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Nick Heffernan, Capital, Class and Technology in Contemporary American Culture: Projecting Post-Fordism, (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 250pp. Pbk. ISBN: 0-7453-1104-0 £16.99

Reviewed by Luca Prono

 

As could be guessed from the title, the project of Capital, Class and Technology in Contemporary American Culture is Marxist in nature and aims at re-writing material concerns over class and economic structures into postmodernism (“a range of more or less novel aesthetic styles, cultural attitudes and philosophical or political positions which … are expressions of and responses to historical change”) and postmodernity (the “wider historical condition and experience of change out of which the various expressive postmodernisms arise”, p.1). Building on a wide variety of Marxist theorists from Antonio Gramsci to Frederic Jameson, Heffernan rejects a mere cultural definition of postmodernism and claims that to inquire into the nature of contemporary cultural texts is necessarily to ask questions about the nature of Western capitalism and its recent technological developments which have prompted new definitions of work, productiveness, expertise and class relations. Thus the book explores the wide range of texts that constitute its focus as responses to and representations of the reconfiguring of American capitalism in the past two decades, concentrating on information technology, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and the globalization of capital.

Heffernan argues that the central transformation within American capitalism is the shift between Fordism and Post-Fordism and sees the rise of the latter as an effort to solve the problems of the former. Fordism encompasses the “long postwar boom between 1945 and the early 1970s” and is based on “the establishment of a durable balance between the mass production of standardized goods on the one hand, and the mass consumption of such goods on the other” (p.3). This balance between the phases of production and that of consumption was predicated on the “capital-labor accord” which insured an “extension of the purchasing power of the population at large” in exchange for “improved productivity and higher profits” (p.3). This balance between different classes was reinforced by the creation of social welfare which guaranteed both a minimum level of subsistence for the working classes and subsidies to industrial and productive sectors.

Post-Fordism, on the other hand, is “the disintegration of this world in the recurrent economic and social crises that have beset Western capitalist societies since the early 1970s” (p.4). Heffernan argues that it is still impossible to give a precise definition of the term as it does not represent “any fully achieved entity but … a projection of, or metaphor for, the processes and effects of social and economic restructuring within contemporary societies, the final form of which cannot be specified” (p.4). While Heffernan is reluctant to give a normative definition of Post-Fordism, he seems to agree with other accounts of the term that stress the importance of flexibility in industrial production and labor relations. Such flexibility is “an expression of employers’ concerns perpetually to lower wage costs and have compliant workers” (p.4).

Heffernan links this economic discussion to his argument about postmodernism by arguing that “some of the cultural shifts and characteristics associated with postmodernism and postmodernity can be understood … in relation to the crisis of Fordism and the complex of responses to it that goes under the name of Post-Fordism” (p.5). Heffernan is therefore interested to explore contemporary cultural texts that take these economic and social changes as the core of their narratives and analyze how such changes “are registered, symbolically represented and pressed into narrative form” (p.8). The selection of these cultural texts is what makes the book intriguing as its author has firmly committed himself to an interdisciplinary endeavor and, through his sophisticated readings, is able to make challenging connections between journalism, film and literature. Therefore he reads the journalistic report The Soul of a New Machine alongside David Byrne’s film True Stories and Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs to foreground the role of IT as “powerful riposte to … the crises of legitimation and motivation that … tend inevitable to accompany economic crisis in advanced capitalist societies” (p.41). A critical account of Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy is paired with a discussion of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner to highlight how popular culture has responded to and challenged the cybernetic paradigm, which Heffernan argues, is often adopted “as a talisman against history, against the contingencies of conflict and change” (p.121). Coherently with the overall structure, the volume ends with a discussion of DeLillo’s novel The Names and Wim Wenders’s film Until the End of the World in the context of globalization processes and re-mappings of the world space.

Heffernan’s study is complex, yet almost always well-written, displaying a clear prose even when it has to take the reader through the lexicon and the debates of political economy and social theory. It is also a passionate piece of work in its denunciation of what Heffernan calls “the crisis of historical agency”, our contemporary inability of “acting consciously to shape the historical forces that surrounds us”, an inability that threatens the future “to be lost as irretrievably as the past” (p.120). Yet, this aspect proves also to be one of the book’s weaknesses, as Heffernan’s inability to find sites of resistance to the forces of capitalism makes his own narrative, at times, rather depressing, as he seems to find containment wherever he finds subversion.

Almost all the texts analyzed are bound by these contradictory pulls. For example, Byrne’s True Stories presents a “benign consensual vision of community shaped by the new technologies of information” (p.86) although it shows “a note of unease about the way in which IT and its industries signify the kudoka of production and class consciousness” (p.87). Gibson’s trilogy is “a remarkable document of historical and political irresolution” (p. 147). Blade Runner’s politics is marked by ambivalence, implying that the identification with the politically subversive replicants is reached at the expense of the suppression of their “overt revolutionary activity and the imposition of a quasi-bourgeois, patriarchal sexual code which serves to restrain their sexual and subjective disruptiveness” (p.160). Unsurprisingly given the frank Marxist approach, Heffernan concludes his study with an apologia of the centrality of “class analysis and class-based readings of cultural texts” against the postmodernist turn “in favor of the categories of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and region as organizing concepts” (p.215). Perhaps, if the author had paid more attention to the interrelations of class with these other categories, he would have been able to find more examples of resistance against the forces that are nowadays projecting Post-Fordism.

 

Luca Prono is currently a temporary lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Nottingham and is one of the general editors of Scope - An Online Journal of Film Studies. His main areas of research are: American cinema, Italian Neorealism and gender, gay and lesbian studies. He has published articles on Rossellini's Rome, Open City, Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm, and the Italian gay novelist Pier Vittorio Tondelli.

 

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