Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Conclusion: From the Twentieth-Century's Cutting Edge to the Twenty-First-Century Copy

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Conclusion: From the Twentieth-Century's Cutting Edge to the Twenty-First-Century Copy

Article excerpt

By the end of the twentieth century, the popular image of collage is represented most pivotally in serial killer films. Consider Silence of the Lambs, in which Buffalo Bill literally cuts up his victims, taking pieces of their skin to assemble a patchwork woman-suit. As the FBI discovers the bodies, clearly marked as aesthetic objects, they are confronted with a hermeneutical puzzle, and working through this aestheticized riddle they assemble a vast array of fragments: maps, letters, interviews, photographs, notes, and other sundry bits and pieces which are arranged in a surprisingly artful bulletin board. Thus the camera pans over the contrasting aesthetic and cognitive strategies of collage.1 On the one hand, while the mad killer literally cuts apart and reassembles the human body, he lays bare the social construction of sexuality and terrifies his victims (and the audience) with the violent and irrational ruptures of collage. His goal is both to destroy the limits imposed by the law and to transform himself through what Max Ernst named the irrational powers of collage. On the other hand, the detectives reassemble the fragments of the case, seeking not rupture and transformation but a new and veritable totality that will reflect and enforce a transcendent logic of truth, cause and effect, subject and object, law and transgression. Their collage seeks the conservative restoration of rational order, and they lovingly assemble every piece of evidence, fetishizing each fragment in visual arrangements on bulletin boards and in files. The presentation and importance of these two collage metaphors have become an effective and predictable film cliché: the obsessive, collecting detectives, reassembling truth and order out of fragments, and the irrational killer, fragmenting bodies and creating elaborate assemblages to transgress and reorganize signs in the irrational desire to transform the self. The association of collage techniques with mad killers and the collecting cops is hardly the invention of Hollywood. Indeed, these figures emerge in the first decades of the twentieth century in the work of Tristan Tzara and T. S. Eliot.

In "Dada Manifesto: 1918," Tristan Tzara exclaims that "every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action."2 Like the more popular serial killer of cinema, the charismatic dada prophet goes on to define dada as "the abolition of logic" and the abolition of "every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets" (81).To become the irrational, transformative semiotic criminals the manifesto calls for, dada artists employed both visual and verbal collage forms. Offering a critique of both the depths of lyric subjectivity and journalistic objectivity, Tzara offers his famous recipe for collage poems. His recipe underscores the critical potentials of collage as a method for severing connections of logic and sense, naturalizing repressive and conservative force. The recipe embodies the violent, playful, and criminal side of collage. However, perhaps the most famous collage poem of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, presents the conservative and nostalgic side of collage. Not coincidently, Eliot's poem was originally entitled He Do the Police in Different Voices, itself a collaged fragment from Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. The emphasis in that original title highlights the conservative powers of collage. Unlike Tzara's persona as the irrational dada criminal, Eliot is most certainly the nostalgic detective. The speaker of The Waste Land attempts a restoration of shattered order, and like the police who must assemble what evidence they can find to put the world back together and maintain order, the Fisher King can do no more than assemble the fragments of culture pulverized by the forces of modernity and of anarchic forces like dada:

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order? …

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