Ira Chernus  


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Ira Chernus


Most interpreters of postmodernism assume that there is a clearcut difference between the modern era and the postmodern era. The modern era is the period that began (in western Europe) in the late 17th century and ended some time in the 1960s; the postmodern is the last 30 years or so. 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 unified totality was possible, and they wished that they too could have this wholeness in their lives.



According to most of the postmodern theories, postmodernism 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. This loss of the possibility of totality is painful in some ways. Most of the ideas that we study in the university were created in the modern era. So 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. In fact this argument 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.

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.

Some postmodernists recall the master narrative that Hitler told the German people about the innate supremacy of the Aryan race and Germany's destiny to rule the world. They fear that any master narrative has similarly harmful possibilities. A master narrative must explain everything. So it ignores or twists the facts to fit its story. It values wholeness and totality above truth. So it easily leads to an "us against them" mentality: "We who believe the story are totally good; you who don't believe it are totally evil." A master narrative can stifle diversity and enforce conformity.

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 "center," 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.



Not all postmodern theorists have joined this attack on totality, however. The best known theorist who still finds value in talking about totality is Fredric Jameson. He is a literary and art critic who accepts the basic Marxist analysis of society. He therefore 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. The rest of this essay describes Jameson's interpretations of postmodernism. All of the concepts and ideas presented are his own, paraphrased and simplified. (The examples used here to illustrate his ideas are mostly my own.)

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 U.S., 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" (ix). 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.



Jameson's own master narrative (he calls it "a kind of myth" [95]) 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." The genie in Disney's Aladdin, for example, is constantly reminding us that we are watching a Hollywood film with little relationship to the original tale of Aladdin or anything else in Middle Eastern culture ("Made you look!"). Much of the appeal of Stars War, Episode I, came from our pleasure in watching the film refer to images from earlier (i.e., later) episodes of Star Wars. Film buffs could also see Lucas’ endless references to films by other directors. (Steven Spielberg’s films are also filled with such references.)

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 semiautonomous subsystems" (372). 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. (See, for example, the bell tower of the new Humanities building on this campus, which has no relation to the Italian Neo-Renaissance style of the rest of the building.) 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 People 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" (394). 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 transcode.

For example, TV coverage of a war might be interrupted by a football player selling beer. War, football, and beer are each particular codes. Modern people would try to decode the message by asking what reality each image represents. They would ask whether the tempting TV image of a frosty brew really corresponds to the taste of that particular (usually poor quality) beer. They would ask why our society worships football stars as its greatest heroes. They would ask about the true historical context of the war. Then they would go on to search for the larger reality represented by the convergence of all three. They would try to figure out why these three sets of images are thrown together, how war and beer and football are relate together, and what the overall point is. This would be the modern way of decoding the message.

But we postmodern people do not decode; we transcode. We recognize that the intoxication of beer is vaguely related to the intoxication of football, which is vaguely related to the intoxication of war. The same goes for machismo or victory celebrations or whatever. Of course intoxication, machismo, and victory celebrations can have quite different meanings in each of these three codes. But postmodern people don't pursue those differences or ask about their relationships. We accept the images living side by side in an ever-changing kaleidoscope.

The activity that best symbolizes our way of life is channel-zapping. We spend our lives as if we were always watching many different shows simultaneously. If we wonder what it all means, transcoding provides all the answers we can get. Every video image is essentially "about" the process of video itself, which captures the essence of postmodernism. Therefore every video image, regardless of its content, is also "about" the postmodern era itself as a particular moment in world history. So every video image is also, indirectly, "about" the historical process that led up to postmodernism.

TV arrived with (or perhaps ushered in) postmodernism. In the early '60s, for the first time, virtually every household in the U.S. had a television. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was a formative event for everyone who lived through it, not because of the tragic content but because the nation was tied together by television for the first time. Strange as it may seem, that immensely communal feeling felt good. It was the newly discovered power of the medium, not the message, that had such a profound effect.

In later years we tried to recreate that communal feeling. But only acts of violence seemed to be able to trigger anything like it again. The killings at Columbine High School brought the nation together with something like (though not as great as) the intensity of the Kennedy assassination. Again, it was shared shock over a totally unexpected act of violence. But the two great wars of the ‘90s—the wars against Iraq and Serbia—are probably the best examples. These were the first real-time TV wars. Jameson's book was completed earlier, so he does not discuss it. But his theory suggests an interpretation. The nation seemed to support both wars enthusiastically. But we were actually enthusiastic about two sets of images we saw on TV: the fantastic high-tech images and the images of distant human suffering. We also enjoyed the knowledge that everyone else around the world was watching the same images at the same time. That was the essential meaning of the war.

Beyond that, few people bothered to inquire seriously what the war was about or what it meant. There was little effort to relate the "code" of high-tech war to the "code" of the visible suffering. The history of the conflict swas hardly ever discussed in the mainstream media. Certainly we heard little about how the U.S. had armed the Iraqi military throughout the 1980s, or how the U.S. had refused to help the Albanians of Kosovo in the past. There was an official "meaning" for each war, of course. It consisted largely of TV pictures of Saddam Hussein or Milosvic—the nasty-looking villains—and Norman Schwarzkopf or Wesley Clark—the kindly-looking heroes. There were also constantly repeated catch-words like "new world order," "desert storm," "international security presence," and "full compliance with the international community." But they were simulacra: public relations gestures meant for mass consumption. They did not refer to anything real beyond themselves. In the case of the Persian Gulf war, 18 months later, the nation had largely forgotten that the war had any meaning (which is why Clinton and not Bush became president in 1992). We had zapped to a new channel. It seems likely that the same process of forgetting is happening even faster to the war against Serbia. The real history-making event was that CNN could now define reality, even for the leaders in Washington who had to pretend to be making history.



Postmodern images, as exemplified by TV images, have a paradoxical double meaning. They are the best clue to the historical meaning of our era. Yet at the same time they shut out all questions of historical meaning. In our world, as on our TV screens, things change so rapidly that it seems all things are new everyday. The concept of "newness" disappears, since there is nothing "old" to contrast it with. So we no longer care much about the difference between the old and the new. Since that difference is the essence of history, we stop thinking about history. We assume that constant change is a permanent feature of our lives. But the changes are all engendered by, and contained with, the overarching postmodern culture. So they are all part of a single, unchanging reality. The more things change, the more we are immersed in the postmodern system, and the more we are convinced that there is no alternative to it. The future seems to hold nothing but more of the same. This is another reason to stop thinking about history.

Engulfed by constantly shifting images, we live in an era that has forgotten how to think historically. Our images of all historical events are built out of simulacra. We have many images of the past, most notably in the nostalgia films that are often so popular. These images entertain us and make us feel good about the present. They can be reproduced endlessly (like Pocahontas moccasins or models of the Titanic). But our images of the past tell us little about the true meaning of the past or the way it has shaped the present. The ever-copied image is itself the original reality. The film American Graffiti and its TV spinoff, Happy Days, were the prototype for the nostalgia genre. They told us little about what the '50s really meant for American history. They told us everything about what we wanted or needed to believe about the '50s. So they became the '50s for us—a fantasy image that can be repeated in endless variations, until we want or need something else. Oliver Stone's films have created similar simulacra of the '60s. Simulacra make the difference between past and present irrelevant. For us, Platoon is the Vietnam War, Anthony Hopkins is Nixon, and Val Kilmer is Jim Morrison—just as Jurassic Park is now the prehistoric age. And now the Summer of Sam is New York in 1977.

Since we are so cut off from the real connection between past and present, our images of the future are even more unrealistic. Star Trek and Star Wars form the prototypes. Darth Vader masks and warp speed video games are simulacra. None of these images really refer to any genuine future we could plan to create. They refer only to the needs and concerns of present-day society. Because our images of past and future are largely simulacra, they can't tell us anything about how the present truly relates to the reality of past and future. Instead they actually cut us off from the real past and future, because they give us such comfortable substitutes. We live in a timeless realm, which is far different from the world of modernity. Modern people were acutely aware of the passage of time. They could feel the past as something behind them and the future as something that lay ahead. The tension between past and present raised troubling but also exciting questions about the future.

Our loss of past and future takes away this feeling of depth. Our images of past, present, and future are part of one superficial plane. All these images are thrown together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle laid out on the same flat table. We can combine them however we like. But we no longer even ask whether the pieces can all fit together. This means that we cannot understand our own situation in the present. So our images of our own situation also tend to be simulacra. We compare our experience to media images. We picture our lives to ourselves as if they were Hollywood movies or episodes in a TV series. All of this pseudo-reality persuades us that the flow of historical time doesn't have anything important to tell us. So we don't even try to locate ourselves in the context of history. We live as if the flow of time doesn't really affect us. Therefore we don't think much about how we could change society in any basic way in the future. Indeed we don't think too deeply about the future at all.

In this respect we are quite different from previous generations. The modern industrial age put great stress on progress toward a better future. The biblical and Christian traditions also include many images of fundamental change. Often these images speak of an apocalypse: a total destruction of the present world, followed by the creation of a totally new and perfect world. We no longer hope for, the possibility of such a fundamental change, Jameson says. We have already experienced the end of our modern industrial world. But this was "a very modest or mild apocalypse, the merest sea breeze (that has the additional advantage of having already taken place)" (xiv). Indeed it was so mild that we hardly even noticed it unti postmodern theorists told us about it. And since it has already taken place, it would seem that we don't have to worry about any threats in the future.

In fact, though, we worry a lot about the future. Indeed we may avoid thinking about it precisely because it seems so frightening. The past has led us to a present in which every unity has been torn apart, and we are left to play with the pieces. Historical change seems to be synonymous with disintegration. So we are "abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of 'terrorism' on the social level to those of cancer [and AIDS] on the personal" (46). These fantasies form the content of much of our culture, particularly on TV. Perhaps we are so fascinated with pictures of urban riots or earthquakes or starvation in Africa because they mirror the reality buried beneath the images of everyday life. Yet for most of us these images of catastrophe are only fantasies. They are detached from everyday life or any kind of historical reality. So they more easily become simulacra, devoid of meaning. They come so thick and fast, along with all the other changes of postmodern life, that nothing can shock us any more. We have learned to live comfortably in our disintegrating world—as long as we don't have to contemplate any basic change in the system as a whole.



The mild apocalypse, mirrored in the kaleidoscopic flow of television, has split apart all of reality, including the reality of our own selves. This is what postmodernists generally mean when they talk about the "death of the subject." We now experience our own sensations, thoughts, feelings, and desires primarily as a ceaseless flow of disconnected images. If the world has become a bunch of TV channels, then our minds naturally become televisions. They carry the same images everyone else is experiencing, as if stamped out of a mold. But they don't seem to refer to much of anything beyond merely what everyone else happens to be experiencing these days. The old-fashioned modern ideas we run across in the university may move us to look for some unity and deeper meaning in our experience. But we find the task very difficult and often impossible. This doesn't bother us much, though, because so much of our culture outside the classroom urges us not to care. So we are all increasingly like a stereotypical schizophrenic. We experience the world and other people as random collections of flat meaningless images, which have no coherent relationship to each other. We learn to experience ourselves as similarly meaningless collections of disconnected signs.

Sensations, thoughts, feelings, and desires are still there. But they are free-floating and impersonal. They have nothing to do with who we permanently are, because we can no longer permanently be anyone in particular. They do not disturb our inner depths, for we have no inner depths to be disturbed. There is no longer a tension between outward experiences and their inner meanings. No one feels cut off from "real" reality or from their own "true" self, because there is no longer any "real" reality or "true" self apart from the kaleidoscope of sign-images. We no longer ask the questions that plagued the minds of modern people: Is this an "authentic" experience? Am I really contacting "real" reality? Am I in touch with my own deepest reality?

Some postmodern theorists find this very liberating. They claim that the modern person's idea of inner depths and an inner "true" self was all an illusion anyway. No one could find this supposed inner reality because it doesn't exist. So people who spent their whole lives looking for it naturally ended up frustrated and unhappy. Similiarly, the "real" reality and "authentic" experience they searched for was a fantasy that could never be found. Modernity's questions were unanswerable because they were based on false premises. So we are free from the feelings of anxiety and alienation that these questions once created.

Since we no longer search for an inner unity, we are also free from the pressures for conformity that so easily lead to fascism. When we prize a unified personality above all else, we have to force every experience into the narrow mold of "my true identity." So we may fend off really new and different experiences. This means fending off really new and different people in our lives. In order to get unity for ourselves, we will impose conformity on others. In order to control ourselves, we will try to control others. Now, many postmodernists say, we are free from these pressures for uniformity. We are more in touch with the way things really are. Experiences just come and go. We register them in our physical-mental apparatus and add them to the collection.

The danger in this, Jameson points out, is that we need not take any responsibility for our own experience. We live our lives like tourists on a packaged tour, collecting famous sights and souvenirs but never really connecting with the places we visit. Perhaps we go through the university like this too, collecting courses and credits as if they were so many stops on a whirlwind tour. We just register the various experiences that come with the roles we play in various bureaucratic structures (school, work, shopping, government, church, club, etc.). Each role and each structure has its own worldview, set of values, and code of behavior. We learn to live appropriately in many different social worlds, sliding in and out of each one as the occasion demands. We may become experts in transcoding, figuring out how to change our responses from the last situation in order to suit the next. For example, we learn to deal with the professor or the boss or the landlord much as we dealt with the schoolteacher or the minister or the choir director (and all of these, of course, relate to how we dealt with our parents). At the same time, we know that each of these situations is different and requires a somewhat different approach. We don't expect all these figures to represent a single structure of social authority or a single behavioral code.

The bureaucratic structures we must live in (school, job, supermarket, etc.) generally involve all members of our society. But we also participate in many smaller groups. Some of these are based on the geographical and social place in which we find ourselves (neighborhood, city, gender, ethnic group, race, religion, profession, etc.). Having lost a sense of history, we now focus on issues of place and space, as if the world were a timeless collection of juxtaposed places. Other groups are based on particular issues of concern to us (environmental, peace, family values, social welfare, justice, etc.). Each of these groups, too, has its own particular worldview, values, and behavioral code. Our political life is no longer a matter of negotiating a single overarching structure for everyone. Rather we form ourselves into these social movements and groups and engage in "micropolitics." Each group negotiates with many others about relatively small issues, trying to advance its interests and make small gains. Each one of us gets some sense of identity from being a member of at least one (and usually several) of those groups. So our body politic, like our individual selves, is actually a collage of many different sets of social norms.



Is there anything that holds us all together? Perhaps, above all, it is the simple fact that we all watch the same commercials on TV and go shopping in the same supermarkets and shopping malls. Culture is, more than ever before, dominated by the things that we buy and use. Our concern about meaning and history has been overwhelmed by a flood of commodities. Even "high culture" (the fine arts, literature, etc.) is filled with references to the products of everyday life. But everyday life is also filled with "high culture." The line between "high" and "lowbrow" or "mass" culture is quickly disappearing. And culture is marketed just like toothpaste. So the line between culture and commodity consumption is disappearing too. The greatest opera stars, for example, are now celebrities. We hear them singing Christmas carols on Muzak in shopping malls. We see their CDs stacked high on display cases (underneath slick posters bearing their pictures) in supermarkets. Then we go home and see them on TV endorsing products totally irrelevant to their art. Today, it seems, everything is for sale. Everything is valued only according to the pricetag that the market hangs on it.

This is not a brand new phenomenon. Capitalism has gradually been turning more and more aspects of life into commodities to be purchased. But modern culture still had a place for works that were detached from the economic process and therefore could make critical judgments about it. Now, in late capitalism, every cultural artifact is merely another commodity to be bought and sold in the market. "The market" here means the sum total of all the production and consumption processes taking place in the world. When market and culture are fused, all of life becomes one great marketplace. The greatest writers are published by companies that are subsidiaries of giant multinational conglomerates. And writers are only "great" as long as their latest book makes a profit. At a more mundane level, shopping malls owned by multinational real estate conglomerates rent space to entrepreneurs who, in turn, rent booths in that space to small craftspersons. So every little locally handmade pottery mug is now a link in the global marketplace and its endless chain of commodity culture. Who know where in the "third world" the potter's kiln or paints were made?

Late capitalism, founded on the dominance of multinational corporations, has made the whole world a single marketplace. American commodity culture has spread rapidly around the world, taking American-style capitalism along with it. The imagined glories of our culture (and the obvious inadequacies of the alternative) led the people of the Soviet bloc to dismantle their system. Whatever divides people in such faraway places as Tadzhikistan or Sri Lanka or Angola, they all share a fascination with American culture. Even religious fundamentalists who seem to reject our culture rely on its characteristic media: computers, cassette tapes, video, and the like.

This is the new imperialism. The U.S. and the other highly industrialized nations still spread their economic domination by military force when all else fails. But they find it cheaper and more efficient to use the lure of commodity culture. Many people in rural villages around the world have their lives totally transformed by the first transistor radio that someone brings back from the city. They learn about new products, new music, and new ideas that they cannot forget—and they have to go back to the city to buy new batteries. From then on their desires, and the fulfillment of those desires, depend on being part of the global network of multinational capitalism. If they want the products that capitalism offers, they have to do the kind of work and live the kind of lives that capitalism requires. They have to become postmodern people, which means becoming urbanized people. City culture is now so pervasive that no one escapes it. It is questionable whether we should even speak about a distinctly rural culture any more.

Everywhere in the world, culture and the market meet in the act of consuming. The market is now dominated by consumption rather than production. Culture (both "high" and everyday) is made up mainly of acts of consumption or images related to acts of consumption. And the process of consuming commodities is, above all, a process of consuming the images of culture. When we buy a product, we are buying the many signs that go into its production and come out of it. The product itself is also a sign. We do not value commodities primarily for their practical ability to meet our needs. Rather we value them as signs, as images that are satisfying in themselves, bearing no necessary relationship to anything else in our lives. In other words we do not consume the commodity; we consume the cultural image of the commodity. We consume signs. But every time we consume a sign we are also consuming the culture that produced it. And the culture now consists essentially of the process of consuming its own signs. So every commodity-sign refers to the entire process of consumption. Whenever we consume a commodity we are consuming a sign of the process of consumption. But the entire process is contained within every sign. So our main role as consumers—which is to say our main role in society—is to consume the process of consumption itself.



Our passion for high-tech media is the main way we consume the process of consumption. When we buy the latest DVD technology, we are not likely to think about the specific films we will watch and precisely how they will look different. We are not likely to think about questions of film or video theory and aesthetics. We are simply excited to have a new product and to be able to buy new DVD videos to use in it. We are consuming the idea of the new medium and its imagery. We are consuming the fantastic innovative power of postmodern technology. We are consuming our own pleasure at participating in the marketplace—the process of producing and consuming new technology. And we are consuming the awareness of being part of a vast social movement. This year everyone else is buying the same new technology too. What will it be next year?

This fascination with the media is crucial to understanding postmodernism and late capitalism. In every era the products available in the marketplace form a hierarchy, because some (usually the newest) are considered more desirable than others. In modernity the amazing innovations at the top of the hierarchy were new products—sewing machines, automobiles, dishwashers—and the machines that produced them. In postmodernity the amazing innovations at the top are new digitized images—DVD, laser video, digital sound—and especially the machines that reproduce them: "The word processor replaces the assembly line in the collective mind's eye" (389). Few individuals ever owned assembly lines. But we can all expect some day to own computers, home entertainment centers, fax machines, cellular phones, and all the rest. When we think about the commodities that appeal to us most, we are likely to think about these high-tech media. They do nothing but transmit data through electronically reproduced sensory images. Yet we are obsessed with consuming (buying and using) them.

Why? The obvious answer is that we want the data these media can transmit: e-mail, computer nets, faxes, C-SPAN, high definition video, digitally remixed classic recordings, etc. Yet all these data are sign-images. Postmodern theory tells us that they are just more channels on our mental TV; they have no meaning beyond themselves. So we may value these signs as signs and just want to have more of them, no matter what their content. Or perhaps we are fascinated by the media's unique ability to reproduce signs, regardless of what signs they carry. The high-tech media machines are now themselves signs, with no purpose beyond their own amazing existence. But they are also signs of our status in the market. They are now the most prestigious commodities for sale in the marketplace, just as automobiles or dishwashers used to be. So who really cares what particular pictures the latest Nintendo games have. Merely owning them shows one’s social standing—and they are such really cool graphics! "Cool-ness" is postmodernity’s highest value. The term sums up all the values epitomized by high-tech media: the excitement of the new and amazing, the instantaneous global transmission of digital data, the immersion in signs that have no value beyond their "cool-ness," and the social prestige of being able to afford and manipulate so many meaningless signs.

There is no longer any clear distinction between commodities, media, and cultural signs. All are linked together in a single global network of endlessly reproduced data and reproducers of data. The market sells us the media and data; it assigns them their value by hanging pricetags on them. Yet the media and data are absolutely essential to keep the market process moving along. (Could supermarkets function any more without computers in the warehouse, UPC scanners at the checkout, and closed-circuit radio and TV cameras in the ceiling?)

The network of media and data is constantly changing, as the market provides an endless flow of new products for us to buy (which is what keeps our economy minimally afloat). But the fact that commodities, media, and signs are interdependent seems to be eternal. The kaleidoscope of ever-changing sign-images and the kaleidoscope of ever-changing products for sale are two distinct codes. But they interpenetrate so closely that we are constantly transcoding each in terms of the other. So they turn out to be two halves of the same kaleidoscope, which seems destined to turn forever. High-tech media are a crucial link in this merger of culture and market. Our fascination with the media is actually a fascination with the whole kaleidoscope. When we consume the media, we are consuming the whole process of consumption in its purest form.



A few other examples may be helpful here. When we buy clothes, we are most likely to notice first the logos on them. The idea of wearing a name in big letters across some significant bodily part is fairly new and typically postmodern. We want people to be impressed not with our body or with the fashion design but with the logo. The logo is the essence of the commodity we purchase. When we wear it, it becomes the essence of our body. It is a sign that we are plugged into the cultural consumption network. It is also a sign of keeping up with the culture, which consists so much of juxtaposed logos. Most of us want to wear the "in" logos of the current season. But the logo is a simulacrum. It is a sign that has no meaning beyond its reference to the ever-changing process of production and consumption. So when we consume clothing we are actually consuming the process of consumption, which is the essence of the culture itself.

Another example is the continuing popularity of film and video disasters. Most popular films now have at least one (usually more than one) scene of unbelievable explosive destruction. Perhaps this is simply to get the attention of an audience numbed to more routine kinds of violence. Perhaps it relieves our fear that such catastrophes may be awaiting us out in the real world. But audiences may love these scenes mainly because they are impressed with the technical quality of the special effects work. What we are actually seeing is many thousands of dollars (which could be used to feed the hungry or house the homeless) being spent to destroy things and, more importantly, to give the illusion of destroying things. This is the prototypical act of consumption without any resulting production. Yet we demand to see more of it—as long as it is done with the latest high-tech skills. What we are really consuming here is a perfect image of the culture as a process of consuming high-tech media, with no purpose beyond itself. The goal is simply to consume the images, the media, and the process of consumption, all blown up in one great explosion. "This is how postmodern technology consumes and celebrates itself" (385).

We need not necessarily pay to consume the process of consumption. In fact we do it for free every day by consuming advertising. Advertising is pure postmodernism. It bombards us with apparently random collections of high-tech signs. We all know that the signs have virtually nothing to do with the products they advertise. In fact the best TV commercials often don't tell us until the very end what product is being advertised. But nobody really cares; we are all consuming the sign-images and the media that reproduce them. Most of the signs are simulacra, created solely for the purpose of being recreated as long as that particular ad campaign lasts. They refer to nothing beyond the advertising process itself. "Fahrvergnugen," for example, literally means "travel enjoyment," but it means nothing to Americans except "a Volkswagen advertising campaign"; it refers only to itself. What the content of the commercial is really "about," like all TV and all advertising and all postmodern culture, is simply the flow of images: keeping the kaleidoscope turning. And all the bumper sticker take-offs on "Fahrvergnugen" show how easily it can be kept turning.

Of course advertising is also about keeping the economy turning. The signs are not really random. They are carefully selected by specialists in sign manipulation. Thousands of people make a very good living in advertising and public relations. Their only professional skill is manipulating signs to shape our desires subliminally. We all know this too. We don't expect advertising signs to represent the reality of the product. We expect them to represent only the advertisers' desire to manipulate us for their own profit. Yet we absorb the images and in fact let much of our culture and behavior be shaped by them. In most homes, for example, parents use the promise to buy or not buy products advertised on TV as a main tool for controlling children's behavior. And most of us can still recite commercials we learned as children. We can list all the evils of advertising at the drop of a hat. Yet we continue to consume ads—and often enjoy them—because they capture the essence of our consumer culture. Like high-tech media, they blend images, media, and the market into a single process of consumption. And we want, above all, to keep participating in that process. We want to keep on consuming the process of consumption.

Politics is crucially intertwined with media and advertising. George Bush became president in 1988 largely because of a single TV commercial. In 1999 his son collected money at a record pace, most of which will be used to pay for TV commercials. When we watch candidates on TV, or even see them in person, we know that a political campaign is itself one huge commercial. We know that the candidates are "packaged" by high-paid experts who manipulate signs to affect our unconscious motivations. So we don't expect politicians' words to refer beyond the political process to the true reality of public problems. We assume that whatever they say is all "media hype," "just politics." As a result, our political leaders themselves have become signs, referring only to each other and to the process we call democracy. There may be genuine differences between the candidates, of course. But the differences are overshadowed by the role they all share in common: perpetuating the process of political signs. When we vote, we become part of that process and affirming it by choosing between signs. Since the advertised political "packages" are very much like any other advertised products, we are actually consuming the candidates we vote for in the same way we consume other commodities. Since there is relatively little difference between candidates, we are essentially consuming the political process. And, of course, the political process is designed, above all, to keep the market functioning smoothly and bring us ever more material goods. As Bill Clinton's campaign managers kept reminding him, and us, in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid!"

The media and its images are the means by which postmodern culture reaches out to dominate our lives. The market is the means by which late capitalism reaches out to dominate our lives. The two, constantly transcoded into each other, have become the central facts of our lives. We may see ourselves in terms of the differences among us, marked by our affiliation with different geographical and social spaces and different voluntary groups. But all these groups must live in the same public space, a space defined by the media and market of postmodern late capitalism. We define our lives, and our selves, by our relationship to the media and market. They seem to be the two indisputable facts of life, the unchanging objective realities in an otherwise constantly changing world. Insofar as we develop any sense of permanent identity, it is shaped by and founded on the objects and media images that we consume. The media and the market, like the weather, are simply there. They, not we, are indisputably real. So there seems to be no point in questioning them.



Most of us don't ask questions because it all feels pretty good. Although we are bound to be part of the multinational marketplace whether we like it or not, we do not feel it as a burden. In fact we generally enjoy it. The deepest secret of postmodernism may lie in the pleasure it gives us, which has many sources. First there is the sense of freedom it gives us. When we consume the process of the market we are also consuming the ideas of the market—ideas like "free enterprise" and "entrepreneurship" and "Yankee ingenuity" and "market forces" and "the law of supply and demand." All of these are tied up with our American political doctrines of liberty and democracy. Making our purchases, we feel immensely free because the choices are so wide. We feel that we are proving the superiority of "the American way of life" and its inherent right to dominate the world. In fact, though, the range of choices has been determined long in advance by people we will never see, who run the market. And the one thing we are not free to do is to leave the market and its commodity culture.

Nor are we likely to think it possible to leave. The market has a built-in idea that it is inevitable. It is just human nature, we are told, to want to own things, to buy and sell, to desire more profit for our labors, to compete for personal advantage, even perhaps to lie and cheat in pursuit of profits. In modern culture it was at least possible to challenge these ideas. Now they are so pervasive that few people know how to begin to question them. When we consume the process of consumption we also consume this ideology. As long as we do, we keep on consuming commodities, telling ourselves that we are merely following nature's own laws. We need not take responsibility for imagining, letting alone working for, alternative ways of life. Intellectually we find it easier to believe that our whole world must turn into one giant shopping mall.

Emotionally we find it more fun to believe all this. A day at the shopping mall is lots of fun, as we all know. It gives us a euphoric "commodity rush," which is a lot like a "video rush," which is a lot like a psychedelic rush. Indeed even "urban squalor can be a delight to the eyes. . . . The alienation of daily life in the city can now be experienced in the form of a strange new hallucinatory exhilaration" (33). Postmodernism began in the '60s. Young people were discovering the peculiar pleasure induced by chemicals that could replicate a kind of schizophrenia. The cascades of changing images that they saw had no inner coherence or unified meaning. But they were so fascinated or overwhelmed (or terrified) that the question of meaning didn't seem to matter. It was just "intense" to be so "high."

Now the schizophrenic images of our everyday culture, epitomized by television and shopping malls, give us the same kind of high. The images are all plugged into a single global network. They fly back and forth, reflecting and reshaping each other, with amazing speed. A logo designed in Milan is approved hours later at corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, sewn the next day on a sweatsuit in Taiwan, and sold a day later in Prague or Buenos Aires. A story reported from Cambodia on CNN may become a concept for a TV movie in London before it makes the evening news in Detroit or Tokyo. And the news story may focus more on the TV movie than on the real event. The event in Cambodia is being turned into a simulacrum, with no more connection to reality than the logo. None of these images have any meaning beyond the process of moving simulacra around the world. But the process is so fantastic that no one cares to ask about its meaning.

Modern people felt "feelings." Their experiences were connected to their inner states (even if the inner states were confused and problematic). They struggled to connect their experiences to each other. Postmodern people are no longer disturbed by such issues. Rather than having "feelings," we merely register disconnected "intensities." Everyday life has taken on a psychedelic intensity. The more intense the rush, the more "cool" is its source. There is also something erotically satisfying about the endless play of images around and within us. The intense rushes climax so quickly, yet the process seems to be eternal. Advertising especially play on this eroticism. We get pleasure from the beauty of the images (whether or not they are overtly sexual) and we don't think very much about their relationship (often nonexistent) to the product being advertised. The media and the market are separate codes. But every one of us, having been bombarded by so much advertising, has learned how to transcode the two. So "the two systems of codes are identified in such a way as to allow the libidinal [sexual] energies of the one to suffuse the other, without, however (as in older moments of our cultural and intellectual history) producing a synthesis" (275). As a result of this transcoding, consumption and the market become not only necessary but sexually alluring.



The euphoria, intensity, and sexiness of the market place are all related to the "postmodern sublime." Some philosophers use the word sublime to describe the greatest works of art and culture, which move us most deeply and give us the most pleasure. They say that these works aim to represent some reality totally different from our ordinary reality. Before modern times it was usually God or something sacred. In modernity it was usually pure nature or the unconscious mind. These realities are so totally "other" that they can never be fully represented in human images. Works of culture are sublime when they come as close as possible to representing this unrepresentable sense of "otherness." They stretch our minds to the furthest limits of representation. According to this theory, we get our greatest pleasure from the deep emotion this creates.

Today neither nature nor the unconscious mind are totally "other." In fact they have both been fully incorporated into everyday culture. There are no unspoiled wildernesses anymore. Late capitalism, through the influence of multinational mining and agricultural corporations, now dominates even the remotest rural areas of the world. Environmentalists fight for "wilderness areas" because they see true wilderness disappearing so rapidly. But a "wilderness area" is produced by a complex interplay of many political, economic, and social forces. In other words, it is a product of culture, not an example of pure nature. Pure nature is now just an image in our memory. Even the changes of the seasons, once determined by pure nature, are now registered by changes in commodity fashions and the network TV lineups. Less obviously, late capitalism also dominates our unconscious minds through the media of postmodern culture itself. The images constantly bombarding us have the same kaleidoscopic qualities that psychologists attribute to our dreams and unconscious fantasies. So we no longer need those inner dreams and fantasies. Public cultural images have largely replaced them. Television, advertising, and the other media are like one huge unending public dream.

Both nature and the unconscious are now parts of the same consumption process that engulfs everything else. Neither one can any longer feel distant or genuinely "other" to us. The only thing that really seems incomprehensible, unrepresentable, and totally "other" is late capitalism itself: the global system of multinational corporations, high-tech media, and cultural imagery that we are immersed in. This network is overwhelming in its immensity and dazzling in its complexity. It surrounds and suffuses us at every moment. It has total control over the circumstances in which we live. Yet we have no clear idea where it comes from or how it keeps going. The system is a machine that turns out its endless stream of products with little help from us. We can't imagine making such amazing things ourselves. They seem to have nothing to do with our own abilities, which are so puny by comparison. The global system is the closest thing we have today to the traditional notion of God.

When we stroll through the shopping mall, or watch television, or do almost anything else in our daily lives, we are consuming images of late capitalism. Each image is like the modernists' sublime artworks. It is an approximate representation of this ultimate reality, which is in itself too large and remote to be represented. "The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network [of late capitalism]" (37). What we are ultimately trying to do as we consume more and more high-tech media is to "think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system" (37). The totality is "impossible" because we can't fully encompass it in our cultural imagery. But some things come especially close—like virtual reality arcades, shopping malls the size of small cities, or the daily movement of trillions of dollars on world financial markets, as reported on CNN. These come so close that they seem sublime, filling us with an awe-inspiring euphoria.

The "postmodern sublime" also has a political side to it. Politics is about power. People feel powerful when they feel productive—when they are making something happen. But every new technological leap reminds us that we don't know how to make anything really important happen. The only thing that we seem able to produce is ourselves as consumers and our daily round of choices in the marketplace. When we consume commodities, we are also consuming the process of the marketplace in which commodities are bought and sold. This is our only way to participate, however vicariously, in the immense world-controlling power of that process. Consuming the process of consumption is "a compensation for an economic impotence which is also an utter lack of any political power" (316). To get this compensation, we all become, or imitate, the "yuppies," competing to see who can collect the most toys. "Yuppies" don’t really have ultimate power in our society. But those who do have ultimate power encourage us all to adopt the values of "yuppies." If we spend all our time consuming, we are not likely to question the system that provides us with the toys.



If the market-media system of late capitalism now takes on the role once reserved for God, what happens to the organized religions that still claim to worship this God? One way to answer this question is to contrast modern and postmodern religion. Modern religious people felt a radical difference between modern and premodern times. Modernity seemed to make everything in the past old-fashioned and useless, including the beliefs of traditional religion. The old religious forms seemed outdated because they treated the spiritual side of life as some literal "heaven" or "other world." They contradicted the materialistic discoveries of modern science. Yet they could not be totally abandoned. Therefore religious belief became a challenging problem: How one could be a modern scientific person and still be a believer? This problem was first felt urgently in the West, where Christianity was the dominant religion. So, for example, Christians asked how they could accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution yet still believe in the biblical story of creation?

Liberal Christianity gave an answer that formed a model for all modern religion. It announced that the old traditions should not be taken literally. They had to be reinterpreted. They became symbols of ethical and psychological realities that lay beyond the material realm studied by science. The biblical creation story might now represent a sense of ultimate order in the universe, or a psychological need to feel at home in the universe, or (more recently) the sacred importance of caring for all of nature. Such reinterpretations allowed the ensemble of beliefs and symbols of each religion to retain a unified meaning. Yet they could also be interpreted scientifically. So they could connect material reality with a transcendent "totally other" realm that one could still believe in. This resolved the problem of the spiritual versus the material and the problem of the old (premodern) versus the new at the same time.

In postmodernity the problems that troubled modern religion have disappeared. Having lost our sense of history, we need not worry about how to relate past and present. We simply accept what exists now, on its own terms. Nor need we worry about a "totally other" realm, as modern religions did. Nature and the unconscious are fully colonized by late capitalism, so there is no "other" beyond daily life that we could believe in. Everything that matters for us is incorporated into the purely material realm of commodity culture. Nothing seems able to exist outside of that realm, so no one can take seriously the traditional talk of the material versus the spiritual. The concept of "materialism" disappears, since there is nothing "spiritual" or "non-material" to contrast it with. Our society is now "effortlessly secular" because "spirituality virtually by definition no longer exists" (387). The void created by the demise of religion is filled with the images created by our consumer culture. So the problem of how we can still "believe" in spiritual realities also disappears. It turns out to have been a distinctively modern problem created by the tensions of old versus new and spiritual versus material, which no longer exist.

Given all this, it may seem surprising that fundamentalism has become so important in the postmodern age. We would expect such intense religious commitment to decline. In fact, though, the growth of fundamentalism makes a strange kind of sense. Fundamentalists who take scripture literally deny the difference between spiritual and material. They believe that the Word from on high can be completely embodied in our daily lives in the material world. There is no problem of "how to believe" because the spiritual and material are fused into a single reality. There is no challenging "totally other" dimension of reality to be grappled with or interpreted. Everything is just what it is: what you read in the scripture is what you get. The spiritual, the material, and the scripture all merge together into a flat, one-dimensional unity. Everything is presented as self-evident truth, to be accepted or rejected at face value. For example, fundamentalists may use modern science to argue that "creationism" should be taught in public schools. But modern science can never be the source or ultimate validation of "creationism." That comes only from the ancient text, which needs no justification beyond itself.

Fundamentalists therefore live as if there were no difference between ancient times and present—as if the literal life of Jesus or Moses or Mohammed could be lived just as well today as in their own time. Here, too, there is no challenge of the "totally other." Novelty and difference are irrelevant problems. The scripture is stripped of any tension between its original meaning and it contemporary meaning. Scripture and contemporary life are merged together into a flat, one-dimensional reality. Yet the past that fundamentalists relive is not the genuine reality of the past; it is an image that they create. In that sense it is very much like the simulacra of nostalgia films—an image of the past that is produced to fill the needs of the present. In the Bible itself, Jesus does not block the entrance to abortion clinics or invoke God's blessing on his favorite football team (or his nation's armies). The very idea of a "literal meaning of scripture" may have meant something quite different to people of the biblical age than it does now to fundamentalists. But such issues do not bother most fundamentalists, any more than most filmgoers try to verify Oliver Stone's images of the '60s.

Sociologically, fundamentalists also fit in very well with postmodernism. They take their place as groups or movements, familiar parts of the social landscape brought to us every day by the media. Those who value diversity should welcome such groups as evidence of growing diversity. True, the fundamentalists themselves sometimes seem to work against diversity (though there are also extremely left-wing fundamentalists). But they are trapped, along with the rest of us, in the system of late capitalism, which imposes diversity whether they like it or not. Their televangelists and direct-mail fundraisers use the media as effectively as (in some cases more effectively than) anyone. In the West they generally support the economic and political institutions of late capitalism. So they must play by its rules.

Even Muslim fundamentalists, who seem to oppose contemporary Western culture completely, are tied to this culture. Iran, the model for Muslim fundamentalists, has become a highly industrialized bureaucratic state, using postmodern media in many ways. It hires high-priced PR firms to create its international image. It fought against Iraq for eight years only by buying high-tech weapons from the West. It skillfully manipulated the global banking and arms selling schemes that also funded the contra war in Nicaragua. The hostages held in Teheran during the Carter administration were released at the precise moment Ronald Reagan took the oath of office—because their captors were listening to the inauguration halfway around the world on transistor radios. Fundamentalist groups play the same game of media maneuvering that all groups must play today if they are to survive. Therefore they accept, even if unconsciously, their status as one among many in the ever-changing social kaleidoscope of groups and movements. Their claim to exclusive truth is undercut by the pluralistic system in which they must operate. They say that they embrace their faith because it is the only true faith, and therefore they have no choice. But they acknowledge that in fact they are choosing one among many alternative ways of life. And they even market their faith, treating non-believers as consumers in the spiritual marketplace. So their system of beliefs becomes merely one more code swirling in the cultural kaleidoscope.



The success of the Iranian revolution and other conservative fundamentalist movements is a paradoxical sign of the increasing diversity fostered by postmodern society. Social diversity certainly troubles some people, who would like to insist that everyone adhere to "traditional values." Opposing diversity has become a sign of political conservatism, which is why some people on the left applaud postmodernism's kaleidoscopic diversity. But diversity illustrates the ambiguities of postmodernism. Like everything else, it has both good and bad points. Social diversity has given us a much more expansive understanding of freedom and autonomy. The idea that everyone is entitled to participate in society has now taken hold more deeply than ever before. As our Declaration of Independence demonstrates, once this idea is put into words people start to take it seriously, even if the writer does not really mean it. It takes on a power of its own, and its consequences cannot be foreseen or controlled. (Thomas Jefferson surely did not imagine, or want, an African-American or Native American or woman some day to be president.) The new emphasis on diversity may empower people to demand a greater share in making the decisions that shape their lives. It already challenges us to find our own place within society. Diversity opens up a wider range of options for thought and life. We must choose the groups we will join and put the pieces together for ourselves. We are more free than ever to choose our preferred codes.

We get this freedom because every code is a system of signs. The question of its relation to reality, which created the modern problem of "how to believe," no longer matters: "Where I used to 'believe' in a certain vision of the world, political system, or religion as such, today I speak a specific ideological code—the badge of group adherence, viewed from a different and more sociological perspective" (394). None of these codes can be judged as better or worse than the others, for postmodernism allows no higher standard of truth by which they all could be judged. So all are equally valid. This certainly fosters greater tolerance. Tolerance, in turn, gives disadvantaged groups an opportunity to enter into the political and social mainstream. The resulting progress in social justice is immensely important. And we all benefit because new groups bring their codes into the mainstream, where they become new options for all of us. The empowering of local and ethnic groups has also reminded us of the importance of place and space. This has turned our minds away from history. But it has led our concerns back to nature, at a time when nature's very existence is imperiled. This, in turn, has given new importance to the body's health and pleasures.

If this is what diversity means, the Iranian revolution seems an unlikely symbol for it. It is a paradoxical symbol because it used the great diversity of late capitalism to create a totalitarian state (with little concern for the pleasures of the body). Therefore it also symbolizes the limits of diversity. It suggests that all the current talk of pluralism, difference, the end of master narratives, and the evils of totality may be just convenient smokescreens. Behind them there is more totality than ever. This is just as true for us as it is for the Iranians. The sacred, the past, the future, nature, the unconscious—all have been conquered by the forces of the market and the media. There is no realm in which we can escape these all-enveloping forces. For the first time, perhaps, real difference and "otherness" has vanished. Neither fundamentalism nor any other belief system can challenge the ideology of the marketplace. The gradual shift in Iranian toward a more westernized, modernized and postmodernized, culture is evidence of this. The even more fundamentalist government in Afghanistan will soon find that it too must follow the same path.

The idea of "market forces" is the most crucial ideological battleground in our society today. If we believe that the marketplace, the free enterprise system, and the desire for profits are innate in human nature, we are likely to accept the basic structures of late capitalism and postmodernism. We are also likely to accept all of the shoddy merchandise and false advertising the market sends our way. "What do you expect?" we say. "They're just trying to make a buck like everyone else." Everything is justified in the name of greater profits. So we are not likely to think about how we might live differently. This is what is happening today. The media urge us to take the market ideology as self-evidently true and rewarding; no longer a matter of debate; beyond ideology. Therefore it seems useless to think deeply about this central reality of our lives. Our only option is to keep the wheels of the global corporate machine turning by ever greater feats of consumption. Even if we dimly sense that something is wrong with the totality of the system of late capitalism, that totality is simply too big and complex to represent in mental images. So why should we bother to try?

Since there can be no political challenge to the system itself, no one is concerned about the meaning of the body politic and its values as a whole. Therefore the system remains beyond the sphere of politics. Every group is labelled a "special interest" except the corporations, the media, and the government bureaucracy. They are supposed to be above politics, representing "the public good." In fact they represent the special interest of perpetuating the late capitalist system. But we don't call their interest a special interest because we accept the capitalist marketplace as the common playing field for everyone.

So all politics becomes micropolitics: the play of power relationships among many diverse groups, each focussed on its own particular issues. But all assume that those issues must be resolved within the total system. Politics now means accepting the system and using it for one's own best advantage. Competing political views within the system are treated like religions and other beliefs. They become mere ideological codes, the optional badges of different groups. We may learn how to transcode the ideas and concerns of one group to those of another group. On this basis we may build temporary shifting political alliances. But we assume that all these groups will remain separate, just as all the signs of a postmodern artifact remain sepearate. And we assume that each one's code is as valid as another.

There can be no unifying political movement or political thought, so there is no point in debating basic political ideas. In the era of market ideology and micropolitics, we see less and less value in the old tradition of intellectual thought and rational debate. Soon we forget that it is even possible to think deeply and debate about the central concerns of life. Instead of taking stands on issues of great importance, we just consume ideas, perhaps transcode them, and then let them go. So the mind turns into one giant TV or shopping mall, and no questions are asked. We rest content in our euphoric powerlessness.

In fact the whole fight for diversity and equal rights can easily become a fight for equal time on TV and in shopping malls: "Are minority quotas not to be understood first and foremost as the allocation of segments of television time, and is not the production of the appropriate new group-specific products the truest recognition a business society can bring to others?" (325). Equality may now mean, above all, the equal right to consume the products of the marketplace. The codes of the many groups are turned into signs, which then become commodities. We value ethnic, regional, political, and all the other differences because they are fashionable. We wear group identities—our own and others'—the way we wear the latest styles. In fact our favorite commodities are often the "group-specific products" of other groups that have become fashionable: frozen sushi dinners, rap music, Latino films, Wilderness Society tote bags, Grateful Dead t-shirts, etc. But these examples demonstrate the limits of diversity too. As commodities, all are measured by their monetary value. The current passion for diversity is itself the best evidence that we see genuine diversity disappearing. It is rapidly being swallowed up in a homogenous culture that reduces everything to the almighty dollar.

Perhaps the hidden decision-makers at the top of the system allow so much diversity only because it perpetuates the system and defeats all challenges to it. The focus on diversity may create an illusion that merely entering into the mainstream, making free choices, and making more money is all that matters. Multiculturalism may encourage us to believe that, once all groups are participating freely in the mainstream, nothing more is needed to make life better for all. It may therefore distract us from the common political problem we all face: that a few people still control the process of production, forcing the rest of us to live by the choices that they make.


For Fredric Jameson, as a Marxist, the problems of postmodern culture must be transcoded into problems of political and economic change. His own analysis does not seem to offer much hope for change. By exploring our society in its totality, he shows us why change in one or another part of the system is not enough. All the pieces of the system are interlocked. Nothing can really be different unless everything is different, which is why we need to think about the totality. One reason to study postmodernism is to learn why such a total change is so difficult to imagine today: we see no point in even thinking about, much less challenging, the totality of the prevailing media/market system. For the time being, the system seems immune to any political challenge.

But another reason to study postmodernism is to begin thinking about alternatives to the system. Postmodernism is the world we actually live in, the only kind of world we are likely to live in for many years to come. If we want to begin to think about a new way to live, beyond postmodern culture, we must do it while we are still living within that culture. We must accept the postmodern world on its own terms. So, for example, when we think about the totality we must do it in a postmodern way. The notion of "totality" no longer means that a single integrated reality exists or can exist. A postmodern totality can only be a kaleidoscope where all the pieces remain separate. "Totality" is now a symbol for our efforts to put all the pieces together—efforts that must ultimately fail. Yet "totality" reminds us that things can still be related by transcoding, even though they will never unite into a single code. It urges us to keep on transcoding, getting better at it, constantly discovering new interpretations and new relationships. It is a way to keep on enlarging our perspective.

If we look far enough, we may find a way to see beyond postmodernism while still living in it. The challenge is to use the elements of postmodern culture to transcend it. This is theoretically possible because everything is dialectical. The present, no matter how constricting, holds the seeds of change that will lead to a different, perhaps better, future. The crucial question is what specific resources postmodernism gives us for that change. Diversity itself is certainly one resource. It has put a new emphasis on freedom and equality as well as on nature and the body. All of these have created important new political ideas and movements. There is no way to predict where they will lead.

On another level, social diversity is an image of the immense diversity of signs throughout our culture. The flood of fragmented signs filling our lives has many harmful effects. But it also gives each of us a freedom to connect the pieces of our world, our culture, and ourselves in our own unique way. This freedom is a challenge. There is no authority to tell us how to do it. We have to figure it out for ourselves. Nor is there any possibility that we will arrive at a permanent solution. We will have to keep on playing with the kaleidoscope. This gives us unprecedented possibilities for ingenuity, innovation, and experimentation. It also gives us a new responsibility for shaping and constantly reshaping our own world. This can release unprecedented energies in us. Postmodernism now channels the energy in ways that reinforce the late capitalist system. But if we could understand what is happening to us and choose to use our energies to change the system, the system's endless diversity and freedom could become the seed of its own undoing. One reason to think about the totality is to regain free choice in the exercise of our energy.

The totality of postmodernism could also prove to be its own undoing in another respect. The managers of the late capitalist system have united the whole world in a single, total system. They understood this long before environmentalists began talking about our shared planetary fate. Our global environmental, economic, and cultural interdependence are all parts of the same total picture. We see this picture every day via by the global media that wire the whole thing together. Eventually some basic changes in the system will occur, and they too will be global (perhaps, as many Marxists predict, a global economic collapse). The postmodern may turn out to be "little more than a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the economic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale, including the older forms of labor and its traditional organizational institutions and concepts" (417).

This means that the traditional opposition between the managers and the managed (the workers) will continue. Right now it is hard to see this because postmodern culture has absorbed us all into its unified system. But the opposition will emerge again in some new unpredictable form, and it too will be global. Not only are the managers of the system now linked together, so are the rest of us—the managed. There are always a few people, in odd corners around the world, who resent being managed and are thinking about creative ways to resist. Whenever and wherever such forces of change begin stirring, they can quickly connect with other forces of change thousands of miles away. Eventually a brand new mode of production and brand new forms of culture are bound to emerge. The process will happen more quickly than ever before because people can communicate so rapdily across such great distances. Indeed change can now happen simultaneously everywhere, thanks to postmodern media.



Now, for the first time, it is possible to imagine a global process of shared innovation and experimentation. It is possible to imagine people all over the world joining together to explore new ways of living: "What is wanted is a great collective project in which an active majority of the population participates, as something belonging to it and constructed by its own energies" (278). This project would include setting common social goals, planning means to achieve them, and then engaging the forces of the world community to implement them. For the first time, people all over the world would freely choose their shared purposes, unleashing an immense amount of productive energy.

This is a political goal. It is also obviously a utopian goal. "Utopia" literally means "no place," and such a great shared political project has never existed anywhere. There is nothing new about linking politics and utopia, however. Utopia traditionally meant a totality like the Garden of Eden where perfect harmony reigned, where all the pieces magically fit together because all came from, and referred back to, a common source. People have often hoped that their political system would create this kind of total harmony. Leaders have often used this hope to justify their power.

For example, in the ancient world the king was often represented as a savior, symbolizing the people's hope to live some day in paradise. Sometimes he also claimed to represent the first man, who already lived in paradise (which is why his royal court had to be as opulent as paradise). These traditions influenced Christianity, where Jesus is depicted as a king, the new Adam, and the savior who leads his followers to paradise. In the Middle Ages, Christian kings claimed that their rule was part of God's plan for redeeming the world and bringing all Christians into the Garden of Eden. The modern era linked democracy to utopia: politics alone, without religion, was expected to bring an era of harmony, abundance, and peace in this world. In the U.S., though, the hope for a democratic utopia remained closely linked to traditional Christian images of salvation. The 20th century has made this hope more difficult to believe in. Earlier in this century, people felt that democracy was getting weaker as more countries turned to totalitarian systems. When modern people wondered about how to believe in religion, with its utopian promises of salvation, they also wondered about how to believe in the utopian political hopes of democracy. This tension between what is and what might be helped to give their lives a feeling of depth.

Today we no longer wonder about how to believe in utopian promises or politics. We cannot imagine a "great collective effort." We see no point in even thinking about a common national effort to build a new kind of society together. Leaders still use the traditional utopian symbols to justify their power. But the utopia they claim to lead us to is no radically new and better realm. It is merely more of what we already have: the postmodern late capitalism they control, which seems to shut out any utopian images of the totality. The traditional utopia of integrated harmony will not work for us, and we cannot see what other kind of utopia might be possible. The tension between what is and what might be has disappeared.

Again, though, there may be seeds of something just the opposite within our culture itself: a postmodern utopia. Suppose we could begin to imagine something truly different than our current culture. Because our culture is so filled with diversity, we could imagine that trait greatly magnified. We could imagine the whole world filled with infinite diversity. We could imagine a world free to change endlessly because its pieces have no common source or goal and refer to nothing else at all. In this world a new kind of harmony would prevail, based not on integration but on difference and separateness. No one part would be considered more "real" than another. All would have equal value. So no one part would be able to coerce or oppress any other. Each part would be able to develop its unique qualities alongside all the others. The world would have infinite channels, all going constantly, and all would be free.

People living in such a world would find their minds similarly kaleidoscopic and liberated. They would be able to experience many channels simultaneously, constantly creating new codes by endless transcoding, embracing the infinite diversity. People would be free to enjoy the experience of each moment without comparing it to past or future, without having to prove that it is "authentic" or "really real." They would not have to worry about forcing all their experience into a single "identity" or discovering their "true self." Every experience would be considered equally real and true. So there would be no reason for society to enforce consistency in everyone's behavior. The motives for conformity and totalitarianism would disappear.

These liberated people would join together to decide on their mode of production—what they really want to produce and how they really want to do it. Their goal would be to make the things they really want—not to consume the things someone else tells them to want. Everyone could participate equally in making and carrying out the decisions. Everyone's capacity to explore, experiment, and innovate would be fully honored and set completely free. So they would go beyond today's alternatives of the modern "centered self" or the postmodern "schizophrenic" self. They would create a new kind of identity "which would be very precisely the non-centered subject that is part of an organic group or collective" (345). This is the kind of utopia that postmodern people can try to imagine.




How could all this be done? Nobody knows yet. It seems totally "unrealistic." That is no argument against the utopian possibility, however. Capitalist culture has taught us to define "realistic" as the opposite of "imagined." But imagination is an essential part of reality. So imagination can be very "realistic," as long as we act on it. Every real change has to be imagined first; imagining is the first step in figuring out a new reality. Most of us cannot even take that first step today. However a few artists have made some initial attempts. Some postmodern works of art suggest that the way to radical change is to subvert the system from within. The idea is to show society its true face by exaggerating it, by turning everything into simulacra as quickly as possible. This includes making all the institutions of society nothing but simulacra.

For example, an artist might mount an exhibit in an art museum showing t-shirts he made with pictures on them, just like the t-shirts the museum sells in its gift shop. In both cases the pictures would be simulacra. The museum's shirts would bear its logo, or a famous painting turned into a simulacrum. But the artist's shirts would have pictures of the museum itself, or the gift shop, or his own exhibit. This would turn the institution and art itself into a simulacrum. (If he is very political, he might have pictures of the museum's trustees, who are also directors of local corporations that pollute the air, make weapons, have no minority executives, etc.) Some postmodernists believe that the more simulacra we create in this way, the quicker we will show society that it is built on simulacra. Society will see how empty its whole life is. This will drive society to a point where it will simply collapse into its hollow core. Then something new will emerge: a utopian society that releases the virtues of postmodernism because it is free of the totalitarian structure of late capitalism.

However this is a risky route. Who can say whether a totally empty society will necessarily turn into a utopian one? Moreover it gives no basis for a great collective utopian project. How can we come together to plan the kind of life we want together if all things remain radically separated? Jameson has no answer to this question. Again, the problem is that we don't know how to think about it clearly yet. The necessary first step is to understand where we are now. Perhaps the most useful political act we can do now is just to analyze the totality in all its complexity and understanding why it is so hard to change it. This means we must have shared images to describe our relationships to the system of postmodern late capitalism. These images must be like maps, showing us how to locate ourselves in the overall scheme of things. We need "cognitive maps" to symbolize our place in the system.

Now that culture has suffused all of life, there is no difference between the culture and life. So it should be possible to use culture to map our experience of life. Cognitive maps could be images drawn from postmodern culture and transcoded in new ways. They cannot literally represent the totality of the system, since that totality is beyond our capacity to represent. But they can give us a symbolic language to relate the various parts and levels of the totality to each other by transcoding them. Most importantly, the maps would link together three crucial codes: the media and its imagery, the mode of production of late capitalism, and the individual's experience as a member of a particular economic class within late capitalism. This would enable us to express our relationships within, and attitudes toward, the totality. It would also show us how little power and control most of us have over the circumstances of our lives. It would show how few people actually own the means of production and therefore make the basic decisions that shape our society; it would show how many people have only the illusion of ownership and free choice. Once we understand the truth about what we have and don’t have today, we can talk together about what it is that we really want for tomorrow.

Jameson's own analysis moves toward such cognitive mapping. It is meant to be an example of an ongoing process of transcoding, not a synthesis that puts all the pieces together. But he concludes that much more needs to be done. The most valuable work is likely to be done by creative artists, rather than by scholars and critics. Artists have always given societies the symbols through which they could imagine their relationships to reality. Today artists who want to create cognitive maps must accept the premises of postmodernism. But they can begin to create cognitive maps that also bring out the utopian possibilities within postmodernism. These maps would show us different parts of the culture developing side by side, with no necessary relationship to each other. They would also show us how each part can be interpreted in terms of the others. No one can yet predict what those maps will look like. But the very act of creating them is itself an image of liberation. Merely imagining the possibility of such creative acts may be enough to pry us away from our televisions and shopping malls long enough to start thinking about whether today's postmodern culture is really the way we want to live.