Via Gary Sauer-Thompson's excellent blog, The Economist offers a provocative (if rather simplistic) treatment of how postmodern theory has been appropriated by mass marketing firms to sell crap. It starts off with the obligatory Lyotard quote describing "eclecticism" as "the degree zero of contemporary general culture; one listens to reggae, watches a Western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games.”
Despite the fact that most thinkers associated with postmodernism (Lyotard, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) were leftists, they unwittingly have produced ideas that are compatible and even useful to capitalism. Of these thinkers, it seems that only Foucault came to recognize, late in his career, the irony of the relationship between the "postmodern condition" and the emergence of a new, more rigorous form of free markets:
In one of his last lectures, in January 1979, four months before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain, he shocked his students by telling them to read the works of F.A. Hayek if they wanted to know about “the will not to be governed”. Hayek was the Iron Lady's guru. Surely there was nothing post-modern about her?
But Foucault had belatedly spotted that post-modernism and “neo-liberal” free-market economics, which had developed entirely independently of each other over the previous half-century, pointed in much the same direction. One talked about sex, art and penal systems, the other about monetary targets. But both sought to “emancipate” the individual from the control of state power or other authorities—one through thought and the other through economic power. Both put restoring individual choice and power at the hearts of their “projects”, as the pomos like to describe their work.
One can certainly dispute the comparison but there was certainly a libertarian strain in Foucault's thought, one seeking to demarcate sites of resistance to various power/knowledge formations.
Perhaps more insidious, the article describes the influence postmodernism has had on both the way business markets itself and how a market segment gets constituted in the process:
Modern retailers are only just getting to grips with two of the consequences of the breakdown of authority and hierarchy that they hoped for half a century ago: the “fragmentation” of narratives and the individual's ability to be “the artist of his own life”.
Modern business uses a different language to discuss the same ideas. In “The Long Tail”, an analysis of the impact of the internet on the music industry, with wider ramifications, Chris Anderson describes the “shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards”. The post-modern “fragment” becomes a “niche” and the mass market is “turning into a mass of niches”. “When mass culture breaks apart,” he writes, “it doesn't re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.”
The other trend the pomos predicted was the individual's desire (and ability) to take control—to become “the artist of his own life”. Maybe they were talking about something more profound than teenagers' ability to burn their own CDs. Nevertheless, this second trend has shaken existing businesses. iTunes has threatened the music industry by undermining its ability to charge consumers for buying the songs on a CD they didn't want, as well as the ones they did. By allowing surfers to select the topics they want to be informed about, Yahoo! News and Google News have threatened both the business models of newspapers and the power of editors to determine the news that is delivered to readers.
The consumer's rebirth as artist has also created whole new businesses. YouTube is the closest realisation yet of the pomos' vision. Through video, people turn their lives into art and put them up on the web for others to consume. The pomos would not have been surprised by the power of this vision; but they might have been astonished to see Google, a search engine, paying $1.65 billion for the business when it was less than two years old.
After reading this article I was reminded of an old song sung by Peggy Lee - Is that all there is? Whatever postmodernism was (is), if it actually refers to a coherent body of work or set of ideas, is it really so easily mapped on to a marketing strategy to sell ipods or the latest fashion? Perhaps it is naive to think that any text is immune from such appropriation. But I wonder if you could imagine American Pragmatism, Thomism or even Rawlsian liberalism being so easily coopted? If not, than what does it suggest about those texts that are?