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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 Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) is an exemplary cultural artefact with which to approach theorized notions of postmodernity - specifically in the misadventures of its main character, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a Pynchonesque stoner sleuth whose half-aware stumblings through the machinations of a ridiculously baroque plot parallels the dilemmas of the postmodern subject's navigation of a post-industrial, post-Nietzschean world of hyperrealism, endlessly mutating commodity-signs, schizophrenic intensities and the seduction of texts. 

Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard's notions of the "aestheticization of everyday life", the blurring of boundaries between the real and the imaginary, and the schizophrenic nature of the postmodern subject, along with Mike Featherstone's discussion of the figural aspects of postmodern experience, will be employed to make a case for Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski as an exemplary denizen of the postmodern zone. In particular, Featherstone's linking of the postmodern experience with the earlier tradition of carnival will be used to suggest that the Dude is a crucial site in the playing out of postmodern tensions between the Protestant and Enlightenment valourisation of rational distanciation and reflexivity, and the popular tradition of carnival and the grotesque

In concluding, it could be suggested that the Dude, due to his very nature as grotesque body, appears to escape any hyperreflexive anxiety about his inability to make a coherent reading of the hyperreal, post-Nietzschean world presented to him.

"The Aestheticization of Everyday Life" in Jameson and Baudrillard


Contemporary discussions of postmodernity narrate a shift in sensibility, a "crisis" in how the contemporary West relates to its perceived world, theorized as being a discernible break with earlier sensibilities of "modernity". Theorists such as Fredric Jameson and David Harvey describe a link between the new sensibilities of postmodernism and the parallel change in the economic sphere; a superstructural reflection of the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial, information based economy.1 The shift in production, from a predominantly goods based economy to that of one concerned with the proliferation and endless construction of intangible commodity-signs, is described as a complete irruption of capitalism into the previously autonomous spheres of leisure and culture. A "de-autonimization" of the cultural sphere has, in Jameson, Harvey and Jean Baudrillard's view, resulted in certain shifts in the way late capitalist consumers relate to the "real". Crucial to this strand of postmodern theory is the notion of what Mike Ferguson describes as "the aestheticization of everyday life".2

Fredric Jameson's description of the "aestheticization of everyday life" revolves around the notion of an insidious incorporation of all artistic and cultural practice into the machinations of a capitalist fashion system - a late capitalism whose main project is the fostering of the culture of commodity-sign consumption. The decline of the historical avant garde, Jameson's "oppositional modern movement", and the rise of the transavant-garde artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s, is seen as a death of the ability of interventionism - where postmodernism's "own offensive features...no longer scandalize anyone and are not only received with the greatest complacency but have themselves become institutionalized and are at one with the official culture of Western society".3 The crux of concern here is that "aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally",4 resulting in a culture of blase depthlessness and superficiality, and an abolition of critical distance. Contrasting Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes with Van Gogh's Peasant Shoes, Jameson reads the Warhol as suffering from a terminal inability to refer to anything outside of itself, a breakdown in the hermeneutic gesture where the artifice fails to operate as "a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth".5

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1 See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989) and Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in New Left Review 146, July-August 1984.

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

3 Jameson, Postmodernism, p 56.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, p 59.