Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Three

FREDERIC JAMESON (1934-)

Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983)

Part Three

As a literary scholar, Frederic Jameson was trained in the generation of “close reading” and has used literary analysis combined with a neo-Marxism of Karl Marx and the idea of the unconscious of Sigmund Freud to “read” culture through the lens of an economic analysis of the unconscious of society. The theoretical position/s of Jameson are typical of his era, which is Postmodernism, and are therefore hybrid. For him, Postmodernism is the result of a shift in economic conditions when in turn shaped the cultural cognitive. In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” Jameson carefully explained the connection between Postmodernity and capitalism which functions on the basis of a society that must consume to support the mode of production. In writing of Postmodernism, Jameson said,

It is also, at least in my use, a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order-what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism. This new moment of capitalism can be dated from the postwar boom in the United States in the late 1940s and early ’50s or, in France, from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The 1960s are in many ways the key transitional period, a period in which the new international order (neocolonialism, the Green Revolution, computerization and electronic information) is at one and the same time set in place and is swept and shaken by its own internal contradictions and by external resistance. I want here to sketch a few of the ways in which the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism, but will haul to limit the description to only two of its significant features, which I will call pastiche and schizophrenia: they will give us a chance to sense the specificity of the postmodernist experience of space and time respectively.

In tracking the marks of late capitalism upon the human consciousness, Jameson used the culture industry as a place where economics and culture and human thought clashed and combined. He considered cinema to be the primary Postmodern art, “the last machine,” as Holis Frampton called it, a product of the most sophisticated form of industrial production. As a cultural form, film is permeated by marketing and lives and dies on its particular modes of production and distribution and the carefully calculated effects upon the audiences. Cinema involves what the theorist called “cognitive mapping” or the psychology of the “political unconscious.” “ Cognitive Mapping,” with Jameson, who was always conceded with the connection between film and politics, is a metaphor for processes of the political unconscious. In the Preface to Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World Space (1992), Colin McCabe, who remarked that “cognitive mapping is the least articulated but also the most crucial of the Jameson categories,” explained the idea of “cognitive mapping as,

The term is taken from the geographer Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and is used by him to describe the phenomenon by which people make sense of their urban surroundings. Effectively, it works as an intersection of the people to function in the urban spaces through which they move. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is a way of understanding how the individual’s representation of his or her social world can escape the traditional critique of representation because the mapping is intimately related to practice–to the individual’s successful negotiation of urban space. Cognitive mapping in this sense is the metaphor for the processes of the political unconscious.

Film is a what he called a “conspiratorial text” with unconscious and collective effects that are concealed by bureaucratic impersonality of production and profit. But what is concealed? The particular fantasy that is projected by films must be collective and reassuring in order to contribute to a social totality. What occurs in postmodern film is Walter Benjamin’s allegory as articulated in his 1925 book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama or Origin of the German Mourning-Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels). The goal of Benjamin’s analysis of Baroque drama in Germany was to find a theory for the Baroque which had always been castigated as a “fall” from the purity of Classical drama. As opposed to clear symbolism, Baroque drama presented allegory or an overabundance of symbols assembled from the ruins of Classicism. In the same way, Postmodernism pillaged the resources of a ruined and exhausted Modernism. This lack of an authentic time or historical period, this untimelessness of Postmodern time is called schizophrenia. As Jameson explained that,

..schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. On the other hand, the schizophrenic will clearly have a far more intense experience of any given present of the world than we do, since our own present is always part of some larger set of projects which force us selectively to focus our perceptions.

Postmodern film and architecture was allegorized consumption of the past familiars that constructed an object-world composed of utopian wishes that allow the spectators to grasp their new (artificial and constructed) “being” in the world. Postmodern anxieties were soaked up at the movies and fantasy films became the solution that filled the cognitive and psychological vacuum. From what in this postmodern present were the audiences being distracted? Because traditional representation had become so tainted some form of representation had to be posited for the film audiences, raising the question of how would the present be represented? As an acknowledgement of the death of representation, the phenomenon of “Post” was a satisfactory solution to the problem, because allegory allowed random and isolated elements to function in fluid fashion and to form a schizoid constellation that was very Baroque, laden with plural and often entertaining feints towards “meaning.” In Postmodernism, new Post-generic films, therefore, were allegories of each other, abandoning the authenticity of the Modernist auteur.

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The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles

Jameson considered that the Postmodern “time” was an extension of late modernism in which there has been a collapse of the distinction between the base and superstructure and film or cinema is representative of this third stage of capitalism, which is all-encompassing and global and inescapable. As he wrote in “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,”

What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of truth” of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only the moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest to the surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right – even though a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most notably in the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content is still dramatised and articulated. Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object.

Film is both a mode of production and an art form, a form of creation and a commodity—the difference is impossible to distinguish and therefore the “movies” are linked to never-ending attempts on the part of the dominant class to reinforce ideologies that reified human beings. Film in the Postmodern era could never be modern or new; it can only be allegorical, endlessly attached to a past that never was. Postmodern allegory was an expression of the inability of the human object (o longer a subject) to locate him or herself in time. Jameson posited that one must locate oneself in a space that had not one point of focus but was plural and is dispersed without hierarchal arrangement, what he considered a loss of perspective or a sense of place. No where is this loss of perspective, this inability to “map” better manifested than in the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a building that Jameson described in great and theoretical detail. Jameson “diagnosed” the Bonaventure, designed by John Portman in 1974 and completed in 1976, and while the building lacks the façade of quotations used by Charles Moore and Michael Graves, the hotel lent itself well to the concept of cognitive mapping.

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The Bonaventure Interior

As anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, the Bonaventure is located in one of the spaghetti bowls of intersecting freeways and surface streets, making arriving at the site quite a feat in itself. Jameson notes the three separate entrances to the building which is a visually confusing cluster of five mirrored cylinders with the component parts visible only from the air. (Interestingly, Jameson himself miscounted the number of towers, stating that there are four.) Jameson wrote of the confusion for visitors who arrive at the hotel:

The entryways of the Bonaventure are, as its were, lateral and rather backdoor affairs: the gardens in the back admit you to the sixth floor of the towers, and even there you must walk down one flight to find the elevator by which you gain access to the lobby. Meanwhile, what one is still tempted to think of as the front entry on Figueroa, admits you, baggage and all, onto the second-story shopping balcony, from which you must take an escalator down to the main registration desk.

As if the entries and their presumed goals were not confusing enough, Jameson discussed the elevators which are both inside and outside, reflecting, so to speak, the mirrored surfaces of the buildings which attract and repeal the natural/cultural cityscape surrounding the hotel–outside become splashed onto the surface. According to the analysis of Jameson, the Bonadventue is all outside, all exterior, tight towers, clinging together into a conjoined unit, but the interior is subordinated to the allegorical ensemble of abstract shiny shapes. There is on focal point, no central level, the visitor is condemned to a futile wandering in search of a registration desk or a room down a rabbit warren of dark halls or rendered a passive onlooker from a vantage point that achieves no perspective and no horizon line. Without the old fashioned hierarchies of Modernist architecture, Postmodern architecture is playful and dysfunctional in its deconstruction of itself, mirroring, in a pun like fashion, the no-place of Late Capitalism.

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The Bonaventure Exterior

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Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Two

FREDERIC JAMESON (1934-)

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

Part Two

In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984) Frederic Jameson (1934-) examined film and architecture as forms of postmodernist culture that displayed the marks of the “waning” that was the Postmodern. Examples of this “early” postmodernism, that is, postmodernism avant la lettre, can be found in films made by Hollywood in the early 1970s and early 1980s. As a neo-Marxist theoretician, Jameson termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films which were then pasted together into a pastiche of other films, half remembered. It is important to pause and take note of the collective ages of the Baby Boomers for whom these so-called “nostalgia” films were made and marketed. The age of the viewers would have been thirties and forties and it is their knowledge of popular culture that is put into play. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies, such as Star Wars (1977), Grease (1978), Chinatown (1974), and Body Heat (1981), became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, also based upon intertextuality, such as, Pulp Fiction (1994) and L. A. Confidential (1997).

Jameson referred to a phenomenon he called the “waning effect,” or the impact of the commodification of objects in which movie stars are commodified into their own images, a condition that Andy Warhol understood quite well, displaying Troy Donahue with the same indifference he lined up cans of soup. Postmodern works, whether early predictions of the breakdown of Modernism suggested by the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, or later manifestations of actual Postmodernism, such as the referential photography of Jeff Wall, are all conceptual examinations of what makes a work of art see-able and recognizable to an audience with a rich collective memory of both high and popular culture. In the process of exploring a trail of quotations of earlier works, these artists made the familiar unfamiliar and uncanny, by revealing the means of the making of “art” as a concept. Jameson understood that (postmodern) “theory” had become a new kind of (nostalgic) discourse and that Postmodernism is marked by a sense of an end of philosophy and as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

In redeploying Marxism as the new neo-Marxism of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Jameson straddled the divide between the Cold War and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, where, as Fukuyama put it, history ended. Therefore in the essays, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” and “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson defined Postmodernism in Neo-Marxist terms. For Jameson, Postmodernism is not a style but a periodizing concept that is correlated with the emergence of a new kind of social life and a new kind of economic order: modernization in a post-industrial consumer society. Following the Frankfurt School, Jameson combined philosophy with political science and sociology and literary criticism and, as were Adorno and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), also concerned with the society of the media and the spectacle in an age of multinational capitalism. Most observers would agree with Jameson that the 1960s was the critical period, the break with Modernism, which ushered in two new and significant features in mass media: pastiche and schizophrenia.

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American Graffiti (1973) an early nostalgia film by George Lucas

Pastiche is compared with parody, which is possible only when the artist can play off a prevailing style in order to mock the original and to ridicule its mannerisms. Parody is based in a belief in a norm, such as Andy Warhol’s parody of the pretensions of Abstract Expressionism. But when there is no belief in “normal language,” as in Postmodernism, art becomes fragmented and privatized with each group of artists speaking in a private language called “theory” of art or art commenting upon art. For example, in the art world, Pluralism followed upon the demise of the “last official style,” which was mid-1960s Minimalism, and it was the seventies that ushered in an age of pastiche. In this era of stylistic diversity and heterogeneity, pastiche appeared as an imitation of a particular and unique style but wore a stylistic mask. Pastiche speaks in a dead language and is supposedly neutral. One could return to Friederich Schiller (1759-1805) and revisit his concept of satire, which was one of the tools of Schiller’s “sentimental artist,” who is always detached and alienated (like the Postmodern artist). Pastiche is blank parody and blank irony, without a sense of humor (unless the humor is black, as in Pulp Fiction). Art is about itself but in a new way. This is not “art for art’s sake” but a sign of failure of art as an aesthetic of the new. Art can no longer be defined as an aesthetic of the new.

Within Postmodernism, stylistic innovation is no longer possible. All that is left to do is to imitate dead styles and to speak in dead languages. Schizophrenia is a reflection of the radical break in time and space between Modernism and Postmodernism. Classical Modernism was an oppositional art–opposed the established art forms or opposed to the prevailing ideology that could be both a scandal and offensive to the public as with Dada. Today, the provocative challenge of Modernism to reality is taken for granted by the art institutions and the art public and all subversion is co-opted by the established order. Contemporary art has shifted its position and is now fundamentally in and part of our culture and can no longer exist outside of the system, as art becomes a commodity production linked to styling changes. With no future “shock” to move towards (because everything and anything “new” is immediately commodified), then art can only recycle, reuse and repurpose. Time folds back upon itself. Without a sense of past and present and future, the sense of history disappears and there is a loss of capacity to retain our “own” past as life that is lived in the perpetual present. Perpetual change obliterates traditions and transforms reality into images and time is fragmented into a series of perpetual presents in the plural. In this existential present, the past becomes a referent and an opportunity for formal inventiveness. As Jameson remarked,

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is, of course, a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety. It will here be read as an embodiment not merely of the expressionism of that kind of affect but, even more, as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism but to have vanished away–for both practical and theoretical reasons–in the world of the postmodern. The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside, of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is then projected out and externalized as gesture..

The past can be approached only through stylistic connotation of “pastness” or glossy qualities of image-as-fashion. The intertextuality of Postmodern art is deliberate and built into an artificial “aesthetic effect.” The result is a “history of aesthetic styles” that replaces the “real history” of art. The aesthetic then becomes a sign and these signs program the spectator to recognize the appropriate “nostalgic mode of reception.” This pastiche of a past that has been stereotyped causes a “crisis” in historicity because the subject has lost the ability to recognize or to organize past and present into a coherent experience. Schizophrenia is a breakdown in the signifying chain, creating a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers: a linguistic malfunction. This schizophrenic disjunction is a form of écriture–writing–or a cultural style. Therefore, Postmodernism cannot be a style and can only be a cultural dominant that is oppositional to Modernism and confronts the modern movement as a set of dead classics. The familiar depth model of Modernism is replaced by textual play and multiple surfaces, meaning that the cultural language is now dominated by categories of flat space, rather than categories of time or history, chronological or temporal categories.

With the disappearance of the individual and the consequent unavailability of personal style, pastiche reigns as a dead language, an imitation of dead styles. Postmodern pastiche is speech through masks or voices culled from the imaginary museum of global culture. Pastiche foregrounds practice and orchestrates the primacy of historicism as a random cannibalism of the styles of the past recycled into “neo” or a “simulacrum,” as Jean Baudrillard said, an identical copy for which no original as ever existed. The “Neo-Noir” film is a simulacrum of “Noir” movies, which were highly artificial and stylized morality tales from the American film industry of the 1940s and 1950s. The black and white image of Noir was recycled into the “Neo-Noir” film in color and is an image of an image and, according to Jameson, is the final form of commodity reification. It was the French, starved of American films during the Second World War, who discovered these crime movies, considered B movies and named them “noir” films and created them as a particular genre. The French noticed the return of the Le mode rétro, or nostalgic film, as a restructuring of a pastiche of films made decades ago, a time long gone by, the time of the parents of the Baby Boomers. These nostalgia films were projected into the collective and social level in an attempt to appropriate a missing past of an era lost in time.

Follow the discussion in Parts One and Three.

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

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

[email protected]

Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part One

FREDERIC JAMESON (1934-)

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.

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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.

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

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

[email protected]

Postmodern Painting

DOUBLE CODING IN PAINTING

The Return of the Repressed

In the 1980s, painting, once declared “dead,” long, the repressed Other of Conceptual Art, “returned.” The “return” of painting could not have happened without the supposed death of the avant-garde and the Postmodern acceptance of the discourse history. Modernism, as it was pointed out, never looked back, only forward. But with the end of the optimism of Modernism, the past history of art began to make a return in the form of dead languages of dead styles. Artists began to look back at these old and dead styles, picking through the ruins of art history. If art was a language, a semiotic expression, then all languages were theoretically available and could be deployed. Thus, the Postmodern painter was a bricoleur, to borrow a term from Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structuralist philosopher/anthropologist.

It is worth pausing to examine this central concept of Postmodernism, so well-known that bricolage has passed into the popular culture as “mash-ups” found in music, literature and film. The fact that Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist thinker need not deter us here because his idea of the bricoleur seemed uniquely appropriate for Postmodern activities. Lévi-Strauss studied the human mind, not the individual human being, but the epistemology of a culture. His idea for the bricoleur as one who assembles came from his own boyhood experiences working with his father, putting together furniture. According to Patrick Wilcken because when Lévi-Strauss began his intellectual career, anthropology was a new science and because his progression through the discipline was interrupted by exile in New York during the war years, the philosopher drew his ideas about how he would proceed into his profession from a number of diverse sources. In his book on Lévi-Straus, Wilcken explained the concept of the bricoleur as developed in The Savage Mind:

Rummaging around their environment, “savages” observed, experimented, categorized and theorized, using a kind of free-form science. They combined and recombined natural materials into cultural artifacts—myths, rituals, social systems—like artists improvising with the odds and ends lying around their studio. The central image that Lévi-Strauss used to describe this process was that of the bricoleur—a tinkerer, an improviser working with what was at hand, cobbling together solutions to both practical and aesthetic problems. La Pensée sauvage—free-flowing thought—was a kind of cognitive bricolage that strived for both intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction…As intellectual concepts, bricolage and the bricoleur were rich and evocative, and would prove influential in the years to come as a shorthand for an off-the-cuff experimentation used in the visual arts, literature and philosophy.

However, the Modernist idea of “experimentation,” which Lévi-Strauss gleaned from his association with the Surrealist artists in New York, morphed into the Postmodern idea of gathering or assembling that which was, as Jacques Derrida expressed it, “already ready” or the traces of styles or the memory of movements available in the history of art. Neo-Expressionism marked not only the return of “big painting” in the 1980s but unlike the predecessor Expressionist movements of the early Twentieth Century, but also the reemergence of representation and the reappearance of subjectivity and individuality, artistic personality and unique “touch.” What is “neo” about “Neo-Expressionism” is that “expressionism” is recognized as a style and a painting technique from the past, and what is “new” is fact that borrowing old styles and techniques is allowed “now.” What is “new” is the notion of the “return”—of painting, of figuration, of objects.

Neo-Expressionism evokes earlier styles and, unlike Abstract Expressionism, cannot be a new stylistic mode. Expressionism can no longer a mode of personal and unique expression of feelings through personalized art. Neo-Expressionism can only be a borrowed, appropriated by the artist as a code for “strong statement” or merely “big field painting.” Neo-Expressionism, like many Postmodern art forms, is openly nostalgic, betraying a longing for the relative freedom of “expression” enjoyed by artists before Greenberg’s Formalist formulas became hegemonic. Neo-Expressionism celebrated the return of painting to an art market starved for commodity. Neo-Expressionism, as with all Postmodern art, is an accumulation of quotations from a past that no longer exists. Painting, like architecture, became double-coded, a semiotic ensemble of multiple times and various places.

Neo-Expressionism was an international style, manifested in Europe in the works of the German artists, Georg Baszlitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf, and Sigmar Polke, and Italian artists, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Carlo Maria Mariana. In America, Neo-Expressionism was mostly a New York phenomenon, including Julian Schanble, Eric Fischl, David Salle and the Puerto Rican-Hatian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is not a movement where there were many women, although one could possibly include Susan Rothenberg. Moreover, the male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration.

The idea of a new style itself is bankrupt, and the Neo-Expressionist work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity or meaning while coalescing a unity of form. Notice that the term used is not “new” and all its evocations of the avant-garde but “neo” with its evocations of “return,” as with “Neo-Classicism.” For example, both David Salle and Julian Schnable produced a reiteration of the visual vocabulary and ideas of the Modernist period but do so from a position of belatedness, a key condition of postmodernism. Their work is painting about painting, art about the history of art. How then does one read a text or how does one understand a Postmodern object? The difficulties of reading Postmodern art is underlined by the fact that, unlike Modernist art, Postmodern art does not have the pretension of being separated from “life” or “low culture,” and is, therefore, immeshed in the capitalist realm.

It is no accident that the return of painting coincided with a resurgence in the stock market and the proliferation of new collectors on the art scene. Art was transformed from a secret commodity with its market connections denied by indignant Modernists to a frank commodity that was traded in a ruthless laissez-faire market like a stock or a bond. Frederic Jameson provided a trenchant critique of the Postmodern Condition, resulting in a schizophrenic culture–a culture without place or time. As if one were in Jameson’s famous essay on the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the viewer wanders about inside the mind of a Postmodern painting seeking an entrance and an exit or a central agora of meaning. For this newly active viewer and for artists in the postmodern era, the meaning of art becomes problematic.

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

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Postmodernism and the Past

THE PAST IS PRESENT

Nostalgia and Retro Art

Postmodernism is a time period, beginning at a number of points, depending upon which criteria one is using. Noting the post-Duchampian works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, one could select 1955 as a starting point or at least a gateway year. This date would suit if one were arguing that Postmodernism is a reaction against Modernism for that is the year that the traditional concept of the avant-garde began to wane. The new artists rejected the “purity” of abstraction and the assumption of “originality” for a re-presentation of that which was already said, already available in society. One could also argue that the Neo-Dada artists’ use of popular culture was also anti-Modernist. “Postmodernity” referred to a cultural mindset that indicated a global society, the “flat earth” where all things are both equal and possible. Postmodernity is a culture of despair and cynicism where political movements are used to maintain power and social activism is a mere recreational activity.

From a historical, rather than an art world, point of view, Modernism came to an end with the post-war disillusionment at the spectacle of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the demonstration of inhumanity that defined the idealistic notion of “progress.” All hope of social reform was doomed with the world wide demonstrations of 1968: students in Paris and Mexico City and Chicago—all put down with police brutality sanctioned by a state determined to maintain the status quo. The Enlightenment was over. The result of this cultural disillusionment was decades of political unrest and uncertainty, expressed through a return to the past.

For many conservatives and traditionalists in the west, “the past” is a mythic country where rules were rules and boundaries were sacrosanct. The fact that this imagined history never existed does nothing to disturb its allure. Political and social conservatism emerged in Europe and America at precisely the same time as Postmodernism became the new trend in the art world—the 1980s. Postmodernism may have looked new because it was different, but it was an essentially conservative (non)movement in that it rejected “progress” as impossible. Postmodernism looked to an equally mythic past in art, a past composed of Old Masters, from Marcel Duchamp to Norman Rockwell, to whom the artists genuflected.

Compared to Modernism which always looked forward to the future while stubbornly clinging to the status quo, Postmodernism resisted the revolutions of the sixties through nostalgically revisiting the past. One of the more interesting studies of Postmodernism and the past was written in 1984 by Frederic Jameson. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” is a summary of ideas about the Postmodern period that had been floating around for years, put forward succiently by Jameson. He noted the “waning” of Modernism and the avant-garde master works that were the result of a certain kind of ego: “the so-called centered subject.” Jameson explained, “The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego — what I have been calling the waning of affect.”

With the order of the canon repudiated, the chaos of what Jameson called the “empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous”—art forms, high and low, popular and commercial—without hierarchy. As Jameson wrote, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally…” The lack of order and hierarchy during “Late Capitalism” extended to a “flattening” effect in which the border between the real and the simulacra was erased because once capitalism turns everything into a commodity, everything is equalized. The “flattening effect” is extended to emotions which can no longer be real and can only be simulated. Within the realm of capitalism, images make money or not and it makes no difference to the system whether the “art” commodity comes from Rachmoninoff or the Rolling Stones. The sub-text of Jameson’s work is one of regret at the passing of Modernism and a veiled condemnation of the Postmodern. The essay is elegiac, shot through with a sense of loss and longing for a legendary past.

Beyond the “waning” of the Modern and the “flattening” effect” of Postmodernism, Jameson used the concept of schizophrenia, borrowed from Jacques Lacan to explain the loss of meaning or “a breakdown in the signifying chain.” “Meaning effect,” as Jameson put it occurred with the movement from signifiers to the signified but once the connection between these links is broken, the signifiers begin, as Lacan put it, to “float,” a condition called schizophrenia. Without the anchoring of the chain of meaning, the ego cannot form and Jameson asserts that the Postmodern ego is ego-less or unformed and rootless in the face of a barrage of commercial and commodified images. As Jameson said, “…the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal.”

Left without a distinct or unifying “movement,” either in music or literature or the visual arts, Postmodernism was a non-style that occupied a period of about twenty years until 2001. Postmodernism had a number of identifiable characteristics, some of which were noted by Jameson: pastiche and parody. Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new situation of historicism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the condition of Mannerism coming after the High Renaissance. The Mannerist artists and architects pillaged the vocabulary of their predecessors, often employing elements out of context or exaggerating classicism to the point of parody or mockery.

Jameson explained the condition of the Postmodern as “Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes.” Jameson insisted that the “great collective project” (of Modernism) was over and that the language of Modernism was no longer “available.” Without a direct referent, parody is impossible and a “strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” To put it another way, styles became commodified and lost their place in history and therefore their grip on reality. Jameson borrowed “…Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum,” the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been Generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.'”

As profound social and political changes disrupted Europe and America, the Postmodern decades were cut loose from history. A new generation of revolutionaries rejected the world of their parents and demanded a new order. The social movements of the sixties were in many ways classic revolutionary maneuvers which demand the older generation fulfill their promises: liberty and equality for all. Both generations felt betrayed and the result was what Margaret Mead called “the generation gap.” Faced with this frightening chasm, the reflexive position was that of nostalgia. As Jameson said, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past…the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion…”

Frederic Jameson, termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films pasted together into a pastiche. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies such as Star Wars, Grease, Chinatown, and Body Heat became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, such as L. A. Confidential. These films of the seventies did not recreate the past, nor do they recreate the “look” of the films of the forties or fifties. They are not “historical” films. Chinatown and Body Heat were mash-ups of actual history and fragments of earlier films that the audience could recognize.

It is this ability to identity through a cultural memory that made those “nostalgia” film work for the audience. American Graffiti and Star Wars were pastiches in that the films bundled together shared collective memories of teen films of the fifties and American Bandstand and Saturday afternoon matinees of science fiction serials and Cold War paranoia movies. Found styles are left intact enough so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a pseudo new aesthetic. There is no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity. Star Wars combined fairy tales, myths, cowboy movies, actual footage from the Second World War in a cacophony of references strung along the trail of what is a hero’s journey retold as a road story.

The late Craig Owens appropriated Walter Benjamin’s discussion of allegory from his The Orign of German Tragic Drama, relegating Benjamin to a footnote. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” was written in two parts and published in October. Owens understood allegory as a sort of reference to the past or a direct quotation from history and he suggested that the so-called “museum paintings” of Édouard Manet were examples of allegory. But bringing forward Manet, a prophet of Modernism, tended to confuse the issue and thirty years it is clear that Postmodernism in the art world was poorly understood in 1980. The concept of allegory—an impure excessive symbol—is better suited to Postmodern architecture, photography and film than to Realist art in the nineteenth century.

Walter Benjamin wrote of an obscure art form: the German tragic drama, a Baroque intervention into the Classical. The Baroque had long been explained as a falling off of the Classical or as a fall from grace, and Benjamin wrote powerfully of the building of the Baroque allegory out of the ruins of the classical. “That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the fines material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile upo fragments ceaselessly without any strict idea of a goal…The legacy of antiquity constitutes, item of item, the elements from which the new whole is mixed. Or rather: is constructed. For the perfect vision of this new phenomenon was the ruin.”

Postmodern art speaks in dead languages found in the ruins of Modernism. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist. Well into the twenty first century, we can now see clearly that the public is completely comfortable with the allegorical fusion of past and present and the dystopic future that is the anticipated apocalypse. The “new” ways of making art are sampling and mashups and outright stealing, because, if all things are equal than nothing has any monetary value. What Frederic Jameson could not have predicted in 1984 is the appearance of commodities, such as Facebook, that defy monetization, and the simulacra of money, such as derivatives, that can be gambled and real money is actually lost. The current condition demonstrates the prime characteristic of the Postmodern: irony.

Reprinted by Heathwood Press

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

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

[email protected]