Can you make a movie about postmodernity?
That probably sounds like a pretty stupid question. The scholars who first proposed the term “postmodernity” wanted it to mean something like the Age of Developed Capitalism, the global and all-consuming version, driven by its own distinctive and world-transforming technologies—long-distance communication, the media, computers, the Internet—and facing no obvious competitors. One clarification is immediately required: These scholars—Frederic Jameson, mostly—thought of postmodernity not as breaking with capitalism’s basic and long-term trends but precisely as intensifying them, which intensification we will begin to register if we simply list some of the things that have gone missing over the last half century: socialism, organized anti-imperialism, nature, the Left—capitalism’s historical rivals, in other words—the various attempted counter-modernities. This means that the term “postmodernity” was always something of a mess and bound to spread confusion, because on most accounts capitalism is one of modernity’s chief features—in lots of contexts, the word “modern” is a near-synonym or even euphemism for “capitalist”—in which case “postmodern” actually means something like “fully modern” or “hyper-modern.” Postmodernity comes after lots of things, but modernity isn’t one of them.
Now if you accept that periodization, the question, again, is going to seem pretty pointless. The word “postmodernity” is a way of naming our present and of marking out some of its more salient features. And since most movies are unselfconsciously set in the present—and since all of them engage with the present even when set in the past or the future or in unreal worlds with made-up histories—they are all to that extent “about postmodernity.” Maybe you take the word “postmodern” to mean something more bounded; maybe it inevitably calls up for you memories of 1982 and the first time you heard Cabaret Voltaire; but then there are movies for you, too, movies about the years when people started describing themselves as postmodern, movies that work to produce “the Eighties” as an object of historical scrutiny or puzzlement: The Squid and The Whale, say, and especially Donnie Darko.
I still think the question is a viable one, but it is up to me to explain why. One of postmodernity’s most pronounced features has been what Jameson calls “the cultural turn.” The argument here follows on from Debord and Baudrillard. Commercial media and the new technologies have created a world that is, to a historically unprecedented degree, saturated with “culture”—completely soaked with images and stories and music. This suggests an unusual process of de-differentiation, in which “culture” is no longer a special realm unto itself, governed by its own institutions, with its own rules and idioms (museums, libraries, philosophical aesthetics, &c.), but has become the universal medium for all other spheres—the economy, the law, the state, religion, &c—all of which must now learn to stage themselves, again to a historically unprecedented degree, at the level of image and story.
This “rise of culture” has in some sense meant the end of art—its apotheosis, yes, but also its termination—the end of art, that is, as something to be pursued in redemptive isolation, away from the state and the marketplace. Postmodernism—and we can now, at last, swap out suffixes—arrived as the liquidation of certain valuable aesthetic projects. It had once been the project of realist literature to help us cognize the composite and dispersed social systems of capitalism; realism broke with the experience of everyday life, allowing readers to hold in their heads the complexity of a capitalist city in a way that no person could do spontaneously. Modernism, meanwhile, which is usually thought of as having been consecrated to the New, is perhaps better conceived as a series of failed rescue projects, so many bids to preserve a realm of experience outside of the workplace and the shopping arcade; to get back to the objects so that they might be boosted by the doting armful from the market stalls and boutique vitrines; to give back to choking people their swallowed tongues; to salvage language … and sound … and paint … by reinventing them; to use each Adamically and as though for the first time; to model for us all an expanded realm of freedom, in which persons and objects would exist without function or fixed purpose. Postmodernism marked the collapse of all that—the end of a certain hard-won intelligibility, the end of search-and-rescue—and so the triumph of a generalized market culture.
We can say now that when Jameson started talking about “postmodern art,” what he meant was something like “fully capitalist art”—though he was more cunning than that and would never have put it that baldly. And “fully capitalist art” isn’t quite right anyway, because even postmodern art retained a complex and transitional character, cultivating some minimal allegiance to art’s inherited forms and institutions—paintings hung in galleries, long novels published by prestige presses—while nonetheless opening these latter up to Hollywood and rock & roll and comic books and advertising. What we witnessed in postmodernism was not, in this sense, the final abandonment of art—not the old avant garde’s rather more liberating fantasy of actually burning down the museums, thereby forcing artists to paint the streets—but a process still visibly underway and captured in freeze-frame—commercial culture’s ongoing expansion into the regions of its former quarantine. Marilyn vanquishes the naiads.
Another quick way to get a handle on what was going on in postmodern art is to imagine that it all began with a realist operation. Even impeccably realist novelists would, if trying to itemize the everyday life of contemporary North Americans, have to register the massive presence of the media in the lives of such people and so introduce into their realism the shadow world of television and the Internet, codes and whispers and images and memes, all taken now as social facts in their own right, at which point the accustomed distinction between realism and meta-fiction would become untenable, because postmodernity promotes meta-fiction to the status of realism. The least realistic thing about most horror movies is that, when the beasties attack, no-one shouts: “This is just like a horror movie”—which is, of course, the very first thing you or I would say. There is no getting around the Realm of Appearance; everything travels through it. The hallmark of High Postmodernism, then, at the level of style, was its commitment to the Code or to Seeming, not to seeming this way or that way, but to seeming as such; its wholly deliberate and upfront play with media images; its bracketing of the world’s objects; its bracketing, too, of what in other circumstances we might have called self-expression; its sense that we are all living in an enclosed videodrome where the signs will ever chatter.
What Jameson wanted to do, back in 1983, was lay out a certain trade off. It’s not that postmodernism didn’t have its pleasures. Postmodern art offered its admirers a sequence of free-floating and discontinuous intensities—this was its delight and its achievement—though we’ll want to note right away that such an achievement basically repeated the experience of channel surfing or listening to FM radio. The problem as Jameson saw it was this: Anyone wanting to pursue these joyous shavings or shards of vividness would have to give up on some of our older ways of trying to make sense of the world—entire vast and intricate modes of historical or structural understanding. For a while there, Jameson was especially drawn to aesthetic artifacts where you could actively experience the swapping of intelligibility for schizoid intensity, where you could sense some inherited expectation of understanding being violated and then feel that ticklish vertigo or camp sublimity creep in behind: great big buildings that make no effort to orient their visitors, that cheerfully allow guests to get lost in them, the luxury hotel as corn maze; historical novels in which the past is never properly retrieved, never allowed to march in review, in which distant events keep slipping away from readers until they realize finally that they are stuck in the present.
It’s that last we’ll want to hang on to: Postmodernism gave up on historical thinking and sometimes seemed to give up on narrative as such. Of course Marx was making the point as early as the 1860s that capitalism made it hard to think historically, simply by introducing into our daily lives an unprecedented degree of social complexity and so blocking our customary understanding of where objects come from. Factory production and long-distance trade fill our lives with mysterious things. And Lukács, similarly, was trying as early as the 1920s to describe an order in which commodities were entirely “constitutive of … society,” in which “the commodity structure [penetrated] society in all its aspects and [remolded] it in its own image”—a society, that is, in which capitalism had completed its historical mission to rob us of our bearings. That’s Jameson’s postmodernism, and there is a certain tone you need to hear in his argument, as though spoken back to Lukács: You thought you had it bad… Surely the sharpest bit of literary criticism that Jameson has ever written are those three pages on Doctorow’s Ragtime in the landmark postmodernism essay: “This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).” There is high drama in that sentence—postmodern ahistoricism comes crashing in to historical thinking’s last literary redoubt—though Jameson could have made matters easier on himself, since there was a whole string of straightforwardly anti-historical novels published between the late ‘60s and the early ‘90s, novels about professional historians and history teachers who abandon the practice of history, who conclude that historical knowledge has decisively eluded them: Grass’s Local Anaesthetic (1969), Swift’s Waterland (1983), Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), Gass’s Tunnel (1995). There’s no mistaking what’s going on in those novels. Doctorow, on the other hand, you could misread as Walter Scott with an oddly clipped prose style.
So the question I really want to ask is: Can you make a postmodern movie about postmodernity? And that isn’t a stupid question because the term postmodernity is fully historical in a manner that is inimical to postmodernism itself. What we’ve been asking is: Can you make a movie about a historical period in a style that isn’t designed for recording history? And our hunch has got to be no. An artwork that is postmodern should not be able to register its own postmodernity, should not be able to draw attention to what is historically novel about its own condition.
More soon, because I think I’ve found the movie that fits the bill….