POSTMODERINTY & THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS

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“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we know, everything we are. Modern environment and experiences cut across boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction”.

This is what Berman says about modernity in his work All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. We know apparently live in an era celled “Postmodernity”. Does it mean that what Berman says about Modernity is not valid, ‘modern’ anymore? Have things got better or worse for humanity? Or is it rather continuity between the two epochs? To understand this, we need to try to define (for how it is possible) Postmodernity, and see its implications in the various ‘media’ outputs. 1) As a ‘starting date’ for this new social, political and cultural change, Harvey suggests 1972, as a major turning point in which we changed the way we perceive space and time. But what were the characteristics and causes of this ‘new perception’?

Digital technologies Development, growth and great impact of computer based technologies; ability to transform and reassemble information and data; ‘leaving behind’ of mechanical reproduction (copy) in favour of cybernetic simulation (e.g. Disney Land, factory of dream-reality…).
Satellite Communication Systems Linked to the above, this new communication era helped noticeably the process (started with the Industrial Revolution and the technological developments of the time- I believe we should therefore talk about an acceleration of it instead of invention) of GLOBALIZATION.

A critical point: we hear it everyday in the news, a sort of ‘worshipping’ of globalization. But still, are they not still talking about a very small portion of the world’s population? Interesting what some Marxists say about this: globalization is actually something like a form of post-modern, conservative capitalism.
‘Soft Industries’ Move away from ‘hard’ manufacturing to so-called ‘soft’ industries based around information technology of service industries. Decline of the Fordist (Ford production line of cars) modern systems; emergence of post-industrial society (as some sociologists have called it) characterized by greater technological literacy. Gendered move- more ‘feminine’ work culture. On this point, I would like to argue of how stereotypical it is, and the fact that there is still a lot of ‘hard’ manufacturing work going on…

Advertising and the Cult of Image Associated with the idea of a ‘service economy’, growing importance of ‘image’, advertising, PR, now considered key industries in a ‘media saturated age’- Strinati (An Introduction to Theories of Popular Cultures) gives a good insight of the huge impact of advertising to this regard.

Fragmentation of the Masses breaking down of traditional, modern ideas (how funny that we now associate traditional with modern…) about class. Marx’s description of society as divided into two groups anymore (proletariat and bourgeoisie) is not actual anymore. We could now replace class with ‘lifestyle groupings’. Personal and social identity does not come from mass-political beliefs anymore, but is determined by consumeristic choices (I would now want to recall the article on Nike ‘selling the dream’ we read at the beginning of the course- we do not even buy products anymore for their actual quality or for actual needs, but because of the lifestyle they ‘embody’).

Cultural divisions are re-mapped, particularly the elitism of high-culture, which is increasingly blended with popular culture. Also, thanks to technological developments, greater access to ‘high-culture’ to the majority of people (still, in the western world, I should say…), and “theorists began taking seriously phenomena from everyday life which had been neglected previously and which tended to remain segregated from the domain of ‘high culture.”[1]

2) Let us now have a look at some of the main theorists of Postmodernism. Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge, tells of how we have developed new languages based on computer technology. Computer-based knowledge becomes a key commodity within post-modern economy and culture. We witness here a crisis of enlightenment/ humanist concepts of knowledge, which becomes now only instrumental, no more intended to ‘better’ society, and thus a crisis of meta-narratives (e.g. Marx- ‘the meta-narrative of emancipation’, Freud, etc.), also because of the outcome of most of them (e.g. concentration camps…). This can be summarized in defining post-modernism as an era in which ‘macro’ political projects which claim to represent a universal human subject, prescribe universal goals and believe in progress through a linear conception of history, fall apart. Everything becomes more controversial, stressing diversity, individuality, and the right to speak for oneself.

Foucault, in his critique to Marxism (that we start to notice, is always taken as a starting point for the post-modern critique), proposes a conception of power that rejects the ‘macro’ base/superstructure model and takes up the one of power localised in small, institutional settings, ultimately, the body, which is seen as the focus where we are ‘policized’ and controlled.

Baudrillard His work contains many postmodernist themes “such as the consumer society and its proliferation of signs, the media and its messages, environmental design and cybernetic steering systems, and contemporary art and sign culture.”[2] Thus Baudrillard stresses the role of consumerism and the increasing levels of consumption to define the post-modern era: ‘I shop therefore I am’. As we mentioned before when discussing the desire for brands and the lifestyle we hope to buy with them, post-modernism seems to be characterized by the collapse of use-value and triumph of the semiotic value: what we desire is not actually the object but its social meaning. This id due (and contributes to…) a sense of loss of reality and a bombardment of endless communication.

The lines between truth and lies, reality and fakes, originals and copies have been undermined by computer/technological simulation. An example of this could be the way the media dealt with and represented the Gulf War. What we saw on our screen looked more like a video-game simulation of a war, than a war itself. Some days later (and in many cases, I believe, never…) we would find out that some of the things reported did not actually happen, or if they did, they did not the way they were shown to us. This statement gives me the chance to introduce the concept of ‘hyper-reality’: “One can refer to it as either postmodernism or neo-modernism, but what is characteristic of this order is that the elements of modernism are hyper-realized. They are reduced to their pure formal state and are denuded of any last vestiges of life or meaning.”[3]

I find this concept very interesting, and the reality it portrays quite sad at the same time; to use Eco’s words, we build ‘Fortresses of Solitude’ “protected against deterioration. […] To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake’. Absolute unreality is offered as real presence.”[4] A critical point on this: is not eclecticism an ‘exaggerated’, if we want, evolution of what in modernity we called montage? Postmodernity rethinks “relationships between language and other systems of representation like painting or cinema, as well as those between representation, language, power and social reality.”[5] 3) Let us now look at some of the different expressions of post-modernism in different fields of culture.

Architecture. In modernity, the expression of ‘the new’ was put forward by the Bauhaus with Gropius, Le Corbusier and der Rohe. When did all this become ‘old’? “ ‘Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm.’ This turns out to be the date on which the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme was dynamited, after the building had swallowed up millions of dollars in attempted renovation of the energetic vandalism it had suffered at the hands of unimpressed inhabitants. For Jencks, this moment crystallizes the beginnings of a plural set of resistances to the hegemony of modernism.”[6] What came next? An architecture which refuses the principle of univalence in favour of multivalence, that takes into account the environment, the whole contemporary technological developments. A fast-moving architecture where “a private home seventy years old is already archaeology; and this tells us a lot about the ravenous consumption of the present and about the constant ‘past-izing’ process carried out by American civilizationis its alternate process of futuristic planning and nostalgic remorse.”[7]

Post-modern buildings are a great celebration of the power of some classes/people. Following Harvey, “Monuments like the Chicago Tribune building […] and the Rockfeller Centre (with its extraordinary enshrining of the credo of John D. Rockfeller) are part of a continuous history of celebrating supposedly sacrosanct class power that brings us in more recent times to the Trump Tower or the postmodernist monumentalism of Philip Johnson’s AT & T building.”[8] Connor here moves a critique: “Paradoxically, the sign of the success of the anti-universalist language and style of architectural post-modernism is that one can find it everywhere, from London to New York, Tokyo and Delhi.”[9]

Art. Whereas modern art was still characterized by some ideological program (let us think of Futurism, as an example), postmodern art tends to concentrate on the ‘definition’ art and an artistic object, rather than the object itself. We find in postmodern art an acknowledgement of its artificiality and a tendency to simulation (concept made clear by Eco when he talks about Wax Museums and Disneyland…). On Pop Art, for example, Kellner (talking about Baudrillard) says that it is a turning point, “at which art becomes quite simply the reproduction of signs of the world, and in particular the signs of the consumer society which itself is primarily a system of signs. Triumph of the sign over its referent, the end of representational art, the beginning of a new form of art which he [Baudrillard] will privilege with his term ‘simulation’: art as the simulation of models.[10] Postmodern art is sometimes provocative for-the-sake-of-it, given its quality by the signature of the author, based on his/her fame thanks to constant tabloid scandal, celebrating that cult of the image we talked about earlier. This is all quite clear in reference to Young British Artists (if postmodern is not already too obsolete for them…).
Importance of the ‘collage’.

Philosophy. In philosophy we have post-structuralism, that carries structuralism to the extreme, affirming that we can understand a text by removing all the extra-textual elements from it, as an independent work, independent even from its author, therefore giving great authority to the reader in the production of meaning (and we can here see a link with the media theories on active audiences).

Literature. Post-structuralism. More attention is given to popular (mass) culture, imagination, experience rather than form; voice is given to ‘minorities’ (gays, black, women- funnily enough, in that they represents half of the world population- etc.). Literature is thus projected to explore unknown fields (e.g. science fiction).
To cite only but a few of Hassan’s oppositions between modernism and postmodernism, we have: Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Purpose/ Play Hierarchy/ Anarchy Genre, Boundary/ Text, Intertext Metaphor/ Metonymy Narrative (Grand Histoire)/ Antinarrative (Petite Histoire) Signified/ Signifier.

Theatre. In theatre performances we see the implications of postmodernity too. Some new theatre companies are promoted as ‘theatre of images’, dialogues lose their importance “in favour of aural, visual and verbal imagery that calls for alternative modes of perception on the part of the audience.”[11] Theatre productions tend to experiment to the extreme, always on the look for the most up-to-date methods, minimalist and eccentric, trying to recuperate and actualise texts in the purpose of ‘communicating’ with the public in a more personal way. If we think of Copenhagen, by M. Frayn, we notice how the text is not itself 100% clear, and needs interpretation. The actors (3 only) create and re-create their own space and time, communicating to the audience, making them ‘part of it’.

Music. Becomes more and more digitally manipulated, futuristic… The production of classical music nearly stops, since it is nor part of ‘mass culture’. Pushed to the edge, desacralized, informal, repetitive, strongly linked to massive public performance (the charm of the ‘live’), many times functioning as an ‘escape’ from reality, and the production of music-videos, without which pop-music, mainly associated to the fame of the artist, would not have the ‘cult’ status it has. Great business (let us think of the capitalistic-consumeristic MTV, simulation and recycling of old, retro’ styles) nowadays, in all its diversification (pop, rock, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ base, new age, house, techno (most of the time connected to drugs use), etc.
TV and Video. Again, diversification, escapism. Massive postmodern TV phenomena are soap-operas, all sort of ‘entertaining’ TV shows, marketed to different audiences. All this favoured by the fact that, at least in the ‘West’, most households own a TV set. Everything is possible on TV, home of digital simulations and fiction.

Film. Terminator, Blade Runner, Star Wars are examples of films where the focus is upon “the dissolution of the boundaries between humans and machines, and the reforming of the body, either in bio-digital simulation, or in sometimes monstrous bio-mechanical amalgams,”[12] all characterized by “different forms of pastiche or stylistic multiplicity.”[13] Full of special effects (again, the importance of the digital media) without which they would probably not be as convincing and ‘realistic’ as they are said to be. Cinema portrays a dream-reality, which serves sometime an escape from the ‘real’ one. If a film deals with an old play, it is usually a contemporary adaptation of it (like Romeo and Juliet…).

I have briefly delineated some of the characteristics of postmodernity. As a final word, I want to stress the difficulty in defining it, as with any epoch in human history, without falling into some sort of academic ‘fried air’ for ‘intellectuals’… something that some theorists, I believe, fall into. It is a fact that we can outline some main differences between modernity and postmodernity, and I have tried to consider some of the good aspects of the latter (as the studies on ‘minorities’ or marginalized groups) as much as the bad ones (like the “mindless hedonism of capital consumerism”[14] it might represent). Having said that, I perceive postmodernity as more of a continuation, and in some cases, exaggeration of Modernity. Sure it is that our attitudes may be powerfully influenced by the expanding of the media and technological ‘progress’, making us feel needs that we do not actually have, in “what appears to be the most startling fact about postmodernism: its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire’s conception of modernity.”[15]

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Kellner, D. (1989) J. Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism. Polity Press;
Connor, S. (1997) Postmodernist Culture.Oxford, Blackwell;
Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyper-reality. London, Picador;
Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford, Blackwell.

[1] Kellner, D. (1989) J. Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism. Polity Press, p.4
[2] Ibid., p. 95 [3] Ibid., p. 112
[4] Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyper-reality. London, Picador
[5] Kellner, D. (1989) J. Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism, p.4
[6] Connor, S. (1997) Postmodernist Culture, p.78
[7] Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyper-reality. London, Picador, p. 9
[8] Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford, Blackwell, p.71
[9] Connor, S. (1997) Postmodernist Culture, p.87
[10] Kellner, D. (1989) J. Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism, p. 109
[11] Connor, S. Postmodernist Culture, p. 145
[12] Ibid., p.136
[13] Ibid., p. 199
[14] Harvey, D. The Condition Of Postmodernity, p. 60
[15] Ibid., p.44

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