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Plato, Postmodernism, and Star Wars, oh my!
The dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, Book X presents and seeks to prove the notion that there exists one original divine concept for everything that humans interact with, which is then physically manufactured into material copies based on this concept, which are then represented by someone else (in the form of art) without knowledge or understanding of the original concept itself. For example, it is the horseman who understands exactly what he needs his reins to be in order to properly ride his horse, then the nature of this need is passed to the saddler who interprets it in order to fill the need by manufacturing suitable reins, and then the painter who composes a painting of and/or featuring a horse’s reins without any understanding regarding what the horseman needs the reins to be in order to fulfill his equestrian requirements (Plato 73-4). Frederic Jameson proposes in Postmodernism and Consumer Society that modern society has transcended modernism and is now in a state of postmodernism. He suggests that our cultural output is predominantly characterized by a conscious reaction against the cultural output of the preceding modernist era. Jameson’s claims regarding the existence of postmodernism may be interpreted as the emergence of a fourth level in Plato’s notion of three levels of reality; divine conception, material interpretation, and artistic representation. Thus, if the representation of horse reins, or anything else, is two steps removed from the true original, as Plato suggests (70), then the reform in artistic representation which characterizes the postmodernist society outlined by Jameson is effectively three steps removed from truth.
Just to clarify the language I am using with regards to Plato’s conception of reality, the divine concept is the first level, manufactured copies are the second level, artistic representations are the third level, and the cultural output of postmodernism is what I propose to be exemplify a theoretical fourth level with relation to Plato’s theory of the three levels of reality.
Another example of these three levels is explained by Plato as the concept of a bed which would perfectly serve its purpose, the material construction of many beds based on this conceptual ideal, and a bed portrayed in a painting (Plato 69). What I assert to be the theoretical fourth level is, as I illustrate by extending Plato’s model, an artistic response to the artistic representation of the bed, perhaps a new artistic technique employed to portray a bed. Thus, the fourth level is a reaction against artistic representation which Jameson suggests is the definition of postmodernism (1960-1).
In order to gain a more precise understanding of postmodernism as the fourth level to Plato’s theoretical notion of reality, I will cover ground where both Plato and Jameson discuss the same form of art. Plato argues and then concludes through the voices of Socrates and Glaucon that the poems (musical ballads) of artists such as Homer are mere representations of reality (military conquest, or the work of an artisan) rather than creations directly composed from a complete understanding of the truth behind the physical manifestations of these mundane pursuits (Plato 71-3). The strongest argument in support of this is that “if [the artist] really knew about the things he was copying in his representations, he’d put far more effort into producing real objects than he would into representations” (71). Therefore, similar to how the painting of a bed is two steps away from the reality of the bed (with physical beds as the step separating them), the lyrical poetry of artists such as Homer are two steps away from the concepts which spawned what the poems represent, and the artists therefore need know nothing about the truth behind their art. As Plato refers to all lyrical poetry in his conclusion regarding its position on the third level of reality, I will not hesitate to consider Jameson’s examples of postmodern poets and musicians in terms of how they extend Plato’s notion of reality to the fourth level, three steps removed from reality. Amongst various examples of postmodern art, Jameson considers:
The poetry of John Ashbery, for instance, but also the much simpler talk poetry that came out of the reaction against complex, ironic, academic modernist poetry in the 1960s . . . in music, the moment of John Cage but also the later synthesis of classical and ‘popular’ styles found in composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley, and also punk and new-wave rock with such groups as the Clash, Talking Heads, and the Gang of Four. (1960)
What is characteristic of Jameson’s examples of postmodern cultural output is the notion of revising the old out of a basic need for change, and to blend the old with the new. Therefore, divergence of postmodern poets from, and in response to, the modernist poetry before them, and the reviving of old music styles with those of modern contemporary interest, are forms of art which spawn from the forms of art before them. The postmodern art sampled above largely exists as a response to previous artistic expressions, rather than the direct representation of the physical manifestation of Plato’s notion of the divine original concept. Thus, with regards to Plato’s suggestion that an artist would create real objects, rather than representations, if he had access to the original concept applies to postmodern culture in that if a postmodern poet or musician had access to the physical manifestation of the original concept, then he or she would create a representation of that material interpretation rather than a rebound artistic expression based on a reaction against, and need to revise, previous forms of artistic expression.
There is a reason why postmodernists create representations that are based on previous representations. Jameson notes how the past decades of modernists were able to exemplify very distinct styles in their artistic expression, which became very recognizable and difficult to mistake for one another (1963). Jameson outlines specific examples of the capacity modernists had to express unique styles specifically characteristic of themselves:
Think of the Faulknerian long sentence or of D. H. Lawrence’s characteristic nature imagery; think of Wallace Stevenson’s peculiar way of using abstractions; think also of the mannerisms of the philosophers, of Heidegger for example, or Sartre; think of the musical styles of Mahler or Prokofiev. (1963)
What Jameson later continues to assert is that this potential for an individual to exemplify a unique style is extinct; postmodern artists are no longer able to establish their own unique styles in the same manner that modernists before them were able to (1964). The reason for this extinction is that everything has “already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible; the unique ones have been thought of already” (1965). What this means, in terms of Plato’s theory, is that modernism has exhausted the capacity for truly meaningful representation, giving rise to postmodernism, which has adapted to this artistic stall by expanding on the field of representation, thereby creating a fourth level, three steps removed from Plato’s notion of truth, with representations based on previous representations, rather than the products of the second level of reality.
I consider the fourth level, in terms of Jameson’s theory, to correspond with the postmodern notion of pastiche. Jameson defines pastiche (coupled with parody) as “the imitation, or better still, the mimicry of other styles and particularly of the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles” (1962). The difference between pastiche and parody is that pastiche lacks the humour of parody, since the style that is being expressed is not consciously juxtaposed against normality (1963). By virtue of its function as mimicry, pastiche is effectively the tangible theoretical manifestation of representation once more removed from truth because it serves the purpose of representing previous representations. Jameson also notes that the phenomenon of pastiche is “one of the most significant features or practices in postmodernism today” (1962). Therefore, the notion of postmodern culture being three times removed from Plato’s notion of reality is a substantial factor in Jameson’s notion of our current postmodernist society due to the pervasive role played by pastiche. Consider Jameson’s example of the film Body Heat as an indirect remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity (1966). The example of these films precisely illustrates what I assert to be the theoretical fourth level in Plato’s notion of reality. The two films which Body Heat is believed to plagiarize are representations at the third level, and the film Body Heat itself is at the fourth level due to its veritable re-representation.
Until now I have demonstrated how my theory regarding a fourth level in Plato’s conception of reality is exemplified in postmodernist culture with regards to postmodern artistic representation being one step further removed from the first level for it is based on modernist art, rather than the physical manifestations of truth that modernist art is based on. I am now going to suggest that this fourth level may also transcend back to the first level, albeit not fully true for it has already been filtered through the process of divine concept, to material interpretation, to artistic representation, and into postmodernism where all hell breaks loose. Jameson suggests that films created in order to express the stylistic and cultural aspects of a certain time period, such as the representation of the American 1950s in the film American Graffiti (Jameson 1965), are a form of pastiche. He then expands on this with a rather enlightening discourse regarding the role of Star Wars as pastiche, on a level beyond that of American Graffiti. He claims that Star Wars allows older viewers to once again experience the kind of feeling that they had while watching weekly cliffhanger science fiction programs around the 1930s to the 1950s (Jameson 1965-6). Jameson concludes that “by reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period (the serials), [Star Wars] seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects” (1966). What we have here is Star Wars, which exemplifies the fourth level of postmodernist culture, and what it does is create within the older audience the concept of nostalgia for the media they were exposed to in their youth. This notion creates a rather significant disturbance in the order of the levels, requiring a momentary revision in Plato’s theory. The film, which is the fourth level beyond the third level of representation, also takes a place on the second level of physical interpretation which functions as something that yields a mental response in people which is characteristic of the first level of divine conception. A clear illustration of the model I am proposing here begins with Plato’s notion of the first level of divine conception (the bed), and then the manufactured interpretation of this concept (a bed), then the representation of this material object (painting of a bed), and then Star Wars is the fourth level (reinvented representation of a bed), which is also a material object serving a function (back to the second level; a bed); the function of manifesting the concept of past aesthetic sensations in someone, which effectively brings us full circle back to the first level of Plato’s theory, the original concept. However, this is not necessarily an exact mirror reflection following the model of first, second, third, second, first; rather it follows the model of first, second, third, fourth, then transcending from here to levels similar to the second and first, but with no clear division between them. Therefore, I will suggest that the properties of Star Wars that I have demonstrated are all still encompassed within my theory of the fourth level, which has been greatly expanded, rather than extended, in this section of discourse.
Plato states at the beginning of this excerpt of Book X that a ban should be placed on “representational poetry” (67). As the editor’s note at the bottom of the page indicates, Plato is referring to poetry which does not come directly from the original source of truth (first level), but from the material manifestations these concepts which have lead people to manufacture (second level). Plato considers it necessary for poetry to be at the second level, the direct product of truth in order for people to have more accurate access to reality. Otherwise, “this whole genre of [representational] poetry deforms its audience’s minds, unless they have the antidote, which is recognition of what this kind of poetry is actually like” (Plato 67). What Plato does not consider is the potential danger of people being as far removed from reality as my theory of the fourth level. Plato limits his discourse to poetry, but in his time, poetry was not what we define as modern poetry. It was a significant form of cultural mediation including music and storytelling; ballads such as that of Homer, whom Plato discusses. Considering the versatility of poetry in the context of Plato’s world, and his mention of painting, the media in his discourse is validly comparable to the many examples of postmodern media discussed by Jameson. However, what is void in Plato’s text, and is discussed at length by Jameson as yet another aspect of postmodernism, is the role of architecture. It is the topic of architecture that effectively demonstrates the practical dangers to Plato’s theoretical assertion that people become too far removed from reality and truth when they allow themselves to become ignorantly absorbed in representations at the third level. Postmodern architecture is at the third level as opposed to being on the second level, where the material interpretation of the concept of an artificial human environment should be. We are able to see how such distancing from the source of reality results the production of a dysfunctional human environment.
It is in the beginning of his argument that Jameson considers postmodern architecture to be a reaction against the modern architecture before it (1960). Consider Jameson’s discussion of the Bonaventure Hotel. Jameson asserts that the category of buildings which the Bonaventure falls under “no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign-system of the surrounding city” (1968). This notion is comparable to the idea that there is no longer room for a unique style to emerge as is found in the other forms of art described by Jameson. Therefore, the Bonaventure Hotel is at the third level of Plato’s conception of reality as it is a response to previous second level buildings of the modernist era.
The Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California
What makes the Bonaventure Hotel particularly significant in demonstrating the detrimental danger of being too far removed from reality, above the less physically substantial and tangible forms of art discussed earlier, is that the building effectively becomes an environment within which people not only interact with aesthetically, but within which they must reside, work, and navigate. It is evident that the Bonaventure Hotel has a variety of functional failings, inhibiting productive utilization of the structure. With regards to living in the hotel, Jameson notes that “the residential sections are low-ceilinged and dark, most depressingly functional indeed: while one understands that the rooms are in the worst of taste” (1970). He also mentions the difficulty faced by shopkeepers who have poor business as a result of setting up shop in a structure that is nearly impossible to navigate “given the absolute symmetry of the four towers, it is quite impossible to get your bearings in this lobby; recently, colour coding and directional signals have been added in a pitiful and revealing, rather desperate attempt to restore the coordinates of an older space” (Jameson 1970). What is key here is Jameson’s observation that the hotel seeks an older navigational order through additions following the initial completion of the building in order to be as functional as buildings before it. This is evidence in support of the degenerative nature of material representations at the second level being constructed in the third level. Because the Bonaventure Hotel seeks to be constructed in opposition to buildings before it, rather than based directly upon the true original concept of the purpose a hotel is supposed to serve, it fails in functionality.
This notion may be expanded in general terms as the Bonaventure Hotel is only one example of a recurring phenomenon in architecture whereby what is supposed to be a material manifestation following the direct model of the concept of an appropriate building is, in fact, merely a representation, and therefore at the third level and too far removed from Plato’s conception of reality. Jameson asserts that this is because the way we construct our environment has evolved in a manner with which we are unable to properly cope (1967). He describes the changes humans would need to make in order to adapt to this evolution as “an imperative to grow new organs to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions” (Jameson 1968). If so many problems become clearly apparent in something as grand scale as a hotel, or any other large building, then it is not a stretch to suggest that there are a variety of problems transmitted through less physically present representations. For example, postmodern paintings and poetry are a step ahead of previous representations, on the fourth level, and therefore even further removed from truth than the a building like the Bonaventure Hotel, which is a step ahead of previous material interpretations of the second level.
We learn something very disturbing about our current society by taking Plato’s conception of reality as directly applicable to Jameson’s theory of postmodernism. In order to understand how dire our current situation is, it is necessary to consider Plato’s assertion that “representation in general – produce a product which is far from truth, but it also forms a close, warm, affectionate relationship with a part of us which is, in its turn, far from intelligence” (76). Therefore, because the cultural output of our supposed postmodernist society is in the fourth level of Plato’s reality, and therefore three steps removed from reality, we are even further from intelligence than Plato had feared. That “nothing healthy or authentic can emerge from this relationship” (76) is evident in the construction of the Bonaventure Hotel as a building severely lacking in practical functionality due to its position on the third level, two steps away from reality as Plato asserts is the place for representation.
Thus, postmodernist culture produces media which is further detached from Plato’s conception of reality than the third level of representation, and postmodernist architecture, which was second level in the modernist era, has become third level, and, as a result, has been rendered severely lacking in functionality. The result of this is a society which could potentially shift further away from reality as representations dominate our way of life and we continue forward further and further away from truth.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1960-74. Print.
Plato. “From Republic, Book X.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 67-76. Print.