February 15, 2006

Postmodernism; or, The Marxist Logic of Fredric Jameson

"Wait, tell me one more time. What’s postmodernism?" That’s precisely the clichéd question about postmodernism. It’s beyond definition. It’s slippery. It’s relative. It’s illogical. It’s "anything goes!" Or not. Enter Fredric Jameson of Duke University who will be speaking at UGA on Feb. 22. He has done more than any cultural critic (this century and last) to unpack postmodernism and its logic.

For Jameson, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism. That idea is not debatable. Whether you prefer to view capitalism as the best or worst form of economic life, or whether you hold Churchill’s middle way that it’s the best of the worst, you cannot deny that capitalism exists, nor can you deny that capitalism provides for a culture that’s at once perplexing, repetitive, colorful, excessive, seductive and globally mobile. If the recently lamented (but obviously long-standing) "commercialization of Christmas" bothers you a whit, then you’ve learned a Jamesonian lesson that is a Marxist lesson: "commodity fetishism" pervades everyday life. If a consumerist obsession with labels drains your wallet, ditto. Marxism, as Jameson formulates it, offers the vocabulary to explain such cultural phenomena in postmodernism.

Marxism? Yes, relax: Marxism, which is not communism, by the way. To confuse Marxism with communism is not only to demonstrate that you’ve not read Marx’s three volumes of Capital, or that you’ve never read this guy called Plato or heard of the Branch Davidians, neither of Marx’s doing. More importantly, to condemn Marxism for communism is to be blind to capitalism’s own utopian failures in equal opportunity and equal access, its parasitic reliance on government, market regulation and those pesky Socializing forces. More on utopia in a minute. The point here is simple that in the critical analysis of postmodernism, you need some root on which to cling if the cultural field is quicksand.

In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson shows how postmodernism is its own theory, and the examples of postmodern theory are not only in the academy in the likes of poststructuralism, but also everywhere else in the characteristic fusion of high and low cultures. It’s on TV. It’s in movies. It’s in museums and on billboards. It’s in the novels you read. Postmodern theory comes in all shapes and sizes: Hotlanta’s Century Center, that seemingly single-sided reflective surface standing on its own off I-85, is yet another example. Let’s look at two of Jameson’s many ideas.

First, "postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process." Think, say, of the recent TV commercial for the Saturn AURA in which an Indy kid sketches a cool car on a napkin that then magically whisks itself outdoors like a piece of trash only to be tousled on the streets and morphed into a working blueprint of a car, which itself spontaneously generates into a clay mock-up of a car, which then begins to flake off its earthen skin in the wind to reveal the exhilarating and shiny sports car underneath, zooming ahead out of a tunnel and into the light. Here, we have just one example in postmodernism in which the commodity literally makes and embodies itself and appears magically as a self-animated, autodriven Thing, rather than as a product of any labor process. Marx critiqued precisely this sort of commodity fetishism, and Jameson develops this critique in his work on postmodernism.

It can be quickly understood, however, that this image of the miraculously made commodity has its complement in the economics of global capitalism - the equally recent news about a major car company (Ford, in this case) cutting 35,000 jobs, only to move, predictably, those jobs to some unseen, outsourced location where Dick Cheney would never hide, much less set foot.

So much for visualizing the production process, which is now only imaginable when viewed in the unreal time of fast motion photography, workers zooming around in the dirt on HGTV assembling lumber, roofing and siding into a finished house in a matter of seconds, as if in some kind of construction capers film.

For a second example of postmodernism, we may consider one of Jameson’s more famous locutions, "nostalgia for the present," which describes how historical inquiry is itself a thing of the past, along with critical thinking about politics and policy in the media age of Ditto-heads. Instead, what we get is a fascination with history as a cultural style concerning our own g-g-generation. While Jameson suggests that this phenomenon begins with Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) - a film that inaugurated that still ubiquitous obsession with the ‘50s and its awesome shakes and hamburgers - I’d hazard that such nostalgia begins with various rock and roll "rebellions" from the ‘60s. The Who’s The Who Sings My Generation (1965) is the starting point here.

At any rate, these generational nostalgias are these days clearly instanced in the VH1 Series "I Love the 70s," "I Love the 80s," and "I Love the 90s." VH1 promises that the latter will give "viewers… a ‘90s style dose of the music, movies, TV shows, products, fashions, fads, trends, scandals and major events that defined pop culture each year of the decade." Setting aside the suggestion that it’s too soon to be jammin’ to Jesus Jones once more, we can simply observe the manner of historical hindsight at work here: products, fashions, fads and trends are featured on the show with equal prominence alongside world events, such as the Oil Crisis of ‘73 or the Falling of the Berlin Wall, which of course is stylistically absorbed into a Jesus Jones video. The point is that, in our culture, historical reflection demands no studious inquiry, but only a passive consumption of newsy images within pop motifs. What passes for historical inquiry in this age of nostalgia are personal and euphoric recollections of that song you used to sing, complete with a flashback to your high school yearbook photo, featuring your zitty visage and A-Flock-of-Seagulls hairdo. Better yet, history is now the history of stuff you bought.

Jameson writes in Postmodernism: "if postmodernism is the substitute for the sixties and the compensation for their political failure, the question of Utopia would seem to be a crucial test of what is left of our capacity to imagine change at all." Here, he is looking ahead to his new book, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, in which he asks whether thought-experiments nowadays are up to snuff with the medieval scholastic theories of "other possible worlds." Indeed, Ockham would wonder, Can God destroy the Earth before the Apocalypse? The answer, of course, is "you betcha!" But can we genuinely imagine a new social arrangement that satisfies our needs and wants all at once?

Not a chance, is Jameson’s answer, an answer backed up by a rather intense and breathtakingly wide-ranging exploration of utopian theories, philosophies, novels and films. The broad point is not about these genres so much as the imagination, the inability to dream of utopia at all. So rooted is capitalism in our very Being that utopian thinking can only offer projections of our own postmodern age, whereby the sources of vice and exploitation are subtracted in alien scenarios and historical romances alike, and these in turn offer comfort, not vision. And where the utopian imagination succeeds in offering a radically other world beyond even our own perceptions - a world with a fourth primary color, say - there is a curious lack of any corresponding new organs of perception to apprehend such otherness. Jameson’s diagnosis of the many aspects of utopia explains, in sum, why it is that we can more easily imagine the total annihilation of life-as-we-know-it by a Super Volcano than conceive of a new social arrangement that is equitable.

So the imaginative failure is not in Marxism or only in Marxism. It is also for want of the modern and postmodern imagination itself. Such a failure originates in the distinct disconnect between our social ethics and the wish for "the world to be a better place," for the logical combination of these two impulses would, after all, threaten to assert socialism into utopian thinking, alongside feminism and ecologism.

Fredric Jameson will speak on "Poetics of the Dialectic" at the UGA Chapel on North Campus on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 4 p.m. The talk, sponsored by the Lanier Speakers Series, is free and open to the public. For more information, go to