Postmodernism as the Superstructure of Late Capitalism

I recently received a copy of A Dictionary of Postmodernism. The first entry I read was on Frederic Jameson. This is pretty un-postmodern of me, but I felt that its tone was inappropriate for a dictionary entry. Admittedly, in the introduction, the author explains that because of postmodernism’s now-canonical tendency to resist definition, each entry takes the form of an essay. Still, I wanted to learn about Frederic Jameson and his contributions more than be convinced by the author (Niall Lucy) that said contributions are unfounded.

The thrust of Jameson’s thought is summed up in the first sentence: “Because we are alienated, we are postmodern; and we are alienated because we are subjects under capitalism.” This is elaborated in the next few paragraphs. Jameson considers postmodernism to be the “superstructure” to the “base” of late capitalism (1945-present), whereas modernism was the superstructure of middle capitalism (1850-1945) and realism was the superstructure of early capitalism (1700-1850 in Europe).


For Jameson, the defining characteristic of modern culture is expressivity and the defining characteristic of postmodern culture is depthlessness.

Lucy takes issue with the idea that “culture, whether modern or postmodern” can be “understood merely as the reflection of an economic base (or some other essence or foundation).” The thrust of his argument is:

  • If culture is merely the superstructure of an economic base, then “cultural objects must be seen as representational.” In other words, all modern works should be expressive and all postmodern works should be depthless.
  • This is not the case, because Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (which is nothing more than a mass-produced urinal given the name Fountain) was produced during middle capitalism, yet exhibits postmodern qualities.

Seriously. That’s Lucy’s argument. He does not allow for the possibility that maybe Duchamp was just ahead of his time. Lucy sees no room for outliers. In his view, if even a single work of art produced during middle capitalism can be interpreted as depthless, then Jameson’s assertion that postmodernism is the superstructure of late capitalism must be false.

I am not convinced. Lucy fails to consider that perhaps modernism defined mainstream culture during middle capitalism, a nuance that allows for countercultural or subcultural deviation by individuals. Many consider Nietzsche and William James to have been “postmodern.” Their existence does not serve as proof that postmodernism is not the superstructure of late capitalism. The hesitation to define these early thinkers as postmodern arises from their very earliness.

Here it is important to distinguish between two levels of analysis: the ideological and the historical. Considered ideologically, postmodernism is not limited to a specific historical period. In this sense, the Sophists of Ancient Greece may be considered postmodern. Considered historically, it makes sense to think of “post-modernism” as the superstructure of late capitalism. There may or may not be good reasons to reject this view, but if there are, they were not presented by Lucy in his essay on Frederic Jameson.


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