transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
One night in Corozal, I decided to wander over to the cluster of Chinese restaurants southwest of the town plaza for dinner. My experience at the one I chose, Border Chinese Restaurant, induced a cultural sensory overload. I ordered from a menu with Chinese and Belizean food written in Mandarin, Spanish, and English, trying to talk over a Taiwanese cable news broadcast, ranchera music, and chiming slot machines. Accompaniments to my fried rice included fruit juice from Honduras, Marie Sharp’s hot sauce from Belize, and La Choy soy sauce from Irvine, California. On the wall were posters for Belikin Beer (Belize’s local brew), Guinness Beer, Coca-Cola, as well as a Santa Claus mask (in July). Christmas decorations and a Chinese lantern hung from the ceiling.
In response to this bewildering array of imagery, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to have some books delivered to me. So I had David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Frederick Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism sent down, and I (re)read them with my travels, and especially this dinner experience, in mind. Postmodernity, in the words of Wikipedia, describes “the economic and/or cultural state or condition of society,” while postmodernism describes the philosophical, artistic, and cultural response to this condition. A number of concepts in these books helped me think about the Border Chinese Restaurant.
Jameson argues that a “constitutive feature” of postmodernism is “a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (Postmodernism, p. 6). Simulacra, images with transformed (often reduced) significance and substance, were featured prominently in the Border Chinese Restaurant. The cable news from Taiwan being shown on the TV, had very little meaning to me or the Spanish-speaking men in the bar; it was just a series of flashing images. Similarly, the Mayan temples on Belikin bottles have been reduced from their complex meaning to a society of ages past into a Belizean corporate logo, which is further transformed here by its spatial interaction with Taiwanese, Irish, and Mexican influences. The swimsuit models in the beer advertisements on the wall were women transformed into flat, inked images encouraging the consumption of alcohol. Of course, in postindustrial capitalism, simulacra are employed to spur consumption/consumerism. Perhaps Santa Claus exemplifies this; one face is instantly recognizable as a mandate to buy toys for children.
Connected to the depthlessness of simulacra is the ease with which they are superimposed. Flat images with little inherent significance allow for a “collage of superimposed spatial images” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 302), such as the one in the restaurant. Superposition of otherwise unconnected images is also a mark of postmodernism in art, as seen in the example below from Jameson’s book (an example which, strangely enough, includes what looks like a mirror image of the Santa Claus from the restaurant). The prevalence of these collages and juxtapositions throughout the world mean that “the postmodern body…is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed” (Postmodernism, pp. 412-413).
This “perceptual barrage” is enabled by “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (Postmodernism, p. 6). The availability of local news from Taiwan (and Los Angeles, Miami, etc.) on Belizean cable television certainly illustrates the interwoven global expansion of technology and capitalism. Jameson goes on to write, “This purer capitalism of or own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way” (Postmodernism, p. 36). Even in a small restaurant in a small town in Belize, purchases were linked to the United Kingdom, the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Taiwan, and the web of globalized capital.
These complex global webs lead to spatial confusion. Jameson elaborates:
So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space – postmodern hyperspace – has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment – which is to the initial bewilderment of the older modernism as the velocities of spacecraft to those of the automobile – can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational networks in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (Postmodernism, p. 44).
In other words, if I were blindfolded and taken from the United States to the Border Chinese Restaurant, I would probably be unable to guess with any accuracy my location, and this inability points to salient characteristics of our global economic and political system. Harvey writes the following about postmodern fiction:
Spaces of very different worlds seem to collapse upon each other, much as the world’s commodities are assembled in the supermarket and all manner of sub-cultures get juxtaposed in the contemporary city. Disruptive spatiality triumphs over the coherence of perspective and narrative in postmodern fiction, in exactly the same way that imported beers coexist with local brews, local employment collapses under the weight of foreign competition, and all the divergent spaces of the world are assembled nightly as a collage of divergent images upon the television screen (The Condition of Postmodernity, pp. 301-302)
I find his use of the beer example amusing given the coexistence of Belikin and Guinness in the Border Chinese Restaurant. I also find the image of collapsing spaces helpful; the Border Chinese Restaurant (though near the border between Mexico and Belize) was more about the implosion and mixing of various cultures rather than the separation of two.
Also contributing to this bewilderment is the prevalence of reification, turning practices and relationships into things. Jameson explains, “The other definition of reification that has been important in recent years is the ‘effacement of the traces of production’ from the object itself, from the commodity thereby produced. This sees the matter from the standpoint of the consumer: it suggests the kind of guilt people are freed from if they are able not to remember the work that went into their toys and furnishings” (Postmodernism, p. 314). Now more than ever, for example, we are disconnected from the production of the food we eat. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to trace how a bottle of La Choy soy sauce would, like me, start off in Irvine and end up in Corozal.
How do we deal with this increasing spatial bewilderment and obfuscation, especially when it so heavily involves our participation in world political and economic structures? Jameson proposes developing “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (Postmodernism, p. 54). In some ways, I think this is what my project is trying to accomplish. I am attempting to investigate not production, but instead “de-production,” the re- and de- commissioning of our old goods. The environmental and economic and environmental implications of “de-production” are perhaps just as important as those of consumerist production. Following retired school buses here in Central America has given me a small, concrete foothold in attempts to map (both graphically and mentally) my participation in these wider global systems.
But maybe in a culture where images are increasingly stripped of meaning, these attempts, and my travel as a whole is just adding to the information overload. As Harvey warns, “Depthless images are deployed to capture complex meanings. Travel, even imaginary and vicarious, is supposed to broaden the mind, but it just as frequently ends up confirming prejudices” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 351). I don’t know whether my year of travel will truly broaden my mind to see past the image overload and spatial bewilderment of the postmodern condition. One thing’s for sure: I was able to get a lot of blogging mileage out of a plate of fried rice.