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Supernatural Horror in Literature (H.P. Lovecraft 1927)

Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1927.

“The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to tappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority; rightly, perhaps, since of course these ordinary matters make up the greater part of human experience.”
“With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them.”
“This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.”
“Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfill every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.”
“As may naturally be expected of a form so closely connected with primal emotion, the horror-tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves.
“Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings. It was, indeed, a prominent feature of the elaborate ceremonial magic, with its rituals for the evocation of dæmons and spectres, which flourished from prehistoric times, and which reached its highest development in Egypt and the Semitic nations.”
“Through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century we behold a growing mass of fugitive legendry and balladry of darksome cast; still, however, held down beneath the surface of polite and accepted literature. Chapbooks of horror and weirdness multiplied, and we glimpse the eager interest of the people through fragments like Defoe’s Apparition of Mrs. Veal, a homely tale of a dead woman’s spectral visit to a distant friend, written to advertise covertly a badly selling theological disquisition on death. The upper orders of society were now losing faith in the supernatural, and indulging in a period of classic rationalism. Then, beginning with the translations of Eastern tales in Queen Anne’s reign and taking definite form toward the middle of the century, comes the revival of romantic feeling — the era of new joy in nature, and in the radiance of past times, strange scenes, bold deeds, and incredible marvels. We feel it first in the poets, whose utterances take on new qualities of wonder, strangeness, and shuddering. And finally, after the timid appearance of a few weird scenes in the novels of the day — such as Smollett’s Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom — the release instinct precipitates itself in the birth of a new school of writing; the “Gothic” school of horrible and fantastic prose fiction, long and short, whose literary posterity is destined to become so numerous, and in many cases so resplendent in artistic merit. It is, when one reflects upon it, genuinely remarkable that weird narration as a fixed and academically recognized literary form should have been so late of final birth. The impulse and atmosphere are as old as man, but the typical weird tale of standard literature is a child of the eighteenth century.”
“What it did above all else was to create a novel type of scene, puppet-characters, and incidents; which, handled to better advantage by writers more naturally adapted to weird creation, stimulated the growth of an imitative Gothic school which in turn inspired the real weavers of cosmic terror — the line of actual artists beginning with Poe. This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and famblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and dæmoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, long-persecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, moistly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form. An harmonious milieu for a new school had been found, and the writing world was not slow to grasp the opportunity.”


“Not so well known as Undine, but remarkable for its convincing realism and freedom from Gothic stock devices, is the Amber Witch of Wilhelm Meinhold, another product of the German fantastic genius of the earlier nineteenth century. “
“But France as well as Germany has been active in the realm of weirdness.”
“IN the eighteen-thirties occurred a literary dawn directly affecting not only the history of the weird tale, but that of short fiction as a whole; and indirectly moulding the trends and fortunes of a great European æsthetic school. It is our good fortune as Americans to be able to claim that dawn as our own, for it came in the person of our most illustrious and unfortunate fellow-countryman Edgar Allan Poe.”
“Truly may it be said that Poe invented the short story in its present form. His elevation of disease, perversity, and decay to the level of artistically expressible themes was likewise infinitely far-reaching in effect; for avidly seized, sponsored, and intensified by his eminent French admirer Charles Pierre Baudelaire, it became the nucleus of the principal æsthetic movements in France, thus making Poe in a sense the father of the Decadents and the Symbolists.”
HE best horror-tales of today, profiting by the long evolution of the type, possess a naturalness, convincingness, artistic smoothness, and skilful intensity of appeal quite beyond comparison with anything in the Gothic work of a century or more ago. Technique, craftsmanship, experience, and psychological knowledge have advanced tremendously with the passing years, so that much of the older work seems naive and artificial; redeemed, when redeemed at all, only by a genius which conquers heavy limitations. The tone of jaunty and inflated romance, full of false motivation and investing every conceivable event with a counterfeit significance and carelessly inclusive glamour, is now confined to lighter and more whimiscal phases of supernatural writing.


The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Frederic Jameson 1984)

Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. 1984


According to Frederic Jameson postmodernism encompasses ideas such as crisis, distopian worldview, radical break, etc. snd it traced back to the late 50s or early 60s). The ascension of postmodernism is explained by the notion of exhaustion that was perceived in relation modernism (in certain specific ways postmodernism is the ideologicl and aesthtical repudiation modernist ideals). However Jamesons questions whether postmodernism implies “any more fundamental change or break than the periodic style- and fashion-changes determined by an older high-modernist imperative of stylistic innovation.” (54).

The rise of aesthetic populism

Jameson states that it is in the realm of architecture that aesthetic production is most visible, and that it is in architectural debates and observations that his own conception of postmodernism was formulated. He argues that modernist buildings are percieved as elitist and stand out from their surrounding context: “High modernism is thus credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and of its older neighbourhood culture” (p.54). By opposition, postmodernism in architecture will present itself as “a kind of aesthetic populism”. Jameson wishes to re-evaluates this populist rhetoric, he argues that postmodern tries to efface or obliterate the frontiers between high and the so-called mass/commercial culture (postmodernism is fascinated with grade B-culture and paraliterature). Beyond the real of culture, theories of the postmodern – whether celebratory or denunciatory- commonly argue that “the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle” (55). Quoting Ernest Mandel, he argues that this is not a development from a previous situation but in fact “purer stage of capitalism than any of the moments that preceded it” (55). Jameson defends that “every position on postmodernism in culture— whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (55).

Postmodernism as cultural dominant

His reading of postmodernism does not intend to be an account of cultural style, movement or stylistic description but rather a periodizing hypothesis. Although the conception of historical periodization has come to be seen as ‘problematic’ – due to its obliteration of difference, linear accounts, homogenization of historical periods- Jameson argues that this is “precisely why it seems to me essential to grasp ‘postmodernism’ not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features” (56).
The repudiation of modernist art (by the older Victorian elite) is now rendered an archaic position and this has come to be largely because of the “canonization and an academic institutionalization of the modern movement generally, which can be traced to the late 1950s.This is indeed surely one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics” (56). Certain specific traits of modern art (sexuality, political defiance, psychological squalor) no longer scandalize anyone. It has become the institutionalized and official culture of Western society. Aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production: economic urgency of producing fresh and new goods generates all aesthetic innovation and experimentation. According to Jameson Architecture has a virtually unmediated relationship with the economic world. Postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it. “Yet this is the point at which we must remind the reader of the obvious, namely that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror” (57).
“If we do not achieve some general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable. This has been at any rate the political spirit in which the following analysis was devised [planned]: to project some conception of a new systemic cultural norm and its reproduction, in order to reflect more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today.” (57).
Jameson’s exposition takes up the following constitutive features of the postmodern: depthlessness, culture of the image (simulacrum), weakening of historicity, constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology, reflections on the mission of political art in the bewildering new world space of late multinational capital.

The deconstruction of expression

Two ways of reading Van Gogh’s painting ‘Peasant shoes’: 1) the object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil. In other words, the transformation of the hard peasant object world into a glorious materialization of pure colour in oil paint is to be seen as a Utopian gesture: as an act of compensation. 2) Stemming from Heidegger’s analysis the picture recreates the missing object-world which was once their lived context. In other words, by way of mediation the work of art links one form of materiality (the earth itself and its paths and physical objects) the materiality of the oil paint – affirmed and foregrounded in its own right and for its own visual pleasures; but has nonetheless a satisfying plausibility.
Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes turns centrally around commodification, it explicitly foregrounds the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. Warhol’s image is the inversion of Van Gogh’s Utopian gesture: “the external and coloured surface of things—debased and contaminated in advance by their assimilation to glossy advertising images— has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them.” (60).

The Waning of Affect

Third feature: Warhol’s human subjects, stars—like Marilyn Monroe—who are themselves commodified and transformed into their own images. And here too a certain brutal return to the older period of high modernism offers a dramatic shorthand parable of the transformation in question.
Munch’s painting The Scream is read not merely as an embodiment of the expression of that kind of affect, but even more as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism, but to have vanished away—for both practical and theoretical reasons—in the world of the postmodern.
“Contemporary theory, which has among other things been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory—or better still, theoretical discourse—is also, I would want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very significant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here.” (61).
“If this new multinational downtown (to which we will return later in another context) effectively abolished the older ruined city fabric which it violently replaced, cannot something similar be said about the way in which this strange new surface in its own peremptory way renders our older systems of perception of the city somehow archaic and aimless, without offering another in their place?” (62).

Euphoria and Self-Annihilation

The Scream deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all the while remaining imprisoned within it. Its gestural content already underscores its own failure, since the realm of the sonorous, the cry, the raw vibrations of the human throat, are incompatible with its medium. The great Warhol figures—Marilyn and Edie Sedgewick— are notorious burn-out and self-destruction cases of the ending 1960s, and the great dominant experiences of drugs and schizophrenia. Van Gogh-type madness, experiences of radical isolation and solitude, anomie, private revolt dominated the period of high modernism. De-centring or fragmentation of the subject suggest two possibilities: 1) the historicist, that a once-existing centred subject, in the period of classical capitalism and the nuclear family, has today in the world of organizational bureaucracy dissolved. 2) the poststructuralist position for which such a subject never existed in the first place but constituted something like an ideological mirage. “What we must now stress, however, is the degree to which the high-modernist conception of a unique style, along with the accompanying collective ideals of an artistic or political vanguard or avant-garde, themselves stand or fall along with that older notion (or experience) of the so-called centred subject” (63).
“The end of the bourgeois ego or monad no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego as well—what I have generally here been calling the waning of affect. But it means the end of much more—the end for example of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal, the end of the distinctive individual brushstroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction). As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centred subject may also mean, not merely a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings—which it may be better and more accurate to call ‘intensities’—are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria to which I will want to return at the end of this essay.” (64).

II. The Postmodern and the Past

Pastiche Eclipses Parody

“For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style—what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation)—the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture”. (65).

‘Historicism’ Effaces History

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call ‘historicism’, namely the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange-value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use-value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it ‘the image has become the final form of commodity reification’ (The Society of the Spectacle). The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. Guy Debord’s powerful slo- gan is now even more apt for the ‘prehistory’ of a society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

The Nostalgia Mode

Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called ‘nostalgia film’ (or what the French call ‘la mode rétro’). Many films have attempted to capture, even aesthetically, the feeling of the ‘good old times’. What is more interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past, or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory. Faced with these ultimate objects—our social, historical and existential present, and the past as ‘referent’—the incompatibility of a postmodern- ist ‘nostalgia’ art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. Pseudo-historical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.The approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage.

The Fate of ‘Real History’

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomally in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World-War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity). The theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory.

Loss of the Radical Past

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’). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject, but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, therefore, it is a ‘realism’ which is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement, and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach. (71)

III. The Breakdown of the Signifying Chain

The crisis in historicity now dictates a return, in a new way, to the question of temporal organization in general in the postmodern force field, and indeed, to the problem of the form that time, temporality and the syntagmatic will be able to take in a culture increasingly dominated by space and spatial logic. If, indeed, the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold, and to organize its past and future into coherent experience, it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but ‘heaps of fragments’ and in a practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory. These are, however, very precisely some of the privileged terms in which postmodernist cultural production has been analysed (and even defended, by its own apologists). Yet they are still privative features; the more substantive formulations bear such names as textual- ity, écriture, or schizophrenic writing, and it is to these that we must now briefly turn. (71)
Children singing German song: “this present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity” (73).
I mainly wanted to show, however, the way in which what I have been calling schizophrenic disjunction or écriture, when it becomes general- ized as a cultural style, ceases to entertain a necessary relationship to the morbid content we associate with terms like schizophrenia, and becomes available for more joyous intensities, for precisely that euphoria which we saw displacing the older affects of anxiety and alienation. (74)

Collage and Radical Difference

The former work of art, in other words, has now turned out to be a text, whose reading proceeds by differentiation rather than by unification. Theories of difference, however, have tended to stress disjunction to the point at which the materials of the text, including its words and sentences, tend to fall apart into random and inert passivity, into a set of elements which entertain purely external separations from one another (75). The vivid perception of radical difference is in and of itself a new mode of grasping what used to be called relationship.

IV. The Hysterical Sublime

Now we need to complete this exploratory account of postmodernist space and time with a final analysis of that euphoria or those intensities which seem so often to characterize the newer cultural experience. The world thereby momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density. But is this now a terrifying or an exhilarating experience? The other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all, as it was in precapitalist societies, but something else which we must now identify.

The Apotheosis of Capitalism

will want to show that technology is here itself a figure for something else. Yet technology may well serve as adequate shorthand to designate that enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery, an alienated power, what Sartre calls the counterfinality of the practico-inert, which turns back on and against us in unrecognizable forms and seems to constitute the massive dystopian horizon of our collective as well as our individual praxis.(77). Architecture therefore remains in this sense the privileged aesthetic language; and the distorting and fragmenting reflexions of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture (79).It is therefore in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that in my opinion the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.

V. Post-Modernism and the City
I am proposing the motion that we are here in the presence of something like a mutation in built space itself. My implication is that we ourselves, the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept pace with that evolution; there has been a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject; we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism (80).

The Bonaventura Hotel
I have mentioned the populist aspect of the rhetorical defence of postmodernism against the elite (and Utopian) austerities of the great architectural modernisms: it is generally affirmed, in other words, that these newer buildings are popular works on the one hand; and that they respect the vernacular of the American city fabric on the other, that is to say, that they no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign-system of the surrounding city, but rather, on the contrary, seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically ‘learned from Las Vegas’ (80-81).

The Bonaventura aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city (and I would want to add that to this new total space corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate, something like the practice of a new and historically original kind of hyper-crowd). 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 (83). The sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentred communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (84).

The New Machine

Michael Herr evokes it in his great book on the experience of Vietnam, called Dispatches. This work may still be considered postmodern, in the eclectic way in which its language impersonally fuses a whole range of contemporary collective idiolects, most notably rock language and Black language: but the fusion is dictated by problems of content. This first terrible postmodernist war cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie—indeed that break- down of all previous narrative paradigms is, along with the breakdown of any shared language through which a veteran might convey such experience, among the principal subjects of the book and may be said to open up the place of a whole new reflexivity. In this new machine, which does not, like the older modernist machinery of the locomotive or the airplane, represent motion, but which can only be represented in motion, something of the mystery of the new postmod- ernist space is concentrated.

VI. The Abolition of Critical Distance
The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available, and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism: the two approaches in fact generate two very different ways of conceptualizing the pheno- menon as a whole, on the one hand moral judgements (about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and on the other a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History.
Of some positive moral evaluation of postmodernism little needs to be said: the complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world (including its social and economic dimension, greeted with equal enthusiasm under the slogan of ‘post-industrial society’) is surely unacceptable—although it may be somewhat less obvious the degree to which current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology, from chips to robots—fantasies entertained not only by left as well as right governments in distress, but also by many intellectuals—are essentially of a piece with more vulgar apologies for postmodernism.
But in that case it is also logical to reject moralizing condemnations of the postmodern and of its essential triviality, when juxtaposed against the Utopian ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms: these are also judgements one finds both on the Left and on the radical Right.
Yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgements must finally be identified as a category-mistake.
the position of the cultural critic and moralist: this last, along with all the rest of us, is now so deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories, that the luxury of the old- fashioned ideological critique, the indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable (85-86).
“ The argument for a certain authenticity in these otherwise patently ideological productions depends on the prior proposition that what we have now been calling postmodern (or multinational) space is not merely a cultural ideology or fantasy, but has genuine historical (and socio-economic) reality as a third great original expansion of capitalism around the globe (after the earlier expansions of the national market and the older imperialist system, which each had their own cultural specificity and generated new types of space appropriate to their dynamics). The distorted and unreflexive attempts of newer cultural production to explore and to express this new space must then also, in their own fashion, be considered as so many approaches to the representation of (a new) reality (to use a more antiquated language). As paradoxical as the terms may seem, they may thus, following a classic interpretive option, be read as peculiar new forms of realism (or at least of the mimesis of reality), at the same time that they can equally well be analysed as so many attempts to distract and to divert us from that reality or to disguise its contradictions and resolve them in the guise of various formal mystifications” (89).

The Need for Maps

Left cultural producers and theorists—particularly those formed by bourgeois cultural traditions issuing from romanticism and valorizing spontaneous, instinctive or unconscious forms of ‘genius’—but also for very obvious historical reasons such as Zhdanovism and the sorry consequences of political and party interven- tions in the arts—have often by reaction allowed themselves to be unduly intimidated by the repudiation, in bourgeois aesthetics and most notably in high modernism, of one of the age-old functions of art— namely the pedagogical and the didactic. The teaching function of art was, however, always stressed in classical times (even though it there mainly took the form of moral lessons); while the prodigious and still imperfectly understood work of Brecht reaffirms, in a new and formally innovative and original way, for the moment of modernism proper, a complex new conception of the relationship between culture and pedagogy. The cultural model I will propose similarly foregrounds the cognitive and pedagogical dimensions of political art and culture, dimensions stressed in very different ways by both Lukács and Brecht (for the distinct moments of realism and modernism, respectively).
The cognitive map is not exactly mimetic, in that older sense; indeed the theoretical issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of representation on a higher and much more complex level.

Social Cartography and Symbol

An aesthetic of cognitive mapping—a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system—will necessarily have to respect this now enormously complex representational dialectic and to invent radically new forms in order to do it justice. This is not, then, clearly a call for a return to some older kind of machinery, some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art—if it is indeed possible at all—will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is, to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion. The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale (92).

The Politics of Postmodernism (Linda Hutcheon 1989)

Linda Hutcheon. The Politics of PostModernism. London and New York: Routledge: 2001 [1989]

1 Representing the postmodern

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political.Postmodernism manifests itself in many fields of cultural endeavor – architecture, literature, photography, film, painting, video, dance, music, and elsewhere. In general terms it takes the form of self-conscious, self- contradictory, self-undermining. Its roots lie in the sphere in which the term ‘postmodern’ first found general usage: architecture. statement.the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us. (12-13)

Representation and its politics

The debates on the definition and evaluation of the postmodern have been conducted largely in political – and negative – terms: primarily neoconservative (Newman 1985; Kramer 1982) and neoMarxist (Eagleton 1985; Jameson 1983, 1984a). Others on the left (Caute 1972; Russell 1985) have seen, instead, its radical political potential, if not actuality, while feminist artists and theorists have resisted the incorporation of their work into postmodernism for fear of recuperation and the attendant de-fusing of their own political agendas. While these debates will not be the main focus of this study, they do form its unavoidable background. (13-14)

The self-reflexive, parodic art of the postmodern comes in, underlining in its ironic way the realization that all cultural forms of representation – literary, visual, aural – in high art or the mass media are ideologically grounded, that they cannot avoid involvement with social and political relations and apparatuses (Burgin 1986b: 55). In saying this, I realize that I am going against a dominant trend in contemporary criticism that asserts that the postmodern is disqualified from political involvement because of its narcissistic and ironic appropriation of existing images and stories and its seemingly limited accessibility. Postmodern art cannot but be political, at least in the sense that its representations – its images and stories – are anything but neutral, however ‘aestheticized’ they may appear to be in their parodic self- reflexivity. Postmodernism works to ‘de- doxify’ our cultural representations and their undeniable political import.‘Postmodern aesthetic experimentation should be viewed as having an irreducible political dimension. It is inextricably bound up with a critique of domination’ (Wellbery 1985: 235).

Yet, it must be admitted from the start that this is a strange kind of critique, one bound up, too, with its own complicity with power and domination, one that acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine. The ambiguities of this kind of position are translated into both the content and the form of postmodern art, which thus at once purveys and challenges ideology – but always self-consciously.

While it may indeed be the case that criticism in the literary and visual arts has traditionally been based on foundations that are expressive (artist-oriented), mimetic (world-imitative), or formalist (art as object), the impact of feminist, gay, Marxist, black, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory has meant the addition of something else to these historical foundations and has effected a kind of merger of their concerns, but now with a new focus: the investigation of the social and ideological production of meaning. From this perspective what we call ‘culture’ is seen as the effect of representations, not their source. Yet, from another point of view, western capitalist culture has also shown an amazing power to normalize (or ‘doxify’) signs and images, however disparate (or contesting) they may be. The work of Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard has zeroed in on the socio-economics of our production and reproduction of signs. These studies have been influential in our understanding of postmodern culture. But it is specifically the politics of postmodern representation – the ideological values and interests that inform any representation – that will be the main focus of this book. (17-18)

Underlying this notion of a postmodern process of cultural ‘de- doxification’ is a theoretical position that seems to assert that we can only know the world through ‘a network of socially established meaning systems, the discourses of our culture’ (Russell 1980: 183). And indeed I have chosen to concentrate here on two art forms which most self-consciously foreground precisely this awareness of the discursive and signifying nature of cultural knowledge and they do so by raising the question of the supposed transparency of representation. These are fiction and photography, the two forms whose histories are firmly rooted in realist representation but which, since their reinterpretation in modernist formalist terms, are now in a position to confront both their documentary and formal impulses. This is the confrontation that I shall be calling postmodernist: where documentary historical actuality meets formalist self-reflexivity and parody. At this conjuncture, a study of representation becomes, not a study of mimetic mirroring or subjective projecting, but an exploration of the way in which narratives and images structure how we see ourselves and how we construct our notions of self, in the present and in the past. (18)

The postmodern appears to coincide with a general cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a particular society.

However, if we believe current social scientific theory, there is a paradox involved in this awareness. On the one hand, there is a sense that we can never get out from under the weight of a long tradition of visual and narrative representations and, on the other hand, we also seem to be losing faith in both the inexhaustibility and the power of those existing representations. And parody is often the postmodern form this particular paradox takes.(19)

Whose postmodernism?

Brian McHale’s postmodernism, with its ontological ‘dominant’ in reaction to the epistemological ‘dominant’ of modernism claims that all are ‘finally fictions.’(Postmodernist Fiction). But we should also include Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism; Jean Baudrillard’s postmodernism, in which the simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent; Kroker and Cook’s (related) hyperreal dark side of postmodernism; Sloterdijk’s postmodernism of cynicism or ‘enlightened false consciousness’; and Alan Wilde’s literary ‘middle grounds’ of the postmodern. (22)

Our culture may eventually come to evaluate postmodern architecture, it certainly began and has continued to be seen by many as politically inspired. The only disagreement is over the direction of its politics: is it neoconservatively nostalgic or is it radically revolutionary?Postmodernism aims to be accessible through its overt and self-conscious parodic, historical, and reflexive forms and thus to be an effective force in our culture. Its complicitous critique, then, situates the postmodern squarely within both economic capitalism and cultural humanism – two of the major dominants of much of the western world.W hat these two dominants have in common, as many have pointed out, are their patriarchal underpinnings. They also share a view of the relation of the individual to the social whole which is rather contradictory, to say the least. In the context of humanism, the individual is unique and autonomous, yet also partakes of that general human essence, human nature. In a capitalist context, as Adorno argued, the pretence of individualism (and thus, of choice) is in fact proportional to the ‘liquidation of the individual’ (Adorno1978: 280) in mass manipulation, carried out, of course, in the name of democratic ideals – the masks of conformity. If, as is frequently the case, postmodernism is identified with a ‘decentering’ of this particular notion of the individual, then both humanist and capitalist notions of selfhood or subjectivity will necessarily be called into question. But I have been arguing that the postmodern involves a paradoxical installing as well as subverting of conventions – including conventions of the representation of the subject. (24-25)

Many commentators have noticed an uneasy mix of parody and history, metafiction and politics. This particular combination is probably historically determined by postmodernism’s conflictual response to literary modernism. On the one hand, the postmodern obviously was made possible by the self-referentiality, irony, ambiguity, and parody that characterize much of the art of modernism, as well as by its explorations of language and its challenges to the classic realist system of representation; on the other hand, postmodern fiction has come to contest the modernist ideology of artistic autonomy, individual expression, and the deliberate separation of art from mass culture and everyday life (Huyssen 1986: 53–4). (26)

Postmodernism paradoxically manages to legitimize culture (high and mass) even as it subverts it. It is this doubleness that avoids the danger Jameson (1985: 52) sees in the subverting or deconstructing impulse operating alone: that is, the danger (for the critic) of the illusion of critical distance. It is the function of irony in postmodern discourse to posit that critical distance and then undo it. It is also this doubleness that prevents any possible critical urge to ignore or trivialize historical-political questions. As producers or receivers of postmodern art, we are all implicated in the legitimization of our culture. Postmodern art openly investigates the critical possibilities open to art, without denying that its critique is inevitably in the name of its own contradictory ideology. (26)

Instead this study offers an investigation of one particular definition of postmodernism from the point of view of its politicized challenges to the conventions of representation. there are two clearly opposed ‘camps’ in the postmodern wars: the objections seem to be consistently to what are perceived as, on the one hand, the ahistoricism and pastiched depthlessness of the postmodern and, on the other, its crossing of boundaries of genre and discourse once considered discrete and firm.To Alan Wilde, irony is a positive and defining characteristic of the postmodern; to Terry Eagleton, irony is what condemns postmodernism to triviality and kitsch. To some, postmodernism’s inevitable implication in the high art/mass culture debate is significant; to others, it is lamentable. To M.H. Abrams (1981: 110), the ‘irresolvable indeterminacies’ by which he defines the postmodern are implicitly related to meaninglessness and the undermining of cultural foundations, whereas to Ihab Hassan those same indeterminacies are part of ‘a vast, revisionary will in the Western world, unsettling/ resettling codes, canons, procedures, beliefs’ (1987: xvi). (29)

Few have noted the even more important impact of various forms of feminism on the need to investigate the complexity of aesthetic/political interactions on the level of representation (see, however, Owens 1983 and Creed 1987). There has been an understandable suspicion of the deconstructing and undermining impulse of postmodernism at a historic moment when construction and support seem more important agendas for women. Yet, as the work of Christa Wolf, Angela Carter, Susan Daitch, Audrey Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston shows, ‘de- doxification’ is as inherently a part of feminist as it is of postmodernist discourse. This is not to deny the gender blindness of much postmodern writing.

The many feminist social agendas demand a theory of agency, but such a theory is visibly lacking in postmodernism, caught as it in a certain negativity that may be inherent in any critique of cultural dominants. It has no theory of positive action on a social level; all feminist positions do. This relation between the feminist and the postmodern is the topic of the final chapter of this study, but it is important to note from the start both the impact of the feminist on the postmodern and their shared deconstructing impulses.

it is also not accidental that feminist theory’s recent self-positioning both inside and outside dominant ideologies, using representation both to reveal misrepresentation and to offer new possibilities, coincides with the (admittedly more) complicitous critique of postmodernism. Both try to avoid the bad faith of believing they can stand outside ideology, but both want to reclaim their right to contest the power of a dominant one, even if from a compromised position. Victor Burgin has claimed that he wants his art and theory to show the meaning of sexual difference (for others, it is difference of class, race, ethnicity, or sexual preference) as a process of production, as ‘something mutable, something historical, and therefore something we can do something about’ (Burgin 1986a: 108). Postmodernism may not do that something, but it may at least show what needs undoing first. (34)

Postmodernity, postmodernism, and modernism

Postmodernity as the designation of a social and philosophical period or ‘condition.’ It has been variously defined in terms of the relationship between intellectual and state discourses; as a condition determined by universal, diffuse cynicism, by a panic sense of the hyperreal and the simulacrum. Nevertheless many do see postmodernity as involving a critique of humanism and positivism, and an investigation of the relation of both to our notions of subjectivity.In the broadest of terms, these all share a view of discourse as problematic and of ordering systems as suspect (and as humanly constructed). The debate about postmodernity – and the confusion with postmodernism – seems to have begun with the exchange on the topic of modernity between Jürgen Habermas and Jean- François Lyotard. Both agreed that modernity could not be separated from notions of unity and universality or what Lyotard dubbed ‘metanarratives.’ Habermas argued that the project of modernity, rooted in the context of Enlightenment rationality, was still unfinished and required completion; Lyotard countered with the view that modernity has actually been liquidated by history, a history whose tragic paradigm was the Nazi concentration camp and whose ultimate delegitimizing force was that of capitalist ‘technoscience’ which has changed for ever our concepts of knowledge. Therefore, for Lyotard, postmodernity is characterized by no grand totalizing narrative, but by smaller and multiple narratives which seek no universalizing stabilization or legitimation. Fredric Jameson has pointed out that both Lyotard and Habermas are clearly working from different, though equally strong, legitimating ‘narrative archetypes’ – one French and (1789) Revolutionary in inspiration, the other Germanic and Hegelian; one valuing commitment, the other consensus. Richard Rorty has offered a trenchant critique of both positions, ironically noting that what they share is an almost overblown sense of the role of philosophy today. (36)

The slippage from postmodernity to postmodernism is constant and deliberate in Jameson’s work: for him postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism.’ It replicates, reinforces, and intensifies the ‘deplorable and reprehensible’ (85) socio-economic effects of postmodernity. Perhaps. But I want to argue that it also critiques those effects, while never pretending to be able to operate outside them. Yet what is confusing is that Jameson retains the word postmodernism for both the socio-economic periodization and the cultural designation.

There is a strong sense that postmodernism somehow represents a lowering of standards or that it is the lamentable consequence of the institutionalization and acculturation of the radical potential of modernism. In other words, it would seem to be difficult to discuss postmodernism without somehow engaging in a debate about the value and even identity of modernism. Opposition between those who believe postmodernism represents a break from modernism, and those who see it in a relation of continuity. (38)

2 Postmodernist representation

De-naturalizing the natural

Postmodern representation is self-consciously all of these – image, narrative, product of (and producer of) ideology. It is a truism of sociology and cultural studies today to say that life in the postmodern world is utterly mediated through representations and that our age of satellites and computers has gone well beyond Benjamin’s ‘Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and its particular philosophical and artistic consequences and moved into a state of crisis in representation. Nevertheless, in literary and art critical circles there is still a tendency to see postmodern theory and practice either as simply replacing representation with the idea of textuality or as denying our intricate involvement with representation, even though much postmodern thought has disputed this tendency: think of Derrida’s statements about the inescapability of the logic of representation, and Foucault’s problematization, though never repudiation, of our traditional modes of representation in our discourses of knowledge.

The real is ‘enabled to mean through systems of signs organized into discourses on the world’ (Tickner 1984: 19). This is obviously where the politics of representation enters for, according to the Althusserian view, ideology is a production of representations. Our common-sense presuppositions about the ‘real’ depend upon how that ‘real’ is described, how it is put into discourse and interpreted. There is nothing natural about the ‘real’ and there never was – even before the existence of mass media. (44)

Many postmodern strategies are openly premised on a challenge to the realist notion of representation that presumes the transparency of the medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign and referent or between word and world. Of course, modernist art, in all its forms, challenged this notion as well, but it deliberately did so to the detriment of the referent, that is, by emphasizing the opacity of the medium and the self-sufficiency of the signifying system. What postmodernism does is to denaturalize both realism’s transparency and modernism’s reflexive response, while retaining (in its typically complicitously critical way) the historically attested power of both. This is the ambivalent politics of postmodern representation. (46)

In other words, the history of representation itself can become a valid subject of art, and not just its history in high art. The borders between high art and mass or popular culture and those between the discourses of art and the discourses of the world (especially history) are regularly crossed in postmodern theory and practice. But it must be admitted that this crossing is rarely done without considerable border tension. a self-reflexive text suggests that perhaps narrative does not derive its authority from any reality it represents, but from ‘the cultural conventions that define both narrative and the construct we call “reality”.

If this is so, the mixing of the reflexively fictional with the verifiably historical might well be doubly upsetting for some critics. Historiographic metafiction represents not just a world of fiction, however self-consciously presented as a constructed one, but also a world of public experience. The difference between this and the realist logic of reference is that here that public world is rendered specifically as discourse. How do we know the past today? Through its discourses, through its texts – that is, through the traces of its historical events: the archival materials, the documents, the narratives of witnesses . . . and historians. On one level, then, postmodern fiction merely makes overt the processes of narrative representation – of the real or the fictive and of their interrelations. (47)

Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutually contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery – that is, to totalize. Roland Barthes once asked: ‘Is it not the characteristic of reality to be unmasterable? And is it not the characteristic of system to master it? What then, confronting reality, can one do who rejects mastery?’ (1977b: 172). Postmodern representation itself contests mastery and totalization, often by unmasking both their powers and their limitations. (48)

On the level of representation, this postmodern questioning overlaps with similarly pointed challenges by those working in, for example, postcolonial and feminist contexts. How is the ‘other’ represented in, say, imperialist or patriarchal discourses? But a caveat is in order. It may be true that postmodern thought ‘refuses to turn the Other into the Same’ (During 1987: 33), but there is also a very real sense in which the postmodernist notions of difference and a positively valorized marginality often reveal the same familiar totalizing strategies of domination, though usually masked by the liberating rhetoric of First World critics who appropriate Third World cultures to their own ends (Chow 1986– 7: 91). Postmodernist critique is always compromised.

‘To the postmodernist mind, everything is empty at the center. Our vision is not integrated – and it lacks form and definition’ (Gablik 1984: 17). Actually, that center is not so much empty as called into question, interrogated as to its power and its politics.

Postmodern historiographic metafiction asks us to question how we represent – how we construct – our view of reality and of our selves. Along with the photographic practices of Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, and Silvia Kolbowski, as we shall see, these novels ask us to acknowledge that representation has a politics. (52-53)

Photographic discourse

As a visual medium, photography has a long history of being both politically useful and politically suspect. Photography today is one of the major forms of discourse through which we are seen and see ourselves. Frequently what I want to call postmodern photography foregrounds the notion of ideology as representation by appropriating recognizable images from that omnipresent visual discourse, almost as an act of retaliation for its (unacknowledged) political nature or its (unacknowledged) constructing of those images of ourselves and our world.But postmodern photography also addresses the medium’s history and it does so in a way that goes beyond obvious journalistic instrumentality and capitalist seduction: for instance, modernism’s formalist art-photography and the documentary ‘victim’ photography of the 1930s are made rather politically problematic in the work of Sherrie Levine and Martha Rosler, respectively.

What is common to all these postmodern challenges to convention is their simultaneous exploitation of the power of that convention and their reliance on the viewers’ knowledge of its particulars. In most cases, this reliance does not necessarily lead to elitist exclusion, because the convention being evoked hasusuallybecomepartofthecommonrepresentationalvocabulary of newspapers, magazines, and advertising – even if its history is more extensive. Many video and performance artists have used similar methods to address social and political issues from within the discourse of that larger field of cultural representations that includes television, Hollywood movies, and commercial advertising. Reappropriating existing representations that are effective precisely because they are loaded with pre-existing meaning and putting them into new and ironic contexts is a typical form of postmodern photographic complicitous critique: while exploiting the power of familiar images, it also de-naturalizes them, makes visible the concealed mechanisms which work to make them seem transparent, and brings to the fore their politics, that is to say, the interests in which they operate and the power they wield (Folland 1988: 60).(55)

What these artists share with the postmodern photographers I have mentioned is a focus on the ways in which art overlaps and interacts with the social system of the present and the past. All representations have a politics; they also have a history. The conjunction of these two concerns in what has been called the New Art History has meant that issues like gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are now part of the discourse of the visual arts, as they are of the literary ones. Social history cannot be separated from the history of art; there is no value-neutral, much less value-free, place from which to represent in any art form. And there never was. (57-58)

Telling stories: fiction and history

The politics of narrative representation can apparently sometimes be of limited efficacy when it comes to the representation of politics.

We may no longer have recourse to the grand narratives that once made sense of life for us, but we still have recourse to narrative representations of some kind in most of our verbal discourses, and one of the reasons may be political. this is precisely what postmodern novels like Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton or Roa Bastos’s I the Supreme or Graham Swift’s Waterland are about. And in none of these cases is there ever what Jameson associates with the postmodern: ‘a repudiation of representation, a “revolutionary” break with the (repressive) ideology of storytelling generally’ (Jameson 1984c: 54). This misconception shows the danger of defining the postmodern in terms of (French or American) anti- representational late modernism, as so many do. In these novels, there is no dissolution or repudiation of representation; but there is a problematizing of it. Historiographic metafiction is written today in the context of a serious contemporary interrogating of the nature of representation in historiography. (61)

The issue of representation in both fiction and history has usually been dealt with in epistemological terms, in terms of how we know the past. The past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled – as various forms of modernist art suggest through their implicit view of the ‘nightmare’ of history. The past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgement of limitation as well as power. We only have access to the past today through its traces – its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. In a very real sense, postmodernism reveals a desire to understand present culture as the product of previous representations. The representation of history becomes the history of representation. What this means is that postmodern art acknowledges and accepts the challenge of tradition: the history of representation cannot be escaped but it can be both exploited and commented on critically through irony and parody, as we shall see in more detail in chapter 4. (69)

3 Re-presenting the past

‘Total history’ de-totalized

Witness Annales historian Fernand Braudel’s stated aim: ‘Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life’ (Braudel 1980: 16). Totalizing narrative representation has also, of course, been considered by some critics as the defining characteristic of the novel as a genre, ever since its beginnings in the overt controlling and ordering (and fictionalizing) of Cervantes and Sterne.(74)

To challenge the impulse to totalize is to contest the entire notion of continuity in history and its writing. In Foucault’s terms discontinuity, once the ‘stigma of temporal dislocation’ that it was the historian’s professional job to remove from history, has become a new instrument of historical analysis and simultaneously a result of that analysis. Instead of seeking common denominators and homogeneous networks of causality and analogy, historians have been freed, Foucault argues, to note the dispersing interplay of different, heterogeneous discourses that acknowledge the undecidable in both the past and our knowledge of the past. These are among the issues raised by postmodern fiction in its paradoxical confrontation of self-consciously fictive and resolutely historical representation. (77)

The particularizing and contextualizing that characterize the postmodern focus are, of course, direct responses to those strong (and very common) totalizing and universalizing impulses. But the resulting postmodern relativity and provisionality are not causes for despair; they are to be acknowledged as perhaps the very conditions of historical knowledge. Historical meaning may thus be seen today as unstable, contextual, relational, and provisional, but postmodernism argues that, in fact, it has always been so. (78)

Postmodern fiction like this exploits and yet simultaneously calls into question notions of closure, totalization, and universality that are part of those challenged grand narratives. Rather than seeing this paradoxical use and abuse as a sign of decadence or as a cause for despair, it might be possible to postulate a less negative interpretation that would allow for at least the potential for radical critical possibilities. Perhaps we need a rethinking of the social and political (as well as the literary and historical) representations by which we understand our world. Maybe we need to stop trying to find totalizing narratives which dissolve difference and contradiction (into, for instance, either humanist eternal Truth or Marxist dialectic). (81)

Knowing the past in the present

For the most part historiographic metafiction, like much contemporary theory of history, does not fall into either ‘presentism’ or nostalgia in its relation to the past it represents. What it does is de-naturalize that temporal relationship. In both historiographic theory and postmodern fiction, there is an intense self-consciousness (both theoretical and textual) about the act of narrating in the present the events of the past, about the conjunction of present action and the past absent object of that agency. In both historical and literary postmodern representation, the doubleness remains; there is no sense of either historian or novelist reducing the strange past to verisimilar present. (82)

It is at this level that these epistemological questions of postmodern narrative representation are posed. How can the present know the past it tells? We constantly narrate the past, but what are the conditions of the knowledge implied by that totalizing act of narration? Must a historical account acknowledge where it does not know for sure or is it allowed to guess? Do we know the past only through the present? Or is it a matter of only being able to understand the present through the past? (83)

The issue of representation and its epistemological claims leads directly to the problem introduced in the last chapter regarding the nature and status of the ‘fact’ in both history-writing and fiction-writing. All past ‘events’ are potential historical ‘facts,’ but the ones that become facts are those that are chosen to be narrated. We have seen that this distinction between brute event and meaning-granted fact is one with which postmodern fiction seems obsessed. (86)

Historiographic metafiction like this is self-conscious about the paradox of the totalizing yet inevitably partial act of narrative representation. It overtly ‘de-doxifies’ received notions about the process of representing the actual in narrative – be it fictional or historical. It traces the processing of events into facts, exploiting and then undermining the conventions of both novelistic realism and historiographic reference. It implies that, like fiction, history constructs its object, that events named become facts and thus both do and do not retain their status outside language. This is the paradox of postmodernism. The past really did exist, but we can only know it today through its textual traces, its often complex and indirect representations in the present: documents, archives, but also photographs, paintings, architecture, films, and literature. (89)

The archive as text

If the past is only known to us today through its textualized traces (which, like all texts, are always open to interpretation), then the writing of both history and historiographic metafiction becomes a form of complex intertextual cross-referencing that operates within (and does not deny) its unavoidably discursive context. There can be little doubt of the impact of poststructuralist theories of textuality on this kind of writing, for this is writing that raises basic questions about the possibilities and limits of meaning in the representation of the past. The focus on textuality, in LaCapra’s words, ‘serves to render less dogmatic the concept of reality by pointing to the fact that one is “always already” implicated in problems of language use’ (1983: 26) and discourse. (92)

Postmodern paratextual insertions of these different kinds of historical traces of events, what historians call documents – be they newspaper clippings, legal statements, or photographic illustrations – de-naturalize the archive, foregrounding above all the textuality of its representations. These documentary texts appear in footnotes, epigraphs, prefaces, and epilogues; sometimes they are parachuted directly into the fictive discourse, as if in a collage. What they all do, however, is pose once again that important postmodern question: how exactly is it that we come to know the past? In these novels, we literally see the paratextual traces of history, the discourses or texts of the past, its documents and its narrativized representations. But the final result of all this self-consciousness is not to offer us any answers to that question, but only to suggest even more problematizing queries. How can historiography (much less fiction) begin to deal with what Coover’s Uncle Sam calls ‘the fatal slantindicular futility of Fact?’ (103)

4 The politics of parody

Parodic postmodern representation

Parodic reprise of the past of art is not nostalgic; it is always critical. It is also not ahistorical or de-historicizing; it does not wrest past art from its original historical context and reassemble it into some sort of presentist spectacle. Instead, through a double process of installing and ironizing, parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference. Parody also contests our humanist assumptions about artistic originality and uniqueness and our capitalist notions of ownership and property. With parody – as with any form of reproduction – the notion of the original as rare, single, and valuable (in aesthetic or commercial terms) is called into question. This does not mean that art has lost its meaning and purpose, but that it will inevitably have a new and different significance. In other words, parody works to foreground the politics of representation. Needless to say, this is not the accepted view of postmodernist parody. The prevailing interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free, decorative, de- historicized quotation of past forms and that this is a most apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images. Instead, I would want to argue that postmodernist parody is a value-problematizing, de- naturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the politics) of representations.(104-105)

Contrary to the prevailing view of parody as a kind of ahistorical and apolitical pastiche, postmodern art like this uses parody and irony to engage the history of art and the memory of the viewer in a re-evaluation of aesthetic forms and contents through a reconsideration of their usually unacknowledged politics of representation. As Dominick LaCapra has so forcefully put it: “irony and parody are themselves not unequivocal signs of disengagement on the part of an apolitical, transcendental ego that floats above historical reality or founders in the abysmal pull of aporia. Rather a certain use of irony and parody may play a role both in the critique of ideology and in the anticipation of a polity wherein commitment does not exclude but accompanies an ability to achieve critical distance on one’s deepest commitments and desires”(LaCapra 1987: 128) Postmodernism offers precisely that ‘certain use of irony and parody.’

Double-coded politics

As form of ironic representation, parody is doubly coded in political terms: it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies. This kind of authorized transgression is what makes it a ready vehicle for the political contradictions of postmodernism at large. Parody can be used as a self- reflexive technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture’s means of ideological legitimation. How do some representations get legitimized and authorized? (112)

Postmodern parodic strategies are often used by feminist artists to point to the history and historical power of those cultural representations, while ironically contextualizing both in such a way as to deconstruct them. (113)

Is there a problem of accessibility here, however? What if we do not recognize the represented figures or the parodied composition? The title, I suppose, does alert us to the place to look for a means of access – Sandler’s textbook. This functions much as do the acknowledgement pages of postmodern parodic fiction (such as Berger’s G., Thomas’s The White Hotel, Banville’s Doctor Copernicus). These may not provide all the parodic allusions, but they teach us the rules of the game and make us alert to other possibilities. This is not to deny, however, that there exists a very real threat of elitism or lack of access in the use of parody in any art. This question of accessibility is undeniably part of the politics of postmodern representation. (116)

Parody in postmodern art is more than just a sign of the attention artists pay to each others’ work and to the art of the past. It may indeed be complicitous with the values it inscribes as well as subverts, but the subversion is still there: the politics of postmodern parodic representation is not the same as that of most rock videos’ use of allusions to standard film genres or texts. This is what should be called pastiche, according to Jameson’s definition. In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or recuperative evasion of contradiction in narrative fiction, painting, photography, or film.(117)

Postmodern film?

I have argued that the question of ideology’s relation to subjectivity is central to postmodernism. The challenges to the humanist concept of a coherent, continuous, autonomous individual (who paradoxically also shares in some generalized universal human essence) have come from all sides today: from poststructuralist philosophical and literary theory, Marxist political philosophy, Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis, sociology, and many other domains. We have also seen that photography and fiction – two art forms with a certain relevance for film – have shared in this questioning of the nature and formation of subjectivity. Where modernism investigated the grounding of experience in the self, its focus was on the self seeking integration amid fragmentation. In other words, its (for many, defining) focus on subjectivity was still within the dominant humanist framework, though the obsessive search for wholeness itself suggests the beginnings of what would be a more radical postmodern questioning, a challenging brought about by the doubleness of postmodern discourse. In other words, postmodernism works both to underline and to undermine the notion of the coherent, self-sufficient subject as the source of meaning or action. (119)

Writing as I do in an Anglo-American context, I think that Jameson’s blanket condemnation of Hollywood for its wholesale implication in capitalism (made from within an academy that is just as implicated) is what is behind his distrust of irony and ambiguity, a distrust that blinds him to the possibilities of the potentially positive oppositional and contestatory nature of parody. Postmodern film does not deny that it is implicated in capitalist modes of production, because it knows it cannot. Instead it exploits its ‘insider’ position in order to begin a subversion from within, to talk to consumers in a capitalist society in a way that will get us where we live, so to speak. The difference between postmodern parody and nostalgia – which once again I do not deny is part of our culture today – lies in the role of this double-voiced irony. (125)

Postmodern film, as I see it, would be more compromised than this. Its tensions would be more deliberately left unresolved, its contradictions more deliberately left manifest. This constant double encoding – inscribing and subverting prevailing conventions – is what causes some critics to reject such films utterly, while others acclaim them enthusiastically. This discrepancy may be caused by the fact that if only one side – either – of the postmodern contradiction is seen (or valued), then the ambivalent doubleness of the parodic encoding can easily be resolved into a single decoding. Postmodern film is that which paradoxically wants to challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though rarely offer answers) about ideology’s role in subject-formation and in historical knowledge. Perhaps parody is a particularly apt representational strategy for postmodernism, a strategy once described (Said 1983: 135) as the use of parallel script rather than original inscription. Were we to heed the implications of such a model, we might have to reconsider the operations by which we both create and give meaning to our culture through representation. And that is not bad for a so-called nostalgic escapist tendency. (128)

5 Text/image border tensions

The paradoxes of photography

Since I have been defining postmodernism from a model based on architecture, I have argued that postmodern art in other forms is art that is fundamentally paradoxical in its relation to history: it is both critical of and complicitous with that which precedes it. Its relationship with the aesthetic and social past out of which it openly acknowledges it has come is one characterized by irony, though not necessarily disrespect. Basic contradictions mark its contact with artistic conventions of both production and reception: it seeks accessibility, without surrendering its right to criticize the consequences of that access. Postmodernism’s relation to late capitalism, patriarchy, and the other forms of those (now suspect) master narratives is paradoxical: the postmodern does not deny its inevitable implication in them, but it also wants to use that ‘insider’ position to ‘de-doxify’ the ‘givens’ that ‘go without saying’ in those grand systems. Thus, it is neither neoconservatively nostalgic nor radically revolutionary; it is unavoidably compromised – and it knows it.

These postmodern text/image combinations consciously work to point to the coded nature of all cultural messages. They do so by overtly being re- visions: they offer a second seeing, through double vision, wearing the spectacles of irony. Thus, they can be subtly critical of received notions of art and artistic production: there is nothing eternal or universal or natural about representation here. The conjunction of text and image raises new questions, but these are also questions that what is called the New Photography has been asking since the 1960. (134)

Postmodern photographic art uses this arena, uses its viewers’ cultural knowledge (and expectations), and then turns it all against itself – and against the viewers as well. Barbara Kruger, for instance, disrupts notions of proper high-art codes by presenting the same text/image combinations in forms that vary in size and mode from billboards to postcards, from huge enlargements (often 6 feet by 10 feet) hanging on gallery walls to much smaller scale reproductions in art books or on T-shirts. In appropriating images from both high art and clichéd mass media and then ‘violating’ them by severe cropping and by the superimposition of verbal one-liners, she uses ‘fringe interference’ to new and openly political ends.

I should add that my interest here is not in magazine ‘photo texts’ or in books which bring texts and photographic images together. Postmodern photographic art is also different from the photo-essays of photojournalism. Each work (or series of works) is in itself both photo and graphic; any critical approach to it must therefore be literally iconological: it must concern itself with both the art’s icon and its logos, as well as with their interactions. This is literally photo-graphic art. (135)

The ideological arena of photo-graphy

The addition of a verbal text to the visual in photo-graphy, then, might be seen as a possible tactic used to secure visual meaning. In this kind of postmodern art, however, while the relation of the text to the image is never one of pure redundancy, emphasis, or repetition, the text also never guarantees any one single, already apparent meaning. (135-136)

If photography is, as a visual medium, inherently paradoxical, it is also semiotically hybrid. In Peirce’s terms, it is both indexical (its representation is based on some physical connection) and iconic (it is a representation of likeness) in its relation to the real. This complex hybrid nature is another reason why photography has become particularly important in a time of challenge to modes of representation. (141)

Postmodernism’s mutually effective interferences on the ‘fringes’ of both the linguistic and the pictorial cannot be separated from the theoretical – and also political – contexts that they inevitably evoke in photo-graphy. (145)

The politics of address

What could be called the rhetoric of postmodern apostrophe or, better perhaps, its semiotics of address cannot but be of importance in postmodern art and theory which self-consciously work to ‘situate’ their production and reception and to contextualize the acts of perception and interpretation. The addition of verbal texts to photographic images in photo-graphy makes explicit what is usually left implicit in the visual: the implication of an addressed viewer. (145-146)

Postmodern photo-graphy is for me one of the art forms that best exemplifies the heritage of the politicized 1960s and 1970s, of Vietnam protest and feminism, of civil rights and gay activism. It is not disconnected from the social and the political. The ‘fringe interferences’ of photo-graphy are multiple; they play with the border tensions of theory, politics, and art as well as those of high art and mass media, and they do so while de-naturalizing the borders between text and image. The conventions of the discourses of both the verbal and the visual, however, are at once inscribed and challenged, used and abused. This is the art of complicity as well as critique, even in its most radically polemical political forms. This does not invalidate its critique; rather, it can be seen as both an important means of access and an avoidance of the kind of bad faith that believes art (or criticism) can ever be outside ideology. In Barbara Kruger’s postmodern terms: ‘I don’t think there’s a blameless place where work can function. One has to work within the confines of a system’ (in Schreiber 1987: 268). (151)

6 Postmodernism and feminisms

As a verbal sign of difference and plurality, ‘feminisms’ would appear to be the best term to use to designate, not a consensus, but a multiplicity of points of view which nevertheless do possess at least some common denominators when it comes to the notion of the politics of representation.) (152)

Politicizing desire

If, in the postmodern age, we do live in what has been called a recessionary erotic economy brought about by fear of disease and a fetishization of fitness, the erotic cannot but be part of that general problematizing of the body and its sexuality.I would want to argue for the powerful impact of feminist practices on postmodernism – though not for the conflation of the two. (153)

Feminisms have also refocused attention on the politics of representation and knowledge – and therefore also on power. They have made postmodernism think, not just about the body, but about the female body; not just about the female body, but about its desires – and about both as socially and historically constructed through representation. (154)

Even the more generally accepted articulations of specifically female and feminist contestation, such as Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, could be seen as an implicitly parodic challenge to the patriarchal madonna and child tradition of western high art: as I suggested earlier, it politicizes and de- naturalizes what has been seen as the most ‘natural’ of relationships by articulating it through the everyday discourse of the actual female experience of mothering. But it is this change of discourse that makes Kelly’s work less problematic as a feminist work than that of some others. (162)

Feminist postmodernist parody

When Ann Kaplan asks of cinema ‘Is the gaze male?’ (1983), she problematizes to some extent what feminisms have accepted (at least since Laura Mulvey’s important article on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’) as the maleness of the camera eye that makes women into exhibitionists to be observed and displayed, ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 1975: 11). This leaves the female as spectator in the position of either narcissistic identification or some kind of psychic cross-dressing. (162)

Many commentators have recently pointed to the maleness of the modernist tradition, and therefore to the implied maleness of any postmodernism that is either in reaction to or even a conscious break from that modernism. Feminisms have resisted incorporation into the postmodern camp, and with good reason: their political agendas would be endangered, or at least obscured by the double coding of postmodernism’s complicitous critique; their historical particularities and relative positionalities would risk being subsumed. (163)

Male desire, while supposedly discredited, is in fact inscribed without even the contestation that postmodern complicitous critique would offer. I really do not know what to do with this. At times I wonder if, in order to represent herself, woman must assume a masculine position; yet, Kruger and others have shown that this positioning can be done parodically, through postmodern strategies that still allow for serious contestation. I suppose this leaves a final question: what would the full rejection of that male position look like? Feminist film provides the most obvious and important examples and Nancy Spero’s ‘peinture féminine,’ while still implicitly deconstructing the male sexuality underlying the erotic conventions of female representations, offers a female gaze in which women are protagonists and subjects, not the traditional erotic objects of desire. Her refigurations of the female body may be one answer, suggesting a move beyond that potential impasse of the (perhaps inevitable) maleness of the gaze. However, I also think postmodernist parody would be among the ‘practical strategies’ that have become ‘strategic practices’ (Parker and Pollock 1987b) in feminist art’s attempt to present new kinds of female pleasure, new articulations of female desire, by offering tactics for deconstruction – for inscribing in order to subvert the patriarchal visual traditions. But I also think feminisms have pushed postmodern theory and art in directions they might not otherwise have headed. One of these directions involves a return to a topic treated in some detail earlier in this study: that of history. (171)

The private and the public

In granting new and emphatic value to the notion of ‘experience,’ feminisms have also raised an issue of great importance to postmodern representation: what constitutes a valid historical narrative? And who decides? This has led to the re-evaluation of personal or life narratives – journals, letters, confessions, biographies, autobiographies, self-portraits. In Catherine Stimpson’s terms: ‘Experience generated more than art; it was a source of political engagement as well’ (1988: 226). If the personal is the political, then the traditional separation between private and public history must be rethought. This feminist rethinking has coincided with a general renegotiation of the separation of high art from the culture of everyday life – popular and mass culture – and the combined result has been a reconsideration of both the context of historical narrative and the politics of representation and self-representation. (171- 172)

Besides the postmodern self-consciousness here about the paradoxes and problems of historical representation (and self-representation), there is also a very feminist awareness of the value of experience and the importance of its representation in the form of ‘life-writing’ – however difficult or even falsifying that process might turn out to be. It may be the case that we can ‘no longer tell exactly what we have experienced’ (362) and that the attempt to represent some version of that is inevitably a process of ‘[e]rasing, selecting, stressing’ (359), but the constraints must be faced and not used as an excuse for not making the attempt. (178)

There is, then, a two-way involvement of the postmodern with the feminist: on the one hand, feminisms have successfully urged postmodernism to reconsider – in terms of gender – its challenges to that humanist universal called ‘Man’ and have supported and reinforced its de- naturalization of the separation between the private and the public, the personal and the political; on the other hand, postmodern parodic representational strategies have offered feminist artists an effective way of working within and yet challenging dominant patriarchal discourses. That said, there is still no way in which the feminist and the postmodern – as cultural enterprises – can be conflated. The differences are clear, and none so clear as the political one. (178)

Feminisms will continue to resist incorporation into postmodernism, largely because of their revolutionary force as political movements working for real social change. They go beyond making ideology explicit and deconstructing it to argue a need to change that ideology, to effect a real transformation of art that can only come with a transformation of patriarchal social practices. Postmodernism has not theorized agency; it has no strategies of resistance that would correspond to the feminist ones. Postmodernism manipulates, but does not transform signification; it disperses but does not (re)construct the structures of subjectivity (Foster 1985; 6). Feminisms must. Feminist artists may use postmodern strategies of parodic inscription and subversion in order to initiate the deconstructive first step but they do not stop there. While useful (especially in the visual arts where the insistence of the male gaze seems hard to avoid), such internalized subversion does not automatically lead to the production of the new, not even new representations of female desire. As one critic asks: ‘is it possible to create new erotic codes – and I assume that is what feminism is striving for – without in some ways reusing the old?’ (Winship 1987: 127). Perhaps postmodern strategies do, however, offer ways for women artists at least to contest the old – the representations of both their bodies and their desires – without denying them the right to re-colonize, to reclaim both as sites of meaning and value. Such practices also remind us all that every representation always has its politics. (179)

Concluding notes


The Horror Film (Peter Hutchings 2004)

Peter Hutchings, 2004. The Horror Film (Inside Film). Harlow: Longman. (244 pages)

The volume is an in-depth investigation of horror films which raises key issues concerning the appeal and the frequently hard-to-attain definition of the horror genre. The introductory chapter engages an excellent discussion about the limits and definition of the genre. The author addresses the problem in a “chicken and egg” way (p.6) problematising with the election of a body of study vs. definition of a genre. Is it the body of texts which defines our ideas about the horror genre or, is there a basal genre concept which is used as a framework in the definition of the horror genre? How can we decide which films belong to a particular genre without a definition of that genre, and yet how can one form such a definition without knowing in the first place which films belong to that genre?

With that pursuit in mind Hutchings names his initial discussion “Do you know a horror film when you see one?”. It is admirable to see the way the author starts to challenge certain critical assumptions about Horror films and the way they select their body of texts. He suggests that while very few critics nowadays would leave out Dracula in a discussion about horror films, not many would consider looking at Silent of the Lambs, for instance, as part of horror genre movies. The discussion is wrapped up with the suggestion that the horror genre is a mutant concept, in constant evolution. It is argued that the way critics understand and want to discuss Horror is different form the way the film industry promotes horror films. Furthermore, as these horror films are marketed and released, the way audiences perceive and classify them is different once again. What Hutchings seems to do next is to challenge some of the most widespread ideas about the historical development of Horror films, particularly their connection with gothic novels.

Underpinned by the claim that Dracula was actually marketed as a “weird thriller” when it first came out (and marketed as Sci-Fi movies, later in the 50s), Hutchings also draws on the popularity of 1930s American theatre plays to explain the origins of the horror movies. Market forces and the popularity of pseudo-horror plays at the period are pointed out as the key motives for the success of the genre. By doing that he tries to deny the influence of early, 18th century gothic novels on the construction of 1930s’ horror films. Instead he tries to prove that popularity of Frankenstein, Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde in the theatre along with Universal’s marketing campaigns played a much greater role in the success of early horror films. As much as this idea is sound, dismissing the gothic novel as a key influence seems to be an overstatement.

After this utterance his previously flowing argument starts to resort to constant amendments. Every now and then, the discussion he is trying to develop about the autonomy of horror films in relation to gothic novels falls in little traps by pointing out features which are characteristic of gothic novels. At the end Hutchings reluctantly admits that nineteenth century; Victorian horror (not eighteenth century) has a share in the origins of horror movies. Hutchings says at last: “Given that horror has frequently been criticised for being exploitative, those critics concerned to defend it often seek to raise its status thought associating it with areas of ‘serious culture’ (albeit areas of culture such as gothic literature when they first appeared were themselves sometimes accused of being exploitative)” ( p.15). It is a misconception that to link gothic novel to horror movies is to try to confer movies a higher status. Hutchings ends up making the point for those who defend the gothic origins. After spending a valuable amount of time trying to belittle the influence of gothic literature over horror film, he ends up by stating paramount features which link early gothic and horror films, which are: labyrinth-like plot organization, popular appeal, exploitative images.

The issues he takes with critics that see the horror film as emerging from gothic literature is due to his understanding that these accounts marginalise the economic forces at work in the creation of horror films. Hutchings major thesis claims that in the initial formation and subsequent development of horror films, the way films are marketed, the commercial reality is really what we should be looking at. However, there is no obvious reason why that choice has to be made. Horror film could be influenced by the market and still have gothic influences. This kind of polarisation seems to be constant throughout the book (in the next chapter he polarises with Psychoanalysis) and by the end he has written a long list of grievances which does not actually help him in making his point. Sometimes a point of view is not exclusive of another.

All in all, the discussion is well elaborated and raises some very interesting points. It is not original when dealing with the 70s’ horror films and its interpretation of Psycho is biased by his wishes to see Norman Bates as a transvestite. I do not agree with the implication of transvestites and mental disease which seems to be the case of Bates (this question is actually addressed and ruled out in the film, Hitchcock gives us the key of know not to read Psycho). However, the final discussion about self-reference in Scream a not a phenomenon of post modernity but as the maturity achieved by horror films (films that usually have teenager appeal) saves the day and make The Horror Film a very accessible and appealing book

Recreational Terror (Isabel Cristina Pinedo 1997)

Isabel Cristina Pinedo, 1997. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press. (177 pages)

Pinedo’s book has its origins in her personal likes and beliefs. The author says that, as a child, she was fascinated with horror movies and later on, during her academic life, she became a feminist. She points out to the fact that combining feminist criticism to the liking of horror movies is a controversial position and one which encounters theoretical problems. The reason for this is that feminist criticism tends to depict the horror movies as a male-oriented narrative which often subdues women, a reading she disputes. The author will focus on what she calls postmodern horror films and her reading will draw on structural and feminist theories in order to interpret them.

One of the most admirable positions in Pinedo’s book is the fact that she is aware her reading has limits, and that it will only work for some specific horror films. She manages to avoid a flaw that is very frequent in film criticism, i.e., trying to encompass a whole tradition with one single explanation. The author says, “not all postmodern horror films bring to fruition the feminist potential of this genre” (p.6). Pinedo’s main thesis demonstrates that much critical writing on the horror genre assumes the pleasure associated with horror movies belong to man. Positioning herself on the other side of this reading, she suggests that the encounter with terror is also a pleasurable experience for women. She argues that horror/slasher films create an opening for feminist discourse by restaging the relationship between women and violence, not only women as objects of violence, but also women as agents of violence when they turn the tables on their aggressors. Pinedo is not interested in gendered readings which claim that these are masculine prerogatives or those which associate female aggression with lesbianism.

Although Recreational Terror is a fascinating book, it is also very short one, and for this reason some arguments are not developed enough to convince readers who have another take on horror film classification. In order to establish what she calls ‘classical’ (pre-1960s) and ‘postmodern’ (post-1960s) films, Pinedo draws on the previous work of Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A cultural History of the Horror Movies (1989), and gives it a twist of her own (Tudor does not address postmodernism). When Pinedo tries to tackle the thorny issue of defining and situating postmodernism her argument becomes problematic. She claims that postmodernism is an amorphous, non-dichotomous, break down of institutions, failure of the Enlightenment project, crisis in post-industrial society, crumble of the idea of progress, collapse of organic narrative, where the universal subject (read, white, male, heterosexual, monied) deteriorates. Although she does not pin it down in time and space, Pinedo claims that postmodernism is a ‘cumulative outcome of repetitive historical stresses including the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Vietnam’ (p.11) and their opposites, anti-war and liberation movements. Pinedo says that, ‘in principle postmodernism erodes all (sic) binary oppositions’ (p.12) but later on she reduces her scope to the boundaries between art and mass culture, which is much more down-to-earth.

The author’s ‘classical v. postmodern’ classification of films seems to understand the ‘modern film’ merely as high-art and therefore not accountable in her reading. To classify modern films as high-art and then try to ‘challenge de canon’ with a new category defined as ‘postmodern’ seem to be just a matter of names, and theoretically a dead-end position. The problem with postmodernism is that it is terribly similar to modernism and earlier forms of post-structuralism, particularly in relation to the post-structural opposition with the open and closed text. While the closed text seeks narrative closure the open text refuses to resolve conflicts and contradictions, but exposes them. There is nothing in this proposition that has not been dealt with by the deconstructive text or the avant-garde and this craving for the use of postmodern categories is the greatest shortcoming of this book. Pinedo could either have expanded her ideas on the meaning of postmodernism or have done without it, the argument is not convincing, fragmented in a postmodern way and it undermines a potentially brilliant feminist reading.

JMM and the Cultural Politics of Marginality in 3rd World Film Criticism (Dolores Tierney 2004)

Dolores Tierney, 2004. José Mojica Marins and the Cultural Politics of Marginality in Third World Film Criticism. Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Vol.13, No.1, (63‑78. pp).

In her article Dolores Tierney seeks to analyse the historical constructions which led to the establishment of Latin America film canons. Her investigation encompasses the ‘imperfect cinema’ of Cuba and the ‘third cinema’ in Argentina but focuses the main argument on the relation between Brazilian avant-garde production, called ‘Cinema Novo’, and the psychotronic/exploitation/trash work of the also Brazilian filmmaker, José Mojica Marins. Tierney’s objective is to defy the underpinning assumptions built by early Latin American 1960s’ criticism which tended to consider the art films of Cinema Novo in opposition to Mojica’s commercial cinema, influenced by Hollywood standards. The author starts by explicating the strategies adopted by former Latin America film critics and their frames of analysis, largely grounded on Dialectical Materialism. It was a common practice and perhaps a dominant preferences among early Brazilian film critics to bring into discussion exclusively films that had an explicit anti-imperialist content and, in doing so, they neglected other types of productions which circulated at the same period of time. The author then uses History to justify the option for such critical point of view on behalf of Brazilian critics. Although no names are particularly quoted, it is claimed by Tierney that those critics were then moved by the wish of standing up against the colonialist domination imposed by Europe and especially by the United States. It was in this specific 1960s’ ethos that the options for such frame of study influenced (and were influenced by) the delimitation of a film canon. In this context the engagé position by Latin American critics generated an aesthetic selection (and consequently the formation of a canon) based on political preferences. That is to say avant-garde, art movies of Glauber Rocha, Cacá Diegues and other were chosen by the Brazilian critics to represent the national canon and the ‘ideal’ national cinema rather than the commercial productions embodied by Mojica.

Having established her objectives and set the way into her argument, the author then claims that the present shifts in the world conjunctures, such as globalization and also that which Appadurai calls ‘cultural flows’, demands a review of those early critical positions. Still according to the author, with the emergence of new fields of study, such as Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Theory, stems a necessity of reviewing earlier assumptions accompanied by an inclination for a re-evaluation of the material which has been left out of the Brazilian canon. Those films which were then regarded as second-class, worthless commercial productions, due to their popular appeal and features usually drawn from Hollywood cinema, actually displayed ‘militant’ material beyond the obvious agenda thematised by Cinema Novo. The author says that: ‘Latin American film scholarship is expanding to include different kinds of imaging practices produced in and beyond national and continental geoaesthetics boundaries’ (p.64). Mojica’s films would be part of this ongoing re-evaluation, especially those films in which some aspect of Horror is celebrated, as they would have been misinterpreted in their own time despite the many coincidences with the features/techniques which were being proposed by Cinema Novo.

It is the author’s assumption that Mojica’s films represent a link between the avant-garde and the commercial/trash cinema. Mojica’s cinema would be art and trash at the same time, says Tierney that his films ‘actually share many characteristic with Brazil’s avant-garde’ (p.66), furthermore, that they can be brought together through the idea of ‘aesthetic of poverty’. Proposing a break in the ‘binary oppositions’ between avant-garde and commercial films the author says the work of ‘Brazilian exploitation director José Mojica Marins, a star in the global psychotronic field’ offers a way of re-situating ‘the coordinates of Latin American film criticism in line with shifting cultural and discipline related imperatives’ (p.64). It was a general belief among the Cinema Novo group and their enthusiasts that a ‘third world’ cinema should convey its poverty through images. In seeing their people’s misery on the screen (conveyed both by the theme and technique), the audience would gain consciousness of their appalling situation and step into revolutionary action. Tierney has brilliantly spotted a crucial contradiction on behalf of the critics which they rejected Mojica’s films on the very argument they used to praise Cinema Novo. She picks on an important word: subdesenvolvimento, very concept of underdevelopment Cinema Novo was thematising is blatantly found in the themes and even in the technique employed by Mojica. The author then quotes Cuban critic Espinosa who suggests that in a revolutionary society the artist would be precisely the proletarian (Mojica? she asks) and that his art would be an extension of his work. Her main thesis advocates that early Brazilian critics overlooked the precise terms on which Cinema Novo was praised and the cinema of Mojica put down, after all, the exploitation elements and the discursive strategy out of the material condition of poverty and underdevelopment (albeit the different purposes) were the same. Says the author: ‘What is also interesting is that it points out an initial inconsistency in 1960s’ accounts and their criteria for inclusion and exclusion of filmmaker’ (p.67). But she amends that given Mojica’s roots ‘in Universal Horror films and borrowings from US comic traditions’ (p.69) his films presented some problems to the Brazilian scholarship, she is aware that the kind of critical observation she is proposing has the privilege of speaking from a historical distance that can put certain issues in perspective.

Further ahead, Tierney argues how Mojica addresses political issues in his films and how they were ‘perceived as a radical threat to the military authoritarianism’ (p.70), however, when it is time to demonstrate how Mojica defied the dictatorship the author deceptively resort to other critics and let them do the work. It is by the quoting and examples of Peter Tombs, Joan Hawkins, John King and Robert Stam that we understand how defiant and subversive Mojica really was. In conclusion, Tierney has a splendid sense of the work she has written, it propositions and the implications of her critical position. She attacks Stam’s argumentation which claims that Latin America’s modernism and postmodernist was fully formed before the birth of these movements in Europe, Tierney does not agree with the fact that Stam ‘in order to argue for cultural legitimacy on a world stage, the cultural politics of Third World Film criticism’ has to emphasize first ‘the developing country’s similarities with the ‘First World’ and second its relationship to what is easily translatable as cultural prestigious – avant-garde aesthetics’ (p.73). She also claims this approximation and she knows that it disavowals important differences. ‘Even this article written for an academic journal potentially compromises Mojica’s counter-cinema credentials’. (p.73)

It is my opinion the article raises some excellent points and has insightful observations about Latin American film criticism and about Cinema Novo vs. Mojica’s production. However, the thesis is grounded on some debatable assumptions. It cannot be forgotten that in the so-called ‘cultural flows’ the tide is not the bonanza it is made look like. On the contrary, the tide still very much unequal and flows primarily from the cultural centres represented by Europe and the USA into the peripheral parts of the world rather than the other way round. That is not a minor issue. If Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Theory have widened the scope of investigation, broadening the angle and objects of theory and embracing new material, they still have not satisfactorily addressed the important issue of Power in these relations. In other words, previous Historical Materialism should not be disregarded completely, the new theoretical tools are excellent for discussing matters of ‘alterity’ but do not tackle frontally Power issues which are deeply embedded in the world current affairs. It still matters which way the flow in going. Tierney could have taken her analysis a step ahead, she could have claimed that the films produced in the peripheral areas of the world are only incorporated by the central cultures if they can be turned into a profitable asset. Some form of legitimation of the values represented by the central cultures is always essential for the assimilation of peripheral films. Transforming these peripheral productions into cult movies, for example, is an excellent way of assimilation and it has been used both as a profitable enterprise and a strategy to renovate a rather ‘exhausted’ central tradition. The cultural flow is attached to a financial flow. Although the author has come up with an insightful view of the Brazilian historical criticism, pointing to its inherent contradictions, she does name any critic in particular, does not give actual examples to support her ideas or pinpoint her argument in a particular film or scene. I would like to have seen some engagement in actual film analysis contrasting and approximation Mojica and Cinema Novo. Furthermore, Tierney does not explain what she understands for ‘trash’ and ‘psychotronic’, why Mojica could not be regarded as ‘naïf’ or ‘camp’? If the American market and criticism uses these concepts to address his work, the two latter definitions are closer to his image in Brazil. It would have been equally easy to have drawn an explanation for these definitions.

Obs: Núria adds to this review the observation that this article is based on the “challenging of the Canon” trend that became very popular in Britain in the 80s. So the work is based on the strategy of troubling the canon. Also ‘naïf’ is not a category in Film Studies. She also points out that the term Camp has very specific meanings within Film Studies (distinct way of behaviour, a kind of sensibility). She suggests reading Richard Dyer, ‘Only Entertainment’, and Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’.

The Monster Show (David Skal 1994)

David J. Skal, 1994. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. London: Plexus. (432 pages)

David Skal’s The Monster Show is an extensive research of the cultural aspects which involve the rise and development of the horror movies. The author gives detailed accounts of the lives of famous personalities related to horror film, such as Tod Browning, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, focusing on their personalities, biography and anecdotic aspects of their trajectory. At the same time Skal tries to connect these individual traits to the ongoing zeitgeist and History of the period. As well as writing about personalities, the author also concentrates his research on aspects related to the production of the most films, although in an unsystematic way.

One of the most interesting sides to The Monster Show comes from the fact that Skal chooses a slightly different focus to those adopted by most books on the subject. He chooses to centre his introduction and main argument on the life, death and interests of the photographer Diane Airbus and how the film Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) made a deep impression on her. His introduction and following chapters have a novel-like feel to it and the reader who expects to find a theoretical discussion will be disappointed. Nevertheless, the reader who persevere though all the production figures/facts and the anecdotic data about the directors and actors will find some interesting insights. For example, in a very structural way Skal divides the iconic monsters in four types: 1) The human vampire, such as Dracula; 2) The composite or walking-dead, such as Frankenstein and zombies; 3) The doppelganger or split personalities, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and werewolves; 4) and the Freak, from a nightmare sideshow. In the author’s words the “armless, legless, twisted or truncated, now shrunken, now immense – it changes every time we look, a violation of our deepest sense of human shape and its natural boundaries”(p.19).

It takes a while to understand what is the point Skal is trying to make but, all of a sudden he manages to explain himself. The Monster Show aims to deal with the horrors of war, in other words, the lingering shadow of war reflected and transformed in the shared anxiety rituals we call monster movies. The author says: “Wars tend not to resolve themselves, culturally, until years after the combat stops. The same is true of economic depressions, fatal epidemics, political witch-hunts — the traumas can linger for decades.” (p.386). Skal is trying to show how the war had a tremendous influence on the expressionist, dadaist, and emerging surrealist artists during the 1920s. He claims that films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) was derivative of that trauma, “the surrealist preoccupation with deformed and disfigured bodies to the sudden presence, following the war, of a sizeable population of the crippled and mutilated. Modern welfare had introduced new and previously unimaginable approaches to destroying or brutally reordering the human body.” (p.48). The Universal horror movies would have picked up this war anxiety from the avant-garde cinema and translated it into popular art. “Horror has always had a certain affinity for modern art movements and has often quoted their mannerisms, possibly because, at root level, they are inspired by similar cultural anxieties.” (p.55)

Furthermore, Skal claims that war, in general, is a persistent symbolic expression in horror entertainment, a tendency that never really ended, and was only replaced by the symbol-distillations of World War II. The American nineties are still haunted by the Vietnamese seventies and these traumas are never really resolved, “not in the world not in our minds” (p.386). My italics, I found this comment very curious, as the use of the pronoun seems to make it sort of a personal statement, i.e., the author showing through the narrator.

All in all, The Monster Show is an interesting book which uncovers links between horror entertainment and the great social crises of our time. It depicts horror movie’s function as a pop-cultural counterpart to surrealism, expressionism, and other twentieth-century artistic movements. Ultimately focusing on film, maybe the predominant art form of the modern world, Skal examines the many ways in which this medium has played out the traumas of two world wars, the Depression, the fears of invasion engendered by the Cold War, the preoccupation with demon children (stemming from thalidomide, birth control, abortion, etc), body-transforming special effects (development of plastic surgery industry), renewed fascination with vampires (rise of the AIDS epidemic) among others American obsessions with the macabre. It is a very ambitious book, I could easily add more elements to his list: the resurgence of Frankenstein movies in the 90s related to cloning, or Hitchcock’s The Birds(1963) as a metaphor for kamikazes, another backlash from the War. The book does not concentrate enough on the analysis of films and without close image analysis is very easy to come up with “readings”. I enjoyed this book although I believe that, as a product of mass culture, most horror films are not a utopian form, nor they are necessarily engaged, worried about politics, war or aiming at any politically transformative experience in any grand sense of the term.