Postmodernism and Consumer Society (HUM415)

Imagine that you are invited to take a trip to the Grand Canyon. You drive for hours and finally arrive at the South Rim, where you and your companion park, then walk to a vista point. Looking down into the immensity of this geological formation, you have the sense of something out of all proportion, something that defies your sense of scale, something that 18th century philosophers and poets used to call “sublime.” Your friend pulls out a camera and takes a picture.

A week later your traveling companion offers you a copy of the picture taken at the Grand Canyon. Looking at it, you immediately realize that this site is, in some sense, impervious to photography. The image you hold in your hand looks unreal– like a model, a miniature of the Grand Canyon. The photo can never precisely or fully express the size and depth of it. The image fails to convey your experience and your perceptions. In this sense it has little value.

Distilling theoretical writing into a series of slogans is like taking a snapshot of the Grand Canyon. The photographic image reifies a total experience and in doing so distorts it into something it is not. The same principle holds for reducing theory to a few key phrases or terms. In a way, the belief that difficult writing can be so distilled or reduced is an effect of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Reading and reflection is converted into a bumpersticker. The effort necessary to arrive at conclusions is obliterated, and what we are left with is a catchphrase, detached from its significance.

In this scenario, no thinking has occurred. Rather, the dictates of NCLB Syndrome and its corollary, the Burger King Model of Education, have assumed control. Even further, an assemblage of decontextualized key phrases and terms functions in much the say way that the perpetual flow of cultural fragments operates in the contemporary society: it produces a situation where the interrelation between signifying elements has been lost. The result is something Jameson, borrowing from Lacan, has called “schizophrenic.”


“It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”

— Fredric Jameson (1991)

As the above quote suggests, Jameson’s essay operates in a mode of defamiliarization. Many thinkers and artists have noted that at least in the “developed” world we seem to live in a perpetual present. History has been subtracted from our experience of the social– of the world and our relationship to it– even as it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a future which would be any different from the way we live now. History, historical consciousness– save for a scheme of disconnected figures, events and place-names (Columbus, the Industrial Revolution, Gettysburg)– seems to have evaporated, to be replaced by an endless array of de-contextualized styles and commodities. This is the postmodern condition; the effect, Jameson argues, of a recent variant of capitalism (he calls it “multinational capitalism” while I’ve identified it as neoliberalism). Yet at issue here is not simply the way that economy produces culture, but the manner in which the relationship between these two domains has changed. “In postmodern culture, ‘culture’ has become a product in its own right”– which is to say that culture IS economy– or, in other words, “postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”

Postmodernism is, in essence, the cultural expression (the “logic”) of late capitalism. That phase of capitalism is distinct from earlier phases in that it is “post-industrial” (a term he doesn’t particularly like): in the US, for example, the age of large manufacturing centers, of (unionized) workers laboring in heavy industry, has come to an end. Much of the workforce today consists of “at will” hires, often temporary or part-time employees. The work they engage in tends to be in service sector rather than production. Most of them will be in debt (which is itself a source of profit for the corporations which “service” those debts). Few of them will own their homes.

We live in the age of disposable workers, a period when corporations have become multinational and roam the globe for the cheapest available materials and laborers. All of the pathologies of neoliberalism: downsizing, redundancies, the weakening of the social safety net, etc. are characteristics of this new(er) strand of capitalism– which Jameson calls capitalism in its “purer” form.


Here are my notes on “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.”


as a response to modernism. (what is modernism? who was James Joyce?)

modernism, its techniques, its characteristics of fragmentation and idiosyncrasy, have been absorbed into everyday life. The method of montage, for example, is now a cliche of Hollywood films and advertising.

At some level, then, the postmodern is determined by modernism.

Yet what has happened since the early 20th century?

If modernist texts incorporated elements of pop, postmodernism no longer makes the distinction between “high” and “low” (mass/ pop) culture. I.e., “it’s all culture.” Not simply the best that has been thought and done (symphonic music; long, complex novels; etc.) but everything is culture. And how are we, after all, to judge?

Another example of the effacement of boundaries: Theory. Not philosophy, not sociology, not political science– but some melange of different theoretical discourses. Again, Jameson argues that this is symptomatic.

Why use the term postmodernism?

As a means of periodization. (Cf. Toohey’s essay. See )

the effort here is to “correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order”

recall that Jameson wrote this essay in 1983, at a time when an alternative to Really Existing Capitalism was available.

Note the years used in J.’s periodization. Postwar. 60s as a turning point.

His contention is that culture “expresses the inner truth of [a] newly emergent social order of late capitalism” (why late capitalism? how else might we qualify contemporary capitalism?)

In order to establish this relationship, J. will look at two “significant features”: pastiche and schizophrenia.

Pastiche: parody without affect.

Parody: “the mimicry of other styles” against a “linguistic norm” (ex. I can make fun of Faulkner only if there is a standard of expression against which his prose may be measured. Or, more crudely: if I make fun of someone’s accent, it will be funny only if there is a standard notion of what a “proper” accent sounds like.)

But what happens when there is no linguistic norm? When culture consists in endless diversity and heterogeneity? When there is no “master code”?

Parody is no longer possible. Instead what we get is pastiche, “blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor”

The Death of the Subject

What is a subject? We’ve already used the term “capitalist subject” with some frequency in class. Here’s one definition:

Subject: The term used to describe interior life or selfhood,

especially as it is theorised in terms of its relationship to gender,

power, language, culture and politics, etc. (Mansfield).

The self may be an effect rather than an origin. Subjects, this argument runs, are made not born. They are an outcome of the symbolic order, of ideology and language.

To make such a claim is to posit “the death of the subject”

Jameson is interested in “an aesthetic dilemma” which emerges from the DOS. If the “unique self, an experience an ideology which informed the stylistic practice of… modernism” does not exist then the old (modernist) model of cultural production doesn’t work anymore. In the absence of the kind of individualism which underwrote the subversive, idiosyncratic practice of the modernists, contemporary culture workers (artists) will simply reiterate older styles and ideas, recombining them but not inventing new ones.


nostalgia films are not simply films about the past. In the case of Star Wars, for example, there is an effort to access the past through a nostalgic mode of return. this nostalgia occurs, Jameson argues, at the level of form. SW is nostalgic insofar as it reproduces a viewing experience from another era. the film’s entry into the past is really a repetition of “the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period.”

Body Heat, on the other hand, seems to signify a nostalgic space outside of time, one that allows the film-maker to avoid the contemporary era altogether. For Jameson, the nostalgia film functions as a symptom of our inability to confront the present, yet another indication of the fundamentally a-historical culture we live in.

Note in particular the end of the first paragraph on page 44, specifically Jamesons discussion of EL Doctorow’s novels. Doctorow does not represent the past so much as he represents “cultural stereotypes” about it. In other words, he represents a representation. In other words, “we seem condemned to seek the past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach.”


It is crucial to understand that Jameson does not use schizophrenia in its clinical sense. He is interested instead to form a judgement about what, in a subsequent essay, he called “the cultural logic of late capitalism”– i.e. postmodernism as the “inner truth” of the current socio-economic order.

Picking up some ideas from Lacan, Jameson argues that the schizoid is one who has not been fully integrated into the symbolic system– i.e. in language.

to demonstrate he returns to a fairly basic notion specific to linguistics: the sign and its elements.

a sign is a word, an image, a sound. it consists of two parts, the signifier and the signified. the signifier is the “form” or “materiality” of the sign: the words on the page, the image on the screen, etc.. the signified is the concept denoted by the signifier. the sign DOG is composed of the letters D-O-G (signifier) and the idea of a dog (signified). Somewhere outside this signifying system, in the “real” world, are “DOG’s” referents– actual dogs.

interrelations between words constitute the meaning of a sentence. signifiers make sense– they produce a signified– only in relation to one another.

for the schizophrenic, there is no relation between signifiers– no “global” meaning. instead, the schizophrenic inhabits a world of unrelated signifiers and thus a kind of pure present where the temporality of cause and effect (for example) does not hold. if meaning across language is an unfolding, the absence of meaning indicates a whirlwind of disconnected images, sounds, bytes, etc.

To reiterate:

When the relation between signifiers (words, sounds, images, etc.) breaks down a kind of schizophrenia occurs. The inability to connect signifiers in order to produce meaning has a temporal dimension as well, given that Lacan argues that the human sense of time is syntagmatic– shaped like a sentence, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Without past or future, there is only an endless present. What does that condition feel like? What is its affect? Jameson quotes a longer passage from the autobiography of a woman once afflicted with schizophrenia. Note the language she uses to describe her predicament: “‘a disturbing sense of unreality.’”

To further explore this process, Jameson performs a reading of Bob Perelman’s poem “China.” If you look at the poem, the first question you might ask is what binds these statements– these isolated sentences– together? This choppy, disjointed poem, then, is a figure for the postmodern condition. Syntagmatic structure, the relation between signifiers, is gone.

These isolated signifiers lose their meaning. They flatten out and lose depth. They no longer represent anything but themselves. Note the parallel with exchange value and the commodity fetish.

If postmodern culture– like “China”– is “art about other art, images of other images” then it stands to reason that its connection to “reality” is tenuous. Here we could gesture at concepts (which Jameson does not explicitly invoke) of hyperreality and virtuality. Facebook, for example, is a social networking site that exists in the non-space of the internet. To surf the web is to enter a domain without dimensions, one that lacks (at least immediately perceptible) materiality.

The final section of Jameson’s essay, The Aesthetic of Consumer Society, returns to the notion of periodization. Recall that one of the questions raised by the concept of periodization– as a heuristic– (very little of this will make sense, by the way, if you’ve not read Toohey) is how we decide to chop up history into discrete chunks. Most people periodize according to wars: ex. the post-war era, antebellum period, etc.

Jameson is more interested in other matters, though he retains the question: “how [does] a historian… posit a radical break between two henceforth distinct periods”? He argues that the issue here is between the key elements which fall into the categories of the dominant and subordinate.

[Here he is borrowing from Raymond Williams, a name good students will recognize. In Williams’s formulation every period is characterized by various socio-cultural forces or values, etc. which are either dominant, emergent or residual. The cult of courtly love and the ethos of chivalry, for instance, were dominant socio-cultural elements of the Medieval period in Europe. Yet on the horizon lay the new values associated with the Renaissance, including a more “scientific” worldview which would ultimately undermine the very forms of hierarchy and deference that feudal order depended upon.]

According to Jameson, new periods emerge when the position of certain elements are transformed: “features that in an earlier period or system were subordinate now become dominant, and features that had been dominant again become secondary.”

Jameson explores this phenomena by thinking about “cultural production and social life generally.”  In essence, the techniques of modernism have become absorbed into everyday life. In fact, cultural production has simply become another form of [economic] production. Culture itself has been in a sense colonized by commodity production. In a meaningful way, Culture IS Economy.

There are also other symptoms: the hypermediation of society, the increasing velocity of apparent (i.e. stylistic, formal, surface) changes. Above all, there is the sense that history itself has vanished, a process encouraged by the 24-7 news cycle, by the massive flood of information (as opposed to knowledge) that cascades and circulates along the mediascape.

The two major observations Jameson has offered, “the transformation of reality into images [and] the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents,” only deepen this amnesiac condition (a process Chuck D once called ‘dumbassification’).

Finally, to the question of whether the Postmodern offers itself not simply as a symptom of consumer capitalism but as a potential locus of resistance, Jameson, perhaps wisely, withdraws.

5 thoughts on “Postmodernism and Consumer Society (HUM415)

  1. Monica Rinna

    These notes are very helpful and much appreciated! I have finished the reading and find this theory (not philosophy . . correct?) very fascinating, yet overwhelming as well.

  2. Adam

    Unrelated to the post itself, but when we were watching Children of Men today I thought the pig outside the mansion was very peculiar. I came home and read something about the film and the author of the piece mentioned Pink Floyd’s album cover for Animals (my personal favorite Pink Floyd album). Notice a similarity?

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