Always historicize! [From The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)]
It should come as no surprise that I uttered these two words. If it didn't seem like a corrupt capitalist bid to make money, I would put this slogan on a bumper sticker. There's no hiding how I feel about history: I have deep feelings that go way back. That's why it breaks my heart that people just don't have a sense of history anymore. They don't understand either their place in the present or their relationship to the past. We no longer think of past and present; we think of systems all working at once.
This may seem like an odd example, but I'll offer it nonetheless. I just love the show The Wire (source). The show portrays many events occurring in the city of Baltimore at once (I call that synchronic), as opposed to most TV, which shows events unraveling through time (I call that diachronic).
In The Wire, because we don't have a linear story—a history—we don't end up with knowledge and insight; we only get multiple complex glimpses that don't add up to one message. Thus: always think about history—always historicize!—otherwise, you won't ever get knowledge and insight.
It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place […] Postmodernism, postmodern consciousness, may then amount to not much more than theorizing its own condition of possibility, which consists primarily in the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications. [From Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)]
Sure, you may have to read this quotation a few times before you really appreciate it, but it's worth the work. Here's the riddle: it's important to think historically, but postmodernism is known as an era in which people have forgotten how to think historically. Thus, as victims of our own era, we are unable to do the very thing we need to do to understand ourselves.
Therefore, I wonder if we can only sit around and think of what we should do... all the while remaining unable to do it. We can only go far enough to see our problem and map out a solution, but beyond that, we are paralyzed. Now you know what a postmodernist vortex feels like.
[T]he only way to think the visual, to get a handle on increasing, tendential, all-pervasive visuality as such, is to grasp its historical coming into being. [From Signatures of the Visible (1990)]
Here's a little something you may not know about me: I love film and all forms of visual spectacle. Hitchcock is one of my pet filmmakers. Understandably, I decided to put pen to paper to share my Marxist cultural analysis of film with an eager audience.
Why? Well, it's easy to be lured into the visual and forget all about history. After all, the visual is often one moment in time—a painting, a photograph, something still, something without a clear narrative. But I want to make sure that we're always historicizing.
So it's with some sense of urgency that I explain the importance of keeping the historical context of the visual in mind at all times. While we're on the subject, I'm also interested in how history is represented in the visual. Did you know that The Exorcist came out during a global economic crisis? Makes you think differently about all of that throwing up… (source).
For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren't we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism […] [From "Globalization and Political Strategy," New Left Review (2000)]
It's time for some painful honesty. Globalization: who benefits? Does India really need McDonald's? Does Paris need Disneyland? Do we need to outsource labor to other countries that oppress their laborers?
Sorry to be such a downer, but when we talk about globalization, we're really talking about selling American culture (a.k.a. commodities) to other countries. America gets a little grabby and domineering when it comes to globalization. Imperialism (you know—old-fashioned empire building, when one country just takes over another country and exploits it?) seems like the younger, less developed version of the new, pushy, 21st-century American cultural invasion.
Now, in the catastrophe of the postmodern, most of these canonical groupings—like the old-fashioned tableaux of nineteenth-century or seventeenth-century paintings—have disintegrated, leaving the surviving figures—Joyce, Proust, Kafka—visible like the occasional lone high-rise in a landscape of rubble. [From The Modernist Papers (2007)]
Here's a neat tie-in. Earlier, I was talking about how modernist artists tried to create work that was pure form, work that denied content and therefore pretended that history didn't exist. In this little passage, I explain that the idea of "canonical grouping," which is simply a way of putting works into categories based on when they were created and/or the type of work they are (for example, nineteenth-century impressionist painting, or twentieth-century manifesto, or whatever) is dead and gone.
Why? Because we have plucked out certain works and authors and artists as representative of the modernist era and disdainfully tossed out the rest. That's another example of postmodernism's tendency to turn the past into a "pastiche," which inevitably disconnects us from history. Thus, to postmodernists, modernism is about a few specific writers and artists and not about an historical era during which revolution and devastation were changing the world.