NOV 15


Tues, Nov 15

VIEW: X-Files, ‘The Postmodern Prometheus’


  1. BulletLinda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism

  2. BulletSusan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’

  3. Bullet“parody”

  4. Bullet“kitsch”

  5. Bullet“camp”




"The Camp Prometheus"

This week , we returned to the X-Files as we continued our exploration of postmodernism. Our discussion of postmodernism was facilitated by Chris Carter's "Postmodern Prometheus," itself a play on the subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, "The Modern Prometheus." The question we explored is: what exactly makes this episode "postmodern" and what constitutes our current "postmodern condition"? We were aided by Linda Hutcheon's influential work, The Poetics of Postmodernism, along with my two modules on Hutcheon, plus Susan Sontag's famous essay on camp.


We got started by discussing the difference between "kitsch" and "camp," two terms that have been applied to the products of our current postmodern culture. You gave a number of examples of kitsch to which we might add everything from souvenirs of various sorts to plastic Jesuses and velour Elvis art. (Indeed, it is more than a coincidence that the rooms in "The Postmodern Prometheus" are chock full of kitsch items, including a ceramic pink flamingo in the first scene. The episode is also full of generic and cultural stereotypes.) Of note is the fact that kitsch is coterminous with the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century. (Think, for example, about the fact that Valentine's Day, that kitschiest of celebrations, was an invention of the Victorians.) Jean Baudrillard makes this argument in his book, Consumer Society: "This proliferation of kitsch, which is produced by industrial reproduction and the vulgarization at the level of objects of distinctive signs taken from all registers (the bygone, the 'neo', the exotic, the folksy, the futuristic) and from a disordered excess of 'ready-made' signs, has its basis, like 'mass culture', in the sociological reality of the consumer society" (110).

As we discussed, the difference between kitsch and camp is often hard to establish, partly because camp could be said to be in the eye of the beholder, to some extent. Camp could be called a self-conscious kitsch and that self-consciousness can, indeed, exist on the part of viewer rather than the producer of the otherwise kitsch product. I offered as an example the self-consciously schlocky or cheesy demons of the Buffy universe, to which I added Lord Kinbote from "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." As Kailey Merida pointed out, The Rocky Horror Picture Show may well be the most perfect example, especially given its inspiration in the gay drag show; and all of the Mel Brooks oeuvre could be considered camp. I showed a Brooks example to illustrate precisely the difficulty of distinguishing between kitsch and camp. In The Producers, two producers try to scam a number of old ladies by having them sign contracts in which, in exchange for an outrageous share of profits, they would hand over money for the production. The producers in the film then attempt to create a show that will immediately fail so that there are no profits and they can pocket the investments. To do so, they hire a neo-Nazi, who still adores Nazism, to write a musical about Hitler. The show is, however, staged by a cross-dressing revue queen. When the opening number, "Springtime for Hitler," is staged, we witness the audience's reaction, which moves from horror ("Talk about bad taste," one woman states as she leaves the theater) to appreciation once the audience decides that the production isn't kitsch but camp.


Linda Hutcheon allowed us to expand our understanding of camp by exploring the ways that postmodernism's parodic elements lead to positive effects, including a recognition of the politics behind any representation. Hutcheon's definition of postmodern parody in fact resembles Susan Sontag's famous characterization of camp. As Susan Sontag writes of camp, "Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a 'lamp'; not a woman, but a 'woman.'" Hutcheon similarly writes of postmodern parody:

It is rather like saying something whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said. The effect is to highlight, or "highlight," and to subvert, or "subvert," and the mode is therefore a "knowing" and an ironic—or even "ironic"—one. Postmodernism's distinctive character lies in this kind of wholesale "nudging" commitment to doubleness, or duplicity. In many ways it is an even-handed process because postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say that the postmodern's initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as "natural" (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact "cultural"; made by us, not given to us. (Politics 1-2)

As pointed out by various students, we are given the same "citation" of horror conventions throughout "The Postmodern Prometheus," which remains highly self-conscious of its kitsch elements. Even the use of Cher could be said to be a nod to camp's association with queer culture (since Cher is a particularly important figure in the genre of the drag show).


The discussion of camp and parody gave us the tools we needed to make sense of why Chris Carter's episode is "postmodern" per se. 1) what we are seeing is a breakdown of the separation between high critique (of the postmodern condition) and low culture (B movies, reality television, comic books, etc.). The episode revels in the kitschy aspects of the B-movie horror flick while criticizing aspects of postmodern kitsch culture. In so doing, such a postmodern sensibility works quite differently from the elitism more common in modernist work (including the modernist work that does play with low-cultural forms, e.g. James Joyce and T. S. Eliot). 2) We also see a breakdown of the separation between the looks of the characters and the look of the audience or the constructed nature of the plot (thus reminding us of our discussion of Buffy, "Once More, With Feeling"). The episode ends, after all, with Fox calling for the writer and demanding a different ending for the episode, one in which the creature's fascination with kitsch culture reaches a fantasized apogée: Cher herself sings for the troupe, we are shown images of mothers loving their deformed children on the Jerry Springer show, and we are given the final image of a heteronormative union between Fox and Scully turned into comic-book kitsch (see below for the image). 3) The entire episode offers up a pastiche of pop-cultural elements, all reduced to hyper-stylized forms (the mob carrying torches into a barn is a good example since it makes no sense: who even knows how to make a torch anymore?). 4) The self-consciousness of the ending is another postmodern feature. What we are thus given is the questioning of narrative closure (even as the episode revels in examples of kitschy closure); a self-consciousness about the show's generic status (including the black-and-white filming, a device that recalls the history of B-movie film; as well as a questioning of the distinction between fiction and "reality."  5) The politics of representation. After all, the episode begins by pointing to the commercialization of "The Great Mutato," as Mary Komlofske pointed out, with the inside-front cover of the opening comic book selling Mutato posters, caps, etc.. As Linda Hutcheon argued in our reading for this week, postmodern aesthetic works are particularly self-conscious about their relation to politics and the mass market. 5) self-reflexivity, for example the acknowledgment of the show’s scriptedness and other forms of mise-en-abyme (thanks to Brooke Miller and others for this).


We also discussed the examples of mediatization in the episode: the ways that the townsfolk's very reality is being shaped by media images. Scully and Fox at one point, in fact, have a conversation about just this aspect of the town, representing the positive and negative viewpoints on postmodernism's mediatization. We realize just how self-conscious the episode is about such mediatization, when it becomes clear that the discussion about mediatization was itself recorded and mediatized. Fox and Scully find their conversation recorded word for word in the next day's newspaper. We are also given other forms of mediatization: the newspaper, the comic book, the tape recorder, and the photo album. As I pointed out, when the show ends with Fox calling for the author we find him flipping through not the comic book with which we started the episode but a photo album, reminding us that the show we are watching is itself nothing but a series of still images creating the illusion of 'film' (a point that recalled for us our earlier discussion of La jetée).



Synopsis for Nov 15

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :


In this third block of classes, we will examine a number of science-fiction examples that explore our current age, which has been termed by many ‘postmodernity.’ We will explore the various elements of our current ‘postmodern condition,’ including computer culture, image culture, media culture, pop culture, and multiculturalism.  Alongside the films, we will be reading some of the most influential postmodern theorists of the last three decades. In so doing, we will explore a number of concepts that have been used to understand our age (pastiche, parody, cyborg and the simulacrum).