Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fredric Jameson and K-pop


[This is a seminar I'm presenting this week that attempts to give an overview of an assigned article as well as tries to make a new argument about it.]

The word “postmodernism” was not coined by Jameson in his essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Rather, it was a term circulated in the field of architecture and in literary criticism going back as far as the 1960s. In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge which defined the term as “an incredulity towards metanarratives”. In 1984, Fredric Jameson expanded on this idea in his aforementioned essay published in the New Left Review. In it, Jameson argues that postmodernism is not simply a period but a logic that brings together culture, economics and politics. In this seminar, I will explain Jameson’s argument, and then draw on cultural examples to illustrate the argument.

Before doing so, it is worth explaining what Lyotard meant by an "incredulity to metanarratives". Incredulity means a state of being unwilling or unable to believe something. The postmodern condition is to be wary of the grand important narratives that had previously structured life, such as the Church, or the American Dream. The collective loss of belief in metanarratives creates one important effect: the dogmatic cling to the dying metanarrative itself. A shaking of belief in the Church's power translates into the church member's deathgrip on the Church and its practices which still structure that member's life. For Jameson, the decay of capitalism has resulted in the world's frantic attempt to grasp and rehabilitate capitalism in the current era.

However, the first element to note of Jameson's essay is that the author is extremely careful in articulating that postmodernism is not merely a stylistic device nor is it a periodizing category. He writes that periods "tend to obliterate difference" and "to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity" (Jameson 56). Instead, it is important to view postmodernism as a cultural dominant as he terms it. This allows postmodernism to envelope overlapping periods and aesthetics under its aegis. In fact, the periods and trends are not simply parts of postmodernism but serve to inform its very structure. Jameson writes
aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.
The turnover in trends and styles is actually part of the cultural logic of postmodernism. This is different than modernism, even if modernism and postmodernism shared the same superficial styles and forms. Modernism is not structured by the late capitalist system and thus remains a different type of category outside of postmodernism's wide grasp. For Jameson, the shift from modernism's dominance to postmodernism seems to be a gradual change from the 50s into the 80s.

What brings postmodernism into focus is the gelling of the constituent features. Jameson names those features as
  1. a new depthlessness
  2. a consequent weakening of historicity
  3. a whole new type of emotional ground tone
  4. relationships of all this to a whole new technology
  5. mutations in the lived experience of built space itself


In order to show that this depthlessness has taken over, Jameson uses two works of visual art, the first being Van Gogh's "Peasant Shoes".The painting can be read in different ways. The unique painting of the shoes mirrors the uniqueness of the shoes themselves. That is to say that the painting's production mirrors the production of the shoes, a unique and laborious process. The peasant shoes are not created by mass production or an industrial revolution. They are not works of art in the age of technological reproducibility and neither is the painting. The shoes are unique to the peasant, and no doubt, the only pair of shoes that the peasant owns at a time. When these shoes are worn out, the peasant will undergo the process of creating new shoes that are not an identical reproduction of the previous pair. "The painting is not simply an arrangement of pigments, nor even, primarily, a representation of something. It is, rather, a statement about a world that lies beyond the painting—the hard life and work of the peasant who wore these boots" (Appleyard).


The other work of visual art is Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes". Immediately we should be able to note that Warhol's work is a a jumble of shoes without any centre. Unlike Van Gogh's painting that tells the viewer of another world, Diamond Dust Shoes "does not really speak to us at all" (Jameson 59). It is "a random collection of dead objects" that does not connect the viewer to a world of life outside the work. Warhol's work fetishes the shoes as works of art in an age of technological reproducibility by being itself a work of reproducible art. The work is a silkscreen with diamond dust on the canvas. Just like Warhol's famous Coca-Cola banner and Campbell's soup can, the shoes are art that explicitly function around commodification. However, none of these examples are political statements about the commodification of art or of the fetishism of commodities in late capitalism. This lack of depth to the work is the first signal of postmodernism, Jameson argues. "Diamond Dust Shoes" are a flat work of art not just in terms of aesthetics but in the work's superficiality.


Warhol's work articulates what Jameson calls the waning of affect. He points to Edvard Munch's The Scream as an illustrative example that articulates expression of emotion. Within the subject, there is something particularly different than the outside. The emotion within is "projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling" (Jameson 61). Postmodernism has repudiated this interiority/exteriority duality along with other depth models, as Jameson calls them. They are:
  1. essence and appearance
  2. latent and manifest
  3. authenticity and inauthenticity
  4. signifier and signified
These depth models have been flattened and replaced with the character of superficiality. Depth is replaced by surface. Munch's The Scream depicts a mode of thought that is no longer fashionable or even useful in late capitalism. The Scream represents the subject's alienation and the outward expression of that emotion albeit in silence due to the medium of the painting. But postmodernism, Jameson argues, is not about the alienation of the subject; rather it is the fragmentation of the subject. The style of modernism was to assume a centered subject as a container of emotion and convey that through avant-garde forms. Postmodernism assumes that the subject is liberated from that expression and is in fact liberated from the emotion itself as well due to the end of the individual style, the individual brush stroke and the individual itself. Instead, the individual becomes a subject of the logic of late capitalism. No longer is the modernist interest in time organizing art but rather, due to the depthlessness of everything, space is the organizing characteristic.

It is as this point that Jameson turns to pastiche and parody, the chief elements of colloquial postmodernism. In the cultural discourse, many people point to intertextuality and "quoting" as the main qualities of postmodernism. The non-Marxist critic points to works made by Tarantino as postmodern because it's a superficial tissue of quotations. Can anybody think of a particularly good example of a film or novel that seems entirely made up of quotations that we should normally classify as postmodern? Jameson writes that the modernist voices become the norm in an age of mass reproducibility. As quality is replaced by quantity, the "unique" voices of the masters become imitated and recreated and recirculated until these voices become the norm. The pastiche, like Tarantino and the fine examples we've come up with, is "the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language" (Jameson 65). This should surely remind us of Will Straw's Embedded Memories. He writes that the recirculation of videocassettes and other containers of knowledge (like books) refashions the past "within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive" (Straw 4). Straw argues that culture derives from movement so that new forms and new ideas can be produced in a society of movement. A stagnant society, Straw writes, produces stagnant culture, which is to say the constant recirculation of the past within the new. No new idea can flourish when up against the accumulated weight of the past. As Jameson writes, "the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture" (Jameson 65).

Thus, Tarantino's reproduction of old cinema is simply a symptom of the postmodern condition. His jumbling of eras and styles within one film, such as Kill Bill's spaghetti Western and martial arts film, is an effect of the historicism of postmodernism. It's an effect of what Guy Debord calls the society of the spectacle: "the image has become the final form of commodity reification". The past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles".

Now that we've articulated what Jameson argues is the characteristics of postmodernism, we can now apply them to the text that structures the course, Simon Reynolds' Retromania. At this point in his essay, Jameson coins the term "nostalgia mode". He points to George Lucas's American Graffiti as one of the first nostalgia films that flatten the past into an easy to grasp set of images. Reynolds maps a similar effect in the chapter titled "Good Citations". He writes of seemingly timeless bands working against pop music that afterwards admitted to "'taking from 50s and 60s music'" (Reynolds 136). Reynolds writes, "it was clear even at the time that none of those groups pointed a way to the future. In a non-specific sense, they were tribute bands" (137). It is the colonization of the past by late capitalism, the rapacity of the system to seek out and exploit new markets. The past is rich in images for the recirculation. Reynolds writes of the mod revival that colonized an era that was only gone fifteen years. Even though the mod revivals wrote of "nothing new happening" they contributed to the stagnation by colonizing the past for lack of present day material. Reynolds guesses that the mods took "punk's idea of "no future" literally and acted like pop's clock had stopped" (Reynolds 229). Jameson points to E. L. Doctorow as an example of the crisis of historicity, but I think Reynolds' first half of his book does a lot of the work for us in identifying examples of bands that colonize the past.

The crisis of historicity, Jameson argues, signals a return to the formulation of postmodernism's relationship to time and space. If the subject has difficulty navigating past and present due to the constant recirculation of images of the past, then this would contribute to the fragmentation of the subject, as aforementioned. This is what Jameson calls the breakdown in the signifying chain. The schizophrenic suffers from a "breakdown of the signifying chain" in their use of language until "the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time" (Jameson 72). The crisis of historicity, our loss of it through the reproduction of the past, makes us metaphorically schizophrenic.

The next element that characterizes the postmodern is the new technology and periodization. Considering this week's class is called "Periodizing and Pop", it's worth mentioning Jameson's periodizing categories for capitalism. First is there market capitalism, industrial capitalism and finally multinational capitalism. Jameson calls this last stage the purest form, in that it has prodigiously commodified all available markets. In previous stages, technology is represented in various ways due to the visual aspect of the technology that allows for such representation. In our current late capitalist era, the main technology appears to be the computer. Instead of representations being about kinetic power like turbines, our representations are of reproducible images. However, what Jameson sort of misses due to his time of writing is the fetishizing of the iPod, which for a decade seem to dominate the technological discourse.

The most important point to extract from Jameson's argument on technology is that the representation of the computer, the giant web of interconnected devices and chips and networks is a representation of the multinational stage of capitalism itself. That is to say that it is increasingly difficult for the individual to grasp and to make coherent the complex networks of capitalism at this stage. It is the impossible act of grasping in its totality the contemporary world system. This, Jameson argues, is where our conspiracy theory fantasies come from: the fantasy of navigating the complex network.


The final element of postmodernism is the mutation of urban space. Jameson recalls the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles California which appears to be a mini-city. It encloses an entire world within itself as a substitute to the real world. Its glass walls do not allow for an exterior observer to see inside, but rather see only the distorted reflection of the rest of the world. The individual is no longer needed to orient and navigate themselves through the multiplicity of escalators and elevators.

At this point, I'd like to illustrate the postmodernism as formulated by Fredric Jameson by recalling Christopher Nolan's 2008 film, The Dark Knight, of which I've written a couple papers on. One of the main themes of the film is the comparison between the Joker's philosophy of pure chaos and Batman's adherence to a philosophy of justice. One way the film conveys this comparison is by portraying the Joker's chaotic movements throughout a complex urban space and Batman's tightly and specifically ordered movements. Batman, with his gadgets, sonar, multinational connections represents the fantasy of navigating through the era of late capitalism as well as the postmodern urban space and the Joker represents the fantasy of escaping the logic of postmodernism, which Jameson argues is inescapable.

The Joker is seemingly without motive or origin. He provides contradicting stories of his own facial scars, which could be designed to intimidate or it could just be insanity. He is an unstable figure with shifting allegiances and his primary motive is not one of greed. He immolates an entire warehouse of money because as Alfred says, "some men just want to watch the world burn". This is opposite to capitalism's constant enjoinder of "make money, spend money". He is the fantasy of escape from the postmodern condition.

Batman on the other hand is the fantasy of mastering the postmodern. His superpower is a multinational corporation that only he is able to successfully grasp in its totality. The best example of this is the giant wall of computer screens that represent both the totality of the urban space as well as the totality of the multinational capitalism, if we remember Jameson's syllogism. His navigation of not just the urban space of Gotham but also of international borders and Shanghai. He controls the ground through military grade vehicles and controls the air in Shanghai through "skyhooking". Not only is Batman able to grasp the totality of the postmodern condition, he is able to master it. He totally commands the postmodern condition.

Instead of competing fantasies of the postmodern, we can turn to K-pop as a symptom of the postmodern. Specifically, we can take a look at Gangnam Style's success in Western media as an example of many of the constituent features of postmodernism.

Normally, at this juncture, one would provide a history of the video or even a context for the video, but this is not necessary in the slightest. The video's success on the Internet depends on a lack of context or explanation. The video, if you haven't seen it, is a stout Asian man rapping and dancing in South Korea, making reference to a style called Gangnam.

As John Seabrook writes in the New Yorker, "K-pop is largely video based—one of the things that’s interesting about the genre is how it has spread around the world largely without the help of radio—and a lot of this piece was reported on YouTube" (Seabrook). That is to say that it's entirely visually based, recalling Jameson's use of Debord. "K-pop is a blend not just of Western and traditional but of new and old" (Seabrook) which recalls the crisis of historicity and Straw's argument. K-pop is built on remediation as we've already touched on. As well, it's part of the late capitalism in its attempt to colonize the biggest market. Seabrook reports that "many artists censor themselves, in order to reach the broadest possible audience" (Seabrook) and there is a high degree of corporate synergy. He writes, "there is the constant presence of the idols on billboards and in display ads. Life-size cutouts of idols greet you at the entrances of the big department stores. On the streets and in the subways you see echoes of the idols’ faces." (Seabrook)

Gangnam Style succeeds in the Western media because of its depthlessness. The Western viewer has no idea of the context, the district referenced in the title, or the winking tone of the video. Rather, it's a comfortable Western-style pop song without affect or depth using old and new forms of pop. The video showcases all sorts of prominent locations in Seoul, but it is without meaning to the Western viewer. The parody of both K-pop and Western pop forms becomes a pastiche through the Western viewer. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, "when Jameson first advanced his thesis about postmodernism, there were still, in name at least, political alternatives to capitalism. What we are dealing with now, however, is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility" (Fisher 7). Gangnam Style is an excellent representation of this sterility that Fisher and Jameson diagnoses.

The major question is something many theorists are asking themselves. Is there any alternative to this? Reynolds speaks of avant-garde music of the 2000s that is using the same avant-garde methods of the previous 20 years. Hollywood is churning out sequel after sequel after remake after sequel to remake. The cultural sterility and exhausting of late capitalism is due to the very system itself so the question begs another: does genuine novelty arise from outside of the capitalist system and if so, is that even possible? If even K-pop, a relatively new period of pop, uses the same old trappings of pop music, is there any hope of something new coming along within the system?

Works Cited

Appleyard, Bryan. "A One-man Market." Intelligent Life Magazine. Nov/Dec 2011: n. page. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. .

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Writ. Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Film.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls.” The New Yorker 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

---. “Uncle Pervy’s K-pop Playlist.” The New Yorker Blogs 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Straw, Will. "Embedded Memories." In Charles Acland, editor. Residual Media . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 3-15.

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