Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Body Heat and the uses of nostalgia

Let's stick with Jameson a while (see Part 1 if this doesn't make sense to you). He singles out Body Heat for discussion in his essay because it is a nostalgic film. That's important because, as he correctly notes, it isn't self-evidently a nostalgic film. On the surface it looked like anything but when it came out (it is now necessarily nostalgic because it is an old film).

Here is a nostalgic memory of my own. They used to sell a lighter that looked like a revolver. You'd pull the trigger and a flame would ignite at the tip of the barrel. It looked like a gun but it was something else. Jameson's point is that a lot of movies produced in the 1970s were nostalgic even though they look like they are something else.

All by itself, that's a good point but not a terribly original one; lots of people made it at the time. Nor do I think it is terribly difficult to see; as proof, I offer the fact that I saw it and discussed it in previous posts on Body Heat. What makes Jameson interesting is that he claims that the nostalgia is a form of pastiche and that this resorting to pastiche says something about the era that produced such films.
... in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is is to imitate dead styles, to speak through masks and with the voices of the styles in an imaginary museum. But this means that contemporary or postmodernist art is going to be about art itself in a new kind of way; even more, it means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past. (p 18)
And you can see how this will tie to Jameson's Marxism. This sort of argument suggests that the ideology of what Jameson sincerely hopes is "late capitalism" is no longer up to justifying the existence of consumer society.
It seems to me exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonizing even those movies today which have contemporary settings: as though we were unable unable today to focus on our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience. But if that is so, then it is a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism itself—or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history. (p 20)
The key phrase here is, "as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience". If that is true—which is to say, that we have ended up in nostalgia not willfully but because of failure to be able to do anything else—then this is indeed and indictment of our culture.

One powerful hint that this might not be the case is Jameson's hesitancy in making the point. He has so hedged his argument so with the use of various conditional claims that it is easy to suspect that he doesn't believe what he is saying. Let's analyze that argument a little. The key point here, it seems to me, is that this nostalgia is just a delusion; that the sort of take it offers on the past has no rational use. If we can demonstrate that there is a willful rational activity in this sort of nostalgia, we will have an answer to his argument.

First a caveat: we cannot destroy Jameson's position. If a century of economic, cultural and political failure, to say nothing of the greatest mass murder in history, are not enough to make Jameson and others see the futility of Marxism and related types of command and control politics, nothing we can say will. The most we can hope to do is to show that there is a way to read a film like Body Heat as a achieving a meaningful "aesthetic representation of our own current experience".

Next a reminder: Jameson is not making a new point for a Marxist. If anything, his argument is a cliché of Marxist thought that can be traced back to Marx himself:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)
We might say that Marxism begot modernism. What I mean by that is that modernism tries to deal with the past in an objective way just as Marx did. (This is another essay for another time, but I would argue that what Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wagner and modernism have in part is that they are all attempts to reform and restate the Enlightenment project in an efforts to revive it.)

Historians sometimes make a distinction between history, which can be documented, and "the past", which can only be told, that can help us here. For example, in late antiquity we find tribes in the Balkans who claim to be descended from a mighty warrior who came south from what is today Sweden. Now there is some truth embedded here and there in this sort of story. The people of the north were mighty warriors who were feared and respected by those on the European mainland. It is even possible that some might warriors did come south and establish communities. It is even possible, although extremely unlikely, that a tribal group we find moving into the Roman empire from the Balkans in the late fifth century actually is descended from a community founded by a mighty northern warrior. But, and this is the important thing, even if this extremely improbable thing were true, there is absolutely no way of tracing it in history.

In any case, it wasn't true. The story of being descended from a mighty northern warrior was a story whose value was in the telling. The telling of stories like this allowed these people to bond as a people (a process historians call ethnogenesis) and the measure of the its worth for the people who used this story was not its historical accuracy but its effectiveness; if the story inspires people to bond together and to work effectively as a people, then it is a good story, a good use of the past.

Modernists rejected the possibility that the past could have any use independent of what could be done with it objectively. Think of how James Joyce, in moving through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rejects all the mythologies of Ireland. After doing this, he returns in Ulysses with a mythology from Ancient Greece that is picked and applied in a way that is artificial. Joyce doesn't expect that you will see Leopold Bloom as Ulysses. Quite the contrary, he expects you to be jarred by the contrast and so see how little Bloom has in common with a Greek hero. He is using the mythology in an objective way; it is only because you can see it from the outside that it is of any use.

We might imagine another version of the story where a cousin named David Bloom reads Homer and chooses to embrace the manly ideal in Homer and try to become like Ulysses. A modernist would only tell that story to demonstrate how pathetically the old cuckold would fail. His purpose would be to be objective, that is outside the myth; for the modernist, the person who tries to internalize the values of the old story can only be deluded. At the very most, the modernist might admit that these stories tell us something about human psychology because they exist as archetypes in our subconscious.

What the modernist cannot admit is that these stories might serve valuable moral ends. That they can inspire and guide us to be better men. And that, I will argue next week, is exactly what the story of Body Heat proposes to do.

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