Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jameson's "Postmodernism and Consumer Society"

Bill Schnupp

Abstract: “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”

I. Summary

Jameson opens his piece with an admission of the ambiguity that surrounds postmodernism, a concept that encompasses many forms of media: literature, visual and plastic arts, architecture, music, film, and “theoretical discourse,” that interdisciplinary and amorphous mode of inquiry popularized by Foucault and others. Jameson elaborates that postmodernism is a reaction against high modernism, forms of expression found irreverent and vulgar by the preceding generation, but which are now the “standard” against which the current generation rails. Similar to the ideas of Raymond Williams, Jameson cites a lack of division between high and low culture.

The author proceeds to offer two concepts that, for him, link postmodernism to late capitalism: pastiche and schizophrenia. Pastiche is essentially parody without the comic element, a form of “blank parody.” The idea of pastiche leads to a discussion of the death of the subject, which has two distinct perspectives: first, that in the ascension of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class, individualism may have existed, but is no more in contemporary, homogenous society; second, that individualism is not only dead, but instead never existed—it is a myth. The conclusion Jameson leads to from this discussion is that modern art is dead; there is no originality, only perpetual copies of pre-existing elements and forms, or, pastiche, “to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum” (196).

A prominent example of pastiche is the “nostalgia film,” films about the past and generational moments of that past. In a discussion that ranges from American Graffiti and Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chinatown, Jameson points out that nostalgia films are often less about the past and more about a false realism in which the past is sought through pop images and stereotypes of the past, with the original perpetually unattainable through our “incapability of achieving aesthetic representations of our current experience” (198).

Jameson then shifts his focus from nostalgia film to architecture,

a mutation in built space itself. . .the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept
pace with that evolution. . .we do not as 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)

The specific example is the Bonaventure Hotel, a space that seeks to speak the sign system (Barthes anyone?) of the surrounding urban area. The Bonaventure is a total and enclosed space, with a reflective, disjunctive exterior and escalators/elevators that not only replace movement but serve as reflexive signs of movement. Jameson ends this discussion with a return to his definition of architecture, and uses it as a metaphor for the way human beings are caught in the “global and decentered communicational network.”

The piece concludes with the idea that postmodernism is necessary because it chronologically traces the break from a prior form. This break is not so much the emergence of new ideas, but rather a restructuring of preexisting elements; this displacement of the dominant by the secondary is important in the postmodern context because it has become the center of cultural production. Contemporary society finds little scandalous or repellent, central to high modernism. Moreover, what high modernists would have found repellent enjoys commercial success. Postmodernism is a product of post WWII capitalism, and a part of this production is the function of the media to relegate experience into the past as quickly as possible, as well as an open-ended questioning about the place and value of post-modern art.

II. Analysis

Let me start by saying that I find Jameson’s discussion of the two conceptions of the death of the subject to be incredibly depressing. There is no way that all possible combinations of elements and media have been used and are only recycled. I take his point to be more that operating within the hegemonic code may yield a finite limitation of elements and forms (though even that seems doubtful). What about Hall’s idea of the oppositional code, or the notion of infinite readings of a text we encountered in Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture? Conversely, I do find myself agreeing with Jameson’s idea of pastiche and nostalgia films—I’d wager we have all let our minds wander back to some over-idealized notion of our past at the behest of some particular film

I find myself questioning why we are so accepting of media forms that would have offended the previous generation. If we play along with Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as a restructuring of preexisting elements (reminds me a little of Johnson’s discussion of the breaks), it seems to me the reason postmodern society is so accepting of previously offensive forms of media seems obvious: they are not new, only old elements juxtaposed. It makes sense, but makes me question boundaries. How far can the limits be pushed? Or, if everything is only a matter of restructuring elements, has the boundary already been reached?

Honestly, I’m having some difficulty settling on what qualifies as Jameson’s discussion of his concept of schizophrenia: is it that we are so disjointed in out perception of time, either in the case of the nostalgia film, or our media’s contribution to our loss of past? Or, is it the great divergence in media forms that fall under the postmodern label? Can anybody help me here?

I also find Jameson’s choice of examples interesting, as he makes some interesting leaps; this rhetorical decision seems to effectively echo his assertion about the ambiguity and resistance surrounding postmodernism’s multi-media form.

III. Questions and Further Reading

1. How do you respond to Jameson’s two perspectives on the death of the subject?

2. Why do you think postmodern society is so much more tolerant of traditionally offensive media forms?

3. How do you respond to Jameson’s idea that the postmodern era is rooted in post WWII capitalism?





Diane said...

I needed a visual:


Atmane El Amri said...

In his modes( nostalgia and pastiche), Jameson celebrates the rivival of other forms, or at least their frameworks. To my mind his postmodern styles which are basically dependent upon these two kinds of imitation are per se seen in modern styles. Pastiche existed and still exists both in modernist articulations( e.g., The Waste Land) and postmodernist ones. It seems to me that jameson somewhat contradictory.