Fredric Jameson, Introduction (“Postmodernism”)


Jameson’s brief introduction to the larger volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism precedes the infamous chapter on “Culture” (the original essay entitled “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”). In about fifteen pages, Jameson lays out the structure of the book, beginning:

“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.” ix

For Jameson, this manifests as “the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications,” different from the modernist fixation on “the new” because it is focused on breaks and events, changes in representations, rather than new worlds and orders of perception. He argues later that both subject and object have changed, but this argument, in particular, seems to focus on the change of the subject, and how we  no longer consider “the thing in itself,” for postmodernism is the more “formal” and “fully human” mode which is

“more ‘distracted,’ as Benhamin might put it; it only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images.” ix

“…culture has become a product in its own right… Postmodernism is the connsumption of sheer commodification as a process.” x

Jameson suggests that in this shift, our theories should relate to Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Culture Industry” as “MTV or fractal ads bear to fifties television series” x. He notes the irony of Lyotard’s “end of master narratives” or “end of history” being narrativized in historical terms xi, since “virtually any observation about the present can be mobilized in the very search for the present itself” xii. In a world where all is surface,

“there no longer exists any such ‘deeper logic’ for the surface to manifest… a pathology distinctively autoreferential.” xii

“postmodernism – has crystallized a host of hitherto independent developments which, thus named, prove to have contained the thing itself in embryo and now step forward richly to document its multiple genealogies… like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses its unlikely materials into a gleaming lump or lava surface.” xiii

If the modernist aesthetic paradigm was built on time, catastrophe, and disaster, postmodernism is built on space, uncertainty, disorientation. Its terminology, for Jameson, is “McLuhanite” xiii (referring to the communications philosopher and media theorist who coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village”). He proposes that Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling” only applies to postmodernism if we undergo “profound collective self-transformation” xiv, but in fact for Jameson, culture and economy in postmodernism are more mutually reinforcing than ever before; there is no “outside.”

Jameson wonders about the use of “utopia” in the “spatialized” age of postmodernity (vs modernity, focused on time), and also begins to suggest that theory (aesthetic theory in particular) seems to have begun to replace aesthetic objects as being able to “defy the gravity of the zeitgeist” xvi and perhaps even be avant-garde. However, with such theorizing, what is “the text” that replaces “the work” in “the Heisenberg principle of postmodernism… the endless slide show, ‘total flow’ prolonged into the infinite”? xvii. Whereas once the world or language was fragmented and the subject (the bourgeois ego) expressed that, now the subject is fragmented, or ceases to exist (thus the “waning of affect” Jameson notes and Ngai contends).

TERMS: Jameson also explains his use of the word “nostalgia” for the film chapter here – an affectless return of the repressed of the twenties and thirties xvii. He uses “late capitalism” as a synonym of “multinational capitalism,” “spectacle or image society,” “media capitalism,” “the world system,” and calls “postmodernism,” Adorno’s “administered society,” and even “postindustrial society” cousins of the term xviii. He traces the term back to Adorno, Horkheimer, & the Frankfurt School to refer to “a tendential web of bureaucratic control… a Foucault-like grid avant la lettre” and “the interpenetration of government and big business… Nazism… the New Deal… some form of socialism, benign or Stalinist” xviii.

Though the term has shed some of the paranoia of these older associations and (frighteningly) these features have become naturalized, it is still a useful way to think about the post-imperial stage of capitalism (see notes to Chapter 1). The pieces came gradually, but have jelled into a new system of which we are now actually aware, characterized by international labor division, media & computing on the rise, emergence of yuppies, and global gentrification xix. Jameson claims that the economic structures were laid in the 50s, but that the cultural aspect necessitated a new “psychic habitus… the absolute break” only possible a decade later:

“That the various preconditions for a new ‘structure of feeling’ also preexist their moment of combination and crystallization into a relatively hegemonic style everyone acknowledges… the basic new technological prerequisites of the… third stage… were available by the end of World War II…. Culturally, however, the precondition is to be found… in the enormous social and psychological transformations of the 1960s.” xx

“If you prefer a now somewhat antiquated language, the distinction is very much the one Althusser used to harp on between a Hegelian ‘essential cross section’ of the present (or coup d’essence), where a culture critique wants to find a single principle of the ‘postmodern’ inherent in the most varied and ramified features of social life, and that Althusserian ‘structure in dominance’ in which the various levels entertain a semiautonomy over against each other, runa t different rates of speed, develop unevenly, and yet conspire to produce a totality” ixx-xx

Jameson cuts the “short American century” to 30 years: 1945-73, beginning with WWII ending and culminating in the oil crisis, end of the gold standard and ‘wars of national liberation’/death of traditional communism of 1973 xx-xxi. “Late capitalism,” far from suggesting the system’s death, seems “more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive” xxi. Though the term “postmodernism” is not ideal, it is unavoidable, and “every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and to stage those representational inconsistencies and dilemmas” xxii.

The full list of sections of the volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is as follows (those in bold are those I will be reading):

0) Introduction
1) Culture: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
2) Ideology: Theories of the Postmodern
3) Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious
4) Architecture: Spatial Equivalents in the World System
5) Sentences: Reading and the Division of Labor
6) Space: Utopianism after the end of Utopia
7) Theory: Immanence and Nominalism in Postmodern THeoretical Discourse
8) Economics: Postmodernism and the Market
9) Film: Nostalgia for the Present
10) Conclusion: Secondary Elaborations


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