In his 1991 text, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson lays out his theory of postmodernism as cultural dominant risen from late capitalism. By cultural dominant, Jameson does not mean that it is the only form of art or culture, but rather that it dominants the culture, causing all to be at least feel its influence. Jameson uses this term to highlight the ways that the socio-economic structure of society is reflected in that society’s culture. Throughout the book, Jameson compares postmodern culture to high modern culture by a method of periodization that displays the way culture is tied to socio-economics: starting from the mid 19th century (characterized by the production of the steam engine) and realism, the late 1890’s to the 1940’s (characterized by electricity and internal combustion) and modernism to high modernism, and from the 1940’s on (characterized by the meaninglessness of borders due to nuclear devices and global capitalism) and postmodernism.
For Jameson, postmodernism is at least partly defined by its characteristics, including “depthlessness,” “the waning of affect,” and pastiche. Jameson refuses to have a positive or negative stance on postmodernism due to his focus on historicity, believing that assessing a historical situation in terms of morality is wrong.
Notes & Quotes
- For Jameson, “depthlessness” is defined by the postmodern production’s refusal of depth and focus on surface. He compares artwork from the high modern period, Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes” and a postmodern piece, Andy Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes,” to better illustrate this distinction between the two cultural forms. While modern works invite interpretation through suggestions of that which is beyond what is represented, postmodern works can be interpreted but are superficial and have no depth beyond what is displayed on the surface. Although I can’t think of many horror films that fit this definition, I’m really interested in Jameson’s repeated return to postmodern architecture, which he partly defines by its work to not blend in with its surroundings, but to replace them and create its own total space with a new form of collective behavior. 1 The waning of affect is definitely present in American Psycho (see my final bullet point for a fuller discussion of American Psycho as postmodern gothic), and it is also present in the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, including his (body) horror film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). In all of his films that I have seen, actors are directed to deliver their lines in a flat, affect-less manner. While this may at first seem to create either a boring or a silly film, it actually adds to the creepiness of the movie. I remember feeling a creeping dread and overwhelming paranoia while watching this movie because I couldn’t get a read on the characters or on the film itself (is this a black comedy? a horror? I feel creeped out, so… horror?). I also see this present in the two killers of Micheal Haneke’s American remake Funny Games (2007). In this case only two actors, who happened to be the killers of the film, take on a flat affect, which adds to the feeling of unease while watching the movie and also reminds me of Sienne Ngai’s chapter on stuplimity in Ugly Feelings: the mixture of shock and boredom which is a major part of our present late capitalist culture. That brings me to one slight challenge to Jameson’s belief in the waning of affect- I don’t think that affect has necessarily waned because these emotionally flattened performances still transmit affect to the viewer. I think that Ngai’s Ugly Feelings are helpful here, because she provides us with a list of seemingly negative or flattened affects. Although they are negative, they are also affects.
- Finally, Jameson provides us with the term ‘pastiche’ as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. The pastiche is an “empty parody” without any depth. Once the subjectivity of the artist becomes fragmented (this fragmentation is caused by much of what is described above), there is nothing for him or her to do but to point to the past. However, because the pastiche is not a true parody, it becomes merely a collage of copied aesthetic forms from the past that have no new meanings attached. This, for Jameson, is a “cannibalization” of past aesthetics. It also creates a “loss of historicalness” as the past is represented as a shiny mirage of pop images produced by pop culture. He calls this “pop history.” Our understandings of the past are limited to these superficial stereotypes that are created by postmodern culture to represent a time that is no longer connected to us. He analyzes some “nostalgia films” of Hollywood to represent how, even though they present as historical period pieces, they still work to use our own stereotyped understandings of the past that make this product consumable to the present audience. I think here of Jameson’s repeated references to Disneyland, particularly the Epcot “World Showcase” which seeks to represent different cultures, but instead produces a flattened experience of different cultures that have no real meaning to them. I think also of the amusement park, “Texas Battle Land,” in Texas Chain Saw Massacre II, which was dedicated to the history of Texas and has since become the secret home of the Sawyer family. Throughout the film, the audience is shown glimmers of the park, which advertises its depiction of famous historical violent battles as well as American stock images, such as that of Davy Crockett. Living underneath the park (thereby providing some sort of monstrous depth?) is the Sawyer family home and business. The Sawyers thrive in late capitalism, and perhaps use this surface of nostalgic pastiche to hide away their more nefarious business practices.
- Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about American Psycho as paradigmatic of the postmodern (gothic). It utilizes each one of Jameson’s major characteristics of postmodern: Patrick Bateman and the world in which he inhabits appears depthless- the novel is full of generic shifts from fiction, to commercial, to Broadway poster, to to-do lists, to restaurant reviews, to graphic torture scene, etc. Bateman views himself and his fellow yuppies as interchangeable, the subject has been fragmented, and he doesn’t really care when he is mistaken for someone else (except for when it challenges his manhood). Right at the start of the novel and the film, he tells his audience that, “there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.” Similarly, throughout the book, the image of Donald Trump and Trump the corporation haunt Bateman, yet Trump himself never actually appears. Secondly, there is a waning of affect, especially in the film, where actor Christian Bale presents himself to others as a normative, “happy guy,” but whenever he speaks directly to the audience through a voice over, we hear an eerie monotone. In the novel, everything is described by Bateman in the same sort of stuplimity- graphic depictions of violence and sex are given the same bored yet obsessive descriptions as what he ate for dinner.
- American Psycho reflects and utilizes the quality of depthlessness, but I think that through it’s reflection of depthlessness, it gains depth… also I’m sure someone out there would argue that most horror films lack depth, however, I would argue that by being part of a repetitive genre, it invites hermeneutic development through what Theodore Martin calls the “historical drag of genre”…). Jameson analyzes the LA Westin Bonaventure hotel as an example of postmodern architecture, however, I think that the many Trump Towers would also be suitable subjects for this sort of interpretation.
I also think that the current prevalence of social media and online identities works well with Jameson’s depthlessness. Our identities are flattened to pixelated images and words on a screen and reputations can be destroyed or created through these flattened surfaces. Additionally, social media influencers and content creators provide postmodern entertainments and advertisements that are similarly flat. This may be provide some angle to take when analyzing the Unfriended films in the future…
- Jameson uses Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” to display the affect present in modernist art- the individual brush strokes reference a sort of individuality, while the overwhelming feeling of alienation and anxiety depicted within the painting are translatable to the viewing audience. In postmodern culture, however, Jameson states that there is a waning in affect which is at least partly due to its inherent depthlessness. He also ties this to the loss of individuality in late capitalism because of the loss of private human agency and choice in favor of corporate power. [2. Wendy Brown also discusses this loss of individual agency in Undoing the Demos; this also connects to Jane Elliott’s macroeconomic aesthetic ↩