Michel Foucault (a thinker who personally rejected both the postmodernist and poststructuralist labels commonly attached to his writings) was once askMichel Foucault (a thinker who personally rejected both the postmodernist and poststructuralist labels commonly attached to his writings) was once asked "what is postmodernism?" Sure enough, he answered that somewhat silly question with yet another regressive sort of question. He said that before we begin to concern ourselves with the question of what is meant by postmodernity, we need to adequately understand exactly what was meant by the classification of modernity, that cultural specter that continues to haunt most contemporary theory. It's a simple enough idea, not to mention logical. Regardless of what words, symbols, or labels we use to identify historical movements, it is important to be aware of certain historical movements as cultural conditions, ones that influence art, economics, social life, and politics. More importantly, we should be able to describe the characteristic features of these rather unique movements. The problem is that postmodernism has the reputation of being to contemporary theory what the Kantian antinomy is to western philosophy; which more or less means that people tend to view it as an evasive style of thinking that skeptically deconstructs itself on purpose. While that idea is somewhat postmodern in itself, it isn't necessarily true. Fredric Jameson, a thinker who was one of the foremost pioneers of postmodern theory, makes it clear (for the most part) that it isn't all bullshit, but that it still sounds like it.
The Cultural Turn is a collection of Jameson's most popular essays on the subject of postmodernism (connecting the most eclectic array of subjects and examples; architecture, television, film, painting, Marxism, Hegelianism, urban planning, literature, etc.). The book almost functions as a light introduction to his rather daunting masterpiece, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, a text that I've heard fucking horror stories about. The first two essays (Postmodernism and Consumer Society, and Theories of the Postmodern) stand out as the most lucid and readable. They also contain most of his explanation of the transition from modernism to postmodernism, the most notable aspect of this being Jameson's notion of the "death of the subject", by which he means that the struggling "individual" of the traditional modernist piece of art becomes replaced by the object against which, or within which they are struggling. Thomas Pynchon describes this pretty well in his introduction in Slow Learner when he says, "Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction...". Of course he follows with, "...when the truth, as everyone knows, is directly the opposite". It shows though because the characters in Pynchon's novels may resemble him autobiographically (honestly, who knows?), but their respective struggles seem to mirror something more powerful and profound than individualistic, existential despair. Pastiche is also important to Jameson, being what he calls the most common example of postmodern, artistic expression. He distinguishes it from parody because he feels that pastiche does not mock or satirize the original, but replicates it to the point where the pastiche becomes a creation unto itself. Through the replicative work of art we find an originality that is inevitable. This was a technique that William Gaddis used in the Recognitions several times. Especially in the way the main character Wyatt Gwyon creates faithful replicas of Flemish masterpieces that are such accurate reproductions that they almost look better than the originals.
In the chapter entitled Antinomies of Postmodernism, Jameson goes on at length about the way in which perpetual change becomes cyclical through its attachment to fashion and media change. This is something that Jameson refers to as a temporal paradox; absolute change equals stasis. I think that this, to some degree, explains the nature of the cliches about postmodern theory. Naturally, most people have a problem with negativist deconstruction in the sense that it makes everything seem fucking impossible. The postmodern buzzword entropy comes up, and everyone rolls their eyes in reaction to a thought process that seems to arrive at no functional conclusion. Not that I don't find that to be a reasonable response. I simply think that this particular version of stasis makes sense in a culture so saturated with closed systems, simulacra, and revisions of revisions. It all does seem somewhat cyclical.
Transformation of the Image was the one essay that I almost found completely unreadable. I remember something about Debord's image-driven spectacle being synthesized with phenomenology and aesthetics in an attempt to explain the commodity fetishism of the image in popular culture. See! Even my explanation doesn't make that much sense (or any). Along with the End of Art History (in which Jameson goes on and on, utilizing Hegelian dialectics to come to some crazy-ass anti-conclusion that I hardly understood as an intelligeble idea), and the Brick and the Balloon, the essays that close out the book are the most trying. Honestly, Jameson's writing can occasionally make Derrida seem lucid in comparison. Culture and Finance Capital was a piece that I found prescient and profound enough. I like the idea that capital as a concept in late capitalist markets has become a paper or symbolic abstraction. Therefore, even Marxian concepts such as use-value and commodity fetishism become blurry ideas. To an extent, money itself has become a commodity, etc.
All in all, these essays were engaging enough. Jameson demands a lot of attention though. And his writing style is just so fucking convoluted. He seems to be taking his cue from the Frankfurt School, and is obviously a stalwart admirer of Theodor Adorno, whose influence permeates this collection of writings. For anyone interested in Marxist critical theory in this particular vein, I might suggest reading Zizek or Eagleton instead. I find both of them far more comprehensible than Jameson....more
Even for a theoretical text written by an extreme leftist, in the late sixties, in Paris, this is a convoluted read. The chapters seem to demarcate diEven for a theoretical text written by an extreme leftist, in the late sixties, in Paris, this is a convoluted read. The chapters seem to demarcate different aspects of the idea that is the spectacle. There is a lot of debate over whether or not this book had much political influence over the events of May 1968 in Paris. If nothing else those same student activists had to have had some faith in the ideas put forth here. The structure seems haphazard. There is a very aphoristic, almost Nietzschean style to the prose, and Debord's tone seems a little pedantic at times, which strikes me as odd. The passages are extremely paradoxical. His ideas seem relevant to the times though. It's not terribly far-fetched to say that citizens of a late-capitalist, commodity driven culture are victims of debased social communication. People associate with, and represent themselves through the images of the consumer driven spectacle. It's a theory that decries the sort of bemused, commodity obsessed circus that contemporary society has become. Granted, I won't even deny that this review is biased. Yet, at the same time, I would imagine it to be pretty difficult to read this text without waking up a little, or at least developing a more keen sense of awareness about modern culture and the relationship that the individual shares with it.
Oh, and there is a film (Debord was also a filmmaker) for this book. It's message seems a little clearer....more
I read this in its entirety while drinking in Laurelhurst park one afternoon. Basically, it's Marx meets Bukowski in an incredibly revealing account oI read this in its entirety while drinking in Laurelhurst park one afternoon. Basically, it's Marx meets Bukowski in an incredibly revealing account of a leftist iconoclast, and his reasons for political dissent. I think that this is an essential read for anyone who is interested in reading Society of the Spectacle because it offers some indispensable insight into the mind of a political idealist. Apparently, this autobiography was the inspiration for Bob Dylan's own....more