Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1984

Frederic Jameson’s 1984 work Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism explores the meaning and nature of Postmodernism. Jameson appears to be on the whole, critical of its end result yet understanding that what it was meant to define proves difficult to articulate in one simple term, “but when I am tempted to regret my complicity with it, to deplore its misuses and its notoriety, and to conclude with some reluctance that it raises more problems than it solves, I find myself pausing to wonder whether any concept can dramatize the issues in quiet so effective and economical as fashion.” (418) In some ways , this quote alone illustrates one of the largest weaknesses of this work, Jameson’s repeated verbage and self satisfied tone overwhelms the reader as he routinely extends sentences by numerous lines when they could be summarized for more succinctly. Moreover, the work exudes a jargon filled explanation of postmodernism, its fracturedness (though Jameson also points out this label for postmodernism is somewhat lazy), its commodization, its exclusion of nature, and its rejection of modernism. Nonetheless, the work remains widely respected as such its arguments deserve attention.

First, Jameson expands postmodernism’s significance to more than a style, referring to is as a “cultural dominant”, and not necessarily a wholly new one either, “postmodernism is not the cultural dominant of a wholly new social order …. But only the reflex and the concomitant of yet another systematic modification of capitalism itself.” (xii). Postmodernism’s success penetrating society such that it is very likely the term is overused , “The success story of the word postmodernism demands to be written, no doubt in best seller format; such lexical neoevents, in which the coinage of a neologism has all the reality impact of a corporate merger, are among the novelties of media society which require not merely study but eh establishment of a whole new media lexicological subdiscipline.” (xiii). Uh huh. Ultimately, he accepts its usage but wishes everyone think about its “internal contradictions” and such when marshalling it in conversation.

For Jameson [and here it must be noted he overlaps in several areas with David Harvey Ex. Both authors identify 1973 as a shift, Harvey points to it out of special concern for the collapse of Fordism and replacement with “supply side economics” and capital accumulation, Jameson views the break similarly but avoids descending into the economic debates of Harvey], postmodernism reacted to the efforts of its canonized predecessor. Both writers view postmodernism as aesthetic obessed at the expense of content. As well both point to modernism’s dilemma with time arguing that postmodernism’s fetish deals with space. One of postmodernim’s weakness, most visible in its architecture, is its historicism or the random cannibalizing of all past styles. Postmodernisms evoke a past simulacra (his and Harvey’s word not mine) which provides a duplicate of the past or a duplicate interpretation of the past which is then reproduced ad nasuem until it becomes our idea of the past and can be mistaken for the very past it represents. The use of simulacra and postmodernism’s focus on alienations leads to “feelings” or “intensities” within its works but they remain impersonal unlike modernism. Some of this relates to commodities and cultural production. The machinery of capitalism for Jameson has on some level infected postmodernism which displays an affinity for schlock or kitsch more than anything else. A fetish for the mass produced, turning away from the cultural pretensions of high modernism. Fragmentation as always proves a point of debate. For example, Jameson suggests that postmodernisms tendencies to look for breaks or ruptures and to emphasize smaller individual experiences has contributed to language’s ability to describe and communicate while reducing the power of literary devices such as parody. In regard to language, the existential emphasis on personal experience and the fragmentation of these experiences and interests makes understanding, the main point of language, difficult. Parody no longer suffices to hold the same weight b/c fragmentation makes it harder to find the single cultural dominant with which the audience can widely identify.

As for the postmodern crisis over space, Jameson has much to say. Place has been lost. The average person according to Jameson, can no longer map their own place in the multinational, decentralized, urban metropolis. Postmodernism locates humanity in a sort of hyperspace where “place in the U.S. no longer exists or it exists at much feebler levels.” (121) Space itself is not the culprit but capitalism and other global systems, “The problem is still one of representation, and also of representability: we know that we are caught within these more complex global networks, because we palpably suffer the prolongations of corporate space everywhere in our daily lives. Yet we have no way of thinking about them, of modeling them, however abstractly, in our mind.” (127) Yet it is through space that Jameson finds some redemption, “Spatialization, then, whatever it may take away in the capacity to think time and History, also opens a door onto a whole new domain for libidinal investment of the Utopian and even the protopolitical type.” (160) Postmodern spatialization textualizes all in its path from bodies, to the state, to consumption itself. While postmodernism creates space for marginalized groups its “’merely’” a cultural dominant as it coexists with other resistant and heterogenous forces which it has a vocation to subdue and incorporate.” (159)

Jameson’s take on economics proves one of the best chapters in the work. Jameson points out several aspects of socialism and capitalism or more specifically the rhetoric of the markets. First, he labels both utopian in there outlooks (for brevity’s sake let’s assume we know all his points about socialism since his insights on market rhetoric proves more interesting), market rhetoric continually defends laizze faire economics despite the fact no free markets exist anywhere in the world. Each is totalizing in its logic and actually has no political side yet they are interpreted as such. The market’s representation as nature is a point taken up by among others Thomas C. Holt. Postmodernim’s leanings have also contributed to the rise of political groups rather than a class politics. Groups prove smaller, easier to organize, more homogenous, and are imbued with a psychic connection lacking in class which is a sprawling heterogenous category that as Jameson astutely notes must be convinced first that it even exists. This also reflects late capitalism in its dispersement and atomization. The local concerns of groups need to be expanded and extrapolated such that they may incorporate other groups [anthropologists Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjeck say something similar in their respective works on Queens, New York noting that such groups must find ways to articulate their concerns in ways that resonate beyond their communities.]

Another interesting aspect of Jameson’s work involves his repeated discussion of modernism. For example, in its own time, modernism served as an oppositional discourse, avant garde in its beginnings. However, its appropriation by architects and then municipalities and national governments in housing and civic monument design, the canonization of its literature in the 1950s-60’s, and the passage of its art into museums across the West create the impression that it was THE cultural dominant of its era which it was not. This points to one of postmodernisms weaknesses its fetishization of the new such that it has no sense of history. In the end, Jameson notes that it may end up proving more useful to think of postmodernism as a transitional stage between two eras or capitalism. [interesting note here he makes the point that globalization and other new forms of finance have made it difficult for stable class formation let alone consciousness such that protests against such develops appear archaic to us since we still have not seen these new class formations fully develop in such a way that corresponds to the changes in the economy] [Similar to Wallerstein here …]

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