Capitalism and Identity in the 1980s
The 1980s, to many, represented a nostalgic time of excess and identity. The question of identity was a recurrent theme throughout the literature and literary theory of the 1980s. The belief that one was living in a wholly different era was particularly engaging to many, and is represented in the acknowledgement of a postmodern society. What postmodernism exactly constituted, however, was up for debate, leading to a great deal of speculation into what the postmodern implied about society and its relation to the individual. Capitalism’s role in the postmodern seems quite magnified, many authors and literary critics saw consumerist ideologies and callousness in the name of professional advancement as watermarks of a capitalist infiltration of the postmodern world. Rather than submit to this, however, many rejected these standards and sought to expose the subtleties of this through satire, metaphor and use of multiple thematic elements rejecting the principles many had heralded as normative. Therefore the question I pose is this: How did authors and literary critics reject the tenets of capitalism and consumerism in addressing the theme of identity in the 1980s?
1980s culture is often subject to the whims of collective ideological nostalgia, one draws a picture of what the eighties was based on a set of truisms about the decade. This perception is not necessarily one that is accurate, and a current idea of eighties identity would certainly differ from a contemporary one. Murray Siskind, in Don Delillo’s White Noise, echoes that idea in saying, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn” (Delillo 12). He continues, “We see only what the others see…we’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception” (Delillo 12). Murray’s statements speak to both our nostalgic ideals of the eighties, and the question of identity in the eighties, as both are created by external forces largely outside our control.
The question of identity at the time was an integral one, something that plagued a great deal of postmodern writers and thinkers. To address the question of identity, many turned to the socio-economic sphere, citing capitalist influence as fundamental in the creation of a postmodern identity. Frederic Jameson in his essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society describing postmodernism as “a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order” (Jameson 129). The very basis of postmodernism, for Jameson and others who shared his views, represented a fundamental difference from the past, both culturally and socially, through the impetus of extenuating economic factors. The importance of the perceived impacts of capitalism, such as: consumption, commodification and alienation, contributed to a literary fascination with those themes and their impact on identity in the eighties.
Perhaps the most outlandish and eccentric of these writers to understand the impact of capitalism on identity was Kathy Acker in Great Expectations and Empire of the Senseless. Both of these novels reject the facets of normative consumer identity and search for an alternative through several of Jameson’s indicators of postmodernity. The first, pastiche, is evident through Acker’s affectless utilization of plagiarism in both of her novels. The chapter entitled “Nightmare City” from Empire of the Senseless and the beginning lines of Great Expectations plagiarize Charles Dickens and William Gibson respectively. Jameson gives license to this in stating; “elusive plagiarism of older plots is, of course, also a feature of pastiche” (Jameson 134). This is integral to understanding the motivations behind the use of pastiche by Acker, who demonstrates Jameson’s “death of the subject” in her various implementations of plagiarism. Essentially, Acker’s utilization of plagiarism as pastiche serves to illustrate the loss of individualism, especially the loss of stylistic individualism. Jameson states, “When the stylistic practices of classical modernism, is over and done with, then it is no longer clear what artists and writers of the present period are supposed to be doing” (Jameson 132). Acker took this idea and twisted it to fit her own attitude towards identity, championing an alternative to both the stylistic individuality that epitomized modernism, as well as the normative collective values of a capitalist society.
The second ideal of Jameson’s postmodernism that heavily impacted the literary community’s rejection of both modernism and capitalism was called schizophrenia. Whereas pastiche was a spatial phenomenon, Jameson describes schizophrenia as “the break-down of the relationship between signifiers” and the schizophrenic “is not only ‘no one’ in the sense of having no personal identity; he or she also does nothing” (Jameson 137). Schizophrenia, therefore, represents a degradation of temporality, creating an ever-present world in which “The schizophrenic is thus given over to an undifferentiated vision of the world in the present” (Jameson 137). Both Acker and Jameson depict a world devoid of differentiation, one in which information is constantly being bombarded on the individual so as to overwhelm them entirely, much as the pace, content and discontinuity of both Empire of the Senseless and Great Expectations. As the narrator states in Empire of the Senseless, “Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified” (Acker 12). Acker is demonstrating the ability of literature to negate the trends of society through meaning, as Jameson states utilizing the theories of Lacan, and wholly separate from the signifier that meaning.
Acker’s utilization of the postmodern disintegration of the relationship between signifier and signified, word and meaning, is evident in another passage from Empire of the Senseless which states “They tore the subject away from her subjugation to her self, the proper; dislocated you the puppet; cut the threads of meaning; spit at all mirrors which control” (Acker 12). Here Acker is echoing the Jamesonian tenets of schizophrenic states of postmodernism in her attack on “that which homogenizes and reduces, represses and unifies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled” (Acker 12). Paul Auster makes the same argument in his story City of Glass, in which the relation between word and meaning is also challenged. Stillman questions, “What happens when a thing no longer performs its function?’ and continues later stating, “Because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella…The word, however, has remained the same” (Auster 93). This is a trend that is deeply troubling to both Auster and Acker, and each presents a world that is seriously concerned about the effect of such alienation on the question of identity.
Paul Auster’s City of Glass makes apparent the degradation of language and indicators of Jameson’s schizophrenia as well. Stillman likened them to the predicament following the fall of man in committing original sin. He wrote “Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God” (Auster 52). This is likely an assessment of the problems of postmodern culture in the eighties and another contributing factor to the ever-present question of identity. If names have become arbitrary in the postmodern world, no longer connected to meaning, then how can one evaluate the self and create identity? This is a question that plagued postmodern literature, with several possible solutions. The rejection of the principles that postmodernism created afforded the ability to create one’s own identity, a theme prevalent within Auster’s City of Glass. Continually, an exposition of the external forces that seemingly made individuality in identity impossible was another possibility, one championed by Acker in both Great Expectations and Empire of the Senseless. Auster also utilizes this formula, however, and demonstrates the impact of the external on identity, in the universal interchangeability of his characters, “the writer and detective are interchangeable” (Auster 9).
Another thematic element of postmodern literature that addresses the relationship between identity and capitalism, and summarily rejecting it, is the use of sexual exploitation. The image of capitalism as defiling of humanity is utilized by several authors through various sexual metaphors. Thivai, in Empire of the Senseless states, “Being a whore means you separate sex and feeling. Sex is an activity as meaningless as is money” (Acker 92). Acker makes the connection between sex and money, while also illustrating the effect that money has destroying human emotion. The narrator later states, “for most sexual activity now caused physical illness and death…The pangs of death drove him to abandon the cause of such pain, his sexuality. Being a romantic, Xovirax chose to remain faithful to his strongest orgasm or abandonment of identity” (Acker 64). Sexuality for Acker is the genesis of a great deal of pain and suffering within her novels, hence its associations with death. More intriguing, however, is the correlation that Acker makes between senseless sexuality and identity. The characters that are subjected to affectless sexual exploitation, usually at the hands of perverse misogyny, are alienated from the world and unique identity.
White Noise also addresses the theme of sexuality’s connection to the financial, with Babette saying of her affair, “I was remote. I was operating outside of myself. It was a capitalist transaction” (DeLillo 194). This reading, however, seems to slightly differ from Acker’s in that Babette perceives her actions as being external, ethereal even, with no connection to the self. Unlike Acker, however, this is not through the imagery of rape or prostitution. Instead, it is under the guise of adultery that this sexual commodification is created, creating a transaction akin to pseudo prostitution, in which sex is exchanged for goods and the humanity of it is stripped away.
The rejection of eighties materialism is evident throughout the literary works that embody the postmodern spirit. Acker’s Great Expectations is one such example with the narrator digressing “American culture allows only the material to be real (actually, only money, those who want to do art unless they transfer their art into non-art i.e. the making of commodities, can’t earn money and stay alive” (Acker 77). Acker is pointing out the faults that the postmodern world has created in humanity, whilst simultaneously seeking to undermine them in their exposure. Jay McInerney seems to be heralding a similar point in his novel Bright Lights, Big City in stating, “Objectively you know that Elaine is desirable, and you feel obligated to desire her…You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure” (McInerney 52). This is a clear augmentation of Acker’s ideals about the absurdity of the so-called “ordinary” life and a call for its rejection. These refutations of materialism and its overt correlation to capitalist doctrine, demonstrate the resolve with which many exuded in bringing them to light.
In DeLillo’s White Noise, shopping is utilized as a metaphor for the excesses prevalent in American society in the eighties and demonstrative of the interconnectivity of identity and commodity. Jack, early in the novel, decides to go out shopping with his family largely on a whim and in doing so feels “I was one of them, shopping, at last” and “I began to grow in value and self regard” (DeLillo 83). The senses of belonging and elation that are created in Jack as he is shopping seem to satirize the meaninglessness of identity in the postmodern world if it is solely based on materiality.
A common component found in the postmodern dialogue against the evils of capitalist infringement on identity formation is the utilization of corporation and brand names when naming objects. Instead of simply referring to an object, say a car generally, specificity and branding become the norm. This is likely an additional exposure of extent to which advertising and capital have permeated language and subsequently even our identities. DeLillo, in White Noise applies this theme liberally with the novel’s main character Jack Gladney watching his daughter sleeping intently only to hear her speak the words “Toyota Celica” (DeLillo 155). To Gladney, however, this is a revelation, “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform” (DeLillo 155). The impact of advertising in White Noise has gone beyond the social, pervading the privacy of home life, altering our conceptions of language and even found its way into our dreams. This is not a phenomena limited to DeLillo, however, Acker also uses this tactic in Empire of the Senseless, “Du Pont and Union Carbide, Goodyear and Uniroyal, Exxon and Kaiser” (Acker 35). The ubiquity of Corporate America was revolting to Acker and DeLillo though certainly contributory towards the postmodern aesthetic of its rejection. As Acker emphasizes, “Capitalism needs new territory or fresh blood”, indicative of the violent imagery associated with the capitalist mechanisms that forced identity on the population (Acker 33).
The external influence on identity also seems to play a major role in the postmodern assessment and oftentimes rejection of capitalist normality. Abhor, in Empire of the Senseless, is a character that embodies this sentiment entirely. She states, “the I who was acting was theirs, separate from the I who knew and whom I had known” (Acker 33). Abhor echoes this later in saying, “You’re what I make you” (Acker 42). This represents the power that external influences that finance, government, culture and society all wield over the individual making it a virtual impossibility for Auster’s vision of self-created identity.
Lewis Lapham in his book Money and Class in America wrote, “Whether lawyer, politician or executive, the American who knows what’s good for his career seeks an institutional rather than an individual identity. He becomes the man from NBC or IBM” (Lapham 163). Lapham is bolstering the ideologies within postmodern literature previously discussed. It became a necessity, not even a decision, in the postmodern world to adhere to external signifiers in order to survive. The advent of larger conglomerates and corporate structures all are indicators of a loss of control over identity. What Auster, Acker and the others were attempting to do, therefore, was create an understanding of that control and bring about its eventual destruction. This is also evident in White Noise in which the role of the individual in the relation to the whole is discussed as Gladney reflects, “To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd” (DeLillo 73). What DeLillo seems to be saying is that it is inherently easier to allow you identity to be influenced by countless external forces, however, is such a meaningless life really worth living?
DeLillo, Acker, Auster and Jameson would all agree, that the forces surrounding us impact our identities significantly. The role that capitalism plays in that identity creation is significant, one of several looming “airborne toxic events” with the power to shape society and identity as they see fit. Instead of accepting that, however, postmodern critics and writers, instead offer alternatives to a plasticine existence. Auster’s ideal of a self-created identity is juxtaposed with the interchangeability of population. DeLillo presents a world of branding and commercial immersion whilst mocking the absurdity of consumerism. Acker flaunts authority with a visceral raptness of text still exposing the seedy underbelly of proliferated capitalism. Each of these authors operates under some of the basic tenets of Jamesonian postmodernism while simultaneously rejecting the normalities of the postmodern world. The postmodern aesthetic, as presented in the aforementioned literature and criticism, presents a bleak picture of the world in the eighties. Each, however, yearns for a sliver of hope to escape the control, as the final lines of Acker’s Empire of the Senseless subsume, “And then I thought that, one day, maybe, there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Acker 227).