Joyless nihilism: On the afterlife of postmodernism

I recently had the misfortune of watching Star Trek Into Darkness. It is of course an utter failure as a film — a convoluted and contradiction-laden plot barrels along with no character development whatsoever — and as an adaptation of Star Trek. Many people complain of the new films’ violation of the spirit of the original, but the real problem is that the films themselves have no discernable spirit whatsoever. They don’t betray or violate the original Star Trek, so much as piece together themes and characters in a completely free-form way. Sometimes they reverse themes from the original, but it doesn’t have any kind of message — for instance, they seem to have pointlessly violated Spock’s lack of emotions (which they didn’t even set up adequately for it to have any impact to a new audience), solely so that Spock and Kirk could reverse roles in a kind of parody of one of the most beloved scenes from Wrath of Khan. And what does that parodic reversal get us? Nothing whatsoever. It simply refers to itself as a parodic reversal and expects us to pat it on the head for being so damned clever.

As I meditated on this abomination, a point of comparison emerged: Family Guy. The references back to the Star Trek canon were just as pointless on the J.J. Abrams films as the random cut-scenes on Family Guy. At this point, the show has become such an institution that it can refer back to itself — for instance, to Fox’s shortsighted decision to cancel it early in its run, to the real-life identities of the people who voice the various characters, etc. The show can go so far as to criticize itself for its lazy incoherence, but even that self-awareness seems somehow “quoted” from other, better shows, like The Simpsons.

This is the afterlife of postmodernism: endless pastiche, with neither subversive nor playful intent. In place of subversiveness we get an unearned “grittiness,” and in place of playfulness, we get smug self-satisfaction. The Abrams Star Trek and Family Guy franchises combine both in the worst possible way. Both take their previously optimistic vehicle (Star Trek, cartoons and sitcoms) and twist them toward the darkest possible worldview. The point of doing this, however, is simply to generate “unexpected” juxtapositions. Peter is an abusive alcoholic because — ha ha, imagine a cartoon where the father is an abusive alcoholic! TV families love each other no matter what — ha ha, what if they hated Meg no matter what? Star Trek is about the adventure of exploration in a world where humans live in harmony — wow, wouldn’t it be a curve ball if we set the story on earth and made it about domestic terrorism? What cleverness, what creativity!

A similar dynamic is at work in their relationship to their own era. Abrams turns the sexism of the original series up to 11, including a purely gratuitous scene of a character in her underwear — because, ha ha, can you imagine being that sexist in this day and age? The racist jokes in Family Guy work in the same way — the very gap between the joke and the present day is what’s supposed to be jarring and therefore funny. They’re meant to function in the same way as the simple references to consumer products and television shows from the 80s. As Chris says after a cut-away gag on the Robot Chicken parody of Family Guy: “Ha ha! That existed!”

Much has been made of the fact that the new Star Trek films try to harness the emotions associated with the material without really earning it, but the problem is deeper — late postmodernism wants to harness the subversiveness and the liberatory effect of much “classic” postmodernism without remotely earning it or even understanding it. It’s all about a totally free-standing “subversion” without any context or relevance, as shown by the fact that its only possible target is the “politically correct” liberal consensus — itself a pretty retro reference at this point.

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13 Responses to “Joyless nihilism: On the afterlife of postmodernism”

  1. Sunday™ Reading™ Accept No Substitutes® | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * Joyless Nihilism: Adam Kotsko on the Abramsverse Star Trek, Family Guy, and zombie postmodernism. […]

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Wait, did I just write a post that said, essentially, “Say what you will of postmodernism, at least it was an ethos”?

  3. Josh K-sky Says:

    I’m not sure about your periodization — what is this postmodernism that contains strongly subversive pastiche? Jameson identified depthlessness, pastiche and intertextuality for its own sake as elements of postmodernism in the mid-1980s. Subversion and playfulness may be worth considering separately.

  4. stellarcartographies Says:

    Perhaps you already have, but if you have not, you should look at Red Letter Media’s review of the first JJ Abrams “Star Trek” film. In the guise of a character he has created (Mr. Plinkett), Mike Stoklasa goes into a lot of the points that mention above (generalized plot, pastiche, etc.). His reviews are incredibly long but I find them pretty insightful. If you have already seen these, ignore me and carry on.

  5. E S Says:

    Pastiche became subversive in the 90’s with Butler, Bhabha et al.

  6. nathaniel drake carlson Says:

    A pretty interesting response and for me at least affords some sense of what was found to be so wrong with the recent Star Trek which I actually enjoyed very much. I knew that it was poorly received by many (much more so than Abrams’ original) but I never understood why. To be honest, though I appreciate and understand your point and even agree with it, I think you took the experience of the thing far more seriously than I did. Maybe you should though. Maybe that’s good.

    Usually I would be among the first to encourage that kind of engagement and active analysis but in some respects this seems an unduly harsh critique of Abrams. I suspect he’s a naive variant on what you identify in Seth Macfarlane and Family Guy. Abrams is certainly a product of modern pop culture and has imbibed all that stuff perhaps uncritically but I don’t see him putting it into action with the kind of cynicism you see. He really is more of a pop pastiche artist with an emphasis on a sense of fun. I’m not denying the effects you so ably point out of his uncritical perpetuation of cynical devices and moves but I just don’t see that as actively delivered. For me that does make a difference.

    I will agree though that the “parody” moment you mention stuck out to me as well as a misjudgment, taking his playfulness a step too far and maybe not realizing what it has wrought, but I still don’t see it as an attempt to actively undermine the effects of that original scene. Maybe for him and his presumed audience an easy fast and “unearned” emotional connection is possible. It does seem glib but I suppose the argument is similar to the one we get now about fast cut action scenes being able to be processed more quickly by modern audiences. Is that true or just justification for someone’s particular fetish (or ADHD symptom) which becomes a cultural meme?

    I do want to take the opportunity though while we’re on the subject of post-modern pop pastiche to recommend that you take a look at Zalman King’s much maligned 2001 series ChromiumBlue which is currently streaming on Hulu (http://www.hulu.com/chromium-blue). I think it’s genius personally and acts as both forerunner and synthesis of many trends in this aesthetic movement over the years since (a comparison to Scott’s Domino would be revealing). It helps perhaps to know some of King’s earlier work (he of the equally disdained, though for other reasons, Red Shoe Diaries franchise) but it’s not necessary to appreciate the radical gestures this series indulges in. It’s an ultra solipsistic hall of mirrors and self-reference that does indeed become stifling, even suffocating, but there’s a weird release in that too, a kind of freedom we don’t get from more cynically minded practitioners like Macfarlane. One interesting aspect is that whatever one may think of King’s earlier soft core melodramas they are comparatively straightforward, sincere and irony free. One may see this later series as an unfortunate curdling into cynicism but I actually see it as one of the few successful attempts at compounding, complicating and extending an existing formula through superficial means. The sincerity is not lost, in other words, but merely re-rendered and contextualized. A remarkable achievement from an unlikely source.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    One quibble: my point is that the pastiche is pointless, that it doesn’t intelligibly “subvert” the source material in any meaningful way. It just throws it together.

  8. Ruth Marshall Says:

    “Wait, did I just write a post that said, essentially, “Say what you will of postmodernism, at least it was an ethos”?”

    yeah Adam, it does sound a bit like that. but what’s wrong with wanting some kind of ethos, instead of this pointless, joyless nihilistic shit?

  9. Ruth Marshall Says:

    or maybe i’m just getting old…

  10. Troy Polidori Says:

    Kierkegaard’s critique of the Romantics is pretty similar, Socratic Irony at least had an ethos!

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ruth, For me, the irony is that postmodernism is often reputed to be defined by its very lack of ethos.

  12. Sue Says:

    It seems to me that the snuff/splatter movie The Passion Of Christ by Mel Gibson was/is one of the best examples of postmodern joyless nihilism. It is an unspeakably vile exercise in sado-masochism wherein the “hero” (representing each and every human being) is systematically beaten to death.
    Somehow in the twisted scheme of things it was at the time touted as a superb missionary tool/vehicle for promoting the “good news”

  13. mistah charley, ph.d. Says:

    speaking of “the passion of the christ”

    a) the movie – i have often enjoyed giblets’ review of it at fafblog! – so much so that i didn’t want to see the film, and still haven’t

    http://fafblog.blogspot.com/2004/02/movie-review-passion-of-christ-dir-mel.html

    b) giblets’ review – he says ” Then there was Mary Magdalene, who was hot, but didn’t get nearly as much screen time. Put the hot chick up front, Gibson!”

    a book providing a corrective on this is jean-yves leloup’s translation of the gnostic gospel of mary magdalene, which reveals “unique teachings that emphasize the eminence of the divine feminine and an abiding love of nature over the dualistic and ascetic interpretations of Christianity presented elsewhere. What emerges from this important source text and commentary is a renewal of the sacred feminine in the Western spiritual tradition and a new vision for Christian thought and faith throughout the world.”

    c) the theology of vicarious redemption – in huston smith’s “beyond the post-modern mind” (there’s a title) he offers the contrasting perspective of a zen saying – “no one else can go to the bathroom for you”


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