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Sunday, 3 February 2013





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Post-modernism and consumerism

In the previous week’s column, we pointed out how Fredric Jameson observed how postmodernism has brought to the forefront of social discourse those features which assumed secondary importance in the tail-end of modernism.

He observes, “My point is until the present day those things have been secondary or minor features of modernist art, marginal rather than central, and have something new when that becomes the central features of cultural production.”

Cultural production and social life

Jameson further explains his thesis turning his analytical eye on the intricate nexus between cultural production and social life. What is obvious is that cultural production of a given time would also reflect upon the kind of social life of that era.

Fredric Jameson

Jameson observes, “But I can argue this more concretely by turning to the relationship between cultural production and social life generally. The older or the classical modernism was an oppositional art; it emerged within the business society of the gilded age as scandalous and offensive to the middle-class public-ugly, dissonant, Bohemian, sexually shocking. It was something to make fun of (when the police was not called into seize the books or close the exhibitions): an offence to good taste and to common sense, or, as Freud or Marcuse put it, a provocative challenge to the reigning reality- and performance principles of the early twentieth century middle-class society. Modernism in general did not go well with overstuffed Victorian furniture, with Victorian moral taboos, or with the conventions of polite society. This is to say that whatever the explicit political contents of the great high modernism, the latter was always in some mostly implicit ways dangerous and explosive, subversive within the established order.

Then if we suddenly return to the present day, we can measure the immensity of the cultural changes that have taken place. Not only are Joyce and Picasso no longer weird and repulsive they have become classic and now look rather realistic to us. Meanwhile, there is very little in either the form or the content of contemporary art that the contemporary society is intolerable and scandalous.

The most offensive forms of this art-punk, rock, say or what is called sexually explicit material-are all taken in its stride by society, and they are commercially successful and unlike the productions of the older modernism, it has still shifted its position fundamentally within our culture. For one thing, commodity production, in particular our clothing, furniture, buildings and other artifacts are now immediately tied in with styling changes derived from artistic experimentation; our advertising, for example, is fed by modernism in all the arts and inconceivable without. For another, the classics of high modernism are now part of the so-called cannon and are taught in schools and universities- which at once empties them of any of their older subversive power. Indeed, one way of making the break between the periods and dating the emergence of postmodernism is precisely to be found there: at the moment (the early 1960s, the one would think) in which the position of high modernism and its dominant aesthetics became established in the academy and are henceforth felt to be academic by a whole new generation of poets, painters and musicians.”

Jameson states that apart from arts, there are other areas of social life which clearly indicate the emergence of post-modernism. He observes, “But one can also come at the break from the other side, and describe it in terms of periods of recent social life. As I have suggested, Marxists and non-Marxists alike have come around to the general feeling that at some point following World War two a new kind of society began to emerge (variously described as post-industrial society, multinational capitalism, consumer society, media society and so forth).

New Types of consumption; planned obsolesce; an ever more rapid rhythm of fashion and styling changes; the penetration of advertising, television and media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society; the replacement of old tension between city and country, centre and province, by the suburbs and by universal standardisation; the growth of the great networks of super high ways and the arrival of automobile culture- these are some of the features which would seem to mark a radical break with the old pre-war society in which high modernism was still an underground force. “

Jameson observes that the emergence of post-modernism is related to the emergence of consumer society and that it is resonant with the ethos of the new social order.

“ I believe that the emergence of post-modernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late consumer or multinational capitalism. I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of this particular social order. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme; namely the disappearance of the sense of history, the way in which our entire social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates tradition of the kind which all earlier social information have had, in one way or another, to preserve. Think only of media exhaustion of news: of how Nixon and, even more so, Kennedy, are figures from a new distant past. One is tempted to say that the very function of the news media is to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past. The informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.”



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