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Tag: postmodernism

Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture (Jameson, 1979)

by FREDRIC JAMESON

The theory of mass culture-or mass audience culture, commercial culture, “popular” culture, the culture industry, as it is variously known-has always tended to define its object against so-called high culture without reflecting on the objective status of this opposition. As so often, positions in this field reduce themselves to two mirror-images, and are essentially staged in terms of value. Thus the familiar motif of elitism argues for the priority of mass culture on the grounds of the sheer numbers of people exposed to it; the pursuit of high or hermetic culture is then stigmatized as a status hobby of small groups of intellectuals. As its anti-intellectual thrust suggests, this essentially negative position has little theoretical content but clearly responds to a deeply rooted conviction in American radicalism and articulates a widely based sense that high culture is an establishment phenomenon, irredeemably tainted by its association with institutions, in particular with the university. The value invoked is therefore a social one: it would be preferable to deal with tv programs, The Godfather, or Jaws, rather than with Wallace Stevens or Henry James, because the former clearly speak a cultural language meaningful to far wider strata of the population than what is socially represented by intellectuals. Radicals are however also intellectuals, so that this position has suspicious overtones of the guilt trip; meanwhile it overlooks the anti-social and critical, negative (although generally not revolutionary) stance of much of the most important forms of modem art; finally, it offers no method for reading even those cultural objects it valorizes and has had little of interest to say about their content.

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History, Civilization, and Progress (Bookchin, 1994)

writing

History, Civilization, and Progress: Outline for a Criticism of Modern Relativism

by Murray Bookchin

Rarely have the concepts that literally define the best of Western culture–its notions of a meaningful History, a universal Civilization, and the possibility of Progress–been called so radically into question as they are today. In recent decades, both in the United States and abroad, the academy and a subculture of self-styled postmodernist intellectuals have nourished an entirely new ensemble of cultural conventions that stem from a corrosive social, political, and moral relativism. This ensemble encompasses a crude nominalism, pluralism, and skepticism, an extreme subjectivism, and even outright nihilism and antihumanism in various combinations and permutations, sometimes of a thoroughly misanthropic nature. This relativistic ensemble is pitted against coherent thought as such and against the “principle of hope” (to use Ernst Bloch’s expression) that marked radical theory of the recent past. Such notions percolate from so-called radical academics into the general public, where they take the form of personalism, amoralism, and “neoprimitivism.”

Too often in this prevailing “paradigm,” as it is often called, eclecticism replaces the search for historical meaning; a self-indulgent despair replaces hope; dystopia replaces the promise of a rational society; and in the more sophisticated forms of this ensemble a vaguely defined “intersubjectivity”–or in its cruder forms, a primitivistic mythopoesis–replaces all forms of reason, particularly dialectical reason. In fact, the very concept of reason itself has been challenged by a willful antirationalism. By stripping the great traditions of Western thought of their contours, nuances, and gradations, these relativistic “post-historicists,” “postmodernists,” and (to coin a new word) “post-humanists” of our day are, at best, condemning contemporary thought to a dark pessimism or, at worst, subverting it of all its meaning.

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Twin Peaks and Neoliberalism

twin-peaks-e1412698162766Trapped in the Hysterical Sublime: Twin Peaks, Postmodernism, and the Neoliberal Now”  by Linnie Blake (2016) 

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Watching Twin Peaks again, from the perspective of 25 years, a great deal has become apparent to me that was simply not “there” at the time. I am considerably more troubled by the program’s regressive class and gender politics, for example. I am less seduced by its bedazzling epistemological indeterminacy, generic hybridity, and often-absurdist pastiche of available styles. Mostly, I have come to question the ideological function of such representational practices—and this has led me to explore the links between postmodernism’s rejection of the certitudes of the Enlightenment and the social malaise of the new millennium. For, as Graeme Wearden reports, ours is now a world in which the polarization of wealth has never been greater—a recent OXFAM report demonstrating that the world’s richest 85 people now control as much of the planet’s wealth as “the poorest half of the global population put together.” As an avowedly postmodern text from the period in which neoliberalism came to dominant global economics, Twin Peaks proffers us a superb exemplification of the relation between postmodern representational practice and the coming into being of our own horrific world.

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Twin Peaks was first broadcast, then, in a world in which the certainties of state and nation, society and self, were being changed utterly by the radical energies of neoliberalism. This is the world we inhabit today, both periods being characterized by a conceptual adherence to the principles of postmodernism. This I define as a relativistic skepticism that challenges the instrumental rationality of post-Enlightenment humanism and all that it holds dear, including truth, justice, progress, the rights of the individual, and the social responsibilities of us all. In celebrating the dreamlike nostalgia of Twin Peaks, in reveling in its generic hybridity, its interstitial setting, and highly individuated yet strangely interchangeable characters, we the original audience became part of this postmodern project. We thrilled at the novelty of a series that so insistently foregrounded its stylish artificiality. We were carried along not by social or emotional realism, but by glittering cleverness: the ways the series foregrounded the surface and repudiated depth. And what a transgressive surface it was: rape, murder, incest, teenage prostitution, drug dealing, adultery, and more. Anything went in Twin Peaks and we were happy to go with it.

At the time, it was argued that “postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed as having an irreductible political dimension” being “inextricably bound up with a critique of domination” (Wellberry 235). Certainly Twin Peaks was characterized by a sense of transgressive danger. Yet, even as postmodern thinkers affirmed the liberating dimensions of the postmodern turn, the world was becoming increasingly dominated by an economic model that brought exponential increases in wealth to the richest “even as it plunged billions into poverty” (Dean 67). And so, I have come to believe, as programs like Twin Peaks reveled in postmodernism’s critique of the positivistic order, first-generation viewers, such as myself, became gradually inured to neoliberal economics’ erosion of civil society, placated somewhat by cornucopia of goods and services that emerged during this period—including increasingly inventive TV.

We the original audience of Twin Peaks were, then, the children of a form of disorganized capitalism that manifested itself in the cultural products of postmodernism. For while the deregulation of the cultural sphere championed by postmodernism echoed neoliberalism’s deregulation of the markets, both postmodern relativism and laissez-faire capitalism disavowed transcendent meaning in favor of contingent and eminently revisable representations of the individual and the world. In both models, the individual was center stage, a consumer of goods and images possessed of the right to choose between them but not to choose otherwise (there is no outside this particular text) and bearing no responsibility for the impact of either choice on others.

Certainly, throughout the 1980s, our cultural life had become more fragmented and pluralistic, but the changes wrought to self and society were not merely, as Scott Lash and John Urry have argued, reflected in the rise of postmodernism; they were advanced by it. For “in reifying culture” in this manner, “attention is diverted from both institutional change and class dynamics” (Wexler 165). This was particularly true, I would argue, in the case of television programming, which even at the time was being theorized as “the real world of postmodern culture” with “ entertainment as its ideology . . . electronic images as its most dynamic, and only, form of social cohesion” and “the diffusion of a network of relational power as its real product” (Kroker 270). From the perspective of 25 years on in time, the television programs of this period can indeed be seen to be characterized by the free market’s “network of relational power,” brokered through organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and brought into our homes through a corporatized media.

And so, having hunted high and low for the meanings of Twin Peaks over a period of a quarter of a century, I am now inclined to argue that they are not to be found in the Red Room, in the dreams of Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or in the Giant’s (Carel Struycken) gnomic portents. They lie, I believe, in a retrospective awareness that the program came into being at the moment at which neoliberalism was refashioning society as a Darwinian survival of the fittest, postmodernism was reconceptualizing the self as a mutable contingency, and the Enlightenment narrative of social progress was going rapidly out of style. This awareness now gives meaning to Twin Peaks’s self-conscious repudiation of meaning. This explains how intelligent people such as ourselves could have been so seduced by the ethical relativism of Lynch’s dark illogicality that we celebrated a cultural artifact that was at best politically conservative and replete with dangerous representations of already marginalized groups.

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Looking at Twin Peaks 25 years on, in other words, I am less excited by its postmodern innovations than troubled by them. Standing in the ruins of the British Welfare State and surveying a culture in which the weakest are persecuted for the demands they place on the public purse while the furtherance of corporate interests appears to have become the primary role of government, I cannot help but think that my generation was seduced by the way postmodern representation subsumed the social to the cultural through the replacement of truths with images. Distracted by its cleverness we came to believe that a rejection of Enlightenment rationality promised a liberation of the self. Reconstituted as consumer-subjects unable to position ourselves within social history we came to accept the inevitability of the free market and the total global dominance of a neoliberal world-view. In the years since Twin Peaks’s initial broadcast, neoliberalism has created a world in which, OXFAM argues, “dynamic and mutually reinforcing cycles of advantage that are transmitted across generations” have become the norm. Neoliberalism’s legacy of pain and suffering, proffered in the cupped hands of postmodern discourse, has become the garmonbozia of the world.


Return to Twin Peaks: New Approaches to Materiality, Theory, and  Genre on Television  edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock and Catherine Spooner (2016)

 

Ellen Meiksins Wood, Theorist of Capitalism and Class Struggle, R.I.P. 2016

“Class struggle is the nucleus of Marxism. This is so in two inseparable senses: it is class struggle that for Marxism explains the dynamic of history, and it is the abolition of classes, the obverse or end-product of class struggle, that is the ultimate objective of the revolutionary process. The particular importance for Marxism of the working class in capitalist society is that this is the only class whose own class interests require, and whose own conditions make possible, the abolition of class itself. The inseparable unity of this view of history and this revolutionary objective is what above all distinguishes Marxism from other conceptions of social transformation, and without it there is no Marxism. These propositions may seem so obvious as to be trivial; yet it can be argued that the history of Marxism in the twentieth century has been marked by a gradual shift away from these principles. The perspectives of Marxism have increasingly come to be dominated by the struggle for power. Where the achievement of political power was originally conceived by Marxism as an aspect or instrument of class struggle, whose object is its own abolition, class struggle has increasingly tended to appear as a means toward the achievement of political power-and sometimes not even as a primary or essential means.  – Marxism without Class Struggle, EMW

For millennia, human beings have provided for their material needs by working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in agriculture they have been divided into classes, between those who worked the land and those who appropriated the labor of others. That division between appropriators and producers has taken many forms in different times and places, but one general characteristic they have had in common is that the direct producers have typically been peasants. These peasant producers have remained in possession of the means of production, specifically land. As in all pre-capitalist societies, these producers have had direct access to the means of their own reproduction. This has meant that when their surplus labor has been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what Marx called “extra-economic” means—that is, by means of direct coercion, exercised by landlords and/or states employing superior force, privileged access to military, judicial, and political power.

Here, then, is the most basic difference between all pre-capitalist societies and capitalism. It has nothing to do with whether production is urban or rural and everything to do with the particular property relations between producers and appropriators, whether in industry or agriculture. Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely “economic” means. Because direct producers in a fully developed capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction, even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their labor-power in exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers’ surplus labor without direct coercion.

This unique relation between producers and appropriators is, of course, mediated by the “market.” Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive and unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labor are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. Just as workers depend on the market to sell their labor-power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labor-power, as well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling the goods or services produced by the workers. This market-dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but as the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction. The emergence of the market as a determinant of social reproduction presupposed its penetration into the production of life’s most basic necessity, food.

This unique system of market-dependence entails some very distinctive “laws of motion,” specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can, and must, constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form—constantly accumulating, constantly searching out new markets, constantly imposing its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on human beings and the natural environment.

Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes are, how different they are from other social forms which have dominated most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question-begging assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be liberated from unnatural constraints. The question of its origins, then, can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by appropriators in noncapitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed “time out of mind” and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and the relations between them, came to be so market dependent?  – The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism, EMW

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