Postmodernism, Virtuality, Globalization and the (fragmented) Self – 1/3

If the politics of virtuality means democracy online and apathy offline, there is reason for concern.
-Sherry Turkle, Life On The Screen.

Frederic Jameson’s essay, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, describes the ethos of its time. Published in 1984, the work provides a detailed analysis of the social and political implications of postmodernism, and predicts the continuation of a trend already well in progress in the 1980’s: the further fragmentation of the self. Jameson’s predictions are validated and updated in Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the Screen (Touchstone Press, 1995), published a decade later. Where Jameson looks at art, literature and architecture in the 1980’s, Turkle looks at virtuality and the online world in the 1990’s for evidence of the postmodern decentralization of the self, and what its sustainable and unsustainable consequences might be.

Turkle argues that computers, by their very nature, help us realize the implications of postmodernism in our daily lives: “Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth,” she argues, by introducing into our common experiences “ideas about the instability of meanings and the lack of universal and knowable truths.” (p. 18) Virtual Reality, in particular, embodies a postmodern approach by serving as a site for alternative enactments of the self. As I will argue later, these alternative enactments are complex: they are representations of the self at once implicated in the politics and economics of multinational capitalism on the one hand and in an evolution towards new forms of political involvement on the other. But first, we should analyze what Jameson calls the constitutive features of postmodernism, and how virtuality relates to them.

Depthlessness and Simulacrum

There are two particular features of postmodernism described by Jameson that bear on Turkle’s examination of virtuality: depthlessness and simulacrum.

Jameson characterized the move from modernism to postmodernism as a move from affect to effect, from emotional engagement to slick superficiality.[1] “[D]epth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces.” (¶ 24) Whereas in modernism the object[2] serves “as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth” (¶ 19), in postmodernism it is merely a commodified fetish, beyond hermeneutical explanation because hermeneutics itself has been discredited. In this context, the difference between the real and the simulacrum (a copy without an original, a pseudo-event) becomes inconsequential. The simulacrum’s function “lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality.” (¶ 66) The simulacrum, produced and reproduced with technology, is therefore symptomatic of the shift from a time-bound experience of the world to a fragmented, space-bound experience.

The fragmentation of the self-as characterized by the derealization of the world, the waning of historicity and time, and the inability to represent our own experience-seems to reach full expression in the phenomenon of virtuality. Turkle identifies three ways in which virtuality can skew the self’s experience of the real: first, it can “make denatured and artificial experiences seem real” (p. 236); second, it “makes the fake seem more compelling than the real” (p. 237); and third, it “may be so compelling that we believe that within it we’ve achieved more than we have.” (p. 238). However, Turkle recognizes that virtuality represents both risks and opportunities:

The seductiveness of simulation does not mean that it is a bad thing or something to be avoided at all cost, but it does mean that simulation carries certain risks. It is not retrograde to say that if we value certain aspects of life off the screen, we may need to do something to protect them. (p. 236)

In order to protect “life off the screen,” we need to explore not only the psychological implications of the electronically-facilitated decentralized self, but its political implications as well.


[1] Note on affect from the MSE resources.
[2] Jameson refers specifically to the art object, but I think his observations can be generalized.


Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. []

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 1995.

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  1. Does this article really mean anything ? Is it not just a meaningless group of undefined words, signifying nothing.
    How can a self become decentralised ? Is it not in the very nature of the self to be single and unified ?

  2. Strange to pair Turkle (pro pomo) with Jameson (ridiculing it), and also mixing a Lacanian with a cultural Marxist?

    BTW John Walker needs to catch up on the last 30-40 years of theorising about the decentralised self — also David Hume, William James!

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