“[C]ontemporary theory […] has, among other things, been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory—or better still, theoretical discourse—is also, I want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which postructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very significant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here.”
—Fredric Jameson, from Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a defining work about definition—specifically, about what “postmodernism” is. Rather than reducing postmodernism to one quality or characteristic, Jameson lays out several qualities or characteristics as manifest in works of literature, architecture, painting, and so forth. To say that postmodernism is a single thing is to ignore various flows, assemblages, networks, contradictions, tensions, and trajectories summoned forth by this slippery signifier. It is, in short, to be non-postmodern.
Jameson dislikes postmodernism and does not set out to be postmodern, even if he is, or cannot help but be, postmodern; he seeks to describe postmodernism in order to generate a working, demarcating explanation. Criticizing the “camp-following celebration” of the postmodern aesthetic, the “current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology,” and the “vulgar apologias for postmodernism,” Jameson views the postmodern as penetrated and constituted by late capitalism. For Jameson, the postmodern is less a political program than a moment in time with certain defining characteristics; the postmodern is not an ideological agenda, but something we are in, whether we like it or not.
The trouble with describing the postmodern, as Jameson suggests in the passage above, is that it can refer to various phenomena, from artistic and cultural developments to social and political organization. One thing seems clear from the prefix “post”: postmodernism replaces (or displaces) the modern. It comes after. Therefore, postmodernism must be marked by a break from its predecessor. What this break is, and how it materializes among social forces, determines what postmodernism means, or at least what it looks like.
“Contemporary theory” or “theoretical discourse,” which has arisen alongside mass mechanical reproductions in the arts as well as commodity culture in every realm of human experience, and which, moreover, is neither unified nor uniform, is a product of postmodernism. This “Theory” (with a capital T) is splintered into numerous methodologies and logics, but generally holds that meaning is fluid, fragmented, and indeterminate. That statement does not do justice to the nuance and complexity of the subject.
At any rate, one has, as Jameson points out, trouble defending the “truth” of postmodernism’s “theoretical insights” because “the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon.” Jameson rejects a wholesale and unquestioning commitment to poststructuralism, which he tends to conflate with postmodernism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Jameson sees in the postmodern the propensity toward domination, a decidedly essentialized (and essentializing) category of discourse. Too much reliance on the postmodern, according to Jameson, leads to relativism or nihilism. Jameson does not use those terms, but he does say that if “we do not achieve some general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable.”
Representing an arguably conservative shift away from other theorists—conservative with regard to ontology or metaphysics, not social politics—Jameson seeks to recover concepts like “dominance,” which are central to Marxist criticism, by arguing that critical theory such as poststructuralism is symptomatic of capitalism itself. Accordingly, we ought to study postmodernism as a result of capitalism’s rise to maturity. In this respect, Jameson revives Marxist criticism, which in many ways stands in contradistinction to postmodernism. Marxist criticism, after all, seems to subsume and encompass other theories, especially those that purport to explode all meanings; it is overarching and paradigmatic. It cultivates ideas about fixed categories—like dominance—that signify definite and resolved concepts.
Although what or who dominates is always changing, the idea of domination remains relatively stable. Marxism is therefore incompatible with postmodern theories that would do away with any and all “historicity”—to say nothing of essentializing concepts such as the bourgeois or even the self. For Jameson, Marxist theory remains useful and instructive. It is not just the constant play of simulacra or the mere trace of signification. Rather, it offers a viable and effective method for critiquing globalized consumer culture and ideology, both of which are evident in the frantic insistences on the superiority of the postmodern condition.