Fredric Jameson is a prominent literary critic and political theorist and is often placed into the Western Marxist school of thought. Western Marxism emphasizes the study of culture as important to understanding the ideology of capitalism and the interaction between base and superstructure.
Jameson as a cultural theorist also connects the work of the Frankfurt school (Adorno and Horkheimer) and Birmingham School (Hall) to a wide variety of contemporary texts (films, buildings, etc.) This article was published in New Left Review, founded by Hall himself, and was later written as a full book. My summary reorders Jameson’s article to best explain his theory and reflect my own understanding of the primacy of the political-economic systems to shape culture.
Late capitalism is a distinct reordering of production based around the development of electronic and nuclear technologies. Late capitalism (sometimes called post-industrialism) according to Mendel comes after market capitalism (ordered by steam technology) and imperialist capitalism (ordered by the combustion technology). Jameson argues each of these capitalist eras engendered distinct cultural forms, however he is careful to argue there was a degree of separation between capitalist production and cultural production in past eras, which does not exist in the postmodern-late capitalist order.
Postmodernism and Postmodernity
The two concepts broadly refer to “what comes after the project of modernity.” Modernity, through the postmodern lens was an effort to create an ordered, rationale political and economic and represent it through culture. The mass production of goods (through Fordism) and the mass production of information and culture (through mass media) are constituent parts of modernity.
Crisis in capitalism including depression, world wars, conflict with soviet authoritative socialism, domestic social movement for full labor force participation (civil rights, feminist, etc.) ended the fordist regime in capital production and led to the flexible accumulation of late capitalism. The quick moving of labor and capitol in the flexible accumulation regime (popularly called globalization) has “compressed space and time.” See Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity.
The transformed cultural order resulting from late capitalism and flexible accumulation has distinct aesthetic features which, when analyzed as a category, can be called postmodernism.
Finally, there is the question of the “end of history.” Jameson in the beginning of his article addresses the “inverted millenarianism” which instead of predicting the end of humanity, the inversion predicted the end of ideology (the resolution of dialectic debates) history (the resolution of first-second world conflict) and many other fields. The end of history really stands for the end of modernity, and the postmodern order follows.
Aesthetics of Postmodernism
The overtaking of capitalist production ethos into the cultural sphere (commodification, massification) results in distinct features of art and other cultural products. A brief summary of Jameson’s features of postmodernism follows.
Jameson argues postmodern culture exudes a literal superficiality where the cultural product is disconnected from any political or social meaning. Modern culture had “depth” in that what was artistically rendered was imbued with meaning beyond what could be seen.
Jameson uses the example of Van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes to demonstrate modern art “depth,” as it can be contextualized with countryside impoverishment, agricultural work, and the European working class. He contrasts Van Gogh’s work with Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, which he argues, has no deeper meaning beyond what you see.
Waning of Affect
Another important dimension of postmodern culture is the erasure of personal affect (emotions, feelings, inner thought) in culture. While modern art reflected dialects between the outside and inside world, subjects and objects, postmodern art removes the inner dimension because the individual has been made into an abstraction – reduced to a consumer, node, audience, data packet, etc.
Postmodern culture draws inspiration from past movements, genres and styles, combines them into “collage” type formations and presents them in new packaged ways. In opposition to modern parody (which through parody of a type of cultural form, creates its own meaning) pastiche has no meaning it self.
Copies of copies become the norm in postmodern cultural products – think of modern superhero blockbusters, which combine genre film styles (WWII film, heist film, film noir, fantasy) with comic book source material, which was based on mythology, serials, literary characters, etc. Jameson calls this “random cannibalism” of past styles. Historicism, the sense of history like reference without any real connection to history, creates empty nostalgia.
Postmodern society and its consequences
Jameson concludes by stressing the study of postmodern aesthetics is not merely a theoretical issue; there are serious political consequences. He argues that by outlining postmodernism he is not celebrating it, but attempting to make sense of the current world order. Jameson asks both and us to do the impossible see postmodernism as the “best” and “worst” outcome, as the progress and a point criticize.
For students of communication, the important lesson from Jameson is that no cultural text is created outside of the material conditions of a political-economic system. Power flows through and into the cultural products we consume, and even how we conceptualize consumption, creation, identity and taste are all effects of late capitalism.