Frederic Jameson, “Video” & “Film”

1993: Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious

Jameson begins with the idea that “with the extinction of the sacred and the ‘spiritual,’ the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping and convulsive into the light of day; and it is clear that culture itself is one of those things whose fundamental materiality ias now for us  not merely evident but quite inescapable” 67. The word media thus denotes for us 1) a form of aesthetic production, but also 2) a technology or specific machine and 3) a social institution 67. A paradox:

“…the written text loses its privileged and exemplary status at the very moment when the available conceptualities for analyzing the enormous variety of objects of study with which ‘reality’ now presents us… have become almost exclusively linguistic in orientation. Media analysis in linguistic or semiotic terms therefore may well appear to involve an imperializing enlargement of the domain of language to include nonverbal – visual or musical, bodily, spatial – phenomena; but it may equally well spell a critical and disruptive challenge to the very conceptual instruemtns which have been mobilized to complete this operation of asismilation” 68.

Jameson claims that we were “warned” by the “cleverest prophets” (probably Adorno) that the “dominant art form” of the century would be film – but why has literature had more innovation, even “intelligently and opportunistically absorbing the techniques of film back into its own substance” 68? The first two eras of film – silent and sound – are latticed into problems of the mass audience and mass culture, respectively, preceding the real auteur innovation of te 50s (Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini) 69. Neither film nor literature, Jameson claims, any longer speak the rich allegory of the times – instead, it is video: “commercial television and experimental video… ‘video art'” 69. If film is large and mesmerizing, it is not different enough from TV and video art to constitute a “satisfactory translation” between cousins 70.

Jameson mentions Raymond Williams’ “total flow,” [so feminizing] which obliterates distance and memory, since TV does not leave haunting images or impose temporal structure for Jameson 70. (Again, interesting to note how this has changed with “quality TV” as well as the decline of the TV set.) For Jameson, we can get at commercial TV through video art, in the same way we get at language through experimental poetry: by seeing it as pure possibility, divorced from restriction and convention 71. He locates boredom as “a defense mechanism” – again one thinks of Ngai’s “Stuplimity” 72. As an example, interestingly, we are asked to imagine the “timeless immoble mask” of a static face on our TV screen lasting 21 minutes, according to our TV Guide 72. For Jameson, this is comparable to the photographic subject’s head being clamped into place for the necessary time of late-19th c photographs or the literature of Roussel (Beckett?), with the infinite description of objects – but here in video art, dateable to the late 60s (Paik)/ early 70s (Snow?) we have “the machine on both sides… the machine as subject and object” – the camera looking at us as we are clamped into place 73.

If film, even documentary, presents a particular kind of constructed or fictional time, video art operates more on “real time,” the uncomfortable time of boredom – when compared to TV, it’s interesting then that “out of the rigorously nonfictive languages of video, commercial television manages to produce the simulacrum of fictive time” 75. Video art makes its form this seam of space and time. All the materials of the videotext he examines are degraded:

“If we think of the various quoted elements and components – the broken pieces of a whole range of primary texts in the contemporary cultural sphere – as so many logos, that is to say, as a new form of advertising language which is structurally and historically a good deal more advanced and complicated than any of the advertising images with which Barthes’ earlier theories had to deal. A logos is something like the synthesis of an advertising image and a brand name; better still, it is a brand name which has been transformed into an image, a sign or emblem which carries the memory of a whole tradition of earlier advertisements within itself in a well-nigh intertextual way” 85.

“The matter grows more complicated… when we realize that none of these elements or new cultural signs or logos exists in isolation: the videotext itself is at virtually all moments a process of ceaseless, apparently random, interaction between them… between signs for which we have only the most approximate theoretical models… a constant stream, or ‘total flow,’ of multiple materials, each of which can be seen as something like a shorthand signal for a distinct type of narrative or a specific narrative process” 86.

Jameson reduces the multi- to the binary here – the dialectic, the opposition of subject and predicate 87. It is “Benjaminian ‘distraction’ raised to a new and historically original power” 87. ”

The postmodernist text – of which we have taken the videotape in question to be a privileged exemplar – is from that perspective defined as a structure or sign flow which resists meaning, whose fundamental inner logic is the exclusion of the emergence of themes as such in that sense, and which therefore systematically sets out to short-circuit traditional interpretive temptations (something Susan Sontag prophetically intuited… in Against Interpretation)… it will be bad or flawed whenever such interpretation proves possible” 92.

“Yet another way of interpreting… would seek to foreground the process of production itself rather than its putative messages, meanings, or content” 95.

“Once upon a time at the dawn of capitalism and middle-class society, there emerged something called the sign, which seemed to entertain unproblematical relations with its referent… literal or referential language… came into being because of the corrosive dissolution of older forms of magical language by a force which I will call that of reification, a force whose logic is one of ruthless separation and disjunction… that force… continued unremittingly, being the very logic of capital itself. [After modernism] reification penetrates the sign itself and disjoins the signifier from the signified. Now reference and reality disappear altogether, and even meaning – the signified – is problematized. We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage” 96.

1993: Film: Nostalgia for the Present

“When the notion of the oppositional is contested, however, in the mid eighties, we will know a fifties revival in which much of this ‘degraded mass culture’ returns for possible reevaluation” 280. The small town (the setting of the 50s) has lost its autonomy and become part of a chain. The Nietzschean position is that “period concepts finally correspond to no realities whatsoever” 282. Jameson’s example is Dick’s novel about a fake 50s village in Russia in the 90s. “The novel is collective wish-fulfillment, and the expression of a deep, unconscious yearning for a simpler and more human social system and a small-town Utopia very much in the North American frontier tradition” 283. This is cognitive mapping distorted. “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future,” but “a perception of the present as history… a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it” 284. If the future film turns into mere realism, as the Dick novel does for Jameson, and we are divorced from history, why do we subsume all styles all the time now?

“It is by way of so-called nostalgia films that some properly allegorical processing of the past becomes possible: it is because the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images that new and more complex ‘postnostalgia’ statements and forms become possible” 287.

This occurs in the unlikely meeting of high-gloss nostalgia film and B-grade punk film.

“Thus these films can be read as dual symptoms: they show a collective unconscious in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt, which seems to reduce itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past” 296.

“Dick used science fiction to see his present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts. The two 1986 movies, while scarcely pioneering a wholly new form (or mode of historicity), nonetheless seem, in their allegorical complexity, to mark the end of that and the now open space for something else” 296. [alas, no, The Help]


Jameson claims himself as one who neither loves nor disavows postmodernism. The novel is the weakest link in art, while poems are not bad, and video and film are quite good. He appreciates improvements in food and other areas. When we compare two eras, as we always do, we compare the modes of production, occurring as contact between reader and text. Jameson concludes by arguing that capitalism’s unprecedented freedom in our era will lead to a new international proletariat and a return to older forms of labor – it is only a matter of time, since postmodernism is “a transition stage” between 2 forms of capitalism (think of how Kant and Schiller imagine aesthetics…). He says that his “cognitive mapping” was a mere rephrasing of ” class consciousness” for a new world. “The rhetorical strategy of the preceding pages has involved an experiment, namely, the attempt to see whether by systematizing something that is resolutely unsystematic, and historicizing something that is resolutely ahistorical, one couldn’t outflank it and force a historical way at least of thinking about that” 418.


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