The Anthropocene and the End of Postmodernism

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard famously described the coming age of postmodernism as a the dissolution of grand narratives, that is, overarching schemes or horizons of thought that move the unifies social forces. “…it is possible,” he wrote, “that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge.”[1] From then on, postmodernism became a buzzword, bound up in a nebulous array of definition, counter-definition, debate, celebration, and disgust. It found its application rapidly in the worlds of art, literature, and architecture: postmodern allowed the creator to step outside the conditions of progress and time itself, blending effortlessly the old and the new, the high-brow and the low-brow, the abstract with the concrete.

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The Postmodern Condition is name-checked endlessly, yet something that seems to be repeatedly glossed over is that fact that the argument put forward by Lyotard is a discourse grounded in techno-scientific development, or more properly, an analysis of a new mode of organization emerging from within a new techno-economic paradigm[2] – that of the rise of computing power, and the regime of post-industrial capitalism that it empowered. This is clear from the book’s opening paragraph:

Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction. The pace is faster or slower depending on the country, and within countries it varies according to the sector of activity: the general situation is one of temporal disjunction which makes sketching an overview difficult. A portion of the description would necessarily be conjectural. At any rate, we know that it is unwise to put too much faith in futurology.[3]

By pointing to the 1950s as the moments in which postmodernism began its ascendancy, Lyotard is grounding his discourse in the development of the information theory and systems thinking, both interrelated byproducts of World War 2 era scientific research. In the models advanced by these theories, the lines demarcating man and machine – and nature by extension – collapse into an array of feedback loops, distributed flows, and emergent patterns following shifts from equilibria to disequilibria and back again. From one perspective these developments point towards the possibilities of new ethical formations – such was the work, for example, of Gregory Bateson, among others. Yet the sciences were born in the hull of the so-called military-industrial complex, and it was to the twin powers of war and industry and they have largely remained coupled. In elliptical fashion, Lyotard acknowledges this historical composition: coupling “society” to ‘postindustrialization’ and cultural to “postmodernism”, he argues that the “decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of the blossoming of techniques since the Second World War, which has shifted the emphasis from ends of actions to its means; it can also be seen as an effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism…”[4]

Neither of these trajectories, in fact, is capable of being separated from one another. As the history traced in Philip Mirowski’s difficult – yet essential – Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science[5] illustrates, the theories that became neoliberal capitalism were themselves honed in the military’s think-tanks alongside research into cybernetics, game theory, operations research and systems analysis, as well as the correlated evolutions in computer technology necessitated by the war effort and the demands of the rising Cold War. These trajectories broke upon unto the international stage in 1972, when the crisis of the dollar’s imminent devaluation led President Nixon (under the advice of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman) to remove the US currency from its gold standard, thereby undermining the worldwide monetary order and demolishing the international regulatory scheme arranged by the post-war Bretton Woods institutions. The result was the dizzying explosion of finance markets: without gold, global interest rates were no longer fixed, and became instead free-floating and flexible. Computerized marketplaces proliferated, opening spaces where futures contracts could be traded across a variety of international currencies. The rise of finance economies around these trading hubs played directly into the evaporating of industrial bases of the dominant world economies, and aided by dynamic modelizations and enhanced communication techniques made possibly information technologies, vast transnational supply chains cris-crossed the globe. No longer did corporations have to kowtow to the regulatory and taxation demands of the state and the costly worker protections of the unions – they now had the freedom to move anywhere in the world, seeking out the lowest possible costs for production. Under the reorganization of global economic systems through neoliberal governmentality and computerization, the largest narrative of them all – that of the state – was repurposed into something else, awash in the dizzying logistics of electronic flow and uneven planes of development.

As I have already said, economic “redeployment” in the current phase of capitalism, aided by a shift in techniques and technology, goes hand in hand with a change in the function of the State: the image of society this syndrome suggests necessitates a serious revision of the alternate approaches considered. For brevity’s sake, suffice it to say that functions of regulation, and therefore of reproduction, are being and will be further withdrawn from administrators and entrusted to machines.[6]



In the world of the machine, the human becomes something other than human and community something other than community: these body, intersected and traversed by information networks, are cyborg bodies. From a left-wing perspective, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that “Postmodern society is characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies”, and then add we must avoid nostalgia for the old, “which when not actually dangerous is at best a sign of defeat. In this sense we are indeed ‘postmodernists.’”[7] From a philosophical-theoretical perspective that shares much of the same foundations as Hardt and Negri (Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari, the celebration of the affect), Brian Massumi sees in the rise of network technology the possibility of the “bringing to full expression a prehistory of the human”, a “worlding of the human” that marks the “becoming-planetary” of the body itself.[8]

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There is a quagmire here. On one hand, we can follow the postmodern sublime into the traps of the valorization of “immaterial labor”, and engage in a dangerous optimism of a Common hidden inside neoliberalism’s shell. And on the other, the enthusiastic embrace of the possibilities in advanced technology sidesteps the pitfalls of the political deployment of these technologies. Perhaps the best thing we can do is reverse Massumi’s projection, and view the hegemony of the network (and I say ‘hegemony’ because the network itself is simply another technology in neoliberalism’s arsenal) as the “becoming-human” of the planetary body.

And this is why we can proclaim that postmodernism has finally reached its end, and that its entire program has cut itself out at its very roots. One could list forever the ways in which the ‘dissolution of traditional bodies’ has been repelled: the rise of militant religious ideologies and the reassertion of the strong sovereign state, the waning enthusiasm for the neoliberal program and the callbacks towards the Keynesian era, and the rumbling of neo-Luddism, even in the high-tech industry sector. At the same time we can see how the postmodern condition continues to exacerbate itself: it is clear that neoliberalism is here to stay for a while (its particular governmentality is too entrenched[9]), the sovereign state stills operates in a fully transnationalized network, and the rise of violent neo-fundamentalist groups like ISIS are, themselves, postmodern phenomena. Yet the largest bankruptcy of postmodernism is that the grand narrative of human mastery over the cosmos was never unmoored and knocked from its pulpit. Instead of making the locus of this mastery large aggregates of individuals and institutions – class formations, the state, religion, etc. – it simply has shifted the discourse towards the individual his or herself, promising them a modular dreamworld for their participation but more often than not providing only a disciplinary squalor.

For these reasons we can say that the proper end of postmodernism comes in the gradual realization of the Anthropocene: it promises the death of the narrative of human mastery, while erecting an even grander narrative, described eloquently by Timothy Morton as the hyperobject. If modernism was about victory of human history, and postmodernism was the end of history, the Anthropocene means that we are no longer in a “historical age but also a geological one. Or better: we are no longer to think history as exclusively human…”[10]  Perhaps our wanton ignorance of this force, at once geological, chemical, atmosepherical, worldy, is that we cannot see it and cannot grasp it firsthand. We can only feel its effects: droughts and water-rationing, the slow migration of people, food crises that produce incredible political revolutions. The time of the Anthropocene is the time of hyperobjects because it exists on a scale beyond our comprehensions.


Dating the start of the Anthropocene is problematic. Perhaps the inklings first appeared in the ancient past, when organized agriculture kick-started the development of civilization itself. From this perspective, it is the Virilian integral accident of the invention of civilization. Or maybe we should date it to the Industrial Revolution, with the birth of modern, factory-driven capitalism. The era of postmodernism and postindustrialization certainly hasn’t helped: information technologies, connected to massive server farms and telecommunication infrastructures powered by dirty energy, have been key producers of carbon emissions on a global level. This is particularly true in regards to finance sector economies, with its requirements of integrated planetary computation systems; the proliferation of lap-tops, cell-phones and other smart devices as a part of daily, mobile business (as well as acting as fixtures of everyday life) replicates this same problem. The factories shuttled off to the developing world often operate in an unregulated environment with a disregard for the ecological impact of their production processes, while the logistics hubs, intermodal transport zones, and the ships themselves that cart the goods across the world are major sources of emissions. In the developed world we’re seeing a slow growth in manufacturing sectors that rely not on human labor, but increased in automation technology; one of the drivers of this boom has been the increased accessibility of shale gas, described by many governments as a greener alternative to fossil fuels. But as a report by BP has shown, the rise of shale energies is likely to contribute to a 29% rise in global emissions by 2035.[11] Even if neoliberalism didn’t cause the Anthropocene, it certainly contributed to its acceleration in enormous ways.

There is an irony, then, that our ability to monitor and visualize the unfolding of Anthropocenic forces has come from the same forces that helped put neoliberalism itself into play. Early ecological modeling programs utilized DYNAMO, a programming language developed at MIT by a team led by Jay W. Forrester. Forrester, incidentally, had cut his teeth on computerized complexity at MIT’s Servomechanisms Lab, where he oversaw the research into the Whirlwind computer. One of the essential moments in the history of computational technology, Whirlwind was designed to aid in anti-aircraft firing systems during combat; it worked in conjunction with the SAGE project, which had its own incredible impact on both computers and the emerging economic infrastructures of neoliberalism.[12] Forrester, however, left the realm of the military-industrial complex and pursued the development of industrial dynamics – a complicated application of cybernetic theory to better enable streamline the relationships between production, supply-chains, consumer demand, and inventory levels. While industrial dynamics assisted firms first dipping their toes into the new world of global trade, it also provided Forrester with the tools to go to work on modeling ecological complexity.[13]

Following DYNAMO widespread interest was to be found in the hallways of global governance in modelization technology, with both the United States and the United Nations generating their computer models for tracking environmental conditions. In 1978 the US’s National Research Council launched its National Climate Program, following the recommendations of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A year later a World Climate Conference was held in Geneva; this spawned the creation of a World Climate Programme, overseen in part by the United Nations. By 1988 the trajectories of these institutions led the United Nations to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As Paul Edwards discusses in his remarkable A Vast Machine: “With scientists from most nations and government representatives from 193 member nations, the IPCC is a genuinely global organization. It marks the institutional achievement of infrastructural globalism in climate science, the organizational backbone of today’s climate knowledge infrastructure.”[14] He continues:

The IPCC does not conduct scientific research; instead, its purpose is to assess — collect, synthesize, and evaluate — knowledge about climate change, its impacts on people and ecosystems, and the options for mitigating its extent and adapting to its effects. To make this assessment, the IPCC solicits and compares virtually all of the most current research in climate-related fields. Thousands of scientists are involved, either directly (in composing the assessments) or indirectly (as reviewers, or simply as researchers whose work is considered during the assessments). Large teams of contributing authors, organized by smaller teams of lead authors, work to prepare each chapter of an IPCC report. IPCC rules specify that these teams of authors “should reflect a range of views, expertise and geographical representation,”and potential authors from developing nations are recruited aggressively. The 2007 IPCC report involved more than 500 lead authors and thousands of contributing authors from around the world.[15]

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Yet as Edwards makes clear, the knowledge of the Anthropocene organized by the IPCC and related institutions, relies on an incredible transnational network of computers, information sharing platforms, arrays of data-capturing sensors, remote monitoring stations, programs capable of taking this data and modeling atmospheric transitions, chemical processes, and the ways in which a shifting environment can impact the complexity of human society, with its own reams of infinite data. Climate science, he argues is a “global knowledge infrastructure”.[16]

There are multiple reasons, beyond the immediacy of the Anthropocene itself, for why this is essential with grappling with at our current juncture. First is the question of “infrastructure” itself. All physical or even governmental and economic infrastructure in the postmodern world is produced or reproduced through the utilization of a preexisting knowledge infrastructure that more often than not comes to us through computerized modelizations that are themselves subjected to neoliberalism’s techno-economic paradigm. To begin grasping the dynamics of how to transition out of neoliberalism means to engage with the politics of infrastructure, and by extension, the knowledge infrastructure – the ways that knowledge is produced and organized in coordination with particular apparatuses.

The second reason is that the global knowledge infrastructure of climate science stands in stark contrast to the global knowledge infrastructure of neoliberalism itself: instead of utilizing ‘rationalizing’ models to find the best way to efficiently maximize profits at the expense of the human and the social, it deploys a multidisciplinary array of knowledge machines to illustrate impact of the human on the interconnected global meshwork of which the human is only a part.  If “postmodernism” is the cultural byproduct of neoliberal capitalism (to move from Lyotard to Frederic Jameson), then the Anthropocene announces the death of postmodernism and the necessity for neoliberalism’s death, and it through the knowledge of climate science that we can truly grasp the dimensions of this.

This, in turn, brings me to the third reason: if information theory and computers stand at both the beginning and the end of postmodernism, then what we witness is a transformation in the application of the computer itself. Climate science often overlaps with the confusing trajectories of governmentality and statecraft on multiple levels, yet it is a reorganization away from both the needs of warfare and industry as we know it today. The global knowledge infrastructure of climate science is thus a kind of repurposing of technology, and a prototype of the kind of wide-ranging repurprosing that the Anthropocene necessitates. It validates Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s insistence on the need for a left-wing “politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.”[17]

What comes after postmodernism? Perhaps what we need is a sort of New Modernism, though a different name is sorely needed. Yet it is strangely fitting: a type of modernism, because the grand narratives themselves have been returned to the centrality of development. Modernism itself was an era of schemes: sometimes they were authoritarian schemes (Lenin and Stalin’s brand of Communism, the architecture of Le Corbusier) and sometimes they were bundles of contradictions (the New Deal, Bretton Woods), and other times they were anarchic and imaginative (Soviet Constructivism and Proletkult, Situationism). It is the lattermost that we most can identify with today: unmoored from the traditional territorial bodies of the previous age, they envisioned new formations and ways of living life, and went to work experimenting and testing ways of breathing this life into existence.

We don’t have the benefit of the foundation of abundance that they held up in their horizon, and today perhaps more than then the political cards are stacked against such programs. We do know, however, that the crisis of the now demands something upon us: the dismantling of globalized capitalism, yet such a program cannot proceed without knowing what kinds of social systems, knowledge systems, infrastructural systems can be used to aid in such a monstrous necessity. If we don’t, it is very likely that we have everything to lose.

[1] Jean-Francois Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pg. 51

[2] This is a term deployed by economist Carlota Perez to define the economic restructuring that takes place following the introduction of new clusters of technological innovations. For a good overview see Carlota Perez “Technological evolutions and techno-economic paradigms” Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics, no. 20, 2009

[3] Lyotard The Postmodern Condition, pg. 3

[4] Ibid, pgs. 37-38

[5] Philip Mirowski Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science Cambridge University Press, 2002

[6] Lyotard The Postmodern Condition, pg. 13

[7] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire Penguin Press, 2004pgs. 190, 192

[8] Brian Massumi Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation Duke University Press, 2002, pg. 128

[9] For an analysis of neoliberalism as a modular form of economic governance, see Aihwa Ong Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty Duke University Press, 2006

[10] Timothy Morton Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World University of Minnesota Press, 2013

[11] Fiona Harvey and Terry Macalister “BP study predicts greenhouse emissions will rise by almost a third in 20 years” The Guardian, January 15th, 2014

[12] For a critical history of SAGE, see my “’The SAGE Speaks of What He Sees’: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism”

[13] On the evolution from industrial dynamics to DYNAMO, see Jay W. Forrester “Industrial Dynamics – After the First Decade” Management Science, Vol. 14, No. 7, Theory Series (Mar., 1968), pgs. 398-415

[14] Paul N. Edwards A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming MIT Press, 2013, pg. 398

[15] Ibid, pg. 399

[16] Ibid, pg. 8

[17] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams “#Accelerate: a Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics” Critical Legal Thinking May 14th, 2013

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3 Responses to The Anthropocene and the End of Postmodernism

  1. Anon says:

    Super interesting post worth of much consideration. Really appreciate the foregrounding and attempt at weaving together so many important strands.

    Gold standards stabilize long-term prices and currency exchange rates, but they increase volatility in real output (more recessions), short-term prices (through much more frequent deflation), and financial instability (lenders become more cautious). They also reduce fiscal and central bank flexibility in fighting depressions and increase structural unemployment while depressing long-term economic growth rates. Furthermore, they are subject to speculative attacks, sharper exchange rate adjustments, and swings in the global gold supply à la the California Gold Rush. The high financialization of the 1920’s occurred under the classic gold standard, which was even stricter than the USD-convertible system of Bretton Woods. And economists widely blame that gold standard for prolonging the Great Depression in part by forcing the Fed to raise interest rates (still motile in a gold standard) in the teeth of a deflationary spiral. In other words, one can try to ground an entire economy in a foundation of gold, but really all that can be restricted are central banks, which are still subject to political and economic pressures amidst the flux that is the greater economy.

    I’m not suggesting you’re nostalgic for the gold standard or trying to impose a monocausal explanation here, but I think there’s an increasing temptation among smart people on the left to see the end of the gold standard as the removal of referents/reference and thus an opening to postmodernism. In fact, the dollar is still anchored to Federal taxes, debt, and millions of contracts as it was under the gold standard. In the sense of being a large network of agents who influence each other through through a flux of transactions, all economies–the ancient Romans, the Dutch, the Victorians, etc.– are postmodern. Floating currency exchanges make underlying market forces more apparent, so they seem more turbulent, but those postmodern underlying market forces are still there even under a fixed exchange rate, e.g. Venezuela today.

  2. Anon says:

    That’s why there was so much pressure on Nixon to devalue the dollar. After WWII, the US’s economy was something like half of global output and the US ran trade surpluses. But by end of the 60’s, Europe and Japan had rebuilt their economies, and we Americans began running trade deficits. Demand for US goods in dollars weakened, and natural exchange rates moved too far from Bretton Woods pegs. The big move in the US post-WWII isn’t going off gold. It’s going from creating half of global output to about 18% today, going from a uni- to multi-polar world.

    All this is not to say that finance is insignificant, but I think we’re much better off focusing on moving off the dollar as reserve currency to help American exporters and on eliminating perverse incentives on Wall Street than on crudely trying to limit all financial intermediation on American soil to the benefit of London and Hong Kong. Renewing and investing in infrastructure is also a great idea, but it seems that structural reform of American government may be necessary first. In other words, I think many problems actually can be fixed with our record levels of current abundance–domestic and global. But others will require structural reform to government first and thus a new mindset, a new age. Basically, I think we need to figure out what needs to happen to _Citizens United_, campaign finance, gerrymandering, the media, voting, etc. in order to get a carbon tax, a trillion dollars or so of infrastructure investment, and an industrial policy for a world with 400m Chinese capitalists. The answer is not dismantling free trade, which has unlocked an enormous amount of net wealth for the world. An answer is trying to channel that wealth creation widely and productively.

    Hope that wasn’t a rant. As someone with a little history in finance, I’m fascinated by occupy and your ideas about postmodernism, technology, and knowledge infrastructure. For me, it’s still more productive to think about economics specifically?separately?first?in-its-own-terms? rather than work backwards from culture via postmodernism. But maybe I’m missing something?

  3. Pingback: The Anthropocene and the End of Postmodernism | Deterritorial Investigations Unit | word pond

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