- Jameson’s Postmodernism
Fredric Jameson, the key Marxist player in the “postmodernism debates” of the early and mid eighties, has now published an entire book on postmodern culture, titled after his classic 1984 article in New Left Review, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” The recycled title may keep some people away from this hefty and expensive volume, since it suggests one of those dressed-up collections of already widely collected essays— in this case rather suspiciously assembled for a Duke University Press series of which the author himself is co- editor.
But while it is true that six of the ten chapters here have been reprinted from elsewhere, only the first two (the NLR article and a contemporaneous “Politics of Theory” piece from New German Critique) will be familiar to most readers. Moreover, the arguments of both these earlier pieces have been massively supplemented. Jameson’s political analysis of contemporary theoretical discourse is here extended to address the paralyzing “nominalism” of both Theory (deconstruction) and anti-Theory (new historicism) in a substantial chapter that also includes, to my knowledge, his first extended statement on the de Man affair. And the shamelessly “totalizing” Marxist approach to contemporary culture that he deployed in his original “Postmodernism” essay is spiritedly defended over and against the dominant academic discourses of “groups and difference” in a sprawling but indispensable “Conclusion.” Given that these two chapters alone represent some two hundred pages of fresh material, it would clearly be a mistake to dismiss Postmodernism as just another collection of warmed-over articles by a Lit-biz superstar. Jameson’s purpose in this book is not so much to collect his past work on postmodernism as to frame the frequently “scandalized” and hostile reception of that work—particularly by postmarxists, postcolonialists, Foucauldians, and feminists—as itself a symptom of the “decadence” or degradation of critical discourse in the postmodern age.
Indeed, Jameson, whose distinctive role in the Debate is to take postmodernism as naming not merely an historical period but a “mode of production” (essentially unresisted capitalism—omnipresent, invisible, taken-for-granted capitalism), reads culture in general (including, especially, all manner of “theory”) as a terrain on which one may trace out the “symptomatology” of this supremely hegemonic stage of capitalism. For Jameson, any workable culture critique must retain something of the reflectionist logic of base and superstructure. Though his mode-of- production model is organized across multiple and heterogeneous levels or orders of abstraction, it ultimately aims at “explaining” postmodern cultural phenomena—the “new sentence,” the “new space,” the ascendancy of “pastiche,” and the other styles and themes he identifies—by reference to a grand diachronic narrative whose “agent” is “multinational capital itself.” Thus he can insist that his critics’ “resistance to globalizing or totalizing concepts like that of the mode of production” is itself “a function of . . . [the] universalization of capitalism.”
The interesting question to raise here, it seems to me, is not whether Jameson’s frankly totalizing methodology is inherently insensitive to cultural difference, or even whether such periodizing or totalizing abstractions have been somehow ruled out in advance by the fragmented and ahistorical character of the culture they mean to grasp. Rather, the question is to what extent Jameson’s brand of late-capitalist Marxism is itself a symptom of the mode of production whose symptomatology concerns him. Where is the diagnostician located in relation to the disease? Is this Postmodernism postmodern? If the imperative is to historicize, how can we historicize Jameson himself?
There are many ways to approach such a question. But since Jameson has “insisted on a characterization of postmodern thought . . . in terms of the expressive peculiarities of its language rather than as mutations in thinking or consciousness as such,” we might do well to consider Jameson’s style, the “aesthetics of [his own] theoretical discourse.” Certainly his sentences, always remarkable, have never called more attention to themselves than in the most newly minted contributions to this volume. Of the schizophrenic character of our discursive situation, Jameson writes:
A roomful of people, indeed, solicit us in incompatible directions that we entertain all at once: one subject position assuring us of the remarkable new global elegance...