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Film - "The Big Lebowski" as Postmodern Posterboy (or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Baudrillard) 

Deepsouth v.6.n.1 (Winter 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by
David Larsen

by David Larsen

Victoria University of Wellington

  All rights reserved.

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The Dude, as representative of the carnival aspects of the postmodern experience, is also presented as a grotesque body, in Bahktin's sense of the word. He is shown with his head being plunged into a toilet, drinking White Russians and smoking joints, being beaten by a the psychotic chief of police of Malibu, immersed in the two hallucinatory dream sequences, slouching and assuming un-classical, non-disciplined bodily postures, smelling milk in a supermarket, performing sloppy Tai Chi on his rug, thumping his car roof in time to his Creedence tapes, crashing his car, burning his crotch with a still lit roach, listening to a walkman stoned and his most important transgression of the Protestant ethic, failing to enjoy full-time employment. Much of the comedy of the film results from the efforts of the grotesque stoner bum to discipline himself so as to play the classical rational and reflexive sleuth - a sleuth who has to go on a "strict drug regimentation" to "keep his mind limbre" so as to keep up with what he describes as "a very complicated case..[with] a lotta ins, a lotta outs, and, uh, a lot of strands to keep in my head man, lotta strands in little duder's head". 

The Big Lebowski also plays on postmodern anxieties about the ability of thought to correctly interpret and model an objective terrain, describing instead a world of radical interpretation and the superficiality of claims to a transparent truth. This epistemological crisis of modernity can ultimately be read as a crisis of Protestantism. The Reformers expulsion of an immanent "truth" found in human embodiment and the effervesence generated by communities of embodied humans, and the resultant transformation of the sacred into a transcendent sublime reflected on only by the cognitive engagement with texts (the Word of God), has led to a culture of panic reflexivity.23 This panic reflexivity revolves around a profound positioning of "truth" in the symbolic and in texts, yet concomitantly is aware of the self-referential nature of that symbolic. Baudrillard, theorising the profound superficiality of signifiers, describes this post-Nietzschean world as a world of "seduction", where "every interpretive discourse (discours de sens) wants to get beyond appearances: this is illusion and fraud. But getting beyond appearances is an impossible task; inevitably every discourse is revealed in its own appearance, and is hence subject to the stakes imposed by seduction, and consequently to its own failure as discourse".24 He speaks of "the dangers of seduction, whose domain is the sacred horizon of appearances", where "to be seduced is to be diverted from one's truth. [And] to seduce is to divert the other from his truth".25

Baudrillard, in Symbolic Exchange and Death, describes the postmodern turn in thought as delivering us into a world of "tests", where simulations result from the effect of the observer on the observed, where the question presupposes the answer. "It is not even certain that we can test plants, animals or inert matter in the exact sciences with any hope of an "objective" response. As to how those polled respond to the pollsters, how natives respond to ethnologists, the analysand to the analyst, you may be sure that there is total circularity in every case: those questioned always behave as the questioner imagines they will and solicits them to".26 This deconstructionist recognition of a profound superficiality of discourse is part of Jameson's wary typology of the postmodern; an aspect of a world which "loses its depth and threatens to becomes a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density".27

A film featuring German techno-pop nihilists must have something to say about postmodern theories of a world of radical perspectivism, and the Dude, as he wanders through his narrative, is confronted with various interpretations of the kidnapping told by characters whose perception of events are coloured by personal motivations. The result is a particularly postmodern sense of exhaustion and disorientation, compounded by the Dude's frequent grotesque lapses. The seductive nature of the Dude's encounters with the "Millionaire" Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn and Maude Lebowski is mirrored by the seductive nature of their presentation of self. The "Millionaire" Lebowski in particular is surrounded by commodity signs which create an appearance of what he himself writes himself as; that is, a self-made man in direct opposite to the "bum" Lebowski. Yet, if we are to believe Maude, he in fact has terrible business sense and lives off an allowance from the estate of his dead wife. He is aware of the mechanics of seduction though, and when accused of manipulating the Dude for ulterior motives replies, "You have your story, I have mine!". 

To Conclude: How does the Dude manage to abide?

The Dude proves himself extremely resilient in his ability to survive his everyday encounters with nihilistic hyperrealism, post-Nietzschean deconstructionism, and the seduction of profoundly superficial signifiers. Jeff Lebowski appears to transcend any metaphysical anxieties by his very nature as grotesque body. The profane terrors of a hyper-reflexive Protestant modernity seem to elude him, and in this sense he is exemplary of the postmodern schiz, as compared to Jameson's angst-ridden monadic hysterics of modernism. His function as representative of that which was expelled by the civilising processes of the Protestant Reformation and rationalising modernity enables him to emerge from his confrontation with seduction unscathed. "The Dude abides", perhaps due to his unreflexive immersion in his own enfleshment, his ability to engage with the postmodern figural, and his strong ties with the popular traditions of carnival. In this sense he is an emblematic site for the playing out of postmodern tropes, a "baroque-modern" body, who negotiates the tensions between a Protestant modernity which favours a distanciation from the body and a valourisation of cognitive reflection (which ultimately can end in the terrors of hyper-reflexivity) and a carnival postmodernity - a postmodernity of carnal immersion, schizophrenic presents, and the corrosion of boundaries between artifice and the real. 
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23 Mellor and Shilling, Re-Forming, p 98 - 127
24 Jean Baudrillard, "On Seduction" in Mark Poster [ed], Jean Baudrillard - Selected Writings, (Oxford, Polity Press, 1988), p 150
25 Ibid, p 160
26 Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p 67
27 Jameson, Postmodernism, p 76-7


Baudrillard, Jean, Symbolic Exchange and Death, (London, Sage, 1993).

------- The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (London, Verso, 1993).
Coen, Joel and Ethan, The Big Lebowski Script, at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/9284/lebowski.htm

Ebert, Roger, “The Big Lebowski”, at Chicago Sun Times Online.

Featherstone, Mike, “Postmodernism and the Aestheticization of    Everyday Life”, in Lash, Scott and Friedman, Jonathan [eds], Modernity and Identity, (Cambridge, Basil Blackwell, 1992).

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989).

Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, in New Left Review 146, July-August 1984.

Jencks, Charles [ed], The Postmodern Reader, (London, Academy Editions, 1992).

McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction, (New York, Methuen, 1987).

Mellor, Philip A. and Shilling, Chris, Re-Forming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity, (London, Sage, 1997).

Nietzsche, Freidrich, Beyond Good and Evil, (London, Penguin, 1987).

Poster, Mark [ed], Jean Baudrillard ? Selected Writings (Oxford, Polity Press, 1988).

Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow, (London, Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1973).