Postmodernism Is Maybe After All A Historicism, Part 3

PART ONE IS HERE.

PART TWO IS HERE.

You’re going to understand De Palma’s Body Double better if you understand why Theodor Adorno liked Mahler. Somebody might have told you once that Adorno championed difficult art in general and atonal music in particular: string quartets made to skirl; the mathematically precise caterwaul of that half-stepping dozen, the series chromatic and uncanny. This isn’t exactly wrong, and it is the regular stuff of encyclopedia entries and intro classes, but it’s not exactly right either. For Adorno did not want an art entirely without subjectivity, which is what serial music sometimes suggests, a pure and as it were automatic music that would never suggest to anyone listening a link back to human utterance or expressiveness; that would never once yield a tune that someone, at least, would want to sing; a music, in fine, that was all system. What he was seeking, rather, was an art organized around antitheses, in which the conflict between subject and system would become audible; and he worried there were different ways an artwork could instead obliterate any sense we had of a living person struggling to come to speech within it, and he didn’t like any of these. Traditionalism was the obvious problem: the expert mimicry of older styles, the striking of already petrified poses, the chanting of sentences already spoken. Adorno said of Stravinsky that he was a U2 tribute band. But then a radical aesthetic can beat its own experimental path to the same deadly place, one he identified in the fully developed versions of twelve-tone music, in Webern, that is, and the late modernists of the ‘60s: serial music become oppressive because now wholly itself, without any concession to its historical rivals or predecessors, routinized and ascetic, sealed off inside its own rigors and formulae.

It is this rejection of Webern that should clarify Adorno’s championing of both Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler, which is to say both a composer conventionally classified as atonal and one typically reckoned not, the point being that each of these two absorbed into his music the opposition that musical history tries to construct only between them. Mahler and Berg can be conceptualized together as the Composers of the Break, neither tonal nor atonal, but first-one-and-then-the-other, by turns and in shifting ratios or proportions. If it’s misleading to say that Adorno was one of the great theorists of serial music, then that’s because it was this music-at-the-cusp—and not the purity of The Twelve—that he meant to recommend. At issue were compositions in which the conflict between entire aesthetic periods or modes of cultural production was openly theatricalized, and from this perspective, a composer’s starting point was irrelevant. You could fill your music with tunes, but let them curdle on occasion into noise; or, alternately, you could plunge your listeners into noise, but remind them occasionally of what tunes used to sound like. Either way, you would be staging a face-off between the entire history of human songfulness and some other, radically new aesthetic mode in which art no longer takes our pleasure as its aim and limit. And here, perhaps, is the most curious point: These last are scenarios in which either term, tonality or atonality, can count as subject and either as structure. You can say that the fine old tunes sustain us as subjects and that the mere math of the twelve-tone series recreates for us in the concert hall the experience of structure and rationalization. But you can just as plausibly say that those tunes are sedimented and mindless convention, at which point we might welcome dissonance as the opening out of the composer’s idiom—or simply as the afflicted yowl of anyone who wishes the radio would for once play something different.

We can’t make listeners choose between Mahler and Berg, because it is really easy to find Mahler in Berg. If we want to get back to Body Double, all we need to do, then, is generalize Adorno’s argument in a direction he probably wouldn’t have; to insist that antithesis, far from being the special achievement of these two Austrians, is the inevitable condition of most artworks, nearly all of which absorb into themselves piecewise the styles and conventions of various historical periods, social classes, and political tendencies. You can call this “liminal art” if you want, as long as you are prepared to add that threshold never becomes room. The struggles that a Gramscian reader thinks go on between artworks are usually reproduced one by one within those same works, which, if patiently read, will generate maps of the broader cultural fields of which they are also a part. What we can say now of postmodern art is that it is almost never wholly itself, that in order even to be recognized as postmodern, it will have to announce its own distinctiveness, marking itself off from its modernist counterparts, which it will have to after a fashion name and in naming preserve. The sentences regularly encountered in Jameson in which x artist is declared to be a postmodern revision of y modernist are thus oddly self-defeating. How often do you find yourself wanting to remind Jameson of how the dialectic works?—stammering, in this case, that one cannot name a break between two terms without simultaneously positing their continuity. If you want to lift out what was new in the movie Body Heat, having first spotted that it was, as Jameson has it, a “remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,” then you have yourself already conceded that the one was really, actually, finally a lot like the other. When we designate a work as “postmodern,” the superseded and modernist version thereof will persist, as its not-really negated shadow, and this shadow will, in turn, vitiate our sense of postmodernism as ahistorical. You can say that Body Double is a movie about other movies, but that very reliance on other films—prior films—will be a prompt to historical thinking. Postmodern Body Double preserves within itself the memory of movies that weren’t yet postmodern. But then this or something like it is going to be true of most really existing postmodernism, which we now have to reconceive as the arena of a certain fight—the showdown between the various modernisms and a postmodernism available only as ideal type.

This point is available, first, at the level of genre. There’s a remarkable moment about an hour into Body Double when we witness our hero decide to take matters into his own hands, make his own inquiries about the murder, get to the bottom of things. The spectator-actor prepares himself to assume the detective functions of classic crime narrative. And at just that moment, when the movie seems ready at last to lead us back behind the spectacle—to, you know, strike the set—it instead amplifies by the pageantry by launching into a full-fledged music video—for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” complete with shots of lip-synching lead-singer Holly Johnson. What makes the sequence even more compelling is that the music video stands in for hardcore porn; it’s the point in the movie when the hero is trying to infiltrate a porn set by pretending to be a hired stud, and De Palma is letting FGTH’s lubricious, post-disco electro-march substitute for the obscenities he cannot show. The movie thereby directs our attention neither to porn nor to MTV, but to whatever it is rather that the two share—and thus to an entire set of new or newly prevalent video genres, characteristic of the last few decades and defined by their collective willingness to abandon narrative or at least scale it back to some barely-more-than-sequential minimum. From our own vantage, we would want to add, above and beyond the raunch and the Duran Duran, YouTube shorts, initially capped at ten minutes and now majestically extended to fifteen, and new-model movie trailers, which, following Jameson, deserve to be considered as a form in their own right, with their own conventions and feature-usurping pleasures.

This is what it would mean to talk about Body Double not as postmodern but as a conflict-ridden composite of postmodernism and the pop modernism of the detective story, which still thinks of itself as a device for disclosing hidden truths. The competing genres are entirely visible within the movie. And then the all-important point to be made in this regard is that the detective story more or less wins out, and not only because the movie ends with a literal unmasking, latex pulled from a face. The movie does indeed document the spectator’s inability to act, though even here its procedure is basically satirical, in a manner that depends on our memory of other heroes having once done something, a memory counterposed to which postmodernity will register not as a schizoid intensity but only as a vacuity. Check your Jameson: The movie’s parody isn’t all that blank, because its very genre provides a set of expectations against which its innovations will be judged. But even beyond this, Body Double seems dedicated to the idea that certain forms of agency remain available even in the society of the spectacle. The movie’s hero doubles himself—he is both spectator and actor—and then this pairing is itself in some sense doubled, because spectator and actor both come in a second version that we could call juridical or epistemological, and not just inactive or image-consuming. There has after all always been an affinity between the spectator and the detective, with the latter now understood as the-one-who-watches, the one who arrives on the crime scene like an apparition, pledged to leave no mark, to pollute no object, to minimize the observer effect by leaving the murder bed unmade. To this we need merely append the observation that performer-cops are also a familiar species, called “narcs” or “undercover agents,” and that acting, too, can be a form of information gathering. Body Double does to this extent grant its cipher a certain limited effectivity, within the bounds of acting and spectating, as gumshoe and mole. The once corrosive insight that the detective is like a voyeur is thus replaced by its opposite, a reminder that the detective functions might in fact survive, that epistemological and moral purpose can still be roused from within the position of the spectator.

This last is a point to be made at the level of genre as a whole. But we can make a few similar observations if we start calling out the titles of specific movies, or at least of one specific movie. For Body Double’s relationship back to Rear Window also contains its own historical argument. De Palma updates his Hitchcock in one absolutely crucial way: In the later movie, the spectator-hero is meant to see the murder, which is to say that his spectatorship has been factored in in advance. We can think of the matter this way: Rear Window was still easily explained within the usual Enlightenment paradigm of truth and knowledge, the magical version of which is the usual stuff of crime stories, in which once the solution is announced and the murderer identified, everything automatically sets itself to right: culprits march themselves off to jail, widows and fatherless children return to their business suddenly unbereaved, &c. Hitchcock had some good questions to put to that paradigm, epistemological questions, for one—about whether one really knows what one thinks ones knows—and also psychoanalytic questions—about the relationship between the knower and the peeper and hence about the sneaky way in which desire rides in on knowledge’s back. De Palma, however, radicalizes this scenario by inventing a murderer who wants to be seen, a murderer, in other words, whose plans depends on the existence of a manipulated witness. The shift from Hitchcock to De Palma thus secretes a certain periodization, marking out the difference between a society in which the media exercise independent oversight functions over the government and other major actors, like corporations, and a society in which government and corporations have already reckoned the cameras into all their calculations and so incessantly stage themselves for the public, which means that watchdogs are called upon only to play an already scripted role. Body Double is really and truly a meditation on that condition, but within the narrow parameters of the thriller.

This brings us to the big point: There was always something unresolved in Jameson’s postmodernism argument, and especially in his claim that postmodern culture tends to jettison historical thinking. It’s not just that narrative forms are never going to be able to revert back to some zero degree of history-less-ness, though that’s also true. The issue is rather that Jameson was making two claims that are finally rather hard to square with one another: that under names like “retro” and “vintage,” postmodernism revived the copycat historicism of the nineteenth-century art academy … and also that it wasn’t a historicism. The best chance you’ve got of making this argument work is by making it accusatory, because you have to be able to say that postmodern historicism isn’t really historical, that it is fake history, history reduced back to image or consumer good, just so many styles for the donning, as when the ‘50s mean Formica and the ‘70s Fiestaware. Sometimes that blow is going to land. But if you’re doing anything other than designing your kitchen—if you’re making a movie or writing a novel or metering out a poem—the citations you introduce will often be, not an aping farrago, but their own path to chronology, an exercise in temporal counterpoint or Ungleichzeitigkeit, a dozen arrows pointing us outside the present, and so a request that we resume the project of historical thinking only just terminated.

One response to “Postmodernism Is Maybe After All A Historicism, Part 3

  1. You are so smart it should be illegal. Or, alternately, it is breath-taking. I am not saying this just to be nice.

    r.