *Styles*, but Luhmann's point is that even this
"aestheticist relativism" cannot be done with cognitive questions on
account of micropower, and I would like to expand that out by
considering a hopeless case: the music of the band Royal Trux.
Formed out of the ashes of the shock-art band Pussy Galore, Royal Trux
are not what you would call popular (although they had their shot); and
they have not been "much-loved", especially during their highly
experimental phase which produced such masterpieces as *Twin
Infinitives*. What they are is *much-listened-to*, such that their
tours are very popular, and furthermore *controversial*; there has
always been some stink about Royal Trux, from a $100,000 record advance
spent on heroin addiction to Jennifer Herrema's retirement from recording.
What is the aesthetic effect of the music, though? "The Trux" is
canonically *trashy*; Herrema and Hagerty travel back to their tidewater
roots so often you'd think they hadn't left. And they really haven't,
but that's not the point: the experience is such that it is clear the
style is *detachable*, and as a result young people have probably known
a undistinguished white kid or two who acted real bad for no apparent
reason. But is more going on with Royal Trux's music than that? *Yes*,
and the shift back and forth between author-function and "authorial
persona" is critical here. In their self-dubbed "Intentionality Trio"
*Thank You*/*Sweet Sixteen*/*Accelerator*, the rock landmarks
of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties are "blown up" to levels of
figuration you would not have believed possible before hearing the
records, but in the meantime an immensely realistic narrative
about the present day runs through Jennifer Herrema's "falsetto tenor"
and Hagerty's conceptualism (the band has explicitly claimed a
These are enormously unsentimental records, extremely useful for riding
things out; but before "toughness" is taken for the mark of the
*productive style* -- which enables social interaction to take on a new
conformance, such as Luhmann declares the "language of romantic love"
appearing in the early-modern era to have done -- I invite the reader to
consider another artist,
to my mind the initiator of this tendency in American popular music,
Curtis Mayfield. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions had a number of
crossover hits in the 60s, but today few people remember him as a major
figure except for those who can't forget his songs (and it is notable
that the music of *Superfly*, his best-selling solo record, is eminently
forgettable). Mayfield's role in the black cultural field was that
of creator: unlike most R&B artists he composed nearly all his own songs
(this was a selling point, such that he was sued for incorporating part
of a Holland-Dozier- Holland composition into "Can't Satisfy"), and
unlike James Brown there is a great deal of thematic variety
and *pointedness* to Mayfield songs.
Is "We're A Winner" message music? Not quite, and this point is
underscored by stage patter captured on live recordings. Is it intended
to have a formative effect? Not on the dedicated listener, but indeed
it is: and his solo recordings shift away from the onward-and-upward
thrust of Impressions records, towards a consideration of the black
community in its totality (although Mayfield is fairly well-known among
whites, it is patent that his "interlocutor" is in truth never one such)
and the black man qua individual. Mayfield is highly regarded for the
reason that he didn't just "have something to say", but something worth
saying to the point that repetition would be superfluous; Mayfield
lyrics are not catchphrases, but rather formed part of the "intuitive"
cultural framework of their period.
So, both acts demonstrate that another aesthetic goal beyond "exact
imagination", perfectly capturing the essence of a particular:
"effective reception", working a *self-chosen* change in people's
mindedness beyond the level of information communicated by making
figures available for personal use, either in language as vehicle or
language as medium of thought. And frankly, although the implications
of some work in this vein are frightening indeed, I could not imagine a
more extensive ambition for art.
Professor Irwin Corey
It was supposed to be funny but i screwed it up with typos and thanks for
not calling attention to them. The "Professor" is a comedian whose act is
to parody people like Gregory Bateson, who are fond of being long winded or
you might say overly vebose.