revolutionary reflections | ‘Quite an experience’, Blade Runner, Marxism and Postmodernity

With the theatre release of Blade Runner 2049, Red Wedge Magazine have given rs21 permission to republish an interview with Matthew Flisfeder author of Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner (2017). The original interview was carried out in September, and focuses solely on the ‘original’ film and its context. A review of the Blade Runner 2049 will be forthcoming on rs21 by Jozef Doyle.

Matthew Flisfeder’s review of Blade Runner 2049 if forthcoming on the Red Wedge website.

The link to the original article on Red Wedge can be found here: http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/blade-runner-marxism-and-postmodernity


Red Wedge Editorial Introduction

Joe Sabatini and Jordy Cummings of Red Wedge spoke with the Winnipeg-based cultural theorist Matthew Flisfeder and had an exchange on Flisfeder’s recent book, Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner. Flisfeder’s insights transcend the analysis of a single film, rather he offers us new tools with which to engage the popular avant-garde, as well as how we can periodize modernity and postmodernity. A wide-ranging thinker and supple theorist, Red Wedge encourages our readers to seek out his exemplary cultural analysis. We look forward to what comes next from Dr. Flisfeder.

Joe Sabatini and Jordy Cummings: Tell us a bit about yourself, your theoretical interests and your politics? 

Matthew Flisfeder: My background is in communication, cultural, and critical theory, but I write mainly from a Marxist and/or historical materialist perspective. My chief concern is with the critique of ideology, which as Fredric Jameson has described responds to the following question: if what Marx argued about capital is true – that is, if the source of capitalist surplus value is in fact found in exploitation, which therefore requires the artificial reproduction and manufacturing of inequality; if capital is bound to constant crises on an ever expanding scale – if this is true, why is it that there are a great many people, especially those who are served by the historical materialist account, who continue to insist on rejecting such insights? This is the kind of question that I try to address in my writing on film, media, and popular culture. More recently, I’ve been focusing on the relationship between social media and ideology, trying to do for social media what I’ve done previously with film – that is, analyzing the formal features of social media as a window into understanding the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism.

Joe and Jordy: What inspired you to interpret the social totality by way of analysis of cinema?

Matthew: Well, to be honest, I first remember thinking about the connection between popular culture and politics as a teenager, when I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of the Advocate. In fact (and it sounds a bit cliché), it was really reading about Cobain’s disdain for the media that I first started thinking critically about its role in the reproduction of what I’d now refer to as dominant ideology. Since then, I’ve always been able to see the very close connection between politics, popular culture, and cinema.

My writing, though, has been influenced most by Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, and the way that they have used popular culture to examine the social totality. I’ve found inspiration in their work because unlike Frankfurt School critical theory, or even the screen theory of the 1970s, they tend to take popular culture as an authentic object of enjoyment for the masses, without reducing it to a form of ideological duping. While this kind of reflection on popular culture also came out of Birmingham School critiques of Frankfurt School elitism, I find that Žižek’s style of writing, in particular, manages to appeal to a wider audience, showing how popular culture and popular cinema can be used as a means to interpellate popular interest in critical and even Marxist theory. I’ve found, for instance, that my students are especially intrigued by Žižek’s film appearances in Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012). Instead of shying away from Theory, students I’ve shown these films to generally seem eager to learn more about how to practice this brand of criticism.

I came to Žižek, too, because of some of the questions I had previously about the Althusserian conception of ideology and ideological interpellation. Having spent a lot of time studying the Althusser-inspired film theory of the 1970s, I came to question (and I’m being reductive here for the sake of brevity) the notion that cinema, for example, “zaps” ideology directly into the mind of the audience. I also found much of the discourse theory approaches unsatisfying. Žižek’s Lacanian inspired conception of ideology, subjectivity, and enjoyment helped, then, to fill in some of the gaps that I felt were missing in the Althusserian account; for instance, the fact that for Althusser, the subject is a product of ideology (i.e., “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects”), whereas on the Lacanian account, the subject emerges where ideology fails – for me, this formula provides critical insights for ways to imagine the relationship between criticism, interpretation, and political practice.

Furthermore, by taking enjoyment into consideration, Žižek helps to show some of the weaknesses in the post-Cold War notions of the “end of history” or the “end of ideology,” on both the Left and the right, and how cynicism – or what Peter Sloterdijk refers to as “enlightened false consciousness” – is the very form of ideology in postmodern late/neoliberal capitalism. Cynicism allows the subject to acknowledge the futility of attempts to transform the system, while still taking some kind of unconscious pleasure from failing to achieve the desired goal. These are points that I cover in my first book, The Symbolic, The Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

Joe and Jordy: How do you connect your politics with your theoretical practice?

Matthew: Through Žižek (and this is by no means unique to him), I’ve come to see theory itself as tied to politics or political action, and especially his defence of Marxist and Lacanian theory against a school of film scholarship referred to as post-theory or “middle-level theory,” that shies away from asking big questions about the relationship between cinema and the social totality. So for me, Theory is key to any broader Leftist action. It is tied up with what Jameson has called “cognitive mapping,” which he later on admitted was a coded way of talking about class consciousness. I see both the work of Jameson and Žižek as closely related to that of the young Lukács, who understood the role of historical materialism – and the identification of the subject and object of history – in mapping an emergent class consciousness of the proletariat. It provides a language or narrative (which is of course never static) by which the exploited subject can map where she stands politically and in context.

The novelty of the new Lacanian approaches to ideology is also bound up with the way that it imagines organizing and politicization – taking the vanguard of the party as something like the position of the analyst in the psychoanalytic treatment. You see this in the work of someone like Jodi Dean who draws on the communist hypothesis and the party form as a way to connect politics and theoretical practice. I think she’s made the strongest connections between the brand of Žižek inspired ideology critique and activism. For her, and for me too, movements like Occupy Wall Street, are significant for the way that they’ve demonstrated the positive value of organizing in the face of the cleavages opened up by the contradictions of capital. However, it’s the ultimate dispersal of the movement that then recalls the need to theorize.

Going back, then, to Žižek’s critique of post-theory in film studies, I think that this goes to show just how much ideology pervades all aspects of our everyday lives, even in places that we imagine to be wrapped up the most in critique, like the university. Take someone like Chomsky, for instance, who has criticized Žižek for being too abstract in his approach to theory. As much as I admire Chomsky for his political advocacy and (with Edward Herman), his political economy approach to the media, I think that there’s a very interesting line that runs through his work that shows just where theory is lacking. It’s possible to see, for instance, just how much his work in linguistics – the idea of universal grammar, for example – is tied to his anarcho-syndicalist (I’d even go so far as to say Left libertarian) politics. For Chomsky – and we see this in his critique of the media – what’s most important is tearing down limits to freedom and creativity, so that with the media, let’s say, all that is required is for the people to know or become aware of the truth and they will then start to revolt. Unlike Chomsky, what Žižek shows is that more and more people are aware of the truth, but still they continue to act as if this wasn’t the case (or, in Lacanian psychoanalytic terms, “I know very well, but nevertheless…”). For me, this is an indication of where theory is very much needed in political practice. We still need to understand why people do often act against their better interests, and no amount of revelatory indices will do the trick.

What does do the trick, I think, is actually seeing concrete movements, like Black Lives Matter, emerge at moments of capital in crisis; or figures like Bernie Sanders, who are re-popularizing even the term “socialism.” It might not seem like a big deal to some, but it’s the deployment of a signifier like socialism (or communism), even, that I think helps to move people towards solidarity and action – to show that there are alternatives to capitalism. Rhetoric, after all, is still one of the best ways to move people to action; and, a theoretically informed language can get people to move – it is still part of the war of position, which is where I think we are situated at this moment. We are still building towards a critical mass. It is, to use Jameson’s paraphrasing of Gramsci, a moment of cynicism of the intellect, utopianism of the will.

Joe and Jordy: What purpose do you see, as to both enhancing and renovating our understanding of what we at Red Wedge call a “popular avant-garde,” as well as to building capacities for socialism, within your theoretical and pedagogical praxis?

Matthew: “Cognitive mapping” is also how I would describe what you at Red Wedge are referring to as a “popular avant-garde.” That is, unlike the modern avant-garde, which I believe was too wrapped up in its own formalist brand of politics, I see theory and interpretation of popular culture – and certainly, there are degrees of cultural capital entwined at various levels of popular art – drawing from avant-garde art history and criticism in order to place popular culture and practices of enjoyment within the larger context of the social whole; and this, too, is a political act, one of cognitive mapping, and of providing the people with a language with which they can articulate their relative position vis-à-vis the class struggle, but in terms that are palatable and down to Earth. Dialectical criticism, after all, can appear quite daunting without an accessible point of entry.

Joe and Jordy: How would you distinguish your conception of “postmodernism,” “postmodern theory” and “postmodernity”?

Matthew: I think that even beginning with these distinctions between postmodernism, postmodern theory, and postmodernity, demonstrates some of the difficulties that we encounter when trying to survey this concept. I find that my own use of these terms draws on Marshall Berman and the way that he distinguished (in All That’s Solid Melts into Air) between modernism, modernity, and modernization. For me, “postmodernism,” denotes the particularities of culture and aesthetics – style, for instance, or even form to some extent, whereas “postmodern theory” has to do with a set of critical and philosophical practices of interpretation (even those that chide interpretation), which I cover in the first half of my book. Postmodernity, just like modernity, delineates an historical moment, or period, or epoch. In this sense, my own writing on postmodern theory is very much inspired by figures like Jameson, Harvey, and Anderson (the former two more so than the latter). Jameson has recently written that his conception of postmodernism is perhaps much closer to what I’m referring to here as postmodernity in that it is a periodizing concept, and in that regard it is very close to the way that David Harvey defined postmodernity in light of the political economic transformations of post-Fordist capitalism, and aesthetically then as expressive of the kinds of time-space compressions and spatial fixes we feel – its “structure of feeling” to use Raymond Williams’ concept – from new temporalities of late capitalism – such as increases in the turnover times between production, distribution, and consumption of commodities, including information commodities, such as trendy news.

Berman, however, used the term “modernization” to describe the kinds of technological developments that preceded the arrival of modern art and culture, the former emerging about a century before the latter. Modernity, also, is a periodizing concept that refers to the period beginning with the European Enlightenment, so it too functions as something like a container for characterizing both the technological and the cultural and aesthetic aspects of modernism. For me, the term postmodernity encompasses both the periodizing and technological components of the postmodern, and this is due to the competing interpretations of the concept in its historical context.

Joe and Jordy: You situate yourself within the Marxist tradition, yet many Marxists have been critical of (perhaps a straw-person version of) postmodernism, citing Lyotard and so forth. On the other hand, Marxists such as Perry Anderson, Fredric Jameson and David Harvey use the term in a descriptive as opposed to normative sense. Can one be a postmodernist Marxist?

Matthew: I begin, in the book, by distinguishing between the competing perspectives of Lyotard and Jameson; not simply between Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” and Jameson’s historical materialist (grand narrative) approach to postmodernism. With Lyotard, it is precisely the technological shifts in post-Fordist capitalism that helps to signal the move away from an historical materialist approach (that, as well as the coming neoliberal version of capitalism and the waning of the Soviet model), towards one that emphasizes the role of knowledge, information, and technology. Jameson’s historical materialist periodization of postmodernism also pays close attention to the role of the technological, especially in the way that he characterizes the “hysterical sublime” – that is, the anxiety felt in postmodern culture when technology replaces nature as the sublime counterpart to the beautiful (using Burkean and Kantian categories). But I draw attention to this in order to show how the technological and the political economy of capitalism exist in debates about postmodernism as two parallax position points for coming to understand it beyond the conceptual. I think that the kind of “incredulity towards metannarative” that Lyotard describes is key to understanding the difference between Marxism and postmodernism, but I also believe that his approach is not without a significant historical contextualization – there was indeed contextual evidence to suggest a failure in the Marxist approach. But this is also why Marxist theorists like Jameson, Žižek, and Terry Eagleton, for instance, describe postmodern ideology as cynical – as Eagleton describes it, postmodern ideology is symptomatic of a kind of cynical resignation, a feeling of failure, both in relation to the dominance of capital and the capitalist state, and in the dwindling of European Communism and the Soviet model. This is why we see emerging from both the Left and Right, theories about the “end of history,” or the “end of ideology,” in postmodernity. On the right, the “end of history” signaled the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism; on the Left, it has meant the declining usefulness of Marxist critical categories of History and ideology as in the turn towards Nietzschean genealogy and discourse (as opposed to ideology) in the work of Michel Foucault.

In that sense, too, one of the other central ideas that I begin with in the book is the shift in the 1960s towards the so-called New Social Movements – that is, non-class based social and political movements, such as second wave Feminism, the civil rights and post-colonial movements, the gay liberation movement, the student and anti-war movements, and so forth. What I believe is significant about these movements is that they emerged at a moment of “class compromise” between capital and labour during the period of the social welfare state. At this moment of compromise, class struggle seemed to disappear, but the political still surfaced in the rise of these important struggles (and I don’t want to underemphasize their significance and the gains they’ve made to the Left), which in hindsight I would say are still very much tied to the class struggle in the Marxist sense, and I think that this is an important point to note. What this period brought was not the retreat of class struggle, but rather its emergence in different form – and this was a form that showed just how much class struggle is tied to racialization, patriarchy and phallocentrism, heterosexism, imperialism, etc. If there is a lasting legacy of postmodernism it is that it drew important attention not just to institutional, but also to the cultural forms of Eurocentrism and phallocentrism, leading into the Gramsci-inspired Cultural Studies analysis of cultural hegemony that then formed the analytical mantra of race-class-gender.

However, there also emerged, later on, a postmodern or post-Marxism largely associated with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, that worked to incorporate postmodern and post-structural theory into the analysis of radical politics, drawing as well on the Gramscian concept of hegemony, and upgrading this with Foucauldian, Derridean, and Lacanian concepts of language, identity, and difference that flew in the face of Leninist or Maoist, even, forms of organization – it was very much a reaction to the experience of Soviet Communism and Western Marxism, as well as the Marxist elements of the New Left in the 1960s. For me, though, what’s dangerous about this kind of postmodern Marxism is its shifting away too far from class struggle as the political at the heart of the economic and the cultural. Laclau’s later work on populism is evidence of this. But, to be clear, this is not to say that for me class politics takes precedence over anti-racism, feminism, and so forth; but rather it means to highlight the fact that all of these struggles and forms of oppression are symptomatic of the class struggle. It’s the class struggle also, for me, which forms the subjective side of the historicizing and periodizing project of the Marxist analysis of postmodernism and postmodernity, in counterpart to the objective mode of production. Class struggle and mode of production are the two concepts that I take as central to the Marxist theory of history, and like Jameson I see postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism – meaning its ideological and aesthetic form are symptomatic of the class struggle and the capitalist mode of production at a particular point of their development – or, more precisely, its emergence is a response to a particular contradiction within the political economy of capitalism. There is for me a specific reason why postmodernism emerged when it did, and that has to do with the state of the capitalist mode of production in this period and the status of the class struggle and the form that it took in the context of neoliberal and finance dominated capitalism.

Joe and Jordy: How would you then distinguish postmodernist Marxism from other “Marxisms”?

Matthew: I suppose it is possible to say that Jameson and others, like Žižek, could be very much characterized as postmodern Marxists because of the way that they incorporate postmodern practices and approaches to the study of culture. Žižek, for instance, does not shy away from the fact that he practices postmodern methods of analysis, such as the allegorical interpretation of cinema and the use of pastiche – practices which depart from modernist hermeneutics such as the use of symbolism – even though this is still couched in a project to radicalize modern thought and philosophy for the present. Jameson’s constant and recurring reference to the Greimasian semiotic square has also shown where postmodern practise of spatializing what has been perceived as the dichotomous flaw of dialectical thinking helps him to reimagine the “valences of the dialectic.” In a sense, too, writers like Jameson, Žižek, and even the late Mark Fisher, are stylistically postmodern in the way that they use an intertextual approach, mixing art, popular culture, and theory, as part of their diagnostics. So it is in this sense that I think it is possible to be a postmodern Marxist, but I for one am not enthusiastic about Marxisms that eschew the centrality of the class struggle (which I would still very much distinguish from a centrality of “class” in the bourgeois sociological sense as different strata of society). Perhaps it makes sense then, in a kind of reductive way, that what I value most about postmodern theory are its methods and its aesthetic practices, more so than its politics, even though I think that politically it provided a wake-up call to Marxism on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as questions about pleasure, enjoyment, and affect.

That being said, I think that it becomes much more difficult to reconcile postmodernism and Marxism when we get down to the nitty-gritty: if postmodernism begins by railing against so-called grand narrative, or big theory, or big explanations, then I think things change. The great thing about Marxism and historical materialism is that it provides an avenue, or a prism through which we can come to understand a great many phenomena outside of capitalism and the class struggle, such as the relationship between race and class, or gender and class (particularly in light of Marxist feminist critiques of social reproduction). Historical materialism also provides for us social and political insights into art and culture that then bring them back into the social totality, and I don’t think we can fully grasp the significance of postmodernism as an historical phenomenon without linking it to the present stage in the capitalist mode of production or the state of the class struggle.

Joe and Jordy: You discuss Blade Runner in the context of post-modernism. Could it not be countered that in formal terms it shares more in common with the high modernist works of auteurs like Kurosawa and Bergman than works like Blue Velvet and the Tarantino films which rely more heavily on intertextual references to wider pop culture? Ridley Scott seemed to be constructing a totality in which each component part of the film – the music, the lighting and scenery, the fashions and the slow editing each points back inward, creating a sense of depth and space for reflective subjectivity – the kind predicated on a different relationship between viewer and the screen than we usually get with postmodernism?

Matthew: In the book, I emphasize that Blade Runner is a film that sits nicely on the border between modernism and postmodernism. I also try to point out that cinema bears an ambiguous relationship with art categories like modern and postmodern because it is both art and popular culture. It was the cleavage between art and mass culture that formed much of the impetus for modern artists in their vocation to escape commodification. I think that this brings forth another valuable lesson from postmodernism, that has to do precisely with the blurred lines between high and low/mass art or culture. Postmodernism we might say is what emerges at a moment of total commodification. This puts cinema in an odd position because it too blurs the lines between art and commodified mass culture. The way I describe it, postmodernism is an aesthetic of total commodification, where commodified mass culture, itself, becomes the art object. In the case of cinema, this means incorporating a kind of self-reflexivity about its own historicity.
We see this in Blade Runner with its generic blending of noir and sci-fi. It is, many would argue, the progenitor of the postmodern genre of cyberpunk. Its style relies on the kind of nostalgia mode that Jameson describes in that it represents not the past, but a stereotype about the past, and this is a feature that Blade Runner shares with films like Star Wars or Chinatown. This is how these films exemplify pastiche as a stylistic mode: they are representations without referents, where at least the historicity of the referent is made somewhat ambiguous. This is how noir is depicted in Blade Runner as it is codified through sci-fi. But even the sci-fi elements of the film – the role of technology, for instance – depict the kind of hysterical sublime that I alluded to earlier, where the awe of nature is replaced by that of technology. This is also why, as I try to describe in the book, the film is also postmodernized in its various different incarnations, whether as the Original Theatrical Release, the Director’s Cut, of the Final Cut. Recall that the original release ends with Deckard and Rachael driving up north, and we see the first daylight shot of the film. Here, I would argue the film is much closer to modern motifs, whereas the Director’s Cut, which eliminated this ending and Deckard’s voiceover narration, and made more ambiguous Deckard’s status as human/Replicant, postmodernized the film in a sense.

The ending of the original theatrical release and the escape to nature is also indicative of the modern motif of utopia; whereas the depiction of the future in the Director’s Cut is much closer to the cynical representation of dystopia – and I mean here, cynicism in the sense of Jameson’s thesis that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I end the book by claiming that, as a critical dystopia, Blade Runner helps to define the capitalist realism of our postmodern present, and with its successive reincarnations, as the Director’s Cut, as the Final Cut, and now with the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, it continues to be a look ahead into the realities of unfettered multinational capitalism.

Joe and Jordy: To what extent do you think the film is less about ontological questions of what it means to be a human, than about what it means to suffer, and to have agency to do something about that in terms of rebellion, or simply deciding to change one’s mind in the last instance. I am thinking of Roy Batty’s decision to save Deckard at the point where his time is about to run out. Does this make his gesture more interesting, and more open to Marxist discussions of ethics, and to questions of how a class who are exploited gains insight into their condition, over sterile debates over whether Deckard is a replicant, and whether Batty knows this?

Matthew: Yes, certainly, that is another possible interpretation of the film, and I see no reason why it can’t be read that way. But, again, the film works intertextually and allegorically at the level of its interpretation, so that what it does in terms of cognitive mapping is provide some thematic ground to concretize postmodern conceptions of subjectivity and history. Take the role of photographs in the film. Photographs are both markers of real history for both Rachael and Leon. Leon, we see, uses photographs to mark his own history as a Replicant, and they appear dear to him for factually recording his own experiences. For Rachael, though, the photograph of her and her mother mark her humanity. But as we discover, the image is in fact one of Tyrell’s niece. Thematically, the film remarks upon the postmodern view of history, of the fact that history always comes to us in representational form, and that it gets lost without a real referent.

I think that the film also remarks upon important cultural questions about identity that, tied to ontological questions about the status of the subject, allow us to read proletarianization in another new way that wasn’t quite present without postmodern theory. The film depicts how subjugation is very much tied to the type of body that one has. The troubling of Deckard’s humanity, I think, isn’t what’s most interesting. Instead, I think the more important point is about the universalization of the proletariat given how quickly one can fall into substanceless subjectivity – that is, as the referent to one’s humanity is lost. As we discover that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream of the unicorn, we see very quickly how our perceived safety in the dominant culture (or “race”) can be threatened and how we are all potentially proletarianized. By tying this fact to the body, as well as to the unconscious of the subject (I think it’s significant that we’re talking about the dream/memory here), the film makes important connections between exploitation and racialized and gendered subjecthood. It shows that class struggle is also bound up with race and gender, for instance.

So, I’d say that the interesting ontological question, or more specifically, the question about subjectivity, is not what it means to be human, but what it means to be always potentially substanceless in our subjecthood. But substanceless subjectivity – the subject as lack or loss (in the Lacanian sense) is also the position of destitution, from which (in my Žižekian reading) political agency really emerges.

Joe and Jordy: Looking back 35 years, the film has a very early 80s look, sound and feel. The scene in Taffy Lewis’s bar could be taken from 80s music videos. If we view Blade Runner in the context of Mark Fisher’s writings on this period, could we perhaps view the film as a monument to a largely transitional and forgotten period? Can the slow pace and atmosphere of the film (something familiar in the electronic music of the time) be seen as a desperate attempt to establish a kind of subjectivity that has already disappeared, but lives on as a sort of semblance? 

Matthew: Definitely! The film is very much a product of its time, and audiences today might find its pace, for instance, somewhat off-putting considering the speed with which new Cyberpunk action sequences unfold. Nevertheless, the film is iconic and has clearly been influential. The scene in Taffy’s bar, for instance, has been replicated in countless films, including Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

I think that if we reflect upon the way that Fisher describes the sensation of belatedness in the twenty-first century, then perhaps it might make sense to view Blade Runner as monumental. But this is also what still helps to mark the relevance of postmodernism in it is nostalgia mode. It’s in this sense that I can see your point about a subjectivity that has already disappeared but which still remains relevant – as Fisher put it, “the current moment is in the grip of a formal nostalgia.” We have, today, a feeling of “living after the gold rush.” It’s the same reason why, for some of us, today’s music can’t ever live up to the heydays of rock or punk or hip-hop. But then, again, isn’t this part of what defines something as “classic”?

Joe and Jordy: Could Blade Runner be seen as cutting across the smooth flow of time implied in most theories of the transition from modernity to post-modernity? Should a film with so much of high modernism about it be appearing in 1982? How would you respond to the point in which we’d situate Blade Runner as creating a history – based on the way it internalises film noir and sci-fi, without creating something parodic, but actually changes and develops the forms it adopts, and thus we deem it to be an exemplar of the best of modernism?

Matthew: I think I’ve already answered this question in part with my previous remarks about genre, pastiche, and nostalgia. But I would also emphasize, again, that it I think the film escapes parody – and remember that the difference between parody and pastiche is still central to debates about postmodernism – by helping to build up cyberpunk as a uniquely postmodern genre. So, although the film is postmodern in its nostalgic references to stereotypes of past genres, and it exemplifies pastiche in its mode of subtracting the history of these genres (which is what distinguishes it from parody, let’s be clear), by helping to produce Cyberpunk as a genre, Blade Runner, we might say, has created history.

Joe and Jordy: Do you have any predictions with regards to the sequel?  On one hand, all films are historically specific. Yet on the other hand, there have been rare and interesting occurences when sequels or remakes spoke even more accurately to their context than did the original – think of Demme’s Manchurian Candidate or DePalma’s Scarface.  Can we see sequels as replicants, so to speak?

Matthew: In the book, I say something about how the form of the various versions of the films make it postmodern as constant simulacra and simulation of the previous versions. So I guess we could claim rhetorically (maybe mockingly) that remakes are like Replicants.

I don’t have any major predictions about the plot of the sequel. I’m very curious, myself. But I do find it intriguing that Blade Runner is now another example of the kind of reboot culture we’ve seen in the last few years. Again, still, I think that this marks it in terms of postmodernity – that is, how each new incarnation rewrites past and previous versions of the film. Although Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel, I for one am most interested in seeing how and whether it finally resolves the ambiguity about Deckard’s status as a Replicant, and what that means for his own political agency, and maybe even ours.

Ultimately, all products of culture are informed by their history or their historicity. But I think there are two ways of conceiving that history, especially when we try to mix postmodern and traditional historical materialism. We can either look at the object as a product of its own historical context, or we can historicize from the perspective of the interpreter – from her own subjectivity. When Jameson says, “Always historicize!” – when he uses this phrase to open The Political Unconscious – and especially when he distinguishes between the object and the subject of history, I take him to mean that there is always a political unconscious to the interpretation of a cultural object. That means that all cultural objects can then be historicized based on the subject position of the reader, which more interestingly I’d say tells us about his or her current position vis-à-vis the class struggle.

Nevertheless, some works of culture offer us better gateways into the work of Theory and the present. That’s what I find most intriguing about dystopian fiction and cyberpunk, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Blade Runner 2049 in a way that provides cognitive mapping for the social, cultural, and political challenges we now face. I’m curious to see if it’s still, in this film, easier to imagine dystopia than the end of capitalism.


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.

Joe Sabatini is an activist and writer based in the UK. He is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective and also edits the Revolutionary Reflections series for the website of rs21.

Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and recently was awarded a PhD on rock music, the New Left and social movements. Jordy is based in Toronto and is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.

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