Written in 1979 and still fully relevant today, Frederic Jameson’s ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’ centers around a fairly clear and engaging thesis: namely that the historic divisions established between high and popular culture have become essentially tired and irrelevant and should be eschewed in favor of a more productive discourse about how popular and modernist artworks function in contemporary society as broadly revised, utopian models, and how these works stand in complete contrast to the more academic, lofty artistic pursuits developed during previous time periods in both form and function. Relying heavily on the theories of the culture industry developed by members of the Frankfurt School, namely Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Jameson first seeks to establish a useful definition of art itself, separating works which, in the words of Kant, represent “finality without an end” from pieces which appeal generally to a mass audience, and are created intentionally as such.
Synthesizing copious amounts of Marxist rhetoric into his argument, Jameson focuses his attention primarily on the notion of how images function in the modern American society as essentially fetishized commodities which retain little practical or functional value, abstracted from both meaning and personal significance; it is apparent that he has little time for so-called ‘art’ which offers nothing meaningful or unique to its audience. Referring negatively to popular literary genres like the detective story or romance novel as simply providing an uninspiring “means to an end” for the lazy reader, Jameson postulates that most of what people read, watch, and listen to today are principally reproductions of established thematic and ideological material which has been recycled, reified, and effectively repackaged as what is termed ‘modern art.’
Of course, the author implicates capitalism at every turn throughout the essay as the explicitly guilty party, but what is refreshing and different about his analysis is that he does not find this to be overly surprising or even troubling. Also, he does not seem to dislike modern art as a whole; on the contrary, he simply desires to look at it differently. What Jameson believes, it seems, is that cultural theorists need to wake up and realize that modern society is in fact presenting us with important issues that go beyond the simple elitist tendency to nostalgically compare the present with the past. “No society,” Jameson states, “has ever been saturated with signs and messages like this one.” (22) In addition, he goes on to say that “mass culture and modernism have as much content…as the older social realisms.” (25) This is definitely a useful and interesting statement.
So, in a sense, this polemic is a veritable call to arms, attempting to rally support for a unified yet variegated analysis of mass culture as a whole. In the final section of his essay, Jameson talks much about artistic manipulation, and how films like Jaws and The Godfather are essentially alienated from their original source material, but somehow manage to provide an interesting political or social vision, one that is usually based on what he says is “an optical illusion of social harmony.” (26) This utopic cultural conception is something which the author identifies, I believe, as being inherently modern and indeed American, but which is not necessarily true; I would tend to think of it as a product of burgeoning technology within Western capitalist society as a whole.
But, in essence, this perspective is also how I see Jameson’s diatribe contributing to the widening scope of media theory in general. While I cannot necessarily compare his writing to that of critics within other fields, few theorists of film, a medium with which I do have some experience, have been so openly judgmental of the Hollywood studio system, at least prior to 1979. Jameson’s argument is unique in the sense that he is candidly seeking an understanding of modern art not only as a product of the capitalist production system, but as a intentionally figured product of an increasingly connected and impatient world, filled with consumers who desire the same sense of repeated satisfaction from their art as they do their scores of material possessions.