Postmodernism and Its Discontents

E. Ann Kaplan

These ten theoretical and critical essays focus on postmodernism as a cultural concept and practice. Published by the monograph division of The New Left Review, they "have in mind an audience sympathetic to Marxism as a practice and a theory," often resulting in a call for alternative and liberating cultural practices written in conventional and demanding academic prose. This is not the volume with which to begin exploring the meaning of postmodernism, but it does contain valuable and challenging pieces to extend one's understanding both of postmodernism itself and of the discourse surrounding the concept.

Kaplan has organized the book in two parts, "The Postmodern Debate," with six essays devoted to postmodernist theory sometimes linked to works of art, and "Postmodernism, Feminism and Popular Cultural Theory," with four essays in criticism expressing the postmodernist spirit, admittedly "in some cases indirectly." Kaplan's nine-page introduction presents the key issues relating to postmodernism and refers to the major theoreticians whose works have shaped the concepts and vocabulary of cultural discussion for the past quarter century. The issues include utopian versus commercial postmodernism, modernism versus postmodernism, postmodern high culture versus popular culture and the problem of getting beyond dualistic "binarism" in social relations without losing the power of dialectic criticism in social analysis. The theoreticians include Kristeva, Foucault, Baudrillard, Bakhtin, Derrida, Habermas, and others whose names have become as common in communication journals as the gospel writers on Sunday morning television.

Fredric Jameson's 1983 "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" leads off the collection "for obvious reasons," as Kaplan says, since it "has to a large degree shaped the terms of the debates about postmodernism in America." Jameson explains the term as a "periodizing" concept correlating cultural developments with the social and economic order of "late capitalism." He does this in straightforward prose referring to the work of poets, painters, and filmmakers, rather than in convoluted prose referring primarily to writings of other theorists, and explores at length the alienating and socially divisive architecture of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Whether one agrees with all of his assessments or not, one can recognize the profound relationship of his theory to his analysis.

E. Ann Kaplan's "Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism: The Case of MTV" follows Jameson and it presents a sharp contrast in style. She cites and reviews a number of theoretical issues in several dense pages, posing the question "How does postmodernism as a theory and as deployed in popular culture affect feminist theory and aesthetic practice?" In MTV, she finds a format that thoroughly expresses co-opted commercial postmodernism but which has within it "individual texts that in their four-minute airplay do offer subversive subject positions." However, when Kaplan describes these "alternative texts" as "theoretically important even if such positions are normally swept up in the plethora of more oppressive ones," "theory" comes close to representing what first-year communication students misunderstand it to mean--constructs unrelated to experience as people live it. Yet her concluding pages on "the different kinds of cultural work that feminists need to be doing" show her acute awareness of the need for new feminist forms in practice.

Since most of the essays are written by academics, most of them are written in academic style. Dana Polan's "Postmodernism and Cultural Analysis Today" confesses that "one is constrained in advance to refer to certain figures, certain key texts," and that "at worst, postmodernist discourse frequently functions to allow entrenched academics a new way of doing the same old work...to insist again on the rich difficulty of difficult art." And then he does it too. Fred Pfeil, in "Potholders and Subincisions: On The Businessman, Fiskadoro, and Postmodern Paradise," concludes his analysis of two postmodern novels by noting that "we will be condemned to recycle our fascination/revulsion in essay after essay, conference after conference, anthology after anthology" unless we can achieve a historical and materialist understanding of the social origins of postmodernism. But how much does his essay contribute to such an understanding?

Mike Davis, in "Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism," expands on Jameson's earlier essay and analyzes the development of downtown Los Angeles as a design to split the rich and the poor, signalling "the end of urban reform." The final essay in Part I, Warren Montag's "What is at Stake in the Debate on Postmodernism?," studies the debate on postmodernism from a classical Marxist perspective and sees the discourse of postmodernism as a dangerous implicit attack on historical materialism. Its views of the end of narrative displace Marxist theories of change and struggle. Both Davis and Montag present their challenging ideas from a classical Marxist perspective and their creative use of theory illuminates political aspects of postmodernism whether one is Marxist in orientation or not.

The four essays in Part II discuss cultural theory and media practices without specific reference to postmodernism. Linda Williams, in "A Jury of their Peers: Marlene Gorris' A Question of Silence," analyzes a Dutch feminist feature film in terms of its presentation of the world of women, so long hidden from men's personal and mediated experiences by their own arrogance and dominance of cultural forms. In a long essay, "Mikhail Bakhtin and Left Cultural Critique," Robert Stam reviews and discusses Bakhtin's theories in terms of their utility to leftist critics. In some sections of the essay, he offers numerous examples of Bakhtin's terms in practice. Stam embraces Bakhtin's approaches because they are inclusive, multivalent, and "preclude neither laughter nor the pleasure principle," approaches which have been problematic in the past for many doctrinaire leftist critics.

William Galperin, in "Sliding Off the Stereotype: Gender Difference in the Future of Television," examines changes in the sexual stereotyping of televised sports and soaps. He finds that as women move into what was exclusively men's work and industrial men become more marginalized, and as more women watch sports on TV and more men comprise the audiences for soaps, the gender specificity of each genre is shifting. Finally, David James, in "Poetry/Punk/Production: Some Recent Writings in LA," examines the punk music and poetry of Los Angeles as "what may well be the only aesthetic negation possible in the contemporary west." In a time when any oppositional art is quickly adapted to a commercial style, he sees value in the transitory and marginal character of art "that is virtually unobtainable, that hardly even exists." Others may see it as merely marginal.

This is not an easy book to read, primarily because of the prose style the writers choose to employ, but the essays are all provocative. Several present quite valuable insights and, if one wishes to engage contemporary cultural issues, this volume gives one an excellent opportunity to do it. None of the writers is Canadian, nor are any of the topics. Los Angeles is both the material and symbolic focus of the postmodernist America under discussion. What starts in Los Angeles, however, finds its way to Vancouver, Toronto, and to all the cities of the industrialized world. The issues posed by American postmodernism will remain important to Canadian communication scholars in the decades ahead.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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