Thoughts on Post-Modernism

“Meaning is generated by socially encoded and constructed discursive practices that mediate reality so much that they effectively close off access to it.” – Alun Munslow

The following thoughts are my reflection related to the content described on Postmodernism by Sturken and Cartwright (2009, chapter 8) as well as by Butler (2002, chapter 1 and 2)

Deconstruction and Jacques Derrida:

Derrida is criticising the ‘falseness of logocentric’ beliefs and a direct referentiality of meaning of words with its origin in the structure of reality. He rejected the notion that the truth of that structure presents itself directly to the mind (Butler, p. 17). His argumentation for a relational structure of concepts and cultural constructs is based on a relativist position within conceptual systems. It results in an interdependence of meaning on other meanings within systems of cultural understanding and experiences. And often the opposite seems to be ‘right’. For me quite a binary conception (true – false). Derrida’s deconstruction concept embraces difference. Thus, each conceptional framework is exposed to critique and ultimately ‘prone to a falsifying and distorting’ perspective. This leads to a subversive disbelief of assumptions of hierarchical structure of thinking and a belief that one can change the view on the world by applying a different linguistic logic, like a play with words (ebid, pp. 19-21) Danger is that one can get the impression that not only the view but the world or reality as such can be changed.

At times I get the feeling it is like playing Scrabble. Not with letters to construct words, where the other players are cautious to see that those exist ‘really’ within a dictionary, but with words and linguistic signs to construct meanings or opinions as new representations. What makes me wonder if those meanings are representation of another truth or just spatial representations like in Scrabble as parts of the same.

The rejection of intention and direction was replaced by pure rhetorical play (Butler, p. 24) The literal that can be seen as metaphorical. The deconstruction was an avant-garde perspective placing the insider’s superiority for their ability to ‘decode’ (Butler, p. 25)  ‘Postmodern media texts generally speak to viewers as subjects who are in the know about codes and conventions of representation and simulation.’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 316) I find this notion quite of elitarian character, coherent with the Modernist notion of ‘high art’ versus popular culture, the knowing people versus the ignorant.

The position that one needs to address the audience in different form and traditional models do not work any longer, that one is being situated in popular culture with the insight of how it works, seems to be rather a contradiction. Would this not mean that advertisements do not work any longer? Or did advertisements in postmodern era change its content and the way to sell the goods? Or is only a small group of insiders able to ‘decode’ the signs and semiotic meaning whereas the majority will continue to purchase ‘innocently’ advertised commodities?  A question I could not find an answer yet, besides that new technology platforms (e.g. social media) enabled companies to connect to consumers and sell commodities more aggressively.

For me it seems that the hierarchical structures in language criticized by Derrida and his followers just were replaced by another hegemonic structure.

The postmodern deconstructive concept of ‘seeing’ various positions and also empirical scientific approaches under the umbrella of political bias and ideology is placing themselves in that position. Through the negation of other positions they are raising deconstructive thinking not only as a new ‘logocentric’ and anthropo-centric concept but making it an ideology itself. A paradox seems for me that they apply the scientific method of deduction – from words to metaphor to ideology – a methodical approach for which they criticize others. Basically, their conception is blinding them for a perceptive view on the world.

 

Body and Mind

“Concepts of the body in postmodernism are .. fully integrated with contemporary concepts about the integration of technologies into bodies, creating cyborg bodies that are part machine and part human… Fragmentation, malleability, fluidity, and the possibility of “reprogramming” the body.. become the dominant metaphors for conceiving the body in this context” – Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 326

=> The authors do describe here the rejection of an embodied identity, a total separation of body and mind (quite a Descartian view) and a purely anthropocentric and subjective perspective. The mask, or as C.G. Jung said the ‘persona’, becomes the new real, the simulacra.

Vivian Sobchavk, a film theorist, criticized Baudrillard’s notion of simulation that through ‘technologically augmented and simulated body … he fails to acknowledge the vulnerability of the lived body.’ (ebid, p. 310)

As reflected earlier on ‘OOO and the Speculative Realism’ the virtual world of ideas as a pure restrictive anthropocentic ideology can not sustain the human desire and need for embodied experiences. There is no virtual without a physical. The internet is based in hardware. Even money as the concept of value is not valid as long it is not acting as a mean for exchange of physical things in reality. One might argue that bitcoins and the notion of paying for avatars and glory in online games is a pure virtual and mind based concept. Nevertheless, the affordability is going back to an embodied  experience either through physical labor, digital labor, but always an embodied temporal experience. The ‘world coexists with a world of pollution, poverty, and human relationships’ (ebid, p. 310) Perhaps the purest form of post-modern life would be a Platonic philosopher life as Plato described in Politeia , a guardian life devoid of material appetite and indignation, driven by pure thought, eidos where even a material realization of ideas e.g a table is considered as a remove from true reality.

 

Postmodern conditions

Was Modernism characterized by a self-conscious introspective interrogation of a personal encounter within a changing world, than Postmodernism is characterized by a disorientation of individuals and society and a rejection of universal values and beliefs. In that sense, accelerated by technology, globalization and hegemony of economy, life looses its purpose and meaningfulness. A constant deconstruction and rejection of truth, reality, and representations leaves the individual at the edge of comprehending life. Postmodernism questions constantly the authenticity of life, assumptions and beliefs. With a constant questioning of the baseline of the ‘Ladder of Inference’ one is hardly able to proceed further (Fig. 1, the ‘Ladder’ represents effective learning and communication as a reflective and recursive cycle)

from: Wahl, D. C. (2016) Designing regenerative cultures. Axminster, England: Triarchy Press - This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivs 4.0 International License.

Fig. 1: Wahl, D. C. (2016) Designing regenerative cultures. Axminster, England: Triarchy Press –  licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivs 4.0 International License.

What is left is an approach through ‘irony, appropriation, parody, and pastiche’. Identity is created through ‘cultural remixes’.  (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 314-15) Authenticity is not original, citations and quotations are reflecting a new view on reality. Umberto Eco expressed this view, quite postmodern as for its irony itself, by stating that one can no longer say “I love you” but: “as Barbara Cartland says in one of her romance novels, I love you.” (ebid, p. 321)

The term intertextuality describes the interwoven layers of signs, simulations and realities. Sturken and Cartwright do mention the movie Shrek as it refers to other genre and acts in kind of parody. (ebid, p.320) Another reading of that term is the recursive re-production or re-presentation of earlier ideas. Kind of nesting like meta-pictures or as Umberto Eco expressed in Il Nome Della Rosa

“Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”
– Umberto Eco in ‘The Name of the Rose’

A self-referentiality of texts quite in context of Modernist concepts as expressed by Greenberg. A self-referentiality of a discipline e.g. painting, not referring to external realities but restricted to the immanent features of the discipline alone. What opens the question for me if all is inside that there is something not-representable outside alongside an un-answered question of the beginning.

Another key aspect is the relativist position as subject to historical and social construction of reality, one cannot distinguish any longer between ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ and ‘found’ and evidential’ (Butler, p. 34) The rejection of empirical evidence challenges position of witnesses and photography. So how can a jury build a case and convict murder?

Or otherwise, why are media challenging Trump for his notion that he attracted more people for his inauguration that any president before? Are those challengers not able to ‘decode’ constructed evidences and cannot accept that ‘access to reality is closed off’ as Munslow expressed above? This would proof that postmodern deconstruction is effective. But it leaves a strange taste behind. It seems that a majority defends a reality based in photographic evidence. Very much against postmodern deconstructive conception. With such notion there is no difference between historical narratives as non-fiction and fiction stories. It would be good than to put all books on bestseller lists in one column and not to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. But why is this not happening? Why is it still separate? And why are at school history and language not mixed but considered as separate courses?

Overall, it is said that postmodernist ‘oppositional, negative critique was ..in many ways immensely liberating, certainly for women, for cultural minorities and for much of the artistic avant-garde.’ (Butler, p. 43) I am wondering whether or why not a humanistic and tolerant perspective, the way I was growing up, were or is not able to ‘liberate’ . Hegemonic and power structures that refuse to accept other position and human right values seem not to be a question of gender or race but of ideological, economical or financial intolerance. Something that we can find among any groups of people.

I find Butler is concluding quite pragmatically on postmodern relativism when he states that ‘we should be more sceptically aware, more relativist about, more attentive to, the theoretical assumptions which support the narratives produced by all historians, whether they see themselves as empirists or deconstructors or as postmodernist ‘new historians’. (Butler, p. 35) Overall, this sounds to me as common sense and critical thinking. Wondering whether this is a postmodern ‘invention’. Not to take anything for granted and to be aware of assumptions made.

 

The visualization of postmodern sensibility is realized in a few animated movies (e.g Akira) and science fiction (e.g. Bladerunner) movies. The stories are around a dystopian postmodern life on the base of ‘crumbling ruins of modernity.’ (ebid, p. 319), a worldview predominant in the 1980s.

 

Images:

Reference:

  • Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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