Susan Sontag’s Melancholy Object in the Wake of (Post-)Postmodernism: A Case Study of the Portrait of Klein by Hannah Diamond

By Senne Schraeyen

Abstract

This article is a close reading of a photograph by Hannah Diamond. The work is analyzed using updated versions of Susan Sontag’s Melancholy Object theory in a postmodern and post-postmodern society. Diamond’s work is a variant of Melancholy Objects: a postmodern Melancholy Object, an image that is made to evoke feelings of nostalgia. This makes Diamond’s practice an interesting case to magnify contemporary pop culture’s interest in nostalgia and postmodernism, despite Sontag’s and post-postmodernists’ critiques.

Keywords: Melancholy Object, nostalgia, photography, contemporary popular culture, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, Susan Sontag, Hannah Diamond


Introduction

Last year, I found myself gazing at a photograph on my computer screen. An unknown woman in close-up was staring at me, dressed in a baby pink outfit and shiny jewelry. The clothing, posing, and kitsch that the airbrushed portrait radiated, was both endearing and humorous. It instantly reminded me of the aesthetics from the late nineties and early noughties pop music scene, which were dominated by American musicians such as Missy Eliot, Mariah Carey, and Pussycat Dolls. I was surprised to find out that the person who was photographed was Klein, an experimental musician from London who released her first song around 2016. The photograph was shot and reworked around the same period by London-based artist and musician Hannah Diamond.

Puzzled by the nostalgia this picture evoked in me, I wondered why it was that this piece transported me back in time. How can a picture deceive us so easily? I immediately started to think of postmodernist concepts such as parody and pastiche, but also of Susan Sontag’s concept of the picture as a Melancholy Object. But is this concept of Sontag, which refers to modernist photography traditions, applicable to postmodernism? And is a postmodern framework still relevant to our contemporary society and art scene, wherein the theory has been declared dead by multiple scholars for over a decade? In this essay, I firstly try to revise the concept of the Melancholy Object in postmodernity by using the photograph of Hannah Diamond. Secondly, I judge if postmodern art making and the Melancholy Object are still relevant in a post-postmodern society.

The Melancholy Object and Nostalgia

In 1977, the American writer Susan Sontag released her bundle of essays On Photography. After the publication’s release, Sontag swung between celebrity figure and cultural critic: popular magazine Time had previously published multiple of her essays throughout the sixties, and the author was well liked in the media. Apart from her intelligence, Sontag was known for high-profile gay relationships (most notable with celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz) and striking presences at shows and parties (During; Emre). Although the critical work became mandatory reading for every art scholar or photographer, Sontag’s thinking method and essays read as accessible and non-academic. This makes her theories easy to dismiss or unravel.

On Photography, in this vein, was her first big commercial breakthrough. Sarah Parsons, a professor of photography theory and history, notes that when On Photography was released, its “emotional intensity, internal contradictions and leaps of logic were often cited as weakness” (290). Yet Parsons also declares that: “[It] is a passionate and brave effort to think through photography as a affective and effective medium, to understand how and why it impacts us so deeply” (290), Sontag focuses, quite harshly, in multiple chapters how multiple characteristics of photography have considerable negative impacts on our worldview. Literary academic Simon During describes the work as “[an attack on] photography as a mode of anti-culture and of anti-literature, on the predictable grounds that photographs ‘certified’ experience by actually destroying it. A casual, easy, enjoyable craft, photography deprived the world of .” Seriousness is a term that multiple scholars attribute to Sontag’s cultural critiques and personality. On Photography shows the incredible critical of the impact that photographs have on our emotional intelligence, claiming that photography influences our look on, and interaction with, real life events. Thus, it comes as no surprise that multiple scholars also mention “Detachment” as the core of Sontag’s moralist problem with photography. As photographs are detached moments of a greater narrative that we, as viewers, do not know, we can interpret or dismiss a photographed situation, as we like (Sontag 292-93).

One of the essays of On Photography describes photos as “Melancholy Objects.” Sontag describes the melancholic feeling a photo can evoke when the viewer becomes aware of the distance (a form of detachment) they feel towards it. This can come from a distance in time, space, politics, or culture, either with what is depicted or from the materiality of the photo (Dewdney). Sontag originates this distance as a concept from the surrealist tradition. For Sontag, surrealism is less a picturing of a dreamlike image and more a picturing of what the surrealists viewed as uncanny lifestyles. The exotic, the sexually liberated or “obscene,” the poor and the royalty: they are all against the then-ruling, modernist bourgeois lifestyle. What makes something look surreal to us is something we do not experience in our everyday life (Sontag 41-45). Sontag notes: “What is surreal is the distance imposed and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance, and the distance in time. Seen from middle-class perspective of photography: celebrities are as intriguing as pariahs” (45). This is why, for example, even contemporary wildlife or nature pictures from magazines like Lonely Planet or National Geographic can make us feel melancholic. They show remote areas in which the cultural and political lifestyle of urbanized places is non-present. They are, de facto, distanced from us, not in time, but in space and lifestyle.

Another surrealist aspect that Sontag mentions is the “collage making of history” that photographs enable us to do. When we try to sketch an image of our history on a certain theme (be it a personal history or a collective), we select pictures that best suit our exotic idea of that theme. Sontag builds on Walter Benjamin’s thesis that we are drawn to the temporary and declares that photographers tend to take pictures of things that they know are about to disappear (e.g., landscapes, endangered rural traditions, and family moments). Photographers thus tend to create pictures of oddities and temporary phenomena; we, much later, will select pictures that generate the most distance from us, the ones that make us feel melancholic, to re-create the past. Sontag (59-62) states that this makes our look at the past subjective and only partly correct, since we only focus on things that are gone and not on the numerous things that remain and are continuous.

The essay concludes that the Melancholy Object is a detached moment from history. The picture focuses on one precise moment that we — because we focus on the distance/melancholy of it — start to detach from a greater timeline and appreciate due to the oddity and uniqueness it depicts. “Life is not about significant details, illuminated by a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are” (Sontag 63-64). It is precisely this “detaching” that is also an integral part of nostalgia.

Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition” (“Nostalgia”). It is a feeling that springs forward from a melancholic distance with a certain moment or object. It is a way to mentally and emotionally escape the here-and-now, and it can be triggered by Melancholy Objects. But we need to understand that the place we escape to is, just as the Melancholy Objects, part of a personal and glossed historical view. As Parsons says (to describe Sontag’s sentiments): “Rather than leading to any sort of specific or moral knowledge, historical photographs affect us in a generalized nostalgic way. They entice us to wallow in a comforting pathos safe without fear that we will be called upon to affect the lives of those pictured” (293). The phrase one mostly uses when in a nostalgic mood is “it was a time where everything was still simple,” focusing only on the positive and disappeared elements of a certain time scape. When we look at a snapshot of someone from the eighties, for example, we see quirky clothes and cultural references, not the then reigning broader social difficulties, like the Cold War or the AIDS crisis.

Hannah Diamond’s work is certainly based around nostalgia. Yet before we discuss her work and influences, it is necessary to contextualize the artist. Diamond is a musician and (commercial) photographer/image maker affiliated with the PC Music group. This is a collective of electronic musicians known for left field, extremely layered songs inspired by Eurodance, Happy Hardcore, and, most importantly, noughties mainstream music (Bakare). Apart from the noughties references, critics describe Diamond’s music as feel-good “saccharine synth-pop” (Joyce) and “bubblegum hyper-reality” (. Her hyper-real vocals and visuals leave critics and “ordinary” listeners both endeared to and confused by her music. Her quirky songs granted her multiple reviews and recommendations on different (renowned) music blogs. For Diamond, pop-music and imagery intertwine heavily. For every one of her songs, the artist also creates the entire single art from scratch. The inspiration for these artworks is the same as for her commercial work for fashion brands, other musicians, and magazines.

Diamond’s practice draws inspiration from several huge fashion players from the past. The influences of photographers David LaChapelle, Mert & Marcus, and Nick Knight, combined with Diamond’s interest in turn-of-the-century Dior and pop music videos, clearly show in her art (Cragg). For example, the aforementioned portrait shows the same medium close-up framing and colored background as a Mert & Marcus fashion shoot. The clothing and accessories Klein wears look as if they are selected from a late nineties fashion catalogue. The framing evokes a feeling of monumentality that, together with heavy digital retouching, gives the picture a larger than life and even unrealistic look, as if we are gazing at a celebrity. The unrealistic look is reminiscent of the way pop stars were presented in the late nineties/early noughties. They are the symbols of the mainstream culture of a (in hindsight not-so-feminist) society in which auto-tuned popular musicians are presented as good-looking, fun, and glossed up “products” for us to consume and enjoy (Nash 27-28, 30, 32-33, 38-39, 44; Zeisler 123, 128-131). The larger-than-life image that these celebrities radiate is, as Sontag would put it, a perfect strategy to create a distance with the middle-class consumers’ lives, so that we would be completely infatuated with them.

The portrait of Klein does work as Melancholy Object for me. It is this odd feeling of nostalgia and carelessness (distances in time, culture, and lifestyle) of the noughties that draws me to the picture. As I look at Hannah Diamond’s picture now, I nostalgically think of the late nineties/early noughties era as if mainstream culture then was filled only with these ultra-feminine, uncomplicated, and poppy entertainers. The distance I feel between the image of an actual hyper-perfect pop star of that time period and me works as a catalyst to create a distance between this contemporary portrait and me, as if it is a Melancholy Object made in that time.

However, when Sontag talks about Melancholy Objects, she talks about “authentic” photographs from the past. The essayist only refers to photography practices from the pre-digital era.[1] When we state that Hannah Diamond captures late nineties/early noughties iconography with her images (Widomska), we should definitely emphasize that her works were not made in that time. Digital photography enhances the power to manipulate pictures so that every form of distance can be added immediately. In this case, the distance in time and culture is fabricated and the viewer is almost tricked into feeling melancholic or nostalgic. The qualities of a Melancholy Object can thus only be partly attributed to Diamond’s picture. This is logical, since Sontag mostly uses pictures from a modernist tradition to define these Objects, while Diamond is active almost a century later, and much has changed in the tradition of photography. Diamond’s photography draws a lot of inspiration from several postmodern traditions, a style that goes head-to-head against the modernist tradition.

Postmodernism: The Commercialization and Deconstruction of the Past

The start of postmodernist thinking is difficult to pinpoint, but it began to take ground in different art forms around the sixties. Just as its starting point, its characteristics are also multifaceted and can, at times, even be messy and paradoxical (Boie 22-40; Canavan and McCamley). However, postmodernism has some undisputable core themes that show through in different readings and practices. One is skepticism towards the modernist principles of progress and the creation of a utopic, bourgeois worldview. This leads some postmodernists to focus on creating a language founded on the debris that modernism left behind (Willette). Namely, the postmodernist uses the techniques of “parody” and “pastiche” to create a new image based on an exaggerated and mocking view of old iconography and themes (Willette).

Literary critic Frederic Jameson has written extensively on this topic in his influential work Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson declares that postmodernists select images and “flatten” them. The images they select from the past have no meaning anymore and are judged purely on a superficial level. This goes hand-in-hand with the growing fixation on kitsch, lowbrow culture, the waning of emotions that art can show and the rejection of one, universally acceptable truth (Jameson). Nostalgia embodies, for me, all these aforementioned concepts, together with parody and pastiche, as it is a flattening and subjective view of past memories. Tied with this flattening of the past is the growing (interest in) consumerist culture after World War II. Culture becomes a commodity that should be consumed by, and draw the attention of, both the rich and the middle class. This leads to a flattened past (nostalgia) being used in Hollywood blockbusters (Jameson; Willette), fashion, art, and design.

Apart from the commodification of nostalgia, describing postmodernism as a deconstructive movement also identifies it (Canavan and McCamley). In their essay on postmodernist practices in marketing, consumption and pop-music, Brendan Canavan and Claire McCamley list five quintessential deconstructive motifs deduced from other interdisciplinary postmodern studies: anti-foundationalism, de-differentiation, fragmentation, hyper-reality and consumption, and production reversal (Canavan and McCamley). For this case, de-differentiation, fragmentation, and hyper-reality are interesting aspects. De-differentiation stands for a loss in cultural hierarchy and a freedom for sub-cultures to gain importance and become cultural trendsetters (Canavan and McCamley, based on “Marketing in Multiplex: Screening Postmodern” and Van Raaij). Fragmentation defines that our identity is in flux due to the high amount of cultural styles the media and de-differentiation provides us with (Canavan and McCamley, based on “Marketing in Multiplex: Screening Postmodern” and “Recycling Postmodern Marketing”). Hyper-reality involves the loss of a sense of authenticity and the becoming real of what was originally simulated (Canavan and McCamley, based on “Marketing in Multiplex: Screening Postmodern,” 39).

Deconstructive processes are the core of Hannah Diamond’s creative process. The artist has collected fashion magazines from the early noughties and created a scrapbook and several mood boards out of them. Over the years, she has gathered an almost encyclopedic memory of her favorite fashion shows and pieces. These are all tools that help her create and inspire her visual universe (Schültz). These practices connect to fragmentation and, in certain aspects, to de-differentiation. Diamond literally collects fragments from fetishized consumerist products (high fashion) in her archives. This gives her the opportunity to cherry-pick what best suits her imaginary world. The artist appropriates codes and symbols of luxury brands, lifestyles, pop culture, and photography to enrich her own art with both highbrow and lowbrow flair.

In the portrait of Klein, all the aforementioned postmodernist tactics are crystalized in one artwork. Diamond applies her de-differentiation techniques for the set-design and retouching of the photograph. The costume of Klein consists of luxury brands’ finest attempts to be lowbrow or street style during the noughties: a pink Dior bucket hat and a pink Dolce & Gabbana choker necklace (with rhinestones!). Although the kitsch in the photograph catches the eye, it is actually the fragmentation and hyper-real that gives the photograph the most postmodern vibe. Diamond states [translated from French]: “I took photographs of my friends, who I had met online, and placed them in a context of popstars from the past. It was a manner to deconstruct what I think about pop-culture and fashion imagines” (Schültz).

Klein is an experimental electronica composer who performs in fine art museums, not a popular R&B star, as someone might assume from the portrait. Diamond takes relatively unknown musicians and places them in her world, where they are catapulted to stardom. This is a technique related to the hyper-real. The kitsch that the picture radiates makes it abundantly clear that this is not an authentic image of someone. Yet because of the convincing set-design and retouching, we are deceived to think it is an authentic picture from the past. The line between simulation and reality is faded by the convincing pastiche that Diamond makes of a past time. This also alludes to the idea of fragmentation. The portrait fluctuates between underground and mainstream, between outdated and contemporary, between sincere and over-the-top just by selecting and combining the right visual techniques and cultural metaphors. This, eventually, leads us to what Jameson calls flattening. It does not matter who the depicted is. To us, she looks like a vapid pop star from the past, and therefore, without any further research, she might as well be one. Despite Klein’s true multilayered background and contemporary identity, she becomes a Melancholy Object.

What is the impact of postmodernism on the definition of the Melancholy Object? First and foremost, it is a case of deceiving the viewer. All the features of postmodernism and Diamond’s work link to Sontag’s warnings about detachment and disregarding the negative narratives of a photograph. Whilst the original Melancholy Object has an “authentic” growth of distance between the viewer and the photograph, the postmodern Melancholy Object has a fabricated, quasi “prêt-à-porter” distance that enhances the photograph’s “consumerist quality,” as Sontag describes (53). This runs parallel to the heavy commodification of nostalgia that the postmodern age promotes, together with its flattening, superficiality, and pastiche practices. It does not matter any more what the real story, objective details, or pedigree behind the picture are, as long as it immediately functions as a visual trigger for the feelings and emotions that we want it to trigger. It becomes a Melancholy Object on steroids, ready to deliver a quick fix of nostalgia.

Secondly, there might be a more meta aspect at play. To create these postmodern Melancholy Objects, artists fall back on the original Melancholy Objects. When Diamond makes her mood boards and scrapbooks, she selects images from the past decade that spark her interest. She picks the most kitsch and unique pieces as inspiration, like TLC’s weird “Waterfalls” music video or Blu Cantrell’s insanely retouched video for “Breathe,” but also Dior’s baby pink clothes and logo-filled accessories (Cragg; Schültz). It is also the decade of which she has childlike memories. The inspiration for Diamond’s artworks is clearly her own Melancholy Objects. Just as Sontag refers to the photographer as a ragpicker of unconventional themes to photograph (61-62), the postmodernist image-maker is a ragpicker of unconventional photographs that they can rework as pastiches in their own images. In On Photography, the author almost seems to warn us about postmodernism without using the term. Sontag suggests that a collection of these Melancholy Objects will create an alternative reality or vision of the past, one where uniqueness and oddities shine through the most. The postmodernist image-maker takes this option and starts to create a subjective alternative past, by creating a postmodernist Melancholy Object.

The (Post-Modern) Melancholy Object in Our Post-Post-Modern Age

It may also be paradoxical, or coincidental, that Diamond refers to an era in which the postmodernist turn was actually losing its momentum in the academic world. Around the late nineties and early noughties, an age when global, consumerist optimism got replaced with global crisis in the form of 9/11, the unstable Middle East, and a global banking crash, scholars started to grow (even more) critical of postmodernism’s nonchalance and mocking attitude. Instead, they began to propose or observe new critical theories that focused on realism and truth (Gibbons). Around this time, Sontag distanced herself and her works from postmodernism in an interview for Postmodern Culture. She denounced the theory as too fluid and criticized the work of Jameson as too theoretical and too cursory in making art forms and popular culture equivalent (Chan). She said:

And what are intellectuals doing with postmodernism? How people move these terms around instead of looking at the concrete reality! I’m for complexity and the respect for reality. I don’t want to think anything theoretically in that sense. My interest is to understand the genealogy of ideas. If I’m against interpretation, I’m not against interpretation as such, because all thinking is interpretation. I’m actually against reductive interpretation, and I’m against facile transposition and the making of cheap equivalences. ()

It should come to no surprise that someone who holds seriousness in such high regards and criticizes detachment would be dismissive of postmodernism. The author’s criticism is much in line with most post-postmodernist ideas, although Sontag has not called herself a post-post-modernist. For this part, I selected three much-used post-postmodernist theories that are quite influential and can be linked to Sontag’s reading of Melancholy Objects and her criticism of postmodernism.

One of these models is critical realism. A complex and multifaceted theory, critical realism mostly goes against post-modernism’s fetishized attention towards flattening and subjectivity. Rather than being an explanatory framework, it wants to be meta-theoretical, revitalizing the need for a (semi-)objective view in sciences with the realisation that they are incomplete. At the heart of it there is an ontological reflex: the idea that a lot of what happens in nature and society is unknown, independent, or invisible to us (Archer et al.). Instead of using the declaration that there is no truth possible, critical realists try to investigate and create results and frameworks with an eye on epistemic relativism, judgmental rationality, and a cautious ethnical naturalism (Archer et al.). This means, in short, that critical realists understand that there are still crucial factors that did not make it into their data, methodology, or results, and therefore their results will change over time, when more research from other points of view are conducted.

A second model is pseudo-modernism, a term coined by Alan Kirby in 2006. The British critic begins his essay, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” by denouncing critical realism’s relevance outside the world of academics (Archer et al.). Kirby observes mass media and popular culture and notes that we do not want to be just consumers anymore, but inventors. He refers to reality shows such as Big Brother, in which the viewer has an actual impact on the television show by voting who leaves the show, to videogames where one can build one’s own unique cyberworld and to self-made music playlists that replace music albums (Archer et al.). Next to interactivity, pseudo-modernism is typed by a feeling of “now.” These urges for immediate interactivity in fictional settings make us lose all sense of historical connections and these quick decision-making actions will never be recorded (Archer et al.). Kirby concludes that contemporary society, post-9/11, is everything except critical for the real world and its systems, but is rather absorbed in spectacular, fictional micro worlds where modern day crisis is absent. Kirby states:

This technologised cluelessness is utterly contemporary: the pseudo-modernist communicates constantly with the other side of the planet, yet needs to be told [by cooking and lifestyle television shows] to eat vegetables to be healthy, a fact self-evident in the Bronze Age. He or she can direct the course of national television programmes, but does not know how to make him or herself something to eat – a characteristic fusion of the childish and the advanced, the powerful and the helpless. (Archer et al.)

These post-post-modernist characteristics also link very closely to Sontag’s aforementioned quote about finding “the genealogy of the truth,” “complexity and the respect for ,” and making serious, funded interpretations. Sontag’s scepticism of photography and the Melancholy Object also leans towards these post-postmodernist approaches. Just as critical realists interpret their data, Sontag acknowledges that a photograph is never an objective, all-telling source of the past, but rather a snapshot that detaches something from a greater and complex narrative (64). Just like data and academic results only make sense in a certain context and are malleable to different interpretations, so is the Melancholy Object. Sontag also remains aware of the ragpicker attitude of the photographer (that the postmodernist also has) and is critical to the dangers of losing a greater, more objective, narrative in favour of a personal history detached from it (like Kirby’s criticism of the contemporary helpless pseudo-modernist society). Sontag can therefore be revised as a post-postmodernist voice to question the subjective and populist elements of photographs.

The third post-postmodernist theory is not one clear model, but is inspired by Brendan Canavan’s and Claire McClamley’s aforementioned essay on pop music. As the two scholars describe postmodernism as a movement of deconstruction, post-postmodernism is based on reconstruction. They highlight rewriting, re-differentiation, and reengagement as core practices, amongst other practices. Rewriting means recreating pre-modern and modern meta-narratives with postmodern influences (Canavan and McCamley, based on Ateljevi and Braidotti). This means respectfully rediscovering past motifs with only a little flattening. Re-differentiation is the return to local identification and community dimension amidst a globalized world centered on de-differentiation (Canavan and McCamley; Cova and Cova). Reengagement, which could be tied to re-differentiation, is a sincere appreciation of different and blended backgrounds and identities and promotes a reinstitution of the self, society, and reconstructive spirits (Canavan and McCamley, based on Adams, Ateljevic, and Cova et al.).

In the same vein as these concepts of reconstruction and the critical realists that keep an open mind on wide variety of actors in a context, Sontag also notes, in the aforementioned interview, that the aggressive gap between high and low culture that obsesses postmodernism is unnecessary, whilst popular culture should not be dismissed. Susan Sontag claims:

I’ve also enjoyed a lot of popular music […]. It seemed we were trying to understand why that was perfectly possible and why that wasn’t paradoxical… and what diversity or plurality of standards might be. […] I was very struck by how rich and diverse one’s experiences are. Consequently, […] a lot of cultural commentators were lying about the diversity of their experiences. […] It wasn’t a question of bridging the gap. It’s simply that I saw a lot of simultaneity in my experiences of pleasure, and felt that most discourse about culture was either philistine or shallowly snobbish. ()

In recent years, low culture has been taken more seriously as social and cultural signifiers, just like high culture. Feminist and pop-culture researcher Andi Zeisler notes in 2008 that academics now study popular culture on such an elaborate scale under the moniker of “Cultural Studies” that it is as important as high culture. Rather than clashing the two cultural forms to provoke or flatten them, a post-postmodernist critic tends to compare and analyze them on a more rational and serious level. Post-post-modernists do not denounce popular culture. It is an integral part of our life and the complex and layered greater narratives of (creating) our identity.

How is the postmodern Melancholy Object read through the glasses of post-postmodernism? Diamond’s picture shows kitsch, an enhanced, sensational micro-world based on mass media and the photographer’s outspoken subjective view of the past combined with a disregard of the portrayed person’s background. The only relation Diamond seems to have with post-postmodernism, based on this photograph, is that her work radiates what these scholars refute. But does that make Diamond’s art outdated? No.

Several post-post-modernists admit that postmodernism still has an influence on consumerist culture. Brendan Canavan and Claire McCamley (6) state that postmodernism has lost its overruling touch, but still mingles with post-postmodernism in a successful formula to stay relevant in the pop-music landscape. Kirby declares that postmodernism, in the noughties, “has sunk to a source of marginal gags in pop culture aimed at the under-eights” (). Ironically, Kirby starts his 2006 essay by stating that postmodern literature is “all about as contemporary as The Smiths, as hip as shoulder pads, as happening as Betamax video recorders” (Kirby). These cultural signifiers have actually been gaining momentum in our pop culture since 2010 (Kirby). The postmodern idea of nostalgia and the flattening of past pop-imagery are almost crucial ingredients in the current mass consumerist landscape.

The artistry of Hannah Diamond is a perfect example of this intertwinement. When asked about the level of satire of the PC Music collective, label founder and close collaborator of Diamond, A.G. Cook, states that: “I never set it up in that way. Everything can get interpreted as satire, in that very cynical way. […] We take it seriously. This is a big part of our lives. There’s no way that satire could be at the core of anything” (Voznick-). This statement suggests rewriting aspects of post-post-modernity, as artists actually respect what they refer to and make, and want to be taken seriously. Calling Diamond’s photographical practises solely postmodern and superficial might be short-sighted and denounce the artist’s own statements. Diamond proclaims that her art (music and images) does have a level of sincerity, as she genuinely loves the era she refers to. It is not meant to be a mocking of the late nineties/early noughties or pop music (Cragg), and nostalgia and pastiche are massive creative catalysts for her creative process.

Diamond draws inspiration from the world of the global Internet celebrities. She wonders where the crossing-point occurs where a niche artist blows up into a global pop star (Schültz). In post-postmodernism, this transition would happen with an eye on re-differentiation and reengagement. Contemporary pop stars are more aware of their local traditions or identity and are starting to incorporate them in their global practices.[2] Yet the reconstructive aspects of Diamond’s other works are nowhere to be found in the picture of Klein. The depicted person’s own identity is almost completely unknown and buried under the noughties’ images and references. Nothing in the picture could spoil the music or personality Klein typifies, despite it being a promo image for Klein’s experimental music.

The post-post-modernism rewriting has no place in this deconstructive image by Diamond. It is also important to note that flattening, nostalgia, and postmodernism are still huge aspects of Diamond’s popularity and attraction. It is something that the media likes to discuss: in almost every interview she gets asked about what she likes about the noughties era and what inspires her. And more importantly, the picture as a postmodern Melancholy Object is what draws me, and many other Diamond fans, to it in the first place. Because we see these pictures flying around on the Internet without little-to-no background knowledge of the depicted, it is attractive to denounce Sontag or post-postmodernist warnings and to start to project one’s own nostalgia onto the picture and fantasize a superficial narrative around it. Perhaps post-postmodernists want to rationally revisit and revise the border between high- and lowbrow, that postmodernism so violently messed up, by marginalizing postmodernism, but this does not mean that all postmodernism has run its course. The postmodern Melancholy Object has not yet become a Melancholy Object itself due to its freshness and interest for pop culture standards.

Recapitulation and Conclusion

Did Susan Sontag’s concept of the Melancholy Object stand the test of time? The answer is yes. The idea has proven to be malleable, yet founded, to apply to different western cultural theories. The critical note that Sontag applies is quintessential to unmasking the power a photograph has to deceive us and trigger our emotions. This is now, in our age of blinding nostalgia and fake news, even more important to wield than ever. Although a critical framework to judge images has gained in popularity in our current post-postmodernist academic field, postmodernism has not left our cultural field. Enter: the case study of this essay.

The nostalgia I feel from observing the portrait of Klein linked to the characteristics of a Melancholy Object on a superficial reading. Going beneath the surface, however, the picture is nothing more than a postmodern trick. This is a trick of feel-good, prêt-a-porter nostalgia, an appropriation of Melancholy Objects that Sontag so passionately warned about: a postmodern Melancholy Object. These postmodern Melancholy Objects are still well liked in our popular culture due to a nostalgic fondness of (what seems to be) a careless era and the postmodern techniques used then. The postmodern Melancholy Object may not be appreciated by contemporary post-postmodernist thinkers, but it will still be enjoyed by a broader public and can be used as a tool to typify our contemporary popular culture.

[1] This is logical, since the first consumer digital cameras were released around 1990, while Sontag wrote about Melancholy Objects in the seventies.

[2] A clear example is Catalan pop star Rosalía, who has recently risen to fame with contemporary pop songs sung in Spanish and Catalan, mixed with their and global cultural signifiers.


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