I started this blog post about a year and a half ago, but, like so many other blog posts and projects, it failed to make it past the halfway point. In other words, I got stuck and put it in my draft folder until I felt inspired again (a.k.a. I gave up). I’d say it was collecting dust, but things don’t really collect dust on the internet; it might be more accurate to say it was growing stale and irrelevant in the draft archive, while I went on with life and, quite frankly, forgot about it.
As 2020 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting (along with the rest of the world) on how to even begin summing this year up. Obviously, yes, the pandemic was bad. People dying and seniors living in isolation was bad. People losing their jobs and watching their businesses crumple was bad. There are many for whom 2020 was a devastating year. But for the average person, whose life was mostly unaffected other than staying home more, wearing a mask, and actually knowing the name of your area’s Chief Medical Officer, why was this year so exhausting?
My generation has a penchant for taking mental health days, which often boil down to having a bit of guilt-free time off to indulge in watching Netflix, eating snacks, and becoming one with the couch. The lockdowns in March in many ways were a period of forced time off where many people had nothing else to do but enjoy such activities. Mental health did the opposite of improve.
Well, that’s where this blog post leaps back into relevance.
Let me introduce you to Fredric Jameson, a modernist Marxist scholar who put forward a fascinating critique of Postmodernism and Consumer Society in the 1980s. Even though he formed these opinions almost forty years ago, before postmodernism could even be properly agreed upon as an era, Jameson had a vivid clarity about the direction art was taking, and how it would define the coming years. I am neither a modernist nor a Marxist, but two elements of Jameson’s critique resonated with me as deeply (and rather disturbingly) true: pastiche and schizophrenia.
Alright, buckle up for a quick (and hopefully painless) overview of some literary theory.
Pastiche is a concept that is similar to but not to be confused with parody. Parody takes an established trope, genre, or idea and imitates it in a humorous (and often ironic) fashion, emphasizing certain traits or mannerisms to make them seem ridiculous. Pastiche differs from parody in that it imitates what has been without humour. Jameson claimed that postmodern art had run out of innovation and new concepts, and it had nothing left to do but grasp at pieces of art it had known and loved, imitating them and pasting them together into a nostalgic but ultimately rather meaningless pastiche.
This is a rather grim view of the future, but there is boundless evidence to support. When Jameson was writing, he had in mind such examples as the Star Wars or Indiana Jones films, which were in many ways a pastiche of 30s and 40s genres and styles that had passed out of popularity but not collective memory. This was originally aimed at the baby boomer generation, but I would say this trend has only snowballed in more recent decades. We appear to be fixated on backwards-looking nostalgia, longing for the past, failing to innovate in any meaningful way. There is a whole genre of memes titled “only 90s kids remember” which shows now obsolete objects from the turn of the century. I recently saw an advertisement for a new book series, marketed for adults who loved Harry Potter as a kid. I can’t help noticing that the same group of people who collect “fur babies” and like to see how many plants they can keep alive were the same ones obsessed with Tamagotchis in their childhoods. Has there ever been another era in human history with a market for adult colouring books? Was the new Dora the Explorer movie that came out last year really for kids, or was it a nostalgia trip for adults under the guise of being something new? In fact, “live action” movies alone would seem to be enough evidence to support Jameson’s claim that innovation has dried up. At the end of the day, Disney is literally just remaking their old films, and people are eating them up because they stir up feelings of nostalgia.
Jameson sums up this phenomenon as follows:
“Here, once again, pastiche: in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the 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 aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past” (546).
A massive element of society that has changed since Jameson made his critique is, of course, social media, but I would argue that it has only amplified the effects of pastiche. What else is “imprisonment in the past” if not Facebook constantly reminding you what you were doing on this day however many years ago? However, social media is even more potent in amplifying the second problem Jameson points out, our proclivity to schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia, as you may have guessed, is not in this context the same thing as the mental illness where people become disconnected from reality. But it is related. To truly understand Jameson’s definition of schizophrenia, a very quick lesson in semiology (study of signs) is necessary. Basically, Jameson sees language and art as a collection of “signifiers” and “signifieds”. (If that sounds confusing, it is. Semiology can be a nightmarish – though fascinating – field to study in). But at its most simple level, you have a word or image or symbol, like tree. When you read the word tree (or if you saw a picture of one) you would think of what is “signified” by it: basically, you’d think of a tree. Easy, right? Seems like a logical way to make sense of language. However, while you are reading this sentence, you’re not thinking of what each individual word signifies as you read it; instead, you’re able to put together a complete and overall understanding of what the sentence means. The lack of ability to do this is what Jameson understands as schizophrenia. If you could only read word to word, concept to concept, signified to signified, without being able to form an overarching meaning or narrative, reality becomes a string of disjointed, disconnected moments. There is no cohesion, no direction, no future, no past – only now, what is happening at this particular moment.
Once again, this seems like a heavy problem to diagnose an entire society with, the evidence is there. And as mentioned above, social media is a large factor in our schizophrenic existence. Scrolling down your Instagram or Facebook newsfeed, you are scrolling through an endless string of completely disjointed signifiers and signifieds. Each image has its own meaning and message, but it is almost always entirely unrelated to what comes before or after. Insta stories are basically this effect on steroids – they literally disappear after 24 hours, isolated icons of a perpetual present in which “the various moments of [the] past have little connection and for which their is no conceivable future on the horizon” (Jameson 549). Have you ever come off a session of social media scrolling and tried to come up with a meta-narrative that everything you saw fits into? Likely not. My first inclination is to say that there isn’t one.
The problem with falling into a habit of being incapable of identifying any overarching meaning in things is that it very quickly extends to life in general. We don’t just forget what we saw on Facebook last month, we forget what happened in the news last month. At the beginning of 2020, global warming and Australian bush fires were all anyone could think about. Shakira and J. Lo’s Super Bowl halftime show was this year. But we are so used living moment to moment that it’s hard to remember anything other than what’s happening right now. Jameson goes so far as to suggest “One is tempted to say that the very function of the news media is to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past.” The lack of ability to form meaning out of social media or news can easily lead to a lack of meaning or purpose in life as well, which almost always results in depression, addiction, and/or anxiety. In sum, the double whammy of pastiche and schizophrenia make for a pretty gloomy summary of the postmodern world we live in.
Enter COVID-19, and it all gets worse.
As I see it, there are three reasons that 2020 has left us feeling exhausted. First, Covid has managed to both defy and amplify our schizophrenia. It has defied it by not sinking into the oblivion of the past, and it has amplified it by becoming our perpetual present. Up until this very month, there wasn’t even a clear hope for a vaccine. There was only Pandemic, this phenomena which feels like it has always been with no definitive end in sight. There hasn’t been a single day since probably the beginning of March 2019 that I have not thought about Covid. And not just not thought about it, but worried about it, adjusted my life around it, lived in the mindset of it. We are used to hearing about and thinking about something new every few days or weeks. Small wonder this has been so draining.
Second, when everything shut down in March, it in many ways exposed postmodernism for what it is. Without the distraction and, dare I say, blindfold of our insanely busy lives and the rat race of work and school, the remainder of our existence is laid bare, and oh how bare it is. Boredom prevailed, and there was no solution. Pastiche entertainment was revealed to be ultimately empty and unfulfilling. TikTok became mainstream as the masses flooded to the endless stream of schizophrenic noise, video after video of disjointed content where hours can be wasted in a perpetual, meaningless, present. It became painfully clear how desperately we lack innovation, both as individuals and as a collective society. Being given the gift of time is more of a curse than a blessing when we don’t know what we are to do with it. This is worse than amusing ourselves to death, this is amusing ourselves into oblivion.
Third and finally, this year we were plunged into a true world of pastiche and schizophrenia. It is all very well to accuse the news and entertainment industries of falling prey to this facet of postmodernism. But Jameson’s two postmodern qualities – “the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents” (554) – seeped into the rest of our lives as well. The reality of seeing coworkers, colleagues, students, teachers, friends, and even family was transformed into 2-dimensional images on a Zoom meeting screen. International travel has become virtually impossible, and I can’t begin to count the amount of people who started posting old pictures of their trips and vacations this year, reaching for the nostalgia of moments or feelings trapped in pictures. Time has seemed to simultaneously slow down and speed up, and is marked by the monotony of a continuous chorus of “Flatten the curve,” “Stay home, save lives,” “Please wear masks,” and “We’re all in this together.” To be honest, just thinking about it is giving me a headache.
So what’s the solution? Is there even one? Well, Jameson brings the discussion back to the critical value of newer art, and I am inclined to agree with him. Without getting sidetracked into a discussion on the meaning of Art, I think it’s safe to say that literature, poetry, music, photography, and art ought to do more than mindlessly entertain us with hints of things that used to entertain us. So in 2021, let us strive to break free of schizophrenic tendencies and pastiche. Let us learn how to spark imagination rather than mindlessly repeat. Let us learn to innovate rather than reproduce. Let us look for meaning around the moments and trajectories through time. Let us create. Let us live.
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and consumer society.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Eds. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. 3rd ed. Routledge: New York, 2013. 542-554. Print.