As is usual for my Globs or Essays, this one tends to be rather lengthy and it’s only an introduction to an even longer one! Here’s an outline:-
The issue is about devising a practical Plan of Action to counteract the lurch towards what can be called ‘Fascism’.
1. We could sit back and do nothing or we could choose to contribute to a Plan of Action
2. But how can we possibly make the necessary change when we and millions like us are merely sleep-walking into oblivion?
3. There’s an outline plan of action in HGWells’ book WHAT ARE WE TO DO WITH OUR LIVES? (1931)
4. But what are we concerned about? The Rise of Fascism – the brainwashing of millions by the Global Capitalist Conspiracy
5. How else to define the problem than as ‘The Rise of Fascism’?
6. Manuela Cadelli on ‘Neoliberalism is a Species of Fascism’: ‘…it must be fought and humanism fully restored…’
7. The way money will obstruct the fight – the Mercer Effect
8. Postmodernism as a philosophical obstruction to any coherent plan of action
SO WHAT ARE WE TO DO NOW? THE TERROR OF THE SITUATION
‘…We’re all locked into Tzvarnoharno. [Gurdjieff’s word] It seems that no individual action can put things right. The democratic principle of change is just a windy emptiness; in itself it ensures that we three-brained beings stay compliant and unprotesting, sold on the half-baked belief that all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds…’ See http://wp.me/p1QjJc-tb
It maybe heart-warming, it may offer some kind of hope, it may give us the sense that there are others who think like us but in the end it’s no use keep reading with approval devastating intellectual critiques of existing political circumstances on social media – they are but consolations. It may even amount to a drift into the curse of Self-calming, unthinking escape from Mr Kurtz’s Horror. In The Fourth Way self-calming is the process of pushing aside thoughts or emotions that are uncomfortable, a pervasive characteristic of the human condition which is found at many levels, especially in front of pulpit or telly. What is needed is a complete plan of action for change. BUT, on the other hand
…it is possible to think for a thousand years; it is possible to write whole libraries of books, to create theories by the million, and all this in sleep, without any possibility of awakening… GI Gurdjieff
In 1962/3 I attended a few London meetings of the HGWells Society. I volunteered to produce some kind of commentary on what he has to say about World Government as a comprehensive plan for action. Many other things intervened, including sleep. Although I sometimes thought about what I had offered to do it is not till now, 55 years later, that I have taken up what I then intended, not that I’m working for the Society or intending to submit this as my very late homework. But it pleases me to return to things from the long past and I know I could never have defined things back then in the way I am able to do now.
This essay is by way of an introduction to detailed comments on HGWells’ book called WHAT ARE WE TO DO WITH OUR LIVES? A comprehensive commentary on the book will appear in the next Glob.
Why bother? Well, any thinking person must surely experience a feeling of absolute Horror at what’s now going on in the world: the seemingly blasé acceptance of the possibility of nuclear war, Trump’s desire to ‘bomb the shit out of…’ whoever he disapproves of, the Global Capitalist Conspiracy to defraud the masses of life & livelihood, the Rich getting considerably richer and the poor left to rot, the inhuman treatment of refugees, wholesale wanton destruction of cities, subhuman destroyers of human beings in the streets… It goes on and on.
We can choose to shut our doors and get on with our small lives (which is what they’d like us to do) in abject self-calming or we can choose to face the Terror of the Situation somehow. A truly creative person, open to everything, cannot but be horrified at the global shift towards the Horror, the Horror. ‘All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful…’ (Wilfred Owen a hundred years ago…) I’m not sure about being a poet but I do write the occasional poem.
In the US Holocaust Museum there’s a sign detailing the FOURTEEN EARLY WARNING SIGNS OF THE RISE OF FASCISM. You can see them all around you now. Here is a commentary on each of the signs:-
1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism – Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights – Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of ‘need’. The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, and so on.
3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause – people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists.
4. Supremacy of the Military – Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamourised.
5. Rampant Sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.
6. Controlled Mass Media – Sometimes the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship is very common.
7. Obsession with National Security – Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
8. Religion and Government are Intertwined – Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the government’s policies or actions diametrically contradict the major tenets of the religion.
9. Corporate Power is Protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
10. Labor Power is Suppressed – Because the organizing power of labour is the only real threat to a fascist government, labour unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.
11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts – Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.
12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption – Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
14. Fraudulent Elections – Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.
Of course the word ‘Fascism’ carries a great deal of baggage – it’s therefore very easy for seemingly totally respectable politicians to deny that their activities could possibly be put into the same category as what was called ‘Fascism’ in the 1930’s: they can dismiss all the above as not applying to their squeaky clean dictatorship. “Where are the concentration camps?” they ask.
But what other word is suitable? We run the risk of escaping the reality for lack of a word to describe it in shorthand terms, one that won’t be considered to be out of date. What other word is suitable?
To be sure, ‘Neoliberalism is a Species of Fascism’… One can trace all the early signs of rampant Fascism in recent events – beginning with the obscene Blair, everything in the UK since the Tories scrambled to power in 2010, Farage, the coming exit from the EU based on lies and irrelevancies, Trump, kowtowing to the Lie of Austerity, media manipulation and obfuscation and the disgusting May, daughter of a vicar, who clearly has no idea what the Sermon on the Mount teaches.
Though accurate, ‘Neoliberalism’ is not a very snappy word as a replacement for ‘Fascism’…
On the 3rd March 2016 Manuela Cadelli, President of the Magistrates’ Union of Belgium, published an article in the Belgian daily Le Soir, Le néolibéralisme est un fascisme, translated from French by Wayne Hall, in which she argued that ‘…the time for rhetorical reservations is over. Things have to be called by their name to make it possible for a co-ordinated democratic reaction to be initiated, above all in the public services…’
Here is the gist of her article:-
Liberalism was a doctrine derived from the philosophy of Enlightenment, at once political and economic, which aimed at imposing on the state… respect for liberties and the coming of democratic emancipation. It was the motor for the arrival, and the continuing progress, of Western democracies.
Neoliberalism is a form of economism in our day that strikes at every moment at every sector of our community. It is a form of extremism. Fascism may be defined as the subordination of every part of the State to a totalitarian and nihilistic ideology. I argue that neoliberalism is a species of fascism because the economy has brought under subjection not only the government of democratic countries but also every aspect of our thought.
The state is now at the disposal of the economy and of finance, which treat it as a subordinate and lord over it to an extent that puts the common good in jeopardy. The austerity that is demanded by the financial milieu has become a supreme value, replacing politics. Saving money precludes pursuing any other public objective. It is reaching the point where claims are being made that the principle of budgetary orthodoxy should be included in state constitutions. A mockery is being made of the notion of public service. The nihilism that results from this makes possible the dismissal of universalism and the most evident humanistic values: solidarity, fraternity, integration and respect for all and for differences.
There is no place any more even for classical economic theory: work was formerly an element in demand, and to that extent there was respect for workers; international finance has made of it a mere adjustment variable.
Every totalitarianism starts as distortion of language… Neoliberalism has its Newspeak and strategies of communication that enable it to deform reality. In this spirit, every budgetary cut is represented as an instance of modernization of the sectors concerned. If some of the most deprived are no longer reimbursed for medical expenses and so stop visiting the dentist, this is modernisation of social security in action!
Abstraction predominates in public discussion so as to [conceal] the implications for human beings. Thus… migrants… [become ‘a drain on our resources’] …to be weak is to fail. The foundations of our culture are overturned: every humanist premise is disqualified or demonetized because neoliberalism has the monopoly of rationality and realism. Thatcher said it in 1985: “There is no alternative.” Everything else is utopianism, unreason and regression. The virtue of debate and conflicting perspectives are discredited because history is ruled by necessity…
Neoliberal ideology generates norms that compete with the laws of parliament. The democratic power of law is compromised. Given that they represent a concrete embodiment of liberty and emancipation, and given the potential to prevent abuse that they impose, laws and [regulations] have begun to look like obstacles. The power of the judiciary [is openly questioned]…
But the dominant class doesn’t prescribe for itself the same medicine it wants to see ordinary citizens taking: … austerity begins with others. In spite of the crisis of 2008 and the hand-wringing that followed, nothing was done to police the financial community and submit them to the requirements of the common good. Who paid? Ordinary people, you and me…
Terrorism, this other nihilism that exposes our weakness in affirming our values, is likely to aggravate the process by soon making it possible for all violations of our liberties, all violations of our rights, to circumvent the powerless qualified judges, further reducing social protection for the poor, who will be sacrificed to ‘the security ideal’…
These developments certainly threaten the foundations of our democracy, but do they condemn us to discouragement and despair?
Certainly not. 500 years ago, at the height of the defeats that brought down most Italian states with the imposition of foreign occupation for more than three centuries, Niccolo Machiavelli urged virtuous men to defy fate and stand up against the adversity of the times, to prefer action and daring to caution. The more tragic the situation, the more it necessitates action and the refusal to ‘give up’ (The Prince, Chapters XXV and XXVI).
This is a teaching that is clearly required today. The determination of citizens attached to the radical of democratic values is an invaluable resource which has not yet revealed, at least in Belgium, its driving potential and power to change what is presented as inevitable. Through social networking and the power of the written word, everyone can now become involved, particularly when it comes to public services, universities, the student world, the judiciary and the Bar, in bringing the common good and social justice into the heart of public debate and the administration of the state and the community.
Neoliberalism is a species of fascism. It must be fought and humanism fully restored.
Nevertheless, it feels like hopelessness to look at the way the world is, the Trump of Doom, the imposition of ‘fascist’ ways of thinking; to keep on pointing it out without any prospect of doing something about it achieves nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling in the community of those who think things should be different. They have grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and told us to believe that things cannot be any different from what they indicate that we ought to believe – or else. They haven’t built the Concentration Camps yet – there’s no need to do it with bricks & mortar because they have us in the Concentration Camp of the Mind; though your average teacher will not agree, concentration is the enemy of thought: it rivets the mind to one way of seeing things when there are as many ways as there are waves on the briny.
A concentration on the problem has us running round the sheep field. The focus needs to shift towards the exit gate. It is interesting to consider a radical possibility as embodied in HGWells’ old book; if nothing else it shows up the difficulties!
It’s necessary to be quite clear what we are up against.
Firstly, Money & Big Business and the complexly simple machinations of those who stand to gain from the Global Capitalist Conspiracy – the Power Possessors. Secondly, the attack of the mid-20th Century phenomenon of Postmodernism on the relevance of Grand Narratives: any plan for changing the way things are can be dismissed as a Utopian Grand Narrative conveniently disregarding the fact that Capitalism itself is a Dystopian Grand Narrative.
1. On Money and its Machinations
Novelist & journalist, Carole Cadwalladr wrote a brilliant article in The Observer Sunday 26 February 2017. This is a précis:-
A website called CNSnews.com which is ‘America’s media watchdog’, is an organisation that claims an ‘unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture’… It has received funding of more than $10m in the past decade from the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer who happens to be the money behind Trump. Since 2010, reclusive computer scientist, Mercer, has donated $95m to Republican and other rightwing, ultra-conservative campaigns in an attempt to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.
He very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists so you have to hunt for where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, The Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. He is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. Central to the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart, a rightwing news site, which regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had ‘to take back the culture’. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front ‘in our current cultural and political war’. France and Germany are next.
Mercer is also connected to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company which specialises in ‘election management strategies’ and ‘messaging and information operations’, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as ‘psyops’ – psychological operations, acting on people’s emotions. Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump and Brexit campaigns. On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – it will use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions, based on Facebook ‘likes’, and then target them accordingly. The system amounts to a ‘propaganda machine’. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs. Farage is a good friend of the Mercers.
Doubt is being sown in people’s minds: the concept of ‘fake news’ destroys the capacity to react to any ‘news’ with intellectual or moral reasoning and respectable critical thinking. You just have to mention ‘liberal media bias’ or ‘leftwing extremisim’ and the game is won. If you repeat something often enough, people start involuntarily to believe it. And that could be leveraged, or weaponised for propaganda. It’s about creating truth rather than discovering it. You can take something like ‘fake news’, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system.
We’re not quite in the alternative reality where the actual news has become ‘FAKE news’! But we’re almost there. Marshall McLuhan, the great information theorist of the 60’s said: ‘World War III will be a guerrilla information war, with no divisions between military and civilian participation…’
Welcome to World War III!
It’s a disputed area but there seems to be a difference between what’s called the ‘modern’ and the so-called ‘postmodern’ era. Ira Chernus (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder) suggests that ‘…many say that one main difference between the two eras has to do with the question of unity, wholeness, and totality. In the modern era people wanted some kind of totality: a unified conception of the world, a unified set of values, a unified culture and lifestyle, etc. Some modern people actively searched for such totality. Others no longer expected to find such unity, so they didn’t really look for it. But they still missed it and regretted its loss. So modern people had a nostalgia for premodern times, when a unified totality was possible, and they wished that they too could have this wholeness in their lives…’
Hence the Tory policy of creating ‘chaos’ in media debate, destroying the possibility of any sensible unified critique. See my Glob ‘Rule by Chaos’ @ http://wp.me/p1QjJc-y1
Ira Chernus continues:-
According to most of the postmodern theories, post-modernism is quite different. Not only have we now lost the possibility of totality in our lives, but we no longer even care about it. Today totality has disappeared so completely that we don’t even remember that it was ever possible. So we have no nostalgia for it or desire to regain it… But we are still taught that we ought to have a feeling of wholeness in our lives; that we ought to have an image of the world as a place where all the pieces fit together; that we ought to have some overarching consistency in our cultural behavior. When the pieces of our experience don’t fit together, we naturally feel disappointed and deprived, as if something absolutely central were missing in our lives. Perhaps we even feel personally responsible, as if we have failed to live correctly. And there are plenty of ‘self-help’ books to tell us how to correct our failure and get the wholeness we want.
But most of the postmodern theorists take a different view. They think that the loss of unified totality is basically a good thing. They say that the unity modern or premodern people claim to have experienced was simply an illusion. It was a fantasy image people created to help them deny the truth. The truth is that the pieces of world and self never fit together. So once we forget about seeking unity and totality we are ready to face reality and live honestly. Some postmodern theorists argue that the old images of totality are not simply false but dangerous, because they lead to conformity. If you want to live in a world where everything fits together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, you will probably try to stop anyone who wants to live differently. Differences (of culture, values, lifestyle, etc) just make it harder to get all the pieces to fit together. For people who value wholeness above everything else, the best form of society turns out to be a dictatorship – or so this argument goes. It was developed most fully in France by people who could still remember life under the Nazis during World War II. They fear that any movement toward totality, no matter how well intentioned, can end up limiting diversity and supporting mindless conformity.
[Such a charge has been levelled against Wells…]
Some postmodern theorists especially attack a form of totality they call the ‘master narrative.’ A master narrative is any story that we tell ourselves to make sense out of all reality (or any very large piece of it). Like a master key, it is supposed to open up the meaning of everything and solve every puzzle. Most religious traditions are master narratives, because they include stories about the creation and ultimate purpose of the universe. Evolutionary theory is a secular master narrative about life on earth. Some psychological theories are master narratives about the nature of human existence. (Freud’s theory is a good example.) Capitalism assumes a master narrative about human nature and human relationships. Marxism does too. These economic theories claim to explain just about everything we do on the basis of a few relatively simple principles…
Postmodern theories often extend this analysis to the idea of a unified self. Modernity taught us that we ought to have a unified sense of who we are as individuals – an integrated personality, a single identity. It taught us that there should be some unifying principle holding together the moments of our experience. In fact it taught us that our lives would only be meaningful if we had this sense of personal unity. Some modern philosophies said that we had to make rational ethical decisions from a personal ‘centre,’ or with the ‘whole self’, in order to be truly responsible individuals.
Postmodernists question modernity’s emphasis on a rational, individualistic, responsible, unified self. Postmodernists call this modern image of the individual a ‘subject.’ Many have loudly proclaimed the death of the ‘subject.’ Some say that the unified ‘subject,’ like the master narrative, is a fiction that made us feel good but never really existed. Others say that it once existed but in postmodernity no longer exists. For many postmodernists that is a good thing. They see the unified sense of the ‘subject,’ like the master narrative, reinforcing our dangerous desire for totality. If we have to force every experience into narrow mold, we will close ourselves off to many new experiences and become narrow-minded people. In order to get unity for ourselves, we will impose conformity on others. In order to control ourselves, we will try to control others.
As a literary and art critic who accepts the basic Marxist analysis of society, Fredric Jameson still works within a master narrative, though he does not accept it naively or uncritically. Rather he tries to change the Marxist theory to bring it up to date and make it fit the postmodern world.
Totality is still a valuable idea, Jameson claims, because we should try to understand how all the pieces of our world and our experience fit together. We will never fully succeed. But in making the effort we will change ourselves and our world for the better. Why? Knowledge gives us power. The more we make sense out of our world, the more we can make wise choices and act upon them to improve our world. If we don’t try to make the pieces fit together in our minds, we let things go on the way they are. And the way they are is not very satisfying. A few people around the world are very rich and powerful. Some people (mostly in the highly industrialized countries) are pretty comfortable and perhaps have an illusion of power (when they vote or buy stock in a company). Most people in the world are poor or on the margin of poverty, suffering in various physical and emotional ways, and quite powerless to do anything about it.
As a Marxist, Jameson assumes that people want, and should have, the greatest possible control over their own lives. He realizes that many postmodernists disagree. They fear that when we strive for control we inevitably try to dominate others, to eliminate difference and diversity by imposing our own views on others. But he is willing to take that risk. He believes that it is possible to seize control over our own destinies without violating the freedom of others. To do this, we must understand not just various parts of our world, but the totality of it. We must see the ‘big picture’ as fully as possible. We will never understand it entirely. And there is always a danger that by describing the ‘big picture,’ as master narratives do, we will falsify some part of it. A master narrative is an abstraction. It always has a certain fictional quality when it claims to tell the whole truth in a single story. But, Jameson suggests, a Marxist analysis can bring us closer to the whole truth than any other story. In that sense it is an especially useful fiction, because it can give us more freedom to control our own lives than any other story.
A Marxist analysis of the totality of our world starts with a basic premise: our lives are shaped, above all, by the mode of production that exists in our society. The mode of production means the various tools available to produce goods and services (human labor, natural resources, technologies, investment capital, etc.) and the way we organize those tools. This includes the way we organize ourselves when we use the tools; i.e., the way we relate to each other as producers and consumers of goods and services. We only have real power when we can control our own mode of production. We must be able to produce things we really want in the ways we really want. Therefore we must study various modes of production, freely decide which one we want, and be able to implement our decision. ‘We’ here means all the people of the society, working together. The only way to really improve the world is to give everyone a share of real power. Otherwise inequality, injustice, and oppression are bound to continue.
The first step toward real change is to understand the current mode of production and our place in it. Capitalism has managed to keep most of us ignorant of the factors that control our lives. We cannot see the totality, the ‘big picture.’ So we are powerless even to think of new, more satisfying ways of arranging life, much less to put alternatives into practice. But studying the mode of production also means studying the culture. Every mode of production has its own characteristic predominant culture: its particular lifestyle, way of speaking, fashions, arts, religion, etc. Modes of production and cultural styles change together. The change in our culture from modernity to postmodernity reflects a change in the mode of production.
The first 60 years or so of this century were still part of modernity. The mode of production in most parts of the world was based on monopoly capitalism. In each nation a few big companies controlled most of the economy, and the government kept that system going. Governments used their military force to conquer other lands that provided raw materials and markets for the big companies. Powerful countries competed for control of smaller countries, creating ‘spheres of interest.’ It was the age of colonialism, imperialism, and world wars. The dominant technology was the electrically powered machine.
During the late ’50s and ’60s at least three major changes occurred in the mode of production. First, there was a tremendous expansion of multinational corporations. Most big companies made plans to expand into foreign countries. The various national economies began to form a single interlocking global economy. Second, European style colonialism turned out to be inefficient for this new multinational economy. The multinational corporations made more money when rich native elites got political control of their own countries, since the native elites generally cooperated with the rich elites of the big industrial powers. The US, now the world’s dominant power, led the way in reorganizing the ‘free world’ along these new principles. Third, the age of electrically powered machines gave way to the age of computers, mass media, and information processing. Rather than producing products, machines were now used primarily to reproduce images (words, pictures, graphs, etc.) that contain data. Data, not products, have become the most valuable property that the big corporations control. These three changes together marked the transition from monopoly capitalism to ‘multinational’ or ‘late’ capitalism.
Modernism was the culture of monopoly capitalism. Postmodernism is the culture of multinational late capitalism. Jameson titled his major book on the subject Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991; all quotations in this essay are from that book). This does not mean that everything in our culture today is postmodern. There are still many leftover elements of modern culture with us (for example, many of the ideas we study in the university that tell us we should still desire unity). There may also be newly emerging seeds of some future cultural forms beyond postmodernism. But postmodernism is the dominant force in our culture. It is a force that everything – and everybody – must deal with. Just as capitalism tries to bring all the forces of production under its control, so postmodernism is trying to bring all of culture under its control. In fact postmodernism is the cultural arm of today’s capitalism. It is capitalism’s most powerful tool for dominating our lives. And it is quite successful. The features of modern culture are rapidly being replaced by the postmodern. When we study postmodernism we are looking at the trends that our culture is following. Jameson admits that his theory of postmodernism is basically a kind of prophecy about the future. He looks at present trends to describe what the future will probably be more and more like, around the world, for a long time to come.
Late capitalism and postmodernism have both good and bad qualities, he says. In some ways they limit human freedom and happiness. In other ways they increase freedom and happiness. So we should not simply praise or condemn postmodernism. Rather we should analyze it as carefully as possible, because it is our best clue to the true nature of our society. What we need to understand most about postmodernism is the complicated link between the mode of production in late capitalism and the forms of culture today. If we can begin to put the pieces of the puzzle of contemporary reality together, we can begin to think more intelligently about our reality. We can decide what we like about it, what we want changed, and how to work together to make those changes.
Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism begins with these words: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place’.
In other words, to find the real meaning of the postmodern present we should relate it to the past. We should view the present as one chapter in the ongoing story of human civilization. If we can understand how the historical changes of the past have led to the present, we may gain more understanding of where we are going, and where we ought to go, in the future. But history has led to a new kind of culture – our own culture – which almost totally ignores the long-term trends of history. So it is very hard for us to connect the present with the past or the future. The postmodernists who reject master narratives are also rejecting historical thinking, since master narratives are usually stories about the meaning of changes in history. But even when postmodern theorists want to convince us to reject master narratives they usually end up telling us some story about how those narratives hurt us in the past and how we should live without them in the future. We always have to tell some kind of story about history if we want to think seriously about how to make the future better.
POSTMODERNISM: THE LOSS OF MEANING
Jameson’s own master narrative (he calls it ‘a kind of myth’) begins with the history of the problem of representation. He traces the three stages of representation. Modernity believed it could represent reality in simple literal signs. Modernism was troubled by the possibility that these signs might not actually represent any reality beyond themselves. Postmodernity no longer worries about this problem. It assumes that signs exist by themselves, detached from any external reality. Today’s most typical images are simulacra: copies of originals that have just been created only for the purpose of becoming mass-produced signs (like the corporate logo).
Within each postmodern cultural artifact (a building, newspaper, billboard, commercial, garment, song, book, film, etc.) signs are thrown together in random ways. They come and go for no apparent reason. A cultural artifact is now just a random collection of signs momentarily existing side by side, ready to change at any moment into another random collection. So it cannot point beyond itself to any meaning. It cannot represent any reality outside itself. It cannot even raise the question of its relationship to any reality outside itself. It refers only to itself; it is its own referent. And our world is now so dominated by these signs and simulacra that they have become our reality. There is no other reality beyond them to which they could refer. Since the signs are not supposed to relate to anything beyond themselves, it makes no sense to ask what they mean. So the problem of meaning simply disappears.
If postmodern signs comment about anything at all, they can only comment about themselves and the other signs alongside them. Our culture us filled with examples of such self-referential comments. Cartoon characters, for example, often say things like: ‘I’m only a cartoon character’ or ‘I love living in comic book time.’
Although the signs may comment about each other, we do not expect them to relate to each other in any stable or unified way. They are related to each other primarily by the differences among them. Postmodern artifacts display an ‘absolute and absolutely random pluralism… a coexistence not even of multiple and alternate worlds so much as of unrelated fuzzy sets and semi-autonomous subsystems’. Each subsystem reflects a different realm of experience and has its own way of being understood—its own ‘code.’ A postmodern building, for example, may incorporate elements of ancient Egyptian, Gothic, Victorian, and modern architecture side by side… Each element can be interpreted in terms of its own code. But there is no single code to tell us why they should be placed together in just the way they are. An issue of [any] magazine is similar. Articles about a movie star, a political leader, and a homeless drifter may appear side by side. Each makes sense in terms of its own code. But there is no clear reason why they should all appear on the same page. Each architectural element or magazine article is a free-floating image, detached from its original context, with no meaning beyond itself.
We take in all the juxtaposed signs, accepting each as a discrete entity. So we learn to focus on many signs simultaneously. We do not expect them to form a single overarching language. The best we can do is to translate the terms of one code into a roughly corresponding set of images in another code. This is called ‘transcoding.’ We ‘set about measuring what is sayable and ‘thinkable’ in each of these codes and compare that to the conceptual possibilities of its competitors’. We draw lines of relationship from signs in one code to signs in another, letting each translate and interpret the other. We do not expect this transcoding to bring the signs into a single system or code. Nor do we expect it to link the signs with anything else in reality.
Transcoding is the best we can hope for in the postmodern world. Culture remains a kaleidoscope of interacting images. It has no more meaning than the kaleidoscopes we played with as children. This endless diversity of images gives us the feeling that there is no longer any unity in our world. But, Jameson argues, a system that produces constant diversity is nevertheless still a single system. Postmodernism is just like a kaleidoscope: a a unified instrument whose purpose is to produce endless diversity. In fact postmodern theory itself teaches us that the world is a huge chain of signs, each of which points to some other sign. Since the chain has no end, it is infinite. It is the totality.
The quickest way to understand these ideas is to turn on your television. Video is the most characteristic medium of postmodernism. The essence of the medium is to keep up a ceaseless flow of kaleidoscopic images. It makes virtually no difference what reality they depict. What every TV show is really ‘about’ is the flow of images; i.e., it is about video technology itself. This is just as true for news shows and commercials as for entertainment. We see the cutting edge of postmodernism most clearly in ‘infotainment’ and ‘infomercials,’ when we aren’t quite sure whether we are watching a news or entertainment show or a commercial. Those are the moments when we realize most clearly that the image itself – not the content – is what counts. So it makes no sense to ask about the meaning of the image. The point of every TV show is just to keep the images moving. Anyone who tries to interpret the images temporarily stops the flow, which violates the essence of the medium itself. Television inherently resists the question of meaning. When we watch TV we don’t ask what it means…
We choose to allow it to self-calm us. What about a Plan of Action?