PRINT April 2003


Were the ’80s the postmodern decade? The word abounded. Buildings and clothes were designed in its name. Philosophers angrily disputed its significance; critical battle lines were drawn. Great period chars were plotted like Chinese menus. But two decades after the excitement, what does po-mo look like today?

Consider the critical trajectories of Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. Both were prominent figures, quite different from one another, though each had a background in the Marxist criticism of the '30s. Writing from California, Jameson imagined the whole new era was summed up in the alienating “disorientation” one felt in hotels like John Portman's Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles. Lost in its lobby, without any “cognitive map,” Jameson found an allegory of a supposedly late phase in capitalism (coming before what?), which explained the kind of space to which French theory had unwittingly been leading us. For architecture, the art closest to capitalism, was the one best able to point out late capitalism's “totality.” Frank Gehry, for one, was not pleased; more generally, at the very moment Jameson was confidently offering his allegory, architects like Gehry were departing from so-called po-mo (quotationalist, historicist) architecture, often to rediscover modernist strategies. Indeed, the architects that the Museum of Modern Art would group together in a 1988 exhibition as “deconstructivists” (e.g. Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Peter Eisenman) were linked less by any sustained interest in Derrida than by contempt for postmodernism. Jameson, though, was unable or unwilling to give up the “totality-allegory” view of works, and in the face of this and other difficulties, he was gradually forced to admit that he no longer knew what to do with the categories modernity and postmodernity. In the absence of new works or ideas to “totalize,” he tried to look back and reassert the Marxist sources of critical theory, now itself in a late or disappointed state.

Writing from Paris, Baudrillard took a somewhat different tack. He said there was no longer any way out of “spectacle society”; it could only be “subverted” from within. To this end, his entropic fantasy of the new Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris envisioned the museum imploding with an overload of recycled products. He took the words “simulation” and “simulacrum” to describe the “Beaubourg effect”—no longer able to distinguish model from copy, we had lost any sense of reality, leaving us only with “irony,” hyperrealism, kitsch, quotation, appropriation. The notion was itself briefly appropriated by artists and critics in the ’80s, but, as this strategy waned, Baudrillard’s “panic” veered toward depression. Eventually he would reject all contemporary art (as no longer capable of “subversion”) and, joining forces with a right-wing journal, proclaim the final end, the “perfect crime.”

What do the fates of these two great po-mo theorists share? In each case there is a question of loss (of “modernity” or of “reality”) that gradually issues in the emergence of a figure that might be called the “melancholy critic.” By that I mean not only a critic who presumes that work or thought is rooted in a sense of loss or absence; what characterizes at least the po-mo variant of the melancholy critic is that his depression is compounded with a growing sense of impossibility or obsolescence; indeed, the melancholy critic makes of his sadness about his own disappearance a virtue. It is a narcissistic involution of the old idea of “melancholy” or “loss” in art or art criticism, which so often goes hand in hand with po-mo theories, leading to a kind of impasse. But as critical theory tends to become increasingly melancholy, artists find less and less use for it, eventually becoming quite indifferent, as if they were trying to forget just what the increasingly discouraged critic wants to remember at all costs.

“Especially in my country, France,” Jacques Rancière complains, “the air is thick” with “a great chorus of melancholy” bemoaning a crisis in contemporary art or in theory. Indeed, Rancière has posed the philosophical problem of aesthetics today precisely in the face of the impasses of the melancholy critic. He thinks these depressive complaints, the fierce fears of obsolescence, the talk of “ghosts” and “ends,” have in fact made little advance on the views of Jean-François Lyotard in the ’80s, arguably the creator of the very concept “postmodern.” For Rancière, Lyotard best explains “how in the last twenty years ‘aesthetics’ could become the privileged locus through which the tradition of critical thought metamorphosed into a thought of mourning.”1 According to Rancière, the way out of this lamentable situation is to rethink the very idea of “aesthetics” and the role of theory in it. We need now to “reinvent aesthetics” as Rancière earlier thought we needed to “reinvent politics” in the era of easy consensus reinforced by the end of the cold war. The problem is put in another way by Jean-Luc Nancy. He also thinks aesthetics needs to become anew what it in fact began as, a “science of the sensible,” now concerned with exposing us to what is singular and outside rather than with the internalizing “sublimation” of the Kantian “I judge.”2 For we should not imagine that aesthetics in the first instance is about norms of judgment concerning artworks or “beauty” (or “quality”). The basic problem, to be elaborated in many variants in post-Kantian aesthetics, is instead to question how thinking itself becomes “sensible”—something we can see, sense, touch, feel, something that “affects” us.

In particular, there arises a notion of a heterogeneity in our experience that is prior to the “I think” as well as the “I judge,” and so to the unities of seeing and saying and the ideas of time and space presupposed by the Kantian or transcendental subject. This notion of a presubjective “heterogeneous sensible” is then linked to the idea of something as yet “unthought” in our thinking and so to the aesthetic notion of an “unconscious” element in sensation prior to any “unity of apperception” in a thinking subject. Rancière thinks that in this link we find the core of the tradition, the “invariant” of the “regime,” of aesthetics over the last three centuries, leading up to the figure of the melancholy witness, already diagnosed by Lyotard. On this basis he tries to derive antinomies and contradictions in the notions of self-reference or autonomy, of mechanical reproduction, or of commodity-negation, declaring that the ideas of modernity or modernism founded on them are confused, derivative, of little interest today.3 But one doesn’t have to follow the details of Rancière’s analysis to grasp the problem of “reinventing aesthetics” or discovering anew links between thinking and “the sensible.”

The problem is set out early on not simply by Lyotard but also by Gilles Deleuze, who already in the ’60s sought in what he called “the being of the sensible” a new model for the relations between thinking and art, a new kind of “sense,” a new “logic,” characterized by a principle of “encounters” and experimentation in thinking and its relation to the world. It is thus no accident that Deleuze was never drawn to the melancholy themes of the loss of reality or modernity, in either its allegorical or simulationist form, or to the attempt to hold on to the avant-garde theory-group as the model for such encounters and connections. On the contrary, the problem he found in the ’80s was precisely the retreat into metaquestions of judgment—a symptom in fact of what made the decade a “weak period, a period of reaction.”4

IT IS A REMARKABLE FACT THAT DELEUZE DID NOT APPEAR IN any of the many attempts to “map the postmodern” popular at the time. He is absent from Jürgen Habermas’s rather shameless polemic against the French “neo-structuralists” in 1986 as well as Luc Ferry and Alain Renault’s misleadingly titled La pensée ’68, of the same year, both of which helped fuel a European reaction against “postmodernism.” At the same time, Deleuze’s collaborator Félix Guattari (an active participant in the events of ’68) was quite allergic to the whole idea of the postmodern, and Deleuze himself had no use for it. But if he tended to fall off the po-mo maps of the ’80s, he would later offer a whole style of thinking that did not suffer the fate of the unhappy critic bravely bearing witness to his own demise.

For a larger problem to emerge from the widening rift between art and po-mo theory was the question of how to forge fresh kinds of connections between the two, envisaging in new ways how the arts belong to the history of thought and thought to the history of art, in an aesthetic no longer based in the ideas of a disappointed allegory of totality or ironic loss of reality. Many young artists—and in a singular way, younger “experimentally minded” architects—would be drawn to the work of Deleuze for just such an aesthetic, as if he were uncannily speaking to them in altered “contemporary” circumstances; often working with new materials or “media” or with old ones in new ways, they seemed to have come across a theory they could actually use rather than simply “apply” as if fallen from the increasingly dark theoretical skies. When Okwui Enwezor says that an aim in his recent Documenta was, “in the Deleuzian sense,” to “mak[e] connections,” he draws on the model of “resonances and interferences” among disciplines, which Deleuze in fact had urged in the ’80s against the po-mo current.5

Indeed, there is a kind of “aesthetic” turn in Deleuze’s writings in the interval between the disappointing reception of Mille Plateaux in 1980 (“the time was not right for it”) and his short “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in 1990 (first published in English in October). In the latter, he first offers the picture of “resonances and interferences” between philosophy and other disciplines, later elaborated in What Is Philosophy? (1991), and poses it against the “reactive” or “impoverished” climate of the day. Thus he formulates in a new way his earlier question of an aesthetics of “powers of the sensible,” which preexist us as individuals or groups yet form part of the invention in thinking, art, and their intertwined histories. In doing so he not only raised the whole question of visibility and space in Foucault’s archival or diagrammatic art of seeing; he also showed how the problem had been pursued at the same time, especially by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, in cinematic terms. Indeed the starting point of Deleuze’s volumes on film (Cinéma 1: L’Image-mouvement [1983] and Cinéma 2: L’Image-temps [1985]) was the question of the larger “encounters” of film not simply with the history of art but also with the history of thought. How then did people invent ways to “think” with the materials, the apparatus of film, and how is such thinking also “made sensible” in other arts? Deleuze departed from “media” theories (e.g., that of McLuhan), which postulate different “sense-ratios” for the “galaxies” of books and images, asking rather how we can actually think in visual or audiovisual terms—producing singular works against a whole restrictive “training of the eye,” thus reconnecting with the problems posed by those who work with writing. For our problem is not so much that we exist in a “civilization of images” as in one of clichés, where the whole issue is one of creating singular sorts of images, in whatever materials or with whatever means available. How then did cinema after the war and in response to a new situation of empty “banality” become a laboratory to “make sensible” the existence of time (as distinct from “movement”) in our lives, inserting into our brains a whole new logic of images, able to map empty or disconnected spaces and follow aleatory encounters? How, after Pollock, did Francis Bacon take up anew Cézanne’s question of the “being of sensation” and of the space of “the figural” (as distinctive from the figurative) in painting, introducing a new neurological violence into its “logic”? And what, more generally, does the invention of such figures or images in postwar art tell us not only about the larger encounters between the arts but also about the encounters of the arts with concept, theory, science, knowledge—about an “aesthetics” of the powers of the sensible and so of the body and the brain, ultimately of philosophy itself?

In asking these questions at the time, Deleuze was at some distance from the revival of the old themes of the endgame of painting, its aesthetics of “loss” or “absence,” and its role in critical judgment. One of the most interesting developments of this larger strategy came from Thierry de Duve, who linked this theme with the fate of Clement Greenberg’s views on the medium in the turn from paint- ing in New York in the ’60s. In an archaeology of those debates, de Duve suggested, in effect, that “postmodern” is “postmedia.” For the kind of arbitrary “eclecticism” to be seen in postmodernism in fact had its sources in the turn from specific media to generic sorts of “art”; and to get out of it we thus needed to rethink the idea of medium itself. No longer identified with simple material support (why is a canvas basic to painting?), a medium should be understood to consist instead in a cluster of “conventions” of which no one is definitive or essential, that is loose enough to allow for the events of transforming “incommensurabilities” of the sort Lyotard had already found in Duchamp and his relation to painting. The result would be a new kind of aes- thetics of critical judgment in which Kant’s focus on saying “This is beautiful” would be replaced with one that would endlessly ask, “Is this art?”

Retrospectively, however, it is not clear that such “pictorial nominalism”6 shifts or changes the Kantian view enough or in the most useful way; and we might see Deleuze’s development of an aesthetic of “encounter and connections” as an alternative to it, in particular an alternative to its relation to the question of judgment in Kant. Even in the ’60s, Deleuze was in fact never drawn to the purity of media, thinking instead in terms of the unformed “materials” and “machines” in the arts in his larger aesthetic. Thus, against the supposed alternative between the Lessing-like “purity” of particular arts and the Gesamtkunstwerk, Deleuze held that “there is no work that doesn’t have its beginning or end in other art forms,” for the “encounter between two disciplines doesn’t take place where one begins to reflect on the other but when one discipline realizes that it has to resolve for itself and by its own means a problem similar to the one confronted by the other.”7 His study of film is filled with examples—close-ups as “affect-images” in cinema and “faciality” in portrait or painting; “mechanical ballet” in cinema and the new spaces of the body of the dancer. Thus he preferred Leo Steinberg’s “other criterion” of horizontality to Greenberg’s opticality, connecting the former to new sorts of spaces in cities and brains that might be explored by Merce Cunningham in dance or by Michael Snow in cinema. The larger source of this philosophical difference from an aesthetics of “Kant after Duchamp” is suggested in a note in which de Duve confides that the secret of his larger scheme is to be found in the mysteries of Mallarmé’s idea of the blank page or empty canvas—in short, of an “absence of sense.”8 Deleuze was opposed not only to this idea of “surface” but also to the larger theology of absence and reduction it presupposess.9

This is precisely the philosophical difference that separates Lyotard’s own turn to Kant and the problem of judgment, his own rediscovery of the figure of the “melancholy critic” in a “postmodern condition,” from the model Deleuze urged at the time. The situation is thus perhaps more complicated or ambiguous than Rancière lets on. For in turning to the questions of absence and judgment, Lyotard would encounter two further questions, less clear in Deleuze, that were to matter to the subsequent developments we inherit from the period—the question of critical “anamnesis” and of what is now called “the memory industry” and the question of transformations in exhibitions and their relations to the city.

In fact Lyotard grew increasingly dissatisfied over the massive preoccupation with the postmodern he had unwittingly helped to instigate; it was the larger questions of sense and judgment that interested him. Thus he tried to give up the whole idea of the postmodern but to no avail. His objections were to the kind of “total,” monolithic or usually progressivist schemes that it often supposed, which left no place for what in the present we can’t yet see or master, and instead he tried to introduce a picture of a kind of “modernity” endlessly rewritten like a palimpsest in response to unforeseeable events.10 His model for this activity, loosely drawn from a number of sources (Freud, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Augustine, Montaigne), was of a sort of endless critical anamnesis opposed to the “closure” of an objectivized, teleological, total history and the kinds of judgment associated with it. A context for this picture of our relation to the arrival of those “events” that we never stop rewriting was no doubt what Lyotard in the early ’80s called the “European anamnesis of the War”; and, overshadowed or overdetermined by Shoah, it is an aspect of his thought absorbed into the larger frame of the “memory industry.” But at the time Lyotard tried to develop the idea of this kind of witnessing in relation to his evolving ideas of the postmodern. He worried that in the new conurban “zone,” stretching around the globe and displacing the geographies of the European metropolis, there was no longer any room for critical activity, leaving the critic no other choice than to bear witness to his own obsolescence.11 Such, more generally, was the melancholy element in the larger condition with which we were confronted as critics or thinkers, a condition dominated by “new technologies” and “immateriality,” biotechnology and a kind of artifice for which there was no longer any original “nature,” which Lyotard undertook to show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985. If the exhibition “Les Immatériaux” introduced a number of new features (notably, the visitor as flaneur within the labryrinth of dioramas of postmodernity, with all paths leading to computer consoles), it was intended to demonstrate a sense of disarray that would induce in us something like Adorno’s melancholy. It is in this manner connected to the larger philosophical attempt in Lyotard to introduce the idea of absence of sense into the very idea of judgment. But there is still a kind of theological element in this as in other versions of the witness to Impossibility that Deleuze would never embrace. Instead, he wanted to pose the problem of sense and the sensible in relation to those forces that open to experimentation what is not a given in the way we see and say; absence is only the mark of the arrival of such new forces. That is why in Kant, Deleuze rejected the very introduction of the models of judge and tribunal in thinking, saying that they allowed for no critique of the forms of judgment themselves: “What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?”12

Central to the idea of the postmodern in all its variants was perhaps the idea of history itself. What the melancholy critic tried to introduce was the idea of void or absence in histories. No doubt Deleuze’s departure from this picture derives from his own way of doing the history of philosophy, of writing studies in which philosophers reemerge, refreshed, as though they were our contemporaries. Deleuze referred to the melancholy themes of the end of philosophy or the death of metaphysics, which tend to overdetermine the related aesthetic themes of the end or death of art (or of arts or media like painting and cinema), as “tiresome blather” and deplored their influence on the French philosophers of his day. He said philosophy has no “intrinsic narrative” of the sort Hegel, then Heidegger, had tried to introduce, holding on the contrary that it comes in fits and starts in relation to singular “deterritorialized” (hence often urban) conditions, and with a peculiar sort of “stratigraphic” or “geological” overlay. For those who want to get out of the impasses of critical theory today and to reinvent aesthetics, it is perhaps useful to bear in mind three larger philosophical principles Deleuze elaborated in his own way during the ’80s.

First, in rejecting the kind of intrinsic narrative found in Hegel and Heidegger, there is no question of “posthistory” but rather of practices with different rhythms and raw materials, intersecting at particular times or around particular problems, in response to unforeseeable events. Second, there are no intrinsic divisions of the senses or the mediums of the kind Greenberg found in Lessing. The great Greenbergian picture of each art defining itself by distinguishing itself from the others is only a bad way of formulating a problem in fact shared by many of the arts and developed in different ways—the problem of abstraction. The problem is thus not “dead”; it needs only to be reformulated without recourse to the notions of reduction and self-reference that Greenberg called “modernist.” Finally, metaphysical absence is not the source of either thinking or art; instead we need to think in terms of “potentials” and “inventions,” not absence and loss, in terms of life and not the retrieval of lost memories.

Perhaps finally we should be wary of big period concepts, for what’s new is rarely found in them. In the ’80s, we were told in mania or in mourning that modernity was over; in the ’90s, we were told that theory itself was either melancholy or irrelevant. Let us then set aside such pronouncements and find new ways to keep alive the kinds of encounters and connections from which new ideas come.

A contributing editor of Artforum, John Rajchman is professor of art history and director of the Modern Art master’s programs at Columbia University, New York.


1. Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000): 8, 42–43; and “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 (Mar./Apr. 2002).

2. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Thinking in a World of Ab-sense,” Art Press 281 July/Aug. 2002.

3. Rancière, cited above. Thus he argues that the problem of “medium” in fact supposes a relation of the surface to a larger partage du sensible and that the problem of “commodities” is only a variant on the attempt to suppose a sensible “difference” or “heterogeneity” to challenge the “equalizing” conditions of capitalism.

4. Gilles Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Negotiations, 1972–1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

5. Okwui Enwezor, “Documenta’s New Dimension,” interview by Tim Griffin, Art Press, June 2002, 27. “Mediators” is a good example of Deleuze’s attempt to propose the model in the face of the “reactive” climate of the ’80s.

6. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan and Thierry de Duve (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

7. Gilles Deleuze, “The Brain Is the Screen,” interview by Peter Canning, The Brain Is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema, ed. Gregory Flaxman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000): 369–74.

8. De Duve, “The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas,” in Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

9. Deleuze says one never starts with blank canvas any more than a blank brain; instead both are covered with clichés that must be scraped away to find a singular image. He develops this view in opposition to Malraux in terms of the larger question of the role of photographs in Francis Bacon’s studio in Logique de la senation.

10. Jean-François Lyotard, “Rewriting Modernity,” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991).

11. See “The Zone,” in Postmodern Fables, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). In Roland Barthes’s peculiarly autobiographical Camera Lucida (published in 1979 in France shortly before his death), we also find a version of the “melancholy witness”—the critic is left to bear witness to the deathly “ontology” of the photo in a civilization that no longer has any use or time for it (in fact, this “ontology” would become a rather familiar reference in the “memory industry,” and more generally in views on photography). What distinguishes Lyotard is to have elaborated the notion in relation less to Bazin than to Malraux—in terms of a larger kind of “museification” of the globe and the new kinds of cultural “circuits” it supposes. The resulting problem of exhibition and city is central to “Les Immatériaux.”

12. Gilles Deleuze, “To Have Done with Judgment,” in Essays Clinical and Critical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).