“Jameson identifies postmodern culture with stylistic pastiche, describing pastiche as a practice of mimicry that lacks the satirical impulse of parody, whereas Hutcheon sees parody as a quintessential trait of postmodernism. Discuss the difference between these two perspectives on pastiche/parody in relation to any text that employs techniques of imitation or ‘sampling’ of other texts.”
The notion of parody is a cornerstone of postmodernism, especially in its critical reflection and dissent of the modernist establishment. While the fundamental principles of postmodernity that led to its causation and existence are generally consistent between theorists, the specific functionality of parody in postmodernism is disputed. Jameson and Hutcheon are two such theorists who materialise this point. Both agree that some form of parody, or pastiche as Jameson prefers, is alive and present in postmodernist productions during the post-industrial era; however, their opinions diverge when it comes to considering its definition, cultural impact, intellectual benefit and overall usefulness. I will seek to explain these differences by applying both theoretical perspectives to the works of electronic mash-up musician, Greg Gillis, who performs under the pseudonym Girl Talk. Gillis’s music is comprised almost entirely of samples from other artists. His fourth album, Night Ripper, released on controversial label, Illegal Art, contained 200 samples from artists spanning a wide range of genres and decades. The computer-generated music involves the blending and layering of the samples, seconds at a time, with minimal sonic input from Gillis.
In one example of a definition of parody, Rose installs a specificity by indicating that ‘parody’ is based on the device of incongruity, distinguishing it from ‘other forms of quotation and literary imitation, and show[ing] its function to be more than imitation alone’ (Rose, 1979: 22). In this essentialist context, it welcomes the proposal that Gillis’s work does indeed demonstrate a parodic dimension. Bennett (1985: 29) adds that ‘intrinsic incongruities might be those between manner and matter, style and reference… or incongruous combinations at the stylistic level alone’. The stylistic matching, or mismatching, of contrasting and almost antithetic samples, including Paul McCartney and Dr. Dre, Nirvana and Young Jeezy, the Notorious B.I.G. and Elton John—each ‘mash-up’ within the span of seconds—illustrates these incongruous stylistic combinations.
Interpreting the parodic nature of Gillis’s works against the theories on parody of Jameson and Hutcheon is wrought with greater complexity. Jameson vehemently asserts that there is a distinction between parody—a notion he associates with modernism—and pastiche, the postmodern equivalent of parody. According to Jameson (1991: 17), ‘parody finds itself without a vocation’ in the postmodern era, and ‘that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place’. He sees pastiche as a threat to parody, an inferior usurper deprived of the effective characteristics, ‘a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed’ (Jameson, 1991: 17).
Hutcheon believes in parody’s central existence to postmodernism, but to understand where the divergence occurs between Jameson and Hutcheon, we need to understand basic symptoms of postmodernity involving capitalism and historicity. Jameson (1991: 16) speaks adamantly about ‘the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style’, holding the ‘frantic economic urgency’ of late capitalism accountable for this collapse. He claims that ‘aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production’ and that it ‘assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation’ (Jameson, 1991: 4), the consequence of which ‘the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture’ (Jameson, 1991: 17-18). In essence, the need to satisfy capitalistic urges has deprived producers of the ability to innovate, leaving them to resort to mining the past for ideas. This process of recycling, a key to pastiche, has implications for historicity.
Hutcheon takes a more restrained approach in defining parody, referring to it as also being ‘quotation, pastiche, appropriation, or intertextuality’ but still stating that it is ‘considered central to postmodernism, both by its detractors and its defenders’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 93). She acknowledges certain points of Jameson, in particular that postmodernist parody is a symptom of a capitalistic framework. However, Hutcheon believes that parody is ‘doubly coded’, exhibiting a self-awareness that allows it to ‘legitimise and subvert that which it parodies’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 101). This leads to opposing views between Jameson and Hutcheon on the consequences of parody or pastiche in postmodernism’s rejection of modernist bourgeois elitism and the dissolution of the divide between high and popular culture. Jameson believes that by proliferating popular culture, made more possible by new technology, postmodernism is now incorporating ‘into their very substance’ this ‘whole “degraded” landscape of schlock, and kitsch’ (Jameson, 1991: 2-3). Hutcheon adds that modernism ‘defined itself through the exclusion of mass culture and was driven, by its fear of contamination by the consumer culture burgeoning around it, into an elitist and exclusive view of aesthetic formalism and the autonomy of art’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 28). More optimistically, she sees parody as being capable of exploiting ‘an insider position in order to begin the subversion’ within a capitalist society (Hutcheon, 1989: 114).
The act of sampling likens itself to parody, involving a reappropriation of historical subject matter and exploring the subject through an alternative aesthetic avenue. Particularly in music, where the presence of the original recording’s intended expressive interpretation can vary dramatically, sampling is made vulnerable to Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche. Enter new technology, which Jameson considers to be ‘more concerned with reproduction rather than with the industrial production of material goods’ (Felluga, 2003); this newfound ease of reproduction has caused products and images to lose a sense of value or meaning. Storey adds that ‘rapid advances in technology (for example, the technologies of ‘sampling’…) have in recent years rapidly expanded and accelerated this process [of recycling]’ (Storey, 1995: 137). In the digital age, music can be reproduced and manipulated with enormous ease, creating a fertile environment for software-based artists such as Gillis to produce. And with similarly vast networks for the distribution of this music, it reinforces the notion that this constant reproduction and replication could diminish any inherent meaning and value of the aesthetic product. All this feeds into the ideas of ‘depthlessness’, ‘superficiality’ and ‘the simulacra’ (Jameson, 1991: 6-8). Gillis’s mashed-up samples are merely a series of surfaces that do not allow for the penetration of those surfaces, eliminating the ‘depth’ of their original recordings. It could also be interpreted as ‘the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past’ (Jameson, 1991: 18), how by combining a plethora of samples into seemingly unorganised chaos, Gillis denies the original recordings the substance of historicity, casting them to the realm of the de-historicised simulacra and fulfilling the prophecy of pastiche.
Goodwin counters this by saying these assertions miss ‘the historicizing function of sampling technologies’ and that contemporary pop bears much the same basic attributes of parody in that it ‘opposes, celebrates and promotes the texts it steals from’ (Goodwin, 1991). Hutcheon has also been a proponent of the dynamic nature of history, stating that it is ‘just as affected by generic and ideological constructs or the artificial structures of narrative form as is fiction’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 49). From Hutcheon’s perspective, Gillis is not dispossessing the original recordings of historicity with his samples, but rather historicising a new culture and legacy. Gillis’ ability to arrange the samples, to combine and contrast antithetic sounds (such as 90’s East Coast hip hop with 70’s folk and singer-songwriter) installs new meaning and inscribes new value, and this reinterpretation of history is made possible by the fluidity of historical subjectivity. In Hutcheon’s postmodernism, Gillis’s works are effective parody in that they both legitimise genres that may not have appealed to the target demography, yet simultaneously subvert the original artistic motives of other artists to reconcile cultures, or renegotiating ‘the different possible relations (of complicity and critique) between high and popular forms of culture’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 28).
While Jameson talks about ‘the disappearance of the individual subject… the increasing unavailability of the personal style’ engendering the practice of pastiche (Jameson, 1991: 17-18), it would seem Gillis’s almost complete lack of original sonic input is symptomatic of pastiche. However, pastiche’s preoccupation with historicity and the past detracts from glaring reality that postmodernism, distinct from modernism, is ‘self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining’ (Hutcheon, 1989:1). Brooker and Brooker state that postmodernism has provision for ‘the “re-activation” and “re-configuration” of a given generational “structure of feeling” within a more dynamic and varied set of histories’ (Brooker and Brooker, 1997). The mere fact that artists such as Gillis focus their creation on the arrangement and structure of samples legitimises a form of composition, and while the source material is pre-existing, the ‘re-activated’ and ‘re-configured’ product still opens up avenues to elicit desired sentiments from a conscious, self-aware and competent postmodern audience, such that it transcends the empty nostalgia of pastiche. The fact that Gillis also undermines the capitalist structure by both offering his records for free, effectively, with a pay-what-you-want mode of digital distribution, and refusing to get copyright clearances for his use of the samples, further subverts and ironises the purpose for royalties and copyright law as incentives to innovate and adds another layer to the parody of his work.
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