Capital, Class & Technology in Contemporary American Culture

Capital, Class & Technology in Contemporary American Culture: Projecting Post-Fordism

Nick Heffernan
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Pluto Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Capital, Class & Technology in Contemporary American Culture
    Book Description:

    In the tradition of Mike Davis and Fredric Jameson, Nick Heffernan engages in a series of meditations on capital, class and technology in contemporary America. He turns to the stories we generate and tell ourselves – via fiction, film journalism, theory – to see how change is registered. By investigating a variety of texts, he observes how structural change affects the way people organise their lives economically, socially and culturally. Case studies include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, William Gibson’s cyberspace trilogy, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World. Using the links between narrative cultural forms and the process of historical understanding, he brings together debates that have so far been conducted largely within the separate domains of political economy, social theory and cultural criticism to provide a compelling analysis of contemporary cultural change. By relocating postmodernism in the context of changing modes of capitalism, Heffernan puts the question of class and class agency back at the centre of the critical agenda.

    eISBN: 978-1-84964-518-8
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. iii-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-v)
  3. Introduction (pp. 1-10)

    My purpose in this book is to explore the ways in which the stories we generate and tell ourselves, through literary fiction, film, journalism and social and cultural theory, register and represent change. The kind of change I’m particularly interested in might best be called structural – historic transformations of the ways our lives are organised and shaped economically, socially and culturally. It is my view that for the last twenty years or so the question of structural change has been asked most persistently, embracingly and, at times, confusingly through the terms postmodernism and postmodernity. Broadly speaking, I understand postmodernism...

  4. Part 1 Late Capitalism, Fordism, Post-Fordism
    • 1 Postmodernism and Late Capitalism (pp. 13-28)

      The usefulness of the terms postmodernism and postmodernity as descriptions of cultural change consists in their remarkably broad range of reference. Applied to cultural and aesthetic styles, to philosophical and political positions, as well as to modes of social and economic organisation, these terms both suggest and demand that change in any one of these areas be understood in relation to the others. Among theorists of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson has been the most insistent on the necessity of taking such a holistic or totalising view of the question. For Jameson postmodernism is much more than ‘a purely cultural affair’; the...

    • 2 Class and Consensus, Ideology and Technology (pp. 29-36)

      If we return to Gramsci’s original notion of Fordism as an expression of the ‘necessity to achieve the organisation of a planned economy’ and to surpass ‘the old economic individualism’ in so doing, then we can see that its roots lie in the shift from freely competitive orlaissez-fairecapitalism to monopoly or corporate capitalism, a shift which is commonly identified with the Progressive era in American history. Martin Sklar has described this shift as follows:

      The movement for corporate capitalism reconstructed American society during the years 1890–1916. In effecting a reorganisation of property ownership and the market, and...

  5. Part 2 Putting ‘IT’ to Work:: Post-Fordism, Information Technology and the Eclipse of Production
    • 3 Making ‘IT’: The Soul of a New Machine (pp. 39-71)

      The microelectronics industry and its principal instrument and symbol, the computer, have come to occupy a privileged position in the culture and imagination of contemporary capitalism. We might find one explanation for this in Ernest Mandel’s account of how the post-1945 long wave of accelerating accumulation was grounded in a third technological revolution whose core innovations issued in, firstly, the widespread introduction of numerically controlled (that is, computerised) continuous process production methods in industry and, secondly, the application of electronic data-processing machines (computers) to commercial tasks in the private sector. So important does Mandel deem the computer’s role in revitalising...

    • 4 Faking ‘IT’: True Stories (pp. 72-87)

      Mike Davis has argued that the formation of the ‘Sunbelt’, that rapidly growing and economically developing corridor stretching from Florida in the East, across Texas, to Southern California in the West, constitutes one of the two great ‘engines of postwar accumulation’ in the United States, the other being the combination of suburbanisation with the massive expansion of higher education. This latter development, we might note, underlay the exponential growth of the professional–managerial stratum in the 1960s and formed the ‘experiential matrix’ out of which what Fred Pfeil has called the ‘baby-boom PMC’ was to emerge as a powerful cultural...

    • 5 Playing With ‘IT’: Microserfs (pp. 88-102)

      Fordism’s most important demographic product was what Fred Pfeil has called the ‘baby-boom PMC’. This generational fraction, born largely between 1940 and 1960 and therefore socialised during the Fordist regime’s high summer of economic growth and sociopolitical stability, represents the professional–managerial class in its phase of most rapid expansion both numerically and in terms of cultural influence. As the Ehrenreichs have argued, ‘the late fifties and early sixties were a golden age for the PMC’. The postwar explosion in higher education, the expansion of the mass media, and the extension of the corporate bureaucratic apparatus from the regulation of...

  6. Part 3 Impotence and Omnipotence:: The Cybernetic Discourse of Capitalism
    • 6 Cybernetics, Systems Theory and the End of Ideology (pp. 105-118)

      We have seen how microelectronic information technologies have been instrumental in the tendency to reconceptualise social relations in terms of decentred circuits or communications networks. These technologies, though, have been just as crucial to a related and equally powerful discourse which has similarly constructed a view of social structures and processes out of what is essentially a set of technical and methodological imperatives. This is the discourse of cybernetics.

      For the proponents of the circuit or network perspective (what I have earlier called the communications view of community) the computer functions principally as a powerful technological metaphor for what is...

    • 7 Imaginary Resolutions: William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy (pp. 119-147)

      In a 1977 short story, ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose’, William Gibson quotes from Rosebuck and Pierhal’s discussion of the social impact of Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) technology in their book,Recent American History: A Systems View:

      If the chaos of the nineties reflects a radical shift in the paradigms of visual literacy, the final shift away from the Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of a preholographic society, what should we expect from this newer technology, with its promise of discrete encoding and subsequent reconstruction of the full range of sensory perception? (Gibson, 1988b: p. 56)

      The text quoted from is, of course,...

    • 8 Artificial Intelligence and Class Consciousness: Blade Runner (pp. 148-162)

      At the beginning of Chapter 6 I remarked that the discourses of cybernetics and artificial intelligence have served to reopen and substantially reframe the question of human consciousness. In its dramatisation of the progress of the artificial intelligence systems Wintermute and Neuromancer to self-awareness, then to mutual recognition and partnership, and finally to a wider and more inclusive understanding of interests shared with still others of their own kind, William Gibson’s cyberspace trilogy calls our attention to an overtly political aspect of this question. For here the story suggests that there is a connection between the idea of artificial intelligence...

  7. Part 4 Capital, Class, Cosmopolitanism
    • 9 Fordism, Post-Fordism and the Production of World Space (pp. 165-178)

      In Part 1 of this book I noted that the consolidation of the Fordist regime of accumulation in the United States in the immediate post-1945 period was bound up with the institution of a particular configuration of economic relationships and political power. That there should be a distinct geopolitical dimension to Fordism is not surprising when we recall the precise conditions of the regime’s emergence. As we saw, it was the Second World War which ended a decade of world capitalist depression by precipitating a devaluation of fixed capital so radical, prolonged and global in scale as to clear the...

    • 10 National Allegory and the Romance of Underdevelopment: The Names (pp. 179-204)

      Fredric Jameson has argued that the impossibility of cognitive mapping is the most debilitating political–aesthetic dimension of the cultural dominance of postmodernism. But he has also suggested, more optimistically perhaps, that this debility is not – yet – universal. The tendency of postmodern cultural forms is to reflect and complement capital’s colonisation of nature and the unconscious with its emplacement of a global, American-style consumer culture (Stephanson, 1989: p. 9). However, Jameson contends that there nevertheless remain enclaves as yet not wholly colonised by this process in which something like the operations of cognitive mapping can still take place....

    • 11 Blindness and Insight in the World System: Until the End of the World (pp. 205-211)

      IfThe Namesstops short of describing the ‘evolution of seeing’ that would make individual perception adequate to the global configurations of uneven development, and remains ambivalent about the political inclinations of professional–managerial cosmopolitanism, then Wim Wenders’sUntil the End of the World(1991) is not so reticent. Set like DeLillo’s novel at a moment of geopolitical crisis (projected forward from the time of the film’s making to the millennial turning point of 1999), the film explores the condition of contemporary globalisation through an almost identical set of themes: the encounter with nature and premodern social organisation in enclaves...

  8. Conclusion: Questioning Fordism and Post-Fordism (pp. 212-215)

    David Hounshell reminds us that the term ‘Fordism’ originated as a popular characterisation of the novel systems of industrial production introduced into the Ford automobile factories in the 1910s. But by the 1920s it had been displaced by the more technical-sounding term ‘mass production’, endorsed by Henry Ford’s own entry under this heading in the 1925 edition of theEncyclopaedia Britannica(Hounshell, 1984: p. 1). At about the same time, however, the term Fordism was taken up by Antonio Gramsci who extended its earlier frame of reference from the factory floor to encompass what he saw as an epochal or...

  9. Notes (pp. 216-229)
  10. Bibliography (pp. 230-244)
  11. Index (pp. 245-250)


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