Tall Stories

— Thijs Lijster (2016)

In postmodernism the totalising view is regarded with fear and suspicion: after all, the Grand Narratives of Christianity, Marxism and fascism have all led to totalitarian violence as they tried to force society into one uniform mould. Within cultural philosophy this aversion to the all-encompassing view has led to the advent of ‘short’ stories, in which notions of production, class and ideology had to make way for those of gender, ethnicity and identity politics. Because of this, critique of the system of capitalism – the original impulse of critical theory – was pushed into the background, not in the least because notions such as identity politics and ‘philosophy of difference’ are in no way contrary to and in many ways even perfectly compatible with current ‘cultural’ capitalism, in which people obtain their identity through networking and consuming. As capitalism increasingly became the only remaining frame of reference, and in that sense became totalitarian, it rendered philosophy toothless and harmless.

The ambition to ‘apprehend one’s time in thought’, Hegel’s definition of philosophy, seems to have been buried along with the Grand Narratives. Contemporary society, we are told time and again, is far too diverse and complex for one single narrative. According to Jürgen Habermas, the ‘new complexity’ (neue Unübersichtlichkeit) heralded the end of the age of ‘master thinkers’ who act as ushers and supreme judges. From now on, philosophy would have to be content with the role of ‘interpreter’, mediating between specialised scientific disciplines and the public domain, and between those disciplines themselves. Who would dare to say today, with Hegel, that philosophy should concern itself with such a thing as ‘totality’? And yet it is this very complexity that forces us to look at all the phenomena in relation to each other – ‘mediated’ by each other, in Hegelian terms. It is precisely the globalised world of hypermobility, communication and international trade that prohibits us to think modestly. Even if the bird’s eye view of traditional philosophy has become ontologically or epistemologically impossible, it is still politically necessary.1 As we shy away from using big words such as ‘totality’ or ‘capitalism’, let alone ‘revolution’, it is the macro processes that overwhelm us and take away our control over our own lives.

Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) was perhaps one of the last attempts at a grand-scale Marxist cultural critique. Jameson’s central argument is that postmodernism is not just an artistic or theoretical school, but the ideology of a certain capitalist mode of production. Following the Belgian economist Ernest Mandel, he calls this ‘late capitalism’, its characteristics being international markets, flexible multinationals and finance. The details of Jameson’s theory are less relevant here than his methodology. His starting point is Marx’ notorious ‘base-superstructure model’: the idea that the ideological ‘superstructure’ of a society (i.e. politics, religion, culture, et cetera) is determined by the material and socio-economic ‘base’ (i.e. technology and class relations). According to Jameson, superstructure and base must not be understood in the ‘architectural’ sense, as a building that is supported by a foundation; rather, the superstructure is a table top that, although it is supported by the legs, also provides stability to those legs.

Jameson was heavily criticised for his ‘totalising’ outlook; for using Marx’ obsolete model he was accused of economic reductionism and having no eye for the diversity of culture. He had foreseen this criticism, as is apparent from the epilogue to his book. The ‘taboo on’ or even the ‘war against’ totality is a pre-eminently postmodern phenomenon that once more affirms the a-historical and individualistic nature of late capitalism. According to Jameson we should go right against this and hold onto the notion of totality, even if it is an impossible concept. Even more so: as a ‘failed’ concept it may now even be more useful then in its heyday, when Hegel used it.2 In other words, we should not read works such as Jameson’s Postmodernism… as a cultural history of ‘how it really was’, but rather as an attempt to throw a radically different light on certain cultural phenomena by relating them to each other in a new narrative and describing them in terms that may seem inapt or even improper at first glance. As Adorno already said about psychoanalysis, in cultural philosophy too only the exaggeration is true.

Meanwhile it has become cliché to say that the end of the grand narratives has itself become a grand narrative. To escape from this postmodern paradox, cultural philosopher René Boomkens posits that after the grand narratives we should now tell tall stories:

What are tall stories? Literally, tall story is a story that succeeds in making its subject extra convincing with the aid of certain rhetorical tools. From the position of the listener, it is also a story that, compared to other stories or our own regular experience, sounds almost improbable and carries a hint of exaggeration.3

The tall story therefore presents itself more emphatically and more explicitly than the grand narrative as a story, as a construction that in an artificial or even laboured manner brings together a hitherto confusing and incoherent collection of fragments. The tall story thereby questions the obviousness and ‘naturalness’ of our usual outlook on the world, actually stressing its contingency by strategically presenting an alternative to it.

Boomkens rightly connects his notion of the tall story to the form of the essay. Whereas the grand narrative tried to capture the totality in the form of a system, as Hegel did in his Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1817), the tall story fits in with the tentative and fragmentary form of the essay. This does not make it any less ambitious than the system, by the way. Every essay is, unlike what the genre’s name seems to suggest, a tour de force. By delving deeply into its subject the essay attempts to also open up the world in which that subject originates. The analysis of the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant detail eventually leads to a panoramic view of the whole.4 Unlike the system thinker or scientist the essayist is not only guided by the current situation in his or her own discipline or related specialisms, but equally by works of art and other cultural products, which often are the prism through which essayists look at society and at their own everyday experience.

This however incurs new problems. Because, isn’t cultural critique becoming a most subjective or arbitrary enterprise in this manner? What separates the tall story from pure fiction? For a solution to the problem – or, rather, to circumvent it – we may turn to Slavoj Žižek’s notion of the ‘parallax view’. According to the accepted definition, a parallax is an optical illusion in which an object seems to be moving while in reality it is the observer who moves (for example, when in a moving train the landscape seems to pass before your eyes). This can easily be used as a metaphor for a method of cultural critique in which our changeable and shifting look presents us with a constantly changing image of the totality. And Žižek gives the notion an additional dialectical twist: in the parallax view the shifting of the object can never be completely subjective, because the various point of reference must already be ‘inscribed’ in the object itself. Or, the object is never fixed, because the various ‘views’ are always already part of it. In Žižek’s own words: ‘Sure, the picture is in my eye, but me, I am also in the picture.’5

According to Žižek we should regard Hegel’s notion of totality in the same way. That notion does not imply, as its critics allege, that world history unfolds along ironclad laws and that its outcome is predetermined. This so-called ‘teleology’ (viewing history in terms of a goal-oriented development), which is so often denounced in Hegel’s philosophy, can in fact always only be constructed later and in hindsight.6 Indeed, here we are not far from the Hegelian thought that Minerva’s owl doesn’t fly out until dusk, but it should be added that a meaning that is assigned retrospectively is not written in stone, but is always susceptible to change. In the case of the arts this was already said by T.S. Eliot (whom Žižek quotes):

… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered;7

Following the trail of Jameson, Boomkens and Žižek, the same can be said of the tall story and we can even take it one step further than Eliot: not only does the tall story shed new light on art history, but also on world history. It offers us a current ‘parallax’ view of totality, allowing us to look at the world with strange eyes and thereby question its obviousness. At the same time it presents a – albeit imaginary – position outside that world, by which it at least opens up the possibility of change, not only of the present, but in retrospect also of the past.

To Conclude: Dialectical Pessimism and Pretentious Thinking

Just as in fairy-tales, the spell can only be broken by calling the evil by its name. ‘Universal history must be construed and denied’, Adorno wrote in his Negative Dialektik (1966).8 By this he meant that we should see Hegel’s totality for what it has in fact always really been: a construction. This implies that we distance ourselves from ‘universal history’ and take up an artificial position outside of that history, as it were, from where we can criticise it. We could call this the ‘cunning’ of cultural critique: we can escape destiny only by first constructing one.

We seem to be living in the age of permanent catastrophe. The ecological, economic and humanitarian disasters can really no longer be dismissed as unfavourable side-effects of progress for which clever people will certainly find a solution any day now. They are the direct effect of ‘natural’ history, of technological, demographic and economic progress. Today’s naive dreamers are not those who say there are alternatives, but rather the politicians who think that we can and should carry on as usual because there just is no alternative and the pragmatic idealists who think we can save the world by eating organically grown carrots. Such optimism is easily translated into conformism.

On the other hand there is an exuberant growth of doom-mongering that claims that everything is irrevocably and inevitably going to hell in a handbasket. For example, in the United States almost one-fifth of the population seems to expect that Judgement Day will occur during their lifetime. After each total eclipse of the sun or passing comet they seem to be slightly disappointed that the world has again not ended. Meanwhile people feast on Hollywood blockbusters in which natural disasters lay waste to our capitals and ‘cultural heritage’ either by fire or flood. In popular imagination the catastrophe as an object of desire seems to have taken the place of utopias, which still held that position in the nineteenth century. We seem to be witnessing a collective catastrophilia: an insatiable longing for the end of days, in whatever form. What is noticeable in this is that nowadays, in the words of Fredric Jameson, we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.9 All the same, the illustrations in the brochures of Jehovah’s Witnesses – in which paradise on Earth after the Last Day is represented as some sort of global neighbourhood barbecue in which not only all races but also all animals may partake – are at least more utopian than the so-called visions of the future of our politicians.

Against the persistent belief in progress and against the fatalistic catastrophilia, cultural critique should train itself in dialectical pessimism. Pessimism, because only the bleakest view of the current state of affairs can lead to revolt, which is after all always born of outrage.10 However, this pessimism is dialectical because it stems from hope, from the profound conviction that the world could also look differently and that history could have taken another course. As the Flemish cultural philosopher Lieven de Cauter writes in his book De capsulaire beschaving [the capsular society](2004):

Until now, social commitment came from a profound utopian or idealistic (or even religious, Messianic) optimism. Today, it is perhaps more than ever time to take pessimism and even a (self-)critical pessimism as motto, motive and engine of planetary protest.11

Meanwhile, what De Cauter calls ‘glocal panic’ rules: the defensive reaction to global problems in the form of neo-nationalists movements that feed the illusion that we can solve or at least evade these problems by retiring into our local shell. Ironically, postmodernism has indirectly contributed to this new nationalism by placing a taboo on grand narratives, on the bird’s eye views from which one can overlook and criticise the totality. By contrast, a dialecticalpessimistic cultural critique feels compelled to tell tall stories, as the disasters that confront us are of a planetary scale.

In a column in the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer about the silent demise of the ‘academic spring’ (the recent rebellions by students and staff at a number of Dutch universities) Professor of Financial Geography Ewald Engelen mentions an employment advertisement for a ‘Head of International Strategies and Relations’ of the University of Groningen, bearing the motto, in bold letters and of course in English: born leaders reach for infinity. Such bombastic management prose is no longer exclusively used in the corporate world but has long since increasingly been contaminating the public space and its institutions. Faced with this, it seems only fitting that critical thinking, in an act of overidentification, is at least as pretentious as that and strives for nothing less than the by the younger Marx intended ‘ruthless critique of all things existing: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.’12

This text is an excerpt from the essay ‘Notes on Totality’ as part of Thijs Lijsters’s book De Grote Vlucht Inwaarts and was translated and published by West Den Haag. 




1 See also Laermans, Rudi (2001) Ruimten van cultuur. Van de straat over de markt naar het podium. Leuven: Van Halewyck, pp. 156-157.

2 Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, p. 409.

3 Boomkens, René (1998) Een drempelwereld. Moderne ervaring en stedelijke openbaarheid. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers, p. 39.

4 See also what Adorno says in Der Essay als Form (1958): ‘The relation to experience – and from it the essay takes as much substance as does traditional theory from its categories – is a relation to all of history; merely individual experience, in which consciousness begins with what is nearest to it, is itself mediated by the all-encompassing experience of historical humanity; the claim that social-historical contents are nevertheless supposed to be only indirectly important compared with the immediate life of the individual is a simple self-delusion of an individualistic society and ideology.’ (Adorno, in New German Critique No. 32 (Spring-Summer 1984) p. 158; Transl. Robert Hullot-Kentor).

5 Žižek, Slavoj (2006) The Parallax View. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, p. 17.

6 See also: Žižek, Slavoj (2010) Living in the End Times, London: Verso, p. 197.

7 Eliot, T.S. (1921) ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’

8 Adorno, Theodor W. (1973) Negative Dialectics. Transl. E.B. Ashton. London and New York: Routledge, p. 320.

9 Jameson, Fredric (1994) Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, p. xii.

10 See also Hessel, Stephane (2011) Neem het niet!, Dutch transl. Hannie Vermeer-Pardoen. Amsterdam: Van Gennep.

11 De Cauter, Lieven (2004) De capsulaire beschaving. Over de stad in het tijdperk van de angst. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers, p. 195.

12 Letter to Ruge, September 1843 (Marxists Internet Archive)