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.

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