From LA Hotels to Economic Theory, Fredric Jameson’s Multifaceted Analysis of the Present

From LA Hotels to Economic Theory, Fredric Jameson’s Multifaceted Analysis of the Present
Fredric Jameson, former Duke professor and founder of the Duke Program in LIterature. (Design by Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

Fredric Jameson, who has been a professor at Duke since 1985, was the founder of the Literature Program and served as its director for decades. He has published dozens of widely influential books and been awarded several prestigious international prizes. I want to focus here on his 1991 book, “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” because it offers an introductory view on the extraordinary breadth of his vision, the originality of his analyses and the impact of his work.

In the 1980s and 90s, there were active debates, within and outside the academy, about using the term “postmodernism” to name our current era. Proponents took positions that were easily caricatured. They declared the exhaustion of grand narratives, by which they meant overarching theories of social and political life, and they announced the end of modern or Enlightenment rationality, sometimes maintaining, even, that all claims to truth are fundamentally unstable. Opponents generally held that there has been no such historic break and thus that we still belong to the modern era, with its social forms, interpretative tools and claims to rationality and truth.

Jameson proposed an entirely different position. We do live in a new era, he maintained, but it is not characterized by the free play of meanings or instability of truth that postmodernists imagined. Instead, we need to understand today’s new cultural and social forms in relation to the vast shifts of the capitalist economy of the late 20th century, including the processes of deindustrialization in the dominant countries, the new modes of globalization, and the like. A first approach to understanding postmodernism, then, as the title of his book suggests, is as the cultural logic of contemporary (that is, late) capitalism.

But Jameson’s notion does not rely on any facile, direct relation between the economy and social or cultural forms. What he produces instead is a set of correspondences or, better, a vast constellation of transformations in different arenas of social and cultural life. One might say, in a kind of shorthand, that the end of modernization (in economic terms) corresponds to that of modernity (in social terms) and modernism (in aesthetics).

This is where the extraordinary breadth of Jameson’s vision stands out.

One chapter of the book is dedicated to economic analysis and, specifically, to the new centrality of the ideology and rhetoric of the market. But other chapters analyze forms of cultural production, including one on the postmodern novel, another on new trends in video art, and another on Hollywood film, along with briefer analyses of contemporary painting and poetry. Particularly influential were his accounts of postmodern architecture, including the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and a house by Frank Gehry.  Rare is the scholar who can make such significant contributions to so many disparate fields.

Jameson’s ambitious proposition, then, is that there has been a simultaneous historical shift in these various cultural, social and economic fields — and that our task is to recognize the correspondences among them. The challenge is something like that faced by the blind men and the elephant in the famous fable: The one who strokes the tail can provide real but only partial knowledge, as can the one who feels the trunk or the feet or the belly. All of them together, however, can give an adequate view on the whole beast, which is, in Jameson’s case, postmodernism itself.

Before “Postmodernism,” Jameson had already published several widely acclaimed books, and since then he has continued to publish at perhaps an even more rapid rate, on topics from philosophy to film, with analyses of high cultural classics, such as Marcel Proust, to popular fiction, like Raymond Chandler. Due to his global reputation and the widespread influence of his works, Jameson has served for decades as an icon of the intellectual intensity and originality of humanities research at Duke.