In the recent history of Anglo-American theoretical discourse, particularly postmodern theory, Fredric Jameson's 1984 essay, from which this volume takes its title, stands as a stubbornly influential text. With the publication of this book, Jameson consolidates his reading of postmodernism and his position as America's leading Marxist cultural critic.
Not surprisingly, the organization of the text exhibits certain postmodern tendencies, for instance, the re-appropriation of earlier statements into newer versions of the term in question: a short introduction is followed by the postmodernism essay alluded to above as well as Jameson's other oft-reproduced 1984 essay on ideological positions within the postmodernism debate. The book then presents seven additional chapters, three of which have not been published before, and ends with a 130 page conclusion that, like the introduction, allows the writer considerable revisionary space in which to answer his critics and reframe the issues. In between, Jameson subjects an entire range of postmodern cultural production—architecture, film, nouveau roman, visual arts, economic and literary theory—to his distinct brand of "formal and historical analysis."
For Jameson, postmodernism functions as a "cultural dominant" which must be periodized despite current theoretical opposition to such a move as totalizing and bracketing. To situate postmodernism historically is to define it as far more than a "style" or a "moment." "Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process." Hence the definitive features Jameson finds peculiar to postmodernism, especially the conflation of "culture" and the economic, contain profound, perhaps formative, influences on postmodern subjectivity. In following Ernest Mandel's economic model (Late Capitalism, trans 1975), Jameson traces three expansions of capitalism since the nineteenth century: market; monopoly (or imperialist); and multinational (or late). He further agrees with Mandel's strikingly original thesis that late capitalism, rather than [End Page 1003] constituting an economic situation beyond the predictive capacities of Marx's analytic frame, constitutes instead "the purest form of capital yet to have emerged." Multinational capital has succeeded in perhaps "a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious," effected, in large part, by its continuous advertising and media saturation. "VISA. It's everywhere you want to be!"
Jameson chooses to see postmodernism as a unique break with modernism rather than, as does Habermas for instance, a modified but still identifiable continuation. The modernist period coincides with monopoly capitalism and the actualities of modernization while modernism functions as a complex of artistic, social, and cultural responses to the demands and pressures of the modernization process. Perceiving itself as the age of the New, modernism still retains versions of older notions, for instance the idea of progress and telos in art as well as in history. Think of the anarchic but transformative focus of the avant-garde, the reality of the Russian revolution, the Utopian desire manifest in various socialist movements. "Make it New" also foregrounds the power of the "unique style" which marked the "so-called centered subject" and made parody possible. A classic modernist moment for Jameson occurs in Rilke's "Archaic Torso" when the figure "warns the bourgeois subject": "You must change your life." In short, although alienated, the modernist subject is capable of psychic depth, of emotion. Time and Nature exist if only to be represented as full aesthetic objects. Although not necessarily apparent from my brief summary, Jameson's conception of modernism, like that of postmodernism and Marxism, contains no gender or race categories and depends upon a decidedly white, masculinist perspective.
"Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good." With nature evacuated and time transformed into an ever-present Now, postmodern culture—reproduced everywhere through capital—replicates itself, an endless array of multifaceted surfaces, a Baudrillardian extravaganza of simulacra, Disneyworld/MGM studios Playland a paradigm of American "reality." Given such a reality the postmodern subject suffers a "waning of affect" and resembles, in extremis, nothing so much as a schizo-screen experiencing and reflecting continual channel switching. Videotext, spatial and simultaneous, replaces the linear narrative...