Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Postmodernism, Industry and Leisure Culture


When I was a boy, just about every summer we'd take a vacation. . . .
And you know, in 18 years . . . we never had fun.”


Last night on FB, I jokingly wrote that if I ever got around to writing a book on “Post-War American Leisure Culture,” I’d have to dedicate it to Clark W. Griswold. There is no “book” per se, and I suspect there never will be, not as articulated there. But that abstraction reflects a significant shift in my interests of late as both a teacher and a scholar, and yet one that may suggest my academic career is (finally?) coming full circle. And it’s about that time of year where I reflect in broad terms anyway on where my scholarly interests have been and where they seem to be headed. What do I mean by a postwar American leisure culture?

Next month, I start teaching my long-awaited course on images of Hawai’i here at IU (I just published a tentative syllabus here). It’s been a culmination both of a long-held desire to teach such a course, and of a long-proposed and slowly simmering research project on the topic. This is one which I’ve envisioned as something of the methodological and thematic sequel to Disney’s Most Notorious Film—another historical narrative of industries and audiences, similarly charting the intersection of whiteness, nostalgia, historical consciousness and leisure culture within the specific context of a prominently visible site of mid-20th Century populist American media. Only instead of Disney, we now have Hawai’i. Instead of Mickey and Brer Rabbit, we have Elvis and hula girls. Instead of Disneyland, we have Diamond Head.

In prepping for that class, I’ve finally had time to look more closely at Dean MacCannell’s seminal book, The Tourist (1976). It’s a bit too overtly theoretical for my own interests (not a criticism, mind you, simply a point that I’d frame some of the same historical questions differently); yet, I’ve been struck by not only its insightful look at the cultural function of US leisure and the rise of the tourism industry, but also the ways in which it seems to move beyond just my interest in Disney and Hawai'i and bring out from the shadows two additional key areas that I’ve been exploring in my other project at the moment (Haunted Nerves): labor and postmodernism. For MacCannell, leisure is not simply an escape from labor, but its doppelganger: a commodified spectacle by which the working classes can become detached from its value in the age of post-industrial capitalism:
Sightseeing at such attractions preserves still important values embodied in work-in-general, even as specific work processes and the working class itself are transcended by history. It is only by making a fetish of the work of others, by transforming it into an “amusement” (“do-it-yourself”), a spectacle (Grand Coulee), or an attraction (the guided tours of Ford Motor Company), that modern workers, on vacation, can apprehend work as part of a meaningful totality. (6) 
MacCannell sees this, meanwhile, as an inevitable outgrowth of the economic and cultural logic of late modernity, though it’s easy to see why—as others have noted and he later addressed—some read The Tourist as an early manifesto of postmodern theory—leisure culture commodified, spectacularized and de-historicized the spaces of modern production.

MacCannell is understandably resistant to the notion but doesn’t dismiss the postmodern outright “as a mere leisure of the theory class” (xvi). Rather, he seeks to ground his notion of postmodernism—like tourism—as a historical response to the modern, which further conceals the latter: “the need to be postmodern can thus be read as the same as the desire to be a tourist: both seek to empower modern culture and its conscience by neutralizing everything that might destroy it from within. Postmodernism and tourism are only the positive form of our collective inarticulateness in the face of the horrors of modernity”—i.e., as he notes, atomic bombs, concentration camps and so forth (xix).

I don’t disagree with this definition, but it seems short-sighted to not think more carefully about this particular response to the modern--as a historical moment of consumption onto itself--rather than hold onto a (so to speak) totalizing theory of mass culture—especially one which still seems rooted largely in an earlier period of capitalism, a pre-Society of the Spectacle intellectual moment. How does being an image culture irreversibly alter our relationship to the figurative and literal machines of modernity? And by “image” (or spectacle), I mean not only media screens but also the ways which—as he himself explores—physical spaces of leisure (theme parks, beaches, museums) are recognized first and foremost as images?

Perhaps it’s a generational issue—in the (very) old modern/postmodern debate, I’m repeatedly struck by the desire to hold onto an increasingly romanticized notion of a perfectly preserved modernity which subsequent appeals to the “postmodern” distorted rather than clarified. By “generational,” I mean someone thoroughly raised within (by?) a hypermediated tourist industry—if we follow his formulation, does the postmodern become a means to work our/my back from the “historyless void” (5)? (this is in part what I was trying awkwardly to articulate in a popular blog post from many years ago [the image at the top is from a mall in Honolulu, intellectual consistency FTW]—what does it mean to be raised on a steady buffet of movies/TV, parks and shopping malls in a postmodern age of post-60s late capitalism?).

At the same time, I think I am drawn to MacCannell’s work in no small measure because he is (knowingly or otherwise) holding onto that historical moment in critical thought where the modern/postmodern seem in tension with one another. And I suspect that’s also why I keep coming back as well to Robert Venturi, Denise Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas—another seminal text of early postmodern thought. Although it is mainly regarded as a crucial contribution to theories of postmodern architecture, it is also I would argue a key text in the analysis of leisure culture—not only because of Vegas itself and its populist function within postwar consumption and tourism in general, but also in the insightful ways in which it suggests the emergence of a highway culture and Route 66 mentality radically changed the ways in which we perceive physical space. And I would also reclaim its value in postmodern theory for the sense in which it is about acknowledging and carefully examining, rather than dismissing, the value of a populist US consumer culture.

I suppose that’s why for the last couple of years I’ve returned to the idea of postmodernism in general when “positioning” myself as a scholar. To put it simply, I think, even after years of searching around, I still find postmodernism as the most meaningful way to articulate my own wide range of concerns regarding populist American media since WWII. When I first started graduate school, I was fascinated by postmodern theory—but in all the trendy ways that I suspect MacCannell is resistant to it: that it is too often used as a self-fulfilling means to talk about textual self-reflexivity and the surface lies of popular culture, rather than as a meaningful reflection on what it might mean to talk about representation in the age of late capitalism. This led to my very first publication, by the way, a valid but rather simplistic postmodern “reading” of Ghost World (2001).

During this period, I was captivated by Learning from Las Vegas, by Baudrillard’s America, by Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality (in other words, a lot of the foundational theoretical texts in part on US roadside culture which are now experiencing a renaissance in my discovery [return?] to thinking a bit more carefully about postwar leisure culture). For a number of reasons, it was something that I gradually left behind by the time I finished my PhD.

But at some point in the last couple of years, I’ve come to the realization that so many of my interests focus on—especially—the question of nostalgia. Although I’m as quick to laments its reservations as anyone, I still find that my definition of the term is drawn heavily from the work of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism. Although others have provided insightful critiques of his definition of nostalgia (from Linda Hutcheon on), to me the valid concern centers more on how we might articulate personal or individual responses to representations of nostalgia, and less on this broader, collective notion of nostalgia in popular culture that Jameson aptly identified in Postmodernism (this is where I find Svetlana Boym’s remarkable The Future of Nostalgia invaluable).

Nostalgia, meanwhile, is often rightly associated with whiteness, and though I’ve never quite figured out how to define the former, I see them as inseparable within the context of US populist culture. Of course, I am still a white, middle-class suburban kid. Of course, postmodernism is a position of privilege—a meaningful position, and thus one whose assumptions and paradoxical visibility demands unpacking. “Whiteness” forces me to always be critically self-reflexive in a deconstructive way that postmodernism for its own sake (ironically) never could; but it also allows me to begin to create a dialectical (racial) history beyond the surfaces of nostalgia, which is what I was attempting to do in the Disney book, on my last contribution to the second cinephilia collection on Be Kind Rewind, and in an often overlooked piece on nostalgic representations of Detroit’s history—“Islands of Detroit” (and wherein questions of labor, or of the touristic spectacle of such, also returns).

Postmodernism saw nostalgia as inseparable from history—or historical consciousness—and this may again be where the generational question reappears. Raised on postmodern populist history (i.e., nostalgia), I’m not so comfortable dismissing it as a fallacy (i.e., the certainly suspect claims to the “end of history” per se). To me, the surfaces of a postmodernist nostalgia art (not to mention the ambivalent attitudes to my own personal experiences with nostalgia) tend to be the starting point, not the end, to thinking about “history”—however one chooses to define that.

And this speaks to my other interest in Postmodernism—the idea that “defining” history is rooted in understanding the cultural logic of late capitalism, which in turn brings me back to questions of labor and industry. Thus, my methodological interests tend to be in production histories and reception studies which might create a kind of dialectical materialist history that is dependent upon, but not reducible to, the surfaces of postmodern media culture.

And I suppose it’s this tangled populist knot—postmodernism, nostalgia, leisure, whiteness, labor, visuality, historical consciousness—which I’m currently trying to unpack across a number of different projects. 

And that’s what I see is the tragic populist figure of Clark W. Griswold.

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