Editor, the Quarterly Changbi . Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Seoul National University
The following presentation was made at the Holberg Prize Symposium in Bergen, Norway, 25 November 2008, in honor of the 2008 Holberg International Memorial Prize recipient, Fredric R. Jameson. The text records the talk as it was given, assigning to footnotes those remarks in the prepared text omitted from the oral presentation. The filmed talk is to be made available at http://holbergprisen.no/fredric-r-jameson/holbergprisens-symposium-2008.html.
ⓒ Paik Nak-chung 2008
It is a great honor to be speaking at this Symposium honoring Fredric Jameson. I have written out what I have to say, because I wanted to be sure of saying it within the allotted time. I confess to you that after hearing Professor Jameson and other speakers this morning I feel a great temptation to add impromptu remarks, but I promise I’ll exercise heroic self-restraint, even omitting some lines in the prepared text.
There are three terms in my title: a singular modernity, plural postmodernisms, and a double project. I shall take them up by turns in that order, and I begin with a strong endorsement of Fredric Jameson’s idea of ‘a singular modernity’.
Behind the easy resort to such distinction is the assumption that the true aim of the June Struggle was to build ‘people’s democracy’ or socialism—or at least social democracy—in South Korea. From such a vantage point, the June 29th Declaration (by government candidate Roh Tae-woo acceding to many of the protesters’ overt demands) was nothing more than a deceptive move to prevent the full success of the popular struggle, and such interpretation turns the past twenty years into a period of thwarted hopes where the people won the shell but lost the core of democracy. In my view, this is a very one-sided interpretation of Korea’s reality. Going beyond such one-sidedness is an important task for us as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the June Struggle.
The notion of multiple modernities does have its merits. For one thing, it challenges the once-dominant ideology of ‘modernization’ as a universal and essentially uniform historical process; and for another, it explodes the monolithic view of modernity entertained by those who attempt to stand apart from the modern world and reject it in toto. While neither of these positions functions today as credible intellectual doctrines, they remain potent enough as ideological forces, especially the unquestioning valorization of modernity.
Notions of multiple or ‘alternative’ modernities, according to Jameson, represent precisely such ideological maneuvers that block fundamental questions regarding modernity. “Whatever you dislike about the latter [the hegemonic Anglo-Saxon model of modernity],” he writes in A Singular Modernity, “including the subaltern position it leaves you in, can be effaced by the reassuring and ‘cultural’ notion that you can fashion your own modernity differently, so that there can be a Latin-American kind, or an Indian kind or an African kind, and so forth. … But this is to overlook the other fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself. The standardization projected by capitalist globalization in this third or late stage of the system casts considerable doubt on all these pious hopes for cultural variety in a future world colonized by a universal market order.”
Although I have a very limited knowledge of the topic, I have noticed that capitalism itself rarely receives serious analysis in discourses of multiple or alternative modernities (including at the 2006 Holberg Symposium with Shmuel Eisenstadt ); and while modernity as a contested ground is emphasized, its contradictions are hardly mentioned. These omissions prove all the more glaring in the light of this year’s global economic crisis. Of course, so long as the system lasts, different nations, cultures and regions will cope with it in different ways, but the existence of capitalist modernity as a common problem appears more convincing than ever.
Jameson calls the ‘cultural logic’ of this third and presumably last stage of capitalism by the name of ‘postmodernism’. He also uses the word ‘postmodernity’, mostly for the current stage of capitalism but at times also for its cultural logic. This leaves us with many things to ponder and sort out. But here let me make a short digression on Jameson’s presence in South Korea’s literary and intellectual scene.
Marxism and Form was the first of six Jameson books to be published in Korean. I will not conceal my pride in the fact that it was translated by two of my pupils and issued by a publishing house I am closely associated with, Changbi Publishers. At the time of its publication (1984) South Korea was still under military dictatorship, and using the original title was out of the question, so that the Korean edition opted for the more innocuous-sounding ‘Unfolding of Dialectical Literary Theories’. Yet both in those days, when open Marxist discourse was severely suppressed, and after democratization in June 1987, when the enlarged freedom saw (among other things) a resurgence of dogmatic Marxism-Leninism, this book rendered invaluable service to South Korea’s intellectual life. Here was Jameson the great transcoder, not only working on a set of diverse codes but transcoding for an audience habituated to non-dialectical thought. Rising to that challenge gave the book its cutting edge (as Jameson himself remarked in the book’s preface), ensured its relevance to a national situation as different as South Korea’s and, in my view, gives it an enduring power even today, for “to think dialectically, to acquire the rudiments of a dialectical culture and the essential critical weapons which it provides” remains as urgent and as largely neglected a task as when knowledge of dialectical theories was far scantier.
The monumental Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is also frequently cited among us, but I would say its impact has been less profound or pointed than his earlier work (up to, say, The Political Unconscious), not only because there is no Korean edition yet, (one is forthcoming), but for other reasons too. The relative weakness in Korea of non-literary critical discourse (on architecture, film, video art, etc.) would be one of those reasons, but more crucially, there is the difficulty of discriminating Jameson’s postmodernism from aesthetic and philosophic doctrines of the more fashionable kind (whose fashion, incidentally, has by now waned in Korea), a difficulty owing considerably to the fact that the cultural objects Jameson discusses are often the same ones that the latter theorists celebrate. Indeed, it has been difficult in our situation to distinguish even the ‘modernist’ and ‘postmodernist’ features, many of which would reach our shores simultaneously and with the effect largely, though not exclusively, of colonial or neocolonial domination.
This brings me to the second term of my title, ‘plural postmodernisms’. There is no need to survey the full range of uses of the term. The crucial discrimination seems to me the one I already referred to: between Jameson’s notion and what I have called postmodernisms of the more fashionable kind, which often prove to be variants of what Jameson calls ‘late modernism’. His own postmodernism, in contrast, is based on an economic analysis (relying on Mandel) of contemporary reality as the third and last stage of capitalism, and bespeaks a political will to overcome capitalist modernity as such.
All the same, the term ‘postmodernity’ is ambiguous. It could mean the sum of all the genuinely ‘postmodernist’ features, but in that case, just as ‘modernity’ is not coterminous with ‘modernism’, one should guard against conflating ‘postmodernity’ with ‘postmodernism’. If, on the other hand, ‘postmodernity’ refers to a historical period (the current one), it may risk the danger of blurring, in Jameson’s words quoted above, “the other fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself.” Mandel’s late capitalism, as Jameson reminds us, is a stage of purer capitalism than the previous stages, but then the term ‘full modernity’ might better fit this final maturation of capitalist modernity.
Jameson’s choice of the term despite such difficulties seems to reflect his eagerness to foreground the radical break between this purer capitalism and the less pure ones of the past, and his aim of questioning modernity as such from a radical vantage point. If this be the case, rather than arguing over the terminology, we should concentrate on looking for a persuasive criterion to discriminate between what is genuinely postmodern and what is speciously so, whether in politics or culture.
I have already stated that such discrimination is extremely difficult in Korea’s peripheral or semi-peripheral condition. Not only various kinds of postmodernism, but modernism and postmodernism?indeed the whole triad of Jameson’s realism, modernism and postmodernism?have tended to be mingled in an overpowering influx from the hegemonic West. This accounts for the appeal that many Korean intellectuals have found in Lukacs’s somewhat different notion of ‘realism’ as the doctrine best suited to the task of a genuine overcoming of capitalist modernity, vs. ‘modernism’ as the doctrine amounting to a virtual (though not always self-conscious) surrender to capitalism.
Lukacs’s “ideology of modernism” actually has much in common with what Jameson designates by that name. But whereas Jameson confines it to ‘late modernism’, Lukacs not only attributes it (often with glaring injustice) to Jameson’s ‘high modernists’ but also would have it cover (with considerable justice, in my view) some of his ‘realists’?those whom Lukacs calls naturalists. We can have little doubt that, had he known the term and the figures, he would have so characterized many of Jameson’s postmodernists as well!
Specific critical discriminations aside, Lukacs’s scheme remains attractive because it speaks to the historical task that I have elsewhere defined as “the double project of simultaneously adapting to and overcoming modernity.” This double project is in fact a unified endeavor with double aspects, an inevitable option in the face of the singular modernity of worldwide capitalism. For even the work of adaptation will require for its success a coherent long-term strategy for its overcoming, while no meaningful work of overcoming can be expected from empty (and at worst pernicious) talk of abolishing modernity without learning to live through it.
In Korea’s case, the project reflects the realities of a nation forcibly incorporated into the capitalist world-system in the late nineteenth century, ravaged by colonial rule during the first half of the twentieth, then plagued by prolonged national division and attendant ills (including an internecine war and decades of dictatorship on both sides). Given such experience of modernity, simple emulation would be both impracticable and unpalatable, while a measure of modernization has been necessary even for the sake of overcoming this ruinous modernity. As a matter of fact, the principal task for the population of the Korean peninsula today?that of overcoming what I have called its ‘division system’ ?entails at once a more effective adaptation to the modern world-system and a decisive step in the worldwide endeavor to transform it.
I would now submit that the double project is not a parochial agenda confined to the periphery or semi-periphery, but a planetary one applicable to the metropolis as well. If most people in the core areas do not feel that way, the reason may lie, on one hand, in the false consciousness that adaptation is no problem to the ‘advanced nations’, and, on the other hand, in the absence of powerful social movements for overcoming modernity. But what will be the upshot? Either capitalist modernity will drag on till “the common ruin of contending classes” (The Communist Manifesto), or the double project should take on a planetary scale with a substantial input from those national and local situations where such a project enjoys a vigorous life.
In closing I should like to return to the cultural field, and suggest how Perry Anderson’s thesis in his seminal essay on “Modernity and Revolution” of a “triangulated” field of force for the flourishing of modernist art, a thesis Jameson strongly endorses, may be expanded?though at some cost to the original notion’s precision?to fit other moments of artistic achievement and, indeed, a globalized double project.
For instance, regarding Anderson’s first coordinate, “the codification of a highly formalized academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalized within official regimes of state and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes… in… pre-First World War Europe,” we may revise it to cover the nearly ubiquitous phenomena of ‘the persistence of the old regime’ and outmoded cultural forms in societies where capitalism has made considerable headway. The second coordinate, “the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution,” may also be rewritten to include fruits of both the first industrial revolution and more recent technological revolutions. As for the third coordinate, “the imaginative proximity of social revolution” (idem.), something similar may be discerned easily enough in societies other than those of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Europe.
So revised and enlarged, they are precisely the coordinates that provided the condition for the flowering of the great realist novels of Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, and (with a necessary time-lag) Dostoevsky and Tolstoy?or indeed the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth, or the German works of Goethe, Schiller and Holderlin?all of them representing struggles to cope with modernity yet rich with impulses for its overcoming. And if, as Anderson points out, in the advanced capitalist world “[i]t was the Second World War … which destroyed all three of the historical coordinates,” in numerous parts of the globe the same post-War period saw those coordinates coming to obtain, often for the first time in history. South Korea’s double project, too, owes its life to that worldwide phenomenon.
It is my hope that a truly planetary solidarity for overcoming the singular modernity may be built through dialogue and collaboration between Jameson’s project of ‘postmodernity’ and the double projects being pursued in diverse national and local situations.
This is how my prepared text ended. But with Fred’s permission, I would like to rephrase the last portion to read, “…dialogue and collaboration between Jameson’s project of ‘postmodernity’ and other double projects in diverse national and local situations.” Thank you.
 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (Verso 2002), 12-13.
 See http://www.holbergprisen.no/HP_prisen/en_hp_2006_symposium.html.
 For his understanding of this stage Jameson draws on Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (NLB 1975).
 See the bibliography in Jameson on Jameson, Duke University Press 2007, 241-46.
 Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton University Press 1971) xi.
 The first two chapters of Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity (Verso 1998) provide a sufficiently rich and incisive summary.
 Cf. Georg Lukacs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (Merlin Press 1963), ch. 1 ‘The Ideology of Modernism’. (The original for ‘modernism’, however, is Avangardemsmus.)
 A Semngular Modernemty, Part II ‘Modernism as Ideology’.
 Paik Nak-chung, “Coloniality in Korea and a South Korean Project for Overcoming Modernity,” emnterventemons: emnternatemonal journal of postcolonemal studemes vol. 2 no. 1, 2000, 79.
 Paik, op. cit., 76-78.
 A Semngular Modernemty, 134-35.
 Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement (Verso 1992), 34.
 Ibid., 37.