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Postmodernism

Geoff Wade reviews Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson.

The ‘end of ideology’ has been proclaimed often enough over the last few years, and has been given official status by Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Major, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush; all of whom – with an air of exquisitely quaint certitude – assume that their own asseverations and rhetorical legitimations of capitalism are not ideology, but something else, perhaps the natural virtue of the family, or expressions of the natural impulses of the ‘market’, which are somehow part and parcel of our very genes. But for Jameson this is the ideology of the market itself, which is not the immanent content of the heads of Tory politicians and yuppies, just as it is not human nature; it is the “objectively necessary after-image of the economic system” (p.260). Jameson then is adhering to the traditional marxist concept of ‘base and superstructure’; but in today’s postmodern world where ‘market’ and ‘media’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘commodity’, cannot be differentiated, and where (following Theodor Adorno) the “commodity becomes its own ideology”, things are not quite the same as they were for Marx and Lenin. At one time we could consciously promote an ideology; and people could (at certain historical junctures, at least) even identify those ideologies which largely reigned at an unconscious level: they “became conscious of class conflict, and fought it out”. In the here-andnow, under ‘late capitalism’, the beast is much more subtle and sinister; and the point of awareness remains ever remote. The term ‘late capitalism’ needs (though inadequately outlined in this short review) some explanation; for, on his interpretation of this ‘logo’ hangs Jameson’s thesis of its ‘cultural logic’.

Marx analysed early industrial capitalism as it emerged from mercantilism, consolidating itself as an agglomeration of factories, mills and mines etc., producing a readily apprehensible bourgeoisie and proletariat, in an Age of Realism. Later, Lenin first gazed on and wrote about – then embarked on a mission to overthrow – a second stage of capitalism (imperialism and monopoly capitalism), in an Age of Modernism. The third stage, ‘late capitalism’ (the title of a book by Ernst Mandel) becomes logically, the Age of Post- Modernism. By now capitalism has infiltrated (usually invaded), globally, every orifice of life. Importantly, Marx foresaw this in the Grundrisse and (with Engels) in the Communist Manifesto, as Jameson jubilantly and frequently reminds us. It appears then that rather than ideology having been swallowed by eclecticism and relativism, we are actually awash with it; that relativism, nominalism, eclecticism, populism and general political oblivion, are integral functions of the ideology, as after-image of the world-market.

Jameson opens his book with this comment: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place”. It is not simply a coincidence of taste and fashion (themselves created by the market for the market) that we are frequently plagued with ‘nostalgia’ films and novels which are obsessed with the ‘Fifties’ or time-travel, depicted in eclectic imagery; Jameson writes: “…the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images” (p.287). Reification (always an aide-de-camp of ideology) partly results from this de-historicization of the past; the ‘Fifties’ (say) becomes a ‘thing’, an aesthetic ‘object’, to be consumed along with instant coffee and tinned peaches. Another way in which this process of reification works is that where the post-modern artifact tends to lay bare, self-consciously, its mode of production (think, for instance of Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman), the commodity hides the mode, forces and relations of production which precede its appearance on the shop shelf or in the trendy catalogue; here, the consumer is confronted by a produced item that masquerades via an aesthetic mask, as a ‘natural’ object in its own right; its ‘reality’ is falsely constituted in its appearance; its value is assessed at the points of purchase and consumption, not at the point of production: there is an “effacement of the traces of production” (p.314). Through the way they are presented, how could we ever associate raincoats with the sweat-shops of Singapore, or supermarket meat with animals and slaughterhouses? As for artifacts, they partake in a continuous dialogue with commodities (not least in advertising), for example in Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottle and soup cans, which, unlike earlier modernism, blaze out images that offer no “powerful critical statements”, as “depth is replaced by surface” (p.12). Jameson calls this regression the “waning effect”. The whole of lived experience would appear on this account to be a seamless enclosure of reification and ideology, reinforced substantially when we consider that three major zones of life: ‘aesthetic production’, ‘specific technology’, and the ‘social institution’ (p.67) are conjoined by the media, in a culture “intensified by the extraordinary systemizing and unifying forces of late capitalism, which are so omnipresent as to be invisible” (p.185). This invisible “universalization and interiorization…has been transformed into a veritable second nature” (p.351).

Now all this must seem depressingly pessimistic to anyone who has a stake in changing the the world; nonetheless, Jameson does not lose his marxist optimism. His hopes for the future are stalwartly stated, though they are adumbrated rather than specified. It may be that Marx and Engels were perceptively and prophetically astute in claiming that the bourgeoisie would race over the globe trying to create a world in their own image; but Marx knew that they would never be wholly successful; that capitalism (whatever ‘post’ stage it reaches) will always produce differences and antagonisms. The homogenising tendency of transnational corporations can never be complete. And Jameson seems to envisage new ‘spatial awareness’ (vis-à-vis demography, architecture, sites of production etc.) as the key to emancipatory progress. Implicitly – and sparsely stated – this connects with the phenomenon of a vast emergent proletariat in the so-called Third World. What undermines commitment, though, is lack of specificity. Jameson is reluctant to discuss class conflict in any depth; yet his elaborate theoretical constructions and critiques cry out for such analysis. Globally, there are increasingly more proletarians per capita than at any other time in history! and there is a definite correlation between the interest in spatial issues and this emergent (in many cases, consolidated) proletariat, created by trans-national capitalism. And emphatically, ‘environmental’ concerns are often at the centre of the struggles of these people; one need only ponder the destruction of the rain forests, and the ensuing plight of the South American Indians, to perceive this.

Again, Jameson neglects to engage substantially with gay politics, feminism and feminist philosophy, which are all inextricably drawn into the arenas of both class struggle and spatial interests; and indeed they often are central to theories of the post-modern. The prognosis of “a class consciousness of a new and hitherto undreamed of kind”, needs a bit more muscle behind it.

Most of what I have been critically reviewing so far is discussed by Jameson in terms of film, video, literary texts, philosophy (from angloamerican to deconstruction), and architecture, which: “Of all the arts…is closest constitutively to the economic, [and is] grounded in the patronage of multinational business” (p.5). Chapter 5 is devoted to architecture and spatial considerations.

The book is written close to the tradition of ‘Critical Theory’, intellectually pulling together aesthetics, sociology, economics and psychoanalysis into a range of political theories; the ‘presence’ of Raymond Williams and Theodor Adorno, Karl Marx and Georg Lukács, contribute to the book’s intellectual weight, considerably – yet there is a pervasive and sustained note of selfirony, both when Jameson adopts a slightly sneering tone in describing certain post-modern phenomena, and when he gleefully applauds many of its artifacts and edifices, for, on page 63 he asserts that:

…we are within the culture of postmodernism to the point where its facile repudiation is as impossible as any equally facile celebration of it is complacent and corrupt. Ideological judgment on postmodernism today necessarily implies…a judgment on ourselves…

As W.B.Yeats might have concluded – “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

© Geoff Wade 1993

Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson is published by Verso and costs £14.95 in paperback.

Geoff Wade teaches English at the Academy Tskleni in Athens.

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