Frederic Jameson: “The Postmodern Nostalgia Film”

Frederic Jameson’s concept of the “nostalgia film” has to be interpreted in relation to his view on postmodern culture. Jameson argues that the “postmodern nostalgia film” represents the commodification of history. Postmodernism, he asserts, is “the cultural dominant” of late or multinational capitalism and outlines two features of postmodernism. First of all, postmodernism is a culture of pastiche; a culture that is marked by the “complacent play of historical allusion.” [1] Pastiche is often confused with parody in that both involve imitation and mimicry. However, whereas parody has an “ulterior motive,” to mock a divergence from the convention or a norm, pastiche is a “blank parody” or “empty cow,” which has no sense of the very possibility of there being a norm or a convention from which to diverge.

Jameson condemns the world of pastiche as “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.” [3] Rather than a culture of creativity, postmodern culture is a culture of quotations, that is, cultural production born out of previous cultural production. It is therefore a culture “of flatness of depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense.” [4] According to Jameson, postmodern culture is a culture of images and surfaces. It derives its hermeneutic force from other images and surfaces, that is, from the interplay of intertextuality.

Jameson’s principal example of the pastiche of postmodern culture is what he calls “the nostalgia film,” which sets out to recapture the atmosphere and stylistic peculiarities of America in the 1950s. The category includes a number of films from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Rumble Fish, Angel Heart, and Blue Velvet. Jameson claims that, “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire – not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana, but also the first naïve innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs.” [5] A nostalgia film “does not reinvent a picture of the past in its lived totality”. Rather, it reinvents “the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period.” [6]

In Jameson’s view, the nostalgia film evokes a sense of the narrative certainties of the past. Therefore, it works in two ways; that is, it both recaptures and represents certain styles of viewing of the past. Crucial for Jameson, however, is that nostalgia films do not attempt to recapture or represent the “real” past but are structured around certain cultural myths and stereotypes about the past. As such, they offer what Jameson calls “false realism:” films about other films, representations of other representations, films “in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces “real” history.” [7] In doing so, the nostalgia film effaces history through its “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion.” [8]

Its failure to be historical relates to a second stylistic feature of the nostalgia film as identified by Jameson: “cultural schizophrenia.” Jameson uses the term in the sense developed by Lacan to signify a language disorder, a failure of the temporal relationship between signifiers. The nostalgia film is characterized by a cultural schizophrenia that experiences time not as a continuum (past-present-future) but as a perpetual present which is only occasionally marked by the intrusion of the past or the possibility of a future. The reward for the loss of conventional selfhood – the sense of self as always located within a temporal continuum – is an intensified sense of the present. Hence, a culturally schizophrenic film such as the nostalgia film has lost its sense of history and its sense of a future different from the present. As such, nostalgia films suffer from what Jameson calls “historical amnesia,” locked into the discontinuous flow of perpetual presents. [9]

Even though Jameson’s neo-Marxist discourse relates nostalgia to the postmodern era of late capitalism, he fails to address why this nostalgia emerges in the first place. In her chapter on “The Sexual Politics of Nostalgia,” Susannah Radstone argues that the critical discourse on nostalgia is limited in that it too often situates nostalgia in a social, political, and cultural context. Instead of discarding nostalgia as a form of commercialized history, Radstone argues that one should also take into account nostalgia’s place in the constitution of social identities and groups, as well as the “politics of nostalgia,” that is, “the question (…) of the meanings and significance of the view(s) of the past offered by nostalgia culture” [10] as well as the social and political desires expressed by nostalgia.

[1] Frederic Jameson. “The Politics of Theory. Ideological Positions in the Postmodernism Debate.” The Ideologies of Theory Essays.Volume 2. London: Routledge, 1988: p. 105.

[2] Frederic Jameson. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review. Number 146, 1984: p. 65.

[3] Ibid., “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Postmodern Culture. Hal Foster (Ed.). London: Pluto, 1985 : p. 115.

[4] Ibid., “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review. Number 146, 1984: p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 67.

[6] Frederic Jameson., “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Postmodern Culture. Hal Foster (Ed.). London: Pluto, 1985 : p. 116.

[7] Ibid., “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review. Number 146, 1984: p. 67.

[8] Ibid., p. 65 – p. 66.

[9] For my discussion of Frederic Jameson’s concepts of “postmodernism,” “pastiche,” and the “nostalgia film,” I used John Storey. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. An Introduction. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001: p. 156 – p. 160.

[10] Susannah Radstone. “The Sexual Politics of Nostalgia.” The Sexual Politics of Time. Confession, Nostalgia, Memory. London: Routledge, 2007: p. 129.

This entry was posted in Cinema, Forgetting, History, Mass Culture, Memory, Nostalgia. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Frederic Jameson: “The Postmodern Nostalgia Film”

  1. discordion says:

    Reblogged this on discordion {Artist Ian Pritchard} and commented:
    Postmodern capitalist culture is the culture of pastiche and schizophrenia- from Frederic Jameson.

  2. Pingback: Why Are Gay Politics Stuck in the Present? Some Thoughts on Looking and the Possibility of Queer Politics | jon petrychyn

  3. Anonymous says:

    In no point of that article does Jameson use the term ‘false realism’

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