Film-Philosophy

(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 13, May 2000

 


 

Hassan Melehy

The Limits of Critique

 


 

 

 

 

Scott Durham

_Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism_

Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0-8047-3336-8

258 pp.

 

To those of us with sympathy for so-called continental theory, who nonetheless balk at titles bearing certain catchwords, Scott Durham provides a welcome and necessary remedy. In _Phantom Communities_ he revitalizes the notion of the simulacrum -- a vastly important concept, though one that tends to be neglected when not trivialized. Even though it has been a common theme for a number of major figures of poststructuralism, in its anglophone reception the concept has often been used either to lament or to celebrate the removal from reference, and from a firm grounding for the subject. The concept of the simulacrum seems to have been inextricably tied to its treatment by Jean Baudrillard and, what is worse, to facile, paint-by-numbers readings of cultural phenomena under the authorization of Baudrillard's name. With unrelenting rigor, Durham shows not only that Baudrillard offers just one version of the simulacrum, but also that other treatments by such authors as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze are more interesting and extensive in scope. Durham turns the simulacrum away from the critical dead-end toward which it has been heading: he evokes it from within the Western metaphysical tradition, without whose context it makes little sense; he demonstrates the ways in which it functions as a site of interplay between literature and philosophy; and he elegantly brings it to bear on mass culture, which he understands as in a largely unthought but intimate relationship with philosophy and literary criticism.

 

Durham combines close readings of a number of important authors and visual artists -- Rene Magritte, Pierre Klossowski, Balthus, J. G. Ballard, Jean Genet -- with a broader view of the role of the simulacrum in popular culture. He thus elucidates the limits and possiblities of the simulacrum; in so doing he reveals the profoundly political dimension of academic criticism and postmodern art, and suggests directions these must take if they are to contribute to the production of community. In short, Durham has written a book that both appreciates the value of critique, and sketches a programmatic by which the latter may recognize and address its own limits in order to proceed further. _Phantom Communities_ will be of great interest to intellectuals who are concerned not only with the aesthetics and politics of the cultural phenomena they examine, but also with those of their own practice.

 

Durham begins with a succinct definition of the simulacrum: it is 'the image which, having internalized its own repetition, calls into question the authority and legitimacy of its model' (3). For Durham this definition is operative across a wide range of treatments: from those who see the simulacrum as having displaced its model in the real by usurping the right of the latter, in Disneyesque fashion, to authorize reproductions of itself (Baudrillard), to those who find in the simulacrum a means of mapping the real, of reconfiguring the relations of reference that it imposes so as to begin to actualize the possibilities otherwise hidden in the real (Genet). Durham presents this definition as suggesting the capacity of the simulacrum to offer a way of imagining what might be termed 'postmodern experience' (3). In his introductory chapter he provides very articulate summaries, with a constant eye to his critical project of evaluation, of the two predominant notions of the simulacrum. For each of these notions, Durham discerns a tradition dating to antiquity: the first is that initially formulated by Plato, wherein idea or essence is followed by true image or copy, which is in turn followed by false image or copy of copy (simulacrum), and recently espoused by Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. In the case of the Andy Warhol paintings examined by both critics, the image of Marilyn Monroe, for example, is not grounded 'in the original but in the image that has supplanted it' (8). Durham is careful to distinguish between the Platonic idea and the original 'object' or 'referent' of the two modern critics, but points out that in both cases the simulacrum 'appears as the ungrounded copy that . . . stands in relation only to other copies' (8).

 

Durham's position on this first version of the simulacrum is that it 'remains . . . negative and privative' (8). Hence he moves on to the other notion, which he finds especially in the writings of Deleuze and Foucault. Here the simulacrum is not only a false image, but also embodies the 'powers of the false' (8). It 'counteractualizes' its objects, debunks the solidity and power to which they lay claim, and proposes an image drawn from these objects in order to transform them. He cites Klossowski on the origin of this notion of the simulacrum in antiquity, namely in Tertullian and Augustine, who denounce the *theologia theatrica*: the theatrical spectacle, above all, has the power to produce seductive images and undermine the power of the 'Lord' (9). It is this second version of the simulacrum, that of the 'creation of subversive powers of the false' (9), whose limits and possibilities Durham will explore. (In a note Durham ties this notion to the Platonic tradition by way of Deleuze, for whom the Sophist affirmatively bears the powers of the false (199 n. 13).)

 

Durham's starting point is that in both postmodern culture -- he is clear throughout that the latter has effaced the line between 'high' and 'popular' culture -- and the theory that accompanies it, the relationship of the individual and the collective to the real in which they once found their grounding and identity has become a fragmentary, contingent one. The postmodern subject moves 'from one sphere or cultural subsystem to the next' (3), with no necessary connection among these. The problem immediately poses itself of how the 'experience' of this culture may even be presented as a coherency, as, in accord with Lyotard, Durham sees the lack of overarching narrative as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. But narrative has not simply disappeared: 'As Fredric Jameson has argued [in his introduction to Lyotard's _The Postmodern Condition_], it is only to the extent to which a longing for collective narrative persists (in however tenuous and crippled a form) amid these noncommunicating domains that we can speak of postmodernity in the first place, as at once a condition that 'we' must confront and as a historical event that we are called on to explain' (3-4). Durham then states one of the major themes of his book, which is perhaps the point of its greatest interest and critical force: the relationship between simulacrum and narrative, 'which I will explore as one of mutual exclusion and reciprocal presupposition' (4). In all the objects of his critique, narrative is not only present to one degree or another but also specifically taken up in its relation to the continually repeating simulacrum.

 

In his impressively close readings of texts and works of art, Durham never loses sight of his examination of the role of the simulacrum in contemporary culture. Far from limiting himself to author studies -- even though from this perspective alone his work merits accolades -- Durham has carefully chosen the objects of his study so as to offer ways of conceiving the simulacrum that are highly pertinent to its political and aesthetic functioning in everyday life. Beginning with Magritte's later work and Klossowski's retelling of myth, culminating in Genet's writings on Palestine and its relation to its image in the mass media, Durham is on a quest for a conception of the simulacrum that challenges academic cultural criticism to come to grips with the social phenomena in which it proceeds, and to become aware of its own situation with respect to them. His own masterful narrative -- which moves from one image to the next to valorize its possiblities fully, and thus stages the problem it is addressing -- works at discerning ways in which artistic practice and criticism may work against the repressive effects of the imposed images of social reality. His reading of Magritte's _Les deux mysteres_, in which the famous 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' appears as an image on a blackboard below a larger image of a floating pipe, addresses the narrative of academic authority implicit in the painting. The attempt to master the floating image through a pedantic rendition is disrupted by the excessive, undecidable status of the former, as painted image and image within a painting, doubled and repeated by the blackboard. In his commentary, Durham is fully attentive to Foucault's widely read account of Magritte's painting. Although speaking with continual admiration for Foucault, Durham shows that, by taking recourse to his own academic narrative, Foucault risks reducing the power of the painting to challenge representation as mimesis or resemblance (26-34).

 

Durham finds a response to this risk, and to the shortcomings of a painting to narrate a challenge to representation, in the work of Klossowski, where there is an 'emergence of the simulacrum from within narrative' (34). At this stage of his narrative, Durham focuses on Klossowksi's reworking of the myth of Actaeon in _Le Bain de Diane_. As in Foucault's reading of Magritte, what begins the narrative is the description of a painting, here that of Diana at her bath. Actaeon, the spectator to the painting, wishes to possess the truth of the image he sees, the real Diana, the goddess by whom he has his powers as a hunter (35-36). But the desire can be realized only if Actaeon himself passes into the painting as a stag, a simulacrum of himself that does not resemble the 'original', and hence only if he renounces the capacity of narrative by which he articulates his desire. The latter is 'the desire to pass into a purely aesthetic existence' (45); it is a wish for 'a becoming-other of the subject of knowledge and desire who is the hero of the narrative' (44). Viewed from this perspective, this desire is utopian. It is presentable only from within narrative (not from within painting) because it involves a becoming and transformation. Even so, it is unrealizable within narrative: its realization would necessitate a complete departure from narrative time to an unspecified future where the 'truth' of the present, on which the coherency of the narrative is based, no longer holds. Durham finds that Klossowski's myth of the desire for possession 'anticipates postmodernism . . . both in its theorization and in its mythic representation of the relation of the spectator to the culture of the simulacrum' (46). But, he points out, Klossowski offers a limited conceptual framework for criticizing the relationship of desiring subject to commodity, as he never fully addresses the problem of the relationship between the subject as spectacular effect and the 'vestigial' subject by which utopian desire is expressed.

 

When Durham's narrative addresses Ballard's _Crash_ (in a note Durham regrets being unable to offer a full examination of David Cronenberg's film version of the novel because of its delayed release in the U.S. (202-203 n. 34)), we encounter a character, Vaughn, who plays the role of a 'postmodern Actaeon' (73). Vaughn's desire is also to enter a purely aesthetic existence, to leave behind the boredom of the vestigial subjectivity brought on by anomic consumerism. His goal is to be absorbed into the image that emblematizes the pure spectacle of the society of consumption: the automobile crash, that, involving a highly charged commodity, has no existence in postmodernity strictly separable from its televisual image, and captivates consumer attention on the evening news. Vaughn is postmodern in that he does not have the recourse to full identity that Klossowski's Actaeon has, since his own identity is already governed by the laws of consumerism. According to Durham's reading of the novel, the narrator is drawn into Vaughn's seductive fantasy. But if the narrator were to follow Vaughn all the way to the spectacle of his desire (which Vaughn ultimately meets), he would also have to give up his identity and thus the capacity to narrate. Through this examination of the postmodern narrative of _Crash_, Durham shows us that we again hit a limit, in that the fantasies of the consuming subject are so strongly guided by the laws of consumption (a full transformation may be conceived only as a spectacle of death) that the utopian desire of the vestigial subject is effectively repressed.

 

It is in the theater, fiction, and especially 'properly political fictions' of Genet that Durham finds the successfully critical treatment of the simulacrum to which his own narrative has been leading. Through an examination of Genet's works in which the disenfranchised -- criminals, nonwhites, and others marked by predominant social discourse as excluded -- are narrated and narrating personages, Durham discerns the simulacrum that mounts a challenge to the truth-production of narrative, 'falsifying narration'. In _Le Balcon_, the Thief's response to her Judge's narrative of condemnation that her own narratives of crime are fictions is the occasion to signal that the Judge's master narrative is itself a fiction (122). Genet's narration as simulacrum reveals the simulacral nature of overarching narrative, Durham shows. And in _Les Negres_ the game is carried further in that it is revealed that the judges long ago stopped believing in the truth of their legitimating narrative; the narrational procedures, that of the colonizing Whites and that of the colonized Blacks, enter an agonistic relationship in which different possible realities are advanced (123). In each case, the falsifying narration that opposes the truthful narrative is a 'creative repetition' of the latter (126). Against tendencies in Genet criticism, namely that initiated by Jean-Paul Sartre in _Saint Genet_, Durham shows that the fantasies of Genet's prisoners (he also addresses _Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs_) is not 'a flight from existence into the aesthetic' (130). It is, rather, a reworking of the reality instituted by the imposed narrative in order to begin to transform it, on the part of the vestigial subjects who are otherwise produced and contained by the judging and carceral narrative. As such, Genet's simulacrum is not utopian like Klossowski's, is not unrealizable within the framework of the narrative in which it emerges -- is not simply an expression of the wish to leave the 'truth' behind. 'On the contrary, it is the most intense engagement with existence, with all the desires and powers that compose it, with all that it has been and all that it might yet become' (130). It is fully narrational and hence does not allow the predominance of the truthful narrative to which it responds.

 

Durham finds that the power of falsifying narration as a collective, community-producing force comes to the fore in Genet's posthumous work on Palestine, _Un captif amoureux_. Durham provides a paraphrase of the moving example Genet narrates in order to illustrate the conflict through collective fantasy or 'phantom community': a group of Israelis come to an olive grove near Nazareth on Independence Day that functions as a memorial to 'those who made the desert bloom'; alongside them are Palestinians who, with spray paint and scraps of cloth, sketch an outline of the village of Maaloul, which stood on this site, and which they once inhabited (148). Durham's quotation from Genet -- 'A past reality, a present fantasy' -- might be chiasmatically repeated to dramatize the competition between narratives: a past fantasy, a present reality. Durham underscores that for Genet, 'the question is not so much who is dreaming as whose dream has the power to impose itself' (153). In writing his 'dream-book' on the Palestinians, according to Durham, Genet is aware of the various dreams that traverse the Palestinian phantom community. Not least is that of the sympathetic European press, by way of which Genet himself has been invited by the Palestinians to write his book. Genet expresses the anxiety that the revolutionary power of the Palestinian guerrillas will be lost in its own image -- the danger and temptation of postmodernism, as Durham illustrates through his reading of _Crash_.

 

But the very relationship that Genet describes between reality and fantasy, Durham finds, has much broader implications and presents a strong critical challenge to postmodernism: 'By turning against the society of the spectacle the powers of the false that it both presupposes and contains, Genet does not imagine that he has transcended and redeemed postmodernism; rather, his counterfabulations confront the postmodern public with the image of its own power to not-be, with the narrative articulation of its immanent potential for self-dissolution and self-invention' (193). Genet thereby functions as the outcome of Durham's narrative, following the ultimately failed attempts by those such as Klossowski and Ballard who have confronted the culture of the simulacrum. Durham thus states in the last sentence of his book: 'It is in this way that Genet reinvents the task of the postmodern artist, whose public dreams of appropriating those powers only in mythic and spectacular form -- to play the role of the messianic actor, miming the emergence of the community to come' (193).

 

Through extemely rigorous and convincing readings, Durham narrates the argument that all the treatments of the simulacrum have been pointing to Genet's 'phantom community' -- the community that may come in the future available to the narrational time of the postmodern artist -- and hence to the praxis that he both demonstrates and advocates in his book. His own engagement with the simulacrum parallels his account of Genet's in that it is a confrontation with and potential broad transformation of twentieth-century and contemporary culture. It prescribes an active role for the subject of academic criticism, against the latter's determination by the institution in which s/he works, and offers a fine example for this role. But as a necessarily well-wrought narrative, what Durham writes cannot offer the simulacrum of the community for which he wishes in his final sentence, but must defer its presentation to a future that is at least somewhat beyond the limits of this narrative. Of course, he implicitly shows that doing otherwise would be impossible, before an extensive, thoroughgoing critique of the simulacrum in postmodern culture. Where Genet contributes to the production of the community whose dream he relates, Durham contributes to producing conditions in which a dreamed community will be realized. Those of us reading _Phantom Communities_ might be tempted to ask, what is to come? Durham has opened the ground for work on that question.

 

University of Connecticut, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

Hassan Melehy, 'The Limits of Critique', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 13, May 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n13melehy>.

 

  

 

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