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25 March 2010

MCT: Fredric Jameson

This essay, "Postmodernism and consumer society" dates from 1983. In it, Jameson tries to outline some of the key features of postmodernism, to show how it links with the transformation to a post-capitalist, consumer society, and to argue that postmodernism isn't just another modernism. His tools are sweeping assumptions and generalisations.

I shouldn't sound so dismissive, not yet, but in the first paragraph of the essay he puts forward The Clash as exemplars of postmodernism (together with Talking Heads and The Gang of Four). I've never seen the point of The Clash. If you wanted to hear reggae, punk or rock, there were always much better performers available. On the other hand, if you wanted a gentle blend of the three, I suppose The Clash were ideal. In fact, postmodernism as Jameson describes it seems to be all about Clash-like experiences.

For example, he suggests that there is a genre of nostalgia film (which includes the Indiana Jones series, and Star Wars, where the nostalgia is not for the past, but for the past forms of film. He sees pastiche as one defining characteristic of postmodernism. The other is "schizophrenia". Drawing on Lacan's view, he sees the schizophrenic experience as one in which streams of events or language are broken into relatively isolated elements. But his big example of this seems unconvincing. He looks at a poem called "China" by Bob Perelman. About 25 separated statements which might add up to a portrayal of a multivocal self-portrait of the country. But, he points out, as if he is being ever so clever, all is not what it seems. Perelman bought a Chinese magazine, and wrote his own captions for the photos in it, and these are the poem. In Jameson's view, this means the poem is at least twice removed from its apparent subject; its primary reference is to the magazine, not the country. It's an incredibly weak argument, but he is saying this is all part of the world of spectacles, as described by (eg) Baudrillard.

A key part of the argument is that "classical modernism" has now been so thoroughly assimilated that it presents no challenge. Finnegans Wake, he'd have to say, is no longer odd. And he sees Ashbery's poetry as postmodern, whereas I'd say they're precisely in the modernist tradition. (As is Perelman's poem). In many ways, postmodernism as he describes it seems to me to be just the everyday popular culture. There is still a strain of elite culture, which has the same difficulty as modernism has always had.

Finally, to return to the start of the essay, he says that "theory" has marked the end of philosophy as such. Really?

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