Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
The Observer, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

With this book Fredric Jameson sets himself a daunting task. His aim is to define the postmodern Zeitgeist - arguably a contradiction in terms, since one defining characteristic of the "postmodern condition" is its lack of a sense of itself as 'zeitgeist' or 'era'. Jameson manfully seizes these and other contradictions with both hands: his project is to root a rootless culture in its economic context, to systematise a condition that is hostile to systems, and to historicise a phenomenon whose main effect is the waning of historical consciousness. But then, as a Marxist, Jameson retains an oldfashioned commitment to lucidity and overview. "Closure" (coming to conclusions, actually saying something) holds no special terror for him.

What Jameson has to say is of an analytical rather than judgemental nature. He doesn't take sides because he doesn't see postmodernism as an option, a fad or genre to affirm or repudiate. Rather, it's the unavoidable condition of late Twentieth Century existence, the cultural air that we breathe. In Marxist terms, postmodernism is the "superstructure" generated by the economic base of "late capitalism," (multinational corporations, mass media, information technology). Modernism was the "emergent" culture of an age when modernisation was still incomplete, and there remained a backdrop of peasant simplicity and aristocratic decadence against which a cultural vanguard could dramatise itself, with its idea of the artist as prophet and the work of art as a monument to the future. Postmodernism arose when the modernisation process was complete, and nature was superceded by the media. The new no longer seems that new; a sort of nostalgia without anguish (inconceivable to modernism) becomes possible, as exemplified by the rapid turnover of period revivals in film, fashion and pop music.

For Jameson, postmodernism represents a seismic shift in our very concepts of space, time and self. Modernism was the expression of the bourgeois subject (the grand auteur, the angst-ridden individual). Postmodernism creates a new kind of decentered subject, "a mere switching center for all the networks of influence" (Baudrillard). The media's "endless barrage of immediacy" destroys perspective, invades our consciousness and erodes the individual's ability to formulate a point of view. In art, modernism's themes of authenticity and meaning give way to pastiche and a fascination for the surface image; emotional affect is superceded by freefloating euphoria and sublime vacancy. Van Gogh is replaced by Warhol.

Jameson's provocative argument is that this new decentered subjectivity is a kind of schizophrenia. Unencumbered by past memory or future projects, the schizo inhabits a perpetual present that is intensified to an unbearable degree. The experience of space and of the vivid materiality of the world is enhanced at the expense of temporal consciousness. This heightened sense of here-and-now has been long the goal of the mystic or drug fiend, but for those who can't return to focused, productive consciousness (the schizophrenic and, increasingly, postmodern man), the experience is one of ego-shattering disorientation.

But this postmodern "hyperspace" is, argues Jameson, precisely the emergent terrain of late capitalism, with its fax machines, cable TV, satellite link-ups and data networks. To apprehend our place in this new totality of global capitalism, we need to evolve a new kind of consciousness, which he likens to that of the alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who can watch 50 TV channels at once, or SF writer William Gibson's cyberpunks, who inhabit a computer-generated "virtual reality". Despite his guarded enthusiasm about much of postmodernism's cultural output (video installations with their flow of images that resist being reduced to a single meaning, buildings like Los Angeles' Westin Bonaventure hotel), Jameson sheds Marxist tears for some of the casualties of postmodern theory. In particular, he mourns the postmodern rejection of "totalizing" theories, and of the notion of a "lost totality" (the alienation-free existence which Utopian politics seeks to recover). Advocates of postmodernism claim that these concepts lead ineluctably to totalitarianism (the Gulag, Pol Pot, the hubris of social engineering). But Jameson clings to the conviction that without totalizing concepts, the individual cannot understand his relationship to the system of late capitalism, and thus loses any political agency.

Jameson's solutions are suggestive if somewhat sketchy. He deftly turns the TV addict's practice of "channel-switching" into a metaphor for what he calls "transcoding". A sort of postmodern version of the dialectic, this involves pick-n-mixing world views and combining their partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Jameson also calls for a new science of "cognitive mapping", whose task is to plot the disorientating globalism of late capitalism (financial speculation in Tokyo or London can wreak havoc on peasant life in Paraguay), and coordinate local struggles against it. In other words, before you can do anything, you must first get your bearings. Postmodernism might be a calamity for oldstyle revolutionary politics, but Jameson concludes that the globalisation of capitalism will spawn a new international proletariat with forms of resistance we can scarcely imagine.

This "light at the end of the tunnel" is tentative and hard-won. Throughout Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism, Jameson painstakingly follows every lead and takes on every conceivable objection to his ideas. He really works for the few glimmers of hope that he allows himself. Oscillating between the intoxication of the latest postmodern theories and the sobriety of the Marxist tradition, Jameson confirms my belief that the most lucid and productive analyses of postmodernism have come from those who are hostile or at least deeply ambivalent about its implications.

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