Historicism in “The Shining” – by Fredric Jameson

Kubrick’s adaptation of King's novel, while it maintains elements necessary to cue the genre of the horror film, expands King’s work of popular entertainment into a thoroughly postmodern work of art.

by Fredric Jameson

The most interesting filmmakers today – Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Nicholas Roeg, Stanley Kubrick – are all in their very different ways practitioners of genre, but in some historically new sense. They switch genres the way the classical modernists switched styles. Nor, as with classical modernism itself, is this a matter of individual taste, but rather it is the result of objective constraints in the situation of cultural production today.

T.W. Adorno’s account of the fate of “style” in contemporary literature and music proposes the concept of pastiche to describe the recourse of Stravinsky, Joyce, or Thomas Mann to dead styles and artistic languages of the past as vehicles for new works. Pastiche, in Adorno’s sense, must be radically distinguished from parody, which aims at ridiculing and discrediting styles which are still alive and influential: it involves something of the same distance from a ready made artistic instrument or technique, but is meant, rather like the copying of old masters or indeed forgery, to display the virtuosity of the practicioner rather than the absurdity of the object (in this sense, late Picasso can be said to constitute so many master forgeries of “Picasso” himself). Pastiche seems to have emerged from a situation of two fundamental determinations: the first is subjectivism, the over emphasis and over-evaluation of the uniqueness and individuality of style itself – the private mode of expression, the unique “world” of a given artist, the well-nigh incomparable bodily and perceptual sensorium of this or that new claimant for artistic attention. But as individualism begins to atrophy in a post-industrial world, as the sheer difference of increasingly distinct and eccentric individualities turns under its own momentum into repetition and sameness, as the logical permutations of stylistic innovation become exhausted, the quest for a uniquely distinctive style and the very category of “style” come to seem old-fashioned. Meanwhile, the price to be paid for a radically new aesthetic system in a world in which innovation and fashion-change have become the law (Adorno’s example is Schoenberg’s twelve-tone machinery) – that price, both for producer and consumer, becomes increasingly onerous. The result, in the area of high culture, was the moment of pastiche in which energetic artists who now lack both forms and content cannibalize the museum and wear the masks of extinct mannerisms.

The moment of genre pastiche in film, however, is distinct from this one in several respects: first, we have to do here not with so-called high culture, but rather with mass culture, which has another dynamic and is much more immediately subject to the determinants of the market. Then too, Adorno was speaking of the waning of a classical moment of modernism proper, while the filmic developments we have in mind here, taking place in the late capitalism or consumer society of the present day, are to be grasped in terms of a very different cultural situation, namely, that of what might be called post-modernism.

The attempts of the greatest of the early filmmakers to make a place for a distinctive individual production – categories of the masterpiece, of individual style, of unified control by a single guiding personality – are quickly blocked by the business system itself, which reduces them to so many tragic ruins and truncated legends (Stroheim, Eisenstein), redirecting these creative energies into Hollywood odd jobs.

The latter are, of course, genre films, yet what is important for us is that with the arrival of media society and television (to which correspond such properly filmic innovations as the arrival of the wide screen) even the possibility of traditional genre film itself breaks down. This end of the golden age of the genre film (musicals, westerns, film noir, the classical Hollywood comedy or farce) then predictably coincides with its codification and theorization in so-called auteur theory, where the various grade-B or standard productions are now valorized as so many fragments and windows on a whole luminous and distinctive generic world. No one whose life and imagination were marked and burned by the great images of film noir or infected by the immemorial gestures of the western can doubt the truth of this for a moment; still, the moment in which the deeper aesthetic vitality of genre comes to consciousness and becomes self-conscious may well also be the moment in which genre in that older sense is no longer possible.

The end of genre thus opens up a space in which, alongside avant-garde moviemakers who continue their work independent of the market, and alongside a few surviving “stylists” of the older type (Bergman, Kurosawa), blockbuster film productions now become tightly linked to best-sellers and developments in other branches of the culture industry. The younger filmmakers are thus no longer able to follow the trajectory of a Hitchcock from a craftsman of grade-B thrillers to “the greatest director in the world”; nor even to emulate the way in which Hitchcock enlarges the older generic framework so powerfully, in a film like Vertigo (1958), as to approximate an “expressive” masterpiece of the other kind.

Metageneric production becomes, whether consciously or not, the solution to this dilemma: the war movie (Altman’s Mash [1970], Kubrick’s Paths of Glory [1957]), the occult (Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby [1968], Kubrick’s The Shining [1980], Roeg’s Don’t Look Now [1973], Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers [1967]), the thriller (Polanski’s Chinatown [1974], Kubrick’s The Killing [1956], Roeg’s Performance [1970]), the western (Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller [1971] and Buffalo Bill and the Indians [1976], Penn’s The Missouri Breaks [1976]), and science fiction (Kubrick’s 2001 [1968] and Dr. Strangelove [1964], Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth [1976], Altman’s Quintet [1979]), the musical (Altman’s Nashville [1975]), the “theater of the absurd” (Polanski’s Cul-de-sac [1966]), the spy movie (Roeg’s Bad Timing [1980]), – all of these films use the pregiven structure of inherited genres as a pretext for production which is no longer personal or stylistic in the sense of the older modernism. The latter has of course been described in terms of reflexivity, of auto-referentiality and the return of artistic production onto its own processes and techniques. But in that case one would want to designate a rather different type of reflexivity for this new moment – one sometimes termed “intertextuality” (although to my mind the designation most often stands for a problem rather than a solution) – and knowing quite distinct equivalents in post-modernist literary production (Pynchon, Sollers, Ashbery), in conceptual art but also in photorealism, and in that great renewal of rock in the late seventies and early eighties most often blanketed under the term “new wave rock” and saturated with references to the older rock forms at the same time that it is electrifying beyond any sterile exercise in late-show or in-group allusion.

The moment of the metageneric film can also be approached by way of a degraded version which is contemporary with it but can be read as the former’s opposite, the expression of the same historical impulse in a non-reflexive form. This is the whole range of contemporary “nostalgia” culture, what the French call la mode rétro – pastiche which, in a “category mistake” that confuses content with form, sets down to reinvent the style, not of an art language, but of a whole period (the Thirties in Bertolucci’s Il Conformista [1970], the Fifties in Lucas’s American Graffiti [1973], the American turn-of-the century in a novel like Doctorow’s Ragtime [1975]. As with the practice of pastiche that Adorno stigmatized in the work of a Stravinsky, such celebrations of the imaginary style of a real past constitute so many symptoms of the resistance of contemporary raw material to artistic production. Such resistance is generally strengthened by the ideological blinders of contemporary producers but is suggestively broken down when such artists are willing to include a future in their present and to register the nascent pull of science fiction or utopia within the logic of their forms themselves.

What is inauthentic about nostalgia films and texts – though it would have been interesting to see what Altman could have done with Ragtime – can best be dramatized in another way by which I will call the cult of the glossy image, as a whole new technology (wide-angle lens, light-sensitive film) has allowed its lavish indulgence in contemporary film. Is it ungrateful to long from time to time for something both more ugly and less proficient or expert, more home-made and awkward, than those breathtaking expanses of sunlit leaf-tracery, those big screen flower-bowls of an unimaginably intense delicacy of hue, that would have caused the Impressionists to shut up their paint boxes in frustration? I hope it is not moralizing to admit that from time to time such sheer beauty can seem obscene, the ultimate form of the consumption of streamlined commodities – a transformation of our senses into the mail-order houses of the spirit, some ultimate packaging of Nature in cellophane of a type that any elegant shop might well wish to carry in its window. The objection is in reality a historical one, for there have certainly been historical moments and situations in which the conquest of beauty has been a wrenching political act: the hallucinatory intensity of smeared color in the grimy numbness of routine, the bitter-sweet taste of the erotic in a world of brutalized and exhausted bodies. Nor was the “sublime” of the sixties, the countercultural rediscovery of the ecstatic necessarily an anti- political thing either, for those intensities, like a stab beyond pain or pleasure, were essentially directed against the image. It is the triumph of the image in nostalgia film which ratifies the triumph over it of all the values of contemporary consumer society, of late capitalist consumption.

Think now, on the contrary, of the “beautiful” in Kubrick’s work: one still obsessively recalls the sound of “The Beautiful Blue Danube” that spins the slowly rotating space shuttle in 2001 on its way to the Moon, like Musak in a high-class elevator soothing and tranquilizing both the official bureaucratic travellers on the vehicle and ourselves as well, spectators of this technocratic future of our own present beyond all national conflict. The high-culture banality of the waltz thus expresses the banality of this harmonious UN-run global world as well as the boredom of its depthless inhabitants: it is a text-book example of that signifying mechanism which the Barthes of the Mythologies called “connotation,” in which the language and formal categories of the medium are its deepest message, and in which the very quality of the image itself emits a meaning that secretly outdistances the ostensible or immediate purport of its content. Nor is the connotative operation always inauthentic, as it is in Barthes’ advertisements or in the ideologeme of Beauty, to which we have referred above: in Saint Genét, for instance, Sartre argued that Genet’s practice of the “phony” [le toc], his deliberate stylistic projection of the tawdry, of kitsch, of the garishly over-written, his willful inclusion of “bad taste” in the connotative messages of his sumptuous sentences, was a proto-political act, the reversal of ressentiment in an act of vengeance against his respectable readership (a similar case could be made for Dreiser’s junk-style, whose very falsehood expresses the truth of the nascent commodification of his own time). Indeed, the authenticity of Kubrick’s use of such high-cultural connotation can be measured against himself, when, in an ideological (and reactionary, anti-political) film like A Clockwork Orange (1971), connotation relaxes into overt denotation, and the same high-cultural materials are now used instrumentally to make a didactic point about the boredom and intolerability of an achieved Utopia, in which only violence can bring relief. Such a “statement” about the future must sharply be distinguished from the lateral connotation of the image in 2001, where the science-fictional content is a vehicle for a message about our own technological present, and about Kubrick’s own supreme technological expertise – as sterile and lobotomized as a trip to the moon.

Beauty and boredom: this is then the immediate sense of the monotonous and intolerable opening sequence of The Shining, and of the great aerial tracking shot across quintessentially breathtaking and picture-postcard “unspoiled” American natural landscape; as well as of the great hotel, whose old-time turn-of-the-century splendor is undermined by the more meretricious conception of “luxury” entertained by consumer society, and in particular by the manager’s modem office space and the inevitable plastic coffee he has his secretary serve. In Hitchcock, such minor figures were still conceived as idiosyncratic, as interesting/amusing (and this not merely because he observed them from an Englishman’s distance: the characteristically British humor of the early films is structurally reinvented as a new and authentically American set of attitudes in the Hollywood period): so we have in Vertigo, the manager of the San Francisco boarding house who suddenly rears up from behind the apparently empty desk with the excuse that she was “oiling the leaves” of her rubber plant; or the small-town sheriff, in Psycho, who sardonically syllabizes the name of the missing big city detective through his cigar smoke (“Ar-bo-gast”); or at the end of the same movie, the forensic psychiatrist whose raised index finger pedantically corrects the naive first impressions of his provincial law-enforcement public (“Transvestite? Not exactly!”).

Nothing of the sort in Kubrick: these depthless people, whether on their way to the moon, or coming to the end of another season in the great hotel at the end of the world, are standardized and without interest, their rhythmic smiles as habituated as the recurrence of a radio-announcer’s drawn breath. If Kubrick amuses himself by organizing a counterpoint between this meaningless and obligatory facial benevolence and the ghastly, indeed quite unspeakable story the manager is finally obliged to disclose, it is a quite impersonal amusement which ultimately benefits no one. Meanwhile, great swathes of Brahms pump all the fresh air out of The Shining‘s images and enforce the now familiar sense of cultural asphyxiation.

It is possible, of course, that such arid and trivial stretches are essential features of the genre of the horror film itself, which (like pornography) finds itself reduced to the empty alternation of shock and of the latter’s absence: I put it in this cumbersome way because the alternating moment – the mere absence of shock – is today divested even of that content and meaning which were inherent in what used to be described as boredom. Think, for example, of the earlier wave of fifties horror and science fiction films, whose “peacetime” or “civilian” context – generally the American small town, in some remote Western landscape – signified a “provinciality” which no longer exists in consumer society today. The Georgetown of Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is no longer boring in that socially charged sense, but merely trivial, its vacuous daily life the empty background silence against which the ominous wing-flapping in the attic will be perceived. And clearly enough, this very triviality of daily life in late capitalism is itself the desperate situation against which all the formal solutions, the strategies and subterfuges, of high culture as well as of mass culture, emerge: how to project the illusion that things still happen, that events exist, that there are still stories to tell, in a situation in which the uniqueness and the irrevocability of private destinies and of individuality itself seem to have evaporated? This impossibility of realism – and more generally, the impossibility of a living culture which might speak to a unified public about shared experience – determines the metageneric solutions with which we began. It also accounts for the emergence of what might be called false or imitation narrative, for the illusionistic transformation into a seemingly unified and linear narrative surface of what is in reality a collage of heterogeneous materials and fragments, the most striking of which are kinetic or physiological segments inserted into texts of a rather different order. So into William Carlos Williams’s great poem about the impossibility of an American literature or culture, Paterson, at the most problematical moments of formal dispersal, blocks of unreduced physical sensation – most notably the waterfall itself – are inserted, as though the body and its meaningless but existent sensations constituted some rock-bottom last court of appeal. In Kubrick also, the emptiness of life in the dead season of the hotel is characteristically punctuated by the favorite sense perceptions of this auteur, (1) so that the tireless pedaling of the child on his big wheel throughout the empty corridors is transformed into a veritable Grand Prix, an implacable space probe heading through tunneled matter like an interstellar vehicle with meteorites tumbling past. Such embellishments of the narrative line – micro-practices of the “sublime” in the 18th-century sense, yet also closely related, as formal symptoms, to the bravura sequences in Hitchcock (the parallel swaying, in The Birds [1963], of the two lovebirds registering the twists and turns of the highway like a miniature dial) – mark the dissociation of Fancy and Imagination in contemporary cultural production and stand as so many divers signs of the heterogeneity of the contents into which modern life has been shattered.
As for the child himself, his “story” is not merely the pretext for purer filmic and perceptual exercises of this kind, but in a more general way for a play with generic signals which takes us to the heart of this peculiar form. These initial signals have no doubt already been established by the advertising and the marketing of the film (and the reputation of the best-seller from which it derives): they will be reinforced by initial sequences which confirm and encourage us in the belief that the boy will be the center around which this narrative turns (just as his telepathic powers lend the film its title). We hasten to follow orders and passively/obediently invest these first alarming visions with the appropriate foreboding: the child’s powers (and his seeming possession by a preternatural alter ego) augur poorly for a restful winter in the empty months ahead. In any case, we’ve had enough experience with horrible children (Leroy’s The Bad Seed [1956], Rilla’s Village of the Damned [1960] to be able to identify sheer evil when someone rubs our noses in it. Alongside all this, the Jack Nicholson character’s fatal weakness is unsuspectingly diagnosed as a more normal and reassuring alcoholism (including whatever other moral instabilities one likes). Such false pretenses are continued at least up to the point at which the old cook, Scatman Crothers, recognizes the boy and explains his powers to him; nor is there time for the theme of telepathy to develop any of its traditional meanings. It has been the subject of grim representations: most notably in Robert Silverberg’s 1972 novel, Dying Inside, which takes this motif seriously enough to ask – in the midst of a depressingly contemporary Manhattan – what problems such a “gift” would raise for its hapless bearer. Yet on the whole telepathy in recent science fiction has been the occasion for an anticipatory representation of the Utopian community of the future, and of an unimaginable evolutionary mutation in collective relationships (as in Theodore Sturgeon’s classic novel More than Human [1953]). At best, The Shining very faintly recapitulates this Utopian resonance in the protective fellowship between the frightened child and the elderly black chef (and through the latter in the momentary juxtaposition of a ghetto community with the atomized white society of the luxury hotel or the petty bourgeois family unit).

But the main point to be made about telepathy in The Shining is that it is a false lead, and it is consistent with the play of generic signals mentioned above that this deliberate confusion should involve the misreading of the film’s genre during its first half-hour. The model for this kind of generic substitution is surely Hitchcock’s Psycho (whose staircase sequence is “quoted” at least twice in The Shining), where a banal embezzlement narrative is developed, only to be abruptly extinguished along with its heroine by a very different crime narrative. (In Psycho, however, the relationship between the two genres, between the public crime determined by the socially acceptable or “rationale” motive of money and the private or psychotic impulse, is still an arguably meaningful juxtaposition, a message in its own right most openly dramatized in Fritz Lang’s M [1931] Here the generic shift seems less coherent and appears to take place within the motif of possession; only it turns out we were looking for it in the wrong place: not the little boy, “possessed” in some ominous way by his phantom playmate, but the alcoholic father whose weakness opens up a vacuum into which all kinds of baleful initially indeterminable impulses seep. Yet this is in itself another kind of generic misreading, which seizes on some of the signals and conventions of the new genre of “occult” film in order to project an anticipation of some properly diabolical possession to come.

The Shining is, however, not an occult film in that sense: I will argue that it marks a return to and a reinvention of a much older sub-genre, with its own specific laws and content, namely, that of the ghost story, one which is for historic reasons less and less practiced today. Yet even the initial generic uncertainty is part of the reflexivity of the metageneric enterprise: Kubrick’s freedom to reinvent the various generic conventions is at one with his distance from all of them, and with their own historic obsolescence in the new world of television, wide screen, and the blockbuster film. It is as though, to recover some of their older powers, classical genres such as this one needed to take us by surprise and to exert their conventions retroactively. Even a relatively straightforward pastiche of an older sub-genre such as Chinatown secures its effects ambiguously behind the protective appearance of the nostalgia film.

What is anachronistic about the ghost story is its peculiarly contingent and constitutive dependence of physical place and, in particular, on the material house as such. No doubt, in some pre-capitalist forms, the past manages to cling stubbornly to open spaces, such as a gallows hill or a sacred burial ground; but in the golden age of this genre, the ghost is at one with a building of some antiquity, of which it is the bad dream, and to whose incomprehensible succession of generations of inhabitants it makes allusion as in some return of the repressed of the middle-class mind. Not death as such, then, but the sequence of such “dying generations” is the scandal reawakened by the ghost story for a bourgeois culture which has triumphantly stamped out ancestor worship and the objective memory of the clan or extended family, thereby sentencing itself to the life span of the biological individual. No building more appropriate to express this than the grand hotel itself, with its successive seasons whose vaster rhythms mark the transformation of American leisure classes from the late 19th century down to the vacations of present-day consumer society. The Jack Nicholson of The Shining is possessed neither by evil as such nor by the “devil” or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites of this monumental rabbit warren, which oddly projects its empty formal after-image in the maze outside (significantly, the maze is Kubrick’s own addition). Yet at this level the genre does not yet transmit a coherent ideological message, as Stephen King’s mediocre original testifies: Kubrick’s adaptation, indeed, transforms this vague and global domination by all the random voices of American history into a specific and articulated historical commentary, as we shall see shortly.

Yet even this undifferentiated sense of the presence and the threat of history and the past as such is enough to reveal the generic kinship between the ghost story and that older genre with which and against which it so often constitutively defines itself, namely, the historical novel. What is the latter, indeed, if not an attempt to raise the dead, to stage a hallucinatory fantasmagoria in which the ghosts of a vanished past once again meet in a costumed revel, surprised by the mortal eye of the contemporary spectator-voyeur? A novel like H.P. Lovecraft’s Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward can then be read as forming a “hideous” bridge between the two genres, as furnishing a disturbing and reflexive commentary on the secret aims and objectives of the narrative historian or historical novelist. So Lovecraft – as possessed as any historicist by the local and cosmic past of his mouldering Providence, (2) intent on a literal dramatization of Michelet’s classic view of the historian as the custodian and awakener of the generations of the dead; and the grislier moments of his fable, as when “world-historical” figures like Benjamin Franklin are raised up naked from their graves and put to the question by their tormentor, comment peculiarly on the hybris of the historian and on the latter’s superstitious belief in the possibility of representing the past.

It is no accident, therefore, that alongside the meta-ghost story of The Shining Kubrick’s own work provides one of the most brilliant (and problematical) contemporary realizations of the representational ideal of the historical novel proper, in the film Barry Lyndon (1975). The very images of this film seem to draw their mystery as colored bodies from the privileged effect of powder upon the young blood of its characters’ faces; the simulacrum as a whole stands as a virtual text-book illustration and validation of Lukács’ account of the archeological novel as a terminal form of the evolution of the Historical Novel proper: that moment in which this once new genre begins to lose its social vitality as the living expression of the historicity of a triumphant and class-conscious bourgeoisie and to survive as a curiously gratuitous formal shell, whose content is relatively indifferent. Lukács liked to quote the remark of the great Berlin novelist Theodor Fontane about the range and the limits within which authentic historical fiction was alone possible: you can situate your novel, Fontane said, in a period no more remote than that of the life experience of your own grandparents, by which he seems to have meant to underscore the constitutive relationship between the historical imagination and the living presence of those surviving mediators whose anecdotes abut a determinate past open up a zone of social time henceforth accessible to fantasy at the same time that it anchors that zone in the referential constraints of the experience of real individuals. The disappearance of the grandparents from an atomized suburban culture must then have a significant effect on the social amnesia, the loss of a sense of the past, in consumer society and, with it, on the increasingly problematical nature of the historical novel as a form.

The essential precondition of an extended family thus becomes the symptom and the allegory of the survival of “organic” social relations, of what Raymond Williams calls the “knowable community” (whether this takes the form of the village or the classical city, or of the vitality of national groups). In our own theoretical climate, so deeply marked by the revolution of the Symbolic and the discovery of Language, one would surely also want to add the qualification that there must be a continuity of speech from the represented past to the present of the historical novel’s readership. Roman empire novels in English, or Lukács’ supreme example of the archeological novel, the French-speaking Carthage of Flaubert’s Salammbô , are thus, even more than curiosities, contradictions in terms. Arguably, Barry Lyndon‘s 18th-century “English” is yet another one of these dead languages.

My point here is not that Barry Lyndon is not an artifact of great quality and impressive virtuosity: a great film, why not? a great Kubrick film, certainly. And any number of readings are available to formulate its relevance and its possible claims on us as contemporary spectators: you can take it as a powerful anti-war statement; as a study of power and prostitution, of manipulation, of the pathos of waste, being used and then thrown aside like an old shoe; as some deeper expression, at a psychoanalytic level, of anxieties about mutilation and castration. . . all “major” themes, surely, which a contemporary artist ought to have a perfect right to develop without any further justifications. Yet all these are as it were at a distance from the thing itself, whose very perfection as a pastiche intensifies our nagging doubts as to the gratuitous nature of the whole enterprise. Why this 18th century at all in the midst of a late 20th-century culture industry? Or in that case, why would almost anything else not have done just as well (a Kubrick Elizabethan era, a Kubrick American Revolution, a Kubrick Ivanhoe)? The doubt is an insidious one, however, whose contagion threatens to transcend the specialized issue of the content of the historical novel as such and to problematize the raw materials of all contemporary cultural production. Without a past, can we even continue to appeal to a shared present? And as for the choice of a subject, why should a southern small town, a California university, or the Manhattan of the 1970s be any less arbitrary a starting point, in a fragmented multi-national culture, then the London or the German principalities of this 18th century? Indeed, the theory of pastiche with which we began emerged, less from the study of the dilemmas of the historical novel, than from the generalized crisis in cultural production as a whole today.

The Shining may be read as Kubrick’s meditation on the issues raised by his previous film and on that very impossibility of historical representation with which the achieved perfection of Barry Lyndon so dramatically and paradoxically confronts us. For one thing, the conventional motifs of the occult or supernatural thriller tends to distract us from the obvious fact that The Shining, whatever else it is, is also the story of a failed writer. Stephen King’s original was far more openly and conventionally an artist’s novel whose hero is already a writer of some minimal achievement and a classical American poète maudit whose talent is plagued and stimulated by alcoholism. Kubrick’s hero, however, is already a reflexive commentary on this now conventional stereotype (Hemingway, O’Neill, Faulkner, the beats, etc.): his Jack Nicholson is not a writer, not someone who has some thing to say or likes doing things with words, but rather someone who would like to be a writer, who lives a fantasy about what the American writer is, along the lines of James Jones or Jack Kerouac. Yet even that fantasy is anachronistic and nostalgic; all those unexplored interstices of the system, which allowed the lumpens of the fifties to be come, in their turn, figures of “the Great American Writer,” have long since been absorbed into the sealed and achieved space of consumer society. (Or if you prefer, the as yet unregistered and unexpressed experiences which the beats were able to discover on the margins of the system have themselves – along with the very figure and role of the beat writer as such – become part of the culture and its stereotypes: as with black writing and women’s writing, it is what has never been seen which enables the production of a new language – ” affirmative culture” then ever more rapidly catches up, assimilates all those things into what everybody knows, maps out the unexplored, turns everything for which you still lacked words into so many consumable images.) The very content of the star system itself, as it inscribes itself in Kubrick’s movie, the semiotic content of “Jack Nicholson” as post-contemporary hero, makes the same point by its very distance from the older generation of new rebels (Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, and even, transitionally, Steve McQueen).

On the other hand, whether the Jack Nicholson character can write or not, he certainly does write, as the most electrifying moment of the film testifies; he unquestionably produces “du texte,” as the post structuralists put it (even if you are tempted to recall Truman Capote’s comment about On the Road – “that’s not writing, that’s typing!”) The text in question is however very explicitly a text about work: it is a kind of zero point around which the film organizes itself, a kind of ultimate and empty auto-referential statement about the impossibility of cultural or literary production.

If you believe that such production must always presuppose the sustaining existence, behind it, of a community (whether identified or not, whether conscious of itself or on the contrary about to achieve such consciousness by means of the very cultural expression which testifies, ex post facto, to its having been there in the first place), then it is clear why “Jack” has nothing to say: even the family unit of which he is a part has been reduced to a kind of stark isolation, the coexistence of three random individuals who henceforth represent nothing beyond themselves, and those very relations with each other thus called (violently) in question. Meanwhile, whatever possibility this particular family might have had, in the social space of the city, of developing some collective solidarity with other people of similar marginalized circumstances is henceforth itself foreclosed by the absolute isolation of the great hotel in winter. Only the telepathic fellow ship of the child, as it strikes a link with the motif of the black community, offers some fantasmatic figure or larger social relation ships.

It is however precisely in such a situation that the drive towards community, the longing for collectivity, the envy of other, achieved collectivities, emerges with all force of a return of the repressed: and this is finally, I think, what The Shining is all about. Where to search for this “knowable community,” to which, even excluded, the fantasy of collective relations might attach itself? It is surely not to be found in the managerial bureaucracy of the hotel itself, as multinational and standardized as a bedroom community or a motel chain; nor can it any longer take seriously the departing vacationers of the current holiday season, on their way home to their own privatized dwelling places. It only has one direction to go, into the past; and this is the moment at which Kubrick’s rewriting of his novelistic original takes on its power as an articulated and intelligible symbolic act.

For where the novel stages the “past” as a babel of voices and an indistinct blast of dead lives from all the generations of historical inhabitants in the hotel’s history, Kubrick’s film foregrounds and isolates a single period, multiplying increasingly unified signals: tuxedoes, roadsters, hipflasks, slicked-down hair parted in the middle…. The very incoherencies of the film’s materials reinforce this coherent and emergent message: thus, in the great hallucination scene, when the ballroom is animated by the merrymakers of another era, among whom Jack Nicholson, unshaven and in his lumberjacket, seems painfully out of place, the long awaited moment of truth takes place, and the film public palpably gasps when the conventions of the ghost story are violated, when the hero physically intersects with his fantasmagoric surroundings and collides with the material body of a waiter whose drink he spills. The audience understands at once that this waiter can only be the one character we have not yet met: the previous nightwatchman whose grisly murder-suicide in an earlier winter has already been revealed. The seeming incoherence is that the night-watchman – from a recent past, whose psychotic impulses and family violence we tend to imagine along the lines of the Nicholson character’s own – can surely whatever he was, not have been anything like this bland and obsequious clean-shaven manservant, whose toneless politeness projects such malevolence through its very inexpressivity. Even the precursor-figure, then, the forerunner of Nicholson’s own possession and the ominous shape of this own destiny, has himself been rewritten in terms of some older past, and of the style of some previous generation.

That generation, finally, is the twenties, and it is by the twenties that the hero is haunted and possessed. The twenties were the last moment in which a genuine American leisure class led an aggressive and ostentatious public existence, in which an American ruling class projected a class-conscious and unapologetic image of itself and enjoyed its privileges without guilt, openly and armed with its emblems of top-hat and champagne glass, on the social stage in full view of the other classes. The nostalgia of The Shining, the longing for collectivity, takes the peculiar form of an obsession with the last period in which class consciousness is out in the open: even the motif of the manservant or valet expresses the desire for a vanished social hierarchy, which can no longer be gratified in the spurious multinational atmosphere in which Jack Nicholson is hired for a mere odd job by faceless organization men. This is clearly a “return of the repressed” with a vengeance: a Utopian impulse which scarcely lends itself to the usual complacent and edifying celebration, which finds its expression in the very snobbery and class consciousness we naively supposed it to threaten. The lesson of The Shining, then, its depth analysis and “working out” of the class fantasies of contemporary American society, is peculiarly disturbing for Left and Right alike. Its generic frame work – the ghost story – implacably demystifies the nostalgia film as such, the pastiche, and reveals the latter’s concrete social content: the glossy simulacrum of this or that past is here unmasked as possession, as the ideological project to return to the hard certainties of a more visible and rigid class structure; and this is a critical perspective which includes but transcends the more immediate appeal of even those occult films with which The Shining might momentarily have been confused. For the former seemed to revive and stage a Manichaean world in which good and evil exist, in which the devil is an active force, in which, with the right kind of attention and the right guides, one could finally sort all this out and determine what was on the side of the Lord and what was not. Such films can be taken as expressions and symptoms: and in a social climate about which we have been told that there is a powerful fundamentalist and religious revival at work, they might be expected to document a significant development in social consciousness today and to serve an essentially diagnostic function. But there is another possibility: namely, that such films do not so much express belief as they project a longing to believe and the nostalgia for an era when belief seemed possible. Arguably, the golden age of the fifties Science Fiction film, with its pod people and brain-eating monsters, testified to a genuine collective paranoia, that of the fantasies of the Cold War period, fantasies of influence and subversion which reinforce the very ideological climate they reproduce. Such films projected the figure of the “enemy” in the individually monstrous, the collective organization of the latter being at best conceivable as a biological or instinctive sub-human network like the dynamics of an anthill. (The enemy within is then paradoxically marked by non-difference: “communists” are people just like us, save for the emptiness of the eyes and a certain automatism which betrays the appropriation of their bodies by alien forces.)

But today, where information about the planet has become far more widely diffused through the media, and where with the great movement of decolonization of the 1960s the most repressed collectivities have begun to speak in their own voice and to project the demands of properly revolutionary subjects, it is no longer possible to represent Otherness in this way. It is not clear, for instance, that the political unconscious of America today can still conceive of the Russians as evil, in the sense of the alien otherness and facelessness of these earlier fantasies: at best, clumsy and brutal, heavy-handed, as in current evaluations of the invasion of Afghanistan. As for the formerly faceless horde of the Chinese, they are now our loyalally and have reintegrated the earlier wartime fantasy of the “friendship” between China and America, while our former Vietnamese enemy – no longer, in any case, a global ideological threat – enjoys the grudging prestige of the victor. The Third World, generally, immobilized in a post-revolutionary situation by military dictatorship, corruption, and sheer economic distress, no longer offers adequate materials for the fantasies of a beleaguered Fortress America, submerged by the rising tide of militant underclasses.

This is the situation in which the new wave of occult films (they can be dated from 1973, the year of Exorcist I as well as of the global economic crisis which marked the end of the sixties as such) may rather be seen as expressing the nostalgia for a system in which Good and Evil are absolute black-and-white categories: they do not express a new Cold War psychology as much as they express the longing and the regret for a Cold War period in which things were still simple, not so much belief in Manichaean forces as the nagging suspicion that everything would be so much easier if we could believe in them. The Shining, then, though not an occult film, nonetheless envelops the new ideological genre of the occult of its larger critical perspective, allowing us to reinterpret this still “metaphysical” nostalgia for an absolute Evil in the far more materialistic terms of a yearning for the certainties and satisfactions of a traditional class system.

This is, indeed, the embarrassment The Shining has in store for viewers on the Left, who are accustomed to celebrate class consciousness as though its reemergence was everywhere politically positive and did not include the forms of nostalgia for hierarchy and domination allegorized in Jack Nicholson’s “possession” by the still Veblenesque social system in the 1920s. Indeed, legitimate and unanswerable questions may well be raised about the “critical” – let alone the out right “political” – status of this ostensible entertainment film and, in particular, about the effectiveness of its demystification of class nostalgia on a general viewing public. Behind such notions of demystification and of the “critical” stand the unexamined models of Freudian psychoanalysis and of a confidence in the power of self-consciousness and reflexivity generally to transform, modify, or even “cure” the ideological tendencies and positions which have thereby been brought up into the light of consciousness. This confidence is at the least unseasonable in an atmosphere where nobody believes in the active capabilities of individual consciousness any more, and in which the very ideologues of “critical theory” – the Frankfurt School – have left behind them, in works like Negative Dialectics, testaments of despair about the possibility for “critical theory” in our time to do any more than to keep the negative and the critical (that is, critical theory itself) alive in the mind.

Whatever its critical value, The Shining in any case “resolves” its contradictions in a very different spirit. If the possession by the past offers an implicit commentary of Kubrick’s historical project in Barry Lyndon, the ending of The Shining, by a grim quotation, casts new light on 2001, whose ostensible theme was the evolutionary leap into the future. The manifest contents of this metageneric practice of that rather different thing, the Science Fiction genre, derived, of course, from Arthur C. Clarke, whose Star Child worked yet another variant on the favorite theme of this author, namely, the qualitative mutation in human development and the notion of a kind of “childhood’s end” for human history. Even at the time, however, I doubt whether any viewer of what Annette Michelson has significantly called “Man’s last motel stop on the journey towards disembodiment and renascence” – the ornate yet anonymous formal bedroom in which the last astronaut runs through the biological cycle from aging and death to cosmic rebirth – can have received these images with unqualified enthusiasm. The very sterility of the decor and the relentless sloughing off of superimposed moments of the individual life cycle seemed to provide a grim commentary in images of the film’s optimistic ideological message.

The ending of The Shining now makes that commentary explicit, and identifies the operative motif of the Star Child as that of repetition, with all its overtones of traumatic fixation and the death wish. Indeed, the great maze in which the possessed Nicholson is finally trapped, and in which his mortal body is frozen to death, casts a glancing sideblow at the meretricious climax of Stephen King’s novel in the destruction by fire of the great hotel itself, but more insistently rewrites the embryonic face of the Star Child about to be born into the immobile open-eyed face of Nicholson frosted in sub-zero weather, for which, at length, a period photograph of his upper-class avatar in the bygone surroundings of a leisure class era is substituted. The anticipatory foreshadowing of an unimaginable future is now openly replaced by the dismal emprisonment in monuments of high culture (the regency room, the maze itself, classical music) which have be come the jail cells of repetition and the space of thralldom to the past. It remains to be seen whether The Shining has succeeded in exorcising that past for Kubrick, or for any of the rest of us.



1. See Annette Michelson, “Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge’ “, Artforum (February 1969.)

2. For a socialist interpretation of Lovecraft, see Paul Buhie, “Dystopia as Utopia: Howard Phillips Lovecraft and the Unknown Content of American Horror Literature”, Minnesota Review, no. 6 (Spring 1976).

Source: Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible, Psychology Press, 1992, pp. 82-98


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