Monday, November 01, 2004

Postmodern Journeys: Film and Culture 1996-1998

Michael Green

Postmodern Journeys: Film and Culture 1996-1998
By Joseph Natoli

This is an interesting well-written book with a lot of good points. Natoli is well-versed in theory, film and contemporary culture and connects the three subjects expertly. Other books I have read talked about the need for art and literature to find its way to the postmodern, to something transcendent and new for humanity. This guy actually tries to go on that journey—in this book and previous ones. He actually tries to work out some of what we might need to do to jump one reference point to another.

Natoli opens the book with a discussion of his philosophies of modernism and postmodernism and, particularly the concept of a postmodern journey towards some kind of transcendent understanding, that he believes he—and our culture—is trying to undertake. Then he uses contemporary films of the mid to late 1990s, such as Titanic, Good Will Hunting, Jerry Maguire, Saving Private Ryan, and Fargo, and the events in contemporary culture occurring at the times of these films, such as Clinton and Ken Starr, the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, Newt Gingrich, etc., to explore his ideas.

He begins with a difficult opening section in which he discusses the concept of a postmodern journey, which he says he’s ripe for. Consciously he yearns to go to places he’s never been to before and even unconsciously he says he’s travelling through a Borgesian garden of forking paths. He doesn’t fear wondering. He fears stagnation, not just his own, but everyone’s. He says that when a “order of things” (referencing F, of course) presumes to stand for the world “just as it is” and himself “just as I am” then he becomes troubled.

He says that we are thrown into a world always already in motion. And so that the image of ourselves situated someplace—centered for dominating viewing in Focualt’s panoptican, taking in a world that is somehow “out there”—that image and the story it tells is a modernist way of journeying. But how do we journey towards a postmodernist story of how we travel from self to world? You have to begin by recognizing that you have been thrown into a modernist story of things and not the world itself. We are now living at the crossroads of both kinds of awareness, “although only the postmodern awareness allows us that awareness.” Natoli says that we journey in a different way as postmodernists than as modernists and that the postmodern way of trying to understand identity and difference necessitates a whole new way of studying other cultures and peoples.

Living in the modern world, he says, since the Enlightenment, we have been striving to transcend stories of worldly attachment, trying to disconnect storymaking from reality. He says that he is an adjunct lecturer and he occupies an “adjunct lebensweld,” or lifeworld in which one’s connection with the center is marginal, and with the social order subordinate and temporary. The lifeworld is the result of our being thrown into the world at an accidental, though specific time and place. The lifeworld “promises the sedentary in a nomadic world, tries to fix the location of time and space and mark our location at every point and moment.” He says that we live in a myth that we can understand or objectively observe the outside world as it separated from ourselves, “remove the lens of the lifeworld from our gaze.”

He had tried to get outside the lifeworld in previous world journeying in which he examined identity and difference. He asked himself a lot of questions about things that “previously had no existence in the mind of the traveler and thus toward extending the panorama of human awareness.” He found what he thought were answers to the questions that emerged from a postmodern way of knowing the world but because the questions emerged from a modern way of knowing the world, a “reasonable” way, the very nature of his questions constrained him back to the lifeworld. He says he faces a paradox that the modernist has no trouble resolving: just because he sees modern reasoning does not mean that he can discount it because it is the way that his reasoning has been sculpted throughout his life. What he can do is deny its Kantean foundationalism while still recognizing that it operates as a force in the everyday. But as the world is shifting into a postmodern way, he is also trying to figure out how to “reason” in a postmodern way. He says the postmodernists need to figure out a way to jump from one way of knowing to another, to another frame of reasoning, while the modernists stay behind and critique and question the journey the postmodernist has taken.

The modernist also has a story of journeying and Natoli asks how do you know which journey to take. The postmodern journey is the one that validates itself by saying that since we live in stories of reality we are bound to journey out of the limitations of our own stories by journeying into other stories. But how do you journey if you have no reason to do so? He says that we, as an American culture, are already in a postmodern way of storymaking. As a modernist he says he had no reason to recognize this postmodern journeying, though he is clearly already on it. He just doesn’t know the point at which it started which is the familiar idea of not having a clear demarcation between modern and postmodern.

Somewhere along the way he became suited for the postmodern journey. How? It has to do with lifeworlds, he says.

A lot of our images—Victor Turner’s sense of the “liminal,” the postcolonial sense of the “subaltern,” the ethnic/racial/gender view of the “marginalized, the necessity of always being on the “border between worlds advocated by Henry Giroux and the Deluszian view of the “nomad”—are all images of space. But in his mind, he says he doesn’t occupy one space, he occupies time. If he had a spatial sense of where he was positioned, he would be leading a sedentary mental life and couldn’t journey.

Time is the “nomadic, post modern, post-Enlightenment space.” Postmodern time does more than just make spacing or distancing possible. It also fills space with the stories that fill time, that give us our sense of time passing. “Time moves in stories and stories configure space,” he says, and “We are in the world in a particular way shaped by a particular time, so that travel in space is nothing more than travel between different temporal configurations of the world, differing reality frames.” He gives angels as an example. In the Middle Ages, so many of them could fit on the head of a pin. In that time they occupied real space. In this time, they occupy no space. He uses the American poor as another example of people who are being given less space in our story of things, and indeed class is a big issue in this book, as it is in the other books I’ve read about postmodernism.


Here are a few examples of his discussion of film and culture: “The journey from modernity to post-modernity, a journey in which displacement replaces hierarchy, has proliferated the number of dissenting cultural narratives, expanded the geography of the clash , and riddled the present with culture wars that have provoked a pressing needs to reassert the social order of things. Of course, only one side feels that pressing need, while the other, the postmodernists, want to augment the number of cultural narratives and thus augment the maziness of the world through which we journey so that lifeworlds can never rest in their sedentary complacency.

Tin Cup: Natoli discusses Tin Cup, the 1996 film that features Kevin Costner as Tin Cup, a talented but undisciplined golfer who makes his way from obscurity to the U.S. Open. Natoli calls it the “epitome of democracy” and a “microcosm of free market play within which we all have an equal opportunity to play.” Natoli asks if, in this contemporary culture, this dream of Americanism, particularly financially, is still possible.

He says that Cup’s actions replay the theme of rugged individualism which seems at first to be a refreshing resurrection of personal values in the face of global-market values—until we realize that Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber are awaiting down that road. There is—at this point in our history—a desire to break free of something constraining that threatens our individual freedom. But no matter how mystical, romantic and visionary Cup’s quest is, he is still in danger of being marginalized and silenced. Natoli goes on to tie this into the gap between rich and poor and says that no democracy can survive the economic inequality that we now face.

Some other examples of essays:

He discusses Fargo in terms of experiencing the “other” and how our journeys intersect, how our “lifeworlds follow different roads on different journeys.” If an aspect of the postmodern journey is our leaping to new reference points—“not merely from one set of coordinates on the same to another set of coordinates, but a shifting of the gaze to another may--then Fargo is a catalog of criss-crossing post-modern journeys.

He discusses Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in terms of narratives and meta-narrative, how we construct the narratives of our life, and how in Jackie Brown Tarantino underscores the moments of our experience that manifestly don’t conscript into narrative. It’s almost as if he’s subverting the meta-narrative of film by including so many moments of regular life, non-plotted life, that seem to have nothing to do with the forward motion of the plot. He is the anti-Hitchcock.


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