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  • Consuming Megalopolis
  • Jon Thompson
Celeste Olalquiaga. Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Even while proclaiming an interest in the vast and gaudy landscape of kitsch rejected by high culture, a good deal of postmodern criticism remains highly theoretical, committed to analyzing written texts and content to refer to the world of mass culture rather than actually study it. One of the strengths of Celeste Olalquiaga’s Megalopolis is that it investigates a wide variety of contemporary practices, many of them invisible to less perceptive eyes, seeing them all as social texts that say much about contemporary existence. Megalopolis is written in a clear, often lyrical style that finds its inspiration in the weird but compelling landscape of postmodernity, a landscape of telephone sex advertisements, malls, docudramas, SF movies Blade Runner and RoboCop, but also low-budget 50’s and 60’s futuristic fantasies), AT&T advertisement campaigns, comic books, cyborgs, World Fairs, Latin American or Latino home altars, snuff films, atrocity art, postmodern junk art, Brazilian carnival parades and the Chilean punk subculture.

Given her thesis that we are living in the ruins of modernity, and that identity and history, as traditionally understood, have virtually ceased to exist, Olalquiaga ranges across this “culturescape” of fear and loathing and desire with considerable authority and aplomb. Yet her argument is not primarily negative. Against those who have argued that postmodernity is a kind of endlessly recurring capitalistic nightmare, she sees other possibilities. Central to her argument is the practice of consumption. To Olalquiaga, consumption has been a misunderstood activity, wrongly associated with passivity, unfreedom and tyranny, making the human subject an object worked upon by the imperatives of capitalism. It is this notion of consumption that Olalquiaga wants to rehabilitate:

Avoiding a rationale for consumption based on functionality (that is on possible use), postmodernism sponsors consumption as an autonomous practice. . . . The purpose of this book is to describe how such an apparently finite project as postmodernism, understood as the glorification of consumption, does in fact enable the articulation of novel and contradictory experiences.”

(xvii)

Running through her analyses of contemporary practices, whether they are Latino home altars or low-budget SF movies, is this pivotal point: in a world dominated by the corporate message that commodities make the man, consumption can be an ironic activity, even an ironic mode of self-consciousness. If done right, consumption can involve a recognition of commodity fetishism itself, and thus a recognition of the entire way in which capitalism as a system attempts to co-opt and control subjects.

This argument is extended across five brief, but suggestive, chapters. Chapter one, “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” examines the fate of the body in postmodern societies. Despite the cult of the body in the West, Olalquiaga contends that what we are witnessing is not its triumphant deification, but instead its demise, what she calls “the vanishing body.” State-of-the-art projective technology (videos, TV, computers, etc.), postmodern architecture, hi-tech prosthetics, the ongoing fascination with cyborgs, AIDS, and of course electronic sex: for Olalquiaga, all of these developments point to the inescapable condition of “psychasthenia,” or the inability of an organism to locate the boundaries of its own body. The fragmentation and disappearance of the body means that increasingly, identity is not dependent upon organic being.

This case is further developed in Chapter two, “Lost in Space,” in which Olalquiaga argues that the technology of instant communication precipitates the loss of temporal continuity: “The postmodern confusion of time and space, in which temporal continuity collapses into extension and spatial dimension is lost to duplication, transforms urban culture into a gigantic hologram capable of producing any image within an apparent void” (19). Quite literally, then, the body is lost in space. One symptom of this near disembodiment is the space age iconography of the 50s and 60s, and its recent “reincarnation” in retro fashion. Whereas once this space-age iconography expressed some hope in regards to technology and its effects, the postmodern version is ironic at best. Retro fashion now is “a parodic attempt to breach some contemporary fears, most notably the replacement of the organic and human by the technological” (34).

In...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
1993-01-01
Open Access
No
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