It's irony, guv

The Cultural Turn: selected writings on the postmodern, 1983-98

Fredric Jameson <em>Verso, 224pp,

Everyone now recognises that we live in a postmodern world. In architecture and design, in film and music, in art and fiction, in poetry and literary criticism, even in politics, postmodernity is everywhere on display: cynicism and levity, irony and pastiche, nostalgia coupled with historical amnesia, and decoration replacing substance. So obvious and widespread has the phenomenon become that people use this shorthand word with relaxed ease to describe the world around them.

This was not always so. Writing only ten years ago, the American critic Fredric Jameson noted that "the concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today". Yet so pervasive has been its influence and so rapid its popular assimilation, that Jameson's latest book of essays has been given the stirring title of The Cultural Turn, suggesting that the arrival of the postmodern was not just another stage in the seamless development of culture, nor a mere kink, but a definitive change of direction that requires a more radical explanation of its emergence and future implications.

A critic and professor of literature at Duke University, Jameson has been worrying away at the meaning of postmodernism since the early 1980s, and is now one of its most intelligible and accessible gurus. His contributions to the debate about the nature of contemporary culture have always been witty, succinct and immensely readable. In this collection he looks at the debate about "the end of history" in the light of the earlier debate about "the end of art", and reflects that "all beauty today is meretricious" - a notion that some readers might find initially disturbing before eventually recognising the essential truth. Yet what gives Jameson's work its particular political charge is the emphasis he places on the close link between culture and the evolving development of global capitalism.

Perry Anderson is no stranger to the debate over the postmodern. As the presiding genius at the New Left Review over several decades, his book will be of particular interest to British readers in that it appears to mark a notable shift in the affections of the NLR editors from the pessimistic writings of Jurgen Habermas, one of the most significant philosophers of the postwar European left, to the more optimistic position of Jameson, a populist critic from the still-thriving American Marxist tradition.

What marks out both books is their ambition to give an economic and political edge to what has hitherto been a largely cultural discussion. During the past decade, there has been an underlying, if ultimately unhelpful, debate over whether postmodernism is a right- or left-wing manifestation. In America, some aspects of postmodernism - in particular the trend towards relativism and the downgrading of the cultural canon - have been considered dangerously radical, and have been savagely attacked by the political right, ever in search of new enemies after the collapse of the cold war, though weakened by its loss of official patrons. In parts of Europe, notably in some of the writings of Habermas, postmodernism has been perceived by the left almost as the cultural harbinger of some new variant of fascism.

A more useful distinction might be made between the attitudes of young and old. The young, politically unengaged, relish the collapse of the defining line between elite and popular culture, much as an earlier generation celebrated the erosion of the stratifications of class. The old, of both right and left, have been less enthusiastic, even forming a tactical alliance to proclaim their disquiet at the apparent decline in principles and standards - "dumbing-down" in the argot - to which both once tacitly adhered in the days when we still had a semblance of a common culture.

Jameson's mission is to understand the motivation for such change; but it hardly needs a Marxist critic to suggest that the dramas of postmodernity will have a cultural manifestation. For Anderson, if postmodernism is indeed the logic of late capitalism, it is a capitalism characterised by complacency rather than conflict. The successful culture of this period had fed on this complacency, pandering to it rather than confronting it. For those brought up under modernism, this fawning complicity with the status quo has been one of the least attractive aspects of postmodernism.

Classical modernism was originally combative, critical, oppositional, subversive, underground and utopian. Its avant-gardes had a radical prospectus and a purposive agenda. Yet today it appears that there was something inevitable about its eventual decline. Modernism, Jameson points out, "had something to do with the arrogance of city people over the provincials", both peasant and colonial. It was only "modern" in comparison with the rural or pre-capitalist past. Once the economic modernisation project had been completed - today there are, in effect, no peasants and no colonies - cultural modernism lost its bearings. The implicit superiority of modernism over what had happened before, or elsewhere, was no longer self-evident. The city, for example, once a favoured topic of modernist intellectuals, was no longer a definable or meaningful construction, since the environment against which it defined itself - the countryside - had effectively disappeared.

The real importance of these books lies in their focus on the politics of postmodernism. Jameson begins by announcing that he has no wish "to denounce the complacencies of postmodernism as some final symptom of decadence", nor "to salute the new forms as the harbingers of a new technological and technocratic utopia". Yet he, like Anderson, clearly believes that postmodernism must be captured for the left, and that its arrival is too important to be ignored or derided, a position reinforced by Anderson's paean of praise for Jameson's work.

Anderson argues that only by recognising the existence of postmodernism as something that is not going to be wished out of existence can the left reorganise itself intellectually. His pioneering essay examines the bizarre lineage of the concept, tracing references to the "postmodern" in the later writings of Arnold Toynbee and in those of the American left-wing sociologist C Wright Mills. He pays close attention to poetry and to the progressive legacy of Charles Olson and the Black Mount group of the 1940s. These early references to the postmodern concerned society, rather than culture, and soon ran into the ground. The phenomenon as we would recognise it today did not materialise until culture and politics were added to the mix in the 1970s.

In that more recent process, Anderson notes regretfully, the "visionary origins" of the concept were "all but completely effaced in usages complicit with the established order". The achievement of Fredric Jameson, he argues, has been to recover the concept "for the cause of the revolutionary left", securing it through "a prodigious display of theoretical intelligence and energy". This is a victory gained "against all the political odds, in a period of neo-liberal hegemony when every similar landmark of the left appeared to sink beneath the waves of a tidal reaction".

Both Jameson and Anderson emphasise the economic shift behind the "cultural turn", yet both have difficulty with the timing. Jameson, in 1982, had described postmodernism as "the cultural logic of late capitalism", yet "late capitalism", a phrase coined or given currency by Ernest Mandel in the 1970s, has a precise definition, referring to the period of consumer capitalism in the years after the second world war. If postmodernism is supposed to be the cultural expression of those changing times, how come it didn't show up until the late 1970s?

The developments of the past decade complicate the picture further. A historian a century hence might well look back at the 1990s and consider this to have been the postmodern decade par excellence. He or she might reflect on the extraordinary changes that computers and globalisation have wreaked on the economic substructure, concluding that the postmodern culture being exhibited globally in the final decade of the century should be considered as the natural and umbilical accompaniment of the new systems being put into place, even if such an obvious linkage does not fit well with the actual chronology.

This is a pity, since postmodernism's connection with contemporary capitalism seems undeniable. Maybe we shall be forced to conclude that while the long waves affecting the economy are indeed accompanied by cultural long waves, these latter formations will not necessarily operate in mechanistic tandem but have a connected yet independent rhythm of their own.

If you are in a fog or a state of depression about the state of contemporary culture, but have vaguely come to understand that its curious and often unappetising characteristics may have something to do with the prevailing economic and political climate in which they appear to thrive, then these two little books may give you a helping hand and, with a sense of optimism, enable you to participate in the battles ahead.

Richard Gott is a former literary editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?