Americana Style a la Mode Retro: Postmodern Pastiche Between Culture and Commodity

Essay, 2006

18 Pages, Grade: A


Table of contents

1. Introduction
a) Fusion of high - and popular culture
b) Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
c) Cinema as practice of new cultural landscape

2. Main part 1: Features of theory5 -
a) Depthlessness
b) Waning of affect
c) Schizophrenia
d) Pastiche
e) Simulacrum
f) Historicity
g) Summary

3. Main part 2: Movies.11 -
a) American Graffiti (1973)
b) Pulp Fiction (1994)11 -
c) Rumble Fish (1983)13 -
d) Back To The Future (1985) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) 15 -

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


An interesting and controversial phenomenon in cultural theory is the fusion of high – and popular culture as characteristic of the postmodern period. This sort of avantgardistic response to the frozen framework of modernity had its beginnings during the early fifties of the 20th century. Once provocative artists such as Brecht, Picasso and others had lost their subversive powers in school curricula and the museum and so were fully embraced by the bourgeoisie. In left wing reactionary fashion a new trend was born in British and American underground collectives, which aimed to incorporate the trivial and commercial into cultural expression. A new generation was on the move, which regarded an absolute distinction between elite – and mass production as extremely unhip. The most famous example is probably Andy Warhol’s pop art, which inevitably brings to mind stacked up Brillo boxes, Coca Cola bottles and Campbell soup cans, combining sophisticated painting techniques with mundane advertising images.

The postmodernisms have, in fact been fascinated precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade B Hollywood film, of so called Para literature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance fantasy novel, materials they no longer simply quote, as a Joyce or Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very own substance.[1]

Thus, when measured against the ‘real’ culture of modernism, postmodernism signifies a culture of kitsch in much of the approach conceptualized by Fredric Jameson, who as a supporter of the Marxist tradition in general and the thought of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in particular, is one of the most important American theorists in this context.

As the title suggests, Jameson puts a distinctly political spin on the concept of postmodernism in his book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. He views it as the “cultural dominant – a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features”(C 4) – of global capitalism. “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”(C 4) as a result of American economic domination. There are several categories that structure his theory, identifying the emotional bass tone or “intensities”(C 14) of the current cultural landscape, including depthlessness, pastiche, schizophrenia, historicity, simulacrum (on loan from Baudrillard) and the waning of affect.

The exposition will take up the following constitutive features of the postmodern: a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image of the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts; a whole new type of emotional ground tone, which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime; the deep constitutive relationship of all this to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system; and, after a brief account of postmodernist mutations in the lived experience of built space itself, some reflections on the mission of political art in the bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital.(C 6)

As an example of the practice of this new culture, Jameson utilizes cinema, which he regards as the preeminent postmodern medium, due to its emphasis on sight. Concerned with a variety of genres, such as third world cinema in Signatures of the Visible, he primarily refers in Cultural Logic to Hollywood productions of the eighties and nineties, that according to Jameson’s thought can be identified with the term “nostalgia film”, as they basically invoke an atmosphere of a particular era of the past, the fifties in America for the most part. As a representation of this film art category my selection includes American Graffiti (1973), Pulp Fiction (1994) , True Romance (1983) , Back to the Future (1985) , Peggy Sue got Married (1986) and Rumble Fish (1983). It will thus be the aim of this paper to closely watch these movies and relate their aesthetic style back to the concepts of Jameson’s theory. My analysis will be guided by the assumption, that many of the features, which I will describe in detail in the first part of the body of the paper, essentially will be affirmed, and that the distinction between high and low art has in fact vanished. Conclusively, I will reconsider the political dimension of postmodernism as the “cultural dominant” and evaluate its function as a “replicator” of the logic of consumer capitalism.


In Cultural Logic Jameson offers as an approach to his concepts the comparison of two paintings. Vincent Van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots (1887) and Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes (1960) each serve as an example of a canonical work of high modernism and contemporary visual art respectively.

The Van Gogh displays worn out worker booths, as they might have been used by 19th century peasant farmers. The dense texture and warm colouring of the painting exudes life. It seems to be based on a historical context and aims to tell a story. The Warhol renders random pieces of casual ballerinas, which don’t seem to fulfil any useful function. The slippers are seen from above and held in an indistinguishable greyish tone. Their representation does not seem to yield any particular meaning. Jameson describes his perception of a significant difference between the prints as the contrast between Van Gogh’s “Utopian gesture”(C 10) and Warhol’s “black and white substratum of a photographic negative” (C 10).

Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust shoes evidently no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Gogh’s footgear; indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all. Nothing in this painting organizes even a minimal place for the viewer…we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense, perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms.(C 10)

Jameson thus identifies a lack of depth, both emotional and intellectual as analogous to the visual lack of depth in the Warhol painting or a sense of superficiality as central to the postmodern condition. “It means the end 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 production)”(C 23). This has occurred due to a shift in cultural psychology, which he illustrates again with the aid of a painting. Munch’s The Scream (1893) represents the alienation and anxiety as the defining characteristics of the individual of modernism that are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern. Thus, the “death of the individual subject” or the “end of the ego” has arrived.

Waning of affect

Along with the end of the bourgeois ego occurred a loss of emotional content within the new subject. This ‘waning of affect’ is recognizable by a certain cynicism in the production and perception of art. People are regularly confronted with an enormous amount of extreme violence and sexually explicit material, without finding themselves much moved by either. It is a la mode to watch things in a detached manner and thus remain aloof towards a representation, which is actually unacceptable. Jameson ties this phenomenon to both, a loss of the self and a shift in dimension in which culture is experienced in general.

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. (…)

The waning of affect, however, might also have been characterized, in the narrower context of literary criticism, as the waning of the high modernist thematics of time and temporality , the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory.(…)We have often been told, however, that we now inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism (C24).

Due to this shift away from time and towards space as the dominant mode of cultural experience within postmodernism, Jameson identifies the sense of sight as “supreme”, which is the reason cinema lends itself so well to an investigation of the phenomena in question.


‘Depthlessness’ and the ‘waning of affect’ can essentially be summarized under the idea of schizophrenia. Jameson does not refer to the term as a clinical concept, but uses it according to the theorist Lacan in a theoretical sense. In opposition to the paranoid individual of modernism, which constructs the universe as a conspiratorial entity around the ego, the schizophrenic is open to a variety of inputs, which are all on the same level as the ego.

The point here is, as Jameson says, when schizophrenia “becomes generalized as a cultural style” it loses its “morbid content” it would possess as an individual pathology and “becomes available for more joyous intensities”(C 28).


The schizophrenic subject then creates and exists in a culture characterized by pastiche.

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well – nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche (C 24).

It refers to a sort of appropriation or copying of the forms and styles of other literature or art. As both involve imitation and mimicry, pastiche bears a resemblance to parody. However, in the context of postmodernism


[1] Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism ot the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, p. 2/3. In the following I will cite from this book with the abbreviation C and the matching page #.

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Americana Style a la Mode Retro: Postmodern Pastiche Between Culture and Commodity
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Irene Fowlkes (Author), 2006, Americana Style a la Mode Retro: Postmodern Pastiche Between Culture and Commodity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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