On ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’
“Yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgments must finally be identified as a category mistake” – Frederic Jameson
It has been quite a while since I read Frederic Jameson’s texts. Rereading his critique of postmodernism has made me realize how much I agree with him. Since it is very difficult to critique what one concurs with, in this paper I only stress on the points of agreement.
For a historian periodization is important. Even a postmodern reading of history cannot run away from periods. Little wonder the term ‘postmodernism’ contains the prefix ‘post’ that refers to a period after, or rather, beyond and against the 'modern'. Jameson thus captures this preoccupation of postmodernism that, ironically, subjects it to periodization:
One of the concerns frequently aroused by periodizing hypotheses is that these tend to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological metamorphoses and punctuation marks). This is, however, precisely why it seems to me essential to grasp postmodernism not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.
In other words, postmodernism, though critical of linear history, has a history. This is not to say that history is simply linear in the sense of moving from premodern to modern and, thereafter, postmodern. Rather, it is to say that anything that defines itself in relation to what precedes it, or what it aims to transcend, is bound by its timeframe and framework.
Michael Echeruo terms such a limitation the first liability of a counter-discourse, “the fact that it must begin with a premise from the primary discourse.” In the postmodern case the primary discourse is the modern that has a specific historical periodization. For Jameson this is the period of capitalism and its high modernism. What follows after is the period of late capitalism that coincides with, and feeds on, the postmodern. Multinational capital characterizes this period. Jameson notes that the late capital does not only finance “fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming good”, but it is also dialectically linked to them.
Out of this dialectics are attempts at the destabilization or blurring of historic time and periodization through fast-paced renewal and revision of what preceded the postmodern. Multinational capital enables the constant production and reproduction of the image i.e. the simulacra. This “logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of older realities into television images” as Jameson observes, “does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it.” What is old appears new. No wonder one poet exclaimed: “there is nothing new under the sun”. It is always post-something.