“Postmodernism and consumer society” by Fredric Jameson
Abstract by Patricia Little
The essay entitled “Postmodernism and consumer society” by Fredric Jameson, attempts to clarify the concept of postmodernism. Jameson’s goal in this essay is to show how postmodernism is opposed to modernism in not just themes of art and literature, but also how these differences show themselves in the general culture.
For Jameson the postmodern has two main characteristics. Firstly, he believes that the postmodern is directly influenced by the negation of its previous epoch, modernism. In order for something to be postmodern it, “Emerge[s] as specific reaction against established forms of high modernism…This means that there will be as many different forms of postmodernism as there were high modernisms in place, since the former are at least initially specific and local reactions against those models” (192). And secondly, a key feature of postmodernism is that the lines between high and popular culture are gone or at least beginning to fade. This incorporation of high and mass culture can also be seen in other areas of discourse from philosophy to literature, where normal discourse theory has been replaced by “a kind of writing simply called ‘theory’ which is all or none of those things at once” (193). Jameson considers this phenomenon (which he calls ‘theoretical discourse’) to be a sign of postmodernism and an example of the merging culture.
In order to clarify his point he says he will discuss two examples that he labels “pastiche” and “schizophrenia”. He first undertakes to clarify the term pastiche from its closely related cousin parody. He plainly explains their difference as such, “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language; but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic” (195).
Pastiche reflects postmodernism and our current social atmosphere by examining “death of the subject”, which is what Jameson refers to in his definition of pastiche being a humorless imitation of dead language. He explains that the modernists felt like they were doing something new, something individual. Jameson states, and he says many agree with him, that this sense of the individual in the postmodern is gone. This theory, that there is no longer individualism, has two main positions. First, because we are in an age of corporate capitalism, the “older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists” (195). This is in contrast with competitive capitalism that allowed for a sense of individualism in the modernist era. The second position is that the idea of individuality didn’t even exist in the past or in the modern era, it in fact never existed at all. The idea of the individual “is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity” (195).
Jameson feels that these two positions are beside the point. Regardless of these positions, if there is no longer individualism, then, Jameson feels, “it is no longer clear what artists and writers of the present period are supposed to be doing”(196). Everything that can be said has already been said. Artists today must only comment or reproduce past art. This will inevitably be a bad time for art, or as he puts it, “the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past” (196).
To further his point he gives examples in film. He wants to make it clear that he is not just talking about high culture being dead, but also mass culture. To do this, he talks about nostalgia film, which he sees as remaking the past, namely pastiche. This is not only represented in what we would consider historical-type films. He gives the example of Star Wars, explaining that this is pastiche because the general construct of the film is directly mimicking the plots and provoking the same emotions of older films and TV shows of the 1930’s-1950’s.
Jameson further explains that this nostalgia/pastiche, as a representation of postmodernism, reflects a problem with the current cultures inability to represent their own time. We cannot see and feel our current existence for what it is, but are only able to relate to it through the past. Jameson says, “If there is any realism left here it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach” (198).
From the discussion of pastiche and his film examples, Jameson moves to a critique of postmodern buildings. He is here trying to show that the same inability to feel the present as represented in nostalgia films, can be shown in our inability to relate to postmodern architecture.
As a result of our not being able to move into our new era, Jameson believes we are unable to match the “originality of postmodernist space” (198). The ability to have anything original in the postmodern era seems to contrast his previous point. However, Jameson makes his point, stating, “My implication is that we ourselves, the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept pace with that evolution; there has been a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject; we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism” (198).
He illustrates this point with the example of the Bonaventure Hotel. Using the example of this ultra post-modern space he explains the various complexities and comments on how we just don’t get it. The result of this inability to understand the space results in it being changed, “recently, colour coding and directional signals have been added in a pitiful and revealing, rather desperate attempt to restore the coordinates of an older space” (201), one in which we would be more able to understand.
Jameson next moves to what he calls the new machine. In this example he uses the novel Dispatches by Michael Herr. He remarks that the novel, being highly innovative, remains postmodern. He uses this novel to explain a different space, postmodern warfare, that is equally innovative, and possibly we are to assume as misunderstood, as Portman’s building. His conclusion is, “In this new machine (shown in a Dispatches text example), which does not, like the older modernist machinery of the locomotive or the airplane, represent motion, but which can only be represented in motion something of the mystery of the new postmodernist space is concentrated” (203).
In conclusion, Jameson tries to tie all of his ideas of modernism and postmodernism to cultural production and consumer society. In his conclusion he argues that the main components that made modernism what it was, was that it was outwardly dismissed and hated by the masses. It was not part of the mass culture and was therefore able to be honest and real and showcase the individual. He seems to be saying that because current culture is marketed to the masses, this type of realism is not longer attainable. He says, “I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism” (204). He is clearly dissatisfied with current culture and its constant obliging to the masses. Modernism was described as “critical, negative, contestatory, subversive, oppositional and the like” (205). Jameson wonders, and really hopes, that post modernism can find a way to do the same. If the current cultural trends were more subversive, it might allow for more individualism.
The definition that Jameson is able to construct of postmodernism is a very interesting one. This seems to be a time of various ideas of postmodernism, so it is nice to read an article that tries to both explain the concept and relate it to the general society. While it is nice get a theory, this one is definitely depressing. To actually believe that there is no original thought in our own era is incredibly depressing. While I am trying to fight this definition, while reading this essay and writing this abstract, I was not really able to think of anything current that could not be considered a remake or had it’s origin in the past. I am not giving up! While I may be entirely wrong, there just has to be some hope or some example of original thought. Can we think of any?
The essay itself is a bit difficult to understand and follow. I believe the reason for this is shown in the first endnote, “The present text combines elements of two previously published essays” (205). I don’t really know if the author put this together himself, or if it was done for him. However, after having read this note, the obvious structural problems of the essay seem to make more sense. The essay is generally hard to follow after “The nostalgia mode” section. Also, at the end of the first section he promises to give the description of his topic using two key features, pastiche and schizophrenia. We hear a lot of pastiche, but that is the last time we see the word schizophrenia.
Did anyone else find the structure or his examples a little difficult to understand under his general thesis?
Do we buy the idea that the postmodern can be basically described as not having an individual voice?
Does the problem really lie in the fact that our current culture seems to be permissive of about anything? That there not being a real point of contesting is the main problem?