Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism by Jameson

Begins by situating postmodernism at the point at which the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture” is effaced.  “[A]estehtic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (56)

The Postmodern is the “force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses — what Raymond Williams has usefully termed ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ forms of cultural production — must make their way.” (57) and in that sense it is not a mode but instead a cultural dominance.

He characterizes it as having the following features:

  • a new depthlessness (which is all about the new culture of the image or the simulacrum)
  • a consequent weakening of historicity (both to public “history” and private temporality) that determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships
  • a whole new type of emotional ground tone
  • the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology (that is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system that he sees as multinationalism)

He locates the first signs of this in architecture and art, in the ideas that there are only partial pictures of something being offered in Warhol’s work (instead of totalizing wholes being gestured at), but also a flatness and a “waning of affect”

“Waning of affect” means a deconstruction of the “aesthetic of expression itself” so that the modernist thematics (alienation, solitude, social fragmentation) are then all discreted as “metaphysical baggage” related to ‘truth’ (which is also something postmodern seeks to abandon.  Instead of depth we get textual play, discourses, intertextuality and ultimately simulacra (that aren’t concerned with evoking the real).

“This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the fragmentation of the subject.”

Thus pastiche constitutes not a feeling of wholeness, but of connection, which replaces parody.  Additionally in language the signifier isn’t in a one-to-one relationship with the signified, but instead meaning is created through “movement from Signifier to Signifier: what we generally call the Signified – – the meaning or conceptual content of an utterance — is now rather to be seen as a meaning-effect”  (72)

His concrete example of the poem “China” points out that its meaning is created through sentences whose “referents [are] another image, another absent text; and the unity of the poem is no longer to be found within its language, but outside itself, in the bound unity of another, absent book.” ( 75)

Jameson’s conclusion discusses how artists identified as the hight of high culture modernists could be, because of their vanguard nature, actually considered postmodernists with a small twist.  He goes on to talk about reconsidering people like Proust from a postmodernist turn (gendered, queered, raced) and how it starts to get interesting when you look at the fact that not only is there a tension between modernity / modernization / modernism, but that different cultures have used different words AND each term has a specific time-referent too.  Uneven development across the board.

Starts moving into POMO though:

Perry Anderson reminds me, however, that in this respect the deepest and most fundamental feature shared by all the moternisms is not so much their hostility to a technology some (like the Futurists) actually celebrated, but rather their hostility to the market itself.  The centrality of this feature is then confirmed by its inversion in the various postmodernisms, which, even more wildly different from each other than the various modernisms, all at least share a resonant affirmation, when not an outright celebration, of the market as such.  (304-5)

goes on to talk about the waves of modernism, starting from a collusion with certain types of industrial process, but then also about views of the world, different political moments, economic breaks.  suggests “late moderns” are “those who persist into postmoderinsim.”  (305)

suggests that we don’t need to lament the death of the “great heroes” of modernism with all their moving & shaking charisma (no pathos), but look at “our social order” that is “richer in information and more literate, and socially, at least, more “democratic” in the sense of hte universlization of wage labor….this new order no longer needs prophets and seers of the high modernist and charismatic type, whether among its cultural producers or its politicians.  (306)

…I think we still do admire the great generals (along with their counterparts, the great artists), but the admiration has been displace from their innate subjectivty to their historical flair, their capacity to assess the “current situation” and to evaluate its potential permutation system on the spot.  (306-7)

“uneven development” is the reason why the “great writer” has dissappeared –

Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.  Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally: and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it excercised a fascination by way ov ethe image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.  (307)

Hot damn.  so modernism is this whole idea of handcrafting that comes as a legacy of an entirely different age.  This then suggests postmodernism IS DIRECTLY A RESULT OF MODERNIZATION (at least, in my opinion).

He goes into talking about reading Kafka not as psychological text (oedipal), nor as theological (salvation), nor as “marxist” (bureaucracy-as-nightmare/Empire=bad), but instead as a text where the modern (work week, housing, etc) is always interrupted by the “old fashioned”/archaic (political structure, baroque buildings).  It’s this

peculiar overlap of future and past, in this case, the resistance of archaic feudal structures to irresistible modernizing tendencies – of tendential organization and the residual survival of the not yet “modern” in some other sense – that is the condition of possibility for high modernism as such, and for its production of aesthetic forms and messages that may no longer have anything to do with the unevenness from which it alone springs.  (309)

AH, so here’s where he talks about POMO – it’s where the past has FINALLY BEEN SWEPT AWAY WITHOUT A TRACE. (309)  there’s no longer a sense of the past, historicity, collective memory…. so postmodern then has no time – everyone is at the same “hour”,

modernism is characterized by a situation of incomplete modernization, or that postmodernism is more modern that modernism itself.  (310)

so we’re also not interested in the word “new” anymore, we want to MAKE ourselves modern, it’s an action we take not something thrust on us.  So in the modern period “new” was keenly felt because the old traditional was still around, but now we’ve emptied everything of content it all actually is NEW and that category has lost its meaning.

This is also why these works were all about the celebration of the self — because they had this idea that the self was totally linked to the society and object world, and if they were in upheaval, so was the sense of self.  So the notion of modernism is tied to radical social movements (not expressing values but emerging in a “space opened by them” 312!!)

III. Cultural reification and the “relief” of the postmodern  (313)

If modernism thought of itself as a prodigious revolution in cultural production, however, postmodernism thinks of itself as a renewal of production as such after a long period of ossification and dwelling among dead monuments.  (313)

He starts talking about the “relief” and “release” of postmodernism, the feelin that there was a geenrational change that could upend power structures.  He points out that in the University this transition happened at the same time that there was decannization (suggesting that Pound was added to the cannon and then the cannon was thrown out).  Architecture, though, you can see it when the state appropriates the forms of modernism:

Utopian forms now degraded into anonymous forms of large-scale housing and office construction.  The modernist styels then became stamped with just such bureacuratic connotation, so that to break with it radically produces some feeling of “relief,” even though what replaces it is neither Utopia nor democracy, but simply the private-corporate constuctions of the post-welfare state postmodern.  (314)

Leads to reification:  “the effacement of the traces of production” !!

So the consumer can consume without guilt, so that there is “relative silence” so that one does not feel one’s privacy or body is being violated.

however, reification of culture he defines seperately –

The feature of reification I want to insist on in this realm of cultural products is what generates a radical separation between consumers and producers.  Specilizaiton is too weak and non-dialectical a term for that, but it plays its part in developing and perpetuating a deep conviction within the consuemr that the production of the product in question – attributable no doubt to other human beings in the generic sense – is nonetheless beyond anything you can imagine; it is not something the consumer or user has any social sympathy for whatsoever.  In that respect, it is a little like the feeling nonintellectuals and lower-class people have always had about intellectuals and what they do: you see them doing it, and it doesn’t look very complicated, but even with the best will in the world you don’t quite get it, you don’t see why peopel would want to do things like that, let alone trust yourself to form an idea of what it is they actually do.  (315)

Funny how he does this but uses academics as his example since it’s NOT a low culture thing.

Anyway, he wants to talk about reification like this:

in this sense of the way in which a product somehow shuts us out even from a sympathetic participation, by imagination, in its production.  It comes before us, no questions asked, as something we could not begin to imagine doing for ourselves.  (317)

We can consume it, no problem, and it’s set up for us to do that, but we can’t actually imagine producing it.  He suggests that “great modernist works” set themselves up to be reified in this sense — they were products of “genius” and so no one could create them without “specialist or expert qualification” except their disciples.  And so postmodernism comes along and says whoever wants to indulge it can create.  The price?  “the preliminary destruction of modernist formal values….along with a range of crucial related categories such as the work or the subject.” (317)

IV.  Groups and Representation (318)

Suggests that postmodernism is marked by the splintering of class into “groups” which are smaller, have less universalizing potential, and tend to also have far more restricted types of aims – and that this movement from class to group is in part because modernism’s promise of class “revolution” failed.  So now the people are represented by “minorities” that tend to resist totalizing/universalizing theory… and instead you get “micropolitics”.  These groups then become the “substitute for a dissappearing working class” (320).  So then the subject, that once was idealized as an individual creating the grand narrative, becomes the “subject-position” that is occupied as one affiliates oneself with different groups during different moments.  So the ‘subject’ (as much as there is one) can be a part of different groups at different times (or different groups at the same time).  He talks about the identification of people as “homeless” which marks them as a part of a group that has to be / can be  dealt with by the state and by others around them — their individuality is erased and they are contained within the group conceptually.  He suggests this is one of the other markers of postmodernism – that there is an “ideological category that slowly moves into place to cover” the individual (322).  How this works on the micro-macro level are that politics (and economics and any other ics) are no longer able to retain a sense of individual resistance that then is based on some kind of ineffable “totalizing” morality — (which is the way it used to work in modernism, when the two levels local and global were easily coordinated).  Now the local is specific and not able to be “generalized”.

V.  The Anxiety of Utopia

The Postmodernist is afraid of utopia for two reasons –
1) that utopian thinking leads to despotisim & is dangerous (leads to massacres, Stalin’s camps, Pol Pot, etc)
2)  that the reconciliation of subject & object in utopia somehow equals the “simplification of life, of the obliteration of exciting urban difference and of the muting of sensory stimulus” (235)

Those who resist also, somehow, are afraid of the resurgance of a “primal unity” that is affixed to the “inevitable past” that arises from this.

There’s also a notion that the imagined utopia does not actually come from a revolution, but instead from some kind of conservative impulse, and so there’s anxieties about “utopian” dreams that then get criticized for being reactionary rather than revolutionary.

VI.  The Ideology of Difference

So, here’s the good & the bad – the ideology of groups and difference doesn’t get rid of tyranny.  (sadface).  It does, possibly, shred up the notion of consensus.  “consensus becomes the illusion of consensus”  The problem is that consensus is equated to “representative democracy” so that once you recognize groups you start to recognize democracy is a farce.

What will concern us here for another moment is, on the one hand, the suitability of the general ideology or rhetoric of difference to articulate those concrete social struggles, and, on the other, the deeper implicit representation or ideological model of the social totality on which the logic of groups is based and which it perpetuates… the media and the market. (341)

He suggests that “difference” is “booby-trapped” because it’s opposite is “Identity” – and so “difference” becomes a buzz word of liberal tolerance (which might, in fact, be not difference but “tolerance of difference” which is possibly “the obliteration of genuine social difference in the first place” (341). So neo-ethnicity (as a type of difference) is/became a yuppy matter of fashion & the market, or possibly offensive (a non-jew who identifies jewish), not a real recognition of anything.

And Differentiation is problematic because:

If what is historically unique about the postmodern is thus acknowledge as sheer heteronomy and the emergence of random and unrelated subsystems of all kinds, then, or so the argument runs, there has to be something perverse about the effort to grasp it as a unified system in the first place.  (342)

He has a point here — the only problem is that there’s a balancing act between ignoring that there are narratives and requiring a master narrative.  But, back to his perspective

He links again late capitalism to postmodernism by talking about global concept of postmodernism — that where once

precapitalist modes of production achieved their capacity to reproduce themselves through verious forms of solidarity or collective cohesion, the logic of capital is, on the contrary, a dispersive and atomistic, “individualist” one, an antisociety rather than a society, whose systematic structure, let alone its reproduction of itself, remains a mystery and a contradiction in terms. … this paradox is the originality of capitalism, and that the verbally contradictory formulas we necessarily encounter in defining it point beyond the words to the thing itself (and also give rise to that peculiar new invention, the dialectic)…(343)

after some huge blathering about how classes are fairly limited and that institutions are kinds of groups, he comes back to why groups are slightly more mobile.  They:

seem to offer the gratifications of psychic identity (from nationalism to neoethnicity).  Since they have become images, groups allow the amnesia of their own bloody pasts, of persecution and untouchability, and can now be consumed: this marks their relationship to the media…

The political horror of consensus – mistaken for a dread of “totalization” – is then simply the justified reluctance of groups that have conquered a certain pride in their own identity to be dictated to by what turn out to be simply other groups, since now everything in our social reality is a badge of group membership and connotes a specific bunch of people. (347)

So then he goes into the notion that once you’ve got these groups resisting (or noticing the problems with) consensus, you also have the “death of the subject” (because the group comes to stand in for the subject.  So he goes back to Marx, and suggests that Marx finding the proletariat as the new subject of history hasn’t been replaced – but the class of the proletariat is too dispersed into groups and into the global system to actually get a coherent “genuine” class consciousness.  Also, the “ruling class” stops being identified as individuals who own the means of production and become institutions (hey Foucault, here you are!) and so there are no “levers” of production to control/manage.  Instead the only “visible” entities left are the Media and the Market.  And you’ve got “power” relationships between groups.  (he talks in earlier paragraphs about the rise of the media as an entity that is somehow separate from groups).

Media is split into media culture, media politics (what to show), and other types of things.  The end of “privacy” means we have an enargement of what constitutes the “public” sphere — only of what we’ll stand to watch, and then he suggests that “media” failed to come into being — it’s not yet “media”:

the example he gives this is Kennedy’s assassination.  The media culture set in place in the 40s & the 50s gave rise to THE media event of his death — it created a unique collective experience, trained people to read such events in a new way, not because of Kenndy’s public position, but how it was handled–

television showed what it could really do and what it really meant – a prodigious new display of synchronicity and a communication situation that amounted to a dialectical leap over anything hitherto suspected. (355)

it was the shock of the communication explosion, scarring the mind with radical difference, born out of violence and the private as public, “to which collective amnesia aimlessly returns in its later forgetfulness” …. that makes it “available for new semiotic combinations”.

VII.  Demographies of the Postmodern

Who appears in the media though?  The person who “compels recognition of my existance and my status as a human subject.” (356) They are the people who clamor for recognition in the public space.  They are the ones who have been invisible before, but are now everywhere.  The visible “other” and this is an act of violence “by which you force yourself on another’s attention.” (357)

We need TO explore the possibility that there exists, in what quaintly used to be called the moral realm, something roughly equivalent to the dizziness of crowds for the individual body itself: the premonition that the more other people we recognize, even within the mind, the more peculiarly precarious becomes the status of our own hitherto unique and “incomparable” conscionsess or “self.”  (358)

He suggests too that demography, the fact that there are more people alive at the moment now than there have been throughout history, has this weird effect of legitimating the present and “consigning the past to oblivion” because who cares about it?  based on the overwhelming numbers WE “outnumber the dead” and the past doesn’t have anything to tell us about it.

Goes into a long discussion about Sartre’s perspective on this, including a quoted passage that even when one is alone the rest of the world pushes in on one – even though Sartre is a modernist there’s the essence of the postmodern fear in his modernist writings.

VIII.  Spatial Historiographies

Talks about Lefebvre’s notions of new kinds of spacial imagination that acknowledges different types of experienced time as well.

So even if everything is spatial, this postmodern reality here is somehow more spatial than everything else.  (365)

this is a reaction against the  canonized critical dependence on temporality of high modernism -a reaction against that he discussed earlier.  And then what happens next is nature is “effaced” and everything is modernized and mechanized.  (except that then he talks about the denaturalization of the natural).

What you get is two types of historiographies:

‘fantastic historiography’

you make up a chronicle (368) that resembles something real (secret history of the mongle)… it has a semblance of historical verismilitude, and retains genre form of historiography but allows all kinds of content


you underscore a fictional intent by including real-life figures unexpectedly appearing and dissapearing, using collage effects, newspapers, etc.

both tell us about a postmodern sense of history where the real impacts the fictional (and vice versa).  It also doesn’t attempt to resolve contradictions but instead ratifies them. History becomes spatial – so the news is conveyed via newspaper column that juxtaposes events without reflecting on their interrelatedness.

The “solution” to a juxtaposition – Alaska, Lebanon – that is not yet even a puzzle until it is solved – Nasser and Suez! – no longer opens up historiographic deep space or perspectival temporality of the type of a Michelet or a Spengler: it lights up like a nodal circuit in a slot machine (and thus foreshadows a computer-game historiography of the future even more alarming). (374)

Repression and “the ideological mechanisms whereby we avoid thinking historically” are also spatial – they give us a blueprint of reading where we can defuse information, where things can coexist with each other instead of canceling each other out.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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