In 1984, it was “morning again in America.” More “men and women [went] to work than ever before in [the] country’s history”; “interest rates [stood at] half the record high of 1980”; there were droves of new home buyers and with inflation “at less than half of what it [had been] four years [prior,]” young families were finally able to look forward upon their future “with confidence.” Yes, “under the leadership of President Reagan our country [was] prouder, and stronger, and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” a ruggedly husky voiced narrator inquires as shots of children, a firefighter, and an elderly white man raising flags seamlessly fade into one another. This specious description of America in the mid-1980s comes from Ronald Reagan’s famed 1984 “Morning in America” advertising campaign which sought to assure the voting public that his particular brand of neoconservativism had been the necessary catalyst to wrench the country out of the chaos of the previous decade, promising Americans that they could finally put the past behind them. Surely the polity found something within this rhetoric enchanting, as Reagan’s November trouncing of Democratic candidate Walter Mondale certainly illustrates.
In August, while accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Reagan invoked his vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill,” a phrase with origins in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon A Modell of Christian Charity which he delivered upon the Arbella during its crossing to America from England. Reagan had employed the quote in a speech a decade prior in 1974 at the first Conservative Political Action Conference (few likely remembered that John F. Kennedy had also used it in 1961), however, the 1984 version contains a crucial addition: the adjective “shining.” Not found in the prior iterations of this phrase, Reagan, an actor turned politician, rewrites the American narrative from the jump, imagining the initial colonization itself as filmic adaptation of history, casting America’s divine manifest destiny as a teleology both leading up to and beginning with the imaginary of big budget Hollywood motion picture. With this rhetorical gesture, Reagan wipes clean the slate of American history and polishes it until it possesses a sterile shimmer wherein the only legible text remaining is our own reflection. With this new morning in America, he seeks to blur all of the preceding night of history into a warm, soft focus gauze, a montage of selected reenactments. Who could possibly remember the exact words spoken 354 years ago if we didn’t even want to remember further than the last the four?
In this same month of August 1984, Fredric Jameson publishes his article “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in the New Left Review. In the opening line of the piece, Jameson states:
The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism, in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the "crisis" of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.): taken together all of these perhaps constitute what is increasingly called postmodernism (53).
The freshly “shining” architecture of Reagan’s American city serves as a premiere example of this logic: a compact within which the public can opt out of the burdensome failures of the past. Jameson claims that “it was indeed from architectural debates that [his] own conception of postmodernism” stemmed, through the creation of an “aesthetic populism” by which the veneer of capital remakes the landscape in its own surface image, naturalizing the historical processes of consumption and production into a stable and eternal now — an America that isn’t merely shining in the present tense but has always been shining in the perpetually renewing present progressive. This aesthetic populism serves as a site to mark the exchange of the earlier form of political populism, the period of the 1890s through 1930s wherein the American working class demanded radical social change, economic redistribution, and an end to plutocracy and monopoly for the new form of Republican populism, one birthed out of the Nixon years but not fully articulated as a cogent and systematic set of governing policies until Reagan.
Built not on redistribution of capital but on the stabilization of growth rates in the top income brackets, this solidification of the financial sector as a distinct and tangible sphere operating within the confines of these same postmodern architectural spaces forged the green screen in front of which Reagan’s economic policies could appear coherent. But much like Reagan’s image of the welfare queen in the Cadillac, some slight investigative prodding illuminates the illusion’s performativity even if doesn’t do much in the way of breaking its captivating spell.
The pastoral mis-remembrance of 1950s America comes at a high cost to both the laboring poor within the United States and elsewhere in the Global South as the state reaches both inward and outward in order to procure the cheap labor and raw materials necessary to grow profits at this speed. As Jameson claims, “this global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense…the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror” (57). While American economists continued to espouse the thingification of the market, and the purely rational monetary interests of behavior, the flipside of American exceptionalism, like all state building projects, must utilize violence and the threat thereof to reinforce itself. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman discussing the “Reaganite free-for-all” says:
...the years of deregulation and dismantling of the welfare provisions were also the years of rising criminality, of a growing police force and prison population… years in which an ever more gory and spectacularly cruel lot needed to be reserved for those declared criminal” in order to maintain a sense of order amidst the chaos so as to attempt to relieve the unease of the precarious economic situation of the consumer (42).
Postmodernism for Jameson exists as the cultural and aesthetic parallel of the newly reproducing field of financialization and the strategies of authority which come to socially constitute the lived existence of the Western subject.
It would seem to follow then that this particular stage in the development of capital stakes out distinctly new modes of understanding in which the subject can relate to the technocratic state. Jameson lays out the notion that “the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects, not only the absence of any great collective project, but also the unavailability of the older national language itself” (65). I would contend that a portion of this erased national language “of a society bereft of its historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles”, which in its absence “[leaves] us nothing but texts,” reflects the displacement of the common economic referent — gold (66). As currency’s own field of relation shifted from the physically fiscal referent to the detached signifier of free floating exchange rates, so too did the cultural endeavors which found themselves immersed in, responding to, and financed by this newly remodeled space of economic speech.
If, following Walter Benn Michaels, the gold standard operates as the market logic of realism and naturalism, then the new fiat dollar of international trade established in 1971 would seem the underlying force of Jameson’s logic of late capitalism, an analogy which one can then read onto his comparative analysis of Van Gogh’s Peasant Shoes and Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes. The intervening years of modernism as outlined by Jameson could similarly fit this mold, with this historical period acting as a kind of intermediary, the working through of the ruptures of an international market moving from bullion to fiat currency mimetically reflecting the dissonance of a moment entrenched fully in neither. This relation too would emphasize why Jameson can find examples of the majority of the aesthetic tropes and styles that come to define postmodernism within the modernist tradition even though they do not yet operate as the pastiche of an ungrounded economic condition.
When we then return to this concept of “aesthetic populism” and compare it to the political populism of the realist era, it seems worth noting that the 1890s American populists demanded a shift from the gold standard to the silver standard as one of its primary political platforms; thus, a desire to remake the referent of economic language into one centered upon the working class, one in which they could more fully participate as an increase in inflation and circulation would have allowed them a greater spending power to trade and more leverage to manipulate the rules and structures within the exchange of economic signs. With the failure of this collective intervention, however, nearly a century later, it is instead Jameson’s “faceless masters” which reset the primary referent and in so doing “continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences” (65). The rise of finance capital and the loss of the national economic language inseparable from the condition of postmodernity leaves a communicative economic practice that continually fewer can participate since the diffuse language of finance capital and the rules and codifications of its exchange possibilities continue to shift, far too disparate and pluralistic for most consumers to even speak nevertheless pin down stable meaning. Within this historical timeline, free floating fiat money is the urtext of postmodernity for it can only ever refer to itself.
Following this conception, I would like to briefly consider the avenues of resistance to this dominant system of financialization Jameson’s work inadvertently opens up. Observing then that as the economy becomes the realm of a totalizing rationalistic discursive tool of the technocratic state, even as the ebb and flow of capital drifts increasingly into the ethereal, we must address that this consequently produces a greater capacity for violence, both economic and physical. The tolls postmodernity collects from the bodily increases relationally to its growth. As Thomas Piketty has recently addressed, this movement inclines towards continually broader inequality, restricting fewer to participate within the textual play of the postmodern economic language of currency, and instead forcing more into the discursive space of debt. While Jameson claims that the only realism left “is a ‘realism’ which is meant to derive from the shock of grasping [our] confinement, and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach,” I believe that its precisely within the shared situation of debt in which that lost “national language” finds itself rewritten and recirculated.
In fact, this economic language never disappeared, always existing within those communities marked as fugitive by capital and state authority. Those who experience “the blood, torture, death and horror” of hierarchical authority remain can’t possibly consume the “pop images and simulacra” of the historical, because the poor and disenfranchised possessed the inescapable reminder of the real — a policed body susceptible at any moment to state violence. As D. Watkins has suggested, many are “too poor for pop culture,” certainly not a new phenomenon, and herein lies the biggest rift within Jameson. As he imagines that this logic of spectacle and the purely textual has come to dominate the cultural landscape, he seems to mirror the claims of Reagan even as he attempts to dissect the power he feels these images have on culture. Both figures essentially describe an America which lacks any sort of connection to history and in so doing Jameson’s work feels susceptible to the same whitewashing and oversight. From 1630 onward, the city on the hill may have always been shining from a distance but those who did the washing and waxing saw the grime up close every day, and “morning” in America came daily with the letter “u” tucked snugly within it.
As Jameson notes almost two decades after August 1984, the “dialectical success” of bin Laden’s attack upon the specter of American financialization came from the United States’ reaction “to motivate and generate an immense remilitarization of the state and its surveillance capabilities all over the world, and to unleash new and deadly interventions abroad” (304). He finds no possibility for synthesis or collective resistance that could possibly combat “the true immensity of…financial power in private hands, which allows individuals to become something like a state within a state, and endows them with a margin of political and even military autonomy” (302). However, I find that it is within this space of surveillance and privatized states within states that the most intriguing path of resistance formulates. If the logic of capital no longer just reflects the image, but captures it at all times and plays it back to us so as to inscribe the never ending potential criminality of subjecthood, the necessity to engage in the national language of fugitivity grows and with it comes the potential for the recapitulation of collective identification Jameson found relegated to the irrecoverable “radical past” (70). For many though, it was precisely this very past that was always impossible to forget.
Clint Williamson is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. His work considers the circulation of currencies and radicalisms during the long 19th Century.