What Comes After Late Capitalism?

David Hockney, Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away), 2023 (installation view). Photo: Justin Sutcliffe. Courtesy Lightroom, London

Anna Kornbluh’s new book, Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism, suggests a new way of understanding the rapid, ‘stylised flood’ of our present culture

We’ve all felt it. The urge to zoom-in, look-up, take a snapshot of or otherwise possess the world via the screen in front of us. The inalienable itch to get right to the heart of things without delay, to wholly absorb some relatively insignificant subfield of information right now.

In the twenty-first century, the online-screentime mindset has given rise to a way of being that is both frenetically completist and unsatisfyingly incomplete: a pervasive habitus haunted by what the late novelist David Foster Wallace once called ‘the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’. And while there has been no shortage of attempts over the last few years to theorise this shift into a post-postmodern headspace – where utopian paeans to infinite virtual free-play no longer seem relevant – we have arguably been lacking a central term or concept to define it.

A new book by the American academic Anna Kornbluh, Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism, is an ambitious, imaginative attempt to do just that. For Kornbluh, the key to understanding what she wryly terms ‘too late capitalism’ (after the century-old but now commonplace idea that modernist and postmodern culture embodied a ‘late’ capitalist moment) is to explore its obsession with the immediate. As she puts it, rather poetically: ‘Immediacy is deluge without staunch, a stylised flood of intense immanence in cultural aesthetics that eerily conforms to contemporary conditions of oil swells and aquatic surges.’

More pragmatically, her book argues that as capitalism has moved on from the twentieth-century economic mode that concluded with postmodernism, it has tended to emphasise circulation over production. As such, she suggests, our contemporary moment has come to be dominated less by the manufacture of new things, and more by an obsession with how existing things can be restructured and relayed: from the privatisation of transport infrastructure and the flow of migrants across borders, to the endless, daily remixing of our personal lives on social media. The result is a ‘flat’ planet where everything must be instantaneously available to everyone everywhere and a ‘culture of speed’ predominates. This is a world, she persuasively argues, dominated above all by immediacy.

The cultural effects of this segue from a postmodern obsession with mediation (‘intertextuality, irony, the meta’, Kornbluh cites) to a contemporary negation of mediation in favour of instant engagement with the thing-in-itself are manifold, and Kornbluh does a good job of anatomising them. Ranging over a variety of media and forms, from psychoanalysis to video-streaming services, she mainly succeeds in winning the payoff for her ‘gamble… that immediacy comprehensively unifies contemporary culture’.

Unsurprisingly, given that Kornbluh is a literary scholar, the strongest and most vivid demonstrations of her thesis are to be found in her chapter on contemporary literature. Beginning with a long epigraph from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (2009–11),she shows how different forms of modern writing have come to centre on the impulse to foreground what Knausgaard describes as ‘just a voice, the voice of your own personality’. In Kornbluh’s telling, this shift towards radical personalism is further proof that twenty-first-century writing privileges ‘unmediated presence’ above all else. 

 In examining the turn towards memoir and memoir-adjacent writing in recent years, and in explaining this turn as the result of online capitalism’s success in ‘enclos[ing] and reify[ing] the substance of real bodies and real identities’, Kornbluh has hit on something pithy. Indeed, her wide-ranging analysis of the contemporary lit-sphere is one of the best I have read. Incorporating a useful parallel with the way in which sites like Facebook and Instagram harness personal labour and encourage the proliferation of ‘micro-memoir’, she skilfully appraises disparate genres and modes, glancing at the boom in personal essays, the autofiction of erstwhile novelists like Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk and Tao Lin, and the poetry of Ocean Vuong, Claudia Rankine and Anne Boyer. While mainly casting a cold eye on such examples, Kornbluh works towards a suggestive rallying cry in her conclusion for the revival of apparently passé literary techniques like free-indirect discourse and ‘the great realist tradition of dislocating and defamiliarizing existing spaces’ – part of a more general strategy in the book of advocating methodologies of mediation (a word that for Kornbluh has positive connotations of collaboration, sociality and ‘constructive philosiphizing’) as a means of resisting the hegemony of the immediate.

There is a sense at times in Immediacy that the analyst has come to resemble the analysand. Though Kornbluh’s prose is typically stylish and characterful, on occasion it can recall the very adrenalised ‘culture of speed’ she is critiquing. Her thesis is sometimes waylaid in formulations like: ‘Medium dissolves, extremes effulge, exposure streams’, and: ‘Drawing these conspicuous oppositions is an exercise in educing contradiction, including friction-freighting categories’. Perhaps this is the whole point, but it can be mildly disorienting, and might itself be seen as the stylistic expression of a sort of flat-planet left-literary milieu eulogising itself via the elite universities and publishing houses of too late capitalism (this book concludes by briefly citing organised labour struggles at Starbucks and Amazon as ‘brave stoppers in the circulation economy’ before launching into a much lengthier encomium that exalts academics at Columbia and Harvard, staff at the Guggenheim, The New Yorker and The New York Times, and its own publisher, Verso, as cognate lodestars of dissident hope). Similarly, the condensed format of the book, somewhere between monograph and polemic, does not always allow Kornbluh’s central argument to breathe, leading to a feeling of dizzying, unfulfilled compendiousness that inevitably raises the question: what has been left out?

This is less a criticism of Kornbluh’s writing per se than of how it has been pitched and packaged. But I would be eager to see how her powerful thesis about immediacy might be extended into a more expansive and comprehensive survey of the culturesphere in general. There is a tentative attempt in Immediacy to venture beyond literature and literature-inclined theory by way of a valuable – if occasionally predictable – chapter on ‘Video’, which explores streaming services like Netflix as exemplars of the ‘medium dissolve’ of the zeitgeist. It would be interesting to see how this theoretical vein might be mined more deeply in longer digressions on, say, visual art and contemporary pop music. While the latter seems likely to offer plenty of supporting examples for the immediacy thesis (the tendency towards visceral-confessional lyric writing in artists from Lana Del Rey to Richard Dawson springs – immediately – to mind), the auratic, locational qualities of much art and architecture might provide it with a useful, complicating counterpoint.

At any rate, pointing to the generative potential of an argument can scarcely be cited as evidence of its shallowness. On the contrary, Kornbluh has done better than almost anyone in recent memory to define the elusive, claustrophobic spirit of the age and get started on excavating its cultural subterranea. More than this, in diagnosing our contemporary obsession with the immediate, and calling for a return to collaborative mediation between human beings in the face of urgent crises from labour disputes to climate change, she convincingly demonstrates that, as she puts it: ‘it’s not too late – things can still be less worse’.

Alex Niven is the author of The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands (2023) and New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England (2019)

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