The Postmodern Sublime: Fredric Jameson’s Bonaventure Hotel
Essay by Claire Geddes Bailey
Art by Angie Dai
In 1756, Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (49). The sublime of the Romantic period was rooted in the individual’s relationship to nature; a person could experience the sublime by travelling, for instance, into the alps to feel the smallness of their body in comparison to vast and powerful nature. A sublime experience disrupted one’s self-conception, reminding them of their size in relation to the world, as well as of their imminent death. In Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson analyzes the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a “full-blown postmodern building” (38). While the postmodern space Jameson describes is largely devoid of nature, I will argue that the Bonaventure Hotel exemplifies a postmodern sublime. This sublime shares attributes with the Romantic conception—the “astonishment…with some degree of horror” (Burke 49) remains, as does the re-configuration of the subject’s self-perception in relation to their environment. However, the Bonaventure’s postmodern sublime departs from previous conceptions in a few key ways: this sublime is mechanized rather than naturalized, located in urban space rather than nature, and disorients rather than reorients the subject in the landscape. Colin Marshall’s video essay, “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: the Bonaventure Hotel,” shows us how these characteristics have been utilized in film and reveals that the postmodern sublime furthermore is rooted in spectacle. No longer an experience between an individual and nature, this sublime is most commonly accessed through Hollywood movies, and involves an imaginary public threat rather than an individual one.
The Bonaventure’s glass elevators are one of the hotel’s most obvious sublime features – spectacular from both inside and out, the elevators offer a vast view of downtown L.A. to riders while making the mechanical movements of the hotel visible to outsiders from afar. The external view of the moving elevators, which appear tiny in comparison to the glass towers, inspires awe and reminds one of their size in relation to the enormous built environment. This is a classic sublime experience transferred from natural to urban space. It is not surprising that the movies — one cultural arena in which invocations of the sublime remain commonplace — “find these elevators irresistible” (Marshall 00:14:41). However, the elevators do not simply offer the ability to access the sublime through mechanized means. As is visible in Vicki Baum’s modernist novel Grand Hotel, mechanization is not new to the postmodern, nor is it new to invocations of the sublime; the novel’s protagonist, Kringelein, invokes the sublime by identifying fear’s centrality to pleasure after his experiences of mechanized transport in a car and plane (Baum 234). In the Bonaventure’s postmodern space, Jameson suggests, one no longer enters a “transportation machine” (42) simply to access a different form of motion than the human body can offer, as Kringelein did. Instead, one enters the elevator or steps onto the escalator because it is the most natural form of motion. As Jameson writes, “escalators and elevators here henceforth replace movement but also, and above all, designate themselves as new reflexive signs and emblems of movement proper” (42). In other words, the individual body and its ability to move no longer acts as the frame of reference for distance and motion. Instead, the “transportation machines” of the elevator and escalator become the most basic forms of movement, and consequently redefine our sense of height, depth, speed, and motion. The elevators’ centrality to the hotel thus present a sublime experience as they force individuals to reconceive of their bodies in relation to their environment. However, instead of becoming further aware of the body’s scale and ability in the face of the sublime, the postmodern subject’s body becomes a site of alienation and fragmentation, since the “signs and emblems of movement proper” are no longer intrinsically tied to the body — indeed, they can be walked out of and away from.
In the scene Marshall includes from True Lies (1994), a villain rides up one elevator on a motorcycle while the hero pursues in an adjacent elevator on horseback. In this scene, three ‘eras’ of transportation collide — the postmodern elevators, the modern motorcycle, and the classic horseback. While humorous and absurd, this scene is also emblematic of a postmodern condition in which time appears fragmented and non-linear. Normal narrative time and motion have collided in and been replaced by the narrative logic of the elevator — as Jameson puts it, “the narrative stroll has been underscored, symbolized, reified, and replaced by a transportation machine which becomes the allegorical signifier of that older promenade we are no longer allowed to conduct on our own: and this is a dialectical intensification of the autoreferentiality of all modern culture, which tends to turn upon itself and designate its own cultural production as its content” (42). Applied to the True Lies chase scene, Jameson’s logic suggests that the elevator fulfills the narrative action by becoming the narrative action—the elevator both facilitates the chase and determines it (indeed, making the chase quite absurd, as one elevator will never speed up to overtake the other). Further, history here is collapsed — fragmented and pasted together in one autoreferential scene.
The sublime in the True Lies scene arises not only through the elevators’ spectacle and re-centering of the body’s scale, but also through the breaking of boundaries in public space. Urban society operates safely through the maintenance of boundaries and codes — for example, cars must not cross the boundary between road and sidewalk. A car travelling at fifty kilometres per hour is not frightening until it crosses the boundary into a pedestrian zone, at which point it becomes terrifyingly monstrous. Seen from a distance (i.e., as an audience in a movie theatre), this terror is translated into a sublime spectacle. Similarly, horses and motorcycles are not necessarily remarkable in their own right, but a motorcycle and a horse in publicly-used elevators could be called sublime due to their transgression of normal boundaries. The movie scenes depicted in Marshall’s video essay frequently play upon this theme; the boundaries keeping each category of public space separate (and therefore safe) are transgressed, causing a sublime terror to ensue. Suddenly the mundane environment of the hotel lobby or entryway shifts in valence; strangers turn from passersby to threats, and the vast and unknown public crowd itself becomes the sublime terror. For example, Hard to Kill (1990)’s protagonist’s abrupt outburst of physical violence in the Bonaventure lobby suddenly turns milling people to a frightened and frightening crowd. While a guest’s proximity to a large number of strangers also appears threatening in modernist hotel narratives, in the Bonaventure’s postmodern space this threat is amplified by the size of the crowd and the space’s disorienting quality. Where the modernist hotel characters feared hotel thieves and individual murderers, the fear now—as seen in many of Marshall’s movie clips — is a break in public norms leading to a sublime (vast, unbounded) threat.
A more literal public boundary is the hotel’s glass walls. Jameson suggests that “the glass skin repels the city outside” (42). The reflective glass, Jameson argues, suggests that the hotel was built not to stand out as a utopia, as modern architecture was, but instead to take on the city’s vernacular and blend in, forming another invisible law of public space. Like the boundary between road and sidewalk, the glass is unseen until it is broken, something which produces another opportunity to invoke the sublime cinematically. Marshall includes several scenes in which the hotel’s glass is broken to allow for the unquestionably sublime threat of falling from a great height. Here the built environment takes on the role that mountains or canyons played for the Romantics: as a Romantic subject would stand on the edge of a cliff to experience the sublime, the postmodern subject stands at the top of a tall glass building. In the postmodern situation, however, a literal fragmentation must occur before the individual falls—no longer is the body in direct conversation with “a mappable external world” (Jameson 44) but instead is at several layers of remove. Jameson argues that the hotel “aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city” (40). If this is so, the breaking of the glass must also fragment the space’s totality, causing not only a fall of the individual but also of the “new collective practise” of the “hypercrowd” within (Jameson 40). Again, then, the postmodern sublime involves not only the falling individual but also the public, whose normative behaviour is fragmented at the same time as the glass.
Jameson argues that the Bonaventure presents an example of “postmodern hyperspace [that] has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself…in a mappable external world” (44), while Marshall suggests that the lobby “causes the kind of confusion that verges on the sublime” (00:06:14). Jameson elaborates, suggesting that this “disjunction point” between the body and the built environment stands as a symbol of “the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects” (44). This, I argue, is an articulation of the postmodern sublime. The Bonaventure’s interior, according to Jameson, makes the individual aware of the inadequacy of their body and perceptual abilities in the built environment, which further emblematizes an individual smallness and disorientation in the face of current global networks. Interestingly, movies also recognize Jameson’s words, “at least at present” (44), as some of the few characters who navigate the Bonaventure with ease are those in futuristic science fiction films. Though these characters share our bodies, the figures moving through the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) handle the space easily, and though the sci-fi landscape appears sublime to a present-day audience, the characters on-screen do not react to it as such. Indeed, Marshall juxtaposes two nearly identical shots of the Bonaventure’s interior—one from Buck Rogers and the other from Midnight Madness (1980). The present-day characters in Midnight Madness flounder about the space, completely disoriented, while the characters in Buck Rogers appear right at home in the same shot (00:08:06 – 00:08:35). The movie imagines a future human individual who “possess[es] the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace,” and thus reinforces Jameson’s idea that the Bonaventure is a space present-day subjects “do not yet possess” (38, my emphasis) the ability to properly perceive.
Now, instead of facing (as the Romantic subject would) a vast but unified natural world, the present-day individual faces a vast and dis-unified world which the human subject cannot locate themselves within. Even in the “miniature city” of the Bonaventure Hotel, the subject is unable to get their bearings in public space. In order to do so, they must step into a machine (the elevator), which again removes the central point of reference from the human body and fragments it into mechanical forms. This has narrative consequences, because characters must either conform to the uniform narrative logic of machines, or ‘break the glass’ of public space — an extremely fragmenting act which inevitably breaks the norms of the collective public, transforming them into a group of mutually threatening people. This disoriented public embodies the Bonaventure’s postmodern sublime; once more autoreferential, they are both threatened subjects and threatening objects, both reliant on and fragmented by mechanization, and are both at home in and totally foreign to urban space. This is a new awe — no longer a simple commune between individual and nature, the postmodern subject’s sublime experience must grapple with an urban space built not for their own, but for a futuristic human body.
Baum, Vicki. Grand Hotel. Translated by Basil Creighton, Garden City Press, 1930.
Burke, Edmund. “On the Sublime and the Beautiful.” The Harvard Classics, edited by Charles W. Eliot, vol. 24, 1909.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.
Marshall, Colin. “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: the Bonaventure Hotel.” Vimeo, uploaded by Colin Marshall, 30 September 2015, vimeo.com/140975476.