Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part One


Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984)

Part One

In 1992, Charles Jencks summed up his definition of the Postmodern in ”The Post-Modern Agenda” by saying the over the past ten years the debate had centered on whether the changes should be called Neo or Post. However, Jencks continued, both movements shared the “notion that the modern world is coming to an end and that something new must replace it.” In this essay, Jencks summarized up the major theoretical positions to date about that “strange feeling of posteriority” or aftermath that had become pervasive during the previous decade of the 1980s. Jencks named Jean-François Lyotard and Andreas Huyssen, Linda Hutcheon, and Ihab Hassan as the leading writers on Postmodernism. For those writers, Postmodernism means the end of a “single world view” and the beginning of a “war on totality,” meaning a “resistance to single explanations, a respect for difference and a celebration of the regional, local and particular.”

In his naming of Postmodern writers, Charles Jencks wittingly or unwittingly pointed to the interdisciplinary aspects of Postmodern thought. Postmodernism brought together philosophy, literary theory, history, art criticism, sociology, anthropology–most of the humanities–in a generational effort to re-consider the Modern era now that it had passed. If it was the habit of those who fabricated the modern to be future oriented, it was the task of those who would write the post-modern or the after-modern, to be backwards looking in reconsidering the role of the past. Because Postmodernism accepted the past and was interested in history, it was not anti-Modern but accepted philosophical Modernism by transforming its larger framework into parts which “still keep their identity.” In addition, it should be noted that the “past” analyzed by these writers was a modernist past, and this fascination of Postmodernism with Modernism was akin to a snake swallowing it own tail.

Indeed, in reading the Postmodern authors, one hears echoes of Walter Benjamin’s idea of allegory, but more precisely, what Postmodern analysis did was to return to the Modern to re-read the supposedly “pure” texts from an “impure” or deconstructionists and critical perspective. It is easy to think of Postmodernism as opposite from Modernism but the philosophical efforts are much more than the other half of a dialectic: Postmodernism turns Modernism inside out and examines its seams to see how it was put together. One of the more original philosophers of the Postmodern, Frederic Jameson (1934-), was able to take advantage of the penchant for the past and the acceptance of popular culture to put the erudite ideas of Postmodernity into an easily digestible format–Hollywood movies–the cultural “unconscious,” if you will, of Western culture. It was Jameson, more than the other Postmodern theorists, who understood the “logical” connections between the omnipresence of popular culture, how this culture or what Theodor Adorno (1903-1965) would term the “culture industry” has shaped the Postmodern collective consciousness.


This consciousness, however, should not be considered to be owned by a personal self or unique subject. Just as earlier Postmodern theorists noted that language shapes not only the conscious mind but also the unconscious mind as well, Jameson came to a similar conclusion that minds are molded through the prevailing culture. Therefore, Jameson along with the Postmodern thinkers named by Jencks–a second generation, post-Derridian generation, if you will–considers the notion of the unique version of self and thus of a unique style to be an ideological expression of the dominant society unwilling to admit the extent to which the “selves” are oppressed. But as Jameson pointed out is is important to recognize and to analyze this “loss of self.” Keep in mind that this loss of self is theoretical and leads the way for a theoretical discussion of what it means to be “post” or “after.” As Jameson emphasized in his essay of 1984 “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” there is a sense of loss. He wrote of “Postmodernism,”

As the word itself suggest, this break is most often related to notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation). Thus abstract expressionism in painting, existentialism in philosophy, the final forms of representation in the novel, the films of the great auteurs, or the modernist school of poetry (as institutionalized and canonized in the works of Wallace Stevens) all are now seen as the final, extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse which is spent and exhausted with them..What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally..

In order to make the leap from the loss of self to the Postmodern “condition” in the arts it is necessary to look to another of Jameson’s books The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) as a prelude to his book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Captialism (1991). Jameson’s concept of Postmodernism is unusual in that he attempts to rescue the notion of the meta-narrative and to revive Marxism as a viable option for critical analysis in a time where it seemed that capitalism had “won.” But he also re-used Sigmund Freud and combined theories of the unconscious with theories of the economy from Karl Marx in a concept he called the “political unconscious,” a form of pensée sauvage. Jameson claimed that

Only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism..Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past..From this perspective the convenient working distinction between cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life. Such a distinction reconfirms that structural, experiential, and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between history or society and the “individual,” which—the tendential law of social life under capitalism–maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from out speech itself..The assertion of a political unconscious proposes that we undertake just such a final analysis and explore the multiple paths that lead to the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts.

Jameson considered this primitive and uncontrolled “unconsciousness” to be a “conspiratorial text” and stressed the importance of political interpretation of cultural artifacts that must be unmasked. He was opposed to “historicism,” a form of re-writing history, which is a projection of the present as a contrast to the past which, in turn is couched as being both specific and radically different. According to Jameson, the ideology of historicism actually stands for the deeper truth that it seeks to deny and conceal and that deeper truth is a desire of the ruling class to uphold its domination, that turns the construction of “history” into a strategy of containment. By “containing” history, that is writing it selectively, contradictions are denied, such as the contradiction between democracy and denial of universal suffrage. The collective mind that has been fed and shaped by these ideologies must, therefore, be analyzed (in the Freudian manner) as a consciousness that has been formed through cultural repression. According to Frederic Jameson, the collapsed sense of temporality was schizophrenic and without teleology, or that straight progressing line of movement imagined by nineteenth century historians. Therefore, there can be no “history” and without history, there is no past and no present and no future, only fragments of already-worked representations of memories. The lack of a coherent history results in a artificial sense of a “constructed” (non)self.

The theoretical loss of self is political, leaving that, rather than possessing an authentic sense of history, the individual has no self-hood and is shaped by emanations from mass media. In re-reading Jameson exactly thirty years later, one can only reflect upon how prophetic he was–even before cable television, the rise of the internet, and the retreat of Americans into market niches designed to shelter their media constructed “selves.” Jameson took up the issues of the postmodern culture industry, which, thanks to television and radio and the proliferation of film–beyond anything Adorno had experienced–in a Postmodern era. He understood it to be–even more so–as part of Adorno’s totally “administered society,” functioning as part of a set of institutions, from movies in Hollywood to radio in New York to magazines and mass media–that organize obedience and control from the citizens. In his essay on “Late Capitalism,” Jameson outlined the impact of the shaped and fabricated “political unconscious.” Rather than examine the loss of the political self in an age of “greed” and runaway unregulated capitalism, Jameson focused on the impact of the loss of subject which led to a “loss of mastery” as played out in the visual arts and architecture where contemporary artists could not “master” the signs; they could only manipulate images to simulate mastery of signs.

The result of this loss of mastery is the (non) creation of a patische or an imitation of a peculiar or unique style and patische wears a stylistic mask that masquerades as a “movement” or a faux style. A work of patische is a speech in what Jameson called a “dead language,” a politically neutral practice of mimicry of an element from the past. Patische, in French, which means “stencil” or a kind of stamping or repetition of a copy is therefore is a blank parody and blank irony, with the term “blank” suggesting inauthentic or a disconnect with the “original” parody. In other words, the element that is being parodied in the present comes from the past and has no real resonance in contemporary society but is used because the parody is “recognized” but is actually empty of meaning. The essential message from Jameson is the failure of “art,” the failure of the “aesthetic,” the failure of the “new,” which is never new only the old recycled. Through works of art, Postmodernism acknowledged its imprisonment in the past.

Follow the discussion in Parts Two and Three.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Postmodern in Architecture


In America, Postmodernism, as an art form, was first manifested in architecture, arriving as a new discourse about architecture as early as the 1960s. It is important to note that this discourse was architectural and not philosophical, although philosophy enters into the precincts of architecture by the 1980s. In the 1960s, it would be more precise to refer to the new thinking in architecture as anti-modernist or anti-International Style. In a very real way, the reaction against the forced invasion of tall glass buildings into traditional neighborhoods was paralleled by Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration of the urban landscape around Pearl Street and his interest in the “vernacular.”

One of the early harbingers of Postmodern thinking was a remarkable book written by Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961. Jacobs sounded the death knell of the Utopian dreams of Modernist architecture in which the architect thought s/he could save the world by razing the organically developed city and building a new urban world. The result of such architectural destruction, however well-intentioned, was a ripping away of urban fabrics and the neighborhoods that made cities live. Jacobs recommended an ad hoc, spontaneous approach to a more natural growth in contrast to urban planning that had paid no attention to the human life of cities. Jacobs began her section on “The Need for Aged Buildings” saying,

Cities need old building so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normla granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year after year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is , therefore, instantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types, This is of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture.

A decade later, in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was published. This work of a trio of architects, Robert Venturi,his wife Denise Scott-Brown,and the late Steven Izenour, called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. His demand that architecture come down out of its ivory tower and to take note of the ordinary urban experience in the 1960s comes at the same time as Pop Art was dominating the art world. Venturi’s preference for the ordinary and his attention to the world—the environment—surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style. As the couple wrote,

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down pParis an d begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another way is more tolerant: that is to question how we look at things. The Commercial Strip, the Las Vegas Strip in particular—it is the example par excellent—challenges the architect to take a positive, non-chip-on-the -shoulder view. Architects are out of the habit of looking non judgmentally at the environment because orthodox modernist architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian and puristic; is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.

In its quest to develop an architectural style suitable for the new materials and new conditions of the new twentieth century, modernist architecture turned its back on the past. Architecture of the nineteenth century had been an architecture of eclecticism, as exemplified by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opèra, dripping with past styles. It was an article of faith that modern architecture had to eliminate all of the surface ornamentation that crusted over the buildings. Austrian designer Adolf Loos famously characterized ornament as “crime.” Therefore, a building by Mies van der Rohre demonstrated that “less is more,” by stripping architecture to acts of construction/structure and by placing stress on the activity of making/building. “God,” as Mies would say, “is in the details,” in the precision of the angles and in the rightness of the materials. Mies was famously focused on corners of his steel-caged buildings.

Modernist architecture followed the thinking of Modernist painting—truth to materials, a focus on intrinsic properties, and an elimination of extrinsic aspects, such as decoration or ornamentation. Modernist architecture, in its pure whiteness ignores the environment and is independent of its surroundings. A building by Le Corbusier, such as Villa Savoye (1928-29), stood alone, aloof from its surroundings, majestic in its reductive purity. The Villa stood alone, surrounded by a green field rimmed with trees and it took in the environment through its long rectangular windows on its own terms. Like a sculpture the building was lifted, as if being placed on a pedestal, on pilotis, or columns. Modernist architecture was designed to make a statement of modernity, of newness, to dominate the aging landscape, to make a statement of difference. Modernist architecture is avant-garde, new, free of the past.

But the utopian dreams of Modernism had to confront the realities of the human inhabitants of the modern buildings. Modernist architecture before World War II was mostly manifested in private domestic homes, designed for discerning clients, such as the Villa or the homes for the Masters of the Bauhaus. However, after the war, modernist architecture became the International Style and there was enough money to build these very expensive glass and steel skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building (1958). Awash in post-war profits, the corporations and their architects could realize the grand utopian dream of modernism—reform of the cities. But here is where Modernism theory began to fail in the face of reality.

Le Corbusier’s mass housing project (1949-1952) in Marseilles, unité d’habitation, was a prototype, not just for post-war mass housing but also for the New Brutalism (brut) style, due to its use of raw concrete. Mass housing was an efficient way to house the large numbers of people who lived in worked in major cities. Rather than leave individuals to their own devices or rather than allow the city to grow organically, the modern city and its buildings must be planned for purpose and located conveniently. Corbu, the master was reportedly dismayed when the people who lived in his exemplary work imposed their own needs upon the pristine building, as manifested by their varying uses of the exposed balconies. By and large, people made their peace with the idea of the roof of unité d’habitation being their outdoor landscape but the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Complex (1954) in St. Louis did not have a happy ending.

Conceived of as a place to house lower class populations, the buildings were unloved and were subjected to physical assault on the part of the residents. Remarkably the architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki had won awards for their work. Today the buildings remain as a potent memory, standing for the failure of modernist architecture and modernist arrogance that good architecture was good for society. According to architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe was the death-knell of Modernist architecture and its attempt to wipe out human nature and the vestiges of the past and the history of architecture. As Jencks stated, in a famous proclamation,

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, bring to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

The age of Postmodern architecture was brief one, dating roughly from 1970 to 1990 or from 1980 to 2000, depending on your source. In one of the most ironic and tragic coincidences of the modern era, the total destruction of another set of buildings is said to have closed the postmodern era when the World Trade Center—once again with Minoru Yamasaki as the architect—was destroyed. Precisely why Postmodernism lay beneath the ruins is two-fold. First, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers ended the sense that the West was the impervious center of the world and ushered in a realization of global conditions. Second, the modernization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan by city planner Robert Moses and the Rockefeller brothers and the building of the World Trade Center was the quintessential act of Modernist arrogance and disregard for the organic city. As architectural critic, Paul Goldberger pointed out, after the site was rebuilt,

…it was Jacob’s via of the city, not Yamasaki’s or Austin Tobin’s or Robert Moses’s, that eventually prevailed in New York and in much of the rest of the country. It had become common wisdom, long before the towers were destroyed—so ouch so that it is hard to believe that he twin towers could have been built as they were had the project begin only a few years after it did. It is unlikely that all the streets in the sixteen-acre site would have been eliminated; it is unlikely that the efforts to preserve Radio Row would have been so completely ignored by public officials; an fit is unlikely that Yamasaki’s design would have been considered exempt from public reviews.

But whenever Postmodern architecture ended, it did end and today these buildings bear the distinct marks of what Postmodernism refuted—a signature style. In addition to a particular look that emerged over time, which will be discussed in the next post, Postmodernism in architecture was also an attitude or a particular approach to the built environment. Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism which broke firmly with the past. A building by postmodern architects would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to time period or consistency.

Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins, and creating an allegory, which is Postmodernism’s major characteristic. Even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure, each element of the allegory re-found by the architect retains its historical meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text for a knowledgable audience. Steeped in irony, bereft of idealism, Postmodernist architecture was an insider’s theoretical architecture and it was precisely that ironic attitude that collapsed with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

See also Charles Jencks. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism. 2002

Paul Goldberger. Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. 2005

(Link to Learning from Las Vegas: Ironically the Las Vegas that the architects wrote about no longer exists)



From Mannerism to Postmodernism in Architecture

Mannerism and Symbolism in Architecture

Robert Venturi began his famous book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, with a “gentle manifesto” for what he called “Nonstraightforward Architecture.” The young architect stated,

I like complexity and contradiction in architecture in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art….Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, being as well as “interesting,” convention rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include non sequitur and and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white and sometimes gray to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in serval ways at once…More is not less.

It is necessary to quote this opening passage at length because it is one of the earliest statements about what would be called Postmodernism in America and because it would form the basis for the definition of Postmodernism later fashioned by the architectural writer, Charles Jencks. In addition many aspects of his “manifesto” would find their way into the basic elements of Postmodern thought. Although Venturi declared that he was not a Postmodern architect—and as a pioneer, he could not be—his playful approach to re-examining Modernist architecture would change the thinking of an entire generation. His book, published in 1966, reflects the slow process his thinking had gone through during the five years he spent designing a small modest house for his mother, Vanna Venturi. Architectural historian, Vincent Scully, called this book the most important book on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture (1923).

If Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is his verbal manifesto, then the famous Mother’s House (1963) was his physical manifesto, demanding a change in architectural thinking. In his introduction to Mother’s House. The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, Frederick Schwartz noted that architectural students at the nearby University of Pennsylvania were warned by their professors to not visit this radical house. However, not only did they come, but Venturi also won a Gold Metal for this opening salvo against Modernism. If this house is a challenge to Modernist purism in architecture than it is instructive to compare it to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both houses set alone on a small lot, a grass lawn, rimmed with trees, announcing each as a work of art. While the Villa is clearly a new and modern design that was a “machine for living,” Mother’s House was based on an old and familiar prototype—or a combination of traditions.

As he describes it, Venturi was seeking a combination of “essence” and “classicism.” The essential house or dwelling is an enclosure as evoked by the plain salt-box New England shape and the peaked roof. The classicism of the house is its split or divided pediment which interrupts while retains the classicism. Some of the playfulness comes from his desire to defy the elders of his profession—he returns windows to their original source, as holes in a wall and he repainted the stucco house from a taupe gray to a green to make the house blend in with nature, because Marcel Breuer would never do. And in the worst infamy of all, Venturi added moldings—from the unfunctional arch to the decorations around the windows—ornamentation. While symmetrical the exterior and interior have elements of asymmetry, from mismatched windows from a staircase hidden behind a door. Today this private home is a place of pilgrimage for architects seeking the source of Postmodernism.

Another iconic work of Postmodern architecture was designed around the same time as Venturi was working towards his final version of Mother’s House and that was the Sydney Opera House, which was not opened until 1973, a decade after the architect, Jorn Utzon. This building, an engineering marvel, was also a display of visual “double-coding,” a term coined by Charles Jencks to indicate that the visual forms of Postmodern architecture had codes, meanings, that had multiple meanings. The two sail-shaped, triple layered roofs of the Opera House refer to the Sydney Harbor and the ships that sail for pleasure in front of the famous building. The code for “sails,” “sea,” and even of vaults which capture the sound of the music are local and specific, rather than being universal forms favored by Modernist architecture. Although some wits have equated the layers or shells to a ménage à trios of mating turtles, the Sydney Opera House can, in Venturi language, be called a “Duck.”

Venturi confronted Modernism with his famous “duck” and “decorated shed” comparison put forward in his 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The “Duck,” inspired by a duck shaped structure on Long Island, is the Modernist building, which is a symbol of Modernism and of the machine. The Decorated Shed is a generic building that symbolizes nothing but enclosure or “shed” in which its actual function is designated by signage. That signage is symbolic but frankly so, for Venturi maintains that although Modernist architects deny it, all architecture, even theirs, is symbolic. When Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and Steve Izenour visited Las Vegas, the town was full of “Sheds” Decorated with neon signs, designating them as casinos. But, interestingly, today Las Vegas is comprised of “Ducks:” a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, a Venice, a Statue of Liberty and so on–an entire gaggle of ducks marching up and down the main highway.

The years following the publication of Learning from Las Vegas were the first years of acknowledged and frankly Postmodern works of architecture. One of the most successful works of Postmodern destination architecture was the Centre Georges Pompidou (1972-75) in the Beaubourg district of Paris. One of the grand projects of the post-war era, the museum for contemporary art celebrated technology. The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano turned the building inside out, like a sweater, and displayed the seams or the technology that makes the building work. The conduits and pipes are on the outside and the outside is on the inside. Scaffolding permanently surrounds the building and, also on the outside, a clear tube escalator, a “people mover,” elevates the audience from one level to the other. The pipes on the exterior are color in codes for hidden functions: red for elevators, blue for air, yellow for electricity and green for water. The Beaubourg has been embraced by the Parisians and visitors, with the large sloping cobblestone courtyard becoming a theater for performance and street artists.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]