Blog post

The becoming cultural of the economic, and vice versa

Revisiting Fredric Jameson's The Cultural Turn, Xudong Zhang reminds us that, for Jameson, the cultural turn was always also economic. Zhang describes postmodernism's mutually constitutive process of globalizing and totalizing both the cultural and the economic for our Jameson at 90 series.

Xudong Zhang18 June 2024

The becoming cultural of the economic, and vice versa

Considered by Perry Anderson to be “the most compact and complete resumé of the development of his thinking on the subject “of postmodernism” and “the best scroll of Jameson's work on the postmodern to date,” The Cultural Turn proves to be a useful “introduction and overview” (Anderson) which present the full scope and complexity of the postmodern problematic with amazing theoretical clarity and narrative coherence.

More than a quarter century after its initial publication, the book may now offer an even more succinct and compelling understanding of a comprehensive paradigm, which now, for the first time since its emergence, can be seen as if in a rearview mirror. To grasp the “turn” of the postmodern in “cultural” terms and as a cultural phenomenon, one would do well to remember the Jamesonian stipulation that it means “the becoming cultural of the economic, and the becoming economic of the cultural.” Written in the same year, but in the context of “postmodernism and globalization,” this observation stands as an overview of the overview, a summary of the summary. It also, more importantly, highlights the intertwinement of the cultural and the economic, thus explicating the two categories by simultaneously connecting and separating them as semi-autonomous, something to be mediated by one single totalizing thought process.

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Indeed, the critical-cognitive operation of The Cultural Turn produces its own methodology while cutting deeply and strategically into its object of analysis, that is, into what used to be called “reality” now turned into an all-encompassing “cultural” landscape. To name this new landscape as a global space with numbed sense of time, the book surveys and inspects various theaters of engagement as if to come up with holistic and integrated view of war situation, and, along the way, constructs concepts, discourses and names ranging from consumer society to finance capital. What sustains and animates this historical and theoretical space of experience and phenomena, then, is an incessant dialectical movement cutting back and forth between the cultural and the economic but in a highly incisive way: rather than following the older, conventional base-superstructure model (or, for that matter, that of the analysis of classes), the book shows us the actual totalization of the capitalist economic activities in technological, informational and spatial terms on truly global scale and under the rubric of finance capital; hence culture—hitherto semi-insulated by national, regional or local hegemony or monopoly—has come to be dissolved and reshaped on a truly global scale as a form daily life.

The becoming global and total of the economic thus naturally ensures the becoming global and total of the cultural, and vice versa, in the process of which what is total or totalizing serves as the “vanishing mediation,” which pulls the economic and the cultural into one, singular idea of totality, as radical objectivity and radical subjectivity in one. In this totalizing process of cognitive mapping, even things like finance capital, which seems to belong to the “infrastructure” section of the capitalist mode of production, also stand as mere symbols, signs, simulacra, narratives and even “ways of life”, in short, as but one allegory within a totalizing structure of allegories, exchanges, transitions and forms of alienation. Perhaps it is for this reason that Jameson chose to use “cultural” to characterize the “turn”, which is in every sense also economic in nature. But the benefits or usefulness of focusing on the cultural is obvious, as it allows us to capture the evolving and fragmenting experiences of capitalism in its inexhaustible images, stories and representations. If poesis is for ancients a “more philosophical” mode of comprehending life than history (Aristotle); and for moderns a more useful way of “organizing chaos” (Nietzsche), then the becoming literature (and literary criticism) of reading and representing capital (Marx) might be a proper way to prepare us for the ongoing transformation of the postmodern world into the unknown.

See all works by Fredric Jameson here. His new book, Inventions of a Present: The Novel in its Crisis of Globalization is out on May 7.

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The Cultural Turn
Fredric Jameson, a leading voice on the subject of postmodernism, assembles his most powerful writings on the culture of late capitalism in this essential volume. Classic insights on pastiche, nost...
In his most wide-ranging and accessible work, Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is the cultural response to the latest systemic change in world capitalism. He seeks here to crystallize a de...
Inventions of a Present
A novel is an act, an intervention, which, most often, the naïve reader takes as a representation. The novel intervenes to modify or correct our conventional notions of a situation and, in the best...
Late Marxism
In the name of an assault on “totalization” and “identity,” a number of contemporary theorists have been busily washing Marxism’s dialectical and utopian projects down the plug-hole of postmodernis...

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