Mark Dery on Thu, 29 Jan 1998 02:03:00 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> On Edvard Munch's _The Scream_

					* * *

     A specter is haunting pop culture---the specter of _The
Scream, Edvard Munch's 1893 painting of a wild-eyed figure on a
bridge, hands clapped to his head, mouth contorted in a silent
shriek of angst and anomie.  The tormented face of one man's
despair and alienation, set against the social fragmentation and
moral vertigo of the last fin-de-siecle, has been resurrected and
pressed into service, through pop-culture pastiche and parody, as
the poster child for self-mocking millennial anxiety.  Once
shorthand for the age of anxiety, Munch's Screamer has been recast
for the age of terminal irony as a cross between _Saturday Night
Live's Mr. Bill and Cesare the somnambulist from _The Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari.  Generic-faced and gender-neutral, he's a ready-made
sign of the times: a Smiley face with an ontological migraine.

     One of the earliest appropriations of _The Scream has turned
out to be one of the most enduring: the ad campaign for _Home
Alone (1990), which featured Macaulay Culkin in a Munch-ian mood,
his tyke-next-door features stretched out of shape in an
are-we-having-fun-yet? send-up of the Screamer.  Since then, the
image has appeared on T-shirts emblazoned with the heart-stopping
phrase "President Quayle" and on checks sold by the Rosencrantz &
Guildenstern Banknote Corp.  It shrieks with delight on a birthday
card ("Hope your birthday's a SCREAM!") and serves as a wacky
conversation piece in homes and offices across America in the form
of the inflatable dolls manufactured by On the Wall Productions,
which has sold over 100,000 of the adult toys.  The political
cartoonist Rob Rogers put a face on the heartland horror of the
Oklahoma bombing by transplanting _Scream heads onto the dour
farmers in Grant Wood's _American Gothic.  The marathon runner
Andrea Bowman pledged allegiance to the no-pain, no-gain ethos by
having _The Scream tattooed on her leg.  And, in the loftiest
tribute a consumer society knows, Munch's angst-racked Everyman has
even been transformed into a TV pitchman---a Ray-Banned swinger in
a computer-animated spot for the Pontiac Sunfire, a car that "looks
like a work of art" and "drives like a real scream."  Most
famously, of course, the painting inspired the Halloween mask worn
by the teen-ocidal slasher in Wes Craven's _Scream: a baleful
skull whose elongated gape makes it look like a Munch head modeled
in Silly Putty. 

     So, I scream, you scream, we all scream for Munch's _Scream:
What's all the yelling about?  Obviously, the image strikes a
sympathetic chord because we, like Munch, are adrift at the end of
a century, amidst profound societal change and philosophical chaos,
when all the old unsinkable certitudes seem to be going the way of
the _Titanic.  But whereas Munch's existential gloom and doom were
a psychological affair, deeply rooted in his mother's death and the
hellfire Christianity of his stern father, our millennial anxiety
is more public than private, the toxic runoff of information
overload: mounting concerns over global warming, worries about
contaminated food and sexually-transmitted diseases and flesh-
eating viruses, fear of domestic terrorism, paranoia about night-
stalking pedophiles and teenage "super-predators," traumatic
memories of satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction, premonitions
of black helicopters over America, and, more prosaically, the
everyday uncertainties of the downsized, overdrawn, time-starved,
sleep-deprived masses.      

     The Screamer personifies the introverted, alienated
psychology of modernism.  In Munch's painting, this psychology is
literalized in the roughly circular movement of the viewer's eye,
which makes the world literally revolve around the solipsistic
Screamer.  Moreover, that world, as Munch gives it to us, has been
swallowed up by the Screamer's extruded ego, dyed strange colors
and twisted into alien shapes by his emotions.              

     By contrast, the postmodern self is mediated, not mediating. 
In Oliver Stone's _Natural Born Killers, for example, the
exteriorized subconscious of _The Scream has been turned inside
out.  In the modernist world-view articulated by Munch's proto-
Expressionism, the psyche oozes, blob-like, beyond its bounds,
engulfing the outside world; in _NBK, resonant images from the 20th
century---"the filmed century," as Don DeLillo observed---inundate
the mass-mediated dream lives of Stone's TV generation.  Childhood
memories are relived as an imaginary sitcom, complete with
laughtrack, and Nature has been replaced by Second Nature: the
world outside Mickey and Mallory's motel windows consists of
flickering TV images.  Celebrity is the only real life, reflection
in the camera eye the only confirmation that the self truly exists. 

     Postmodern psychology is a product of the movement from
McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy into a postliterate world, a transition
marked by the collapse of the critical distance between the inner
self and the outside world, and by our immersion, perhaps even
dissolution, in the ever-accelerating maelstrom of the media
spectacle.  In _Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson characterizes this
shift in "the dynamics of cultural pathology" as one in which "the
alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter's

     Utterly unlike the hypersensitive Munch-ian self, this new
psyche is characterized, says Jameson, by a "waning of affect"
which is not so much the android autism Andy Warhol aspired to as
it is the giddy experience of emotions as "free-floating and
impersonal" sensations "dominated by a peculiar kind of
euphoria."  This psychological weightlessness, at once terrifying
and exhilarating, is the result of life lived in the mass-media
centrifuge, where everything, from hemorrhoid-treatment ads to R.
Budd Dwyer's televised suicide, carries equal weight and where
reality and its simulation are beginning to look more and more
alike.  Call it Angst Lite.

     Jameson calls it the "camp sublime"---camp in the sense that
camp delights in depthlessness, celebrates surface; sublime in the
sense that this "peculiar euphoria" is the postmodern equivalent,
for Jameson, of what Edmund Burke called "the Sublime"---the
vertiginous loss of self in the presence of nature's awful
grandeur.  In fact, _The Scream was inspired by an experience that
has all the earmarks of the sublime (as scripted by Bergman).  "I
was walking along the road with two friends," wrote Munch, on the
back of a drawing.  "The sun set.  The sky became a bloody red. 
And I felt a touch of melancholy.  I stood still, leaned on the
railing, dead tired.  Over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood
and tongues of fire.  My friends walked on and I stayed behind,
trembling with fright.  And I felt a great unending scream passing
through nature."

     Munch's nameless terror suits our millennial mood just fine,
but his 19th century melancholia and gloomy introspection are
out of tune with the media-circus atmosphere of the late 20th
century.  A brooding consumptive like Munch, haunted by the death
of God, fear of hereditary madness, and the advancing shadow of his
own mortality, looks thoroughly out of place against the smirking
irony and flip nihilism of our age.  It's the difference between
the solitary madness of Van Gogh cutting off his ear and the
farcical nightmare of Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield's,
live and in your livingroom.  Thus, while Munch's Screamer is the
perfect totem for our pop angst, we read his overwrought hysteria
as campy, which may be why he's ended up on a _Scream-patterned
dress worn by the drag comedian Dame Edna, who insists that the
schmatte-clad androgyne is really yelling, "Oh no, I've lost my

     Popping up seemingly everywhere, from tattoos to political
cartoons to blow-up dolls, the _Scream meme suggests that we can't
even take our own apocalypse---our lurking sense, on the eve of the
future, of social disintegration and simmering
discontent---seriously.  "What was once terrible seems to have
become fun," as the cultural critic Mike Davis puts it.  Our world
will end, if it does, not with a bang or a whimper but with the
violin shrieks from _Psycho, played for laughs. 

- (C) Mark Dery 1998.  All rights reserved; no part of this essay
may be reproduced or republished without written permission from
the author.  A much shorter, significantly different version of
this essay first appeared on the website _Suck, on January 20,

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