The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Frederic Jameson 1984)

Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. 1984


According to Frederic Jameson postmodernism encompasses ideas such as crisis, distopian worldview, radical break, etc. snd it traced back to the late 50s or early 60s). The ascension of postmodernism is explained by the notion of exhaustion that was perceived in relation modernism (in certain specific ways postmodernism is the ideologicl and aesthtical repudiation modernist ideals). However Jamesons questions whether postmodernism implies “any more fundamental change or break than the periodic style- and fashion-changes determined by an older high-modernist imperative of stylistic innovation.” (54).

The rise of aesthetic populism

Jameson states that it is in the realm of architecture that aesthetic production is most visible, and that it is in architectural debates and observations that his own conception of postmodernism was formulated. He argues that modernist buildings are percieved as elitist and stand out from their surrounding context: “High modernism is thus credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and of its older neighbourhood culture” (p.54). By opposition, postmodernism in architecture will present itself as “a kind of aesthetic populism”. Jameson wishes to re-evaluates this populist rhetoric, he argues that postmodern tries to efface or obliterate the frontiers between high and the so-called mass/commercial culture (postmodernism is fascinated with grade B-culture and paraliterature). Beyond the real of culture, theories of the postmodern – whether celebratory or denunciatory- commonly argue that “the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle” (55). Quoting Ernest Mandel, he argues that this is not a development from a previous situation but in fact “purer stage of capitalism than any of the moments that preceded it” (55). Jameson defends that “every position on postmodernism in culture— whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (55).

Postmodernism as cultural dominant

His reading of postmodernism does not intend to be an account of cultural style, movement or stylistic description but rather a periodizing hypothesis. Although the conception of historical periodization has come to be seen as ‘problematic’ – due to its obliteration of difference, linear accounts, homogenization of historical periods- Jameson argues that this is “precisely why it seems to me essential to grasp ‘postmodernism’ not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features” (56).
The repudiation of modernist art (by the older Victorian elite) is now rendered an archaic position and this has come to be largely because of the “canonization and an academic institutionalization of the modern movement generally, which can be traced to the late 1950s.This is indeed surely one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics” (56). Certain specific traits of modern art (sexuality, political defiance, psychological squalor) no longer scandalize anyone. It has become the institutionalized and official culture of Western society. Aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production: economic urgency of producing fresh and new goods generates all aesthetic innovation and experimentation. According to Jameson Architecture has a virtually unmediated relationship with the economic world. Postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it. “Yet this is the point at which we must remind the reader of the obvious, namely that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror” (57).
“If we do not achieve some general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable. This has been at any rate the political spirit in which the following analysis was devised [planned]: to project some conception of a new systemic cultural norm and its reproduction, in order to reflect more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today.” (57).
Jameson’s exposition takes up the following constitutive features of the postmodern: depthlessness, culture of the image (simulacrum), weakening of historicity, constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology, reflections on the mission of political art in the bewildering new world space of late multinational capital.

The deconstruction of expression

Two ways of reading Van Gogh’s painting ‘Peasant shoes’: 1) the object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil. In other words, the transformation of the hard peasant object world into a glorious materialization of pure colour in oil paint is to be seen as a Utopian gesture: as an act of compensation. 2) Stemming from Heidegger’s analysis the picture recreates the missing object-world which was once their lived context. In other words, by way of mediation the work of art links one form of materiality (the earth itself and its paths and physical objects) the materiality of the oil paint – affirmed and foregrounded in its own right and for its own visual pleasures; but has nonetheless a satisfying plausibility.
Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes turns centrally around commodification, it explicitly foregrounds the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. Warhol’s image is the inversion of Van Gogh’s Utopian gesture: “the external and coloured surface of things—debased and contaminated in advance by their assimilation to glossy advertising images— has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them.” (60).

The Waning of Affect

Third feature: Warhol’s human subjects, stars—like Marilyn Monroe—who are themselves commodified and transformed into their own images. And here too a certain brutal return to the older period of high modernism offers a dramatic shorthand parable of the transformation in question.
Munch’s painting The Scream is read not merely as an embodiment of the expression 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.
“Contemporary theory, which has among other things been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory—or better still, theoretical discourse—is also, I would want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very significant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here.” (61).
“If this new multinational downtown (to which we will return later in another context) effectively abolished the older ruined city fabric which it violently replaced, cannot something similar be said about the way in which this strange new surface in its own peremptory way renders our older systems of perception of the city somehow archaic and aimless, without offering another in their place?” (62).

Euphoria and Self-Annihilation

The Scream deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all the while remaining imprisoned within it. Its gestural content already underscores its own failure, since the realm of the sonorous, the cry, the raw vibrations of the human throat, are incompatible with its medium. The great Warhol figures—Marilyn and Edie Sedgewick— are notorious burn-out and self-destruction cases of the ending 1960s, and the great dominant experiences of drugs and schizophrenia. Van Gogh-type madness, experiences of radical isolation and solitude, anomie, private revolt dominated the period of high modernism. De-centring or fragmentation of the subject suggest two possibilities: 1) the historicist, that a once-existing centred subject, in the period of classical capitalism and the nuclear family, has today in the world of organizational bureaucracy dissolved. 2) the poststructuralist position for which such a subject never existed in the first place but constituted something like an ideological mirage. “What we must now stress, however, is the degree to which the high-modernist conception of a unique style, along with the accompanying collective ideals of an artistic or political vanguard or avant-garde, themselves stand or fall along with that older notion (or experience) of the so-called centred subject” (63).
“The end of the bourgeois ego or monad no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego as well—what I have generally here been calling the waning of affect. But it means the end of much more—the end for example of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal, the end of the distinctive individual brushstroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction). As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centred subject may also mean, not merely a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that 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 to call ‘intensities’—are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria to which I will want to return at the end of this essay.” (64).

II. The Postmodern and the Past

Pastiche Eclipses Parody

“For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style—what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation)—the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture”. (65).

‘Historicism’ Effaces History

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call ‘historicism’, namely the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion. 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’ (The Society of the Spectacle). The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. Guy Debord’s powerful slo- gan is now even more apt for the ‘prehistory’ of a society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

The Nostalgia Mode

Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called ‘nostalgia film’ (or what the French call ‘la mode rétro’). Many films have attempted to capture, even aesthetically, the feeling of the ‘good old times’. What is more interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past, or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory. Faced with these ultimate objects—our social, historical and existential present, and the past as ‘referent’—the incompatibility of a postmodern- ist ‘nostalgia’ art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. Pseudo-historical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.The approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage.

The Fate of ‘Real History’

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomally in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World-War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity). The theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory.

Loss of the Radical Past

This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject, but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, therefore, it is a ‘realism’ which is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement, and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach. (71)

III. The Breakdown of the Signifying Chain

The crisis in historicity now dictates a return, in a new way, to the question of temporal organization in general in the postmodern force field, and indeed, to the problem of the form that time, temporality and the syntagmatic will be able to take in a culture increasingly dominated by space and spatial logic. If, indeed, the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold, and to organize its past and future into coherent experience, it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but ‘heaps of fragments’ and in a practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory. These are, however, very precisely some of the privileged terms in which postmodernist cultural production has been analysed (and even defended, by its own apologists). Yet they are still privative features; the more substantive formulations bear such names as textual- ity, écriture, or schizophrenic writing, and it is to these that we must now briefly turn. (71)
Children singing German song: “this present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity” (73).
I mainly wanted to show, however, the way in which what I have been calling schizophrenic disjunction or écriture, when it becomes general- ized as a cultural style, ceases to entertain a necessary relationship to the morbid content we associate with terms like schizophrenia, and becomes available for more joyous intensities, for precisely that euphoria which we saw displacing the older affects of anxiety and alienation. (74)

Collage and Radical Difference

The former work of art, in other words, has now turned out to be a text, whose reading proceeds by differentiation rather than by unification. Theories of difference, however, have tended to stress disjunction to the point at which the materials of the text, including its words and sentences, tend to fall apart into random and inert passivity, into a set of elements which entertain purely external separations from one another (75). The vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship.

IV. The Hysterical Sublime

Now we need to complete this exploratory account of postmodernist space and time with a final analysis of that euphoria or those intensities which seem so often to characterize the newer cultural experience. The world thereby momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density. But is this now a terrifying or an exhilarating experience? The other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all, as it was in precapitalist societies, but something else which we must now identify.

The Apotheosis of Capitalism

will want to show that technology is here itself a figure for something else. Yet technology may well serve as adequate shorthand to designate that enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery, an alienated power, what Sartre calls the counterfinality of the practico-inert, which turns back on and against us in unrecognizable forms and seems to constitute the massive dystopian horizon of our collective as well as our individual praxis.(77). Architecture therefore remains in this sense the privileged aesthetic language; and the distorting and fragmenting reflexions of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture (79).It is therefore in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that in my opinion the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.

V. Post-Modernism and the City
I am proposing the motion that we are here in the presence of something like a mutation in built space itself. 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 (80).

The Bonaventura Hotel
I have mentioned the populist aspect of the rhetorical defence of postmodernism against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: it is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works on the one hand; and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric on the other, that is to say, that they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign-system of the surrounding city, but rather, on the contrary, seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas’ (80-81).

The Bonaventura aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city (and I would want to add that to this new total space corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate, something like the practice of a new and historically original kind of hyper-crowd). So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space—postmodern hyperspace—has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world (83). The sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentred communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (84).

The New Machine

Michael Herr evokes it in his great book on the experience of Vietnam, called Dispatches. This work may still be considered postmodern, in the eclectic way in which its language impersonally fuses a whole range of contemporary collective idiolects, most notably rock language and Black language: but the fusion is dictated by problems of content. This first terrible postmodernist war cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie—indeed that break- down of all previous narrative paradigms is, along with the breakdown of any shared language through which a veteran might convey such experience, among the principal subjects of the book and may be said to open up the place of a whole new reflexivity. In this new machine, 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 postmod- ernist space is concentrated.

VI. The Abolition of Critical Distance
The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available, and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism: the two approaches in fact generate two very different ways of conceptualizing the pheno- menon as a whole, on the one hand moral judgements (about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and on the other a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History.
Of some positive moral evaluation of postmodernism little needs to be said: the complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world (including its social and economic dimension, greeted with equal enthusiasm under the slogan of ‘post-industrial society’) is surely unacceptable—although it may be somewhat less obvious the degree to which current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology, from chips to robots—fantasies entertained not only by left as well as right governments in distress, but also by many intellectuals—are essentially of a piece with more vulgar apologies for postmodernism.
But in that case it is also logical to reject moralizing condemnations of the postmodern and of its essential triviality, when juxtaposed against the Utopian ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms: these are also judgements one finds both on the Left and on the radical Right.
Yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgements must finally be identified as a category-mistake.
the position of the cultural critic and moralist: this last, along with all the rest of us, is now so deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories, that the luxury of the old- fashioned ideological critique, the indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable (85-86).
“ The argument for a certain authenticity in these otherwise patently ideological productions depends on the prior proposition that what we have now been calling postmodern (or multinational) space is not merely a cultural ideology or fantasy, but has genuine historical (and socio-economic) reality as a third great original expansion of capitalism around the globe (after the earlier expansions of the national market and the older imperialist system, which each had their own cultural specificity and generated new types of space appropriate to their dynamics). The distorted and unreflexive attempts of newer cultural production to explore and to express this new space must then also, in their own fashion, be considered as so many approaches to the representation of (a new) reality (to use a more antiquated language). As paradoxical as the terms may seem, they may thus, following a classic interpretive option, be read as peculiar new forms of realism (or at least of the mimesis of reality), at the same time that they can equally well be analysed as so many attempts to distract and to divert us from that reality or to disguise its contradictions and resolve them in the guise of various formal mystifications” (89).

The Need for Maps

Left cultural producers and theorists—particularly those formed by bourgeois cultural traditions issuing from romanticism and valorizing spontaneous, instinctive or unconscious forms of ‘genius’—but also for very obvious historical reasons such as Zhdanovism and the sorry consequences of political and party interven- tions in the arts—have often by reaction allowed themselves to be unduly intimidated by the repudiation, in bourgeois aesthetics and most notably in high modernism, of one of the age-old functions of art— namely the pedagogical and the didactic. The teaching function of art was, however, always stressed in classical times (even though it there mainly took the form of moral lessons); while the prodigious and still imperfectly understood work of Brecht reaffirms, in a new and formally innovative and original way, for the moment of modernism proper, a complex new conception of the relationship between culture and pedagogy. The cultural model I will propose similarly foregrounds the cognitive and pedagogical dimensions of political art and culture, dimensions stressed in very different ways by both Lukács and Brecht (for the distinct moments of realism and modernism, respectively).
The cognitive map is not exactly mimetic, in that older sense; indeed the theoretical issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of representation on a higher and much more complex level.

Social Cartography and Symbol

An aesthetic of cognitive mapping—a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system—will necessarily have to respect this now enormously complex representational dialectic and to invent radically new forms in order to do it justice. This is not, then, clearly a call for a return to some older kind of machinery, some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art—if it is indeed possible at all—will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is, to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion. The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale (92).


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