Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Digimodernism and the E-Economy

I haven't updated my blog for a while as the end of term and the pressing urgency of Christmas distracted me; also, I've been drafting and thinking through a new article on post-war culture and postmodernism, so my thoughts have turned away from the paradigmatic present to the equally paradigmatic recent past (if you get me). However, the present always catches up with us, one way and another.

So some of the planning for this article required me to look again at Fredric Jameson's (above right) now-canonical piece, "Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism". It's hard to even start thinking beyond postmodernism without referring back to this (along with certain texts by Lyotard and Baudrillard). The title of Raoul Eshelman's 2008 book about culture after postmodernism even models itself structurally on Jameson's (Performatism, or, The End of Postmodernism). The question for people like Eshelman and me provoked by Jameson's text is this: if postmodernism is/was the cultural expression of late capitalism, and postmodernism is over, then is late capitalism also finished? And if the answer to the latter is "no", doesn't that suggest that postmodernism is actually still alive? Eshelman, it seems to me, avoids this question, and it's true that the apparent superannuation of the Marxist theory on which Jameson relies in the twenty or so years since he was writing makes it of less than critical importance. But it's interesting, even so.

To a degree, and tentatively, I think you could say that digimodernism is the cultural equivalent of the e-economy. This parallel is not an invalid one, though it has to be handled with extreme care. I'm not convinced by the notion of "late capitalism" anyway, and am certainly not a Marxist (the category isn't an option these days; however, the recent global economic implosion and the massive shift of funds from the poor to the super-rich which is capitalism's way of rectifying it have grimly vindicated him) so I don't think that a cultural shift necessarily requires a simultaneous economic restructuring. On the other hand, one of the differences between a cultural dominant and a new artistic style is that the latter has socio-economic ramifications; what Eshelman pinpoints is then, in my view, historically rather shallow. Another problem with equating digimodernism and the e-economy is that aspects of the latter form part of the former (Amazon, etc.). Despite all this, the wrenching vastness of the economic changes caused by digitization indicate the immensity of the cultural restructuring also underway.

An example of that economic turmoil is the closure just before Christmas of Borders. It's easy to see the bankruptcy of a store selling books, CDs and DVDs as, in digimodernist terms, part of the death of the finite and commodified cultural text. When I was first buying 20-year-old classic albums I would get them for about £4-5 each; a quarter of a century later, they are still about that price. The DVDs I bought for my son for Christmas cost what their equivalents would have ten years ago, but by Boxing Day they were half that price. A slackening in demand is partly to blame, but the driving down of prices is mainly the result of the limited overheads and consequent super-competitiveness of the digital economy.

When the e-economy was first envisaged a decade or more back, it was thought to mean the death of the shop. In future, we would no longer go out to physical places to find items on sale, scrutinize them and purchase them; we would sit at our computers ordering stuff from warehouses which would be delivered to our door by lorries. To a large extent this has indeed happened, but while the phraseology of "the death of X" makes a compelling headline, the e-economy hasn't wiped every store from the face of the post-industrial world. There's an app now available which enables shoppers to go through stores pointing their mobiles at items and getting them to search the Internet for the seller offering it at the lowest price. So you can go to Gap, see a pair of trousers you like, point your mobile at it, read off the name of the Internet seller who's offering it most cheaply (doubtless not Gap, given the difference in overheads), go home and buy it from them instead. The journalist who brought this to my attention thought it meant, again, the "death of the shop".

The physical seller who materially shows wares to a potential customer is about as old as human society itself, so announcing its demise is a risky business. Like religion and farming, it is much more likely just to reinvent itself. In the centre of Oxford where I live, the number of shops hasn't gone down in the past decade, from what I can tell, but their nature has changed dramatically. Almost every outlet now seems to sell either clothes, or food and drink for immediate consumption. The two are symbiotically linked: you come into town to browse the former and fortify yourself on this mission with the latter (or a latte). Shopping is indestructible as a human activity, for some at least; clothes shopping is, of course, above all a female pursuit; the journalist who thought his app heralded the end of the store was, also of course, a bloke, and one, it would seem, for whom price is the only thing. Such changes make the high street an ever more feminized world, and in that it reflects the 21st-century work place which is its economic twin. In short, physical shopping will probably survive as an open-ended activity, rather than as a goals-oriented task.

I don't know if this tells us anything about the failure of Borders. Their Oxford store was always a bit of an unpleasant place to go to: chaotic, grubby, undermanaged. There are many reasons why a company can go broke. Still, perhaps if they had stocked more copies of Digimodernism it might have helped them stay alive. Now there's a thought...

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