Postmodern Parody and Pastiche
This article examines the concepts of parody and pastiche, two devices that are frequently used in culture, especially since the rise of postmodernism in the 1970s. Parody and pastiche are key attributes of postmodern culture, whether it is in literature, film, fashion or design.
To start with, we need to define the terms. A parody is a work created to mock or make fun of an original work. The Oxford English Dictionary defines parody as imitation ‘turned as to produce a ridiculous effect.’ Parody is often used in comedy. For example, The Simpsons features parodies of well-known films.
The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin saw parody as a natural development in the life cycle of any genre: a genre will always reach a stage where it begins to be parodied. This is easiest to explain in terms of film. In the 1930s, Hollywood made a series of classical horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. For a while, audiences took these films seriously; they believed in them and they were scared by them. However, once you’ve seen enough horror films, you start to recognise all the tricks and they start to look like clichés.
Eventually audiences couldn’t take these films seriously anymore and at that point film-makers started making parodies of them. Mel Brooks became one of the most famous film parodists. His film Young Frankenstein was a parody of classic 1930s horror films. It conjures up all the conventions of classic horror – the castles, the hunchbacked assistant – but they’re all used ironically: the film makes fun of them.
Another example is the western. Western movies were made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but eventually audiences had seen so many of them (especially when they were shown on television) that they couldn’t take them seriously. This genre also underwent a parody stage. Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles (1974), which was a parody of the western.
Again, Mikhail Bakhtin argued that parody is a natural development in the life cycle of any genre, but parodies are particularly characteristic of postmodern culture. In his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), the theorist Jean-François Lyotard argued that society has lost faith ‘meta-narratives’, grand belief systems like religion, political ideology, and even cultural forms like architectural style or cinematic genre. This means that postmodern culture always parodies the conventions of earlier forms.
The postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson states that ‘The art of parody depends on the tension between the known original and its parody twin.’ A parody must transform the original, altering it to give new meaning and in the process create a new work. In music, for example, Jimi Hendrix subverted the patriotic American anthem Star Spangled Banner and turned it into an anti-Vietnam protest. Hendrix distorted the original: he ripped it apart by using an aggressive musical style. Likewise, the Sex Pistols created a parody of God Save the Queen.
In fashion, Vivien Westwood mocks traditional notions of Britishness by making parodic references to royalty, aristocratic clothing, and historical costume. She has an anarchic punk ethos. She revives traditional forms, but distorts them.
A similar concept is the pastiche. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pastiche as ‘a medley of various ingredients; a hotchpotch, farrago, jumble.’ A work is called pastiche if it’s cobbled together from multiple works. The word comes from pastitsio, which was a Greco-Roman dish made of many different ingredients. Likewise, a pastiche is a quotation from multiple sources.
For example, Austin Powers is a pastiche of the Swinging Sixties. Every fad and cliché of the Sixties is paraded: Op Art, body-painting, psychedelia. The film quotes from multiple sources: fashion, music, films and art. A pastiche can be jocular, but unlike a parody it’s usually respectful.
Pastiche is prominent in popular culture. The Star Wars films by George Lucas are pastiches of 1930s science fiction serials like Flash Gordon. They start with text scrolling across the screen: this is a direct quote from Flash Gordon. Likewise, the Indiana Jones films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were based on 1930s adventure serials. All the elements are reassembled: temples, buried treasure, sinister villains, damsels in distress. These films aren’t meant to be original; they’re a catalogue of quotations from earlier cultural forms.
The archetypal postmodern film-maker is Quentin Tarantino. His films are pure pastiches: they pay tribute to pulp novels, blaxploitation films and kung fu movies. Pulp Fiction is a pastiche of 1950s pulp fiction texts. Kill Bill is a pastiche of kung fu films.
Pastiche is also characteristic of postmodern culture. The Marxist academic Fredric Jameson has examined the functions of postmodern pastiche. He describes pastiche as ‘the random cannibalisation of all the styles of the past, the play of stylistic allusion.’ This is partly the result of over-exposure. In the age of mass media there is a sense that we have seen too many films, watched too much TV, too much advertising. We are over-familiar with the forms of mass culture, which means it’s impossible to be original. We can only recycle the conventions of earlier texts – which Jameson calls the cannibalisation of the past.
Jameson describes pastiche as ‘blank parody’. This means that rather than being humorous or satirical, pastiche has become a ‘dead language’ unable to satirize in any effective way. Whereas pastiche used to be a humorous device, it has become ‘devoid of laughter’.
An example of this is Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is like the capital city of Postmodernism because it’s a pastiche of multiple styles. The buildings quote from global landmarks. This isn’t humorous or satirical. Las Vegas consists of fakes that people are willing to accept as substitutes for the real thing. There’s something inherently bland and shallow about this: the buildings are empty images devoid of meaning. In 1969, the postmodern architect Robert Venturi published a book called Learning from Las Vegas. Rather than criticising the city he argued that architects should study it because it is representative of the postmodern age.