Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture


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Relationship to modernism

Daniel Palmer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. The very structure of the television show quotes the classic era of the family sitcom. While the misadventures of its cartoon characters ridicule all forms of institutionalised authority — patriarchal, political, religious and so on — it does so by endlessly quoting from other media texts.

The difficulty of defining postmodernism as a concept stems from its wide usage in a range of cultural and critical movements since the s. Postmodernism describes not only a period but also a set of ideas, and can only be understood in relation to another equally complex term: modernism. Postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with a form of modernism that believes in progress and innovation.

Modernism insists on a clear divide between art and popular culture. But like modernism, postmodernism does not designate any one style of art or culture. The shift from modernism to postmodernism is seen most dramatically in the world of architecture, where the term first gained widespread acceptance in the s. One of the first to use the term, architectural critic Charles Jencks suggested the end of modernism can be traced to an event in St Louis on July 15, at pm. At that moment, the derelict Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was demolished.

Built in and initially celebrated, it became proof of the supposed failure of the whole modernist project. Jencks argued that while modernist architects were interested in unified meanings, universal truths, technology and structure, postmodernists favoured double coding irony , vernacular contexts and surfaces. The city of Las Vegas became the ultimate expression of postmodern architecture.

Theorists associated with postmodernism often used the term to mark a new cultural epoch in the West. In his essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society , Jameson set out the major tropes of postmodern culture. These included, to paraphrase: the substitution of pastiche for the satirical impulse of parody; a predilection for nostalgia; and a fixation on the perpetual present.

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In the visual arts, postmodernism is associated with a group of New York artists — including Sherrie Levine , Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman — who were engaged in acts of image appropriation, and have since become known as The Pictures Generation after a show curated by Douglas Crimp. Musi Zhang. But the origins of these strategies lay with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp , and the Pop artists of the s in whose work culture had become a raw material. Some postmodern theorists argue that the old images of totality are not simply false but dangerous, because they lead to conformity. If you want to live in a world where everything fits together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, you will probably try to stop anyone who wants to live differently.

Differences of culture, values, lifestyle, etc. For people who value wholeness above everything else, the best form of society turns out to be a dictatorship—or so this argument goes. In fact this argument was developed most fully in France by people who could still remember life under the Nazis during World War II. They fear that any movement toward totality, no matter how well intentioned, can end up limiting diversity and supporting mindless conformity. Some postmodern theorists especially attack a form of totality they call the "master narrative.

Like a master key, it is supposed to open up the meaning of everything and solve every puzzle. Most religious traditions are master narratives, because they include stories about the creation and ultimate purpose of the universe. Evolutionary theory is a secular master narrative about life on earth. Some psychological theories are master narratives about the nature of human existence. Freud's theory is a good example. Capitalism assumes a master narrative about human nature and human relationships. Marxism does too. These economic theories claim to explain just about everything we do on the basis of a few relatively simple principles.

Some postmodernists recall the master narrative that Hitler told the German people about the innate supremacy of the Aryan race and Germany's destiny to rule the world. They fear that any master narrative has similarly harmful possibilities. A master narrative must explain everything.

So it ignores or twists the facts to fit its story. It values wholeness and totality above truth. So it easily leads to an "us against them" mentality: "We who believe the story are totally good; you who don't believe it are totally evil. Postmodern theories often extend this analysis to the idea of a unified self. Modernity taught us that we ought to have a unified sense of who we are as individuals—an integrated personality, a single identity. It taught us that there should be some unifying principle holding together the moments of our experience.

In fact it taught us that our lives would only be meaningful if we had this sense of personal unity. Some modern philosophies said that we had to make rational ethical decisions from a personal "center," or with the "whole self," in order to be truly responsible individuals. Postmodernists question modernity's emphasis on a rational, individualistic, responsible, unified self. Postmodernists call this modern image of the individual a "subject. Others say that it once existed but in postmodernity no longer exists. For many postmodernists that is a good thing. They see the unified sense of the "subject," like the master narrative, reinforcing our dangerous desire for totality.

If we have to force every experience into narrow mold, we will close ourselves off to many new experiences and become narrow-minded people. In order to get unity for ourselves, we will impose conformity on others. In order to control ourselves, we will try to control others. Not all postmodern theorists have joined this attack on totality, however. The best known theorist who still finds value in talking about totality is Fredric Jameson. He is a literary and art critic who accepts the basic Marxist analysis of society. He therefore works within a master narrative, though he does not accept it naively or uncritically.

Rather he tries to change the Marxist theory to bring it up to date and make it fit the postmodern world. The rest of this essay describes Jameson's interpretations of postmodernism. All of the concepts and ideas presented are his own, paraphrased and simplified. The examples used here to illustrate his ideas are mostly my own. Totality is still a valuable idea, Jameson claims, because we should try to understand how all the pieces of our world and our experience fit together. We will never fully succeed.

But in making the effort we will change ourselves and our world for the better. Knowledge gives us power. The more we make sense out of our world, the more we can make wise choices and act upon them to improve our world. If we don't try to make the pieces fit together in our minds, we let things go on the way they are. And the way they are is not very satisfying.

A few people around the world are very rich and powerful. Some people mostly in the highly industrialized countries are pretty comfortable and perhaps have an illusion of power when they vote or buy stock in a company. Most people in the world are poor or on the margin of poverty, suffering in various physical and emotional ways, and quite powerless to do anything about it.

As a Marxist, Jameson assumes that people want, and should have, the greatest possible control over their own lives. He realizes that many postmodernists disagree. They fear that when we strive for control we inevitably try to dominate others, to eliminate difference and diversity by imposing our own views on others. But he is willing to take that risk.

He believes that it is possible to seize control over our own destinies without violating the freedom of others. To do this, we must understand not just various parts of our world, but the totality of it. We must see the "big picture" as fully as possible.


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We will never understand it entirely. And there is always a danger that by describing the "big picture," as master narratives do, we will falsify some part of it. A master narrative is an abstraction. It always has a certain fictional quality when it claims to tell the whole truth in a single story. But, Jameson suggests, a Marxist analysis can bring us closer to the whole truth than any other story.

In that sense it is an especially useful fiction, because it can give us more freedom to control our own lives than any other story. A Marxist analysis of the totality of our world starts with a basic premise: our lives are shaped, above all, by the mode of production that exists in our society. The mode of production means the various tools available to produce goods and services human labor, natural resources, technologies, investment capital, etc. This includes the way we organize ourselves when we use the tools; i. We only have real power when we can control our own mode of production.

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We must be able to produce things we really want in the ways we really want. Therefore we must study various modes of production, freely decide which one we want, and be able to implement our decision. The only way to really improve the world is to give everyone a share of real power. Otherwise inequality, injustice, and oppression are bound to continue. The first step toward real change is to understand the current mode of production and our place in it.

Capitalism has managed to keep most of us ignorant of the factors that control our lives. We cannot see the totality, the "big picture. But studying the mode of production also means studying the culture. Every mode of production has its own characteristic predominant culture: its particular lifestyle, way of speaking, fashions, arts, religion, etc. Modes of production and cultural styles change together. The change in our culture from modernity to postmodernity reflects a change in the mode of production. The first 60 years or so of this century were still part of modernity. The mode of production in most parts of the world was based on monopoly capitalism.

In each nation a few big companies controlled most of the economy, and the government kept that system going. Governments used their military force to conquer other lands that provided raw materials and markets for the big companies. Powerful countries competed for control of smaller countries, creating "spheres of interest.

The dominant technology was the electrically powered machine. During the late '50s and '60s at least three major changes occurred in the mode of production. First, there was a tremendous expansion of multinational corporations. Most big companies made plans to expand into foreign countries. The various national economies began to form a single interlocking global economy.

Second, European style colonialism turned out to be inefficient for this new multinational economy. The multinational corporations made more money when rich native elites got political control of their own countries, since the native elites generally cooperated with the rich elites of the big industrial powers. The U. Third, the age of electrically powered machines gave way to the age of computers, mass media, and information processing. Rather than producing products, machines were now used primarily to reproduce images words, pictures, graphs, etc.

Data, not products, have become the most valuable property that the big corporations control. These three changes together marked the transition from monopoly capitalism to "multinational" or "late" capitalism. Modernism was the culture of monopoly capitalism. Postmodernism is the culture of multinational late capitalism. Jameson titled his major book on the subject Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism ; all quotations in this essay are from that book.

This does not mean that everything in our culture today is postmodern. There are still many leftover elements of modern culture with us for example, many of the ideas we study in the university that tell us we should still desire unity. There may also be newly emerging seeds of some future cultural forms beyond postmodernism. But postmodernism is the dominant force in our culture. It is a force that everything—and everybody—must deal with. Just as capitalism tries to bring all the forces of production under its control, so postmodernism is trying to bring all of culture under its control.

In fact postmodernism is the cultural arm of today's capitalism. It is capitalism's most powerful tool for dominating our lives. And it is quite successful. The features of modern culture are rapidly being replaced by the postmodern. When we study postmodernism we are looking at the trends that our culture is following. Jameson admits that his theory of postmodernism is basically a kind of prophecy about the future.

He looks at present trends to describe what the future will probably be more and more like, around the world, for a long time to come. Late capitalism and postmodernism have both good and bad qualities, he says. In some ways they limit human freedom and happiness. In other ways they increase freedom and happiness.

So we should not simply praise or condemn postmodernism. Rather we should analyze it as carefully as possible, because it is our best clue to the true nature of our society. What we need to understand most about postmodernism is the complicated link between the mode of production in late capitalism and the forms of culture today. If we can begin to put the pieces of the puzzle of contemporary reality together, we can begin to think more intelligently about our reality.

We can decide what we like about it, what we want changed, and how to work together to make those changes.

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Life after postmodernism : essays on value and culture /

Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism begins with these words: "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" ix. In other words, to find the real meaning of the postmodern present we should relate it to the past. We should view the present as one chapter in the ongoing story of human civilization.

If we can understand how the historical changes of the past have led to the present, we may gain more understanding of where we are going, and where we ought to go, in the future. But history has led to a new kind of culture—our own culture—which almost totally ignores the long-term trends of history. So it is very hard for us to connect the present with the past or the future. The postmodernists who reject master narratives are also rejecting historical thinking, since master narratives are usually stories about the meaning of changes in history.

But even when postmodern theorists want to convince us to reject master narratives they usually end up telling us some story about how those narratives hurt us in the past and how we should live without them in the future. We always have to tell some kind of story about history if we want to think seriously about how to make the future better. Jameson's own master narrative he calls it "a kind of myth" [95] begins with the history of the problem of representation. He traces the three stages of representation.

Modernity believed it could represent reality in simple literal signs. Modernism was troubled by the possibility that these signs might not actually represent any reality beyond themselves. Postmodernity no longer worries about this problem. It assumes that signs exist by themselves, detached from any external reality. Today's most typical images are simulacra: copies of originals that have just been created only for the purpose of becoming mass-produced signs like the corporate logo. Within each postmodern cultural artifact a building, newspaper, billboard, commercial, garment, song, book, film, etc.

They come and go for no apparent reason. A cultural artifact is now just a random collection of signs momentarily existing side by side, ready to change at any moment into another random collection. So it cannot point beyond itself to any meaning. It cannot represent any reality outside itself. It cannot even raise the question of its relationship to any reality outside itself.

It refers only to itself; it is its own referent. And our world is now so dominated by these signs and simulacra that they have become our reality. There is no other reality beyond them to which they could refer. Since the signs are not supposed to relate to anything beyond themselves, it makes no sense to ask what they mean. So the problem of meaning simply disappears. If postmodern signs comment about anything at all, they can only comment about themselves and the other signs alongside them.

Our culture us filled with examples of such self-referential comments. Cartoon characters, for example, often say things like: "I'm only a cartoon character" or "I love living in comic book time. Much of the appeal of Stars War, Episode I , came from our pleasure in watching the film refer to images from earlier i. Although the signs may comment about each other, we do not expect them to relate to each other in any stable or unified way.

They are related to each other primarily by the differences among them. Postmodern artifacts display an "absolute and absolutely random pluralism. Each subsystem reflects a different realm of experience and has its own way of being understood—its own "code. See, for example, the bell tower of the new Humanities building on this campus, which has no relation to the Italian Neo-Renaissance style of the rest of the building. Each element can be interpreted in terms of its own code. But there is no single code to tell us why they should be placed together in just the way they are.

An issue of People magazine is similar. Articles about a movie star, a political leader, and a homeless drifter may appear side by side. Each makes sense in terms of its own code. But there is no clear reason why they should all appear on the same page. Each architectural element or magazine article is a free-floating image, detached from its original context, with no meaning beyond itself. We take in all the juxtaposed signs, accepting each as a discrete entity. So we learn to focus on many signs simultaneously.

We do not expect them to form a single overarching language. The best we can do is to translate the terms of one code into a roughly corresponding set of images in another code. This is called "transcoding. We draw lines of relationship from signs in one code to signs in another, letting each translate and interpret the other. We do not expect this transcoding to bring the signs into a single system or code. Nor do we expect it to link the signs with anything else in reality.

Transcoding is the best we can hope for in the postmodern world. Culture remains a kaleidoscope of interacting images. It has no more meaning than the kaleidoscopes we played with as children. This endless diversity of images gives us the feeling that there is no longer any unity in our world. But, Jameson argues, a system that produces constant diversity is nevertheless still a single system. Postmodernism is just like a kaleidoscope: a a unified instrument whose purpose is to produce endless diversity.

In fact postmodern theory itself teaches us that the world is a huge chain of signs, each of which points to some other sign. Since the chain has no end, it is infinite. It is the totality. The quickest way to understand these ideas is to turn on your television. Video is the most characteristic medium of postmodernism. The essence of the medium is to keep up a ceaseless flow of kaleidoscopic images. It makes virtually no difference what reality they depict. What every TV show is really "about" is the flow of images; i. This is just as true for news shows and commercials as for entertainment.

We see the cutting edge of postmodernism most clearly in "infotainment" and "infomercials," when we aren't quite sure whether we are watching a news or entertainment show or a commercial. Those are the moments when we realize most clearly that the image itself—not the content—is what counts.

So it makes no sense to ask about the meaning of the image. The point of every TV show is just to keep the images moving. Anyone who tries to interpret the images temporarily stops the flow, which violates the essence of the medium itself. Television inherently resists the question of meaning. When we watch TV we don't ask what it means. We transcode. For example, TV coverage of a war might be interrupted by a football player selling beer.

War, football, and beer are each particular codes. Modern people would try to decode the message by asking what reality each image represents. They would ask whether the tempting TV image of a frosty brew really corresponds to the taste of that particular usually poor quality beer. They would ask why our society worships football stars as its greatest heroes.

They would ask about the true historical context of the war. Then they would go on to search for the larger reality represented by the convergence of all three. They would try to figure out why these three sets of images are thrown together, how war and beer and football are relate together, and what the overall point is. This would be the modern way of decoding the message. But we postmodern people do not decode; we transcode. We recognize that the intoxication of beer is vaguely related to the intoxication of football, which is vaguely related to the intoxication of war.

The same goes for machismo or victory celebrations or whatever. Of course intoxication, machismo, and victory celebrations can have quite different meanings in each of these three codes. But postmodern people don't pursue those differences or ask about their relationships. We accept the images living side by side in an ever-changing kaleidoscope.

The activity that best symbolizes our way of life is channel-zapping. We spend our lives as if we were always watching many different shows simultaneously. If we wonder what it all means, transcoding provides all the answers we can get. Every video image is essentially "about" the process of video itself, which captures the essence of postmodernism. Therefore every video image, regardless of its content, is also "about" the postmodern era itself as a particular moment in world history.

So every video image is also, indirectly, "about" the historical process that led up to postmodernism. TV arrived with or perhaps ushered in postmodernism. In the early '60s, for the first time, virtually every household in the U. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in was a formative event for everyone who lived through it, not because of the tragic content but because the nation was tied together by television for the first time. Strange as it may seem, that immensely communal feeling felt good.

It was the newly discovered power of the medium, not the message, that had such a profound effect. In later years we tried to recreate that communal feeling. But only acts of violence seemed to be able to trigger anything like it again. The killings at Columbine High School brought the nation together with something like though not as great as the intensity of the Kennedy assassination. Again, it was shared shock over a totally unexpected act of violence. These were the first real-time TV wars. Jameson's book was completed earlier, so he does not discuss it.

But his theory suggests an interpretation. The nation seemed to support both wars enthusiastically. But we were actually enthusiastic about two sets of images we saw on TV: the fantastic high-tech images and the images of distant human suffering. We also enjoyed the knowledge that everyone else around the world was watching the same images at the same time. That was the essential meaning of the war.

Beyond that, few people bothered to inquire seriously what the war was about or what it meant. There was little effort to relate the "code" of high-tech war to the "code" of the visible suffering. The history of the conflict swas hardly ever discussed in the mainstream media. Certainly we heard little about how the U. There was an official "meaning" for each war, of course. There were also constantly repeated catch-words like "new world order," "desert storm," "international security presence," and "full compliance with the international community. They did not refer to anything real beyond themselves.

In the case of the Persian Gulf war, 18 months later, the nation had largely forgotten that the war had any meaning which is why Clinton and not Bush became president in We had zapped to a new channel. It seems likely that the same process of forgetting is happening even faster to the war against Serbia. The real history-making event was that CNN could now define reality, even for the leaders in Washington who had to pretend to be making history. Postmodern images, as exemplified by TV images, have a paradoxical double meaning. They are the best clue to the historical meaning of our era. Yet at the same time they shut out all questions of historical meaning.

In our world, as on our TV screens, things change so rapidly that it seems all things are new everyday. The concept of "newness" disappears, since there is nothing "old" to contrast it with. So we no longer care much about the difference between the old and the new. Since that difference is the essence of history, we stop thinking about history. We assume that constant change is a permanent feature of our lives. But the changes are all engendered by, and contained with, the overarching postmodern culture. So they are all part of a single, unchanging reality.

The more things change, the more we are immersed in the postmodern system, and the more we are convinced that there is no alternative to it. The future seems to hold nothing but more of the same. This is another reason to stop thinking about history. Engulfed by constantly shifting images, we live in an era that has forgotten how to think historically. Our images of all historical events are built out of simulacra. We have many images of the past, most notably in the nostalgia films that are often so popular. These images entertain us and make us feel good about the present.

They can be reproduced endlessly like Pocahontas moccasins or models of the Titanic. But our images of the past tell us little about the true meaning of the past or the way it has shaped the present. The ever-copied image is itself the original reality.

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They told us little about what the '50s really meant for American history. They told us everything about what we wanted or needed to believe about the '50s. So they became the '50s for us—a fantasy image that can be repeated in endless variations, until we want or need something else.

Oliver Stone's films have created similar simulacra of the '60s. Simulacra make the difference between past and present irrelevant. And now the Summer of Sam is New York in Since we are so cut off from the real connection between past and present, our images of the future are even more unrealistic.

Star Trek and Star Wars form the prototypes. Darth Vader masks and warp speed video games are simulacra. None of these images really refer to any genuine future we could plan to create. They refer only to the needs and concerns of present-day society. Because our images of past and future are largely simulacra, they can't tell us anything about how the present truly relates to the reality of past and future. Instead they actually cut us off from the real past and future, because they give us such comfortable substitutes. We live in a timeless realm, which is far different from the world of modernity.

Modern people were acutely aware of the passage of time. They could feel the past as something behind them and the future as something that lay ahead. The tension between past and present raised troubling but also exciting questions about the future. Our loss of past and future takes away this feeling of depth. Our images of past, present, and future are part of one superficial plane.

All these images are thrown together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle laid out on the same flat table. We can combine them however we like. But we no longer even ask whether the pieces can all fit together. This means that we cannot understand our own situation in the present. So our images of our own situation also tend to be simulacra.

We compare our experience to media images. We picture our lives to ourselves as if they were Hollywood movies or episodes in a TV series. All of this pseudo-reality persuades us that the flow of historical time doesn't have anything important to tell us. So we don't even try to locate ourselves in the context of history. We live as if the flow of time doesn't really affect us. Therefore we don't think much about how we could change society in any basic way in the future. Indeed we don't think too deeply about the future at all.

In this respect we are quite different from previous generations. The modern industrial age put great stress on progress toward a better future. The biblical and Christian traditions also include many images of fundamental change. Often these images speak of an apocalypse: a total destruction of the present world, followed by the creation of a totally new and perfect world. We no longer hope for, the possibility of such a fundamental change, Jameson says.

We have already experienced the end of our modern industrial world. But this was "a very modest or mild apocalypse, the merest sea breeze that has the additional advantage of having already taken place " xiv. Indeed it was so mild that we hardly even noticed it unti postmodern theorists told us about it. And since it has already taken place, it would seem that we don't have to worry about any threats in the future.

In fact, though, we worry a lot about the future. Indeed we may avoid thinking about it precisely because it seems so frightening. The past has led us to a present in which every unity has been torn apart, and we are left to play with the pieces. Historical change seems to be synonymous with disintegration. So we are "abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of 'terrorism' on the social level to those of cancer [and AIDS] on the personal" These fantasies form the content of much of our culture, particularly on TV.

Perhaps we are so fascinated with pictures of urban riots or earthquakes or starvation in Africa because they mirror the reality buried beneath the images of everyday life. Yet for most of us these images of catastrophe are only fantasies. They are detached from everyday life or any kind of historical reality. So they more easily become simulacra, devoid of meaning.

They come so thick and fast, along with all the other changes of postmodern life, that nothing can shock us any more. We have learned to live comfortably in our disintegrating world—as long as we don't have to contemplate any basic change in the system as a whole. The mild apocalypse, mirrored in the kaleidoscopic flow of television, has split apart all of reality, including the reality of our own selves.

This is what postmodernists generally mean when they talk about the "death of the subject. If the world has become a bunch of TV channels, then our minds naturally become televisions. They carry the same images everyone else is experiencing, as if stamped out of a mold. But they don't seem to refer to much of anything beyond merely what everyone else happens to be experiencing these days. The old-fashioned modern ideas we run across in the university may move us to look for some unity and deeper meaning in our experience.

But we find the task very difficult and often impossible. This doesn't bother us much, though, because so much of our culture outside the classroom urges us not to care. So we are all increasingly like a stereotypical schizophrenic. We experience the world and other people as random collections of flat meaningless images, which have no coherent relationship to each other. We learn to experience ourselves as similarly meaningless collections of disconnected signs. Sensations, thoughts, feelings, and desires are still there. But they are free-floating and impersonal. They have nothing to do with who we permanently are, because we can no longer permanently be anyone in particular.

They do not disturb our inner depths, for we have no inner depths to be disturbed. There is no longer a tension between outward experiences and their inner meanings. No one feels cut off from "real" reality or from their own "true" self, because there is no longer any "real" reality or "true" self apart from the kaleidoscope of sign-images. We no longer ask the questions that plagued the minds of modern people: Is this an "authentic" experience?

Am I really contacting "real" reality? Am I in touch with my own deepest reality? Some postmodern theorists find this very liberating. They claim that the modern person's idea of inner depths and an inner "true" self was all an illusion anyway. No one could find this supposed inner reality because it doesn't exist. So people who spent their whole lives looking for it naturally ended up frustrated and unhappy. Similiarly, the "real" reality and "authentic" experience they searched for was a fantasy that could never be found.

Modernity's questions were unanswerable because they were based on false premises. So we are free from the feelings of anxiety and alienation that these questions once created.


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Since we no longer search for an inner unity, we are also free from the pressures for conformity that so easily lead to fascism. When we prize a unified personality above all else, we have to force every experience into the narrow mold of "my true identity.

This means fending off really new and different people in our lives. Now, many postmodernists say, we are free from these pressures for uniformity. We are more in touch with the way things really are. Experiences just come and go. We register them in our physical-mental apparatus and add them to the collection. The danger in this, Jameson points out, is that we need not take any responsibility for our own experience.

We live our lives like tourists on a packaged tour, collecting famous sights and souvenirs but never really connecting with the places we visit. Perhaps we go through the university like this too, collecting courses and credits as if they were so many stops on a whirlwind tour.

We just register the various experiences that come with the roles we play in various bureaucratic structures school, work, shopping, government, church, club, etc. Each role and each structure has its own worldview, set of values, and code of behavior. We learn to live appropriately in many different social worlds, sliding in and out of each one as the occasion demands.

We may become experts in transcoding, figuring out how to change our responses from the last situation in order to suit the next. For example, we learn to deal with the professor or the boss or the landlord much as we dealt with the schoolteacher or the minister or the choir director and all of these, of course, relate to how we dealt with our parents.

At the same time, we know that each of these situations is different and requires a somewhat different approach. We don't expect all these figures to represent a single structure of social authority or a single behavioral code. The bureaucratic structures we must live in school, job, supermarket, etc. But we also participate in many smaller groups. Some of these are based on the geographical and social place in which we find ourselves neighborhood, city, gender, ethnic group, race, religion, profession, etc. Having lost a sense of history, we now focus on issues of place and space, as if the world were a timeless collection of juxtaposed places.

Other groups are based on particular issues of concern to us environmental, peace, family values, social welfare, justice, etc. Each of these groups, too, has its own particular worldview, values, and behavioral code. Our political life is no longer a matter of negotiating a single overarching structure for everyone. Rather we form ourselves into these social movements and groups and engage in "micropolitics.

Each one of us gets some sense of identity from being a member of at least one and usually several of those groups. So our body politic, like our individual selves, is actually a collage of many different sets of social norms. Is there anything that holds us all together? Perhaps, above all, it is the simple fact that we all watch the same commercials on TV and go shopping in the same supermarkets and shopping malls. Culture is, more than ever before, dominated by the things that we buy and use.

Our concern about meaning and history has been overwhelmed by a flood of commodities. Even "high culture" the fine arts, literature, etc. But everyday life is also filled with "high culture. And culture is marketed just like toothpaste. So the line between culture and commodity consumption is disappearing too. The greatest opera stars, for example, are now celebrities. We hear them singing Christmas carols on Muzak in shopping malls. We see their CDs stacked high on display cases underneath slick posters bearing their pictures in supermarkets.

Then we go home and see them on TV endorsing products totally irrelevant to their art. Today, it seems, everything is for sale. Everything is valued only according to the pricetag that the market hangs on it. This is not a brand new phenomenon. Capitalism has gradually been turning more and more aspects of life into commodities to be purchased. But modern culture still had a place for works that were detached from the economic process and therefore could make critical judgments about it.

Now, in late capitalism, every cultural artifact is merely another commodity to be bought and sold in the market. When market and culture are fused, all of life becomes one great marketplace. The greatest writers are published by companies that are subsidiaries of giant multinational conglomerates. And writers are only "great" as long as their latest book makes a profit.

At a more mundane level, shopping malls owned by multinational real estate conglomerates rent space to entrepreneurs who, in turn, rent booths in that space to small craftspersons. So every little locally handmade pottery mug is now a link in the global marketplace and its endless chain of commodity culture. Who know where in the "third world" the potter's kiln or paints were made? Late capitalism, founded on the dominance of multinational corporations, has made the whole world a single marketplace. American commodity culture has spread rapidly around the world, taking American-style capitalism along with it.

The imagined glories of our culture and the obvious inadequacies of the alternative led the people of the Soviet bloc to dismantle their system. Whatever divides people in such faraway places as Tadzhikistan or Sri Lanka or Angola, they all share a fascination with American culture. Even religious fundamentalists who seem to reject our culture rely on its characteristic media: computers, cassette tapes, video, and the like.

This is the new imperialism. But they find it cheaper and more efficient to use the lure of commodity culture.

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Many people in rural villages around the world have their lives totally transformed by the first transistor radio that someone brings back from the city. They learn about new products, new music, and new ideas that they cannot forget—and they have to go back to the city to buy new batteries. From then on their desires, and the fulfillment of those desires, depend on being part of the global network of multinational capitalism. If they want the products that capitalism offers, they have to do the kind of work and live the kind of lives that capitalism requires.

They have to become postmodern people, which means becoming urbanized people. City culture is now so pervasive that no one escapes it. It is questionable whether we should even speak about a distinctly rural culture any more. Everywhere in the world, culture and the market meet in the act of consuming. The market is now dominated by consumption rather than production. Culture both "high" and everyday is made up mainly of acts of consumption or images related to acts of consumption. And the process of consuming commodities is, above all, a process of consuming the images of culture.

When we buy a product, we are buying the many signs that go into its production and come out of it. The product itself is also a sign. We do not value commodities primarily for their practical ability to meet our needs. Rather we value them as signs, as images that are satisfying in themselves, bearing no necessary relationship to anything else in our lives.

In other words we do not consume the commodity; we consume the cultural image of the commodity. We consume signs. But every time we consume a sign we are also consuming the culture that produced it. And the culture now consists essentially of the process of consuming its own signs. So every commodity-sign refers to the entire process of consumption.

Whenever we consume a commodity we are consuming a sign of the process of consumption. But the entire process is contained within every sign. So our main role as consumers—which is to say our main role in society—is to consume the process of consumption itself. Our passion for high-tech media is the main way we consume the process of consumption. When we buy the latest DVD technology, we are not likely to think about the specific films we will watch and precisely how they will look different.

We are not likely to think about questions of film or video theory and aesthetics. We are simply excited to have a new product and to be able to buy new DVD videos to use in it. We are consuming the idea of the new medium and its imagery. We are consuming the fantastic innovative power of postmodern technology. We are consuming our own pleasure at participating in the marketplace—the process of producing and consuming new technology.

And we are consuming the awareness of being part of a vast social movement. This year everyone else is buying the same new technology too. What will it be next year? This fascination with the media is crucial to understanding postmodernism and late capitalism. In every era the products available in the marketplace form a hierarchy, because some usually the newest are considered more desirable than others. In modernity the amazing innovations at the top of the hierarchy were new products—sewing machines, automobiles, dishwashers—and the machines that produced them. In postmodernity the amazing innovations at the top are new digitized images—DVD, laser video, digital sound—and especially the machines that reproduce them: "The word processor replaces the assembly line in the collective mind's eye" Few individuals ever owned assembly lines.

But we can all expect some day to own computers, home entertainment centers, fax machines, cellular phones, and all the rest. When we think about the commodities that appeal to us most, we are likely to think about these high-tech media. They do nothing but transmit data through electronically reproduced sensory images. Yet we are obsessed with consuming buying and using them.

The obvious answer is that we want the data these media can transmit: e-mail, computer nets, faxes, C-SPAN, high definition video, digitally remixed classic recordings, etc. Yet all these data are sign-images. Postmodern theory tells us that they are just more channels on our mental TV; they have no meaning beyond themselves. So we may value these signs as signs and just want to have more of them, no matter what their content.

Or perhaps we are fascinated by the media's unique ability to reproduce signs, regardless of what signs they carry. The high-tech media machines are now themselves signs, with no purpose beyond their own amazing existence. But they are also signs of our status in the market. They are now the most prestigious commodities for sale in the marketplace, just as automobiles or dishwashers used to be. So who really cares what particular pictures the latest Nintendo games have. The term sums up all the values epitomized by high-tech media: the excitement of the new and amazing, the instantaneous global transmission of digital data, the immersion in signs that have no value beyond their "cool-ness," and the social prestige of being able to afford and manipulate so many meaningless signs.

There is no longer any clear distinction between commodities, media, and cultural signs. All are linked together in a single global network of endlessly reproduced data and reproducers of data. The market sells us the media and data; it assigns them their value by hanging pricetags on them. Yet the media and data are absolutely essential to keep the market process moving along. Could supermarkets function any more without computers in the warehouse, UPC scanners at the checkout, and closed-circuit radio and TV cameras in the ceiling?

The network of media and data is constantly changing, as the market provides an endless flow of new products for us to buy which is what keeps our economy minimally afloat. But the fact that commodities, media, and signs are interdependent seems to be eternal. The kaleidoscope of ever-changing sign-images and the kaleidoscope of ever-changing products for sale are two distinct codes. But they interpenetrate so closely that we are constantly transcoding each in terms of the other.

So they turn out to be two halves of the same kaleidoscope, which seems destined to turn forever. High-tech media are a crucial link in this merger of culture and market. Our fascination with the media is actually a fascination with the whole kaleidoscope. When we consume the media, we are consuming the whole process of consumption in its purest form.

A few other examples may be helpful here. When we buy clothes, we are most likely to notice first the logos on them. The idea of wearing a name in big letters across some significant bodily part is fairly new and typically postmodern. We want people to be impressed not with our body or with the fashion design but with the logo. The logo is the essence of the commodity we purchase. When we wear it, it becomes the essence of our body. It is a sign that we are plugged into the cultural consumption network. It is also a sign of keeping up with the culture, which consists so much of juxtaposed logos.

Most of us want to wear the "in" logos of the current season. But the logo is a simulacrum. It is a sign that has no meaning beyond its reference to the ever-changing process of production and consumption. So when we consume clothing we are actually consuming the process of consumption, which is the essence of the culture itself. Another example is the continuing popularity of film and video disasters.

Most popular films now have at least one usually more than one scene of unbelievable explosive destruction. Perhaps this is simply to get the attention of an audience numbed to more routine kinds of violence. Perhaps it relieves our fear that such catastrophes may be awaiting us out in the real world. But audiences may love these scenes mainly because they are impressed with the technical quality of the special effects work.

What we are actually seeing is many thousands of dollars which could be used to feed the hungry or house the homeless being spent to destroy things and, more importantly, to give the illusion of destroying things. This is the prototypical act of consumption without any resulting production. Yet we demand to see more of it—as long as it is done with the latest high-tech skills. What we are really consuming here is a perfect image of the culture as a process of consuming high-tech media, with no purpose beyond itself.

Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture
Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture

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