The Undifferentiated Sense of the Present – The Shining

The Kubrick Site: Historicism in “The Shining”

Shining is about where to search for this “knowable community,” to which, even excluded, the fantasy of collective relations might attach itself? It only has one direction to go, into the past; and this is the moment at which Kubrick’s rewriting of his novelistic original takes on its power as an articulated and intelligible symbolic act.

Stand the unexamined models of Freudian psychoanalysis and of a confidence in the power of self-consciousness and reflexivity generally to transform, modify, or even “cure” the ideological tendencies and positions which have thereby been brought up into the light of consciousness. This confidence is at the least unseasonable in an atmosphere where nobody believes in the active capabilities of individual consciousness any more, and in which the very ideologues of “critical theory” – the Frankfurt School – have left behind them, in works like Negative Dialectics, testaments of despair about the possibility for “critical theory” in our time to do any more than to keep the negative and the critical (that is, critical theory itself) alive in the mind.

The very triviality of daily life in late capitalism is itself the desperate situation against which all the formal solutions, the strategies and subterfuges, of high culture as well as of mass culture, emerge: how to project the illusion that things still happen, that events exist, that there are still stories to tell, in a situation in which the uniqueness and the irrevocability of private destinies and of individuality itself seem to have evaporated? – We hasten to follow orders and passively/obediently invest these first alarming visions with the appropriate foreboding: the child’s powers (and his seeming possession by a preternatural alter ego) augur poorly for a restful winter in the empty months ahead. Only it turns out we were looking for it in the wrong place: not the little boy, “possessed” in some ominous way by his phantom playmate, but the alcoholic father whose weakness opens up a vacuum into which all kinds of baleful initially indeterminable impulses seep. Yet this is in itself another kind of generic misreading, which seizes on some of the signals and conventions of the new genre of “occult” film in order to project an anticipation of some properly diabolical possession to come. but the sequence of such “dying generations” is the scandal reawakened by the ghost story for a bourgeois culture which has triumphantly stamped out ancestor worship and the objective memory of the clan or extended family, thereby sentencing itself to the life span of the biological individual. No building more appropriate to express this than the grand hotel itself, with its successive seasons whose vaster rhythms mark the transformation of American leisure classes from the late 19th century down to the vacations of present-day consumer society. The Jack Nicholson of The Shining is possessed neither by evil as such nor by the “devil” or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites of this monumental rabbit warren, which oddly projects its empty formal after-image in the maze outside (significantly, the maze is Kubrick’s own addition). Yet at this level the genre does not yet transmit a coherent ideological message, as Stephen King’s mediocre original testifies: Kubrick’s adaptation, indeed, transforms this vague and global domination by all the random voices of American history into a specific and articulated historical commentary.

 

 

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