Fredric Jameson, “Culture” (Ch 1, “Postmodernism”)


Jameson begins by stating that the present time (the eighties) is obsessed with “a break…. the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement” that occurred in the late 50s or early 60s (significantly a period we still seem to be making ever more movies and TV shows about, in fits of continued ‘nostalgia’) 1. For Jameson, this remains confused in literary and artistic production – a “new aesthetic of textuality,” but is crystallized in architecture (re: Brideshead’s exhausted representations of old architecture?) 2.

Postmodern architecture performs for Jameson: it “stage[s] itself as a kind of aesthetic populism” that effaces the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture… that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Levis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School… this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch” 2. Whereas modernism “quoted” from pop culture – think Ulysses – postmodern works “incorporate” this “into their very substance,” an odd statement not least because it’s questionable what Jameson would mean by substance here 3. The third stage of capitalism is no longer about industrialism and class struggle, but is purer, so that “every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” 3. Postmodernism, too, should be conceived for Jameson “not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant” with “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (reminiscent of Foucault on sexuality 4.

Though Jameson acknowledges that Stein, Roussel, and Duchamp seem to be postmodern avant-la-lettre, he holds that this does not account for the social history, the canonization of the modern (and even its appropriation), by the bourgeoisie 4. He also acknowledges that the postmodern is already incapable of shocking us with its obscurity and sexual content. This brings to mind Ngai’s idea of “stuplimity,” which both locates Stein and Beckett as “postmodern” writers, but also claims that the alternation between shock and boredom is key to the contemporary affect she describes.

Aesthetics are now fully bound to the economy, and this is one reason Jameson prefers the example of architecture, closely tied in its production to global corporations 5. This leads him to explain why the postmodern must not be swallowed into periodization as “modern” – it is not historically coterminous and  as a system, it does not actually obliterate heterogeneity, though Jameson is willing to interrogate the difficulty of the “‘winner loses’ logic”:

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree hloses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed… perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself 5.

The postmodern’s “hegemonic norm” actually highlights “genuine difference” for Jameson, protecting us from the myopic vision of our own time as uniquely ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ 6. 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” 6. Its features are 1) a “new depthlessness… both in contemporary ‘theory’ and… the culture of the image or the simulacrum, 2) a flattening or weakening of historicity through ‘schizophrenic’ Lacanian structures of syntax, 3) a “return to older theories of the sublime” in “a new type of emotional ground tone,” 4) a whole new technology tied to globalization, and 5) a mission of political art as it has shifted in multinational capitalism 6.

Jameson begins by discussing Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s shoes (over and against its “copiou[s] reproduc[tion] – re: Benjamin), with its “hallucinatory surface of color” as “an act of compensation” for the darkness of labor under capitalism 7. Secondarily, Jameson offers a Heideggerian reading, in which the meaningless material (Earth) is elevated through art to the level of aesthetics, society, and history (World) 7.  This is a kind of “laying bare the device,” through which aesthetic mediation uncovers the truth of the object, and again, this is partly through the materiality of the painting itself (again re: Benjamin) 8. Both readings are hermeneutical, says Jameson – they can be abstracted to larger meaning, whereas Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” cannot. Warhol’s shoes are not “a heterosexual pair” like Van Gogh’s, but a collection of single, odd “dead objects” 8. They are fetishes, decontextualized from their original materiality and unable to be material in art either, because they are like X-ray photographs, reproduced and flattened and sprinkled with a sealing veil of golden sparkles, expressive of the return of the repressed, “decorative exhilaration,” but also “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” (an idea Ngai resists in “Stuplimity”) 10.

This is not to say there is no emotion here, but that art does not “look back” at us, and that other Warhol subjects “like Marilyn Monroe – …are themeselves commodified and transformed into their own images” (though Jameson does not gender this, he probably should) 11. Essentially, the art of anxiety, such as Munch’s “The Scream,” is predicated on a division of the inner self and the outer world, “the outward dramatization of inward feeling” 12. This is connected to the poststructuralist critique of depth models of hermeneutics: 1) the dialectical essence vs appearance, 2) the Freudian latent vs manifest, 3) the existential divide of authentic vs inauthentic, and 4) the opposition of signifier and signified – itself already unraveled 12. For Jameson:

“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures… [suggest that] here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth” 12.

Jameson cites the tall, flat Wells Fargo Court in L.A., which “momentarily transforms the solid ground on which we stand into the contents of a stereopticon… as fateful as the great monolith in Kubrick’s 2001,” an idea that really reminds me of Linda Williams’ concept that if the original film was concerned with panorama, the new one is concerned with height (contemporary examples: think Avatar’s cliffs vs. The Master‘s painted-scenery of flat “depths,” as opposed to old Westerns or Abel Gance’s Napoleon) 13. As opposed to Ngai, for Jameson anxiety and alienation are purely modernist affects: “This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation” 14. In other words, it is no longer the world that is fragmented, as in modernism, but the subject. 

Like Benjamin, for Jameson this means the end of individual style, and the “emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction… a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well” – not so much the end of feeling as its depersonalization, as well as the accompaniment of euphoria to its expression 15-16. More concretely, this signifies

“the waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory… we now inhabit they synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” 16.

If parody is modern (despite the “inimitable” modern styles  – Faulkner’s long sentences, Lawrence’s natural imagery, Stevens’ evasions of certain syntaxes) because these “ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself” and are “willful eccentricities,” then pastiche is the province of the postmodern (though what about The Waste Land?16. “Modernist styles become postmodernist codes” for Jameson, layered atop the many codes of jargon, idiolect, and regionalism, since “advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” 17. Pastiche is instead “blank parody” – a “linguistic mask” with no humor or satiric impulse that “cannibalizes” past styles by attaching “neo” to them 17-18. It is characteristic of “consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles'” 18. For Jameson, as for Guy Debord, this is where “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed,” becomes useful, since “the image has become the final form of commodity reification” 18.

Instead of Lukac’s historical time in the novel, we now face a “libidinal historicism,” seeking to assimilate “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” leaving us with “nothing but texts” 18. In the nostalgia film,  for example, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” (he cites George Lucas’ American Graffiti – “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire”) 19. The nostalgia film sees the past in “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image… by the attributes of fashion” – he cites Barthes’ Mythologies 19. In this sense – in the “remake,” “retelling” or “historical fiction” of today, “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” 20. Even stars, then, are flatter – an absence of “personality” makes them more like character actors displaying past styles of acting, and the most common setting is small-town America, eschewing the high-rise features of multinational capitalism as well as older features of civilization. This seems related to the idea of “suture” – it all “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some external thirties, beyond real historical time… the pastiche of the stereotypical past” 21.

“We seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience,” Jameson claims 21. An exception for him is the work of Doctorow, namely The Book of Daniel. Ragtime, for Jameson is “a seemingly realistic novel” that is “a nonrepresentational work” combining “fatnasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram” 23. Jameson seems to find it positive that the novel “short-circuits” traditional interpretative techniques and “imposes” a reading mode where we must sort out real historical figures from fictional representation (reminds ME of Pynchon… why not Jameson?) 23. Here, history returns as the proverbial Freudian repressed – form replaces content as a means of communicating affect and meaning, since the “waning of content is precisely [Doctorow’s] subject” and the historical novel “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes ‘pop history'” 25.

In Genette’s terms, if the subject has “lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent expereince,” then representation becomes “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory” 25. Ngai will use this image in “Stuplimity,” but one wonders how Jameson’s notion of these “privative features” of postmodern art (more kindly called textuality, ecriture, or schizophrenic wriitng 26) pushes against T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land“I have shored up these fragments against my ruin” – likely in the loss of the subject who still believes in the possibility of a ruin to be staved off? In Lacan’s terms, schizophrenia is “a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” 26.

I’m interested in thinking of this in terms of faceting – not as a chain, but as a three-dimensional structure. In Derridean terms, “Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier” – akin to differance 26. The signified is then a “meaning effect… a mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” 26. This “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is for Jameson tied to psychic and linguistic ‘health’ – if we cannot understand and express 3 temporalities in language, “the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” 27. This reminds me not only of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but ironically enough, of the slogan Jameson decries: “The medium is the message”! 27. Jameson cites Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, which is where he locates the affect of euphoria in the loss of reality: “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” 27. I want to read this! It seems gendered, as well as connected to reading, to surfaces, and to faceting.

Related to such euphoria is the reappropriation of previously clinical terms for humor, irony, and even joy (one thinks of paranoid, schizphrenic, manic, stalker, obsessed) 29. He calls reading a kind of zoom lens, thinks of such verbal change as making meaning into the decorative, and explains photorealism as an effect of a world in which the real objects of art were not the things themselves but photos – the realism is the simulacrum 30. Criticism thus stresses “the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art… now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds” 31. This seems ripe for considering that we might join but not suture these elements, since Jameson does identify the positive value of collating multiplicity: “In the most interesting postmodernist works, one can detect a more positive concept of relationship, which restores its proper tension to the notion of difference itself… new and original way of thinking and preceiving… an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” 31. (Note: is the very impossibility related to old ideas of the sublime – thin Ngai’s stuplime?)

Jameson locates the euphoria of “the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape” in automobile wrecks, new surfaces, and commodified urban squalor (makes me think of Ballard and tours of squatters in Berlin) 33. Art divides the body from space (empty bathrooms as installations vs. simulacra of the body) to form an aesthetic of “derealization,” in which “the world… momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin” 34. Jameson connects this to camp, calling it a “hysterical sublime” 34. Whereas for Kant, the sublime alternates between awe and terror as the mind seeks to comprehend that which is at first beyond comprehension, now he looks at this more as dead objects, as technology turning back against us in its inert forms, haunting us in its covering of nature (Auden, Silko) 35. He periodizes capitalism: 1) 1840s steam power = market capitalism (realism), 2) 1890s electric power = monopoly or imperialist capitalism (modernism), 3) 1940s nuclear power = postindustrial or multinational capitalism (postmodernism) 35. (Even the polyglot words of the third phase are conglomerations!)

Jameson differentiates the potential for movement in the old technology and architecture (think the ships of Le Corbusier – this leftist emphasis on motion reminds me of Lukacs) from the static outer shell of the computer or television, “which articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself” 37. These are “machines of reproduction rather than of production… narratives which are about the processes of reproduction and include movie cameras” 37. One can imagine what Jameson would say now abut reality TV, as well as the true flatness of the iPhone and the iPad, the new computer called “Surface” from Microsoft, machines which almost efface themselves visibly as machines. For Jameson in 1984, architecture “remains… the privileged aesthetic language; and the distoriting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture” 37. (Note: calling it “mesmerizing” and “fascinating” is interesting because repetition/phallus roots.)

This leads to a “high-tech paranoia” – both the feeling that these machines are synecdochic stand-ins for a large, incomprehensible network (connected to the idea of the sublime?), but also the fear that that complexity cannot be overcome or understood by the “normal reading mind” (he cites cyberpnk – William Gibson, I think Neal Stephenson) 38. Our spatial creations, then, have outgrown the capacity of our minds, as if we wish to “expand our sensorium” to “impossible dimensions” (related to Kant’s free beauty?) 39. They speak the vernacular of the city, but do not aesthetically raise its tone? (Re: Adorno and the elitist’s complaint – these buildings do not seek to lift up the rest of the city, as in the modernist project). The Westin Bonaventure in LA reflects the city back, has 3 “backdoor” entrances on 2 different levels, none of which go to the lobby, and seeks to be a miniature city, Jameson argues.  (Think about this in terms of suturing off? Also vs. the arcade – infinitely enterable and exitable, where you always see the structure in the glass as well as through the glass both directions). The reflectivity of the “glass skin” repels all, giving distorted images of surroundings even as you can see out and the Other can’t see in (makes me think of Byatt, and glass/all reflective of other and/or self) 42.

Thinking of elevators and escalators as narrative movements in the building, Jameson claims that these symbolize and institutionalize movement, rather than just allowing it (Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”?) 42. You are either slowly moving against your own pace or shooting vertically up or down into another contained space, all covered in colors, streamers, and the indecipherable four corners of the hotel, which discourage orientation. In other words, we can never get our Kantian distance, because we are always overwhelmed by the spectacle (one wonders why we are so shamed by our looking and seeing – is it erotic in some way?). This is like the limits of fiction, too? Jameson politicizes this by claiming the inability to talk about war now (always?) 44. Surface and symbol are problematized in that the machine can no longer represent motion when inert, but must actually be represented in motion (video?) 45.

Though Jameson concludes that it would be an ethical mistake to accept the “delirious camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world,” it is equally problematic to trivialize it in comparison to “the ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms” 46. Like Zizek, for Jameson, the world of images erases past and future into images of cataclysm on the personal and social levels 46. Even though the postmodern is essentially negative, we are all embedded in it, and if it is historical, we cannot moralize it away:

“Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once… grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought… at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race and the worst… dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together” 47.

(This reminds me to think of Byatt’s “agnosticism” somewhat. Note: weird that Jameson says we are “submerged” if this aesthetic has no depth in his framing of it.) Jameson wonders: if there is no outside the system, and the relative autonomy of the arts is no longer, what can be done? Like Foucault on power & sexuality, the irony of proliferating sexual discourses is somewhat akin here to the irony of proliferating theoretical paradigms 49.  If, for Jameson, the promise of capitalism’s hugeness is the hugeness of potential social change, how is this not like an apology for technology and globalization, which he warned us against 50? He concludes that leftists should be less afraid of the pedagogical function of art, letting go of their fear of the bourgeois reaction to modernism 50.

Jameson ends by imagining “cognitive mapping” 51. If ideology toggles between the imaginary and the real (Althusser, also like Foucault, where sexuality toggles between power and pleasure?), then art needs to be able to situationally represent the individual in relation to the vast totality, and this is cognitive mapping (“to cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international class realities” as well) 52. It seems Jameson is imagining something that will  toggle experience and knowledge, orienting the individual in her surroundings 53.  If ideology is imagined and science is real (both of which fit into Marx and Althusser’s models), then in Lacan, we also have the symbolic, and Jameson looks to political art to fill this role somehow. Perhaps sadly and ironically, it seems Google Maps or GPS or a smartphone quite literally solves this problem, but in a mode so deeply imbricated in capitalism that it can hardly be seen as a solution. Does it, however, enable the end of postmodernism and the rise of the New Sincerity? And why did Occupy fail if all this is true?


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