I first elaborated on this term in my book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) because I just wanted to tell everyone about how postmodernism and late capitalism were very up close and personal with each other.
This charming little term was originally brought to you by the Frankfurt School, but I ran with it. For my purposes, late capitalism refers to the period beginning around the 1950s when there were revolutions in technology and media as well as a culture of conservatism and scarcity ("Look what this terrific little housewife made with the leftover sandwich crusts: a beautiful gluten-filled centerpiece!").
Naturally, things got worse in the 1970s—you should have seen the lines at the gas station back then. What happened to the Civil Rights movement? What do you mean Chairman Mao is dead? Could it be the end of traditional communism? Those were the kinds of things intellectuals were asking.
Around the corner lurked all of the signs of late capitalism: multinational corporations; globalization; media explosion; and the end of life, work, and even war as we knew it.
One day, while reading The Age of Reason—my favorite novel by Sartre, I asked myself, "Why are social scientists having all the fun? Why should they get to keep Marxism to themselves?" That's when I decided I was going to work for the greater good and make Marxist theory meaningful for literary studies.
Guess what? It worked. Suddenly literature became a portal to the world in which it was created. People started to see that even in literature that didn't seem overtly political, ideologies and political meanings were still there, since all literature is produced in a certain social and political context. I saw how novels privilege certain story lines while devaluing others, and I saw how the dominant classes revealed their oppression of the lower classes (Grace Poole in Jane Eyre, anyone?).
As you can see, MLT is a real humdinger in the world of criticism.
When people started to pigeonhole me as just a postmodern critic, I figured it was time to shake things up. So I took on modernism—something I'd been a fan of for a long time—in my 2006 barnburner The Modernist Papers. Definitions of modernism are like eyewitness testimony to a crime—each one is different.
So what am I thinking when I talk about modernism? To me, modernism refers to aesthetics. A lot of modernists really wanted to create pure aesthetics—or "art for art's sake," as some people call it: that's art that has no other purpose than to be art. My theory of modernism throws a monkey wrench in this idea by saying that as hard as they tried, modernists still didn't succeed. We can still see history peeking out from behind that Oscar Wilde novel or that seemingly nonsensical French Surrealist photograph.
Like modernism, this little term is bursting with definitions. To me, PoMo means a few very important things. To begin with, people are no longer connected to history, and they look at the past as a "pastiche" (that's my word) of different ideas. For example, postmodern people may think that the Jazz Age is all about flappers, or they may think that the Feminist movement is all about long hair and bra burning, or they may think that early America was all about of pilgrims in buckle-y shoes.
PoMo reduces historical periods to silly stereotypes and pop images. And when we reduce history to fashion and style, we can make commodities out of the ideas and sell them—that's when the $$$$ starts rolling in. Nobody cares about history anymore; it's all about the moolah.
This term refers to how everything we need and use is made. It includes the facilities and the forms of labor (like machines and people). A factory with all sorts of smoke stacks? Handmade at Etsy? Forced labor by 10-year-olds? Those are all modes of production.
This was one of Marx's pet terms. It captured the essence of his study of the economic structures in society—particularly his interest in who owns the means of production (the bourgeoisie: corporations and dehumanizing companies) and who does the work (the proletariat: underpaid baristas, seamstresses, and people making smart phone microchips in dusty factories China).