In what ways can contemporary society be characterised as ‘postmodern’? In your answer draw on at least two of the theorists that we covered in the course.
Here just Fredric Jameson
According to Jean Baudrillard, what has happen in postmodern culture, is that society has become so heavily reliant on representations of the real that the distinction between the copy and the real has seized to exist.
In the beginning of his book Simulations (Baudrillard, 1983) he compares the world today – or 35 years ago – to the Borges tale, in which a king is so obsessed with mapping his beautiful country, in such a way, that its beauty is shown in full. He then ends up with a map covering the country 1:1, and thereby literally covering the country, hence the country actually becomes the copy and the copy the real, ultimately destroying the greatness of the empire. Though this might seem extreme, Baudrillard argues that we have moved even further from this form of simulation and that the border between the image and the real has completely vanished and collapsed into the universal simulacrum. There is therefore no longer a way to distinct between the representation of the real and of the real itself. Baudrillard makes a distinction between simulation and representation. He argues that where “representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum” (Baudrillard, 1983:11).
In order for us to understand this he provides us four stages – or phases – that representational image-sign goes through, in its destruction of reality, which he calls as the “successive phases of the image” (Baudrillard, 1983:11).
In the first phase, the representation is reflecting the basic reality. Here he categorizes the appearance as good. Here it is clear there is a clear distinction between the image, as something false, as a representation of the real and the actual real. If we take the example of the Borges tale, this is what the king wanted to achieve. He wanted there to be a representation, here a map, of his empire. As it is usually with maps – if we do not take Google Earth, and so on, into account, as this does not always reveal itself as being a representation of the real – it is easy to detect what is real and what is not, because they are representations of the world, usually in a scale that makes it easy to get an overview and drawn in such a way that you can use to navigate, with different geological measures and categories, often in color-codes, which is not actually found in the landscape.
In the second phase, the representation hides the real by twisting and perverting it. Here the appearance is evil, distorting the real. This is where the distinction between the real and the representation begins to faint, as the image is now becoming less and less a true representation of the real.
The most important change, however, occurs in the third phase, in which the representation is no longer twisting and perverting reality, but rather it “plays at being an appearance” (Baudrillard, 1983:12) and thereby masks the absence of the real. This is where we get reality TV shows, like Made in Chelsea and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Here the line between the reality and the representation becomes very hard to see, as the audience is unable to see what is produced and what is authentic. It is, however, not a hyper reality, since we still do get some representation of something real, albeit the audience may not now which is what and therefore accept the representation as actually real.
Finally, in the fourth phase, we are in the hyper real, where there is no longer any relation between the representation and the real – “it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard, 1983:11).
“When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity.” (Baudrillard, 1983:12)
This is where we get slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’, where we start to believe in a reality that is constructed and, in particular, a past that is constructed and never was. We get representations in the media – and on social media – of a real that does not exist, or that might exist only through the representation. Not only with things like virtual reality or the news not covering particular aspects, but with things like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. Here you might question if the copy exists because of the real or if the real exists because of the copy, and it becomes impossible to see what is what – and if the real ever existed in the first place. “Therefore illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Bauldrillard, 1983:38)
For Jameson, postmodernity marks the moment – a new moment, or epoch, in capitalism – when boundaries between the cultural and economic dissolve. He places this moment in the late 20th century, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, in the era of late capitalism (Butler, 2003). Here the concerns about the future are replaced with “a sense of the end of this and that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.)” (Jameson 1984, p. 53)
The Three Epochs of Capitalism
First we had the national moment, which was what Marx was writing about in Das Kapital, in the 19th century.
With imperialism, we then had the second epoch of capitalism, which Jameson defines as a moment of expansion. This is what Lenin wrote about in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and marked the beginning of an imperial capitalism – the conquest of colonies.
In postmodernity we are in the third stage of capitalism, that is, the postmodern capitalism, which is marked by the new technology, cyberspace, decolonisation – and a very different kind of economic domination than that of the earlier capitalist periods – finance capital.
Postmodernity, is therefore the cultural logic of late capitalism, in which economies become a matter of culture – and culture becomes a matter of economies, and sites of production becomes – as opposed to in modernity – sites of consumption. The latter is clearly visible in contemporary society, in which we see the ever-growing sports industry, which according to Forbes was $17.7 billion in 2014 in the United States of America in 2014 and was, in 2015, projected to grow to an astonishing $20.1 billion in 2019 (Heitner, 2015). Something that once was a minor part of the American economy and was mainly for leisure or entertainment, now features in the top of the American economy.