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New Left Review I/152, July-August 1985


Terry Eagleton

Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism

In his article ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (NLR 146), Fredric Jameson argues that pastiche, rather than parody, is the appropriate mode of postmodernist culture. ‘Pastiche’, he writes, ‘is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language; but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists.’ This is an excellent point; but I want to suggest here that parody of a sort is not wholly alien to the culture of postmodernism, though it is not one of which it could be said to be particularly conscious. What is parodied by postmodernist culture, with its dissolution of art into the prevailing forms of commodity production, is nothing less than the revolutionary art of the twentieth-century avant garde. It is as though postmodernism is among other things a sick joke at the expense of such revolutionary avant-gardism, one of whose major impulses, as Peter Bürger has convincingly argued in his Theory of the Avant-Garde, was to dismantle the institutional autonomy of art, erase the frontiers between culture and political society and return aesthetic production to its humble, unprivileged place within social practices as a whole. [1] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1984. In the commodified artefacts of postmodernism, the avant-gardist dream of an integration of art and society returns in monstrously caricatured form; the tragedy of a Mayakovsky is played through once more, but this time as farce. It is as though postmodernism represents the cynical belated revenge wreaked by bourgeois culture upon its revolutionary antagonists, whose utopian desire for a fusion of art and social praxis is seized, distorted and jeeringly turned back upon them as dystopian reality. Postmodernism, from this perspective, mimes the formal resolution of art and social life attempted by the avant garde, while remorselessly emptying it of its political content; Mayakovsky’s poetry readings in the factory yard become Warhol’s shoes and soupcans.

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