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  • Jameson’s Postmodernism: Version 2.0
  • Steven Helmling
Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998. Verso: London and New York, 1998.
Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity. Verso: London and New York, 1998.

Fredric Jameson’s new volume offers itself as a compendium of his “key writings” on postmodernism; but let the buyer beware that it does not contain the famous “Postmodernism” essay published in New Left Review (1984) and reprinted as the opening chapter of Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Instead it opens with that essay’s earliest, much shorter, first take, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”—the kernel that grew, at about three and a half times its original length, into the “landmark” essay.1 Presumably, the decision to reprint the earlier version was about marketing: publishers want to minimize overlap between competing products. But motivation aside, reprinting the earlier version has the effect of highlighting a little-noticed feature of Jameson’s thinking about postmodernism since the big essay, namely that ever since its first appearance and astonishing impact, Jameson has been moderating its grandest claims, qualifying just what had excited its enthusiastic readers most.

On the evidence, the enormous success of the 1984 essay was not altogether what Jameson had hoped for. Many read it as a manifesto on behalf of the “postmodern”—modernism was dead, long live postmodernism—despite Jameson’s cautions in the essay itself against any such for-or-against reading. Granted, Jameson here and elsewhere in his ‘80s writing allowed himself considerable hope on the score of postmodernism, but even in the essay itself, the culminating theme of “the sublime” was inflected as much with terror as with hope. “The sublime” was “unrepresentable,” and since we can’t understand what we can’t represent, the chronic Jamesonian burden of “Marxist hermeneutic” (“we are condemned to interpret at the same time that we feel an increasing repugnance to do so” [Jameson, Ideologies 6]) was for the nonce “relieved.” Jameson seemed, at last, to have joined the clamor (from Susan Sontag to Deleuze and Guattari) “against interpretation”; and the aesthetes of jouissance delighted to hear him talking the talk of “delirium,” “euphoria,” and “intensity.” This release involved others: like dominoes, all the direr Jamesonian themes seemed to be falling, as Hegelian “time” (History, temporality, the diachronic, narrativity) yielded to the favored pomo category of “space” (the synchronic, the visual, geographies [plural], cognitive mapping).

And these were shifts not merely of theme, but of Jameson’s actual writing practice: dense and compact, The Political Unconscious had told a (Hegelian) story; by contrast, the vast and sprawling Postmodernism scanned, from varying altitudes, diverse cultural terrains whose roughly synchronous disjunctions were no small part of the point. These macrolevel gestures were sustained at the microlevel in the very textures of the prose as well: The Political Unconscious had elaborated the premise of revolution’s “inevitable failure” in a “stoic” and “tragic” prose that enacted the “labor and the suffering” of “the dialectic of utopia and ideology”; whereas “Postmodernism” (both essay and book) continuously evoked, in the feel and sound of the writing itself, “the relief of the postmodern generally, a thunderous unblocking of logjams and a release of new productivity that was somehow tensed up and frozen, locked like cramped muscles, at the latter end of the modern period” (Jameson, Postmodernism 313). Throughout Postmodernism, this promising prospect motivated not merely a thematics, but also a stylistics of “the sublime.”

But “the sublime,” and everything I’ve just linked it with above, constitutes new material added between the earliest version of the essay, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” and the now-canonical “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” And it is precisely “the sublime” (etc.) that The Cultural Turn elides by reprinting the former rather than the latter. (Arguably, even the choice among the available “earlier” versions supports this point, since The Cultural Turn reprints the one that substitutes a discussion of the Westin Bonaventure for the earliest version’s pages on the proto-“sublime” theme of “the schizo” [see endnote 1].) In thus reverting, as it were, to this earlier, pre-“sublime” version, and making it the starting...

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