Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Duke University Press of Durham, North Carolina, presents a tome entitled Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson—whose real name is William A. Lane, Jr.—in 1991.  The volume I hold indicates that, as of 2005, it has completed its eleventh printing.  (This book obviously has a popular following in the academic world.)  The tome also belongs to a series called Post-Contemporary Interventions, the Series Editors of which are Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson.  Jameson gathers into one book a selection of his published articles about postmodernism as observed in fields like culture, ideology, film, architecture, and video, among others.  The author clearly proves that he is an expert and an authority in this changing and often misunderstood concept.  Some figures in both color and black-in-white are provided as well as a section of endnotes and an index.

Postmodernism, an era that we may live in now, is a trend that follows a period called modernism that started in the nineteenth century and ended sometime in the twentieth century.  Authorities do not consider postmodernism as a separate philosophical movement per se, but a reaction to the tenets of modernism.  I like to envision the differences between the two like a deformed bubble: most of the shape looks spherical (modernism) whereas a side (postmodernism) may distend considerably, wanting to separate from the whole but still connected.  However, my description cannot describe postmodernism completely because we are still living within some portion of this period.  In any case, modernism strongly offends postmodernists with “its passionate repudiation by an older Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie for whom its forms and ethos are received as being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive, and generally ‘antisocial’” (4).  Yet Jameson points out postmodernism’s faults as well: “As for the postmodern revolt against all that, however, it must equally be stressed that its own offensive features—from obscurity and sexually explicit material to psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political defiance, which transcend anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of high modernism—no longer scandalize anyone and are not only received with the greatest complacency but have themselves become institutionalized and are at one with the official or public culture of Western society” (4).  Postmodernism shows a hypocritical attitude, for sure, when it deals with modernism, but hardly anyone calls it out because of smug apathy.  Why the smugness and apathy?  It is because “we are sick and tired of the subjective as such in its older classical forms (which include deep time and memory) and that we want to live on the surface for a while” (151).

Jameson knows the difficult task of analyzing a movement when one is right in the middle of it.  Nevertheless, he finds some general topics that have come to dominate the field like “interpretation, Utopia, survivals of the modern, and ‘returns of the repressed’ of historicity,” especially since the 1960s (xv).  Another characteristic of postmodernism that the general public can recognize is seeing “the past as fashion plate and glossy image” (118).  Television also dominates in this period and Jameson opines that “video can lay some claim to being postmodernism’s most distinctive new medium, a medium which, at its best, is a whole new form in itself” (xv).  The most important peculiarity of all comes from the assertion that postmodernism is a sentiment resulting from an economic reality, of a Marxist interpretation, beginning after World War II.  He writes, “In spite of these theoretical uncertainties, it seems fair to say that today we have some rough idea of this new system (called ‘late capitalism’ in order to mark its continuity with what preceded it rather than the break, rupture, and mutation that concepts like ‘postindustrial society’ wished to underscore). ” (xix).

Laying aside contentious criticism, let’s look at some of the more “interesting” features of postmodernism.

Jameson notes that the prevalent mode of expression during this time is the television set.  He notes the strange relationship we have with this contraption and the unusual ways we react to it.  Television programs offer free programming with the illusion that the consumer has the freedom of choice in what to watch.  If there is a type of commodity that television watchers consume, it is in the fleeting flow of images in an incomprehensible and indeterminate time period, until the consumer turns it off.  Ironically, the principal reaction consumers have with this mode of expression is boredom.  Jameson suggests that critics should defamiliarize this boredom to see why consumers react in that way and develop a different standard for what constitutes “good” and “bad” art.  “We must therefore initially try to strip the concept of the boring (and its experience) of any axiological overtones and bracket the whole question of aesthetic value.  It is a paradox one can get used to: if a boring text can also be good (or interesting, as we now put it), exciting texts, which incorporate diversion, distraction, temporal commodification, can also perhaps sometimes be ‘bad’ (or ‘degraded,’ to use Frankfurt School language)” (72, emphasis in original).

Film takes on a different dynamic, yet it takes its source from television.  In film, we have the problem of representation.  Take for instance the perception we have of the 1950s.  The 1950s had its set of problems, fashions, and outlooks in reality as well as in its idealism.  Its idealistic side or vision manifested itself in its television programming.  The idealistic vision became a representation of the general public’s loftiest fantasies.  Decades later, the reality of the general public changes, yet the images produced in the 1950s stay the same.  People in the 1980s and 1990s, and maybe even today, see the programming from the 1950s and get the impression that it reflects the majority of realities of the 1950s, when in fact it represents the ideal.  If a consumer becomes inspired by the images in the programming, he or she may create a higher ideal that represents the source of that inspiration.  Therefore, the consumer ends up making a representation of a representation, a copy of a copy, something that is more “fifties” than the 1950s.  Jameson writes, “This is clearly, however, to shift from the realities of the 1950s to the representation of that rather different thing, the ‘fifties,’ a shift which obligates us in addition to underscore the cultural sources of all the attributes with which we have endowed the period, many of which seem very precisely to derive from its own television programs; in other words, its own representation of itself” (281).

Here is another way to visualize the problem.  A settlement builds a town with a town hall, a square, and a monument with a statue of the founder of the town.  Each thing is made with the materials the citizens have access to at the time.  Over time, say about a century, these dilapidated structures decay to the point they need remodeling.  Instead of bolstering the foundations or touching up the surfaces, the newer city government decides to raze the town hall, the square, and the monument, and build each of them again like before except using new materials not indigenous to the area or accessible to the first settlers.  Instead of faux painting wooden columns, they use Italian marble.  Instead of cobblestones, they use sturdy tiles that look like cobblestones.  Instead of the original statute, they make a bigger one with a sleeker, “nostalgic” look.  On top of that, they bring in artists to make murals to recreate what the first settlers may have looked like based on limited sources of that time.  Two reactions can come about these changes: one negative and one positive.  These reactions are like what Jameson says in the following: “This is very precisely what has happened in the art world also, and it vindicates Bonito-Oliva’s diagnosis of the end of modernism as the end of the modernist developmental or historical paradigm, where each formal position built dialectically on the previous one and created a whole new kind of production in the empty spaces, or out of the contradictions.  But this could be registered from the modernist perspective with a certain pathos: everything has been done; no more formal or stylistic invention is possible, art itself is over and to be replaced by criticism.  From the postmodern side of the divide, it does not look like that, and the ‘end of history’ here simply means that anything goes” (324).  Instead of originality, like the modernists want, we see intertextuality, a trend that postmodernists pursue.

Out of all the scopes that Jameson discusses in his book, my favorite has to be the commodification of music and images for the television screen.  I grew up in a time when mtv was a budding concept.  A cable channel played music videos and rotated them throughout the day.  I saw singers from the 1980s play their catchy songs on television and mingle a melodramatic or quaint storyline into the video.  Each video was different; you never knew what would come up next.  Everyone seemed to talk about “Billie Jean” or “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls, “You Might Think” by The Cars, “Like a Prayer” or “Open Your Heart” by Madonna, “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “Cars” by Gary Numan, “Just a Gigolo (I Ain’t Got Nobody)” by David Lee Roth, “Take on Me” by A-ha, “99 Luftballons” by Nena, and a few more.

This is what Jameson has to say about music videos and also adds the source of where these bits of art come from: “mtv above all can be taken as a spatialization of music, or, if you prefer, as the telltale revelation that it had already, in our time, become profoundly spatialized in the first place.  […]  What mtv does to music, therefore, is not some inversion of that defunct nineteenth-century form called program music but rather the nailing of sounds […] onto visible space and spatial segments: here, as in the video form more generally, the older paradigm […] is animation itself.  The cartoon—particularly in its more delirious and surreal varieties—was the first laboratory in which ‘text’ tried out its vocation to mediate between sight and sound (think of Walt’s own lowbrow obsession with highbrow music) and ended up spatializing time” (299-300, emphasis in original).  I haven’t considered that Walt Disney’s Fantasia, a product in the modernist vein, would be a precursor to the glitzy and kitsch of 1980’s postmodern music videos.

I like Jameson’s style of writing; although verbose, he has readability in his essays.  I would like to emulate him in my writing style.  The scopes of the topic are varied and give an excellent analysis of recent American culture of the last few decades.  The only question that comes up has to do with postmodernism today after 9/11.  Jameson’s book comes out just before the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and, although he gives prescient predictions to our type of economy today, a lot of technological developments have happened in the twenty years since its publication.  Would Jameson say that we are at the apex of postmodernism today or have we since passed into a new era?  In the age of handheld devices, digital media, the Internet, Smartphones, iPads, flat panel displays, texts, tweets, and no more mtv like I used to know it, we have either gone deeper into the rabbit hole of postmodernism or created something substantially different.

I can’t personally tell except for this: if “video killed the radio star” like The Buggles used to play, then today I should sing “digital killed the video star.”


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