Ellen E. Berry and Carol Siegel

Rhizomes, Newness, and the Condition of Our Postmodernity
An Editorial and a Dialogue


Discontinuous histories and multiple temporalities surely co-exist within the restless landscapes of the global postmodern. Yet the term postmodernism itself, and therefore its critical temper, remain curiously static. It is forever mired in definition by negation, in belatedness (as an afterthought to modernism) or in "an eternal present and much further away an inevitable catastrophe,” as Fredric Jameson memorably puts it (Jameson 72). We find ourselves alive after the end of history, philosophy, and metaphysics; the death of the subject, the author, and the book; the waning of the historical avant gardes, the bankruptcy of Enlightenment promises of progress through rationality. We affirm our suspicion of metanarratives, foundational assumptions, totalizing theories, utopian ambitions, large-scale pronouncements of any kind. Art speaks in pastiche, repeating the forms of the past since, as Raymond Federman puts it, "imagination does not invent the SOMETHING-NEW we often attribute to it but rather now ... merely imitates, copies, repeats proliferates, plagiarizes ... what has always been there" (Federman, 565). We find it difficult to believe in the progressive possibilities arising from our "new" world order and we lack a sense of agency; therefore the desire to pursue what might be genuinely new becomes more and more difficult to actualize. Within the condition of postmodernity, the future presents itself as foreclosed if it presents itself at all; to update Baudrillard, the year 2050 has already happened.

In pointing to this postmodern sense of an ending, of living after the future or suspended in a perpetual present, I don’t mean to suggest the fundamental illegitimacy of any of the positions characterized above. Postmodern critiques have been vitally necessary and, arguably, socially transformative (at least in their intentions). But I do want to suggest why it has become so difficult for contemporary progressive thinkers to posit the new — in exact inversion of their modernist counterparts and in absolute contradiction to a self-identity as progressive — and, perhaps more importantly, to speculate on some of the consequences arising from this refusal.

First, postmodern challenges to the Western rationalist universalist paradigm have been widespread — affecting virtually all branches of knowledge — broadly-based, and impossible to ignore if not utterly devastating. Whether such critiques emerge from post-structuralist, feminist, queer, neo-Marxist, ethnic or postcolonial critics, and whether or not they have materially altered the negative consequences of Western logics, the radical critical and political analyses of the last 30 years have fundamentally redefined the intellectual project of Western critical thinkers. They have succeeded only too well in demonstrating that we are blocked by ethically bankrupt systems whose horizons we cannot think beyond, systems that have failed but perhaps cannot be overcome. In part, these critiques have emerged from a recognition that some of the bloodiest carnage of the 20th C was carried out in the name of bringing newness into the world. This disastrous legacy of "utopian" ambitions has rendered the term itself highly suspect, simply a synonym for the will to power, the intellectual fantasy of total control, or the desire to escape history itself.

Secondly, the very concept of newness has been commodified by postmodern consumer culture to such an extent that genuine innovation seems increasingly difficult to imagine. In the face of a steady supply of new and improved cars, dish detergents, (fill in the blank), newness itself becomes a ruined word, only a repetition of the idea of newness in which nothing actually is novel. Fredric Jameson considers this one of the fundamental paradoxes of postmodernism and one of the greatest problems for contemporary thinkers: "the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything ... that would seem incompatible with just such mutability. ... The supreme value of the New and of innovation ... fades away against the steady stream of momentum and variation that at some outer limit seems stable and motionless ... [W]here everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, nothing can change any longer. ...[T]he persistence of the Same through absolute Difference ... discredits change ... absolute change equals stasis ... a disorder after the end of history" (Jameson, 15-19). Our current cultural preoccupation with difference — manifested in everything from Benneton ads to identity politics — masks the fact of a "universal weakening and sapping of difference on a global scale," according to Jameson.

Despite what may be its ultimate homogeneity, however, the bewildering surface complexity of the postmodern landscape makes any meaningful intervention within it, any real alternatives to it, difficult to imagine, let alone act upon. Thus, as Ernst Bloch writes of his own historical moment, "this world is a world of repetition or of the great Time-And-Again ... What-Has-Been overwhelms what is approaching, the collection of things that have become totally obstructs the categories Future, Front, Novum" (Bloch 6-8). As a consequence, we lose a sense of "anticipatory consciousness," the spirit of "venturing beyond" what currently exists, a spirit without which, as Bloch says, "the New is inconceivable" and the desire for an encounter with genuine difference, with unassimilated otherness, is blocked. The same and the different remain in a state of non-recognition or static polarization rather than of mutual interaction in the absence of any imaginable change, in the absence of what Jameson calls "the immense unthinkable Difference of an impossible future” since being able to encounter difference as different, rather than as a version of what one already knows, is predicated upon the assumption that newness may enter the world.

Perhaps contemporary intellectuals experience anxiety in the face of the idea of radical change because we fear projecting only a repetition of our own sullied world under the guise of the new or because we cannot distinguish between the rhythms of change inherent in the system of late capitalism and changes that might actually displace this system by a new one altogether. Whatever the reasons, we remain — for the most part — stuck either celebrating the products of postmodern culture, thereby replicating the giddy rhythms of postmodern "change" itself; endlessly diagnosing the problem, thereby critiquing a system whose failures are by now well known; or enclosing genuinely new situations in past narratives or paradigms of understanding, thereby failing to understand accurately their uniqueness.

Rhizomes exists to suggest ways out of this all-too-common paralysis of our critical imaginations by providing sites for the emergence of new thinking, the not-yet-conceived. We see speculative impulses and experimental strategies as vital components of the political agenda of contemporary cultural studies: Today more than ever we require acts of radical imagination and psychic mobility as preludes to the invention of historically new modes of relationship.

Although we cannot (and would not wish to) predict the nature of the strange attractions that might migrate to Rhizomes, we are particularly interested in soliciting the following:

• creative and critical practices that generate alternative thinking by deliberately pursuing those alternatives embedded in any idea or system, particularly what a system omits or deems unworthy of serious scrutiny. Such thinking prevents any system from promoting itself as definitive and leaves it open to other ways of knowing and being.

• creative and critical practices that encourage us to unite ideas that seem most disparate or incompatible, thereby deliberately dislocating us from the known.

• creative and critical practices that train us actively to desire multiple differences rather than simply tolerating them or projecting them as objects of analysis. Such practices would be unpredictable, performative, and incomplete. By “hailing” us in ways that permit entry into relation with the other even as we forego full comprehension of him/her, they thereby will also extend our empathetic and ethical capacities.

Carol Siegel: Your analysis of some of the forces that discourage new thinking is necessarily rather grim, and perhaps overshadows the hopefulness at the end of your remarks. Could you say a little more about how we might encourage pursuit of the new?

Ellen Berry: Well, one way is to solicit it directly — as we’re doing with the Rhizomes project — create a space for it to emerge. Another way might be to adopt modes of analysis that would allow us to read any statement or theory for what it implicitly hypothesizes about new thinking. For instance, the resistance to closure in many contemporary theories, the insistence on partiality and provisionality of definitions (as in say Judith Butler’s desire to leave open the term feminist) could be considered part of a commitment to opening multiple paths to the future so as not to foreclose it in advance. Perhaps we need to evaluate ideas according to their generative capacity and learn to read through extrapolation, by which I mean carrying an idea beyond its own framework, its own implied limits.

CS: One thing your comments suggest to me is that new thinking might best be accomplished through incremental change (the old small changes we liked as early feminists) rather than dramatic ruptures which have, as you point out, caused so much horror in the past. What do you think about the possibilities for change created through academic discussion? Academics always get slammed for how slowly our ideas trickle into the rest of the population’s discourses but from the perspective of small changes this is not such a bad thing. It gives us a chance to test ideas out; it’s conducive to peaceful revolution!

EB: I think one thing we’d probably need to do is to change first the ways in which academic discussion currently goes on — in journal articles, at conferences, in our own home departments. I like what Michel deCerteau says about the need for us all — whatever our institutional location — to become tricksters and les perruques (those who disguise their own activities as work for their employer, who “put one over” on the established order on its home ground). This seems especially important given that the US academy is moving ever more toward a model of commodification (of our knowledge, of our time). As Steven Connor puts it (paraphrasing Lyotard): “In the economic structure of thought which dominates the world [including the world of the academy], any activity, or event. . in the present is considered as a form of loan, or investment, which must be paid back, or include within itself the fact of its economic return ...Value, therefore, comes to consist ... not in specific yields or products but in the very speed of the economic process itself — literally the rate [time] of exchange rather than the objects of exchange.” Anything that interrupts smooth operation of this principle of reason — "to rush to its goal with a minimum of delay" — is considered wasteful, nonproductive, a space in which "time remains uncontrolled, does not give rise to work, or at least not in the customary sense of the verb 'to work.’”

Within the U.S. academy we are theoretically free to write and publish whatever we wish, and academic freedom is a value we vigorously defend (rightly so) as the very essence of our professional lives. However, our intellectual labor also is traded for profit, whether it be in the form of an annual merit raise, publication in a prestigious journal (the precondition for the raise), or for the very few, a chance to compete in the academic star system (where bidding wars for hot "properties" sometimes begin to rival those involving professional athletes). At the very least, the growing corporatization of the academy and the knowledge-for-profit model make it less likely that we actually will produce new ideas that stray outside dominant paradigms of what sells in the knowledge industry. It might be argued that the mechanisms I describe have always been in operation. While this may be true, I would claim that never has the gap between our ideals (what we say we profess) and the reality of our daily lives in the academy been more nakedly transparent. Never has the knowledge industry functioned more vigorously or efficiently, and never has the academy operated more as a hierarchized class system.

I think in order for academic discussion to become a source of genuinely new thinking we would have to devise new “wasteful” or deliberately nonproductive ways of interacting, modes that would introduce unexpectedness into the academic setting — a kind of distance or estrangement from business as usual. We would need to find different ways of developing our intellectual identities as well as new models of community. Or, to paraphrase deCerteau we need a whole “therapeutics” for what I see as the deteriorating social relations within our intellectual communities. But I see I’ve ended on a less-than-hopeful note again!

CS: I like what you say at the end of your remarks about training ourselves actively to desire difference. Perhaps American professors, especially, need to cultivate an intellectual culture in which the value of ideas isn’t so closely tied to the institutional status of the person voicing them. One way that I can see to do this would be to treat the intellectual work of people outside academe with respect. So long as we say implicitly, through our practices, that the authority to speak can only come through being certified within our system then the parts of the system most of us cannot control will carefully control the amount of difference that’s permissible. How can we insist on our right to speak outside discourses already academically legitimated, if we are also insisting that no one without, say, a doctorate has any right to speak on certain issues and be taken seriously? This is an important issue for me because of my work with youth cultures where often the best informed people have little formal education and no academic positions. Just as I feel that I can usefully assert my own anti-psychoanalytic views within academic discussions of sexuality that are dominated by psychoanalytic theorists, I feel that rock and roll singers can usefully assert their views on the role of popular culture in forming new genders and sexualities in such discussions. I don’t see one set of views as a replacement for the others, but rather I am drawn to the idea of an exchange that continues opening up more areas of difference, reminding us all that we do not always share the same assumptions. I suppose that’s the kind of space and the types of exchanges that we’re trying to create with Rhizomes. I wanted to ask you a little more about your understandings of difference. You seem to be treating it as a given that desiring difference can be a force for cultural change. If so, this is an assumption I share. But I’m curious about why you think learning to want difference could bring about cultural renewal.

EB: My thinking on this subject has been influenced in part by Mikhail Epstein’s observations on difference. He points out that the models underlying identity politics and multiculturalism in the US posit aggregates of discrete subcultures (based on racial, ethnic, sexual or other differences) each of which seeks to promote and maintain its cultural specificity and self-sufficiency in the face of a homogenizing dominant culture. These models have, in fact, led to a relativistic and cynical indifference. This is so because within a multicultural framework, one culture’s difference from all others becomes the sole key to one’s identity; thus differences are often promoted for their own sakes which results in a multiplicity of self-contained and disconnected cultural worlds with no spaces available for exchange and interaction. In Epstein’s view, all cultures and subcultures are fundamentally incomplete and insufficient; all cultures therefore have a need for radical openness to all others. It is this space of permeability where cultural ex-change might produce cultural change.

I also think that in order to theorize a productive desire for difference on an individual level it would be necessary to rethink Lacan’s notion of the imaginary as a space only of misrecognized selfhood that hides the alienation and absence at our core. Anthony Elliot, for instance, emphasizes the creative capacity of the imaginary and its constitutive role in establishing dynamic interpersonal spaces between self and other. For Elliot, the imaginary is basic to a recognition of another’s difference and independence from the self. It is fundamental to the very acceptance of difference as such and is one source for the creation of new relations between self and others (“it is in seeking to understand the relative other of the unconscious — what is nonidentical in ourselves and others — that subjectivity, autonomy, and desire may be more fully realized and transformed”).

Elliot’s ideas resonate strongly with Julia Kristeva’s meditations on the psychocultural role played by foreigners and foreignness in Strangers to Ourselves. She points out that historically foreigners have provoked radical destabilizations in our own cultural and psychic identities because they dramatically remind us by their very existence of our own fundamental incompleteness, our own non-knowledge. Confronted with the radical difference of foreigners, we historically have either domesticated them (as in models of cultural assimilation) or we have sought to exorcise them by destroying them completely (the Holocaust, contemporary ethnic cleansings). Both responses betray the fundamental difference of the foreigner (though of course these two responses are by no means materially equivalent in their effect on him/her).

If we are to move beyond either assimilation or annihilation of any difference, Kristeva argues, we must recognize and accept that essentially we all are foreigners, all “strangers to ourselves.” “Freud brings us the courage to call ourselves disintegrated in order not to integrate foreigners and even less so to hunt them down, but rather to welcome them to that uncanny strangeness which is as much theirs as it is ours ...It is with the help of that sole support that we can attempt to live with others.” Needless to say I think we have a very long way to go before we’re able to confront — let alone embrace and actively desire — this degree of radical difference. But I do think it’s possible.

CS: I should probably leave our dialogue at this moment of qualified optimism, but I feel compelled to add that one of my quarrels with psychoanalytic theory in general is that it always seems to posit an “us” that does not recognize “ourselves” as uncanny or foreign, at least without psychoanalytic intervention. I have no real argument with the ideas from Kristeva you discuss above, but I do have a response which is that part of what is needed, obviously, is to let those who are always foreigners within every culture speak and be heard, not as representatives of some unified although disenfranchised group, even when the “group” consists of one person’s psyche, but as the very voices of difference. I come back again and again to Foucault’s Madness and Civilization with its poetic exhortations that we listen to the voices deemed mad and try to take in what they say without translating it into the terms of reasonable discourse or subjecting it to analytic meaning-making. To me this is what Deleuze and Guattari do at the beginning of Anti-Oedipus where attending to the “mad” gives them the tools to defamiliarize what they had previously understood as inevitable contents of “the human mind.”

EB: Thank god Prozac wasn’t available then! The forces of normalization and containment of difference just keep marching on. Foucault and Deleuze almost sound quaintly romantic in this era of so-called designer personalities (for the privileged). I think your comments point to one of the problems of any avant-garde, especially one existing at this historical moment: How to preserve radical difference from the forces of commodification including academic forces.

CS: Don’t you think that part of desiring difference entails not only taking in new information but assimilating it in new ways?

EB: A perfect lead-in for us to issue the call for experimentation in content but most especially in form! One of the things I liked most about feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s was its commitment — at least in theory — to changing the ways that scholarship was written. Innovations in critical voice were what made work like Helene Cixous’s and Luce Irigaray’s so exciting. But I think that feminist scholarship in large part lost its commitment to formal radicality in its bid for scholarly legitimacy (there’s the whole apparatus of academia again). Another reminder of why it’s so important for Rhizomes to encourage participation from as diverse a group as possible. Trent Reznor and Judith Butler talking together about abjection!

Part of the problem for us as editors will be not just encouraging strange conceptions to migrate to Rhizomes but recognizing them once they arrive. This gets at the whole issue of how to evaluate new thinking. In our Rhizomes manifesto we say that we’re devoted to publishing new work. Yet we also are a peer-reviewed journal, which implies and necessitates the use of evaluative criteria that presumably would be capable of assessing degrees of innovation. How to generate those criteria? What balance of innovation and recognizability (for lack of a better term) would need to exist in the new work itself? It seems to me that one of the problems — or one of the advantages — with information or art on the web is that it often arrives in an undigested form — the bad and the beautiful together in a lump. The evolution of evaluative filters seems an important thing, but how to do this without once again recontaining the new in the forms of the familiar or worse rejecting it out of hand?


Bird, Jon et.al. 1993. Mapping the Futures, Local Cultures, Global Change. New York: Routledge

Bloch, Ernst. 1986. The Principle of Hope, Volume 1. trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Connors, Steven. 1993. "Between Earth and Air: Value, Culture and Futurity." in Bird, pp.229-236.

deCerteau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. trans Steven F. Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Federman, Raymond. "Imagination as Plagiarism [an unfinished paper ... ]." New Literary History, volume 7, Number 3 (Spring 1976).

Hebdige, Dick. 1993. "Training Some Thoughts on the Future." in Bird, pp. 270-279.

Jameson, Fredric. 1994. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

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