This article addresses some of the challenges to Marxism posed by the conditions of late capitalism and by the theoretical discourses of postmodernism, and makes a case for the continued relevance and value of Marxist theory for an ostensibly post-Marxist, would-be post-ideological period. The developments in the theory of ideology advanced in Slavoj Zizek's work, focusing on the role of psychology in the functioning of ideology under conditions of late capitalism, are then taken as valuable criticisms and revisions of the Marxist tradition that open useful avenues for critically understanding American culture and society in recent decades. Two of Zizek's key--and related--insights are then examined in relation to two well-known American films: the first, that the dominant subjective structure of postmodern society is that of the "pathological narcissist," is developed through a reading of Citizen Kane, particularly in light of Zizek's assessment of the role of the "maternal superego" in this subjective structure; and the second, that the breakdown between the simulacrum and the Real in postmodern society must be understood in terms of the attenuation of the Symbolic order, is developed through a reading of Pulp Fiction, framed in terms of the often-repeated concern about "desensitization" toward violence in a society in which the simulacrum is alleged to have usurped the Real. The essay concludes with a claim that Zizek should be understood not as a cynical, apolitical ironist, as some have critically read him, but rather as a "late Marxist" in the Jamesonian sense.--bd
This essay begins in the midst of the ongoing dilemma posed by late-capitalist society and postmodern culture, namely, whether these remain the ultimate horizon of the contemporary world and whether efforts to resist, oppose, represent critically, or propose alternatives to the “cultural dominant” of postmodernism are merely atavistic. Below, I address some of the challenges to Marxism (as the discourse of the alternative to and the critique of capitalism par excellence) posed by the conditions of what Ernest Mandel has famously named “late capitalism” and by the theoretical discourse of what Dick Hebdige has called “the posts,”1 and make a case for the continued relevance and value of Marxist theory for an ostensibly post-Marxist, would-be post-ideological period. The developments in the theory of ideology advanced in Slavoj Zizek’s work, focusing on the role of psychology in the functioning of ideology under conditions of late capitalism, are then taken as valuable criticisms and revisions of the Marxist tradition that open useful avenues for critically understanding American culture and society in recent decades.
Hard Times for Marxism
The zeitgeist is anti-Marxist to the same extent that it is antimodern, exhibiting what Jean-François Lyotard calls in The Postmodern Condition, in what has become one of the great slogan-definitions of postmodernism, an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv), including especially those inherited from the modern European Enlightenment tradition, such as progress and liberation. Lyotard’s argument in brief: totalizing “master narratives” no longer function to legitimate and unify knowledge; the postmodern condition is marked by heterogeneous and radically incommensurable language games; attempts to reconcile language games through the principle of consensus are “terrorist” (63). This argument is typical of postmodern neopragmatist theorizing in that it precludes the kind of large-scale analyses that would allow adequate attempts to elaborate connections between the epistemological-linguistic theory he proposes and the social, economic, and cultural forces to which he only occasionally refers. Obviously, Marxism is directly challenged in Lyotard’s analysis since it traditionally promotes both a progressive teleology and an emancipatory politics.
Other specific challenges to particular Marxist concepts and protocols are widespread; for example, its utopianism, a topic much discussed by Fredric Jameson,2 often comes under fire. As Clint Burnham notes, the contemporary criticisms of utopia take two primary forms: “First, the culture doubts the possibility of some ‘better place’ than the undoubtedly excellent world of late capitalism,” a criticism that he characterizes as “‘bad,’ or negative, or ideological, or neoconservative”; and second, “that culture characterizes itself as already nonrepresentational by doubting the possibility of representationalism,” a claim that he calls the...