Friday, February 7, 2014

A little light culture: postmodernism , nostalgia and Body Heat

I've been reading what is apparently a classic essay on postmodernism by Fredric Jameson. It caught my attention because Jameson says some fascinating things about my favourite movie, Body Heat, in the course of the essay. I kept reading because what he says strikes me as typical of so much of modern academic thought. This is the first of what will be at least two blog posts on the subject.

Jameson claims to be engaged in a purely descriptive process—that is to say, he claims he isn't judging. The ostensible point being that an objective assessment of postmodernism would provide data that would be useful for analyzing the society that produced this art form. Trouble is, he's lying.

We can tell he is lying because he keeps using terms such as "late capitalism" which tend to give away the game: which is that he's already prejudged the era and is only looking for further evidence to back up the conclusions he has already reached. There is, as I've said before, nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, what matters is how well his arguments do or don't hold together. That said, the self-deception at work here—his charming (in more than one sense of the meaning) belief that he is doing some sort of neutral analysis—is worth keeping in mind as we go ahead.

Where to start? How about here:
The second feature of this list of postmodernisms is the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture. This is perhaps the most distressing development of all from an academic stand point, which has traditionally had a vested interest in preserving a realm of high or elite culture against the surrounding environment of philistinism, of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, and in transmitting difficult and complex skills of reading, listening and seeing to initiates.
That's hardly neutral language and it isn't difficult to guess where Jameson's sympathies lie. Which isn't to say that his interest is simple. As a good Marxist, he has to write "so-called mass or popular culture" because he can't really allow himself to believe that this stuff actually is popular in any profound sense. At the same time, his use of words like "schlock" and "kitsch" and the sneering reference to "Reader's Digest culture" are clearly elitist.

This is hardly new. Except that the attack would have been on middle-brow rather than mass culture, it's not hard to imagine one of the Bloomsburies writing the above in 1910!

The list of postmodernisms he refers back to includes the following: the poet John Ashbery; the architect Robert Venturi; pop artist Andy Warhol, serious composers John Cage, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley, pop artists the Clash, Talking Heads, and the Gang of Four. the film maker Jean Luc Godard as well "a whole new style of commercial or fiction films; and the novelists William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed as well as the French Nouveau roman.

This essay was written more than 30 years ago now and the thing that is most likely to strike us now is how some of the people and types of art listed turned out to be just passing trends. I don't think anyone seriously imagines that Philip Glass, while interesting as an individual, represents any sort of long-term trend in music. The Gang of Four, a now-forgotten new wave band, seem to have made the cut because of the chicom reference in their name and the Clash because they were Marxists as neither was particularly postmodern. Others listed seem, from the longer perspective, to belong more to modernism than postmodernism; John Cage and the Nouveau roman fit into that class.

In the end, we will find that this matters less than we might guess for the only things in the list that Jameson has any profound points to make are the new style of "commercial or fiction films" (a rather broad category) and not so much postmodern architecture as one building, the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

If we read what he has to say about the commercial and fiction film, we find that his primary claim is that these movies operate in what he calls "the nostalgia mode". I think he is on to something there and I'll come back to that next time. Part 2 is here.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to read more if only because Body Heat is probably my favorite movie also. I think it was and still is highly under-rated.