This essay deals with the strange phenomenon being detected on the surface of a discursive layer presented in two quite contradictive “pieces of meaning” – the book “Fear and Loathing” by Thompson (Thompson, 1998) and ‘CSI: Crime and Investigation’ TV series “Fur and Loathing” (2000). I was stunned by the aggressive insistence with which postmodern content reasserts itself through various narratives and modes of meaning production. Interestingly enough, essentialist and objectivist perspective firmly exposed in the CSI series, “boldly” rationalism and logocentrism of narrative construction proved to be even more strong instruments for describing the postmodern condition, than traditional postmodernist narrative. As in the case of ideology, in which false foundations are the more evident, the more real it expresses deviates from its normative assumptions, here we see that subject-centred and essentialist narrative provides an even more striking feeling of decentration, disintegration and unstableness. What seemed to serve the function of identity exposed itself in series of differences and iterations. As in the case of Matrix, where postmodernism is expressed in the traditional way (through the Judaist and Liberation narrative), in the CSI series we see the same essentialist perspective imploded by postmodern inertia (Wachowski Larry and Andy, 1999). This is a simulacrum. Simulacrum of postmodernism since we see its image embedded in the conventional world which can not in its turn be centred on itself. We have a simulacrum of postmodernism in a conventional world and it is real. By the same token, comparing the CSI series with Thompson book we show that the strategy of describing the conventional world in a postmodernist way leads to mere reification and aestheticization of its contradictions – the monetization (Leibniz’s notion) of social agents, the rise of information technologies, differentiating of societal identities. This strategy though providing us with some material that can be interpreted as postmodernist seems to come short of detecting postmodernist simulacrum. It (simulacrum) presents itself when not touched (Durham, 1998). To find further implications for the postmodernist theory through careful analysis of these pieces and referring to the works of postmodernist intellectuals as diverse as Baudrillard, Delueze, Liotar, Derrida et al., therefore, is the main priority of the current essay.
Thompson’s Fear and loathing in Las Vegas as a conventional world seen through postmodern spectacles.
Fear and loathing were written by Hunter Thompson when the narrative of the American Dream was completely exhausted and illegitimate. The dominance of rationalist, consumerist civilization has already broken its own foundations in the human consciousness but still persisted. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, the main characters of the novel represent the postmodernist break with the essentialist narrative of the past. The Western culture disintegrates under heavy strikes of counterculture, presented in the hippie movement. But Hippies culture plays only a secondary role in Thompson’s novel. It must be said that the narration style and author’s intention is to avoid fixing attention on something stable, avoiding analysis and self-reflection and this is particularly exemplified by permanent race through dessert. No grand narrative is used by Thompson to artistically describe Western civilization; the language used articulates decentration rather than structure (be it mental or existential), disintegrated rather than the ‘normal’ language of doxa.
The protagonists of the novel engage in a symbolic destruction of western civilization, consumerism and finally themselves (through using drugs). But though the destruction of western symbols may be described as a protest against existing order (as a counterculture, in general, was meant to be) in Fear and Loathing, these actions are presented as kind of effects (in Spinoza’s sense) not mentally or emotionally reproduced. The Self is not articulated, it is not even structurally mediated or decentralized and unstable. It just drowns in the external discursive environment, becomes superdeterminated. The author seems to neglect standard meta-explanations as good and evil, freedom and slavery – he neglects binary oppositions (Derrida’s term). In contrast, the narration follows the somatic schemata (Deleuze). It means that the artistic representation of mental structures is always heterogeneous avoiding focusing on some “utmost questions”, the revelation of ‘arche’ and developing discourse in the infinity, which may be described as a traditional postmodernist technique of deconstruction (Derrida).
Raoul Duke lacks a coherent and critical stance on reality in the traditional sense, he is not ideological. He is having a constantly changing identity depending on the situation and disintegrated subjectivity. It is noteworthy though that Raoul Duke has quite a good knowledge that give power – the knowledge of formal and rational societal institutions, he is filled with positivist information helping him to escape societal anomy. These things according to the author’s idea help him moving quite easily in society and be ‘recognizable’. By using the standard structured signifiers and common sense schemas he gains a sort of respectability among other people. He can be described as a ‘professional agent’ in the conventional world described in the postmodern way (Fear and loathing, p. 107). For instance, when Duke comes to the Drug conferences which represent an established entity in Thompson’s novel he is not recognized as an antisocial element that uses drugs and engages in other illegal activities because he complies with formal attributes of socially affordable behaviour which gives him even the sense of respectfulness. By this metaphor in my view author tries to show the conventional world with all its conventional connotations.
Notwithstanding the fact that Duke said of himself that he “looked pretty bad: wearing old Levis and white Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball sneakers… and my ten-peso Acapulco shirt had long since come apart at the shoulder seams from that road-wind. My beard was about three days old, bordering on standard wino trim, and my exes were totally hidden by Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades”(Thompson, 1998, p. 107). The reason for these somewhat strange developments may be traced to a phenomenon of performance that is so widely used in the postmodern theory (Baudrillard, Delueze, Negri and Hardt). His style and its surface connotations make Duke socially acceptable.
The postmodernist motives can also be found in the frequent use of “brand names” like Lewis, Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball sneakers, standard wino trim etc., which play the role of multiple signifiers of the conventional world represented in post modern way. These brands seem to replace standard referents to reality like family, labour, social and interpersonal relations; Duke communicates with the world through names which represent the horizon of fetish meanings – commodities. For one more example of such reconverting real meanings to commodity form, one can refer to Benjamin’s analysis of Baudelaire’s “Fleurs du mal” where stars as metaphor represent the universe of commodities. The further parallels to this may be found in Jameson referring to the market under the conditions of late capitalism as the main source of ideology production. According to Fredric Jameson (1991), ideology is not simply the ideal formation of class interests and their objectivation but rather the immanent characteristic of certain structures and institutions functioning. Thus, the market in developed western countries reproduces the ideology of consumerism, conformism, positivism through commodity mechanism. Commodity fetishism therefore may be regarded as the main source of social ideology in modern society. The aestheticization of commodity results in constructing various identities, subcultures that further fragment the society in separate clusters losing the vision of its integrity and victimizing people’s consciousness. Zizek’s reconfiguration of Lacan theory to apply it to ‘ideology critique’ can also be helpful for understanding the function of brands and commodities in the postmodern narrative. According to Zizek (1989), the commodity is ‘real abstraction’ which means that in its real substance it is structured ideologically. In a Marxist vein, Zizek claims that the one layer of a commodity represents its external qualities such as form, utility, aesthetic features while the inner layer which is not immediately seen represents its function as a social relation. Thus, a commodity reveals itself first as an abstraction from its real essence and only through various mediations as a social relation. Further, this commodity structure creates ‘ideological phantasm’ which can be described as an ‘unconscious’ impact on the ‘purity of communication’ – the logic that deeply affects the society where the logic of commodity becomes dominant. In this sense, Duke ‘branding practices’ can be described as the prevailing model of communication in Thompson’s novel.
The postmodern characteristics of the text can be further presented in the author’s attention to biological features of the characters body, the effect of drugs on their behaviour and their desire to control this. Duke wants to have control of his body even in crisis situations because the body seems the only thing that he has control of. The biologizing narrative peculiar to postmodernism can be easily discerned in this attention to the body. In a simulacrum world, a body is the only tangible thing – if Descartes said – “Cogito ergo sum”, Duke may have said, “Sense ergo sum”. This modern reincarnation of sensualism, which is evident for example in Deleuze attention to ancient naturalism theories tells much about the role of the ‘body’ in late western society. It is evident that with the rise of consumerism and rationalization, the human essence also had to follow this logic. In this way, postmodernist attention to the body and constantly changing identities look similar to marketing strategies seeking to raise demand by changing and constructing consumers’ lifestyles (see for example so-called ‘attitude branding’). Thus, following Jameson, postmodernism may be described as an ideological representation of late capitalist society. Though Duke presents some of his political attitudes towards social reality and seems to align himself with the hippie movement which can be seen in “wave speech” (Thompson, 1998, p. 62), these scenarios are playing a mainly secondary role in the narration. Emptiness, estrangement and other subjective objectivations of postmodernity are evident in Duke’s description of “empty” TV channels. To sum it up ‘Fear and loathing’ provides us with a postmodern description of the conventional world, which makes it look even more conventional. The opposite is observed in the CSI series.
CSI world is postmodern; the means of its description are conventional
The CSI world is described using two oppositions – the ‘furies’ and ‘CSI cops’. The first are members of a subculture dressing up as animals thus trying to create a sense of social and sexual liberation. They can be compared to the members of the hippie community described in Thompson’s novel. The “CSI cops” represent a conventional and rational world where the rules of reason, the cold calculation of outcomes prevail.
The CSI series provide us with various examples of simulacra that became evident through conventional means. For instance, furry-psychoanalyses is a simulacrum of Freudian psychoanalyses but contrary to it, destructing traditional oppositions of conscious – unconsciousness, superdeterminatation, Id-Ego-Superego, just replicating it as simulacra of itself. For instance, furies dress up like animals that are actually representations not of animals but of representations of animals (the cartoon figures). CSI cops while presenting traditional virtues of rationality, freedom from normative judgments and depicted as modern special agents seem to be also embedded in the postmodernist settings due to their ease in orienting in subculture traditions and fluidity.
Thus, it is evident that we now find ourselves in the totally postmodern world not ‘contaminated’ by any conventional connotations. For instance, the ‘fury’ community has no conventional social structure and hierarchy and its members seem to seek their genuine “Ur-identity” – their ‘reel in Lacan’s sense but not just staying in frames of ‘reality and ‘mirror reflection’ of the self. But, ironically, in their search for identity, they meet with “cartoon simulacrum” which asserts their Self as mere simulacrum which can be found in cartoons. In my view, this metaphor suggests that there is no inner meaning, arche, essence – all meanings are superficial and Self lies on the surface as well. Here, the parallel with Duke ‘branding practices’ is evident as he presented the world as the living horizon of brands – in the same vein Disney animals are presented as the ‘reel of people’s selves. But if in Thompson’s novel the narration was postmodernist, here the similar thoughts are described using conventional inventory. ‘Cartoon simulacrum’ created in the CSI series seems to be more postmodern than the ‘drug’ narrative in Fear and Loathing.
The author’s or narrator’s position makes this stipulation more evident. In fact, there can be two author positions – the observer position and the position of the “death of the author”. In the second sense, as described by Barthes (1977), the author becomes a function of the discursive structure in which he constructs the meanings, i.e. his subjectivity is totally diminished. But if the author as in the case of the CSI series occupies the well-articulated subjectivist position the meanings he produces notwithstanding their postmodernist connotations become representations of something essential and structurally determined. This can be easy thing both in the CSI series and in a famous song of Aqua that postulates the imaginative nature of reality:
“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
You can brush my hair; undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation”
Notwithstanding all postmodern connotations of this text, it has evident structure and the author’s subjective position, thus the referent of it may be regarded as quite modern and conventional.
The conventional nature of the world described in the CSI series can also be supported by the situation when CSI cops open the trunk of a suspect’s car, and they find a fury costume. X says something like: it was here all the time and we didn’t think of opening the trunk”. And Y answers that “evidence without context is not evidence”. This situation undermines postmodern reading of the world postulating the importance of context i.e. structural relations which are real. The importance of ‘event’ and its connotation as we saw can be found in Thompson’s novel when in his ‘wave speech’ Duke says that “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened” (Thompson, 1998).
Such practices as Skritching denoting the rubbing of the “furry animals” when they perform the imitation or equivalent to sexual intercourse represent a traditional postmodernist aesthetic regarding reality as a representation of something unreal, something that never existed or is just the image of itself. The Sketching practices may be described as a simulacrum of sex (remember famous Lacan’s utterance saying that ‘sex does not exist). In its turn, such images suggest the loath for reflecting the eternal fatigue peculiar to postmodernist consciousness.
According to Eagleton, postmodernism does not reflect anything ‘not because it seeks to change the world'(Eagleton 1985:60), but because there is nothing there to be the reflected-‘no reality which is in itself not already an image, spectacle, simulacrum’ (Ibid.) All these dehumanized surface practices fleeing traditional subjectivist position manifest the climax of self-estrangement. Duke also is constantly at the limit of possible, physical and mental while he is using drugs. But these limits seem to be superficial and falling short of presenting something essential. In contrast to CSI cops which represent unity, he is paramount of disintegration. Thus, it may be noted that the CSI series uses a standard conventional frame (law, order) to create a simulacrum of reality, which ties it with the Matrix where biblical messianic meanings are used.
The level of interconnection between modernism and postmodernism in analyzed pieces is different. Duke is more radical in his postmodernist project since he totally mixes with the Cops. The CSI cops mix and interconnect with ‘furies’ is limited. The CSI always seem to reassess what is meant to be normal and acceptable in the consumerist society. Constantly detecting abnormal sexual behaviours and deviations (man dressed in a costume of blue female cat) they reestablishing the discourse of normality and enforce it.
It is important to note that postmodernism is represented in both pieces in a readable way. Though the shifting position of the reader and parameters of narration is evident, in Fear and loathing for example the journalistic mode of narration (Gonzo journalism) is maintained through the novel. Thus, it produces a readable assault against readability. Both texts need the frame to establish the postmodernist outcomes but if Fear and Loathing do away with using postmodernist discourse which is evident, the CSI series construct situations in the conventional world that make it look like a simulacrum of itself.
- Aquarium LP. ‘Barbie Girl’, MCA 1997 Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977
- Durham, Scott: Phantom Communities, The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism. Stanford, California 1998
- Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
- Eagleton, Terry. Capitalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism’. New Left Review , volume 152, 1985, pp. 60-73
- TV Series “Fur and Loathing” from “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (2000) Original Air Date: 2003 (Season 4, Episode 5)
- Thompson, Hunter. Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. New York: Vintage, 1998. Wachowski, Larry and Wachowski Andy, dir. Matrix. 1990. Warner bros., 1999.
- Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.