Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson (b. 1934) is one of the foremost English-language Marxist literary and cultural critics writing today. Over the past three decades, he has published a wide range of works analyzing literary and cultural texts, while developing his own neo-Marxist theoretical perspectives. His books include Marxism and Form (1971), The Prison-House of Language (1972), The Political Consciousness (1981), Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (1992), and Brecht and Method (1998). For many years, he has been teaching literature at Duke University.

Editors' note: Jameson's analysis of postmodernism (you will find a synopsis below) synthesizes two articles: his original "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" (1983) and "Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of late Capitalism" (1984), the same title as his monumental book on the topic. In these works, Jameson expands his analysis to include popular culture, architecture, theory, and other texts, and thus can be seen as part of a movement toward cultural studies as a replacement for canonical literary studies. In the version included here, Jameson links current intellectual, social, and spatial disorientation to the technological reinvigoration of capitalism and globalization. He considers present arrangements with critical rationality and calls for a demystifying political aesthetic of "cognitive mapping" (Gray and McGuigan, 1997, pp. 176-77).

POSTMODERNISM AND CONSUMER SOCIETY

1. introduction

The concept of postmodernism has been much misunderstood. Resistance may come from the unfamiliarity of the wide range of work the term covers: the art of Andy Warhol; the music of John Cage and Terry Riley; the novels of William Borroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed; and the poetry of John Ashberry (p. 192).

Two observations should be made here: most of the postmodernisms just mentioned emerged as specific reactions against established forms of high modernism, against this or that dominant high modernism which conquered the university, the museum, the art gallery, and the foundations. Those modern subversions of style, including Abstract Expressionism; the great modernist poetry of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, or Wallace Stevens; the International style (Frank Lloyd Wright); Stravinsky, Joyce, Proust, and Mann--felt to be shocking to our grandparents are, for the generation which arrives at the gate in the 1960s, felt to be the establishment and the enemy--dead, stifling.

2. my project

We should clarify a number of features of postmodernism: there are as many forms of postmodernism as high modernisms, since at least initially the former are reactions against those models, and the older distinctions between high culture and mass culture or popular culture has eroded. From an academic perspective, this is the most distressing development. The academy has had a vested interest in preserving high or elite culture against the environment of philistinism, schlock, and kitsch (pp. 192-93).

Many of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated by the whole landscape of advertising, the Las Vegas strip, and so on. They no longer "quote" texts, as Joyce or Mahler might have done; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high and low commercial forms is increasingly difficult to draw (p. 193). We can find a different indication of this effacement of the older categories and discourses in contemporary theory. A generation ago, one could have identified a technical discourse of professional philosophy, alongside which one could distinguish those of other academic disciplines, e.g., political science, sociology, or literary criticism.

Today, we have writing called "theory," which is all or none of those at once. This new discourse, generally associated with France and so-called French theory, is becoming widespread and marks the end of philosophy as such. Is the work of Michel Foucault to be called philosophy, history, social theory, or political science? We should include this (new) "theoretical discourse" among the manifestations of postmodernism. I want to answer the following research question: In what ways does the new postmodernism express the inner truth of the "newly emergent social order of late capitalism" (p. 193).

3. approach

theoretical framework: ideological inquiry.

We approach the topic from an ideological perspective. We can use the term "postmodernism" to describe (a) an artistic style; (b) an historical period, correlating the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life; and (c) a sensibility, that feeling of being "dislocated" or "alienated" from one's high-tech environment.

analytical method: interpretaion

By the same token, we employ an interpretive analytical technique. That is, the new moment of capitalism (as we have defined it) can be dated from the post-war boom in the USA in the late 1940s and early 1950s or France from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The 1960s are the transitional years. During this period, the new international order, i.e., neocolonialism, the Green Revolution, computerization, and electronic information, was established.

4. findings

We can identify a number of features or practices of postmodernism, including pastiche, death of the subject, nostalgia, hyperspace, and technological alienation.

pastiche

Pastiche and parody involve imitation or mimicry--particularly the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles. Parody capitalizes on the uniqueness of these styles, e.g., D.H. Lawrence's nature imagery, seizing on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities in order to produce an imitation which mocks the original. Behind all parody is the feeling that there is a linguistic norm in contrast to which the styles of the great modernists can be marked (p. 194). Pastiche appears at the moment when parody has become impossible, i.e., it is the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, but it lacks the satirical impulse. Pastiche is blank parody--parody with no sense of humor (p. 195).

death of the subject

Whereas the modernist aesthetic was linked to the conception of a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality, the postmodernist aesthetic is linked to the "death of the subject" or the end of individualism as such. We can describe the concept of the unique individual as ideological. The individual subject no longer exists in this age of corporate capitalism, of the so-called organization man, of bureaucracies in business as well as in the state. Not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is a myth: it never really existed. We thus face an aesthetic dilemma: if the experience and the ideology of the unique self is over and done with, then it is no longer clear what artists and writers of the present age are supposed to be doing. It would seem that, in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all they can imitate are dead styles (p. 196).

nostalgia

The practice of pastiche is not high-culture but very much within mass culture--generally known as "nostalgia film." This is a film about the past and about specific generational moments of that past, as exemplified by George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), which recaptures the 1950s in the USA (pp. 196-97). We need new categories for such films. I suggest that Star Wars is a nostalgia film. The film reinvents the experience of the Saturday afternoon serial--in the form of a pastiche. Technically, Body Heat is not a nostalgia film. Thanks to the ambiguous setting and so on, everything conspires to blur references, so that we read the film as nostalgia (p. 197).

Today, we cannot focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representation of our current experience. If that is so, it is a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism (p. 198).

hyperspace

In this way, we have moved into postmodern space, but we have not kept pace with that evolution. We do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace. The newer architecture--like many cultural products--stands as an imperative to expand our sensorium (p. 198).

The Bonaventure Hotel--built in the new Los Angeles downtown by the architect and the developer John Portman--is a popular building: a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city. Note: there are three a-typical entrances; the covering (skin) sets it apart from the buildings around it. The escalators and the elevators--they are "gigantic kinetic sculpture" as it were--convey a sense of spectacle and excitement. In fact, we cannot talk about this space in traditional terms. It is impossible to get your bearings in the lobby (p. 200-01). This latest mutation in space (postmodern hyperspace) transcends the individual human body to locate itself, to map its position in a mappable external world (p. 201).

This alarming disjunction between the body and the environment built for it stands as the symbol of that sharper dilemma, which is the capacity of our mind to map the global multinational and decentered communications network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (p. 202).

technological alienation

Let me juxtapose this entertaining (although bewildering) leisure-time space with its analogue, the space of postmodern warfare. The traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie cannot tell the story of the first terrible postmodernist war. All previous narrative paradigms have broken down in this regard. We have taken a quantum leap in technological alienation (p. 202). In this new machine (the helicopter built for war), which does not represent motion, something of the mystery of the new postmodernist space is concentrated (p. 203).

The features we have enumerated here are not new at all but characteristics of modernism. Do we really need the concept of postmodernism? Remember, classical modernism was an oppositional art; it emerged within the business society as ugly, dissonant, bohemian, sexually shocking. Let's consider the relationship between cultural production and social life generally: the older or classical modernism was oppositional; it offended the middle-class public. Joyce and Picasso are no longer weird and repulsive: they have become classics (pp. 203-04).

Commodity production, such as clothing, furniture, and buildings, are now intimately tied in with styling changes which derive from artistic experimentation. Advertising builds on postmodernism in all the arts. At some point after World War II, a new kind of society began to emerge--called postindustrial society, multinational capitalism, consumer society, media society, and so on (p. 204).

5. concluding remarks

I believe that we should understand the emergence of postmodernism in terms of the emergence of consumer or multinational capitalism. In many ways, its formal features express the deeper logic of this social system. We need only think of the way our sense of history has disappeared, of how our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past. We live in a perpetual present. We might say that the media help us forget the past (pp. 204-05). I have discussed two features of postmodernism--the transformation of reality into images and the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents. In this way, then, postmodernism replicates or reproduces or reinforces the logic of consumer capitalism (p. 205).

Works Cited

James, Fredric. 1988. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 192-205.

return to COMS 441 Home Page