It has become customary for historians to speak about the death of the Victorian Age in 1914, or the reign of a politico-monetary Long Sixteenth Century persisting well into the middle of the calendrical 17th century. By the same token, there are innumerable incitements in contemporary cultural, if not political, analysis to regard the Old Twentieth Century—defined, preeminently, by the two Great Wars and their attendant revolutions—as having drawn to a close sometime between the Beats and The Punks, Sartre and Foucault. Fredric Jameson’s recent essay, ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capital’ (NLR 146), is an audacious attempt to argue the case for such an epochal transition. Indeed, Jameson, charting a caesura from the beginning of the ‘long Sixties’, goes as far as to suggest the ascendency of a new, ‘postmodernist’ sensibility or cultural attitude, overwhelmed in a delusionary, depthless Present, and deprived of historical coordinates, imaginative empathy, or even existential angst. With extraordinary facility for unexpected connections and contrasts (as between architecture and war reporting), he stalks the logic of the new cultural order—based on the manic reprocessing and ‘cannibalizing’ of its own images—through various manifestations in current writing, poetry, music and film. It is, however, architecture, ‘the privileged aesthetic language’, that reveals the most systematic, virtually ‘unmediated’ relationship between postmodern experience and the structures of Late Capitalism. Thus, according to Jameson, the ‘new world space of multinational capital’ finds its ‘impossible’ representation in the mirror-glass and steel ‘hyperspaces’ of the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel and other contemporary urban megastructures.
This vision of the end of the twentieth century as the triumph of postmodernism—and, correlatively, the conception of postmodernism as the cultural ‘dominant’ corresponding to the highest, ‘purest’ stage of capitalism—has an exhilarating allure. It regiments sundry partial, discrepant observations into a coherent focus, while providing some sure footing on that most slippery of terrains for Marxists: the theorization of contemporaneity. The ability to summarize vast tracts of modern and postmodern history, to focus their respective vectors in exemplary instances or moments, and to provide a synoptic overview of how the
To begin with a merely formal complaint. The category ‘cultural dominant’, which occupies such a crucial epistemological position in Jameson’s argument, seems as if it might be just another name for that elusive Great White Whale of cultural criticism—the specific object thereof—which so many have pursued, struggled with for a while (some drowning in due course) and, then, invariably lost hold of. Described in Jameson as a ‘force field’, ‘systematic cultural norm’, or ‘cultural language’, postmodernism in its dominative or hegemonic position seems variously to assume the status of ‘sensibility’, ‘aesthetic’, ‘cultural apparatus’, even ‘episteme’. A continuous slippage between subjective and objective moments, spectator and spectacle, begs the introduction of that necessary though not sufficient clarification which Perry Anderson (in debate over the meaning of modernism with Marshall Berman in NLR 144) makes between the experience of (post-) modernity and the vision of (post-)modernism.
Even more problematic is the assertion that postmodernism is the cultural logic of Late Capitalism, successor to modernism and realism as the respective cultures of the monopoly and competitive stages of capitalism. This concept of the three stages of capital and the three stages of bourgeois culture may strike some as the return of essentialism and reductionism with a vengeance. Certainly there is a superficial similarity, at least, with that neatly ordered, old-fashioned world of conveniently correspondent superstructures that we associate with Comintern Marxism after Lenin. But even if we set aside the question of whether Jameson is operating as a kind of Lukács manqué, there are intractable difficulties in establishing a first ‘fit’ between postmodernism and Mandel’s concept of the late-capitalist stage.
For Jameson it is crucial to demonstrate that the sixties are a point of rupture in the history of capitalism and culture, and to establish a ‘constitutive’ relationship between postmodernism, new technology (of reproduction rather than production) and multinational capitalism. Mandel’s Late Capitalism (first published in 1972), however, declares in its opening sentence that its central purpose is to understand ‘the long postwar wave of rapid growth’. All of his subsequent writings make clear that Mandel regards the real break, the definite ending of the long wave, to be the ‘second slump’ of 1974–75, and that exacerbated inter-imperalist rivalry to have been one of its primary features (he has criticized emphasis on ‘multinationalization’ as the principal characteristic of contemporary capitalism). The difference between Jameson’s and Mandel’s schemes is crucial: was Late Capitalism born circa 1945 or 1960? Are the Sixties the opening of a new epoch, or merely the
If American architecture is taken as an example, it is clear that Mandel’s is a better grid to plot the relationship between cultural forms and economic phases. As every reader of Tom Wolfe knows, the corporate ‘workers’ housing’ of the High Modern (or International) Style totally dominated postwar urban renewal, reaching an apotheosis of sorts during the late 1960s in the construction of such surreal super-skyscrapers as the World Trade Center, the John Hancock and Sears buildings. ‘Modernism’, at least in architecture, remained the functional aesthetic of Late Capitalism, and the sixties must be seen as a predominantly fin-de-siècle decade, more a culmination than a beginning.
If Jameson’s equation between postmodernism and Late Capitalism tout court gives way, then to what politico-economic trends can we correlate the change in sensibility represented by postmodernism? Preserving the hypothesis that the American Downtown Renaissance, and its futuristically built environments, are keys to deciphering a larger cultural and experiential pattern, I would suggest the reinterpretation of postmodernism in terms of two alternative coordinates: first, the rise of new international rentier circuits in the current crisis phase of capitalism; secondly, the definitive abandonment of the ideal of urban reform as part of the new class polarization taking place in the United States.