Postmodernism and postcolonialism

Frederick Jameson claims in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” that postmodernism applies not only to culture itself but also to discourse regarding it, marked by “a kind of writing simply called “theory” that cannot be categorized as part of one academic field.  He defines the term as a post-1960s style and era characterized by “erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture” (112) and a “new capitalism … swept and shaken by its own internal contradictions” (113). Throughout this movement, he says, are two major themes: the decline of original identity in favor of borrowing from the past, and meaning overload without reference to anything real.  Both result in a lack of solidified personal identity.  Forty years earlier, before postmodernism was heard or spoken of, Frantz Fanon expresses similar fragmented, ruptured subjectivity in “Black Skin, White Masks.”  Nevertheless, Fanon’s personal postcolonial experience is very different from the widespread experience of Western culture that Jameson describes, and therefore should not be classified as postmodernism or, for that matter, even a precursor to it.

One phenomenon whose widespread influence is unique to the postmodernism is pastiche, the necessary recycling of old material in the arts with a sense of nostalgia, disrupting the concept of any “unique personality and individuality” (114). There is a sense that originality is a fruitless endeavor because everything has been done before.  The experience of a unified consciousness closed off from other identities is lost if it ever existed, not just by artists, but also by everyone.  The “experience and the ideology of the unique self” that “informed the stylistic practices of classical modernism” is “over and done with” because the old notion of the bourgeois individual cannot keep up with new capitalism. In fact, poststructuralist writings before Fanon or Jameson, such as Lacan’s, describe “the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism” as something that from the start has been a social, ideological construct (115).

Both these constructions result from or in the loss of stable identity or of the illusion of it.  Artists, writers, musicians, and theorists must “speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museums” because they cannot speak through their own; they do not have their own faces and voices (115).  Fanon also must speak through the mask of and with the voice of others; he too lacks his own.  But this is hardly pastiche because the reason is different.  The title of Fanon’s piece refers to the fact that he, when saying “I,” refers to someone with black skin, but also speaks through a white mask in order to occupy the position that has infiltrated the word “I.”  There is always a side of him bound to the identity of the colonizer.

Fanon portrays the colonized as possessing a split consciousness, identifying both with the group to which they belong and with the group that dominates the culture’s ideology.  “Perhaps it could be argued,” as Jameson does, that the theory of split consciousness “is true for any individual,” Fanon concedes, “but such an argument would be concealing the basic problem” (90).  Perhaps there is no such thing as individual consciousness or whole identity, but this is besides Fanon’s point: black people in Trinidad have two systems of self-reference, their own and that imposed by the white man.  On the one hand, the white is the other from the blacks’ perspective.  On the other hand, remarks such as, “Look!  A negro!” constantly remind them of their own otherness.  Even if nobody can say “I” with full knowledge or ownership of the word’s meaning, there is a specific type of violence associated with the inability of the colonized to occupy this position.  The self may be an illusion that nobody actually achieves, but this shouldn’t disguise the reality that certain people are outright denied it (91).

Accompanying the postmodernist ideology of pastiche is that of “textuality,” or metaphorical schizophrenia — the perception of signifiers as more self-contained than referential, more sensory than representative of the real.  Because signification is so far removed from a referent, “we can no longer talk about the ‘real'” (118-119).  Jameson justifies his psychoanalytic jargon with the claim that the schizophrenic, like the postmodern person, “does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ over time” (119).

The colonized person, by Fanon’s account, is in a sense schizophrenic by Jameson’s definition: He has no true identity because he cannot attain the status of “I” on which the phenomenology of selfhood depends. The Lacanian notion of schizophrenia as failure to include oneself in language, though, arises and pans out differently in the descriptions of Jameson and Fanon. The isolation from meaning that a citizen of the postmodern West experiences in Jameson is not only is different from, but also excludes, that of the oppressed Other.

Schizophrenia, Jameson theorizes, is a general pop culture phenomenon that is perhaps necessitated by the death of the subject.  His essay does not suggest that the lack of identity it entails targets any particular group.  But the postcolonialist alienation from language, Fanon says, happens because language contains a violent exclusion of select members of a population.  Jameson, by not acknowledging this disparity in how fully someone can exist as a self or subject, participates in this violence.  He describes the postmodern human as “ ‘no one’ in the sense of having no personal identity” (120), but doesn’t mention that some are made out to be altogether “a new type of man, a new species” (Fanon 95).

Jameson describes the postmodern schizophrenic experience as a disorder of spatial and temporal self-conception, while Fanon’s fragmented consciousness is a social problem.  “Beneath the body schema” situating subjects in space and time, “I had created a historical-racial schema,” he writes.  “The data I used were provided not by ‘remnants of feelings and notions of the tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, or visual nature’ but by the Other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” (91).  Fanon is quoting Jean Lehrmitte’s description of a so-called normal development and establishment of the embodied self.  Like Jameson’s theories on identity, this quote resists essentialist notions of selfhood and asserts that the subject is socially constructed.  Still, it does not critique the inequity of this construction, or how it engrains racism into one’s very experience of consciousness.  Jameson talks about schizophrenia as a disorder of space and time, the body schema, but it is the historical-racial one that accounts for Fanon’s inability to enter into language.  He cannot be fully a subject because he has been made an object.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls the individual facing this type of epistemic violence “the subaltern,” who cannot speak as a subject because the language he/she would use to do so has already defined him/her as an object (Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 308).  It must be clarified that this socially defined Other cannot be confused with the Other from a particular person’s perspective, though as Fanon points out, the former certainly influences the latter.  There is no “isomorphic analogy between subject-formation,” which is Jameson’s focus, and “the behavior of social collectives” that Fanon discusses in relation to his unique struggles of subject (which becomes, for him, object) formation (Spivak 296).

Jameson makes the point in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” that we can’t hold onto the romanticized, essentialist ideology of an individual subject or self that precedes its social construction.  Fanon, though, is talking about a different kind of subjectivity: not the kind falsely thought to be felt by an individual, but rather the institutionally, linguistically instilled subjectivity falsely thought to be universal.  When the identity engraved in a language assumes a type of self, applicable only to certain members of a population, those left out experience epistemic violence.  Unable to speak, spoken about only from an outside perspective, they become Others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s