Red Wedge is delighted to share an excerpt from Matthew Flisfeder’s book Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner (2017). The book is part of the Bloomsbury series Film Theory in Practice, edited by Todd McGowan. Each book in the series begins by introducing an interpretive or theoretical concept or thinker, which is then applied to the analysis of film in the second half of the book. This excerpt comes from the end of the second chapter.
With a sequel coming up later this year, the time to revalue Blade Runner as a profoundly historical film has come. The film was made during a critical transition point within the history of capitalism. While much of our periodization and cultural understanding is formed by artefacts that belong squarely to periods either side of this hinge – think of the cultural hegemony of the 60s, or even punk, in this regard – there is little that captures the evanescence of the transitions between hegemonic cultural periods. To engage, then, with Flisfeder’s reading of the film, we are posting this excerpt, which will be followed in a few weeks by an interview.
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Blade Runner […] brings to the foreground some of the basic insights of postmodern critical theory. It draws out a critique of modern ontology and ties together questions about the status of the subject and of reality. It puts to question our conception(s) of history, time, and memory, both in the story and in relation to the development of the characters, but also at the level of its form. The film is aesthetically postmodern for the way that it uses pastiche stylistically – it quotes and references past genres and styles. Where the new is no longer available, or possible, also where authenticity and originality are a thing of the past, only the resurrection of the past can produce the new. In this falling back on the past – quotations and references to the past – we find a central distinction between the modern and the postmodern. With modernism, the striving for the new – “make it new!” – gave it a Promethean character. The moderns strove to be original, authentic, and unique, but at the same time left destruction along its path. Modernism was based on grand visions of progress, but – as Adorno and Horkheimer argued – this “forward” movement of modernism resulted in some of the most oppressive logics. We see this in the history of twentieth-century Europe, with the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, for instance. It’s not difficult to understand, then, the kind of cynicism that arises with postmodernism.
If modernism was about big utopian projects, then dystopia is the key motif of postmodernism. Blade Runner exemplifies postmodern cynicism perfectly. The world that it depicts, as we have seen, is one of postindustrial decay, where signs of late capitalism and remnants of the branded consumer culture abound. Power is held in the hands of a large corporation – the Tyrell Corporation; the world is dark and depressed. The world in this film is cruel and immoral. The multicultural slums seethe on the streets below, while the affluent cosmopolitans survive high above in the towering cybernetic pyramids.
One of the most interesting things about Blade Runner is that, on the one hand, it still prefigures not only elements of a later postmodern aesthetic but also the postmodern present, and, on the other hand, the closer we approach the time of Blade Runner – that is, the closer we get to the year 2019 – its “future imperfect” still resonates. Though we are getting closer to being contemporaries of the diegetic time of the film, it still seems to portray for us the “future.” Why does the future of Blade Runner – the dystopian future that it depicts – still resonate?
The 2007 Final Cut version of the film is said to be the last “rewriting” (so to speak) of the film. But one can well imagine yet another version of the film where the date is changed so that it still depicts for us a possible “future.” That is to say that even in the various versions of the film we can historicize our postmodern times. Some of the chief differences in each version of the film mark different moments within the emergence and crystallization of the postmodern. The ending of the original US Theatrical Release, with its happy unification of the couple driving up north, escaping the city, clearly still holds onto a remainder of modern populism. The escape to nature is still utopian. With the Director’s Cut and the scrapping of this ending, along with the voiceover narration and the added unicorn scene, [Harrison Ford’s Rick] Deckard’s humanity is put into question. Here, in 1992, we are at the height of postmodernism. Not without significance, the Director’s Cut was released at the same moment as the demise of the Soviet Union, the victory of liberal democracy, and the triumph of global capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man was also published in the same year – a book that politically marks conservative postmodernism, and encapsulates particularly Margaret Thatcher’s statement from nearly a decade prior, that “there is no alternative.” “End of history”; “end of ideology”; “there is no alternative” – these are statements that highlight the cynicism of political postmodernism.
Mark Fisher uses the term “capitalist realism” to describe our current age – one that, according to him, has come after postmodernism. Postmodernism emerged at a moment when there was still conceivably an alternative to capitalism. It has now been more than three decades since the concept was originally theorized in cultural, social, and political theory. Today, no viable alternatives to capitalism seem to really exist. Fisher defines “capitalist realism” by referring to the statement often attributed to Jameson and Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This statement works materially as well as ideologically.
Postmodernism, according to Marxists like Jameson and Žižek, is the cultural logic of late capitalism, which we might also view in relation to the rise of neoliberalism and the dominance of finance capital. It is in terms of finance capital that we can even go further in understanding the logic behind the “breakdown of the signifying chain,” or the “demise of symbolic efficiency,” or even the concept of the postmodern “perpetual present.” Deleuze and Guattari are correct in linking the deconstruction of meaning in late capitalism to the market imperative to transcend barriers that might prohibit or limit exchange in the interest of procuring more profit. Finance capital pushes this even further, particularly mixed with the political logic of neoliberalism, which has as part of its objective the dismantling of state mechanisms that limited possibilities of trade and exchange of financial commodities. With finance capital, it is much truer that “all that is solid melts into air.” But also, what is finance if not a mechanism for borrowing from the future? Finance means that we borrow from our own future (earnings) in order to pay for things in the present. In this way, the future never seems to arise because it has already been borrowed. We end up constantly working toward paying back what we borrowed from our future selves. In this way, we are constantly living in a perpetual present. Blade Runner, in its various different versions, seems to encapsulate this fact of a constant perpetual present in cultural form.
With each new stage in postmodernity, from its post-Keynesian beginning to the “end of history” period, and even today in capitalist realism, the film has received new treatment, marking the historical moment in some way. It is postmodern simulation and simulacra of itself. Every version is a copy without an original. As I discussed at the beginning of [chapter two], it is increasingly difficult to discern which version is the true original. Like Star Wars, Blade Runner never seems to be complete. In this way, then, the film provides a kind of “cognitive mapping” for the postmodern present. What does it mean when someone says “I’ve seen Blade Runner”? Which Blade Runner? The film as a referent to itself is lost. With the announcement of the release of a sequel to the film directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2017, we might well ask the question: sequel to which Blade Runner? How will this new film mark the previous versions of the film? How will this film retroactively re-create Blade Runner? History, it would still seem, is never final; it is neither complete, nor unique. There may be multiple histories (plural), but it is important to remember that the past is sutured by the politics and culture of the present, which itself is defined by visions of the possible future. As a critical dystopia, Blade Runner can still define the capitalist realism of our present. It is a dialectical image that, on the one hand, provides insights into conceptions of the subject, but on the other hand, it is (still) a look ahead into the negative aspects of unfettered multinational capitalism.
- Fisher, Capitalist Realism; Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Ideology.” In Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Žižek (New York: Verso, 1994).
- On this point, see Matthew Flisfeder, “Communism and the End of the World.” Public 48: 105–115, 2013.
Matthew Flisfeder is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Communications at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner (Bloomsbury 2017) and The Symbolic, The Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and co-editor with Louis-Paul Willis (UQAT) of Žižek and Media Studies: A Reader (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). His research, more broadly, investigates popular culture and social media in the context of postmodern and neoliberal capitalist hegemony. He has published articles in South Atlantic Quarterly, Cultural Politics, PUBLIC, Subjectivity, the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, and CiNéMAS. His article, “Love and Sex in the Age of Capitalist Realism: On Spike Jonze’s Her,” co-authored with Clint Burnham (SFU), will appear in the Fall 2017 issue of Cinema Journal.