Hard-boiled wonderland, blue velvet and the end of postmodernism

It has become somewhat of an axiom to associate certain artistic practices to specific discourses, and specific artists to certain sensibilities. It has become a truism, for instance, to link practices as diverse as eclecticism, parody, pastiche, detachment, flexi-narrative, and parataxis to the postmodern, and strategies like ‘optimism’, self-consciousness, formalism, functionalism, purism, and streams of consciousness to modernism. It has become as much of a platitude to call artists as different as David Lynch, David Fincher, Jeff Koons, Gregory Crewdson, Bret Easton Ellis and Haruki Murakami postmodern, as that it is a cliché to assume that Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondriaan, Marinetti, Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf are modernists.

It is easy to criticize such assumptions. Too easy. For we all need to order and schematize practices and discourses, artists and sensibilities, so that we can appreciate what any one particular stylistic choice or artist’s feature might intend or mean. Indeed, if this blog does anything at all, it is ordering and schematizing otherwise incoherent trends and tendencies by tying them to this sensibility we have come to call metamodernism.

We need to from time to time revise these clichés. Rearrange practices, reshuffle sensibilities. It is by occasionally readjusting what belongs here and who goes there that we keep the commonplaces up to date. It is by readjusting that our everyday definition of a discourse retains its aptitude for the next generation, our appreciation of an artist its value for the generation after that.

In what follows, I will do just this. Rearrange and reshuffle.

Let’s take a practice, an artist and a sensibility each. As practice, eclecticism. As artist, David Lynch. And as sensibility, well, you will have guessed it, the postmodern. Indeed, the three seem to go so naturally together, that one seems incomplete without mention of the other.

Eclecticism is commonly understood as the random re-appropriation of a multiplicity of heterogenous styles and strategies. Ever since Jencks and Jameson, it has become something of a catchphrase to describe the postmodern. It captures pomo’s irreverentiality, its self-referentiality, its ahistoricity, and its inclination towards plurality and fragmentation. But eclecticism was not born with the rise of the postmodern. Nor will it come to an end after its demise.

David Thorpe’s work is exemplary here. Thorpe’s collages draw on styles and strategies as varied as Westerns, science fiction, day time television, Friedrich’s landscapes, modernist architecture, populuxe, Japanese woodcuttings, New Age iconography, and Nietzsche’s tightrope walker. However, Thorpe uses eclecticism not as a strategy to deconstruct what is already there, but as a means to reconstruct what might once be here. His references are not merely empty gestures carelessly evoking one or another past within a ready-made present. On the contrary, they are full with history and locality, calling to mind a number of very specific pasts but also an unspecified, rather uncertain future.

The eclecticism in Thorpe’s work is irreverent towards traditions, ahistoricist, and pluralist. But at the same time it is haunted by that irreverence, steeped in history as if it were a mystery, and ultimately – and impossibly – unificatory. Eclecticism helps Thorpe rethink, that is, reimage the world we inhabit and might one day inhabit. And that is decidedly unpostmodern.

Someone else who often uses eclecticism in order to rethink the world we inhabit, is David Lynch. His films seemingly borrow and cite so many styles and strategies – from the 1980s to the 1950s, film noir to the small town movie, Hitchcock to B movies, David Hopper to Blake – without regard for their origin, that film critics such as Keith M. Booker, Matt Pearson and David Foster Wallace consider Lynch the embodiment of the postmodern. Writing about Blue Velvet, Pearson writes that

Lynch’s world is shallow, a world of mechanical reproduction. This is acknowledged with the mechanical robin in the final sequence; the metaphor of love within the film is revealed to be a cheap prop. The film is questioning its own ability, and hence the ability of cinema as a medium, to represent life, reality and concepts such as love and evil (Jeffrey armed as a bug-sprayer is all that is required to combat the metaphor of evil, the bugs from the opening sequence).

But it is too simplistic to call a film like Blue Velvet a mere pastiche, or a typical example of postmodern deconstruction. As the theorist Nicholas Rombes suggests [1]:

Jeffrey’s or Agent Cooper’s ‘aw-shucks’ sincerity in the face of unspeakable monstrosities and violence can, if forced, be read as some kind of Quentin Tatantino-esque hip, postmodern irony, but the film is never as excessively self-aware as a Tarantino film. And this is precisely what is so curious, and ultimately significant, about Blue Velvet. If the postmodern glorifies in its own ironic artificialness, throwing itself back to the past to resurrect it with a knowing, cynical difference then Lynch’s work offers a glimpse of what possibly lies ahead, after postmodernism.

Lynch, like Thorpe, does not merely use eclecticism in order to either blankly parody or deconstruct. On the contrary, he uses it so as to reconstruct something beyond its grasp. The postmodern work deconstructs the world as semiosphere by pointing exactly to what it presents, by exposing precisely what it signifies. Artists like Lynch and Thorpe – and, indeed, many artists we have come to consider metamodern, such as Gregory Crewdson, Kaye Donachie, Ragnar Kjartansson, Michel Gondry, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolano – reconstruct it by drawing attention to what it cannot present in its language, what it cannot signify in its own terms (that what is often called the sublime, the uncanny, the ethereal, the mysterious and so forth).

That leaves us with our understanding of the postmodern. The examples of Thorpe and Lynch might be interpreted as an indication that it is too narrow. That reconstruction too is a part of it. Or hope, or mystery, or the inexplicable. Or it could indicate that these artists surpass the postmodern. The latter, indeed, is what I believe.

Revising our commonplace assumptions about where eclecticism goes, what kind of director David Lynch is, and what postmodernism entails, enables us to reassess meanings and moments and ultimately redraw boundaries. In retrospect, we can begin to see that certain practices cannot automatically be associated with specific discourses, or that specific artists cannot always be linked to certain sensibilities. Within and from practices and artists whose starting point might have been postmodern, sensibilities emerge that no longer fit its framework: sincerity, hope, the inexplicable, the prediscursive…

This development is the development of the metamodern, rediscovering within the postmodern the modern, within apathy hope, within irony sincerity, within distrust (of grand narratives) belief, within the representative presence.

[1] Nicholas Rombe, ‘Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics’, Erica Sheen, Annette Davidson (eds.), The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), p. 66.

Top Image: Gregory Crewdson, Untitled 2005. Courtesy Luhring Augustine.
Below Image: David Thorpe, Do What You Have To, 1998. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

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