These texts located strange, eclectic, violent, timeless worlds in the present. They make fun of the past as they keep it alive. They search for new ways to present the unpresentable, so as to break down the barriers that keep the profane out of the everyday ... The postmodern eye looks fearfully into the future and it sees technology, uncontrolled sexual violence, universally corrupt political systems. Confronting this vision, it attempts to find safe regions of escape in the fantasies and nostalgia of the past. Dreams are the postmodern solution to life in the present.91
The idea of the post-modern, although widely discussed in academic literature, has not penetrated the psyche of the masses. Whereas modernity was perceived as a literal and self-evident truth, attempts to understand our present day are hindered by the excess of information inherent in our society. Modern life was characterised by technology, spontaneity and exploration of the limits of reality. Massive changes in representation and the relationship between humanity and culture have occurred but the premise that we now live in post-modern times is not universally accepted. This isn't to say it is not useful, but maybe that the academic institutions are not as powerful as once they were. Today we understand that major changes have taken
91 Denzin, N K, Blue Velvet: Postmodern Contradictions in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol 5, No.2-3, Arrowsmith, Bristol, June 1988, p. 471
place in representation: the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life; the blurring between high and low culture; the eclecticism of styles and the celebration of the reflexive, self-obsessed nature of art.
There are various strands of thinking about the post-modern and each will need to be addressed. For example, one debate assesses the socio-cultural changes of the past 50 years and how it affects contemporary life. The post-industrial western society is based upon the convergence of computer and communication technology that allows for rapid circulation of information and images - an essential compression of time and space. This in turn is fundamental to the notion of globalisation and the homogenising aspects (particularly of American culture) that have encouraged societies based more on conspicuous consumption than ethics. The relationship of humanity to knowledge has changed radically with the power of accessibility and the increased value of control over the self. The 'enlightened' individual, centred and unified has given way to the fluid subject who assumes different identities according to necessity. Drug use in particular facilitates this fluidity, providing the opportunity to explore different notions of the self. By watching Gilliam's film, the viewer may also absorb this ethos of resistance to homogenised identity. Finally, there is the aesthetic debate that is concerned with visual culture and the changes in artistic and commercial practice.92
Theories of the post-modern 'experience', or 'cultural determinant' are confused and contradictory but they may help explain how visual culture is received and why it takes the form it does. Jameson links the aesthetic and behavioural characteristics of
92 Hill, J, (Ed), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford Uni Press, GB, 1998, p. 96-7
the post-modern to the 'cultural logic' of capitalism and particularly multi-national corporate power. He identifies the post-industrial, media-oriented, consumer society that has emerged since the 1950s as the impetus for massive social change. In turn, this has demanded perpetual reinvention of fashions and styles; the ascendance of the advertisement; the rise of suburbia; standardisation and mass production; international travel; automobile culture. He is critical of nostalgic re-interpretations such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because he contends that they have no social function, but rather they merely simulate the real.93 He understands the 'mood' of post-modernism as schizophrenic - the 'fragmentation of time into perpetual presents'.94 The isolated individual is denied a clear perception of temporality - the human relationship to the past, and collective identity. The image rich culture of film, magazines, television, photographs, adverts, music videos, etc can be said to stand in for reality, 'become a reality; the signs of experience, of self.95 Eventually, life and art become so conjoined that practical resistance may be impossible since all reaction is passive and controlled.
The schizophrenic implies a deterioration of assumed aspects of the personality. The protagonists' pursuit of pleasure as well as individualistic identities is reinforced and justified by the context surrounding the original text. The reception of the film and these ideas on the influence of personality can only be gauged by looking at millennial society. Can correlations be drawn between the behaviour of the protagonists then, and in youth culture today? In terms of rave culture, we have witnessed another mass, deliberate defiance of official policies and studies presented
93 Bertens, Hans, The idea of the Postmodern: A history, Routledge, London, 1995, p. 162
94 Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, 1991, p. 125
95 Chambers, I, Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience, Methuen & Co, USA, 1986, p. 69
by an aggressive propaganda campaign. It is clear that representations of extreme risk taking in visual culture are at least partly responsible for the increase in drug use. The images in the book and film that describe the adrenochrome trip reflect this rejection of homogenised forms of experience in favour of the unknown. It is perhaps more true today that visual culture transcends and shapes notions of the real for many people so these representations are a useful way of understanding our relationship to identity.
Jameson believes that the merging of culture and capital is damaging to both, leading to 'depthlessness'. He also assumes that an individual, 'deprived ... of historical consciousness ... cannot hope to gain the interpretive grasp which will yield an explanation of the social and cultural totality'.96 The struggle to understand the present proves the inherent failure to do so and denigrates analogous representation of the past to mere stereotype.97 He has been criticised for his totalising judgements however, and not all theories of the post-modern are based on the 'dumbing down' of culture. Hutcheon on the other hand, argues that the best examples of post-modern culture demand active participation from the viewer, that the levels of connotation that exist deny mere escapism. She speaks of nostalgic parody's potential for positive opposition and
96 (ed) Brooker, Peter, Modernism/Postmodernism, Longman, US, 1992, p. 22
contest, with multi-layered themes that force us to reconsider 'operations by which we both create and give meaning to our culture through representation'.98 For Baudrillard, it is a specific characteristic of contemporary culture to revive the repressed values and energies of history in order to purify or 'positivise' the events, as repentance for the present. These are often attempts to understand their significance and explore the failings of human endeavour.99 His notion of 'schizo' culture differs from Jameson slightly in that what it characterises is less the loss of the 'real' but rather the contrary:
... the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things, the feeling of no defence, no retreat. It is the end of interiority and intimacy, the overexposure and transparence of the world which traverses him without obstacle . He is now only a pure screen, a switching centre for all the networks of influence.100
However, this still endorses the view that the articulation of meaning in visual culture is destined to fail and that culture itself is uncontestatory. For Hutcheon, the fact that post-modern culture questions ideology's role in subject formation and historical knowledge, means that the spirit of resistance, of mistrust of the ideologies of power, continues.101 Whether or not that is still the case is open to discussion. The premise perhaps relies upon the counter-cultural practice that ultimately evaded rather than confronted the state. This overlooks the fact that reformist or revolutionary idealism must involve a relationship to the political economy. Individualism and art are presented as solutions but are invariably neutralised within
98 Hutcheon, L, The politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, 1989, p. 117
99 Horrocks, C, Baudrillard and the Millenium, Icon Books, UK, 1999, p. 21-2
100 Baudrillard, J, The ecstasy of communication quoted in Berger, A A (Ed), The Postmodern Presence: readings on Postmodernism in American Culture & Society, Altamira Press, US, 1998, p. 133
the cultural conditions of the consumer society.102 Kellner also attributes the mood of nihilism and political limitation (as expressed in Thompson's original book and replayed in the film) as an enunciation of the experience of desperate defeat at the crash of the Movement.103 In a sense, as the meta-narratives of modernity have failed to emancipate the human spirit, post-modernism has arisen as a nihilistic response.
By transgressing literal reality for altered states of consciousness, the characters in the text exemplify this notion. They reject repressive ideological structures to pursue a form of enlightenment through self-analysis. However, this often instigates paranoia, despair and aggression. The most excessive scenes of drug use occur when Dr. Gonzo overdoses on acid and attempts suicide in the bath. Steadman's illustration dehumanises the subject, presenting him as a primitive beast with countless eyes and an overloaded mind that looks like it has ruptured. In Gilliam's vision, Gonzo rejects present and past ideologies in order to seek a higher truth, through the intense peak of music. Thompson says he is an 'ugly refugee from the Love Generation, some doom-struck gimp who couldn't handle the pressure'.104
102 Brake, M, The Sociology of Youth Culture and Youth Subcultures: Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n'Roll?Routledge, 1980, p. 100
104 Thompson, H S, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Op. Cit, p. 63
While one could characterise the perpetuation of academic critical theory as a method to reproduce and sustain itself, it is also a form of resistance, and, almost in contradiction of itself, is a new grand narrative that continues to search for emancipation. It is vital that this resistance is maintained so that the study of visual culture doesn't merely serve the culture industry.
Basically, postmodernism is whatever you want it to be, if you want it bad enough.105
Does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas still represent a challenge to authority? It makes a plea for the triumph of diversity and chaos over the conformity of straight society, but it is nostalgia nonetheless. Through Gilliam's renegotiation of these themes however, it is argued that the critique of society continues. The way it presents the 'unpresentable' in the scenes of excessive drug consumption is a challenge to the boundaries of private and public life but it is no longer shocking since films such as Pulp Fiction (1994). Such imagery however does contribute to the integration of individuals on the periphery of society into the mainstream. The nostalgic paradigm has long been associated with feelings of alienation, particularly for the intellectual, and was of great significance to the development of German social theory from Marx to the Frankfurt school. Social thought from the 19th century onwards has sought to reconcile new systems of cultural and personal exchange that was, and continues to be, affected by the market and the economic ties between human beings. In the text, Thompson signifies the individual who is dominated by bureaucracy and the state. The revival of the period in full detail is an expression of
105 Handy, B, quoted in Berger, A A (Ed), The Postmodern Presence: readings on Postmodernism in American Culture & Society, Altamira Press, US, 1998, p. 52
history as decline and fall - of the chances that failed. Director Oliver Stone is most concerned with this nostalgic paradigm and in many of his films he recreates moments of the sixties as points in history that directly affect the present such as the death of JFK, or the war in Vietnam.
Contemporary drug use can be studied in parallel to the transformation of the nature of representation in post-modern society. In the creation of identity or the manipulation of mood, visual culture is an immediate fix and can be directly related to youth behaviour.
The changes produce new identities and can provide instant pleasure, alleviate symptoms, and reduce pain. When people use the electronic media, the changes are instantaneous. Electronic media works like a drug rushing through the bloodstream: they directly affect the sense and passively produce the desired effect, bypassing cognitive processes such as deliberate thinking or practise. The way a viewer identifies with the characters who are suddenly transported into another dimension within the hyper-reality of the TV ads is akin to drug highs. The quick jump-cuts in music video frames and TV ads parallel the quick rush experienced from cocaine. ... What is arguable or contested in each instance is the degree to which the user is critically controlling the experience and/or is being manipulated by the corporate media.106
Forbes analysis of drug use in the context of post-modern culture observes that the competitive society doesn't affirm the dignity of each person. This causes the self-medication, through drugs, to alleviate feelings of insecurity, sorrow, pain, anger or
106 Forbes, D, False Fixes: The Cultural Politics of Drugs, Alcohol and Addictive Relations, NY Uni Press, USA, 1994, p. 97
boredom. He also acknowledges that drugs serve the function of relaxation, of play, escape and sociability. When policy makers struggle to comprehend and deal with the drugs problem through a prohibition framework, they fail to acknowledge the constant search by humanity to express feelings of personal power and enjoyment -to enhance and expand consciousness.107 For the younger generation of drug users, it is already part of their culture on a spiritual level, increasing as other religious institutions diminish. The authorities underestimate the power of popular culture.
America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyper-reality ... because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.108
The methodology of drug prohibition follows various formulas. The conservative approach is of zero tolerance and relies upon surveillance and punishment to instil a notion of moral fibre. The liberal approach is a belief that treatment and care is required to support the user and re-integrate them into society. The more leftist philosophy is based upon the assumption that drug use itself is symptomatic of the inherent deficiencies of the capitalist system. The solution would be found in a change in the impersonal functions related to the market and class reform. Forbes observes that the failure of each meta-narrative is a consequence of their position outside everyday culture.
Popular culture, they assume, is not as legitimate as some predetermined social structure, whether it be a divine social order, the free-market, the state, class conflict, or genuine human needs. But this perspective restricts understanding of
108 Baudrillard, J, America, Verson, UK, 1988, p. 301
people's everyday efforts to resist, negotiate, and appropriate consumer culture, let alone to create their own cultural meanings. It pre-empts an adequate analysis of the place of drugs and addictive relations in everyday life by minimizing the importance of everyday culture itself.109
In other words, everyday life has assumed a significance that is sometimes at odds with the traditional social narratives of the modern age. Faith in inviolable structures such as the family, education, religion and the state has been shaken and power is diffused. Drug use in the pursuit of music culture is one way of constructing identity and interpreting cultural signs for individualistic reasons.110 It is this essential change in the nature of the self that is so central to the study of visual culture. The rites and meanings translated from the drug culture contribute to the creation of identity through adolescence onwards. The sense of a fixed personality is in flux as diverse influences are integrated into the mainstream by a culture intent on self-renewal, recycling and plurality. People are participants in the construction of their own identities at different times and for different relational contexts.111 Everyday life assumes the dramatic sense of cinema or television as the passage of personal history plays out like a crafted performance.
Adolescence, one of the key stages in this performance, only emerged in the last century. Growing children had previously learned to take their place in the adult world at an earlier age and accept the responsibilities of work and family. Today there are more contradictions facing youth. They can marry at 16 but not drink at their wedding. In school, forced to follow an official curriculum of subjects and
taught obedience to the hierarchy of authority, they become anxious and unfulfilled. Society has no other useful place for them apart from education. Forbes argues that these events conspire to transform them into restless consumers, 'in search of ever more satisfying products and services'.112 Frith also acknowledges that it is precisely because they lack power that the young displace personal problems to their free time; focus their politics on leisure. As a consequence, the youth audience is targeted as the main market for leisure and consumption. He makes the explicit connection that it is young peoples' use of free time that raises the problems discussed here of capitalist freedom and constraint.113
Meanwhile, youth are suffering from unique problems: a changing perception of work expectations, of housing arrangements, even the intricacies of modern love and marriage. Increasingly they are suffering from anxiety, depression or boredom and are experimenting more with their sexuality, drugs and nihilistic pursuits. The belief in the morals and abilities of the elder generation are also in doubt through what Meyrowitz calls the 'staging of adulthood'. The playful nature of post-modern culture, especially in television, has blurred the line between adults' private behaviour and their onstage roles, meaning that childish behaviour emerges into this public role. Consequently, youth are becoming less naive and the role of the all-knowing adult is being undermined.114
113 Frith, S, Sound Effects: youth culture, and the politics of rock n roll, NY, Pantheon, 1981, p. 201 quoted in Forbes, D, Op. Cit, p. 166
114 Meyrowitz, J, No sense of place: the impact of electronic media on social behaviour, Oxford Uni Press, NY, 1985, p.224 quoted in Forbes, Op Cit, p. 63
In Manchester, there has been a longstanding problem with gang warfare and crime inspired by drug addiction and control over supply. The celebrated consumer culture does not touch every individual. For all the advancements in living standards, there is still no system that provides for everyone. A satisfying life that reflects the possibilities suggested by visual culture must be bought and paid for. For many people, urban life remains purely 'one of potential, of promise unfulfilled'.115 In 1997, 78% of suspects held in police stations in Trafford tested positive for illegal drugs (27% for crack cocaine, 32% for heroin).116 The assumption that drugs are inherently destructive, rather than the economic and social systems that encourage their use leads to typically bias histories and unproductive policies. For example, the statement below is almost the full extent of drugs history in Gilbert's military slanted account of the past 50 years.
Illegal drugs that were to the curse of the final decade of the century were beginning to be used, and to be advocated by some publicly ... The 'drug culture', not confined to affluent societies, was about to disturb and poison the minds of millions of people. In due time it was to have a marked effect on crime. The need to supply and finance the drug habit, if necessary by theft and violence, undermined the moral outlook of many individuals.117
Such simplistic explanations for the causes of anti-social behaviour are regularly supplied to the population and evidence of short-term success in the drug war is presented as a solution. The news media rarely offers analysis of the reasons for which people use or sell drugs and instead it propagates images of punishment and
unusual, individual case studies. The rapid and perpetually changing news media then quickly juxtaposes the story with another one, or an advertisement. The viewer perceives the course of human events as a perceptual montage.
Instead of creating a taste for enlightenment, LSD was promoting a love of sensation, the more intense the better.118
Since the evolution of drug culture has coincided with the notion of a post-modern, visual culture, it is hardly surprising that they refect each other. Drugs provide a rapid sensory shift. In a culture driven by renewal and plurality, they are a quick fix to enlightenment. The attraction of youth to drugs is a consequence of society's addiction to sensation.
118 Stevens, J, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, Heinemann, GB, 1987 (1988), p. 342
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Being addicted to drugs is a complicated matter condition that's been specified as a disorder that evidences in the obsessional thinking about and utilization of drugs. It's a matter that might continue to get worse and become disastrous and deadly if left untreated.