- Traumatic Postmodern Histories:Velvet Goldmine's Phantasmatic Testimonies
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If modernity was characterized by and imagined itself in terms of a particular awareness of time and history—the unfolding of social, political, and technological projects of progress and revolution, a heightened sense of novelty, increased speed, shortened distance—postmodernity seems to understand itself in terms of the deprivation of history and perhaps even the loss of time itself. Anything characterized as progress must beget a mournful attitude toward history, since the past becomes fraught—by definition—with error. The inhabitants of the past might be forgiven based on their lack of knowledge of the future, but Western history as a history of follies and repressions, egregious exploitation, and murderous violence is hardly something we can excuse, however remote these deeds may be. This is a history that almost begs to be forgotten—as much as it cries out to be remembered.
The difficulty of balancing the two demands is a postmodern historical predicament that we should hope cinema can address, if not resolve.Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernity [End Page 157] in part as a loss of faith in master narratives, utopian teleologies of history; yet within this conceptualization, the consciousness of the loss of history can itself be an historical form of consciousness.1 If the post of postmodernity marks a rupture with modernity, a historical break or coupure, then this distance might at least allow us to be able to understand and represent the past from a secure vantage point. But if this post is no simple break and does not imply chronological succession or even distance, then postmodernity cannot offer a position from which to represent modernity and provides little epistemological leverage. Rather than being a loss of history or a specific position in history, this postmodernity, as Fredric Jameson suggests, names a difficulty in locating ourselves with respect to history. After all, the nostalgic cinematic mode retro, an approach to "the 'past' through stylistic connotation, conveying 'pastness' by the glossy qualities of the image," and the tendency toward pastiche—a jumble of historical styles that Jameson identifies as central for the postmodern aesthetic—seem to suggest as much.2 If, however, we were to understand this postmodern historical consciousness as itself historical, might there not be a more positive description of the postmodern relation to history? And might not the very aesthetic and cultural forms of postmodernity—pastiche, the mode retro in cinema, a concern with images as media commodities rather than expressions of subjectivity—actually function as forms of historical awareness? Since Jameson is keen on taking the modernist aesthetic as the realism appropriate to modernity, we should take him seriously in following this insight apropos of postmodernism.
This essay explores the possibility that the postmodern aesthetic might itself be a way of thinking historical experience, but one that falls outside the traditional categories of historical representation. In what follows, I draw on concepts of trauma and testimony, witnessing and bearing witness, to demonstrate a specific relation to history that we might characterize as postmodern. I demonstrate the way this form of history takes shape in contemporary cinema through a discussion of films by directors as diverse as Claude Lanzmann, Atom Egoyan, and Todd Haynes. I argue that at least some works of contemporary popular culture [End Page 158] employ an epistemology of trauma and testimony both to put us in a different relation to history and to help us think through the status of media culture in mediating past and present, collective and individual trauma. In so doing, these works help us understand a postmodern aesthetic as mediating among disparate identity groups otherwise in danger of being pitted against each other in a balkanized political landscape. Because I will be focusing on Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine (UK/US, 1998), the groups in question will be queer men and (middle-class white) women. Haynes's work crucially forms complex visual and emotional webs between the two and so also gives us the opportunity to think through both the feminist intellectual heritage of queer critical work and...