In 1983, Frederic Jameson published an essay titled “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society.” Following extensive revision, the essay appeared a year later in the New Left Review under the title “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Capitalism.” Since its publication in that British journal, the essay has become not just Jameson’s signature contribution to philosophy, but one of the essential texts of postmodernist thought. In 1991, Jameson expanded his original text yet again to be included in a book sharing the title of the 1984 essay.
Because Jameson is one of America’s most forthright and outspoken Marxists, it should come as no surprise that Jameson’s construction of the titular logic guiding capitalism of what others (but notably not Jameson himself) refer to as the post-Industrial Era at the 20th century drew to close is one firmly grounded in the Marxian thesis that economics influences culture and taste in ways that may be unexpected and even difficult to determine while in flux, but which are starkly revealed with time.
Jameson differs substantially from fellow philosopher (such as Lyotard) in viewing the postmodern era as a separate epoch in the evolution of capitalism. The standard concept is that postmodernity is a reaction to definite break the Industrial Age which is commonly referred to as post-industrial economics. For Jameson, the line is much blurrier and the post-industrial age is really more akin to globalization of the industrial era than a philosophically separate entity.
The essay, however, does outline three very distinct cultural epochs which are related to the then-contemporary state of economics: The Ages of Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. The cultural logic of Realism is best expressed by the historical novel which had attempted and was thought to have achieved a factually accurate representation of the past for modern audience. Modernism was an age in which the certainly of historicity began to crumble and in its wake rose a cultural anomie defined by isolation, alienation and neurotic search for identity. Interestingly, rather that linking directly from historical novel to the Modernist literature as the defining cultural icon for this period, Jameson engages one of its most famous, but terrifying works of fine art: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
Which brings into focus the cultural logic of this late globalized stage of capitalism. Jameson refers back to the historical novelty to inform readers in a striking manner of the difference between Postmodernism and Realism. Within the cultural response to the fracturing and scattering of economic certainties of the past, the best any historical novel can hope to accomplish today is representing “ideas and stereotypes” of the past rather than a factually accurate representation of an objective understanding of the past.