postmodernist theory

postmodernist theory
   ‘Postmodern’ is a contested term for various social and cultural phenomena arising in capitalist societies of the late twentieth century: expansion of multinational companies and decline of nation-states, growth of commodification and consumerism, extension of electronic media and the Internet, weakening of traditional and communal forms of social legitimation and undermining of all claims to universal truth. Where theorists differ is in their naming, analysis and estimation of these phenomena. For some, they are the intensification of processes already begun in the modern period, and are effects of ‘high’ or ‘late’ modernity; for others, they mark a break with what has gone before and are properly named postmodern. More philosophical uses of ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ point to changing sensibilities or ways of understanding the nature of the human person, of knowledge and belief, and of claims to truth and meaning. Many theorists combine a mixture of these concerns and interests, and greet the postmodern with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
   Postmodernism — as the advocacy of the postmodern—trades on its distinction from the modern and its cult, modernism. But the meaning and reference of the latter is as varied and contested as that of the former. For some it is a historical period, while for others it is a mode of thought and sensibility. But since the latter is always named after its typical appearance in the former—as with Descartes’s self-authenticating ‘I’ in the seventeenth century—one can think the modern that period in which a certain mode of self-understanding, scientific practice and social order came into being. It is when these are questioned and lose their credibility that the postmodern arrives; at least, this is the story told by Jean-François Lyotard. Religions once provided societies with master stories or grand narratives, ‘sacred canopies’ (Peter Berger) that offered meaning and security. Modernity replaced God with Man or some other explanatory force: natural (Darwin), social (Marx) or psychological (Freud). Lyotard’s favoured example is the old communist meta-narrative of emancipation and socialist utopia, which was defeated in the Soviet bloc by the telling of many mini-narratives (petit récits). The postmodern condition is then one in which social and personal life is no longer ordered by a metanarrative, but where each individual has to take responsibility for his or her own story.
   This can be read as an intensification of modern autonomy, but it differs from the project of modernity in disavowing any utopic trajectory. There is no hope of a better tomorrow because tomorrow has arrived today. This is caught in the oxymoronic nature of the term ‘postmodern’, which suggests a time or condition after the ‘now’, as if we were living ahead of ourselves. The postmodern is the ‘future now’, and so the end of history. From now on, the future can mean only more of the same. At the same time, this condition is one of intense disorientation and confusion.
   The postmodern would be but a new name for the old avant-garde—for objects and practices that exist ahead of, or before the habits and rules that (will) make them comprehensible—if it were not that it is now held to be ubiquitous. The old avant-garde was an elite, a scandal to the generality, from which nevertheless it took its bearings. But once everything is avant-garde, all of culture is ahead of itself, and thus without orientation and direction. Most theorists of the postmodern are concerned with giving an account of this condition. Fredric Jameson finds an analogue for the postmodern in the ‘hyperspace’ of John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles (the quintessential postmodern city). The hermetic, complex and (initially) unsigned spaces of the hotel simulates those of the larger city, depriving its inhabitants of any sense of location, either in the larger city or in the hotel itself. It thus becomes a symbol of that wider sense of disorientation which is life in the ‘great global multinational and decentred communicational network’ that is late capitalism (Jameson 1991:44).
   Jean Baudrillard is similarly concerned with the unsettling effects (social and moral) of rampant commodification and consumerism, when all objects become signs, and reality gives way to hyperreality, as with the Gulf War (1991), when the military-media staged ‘bloodless’ missile attacks for home consumption on television news programmes. Baudrillard’s account of postmodern culture as a sea of signs without depth, in which we can never touch bottom, is paralleled by deconstructionist theories (associated with Jacques Derrida), which find all cultural life textual. Reality no longer founds meaning (and truth) but is itself an effect of textuality, the economy of signs which produces our sense of the ‘real’.
   Zygmunt Bauman characterizes postmodernity as the radical privatizing of the fear of the Void, once held at bay by the modern metanarrative of scientific rationality and human progress, epitomized by the panoptic prison, where all are seen and all are happy. Postmodernity trades in such security for freedom; but in so doing, the Void returns, and now to each alone. Now each individual has to provide his or her own shelter. This raises the problem of legitimation. We need someone (God) or something (science) to confirm our story, to tell us that we have got it right. In postmodernity this is provided by imaginary communities which, unlike real ones, do not restrict individual freedoms. However, to convince they must be seen, and therefore compete for public attention through spectacular displays, whether acts of terrorism or public grief at the death of glamour icons (Princess Diana). With ethics founded on private whim, Bauman anticipates growing tribalism and intolerance, yet also espies a world re-enchanted. To discern which, we must await what comes after the postmodern.
   Further reading
    Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of Postmodernity, London: Routledge.
    Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.
    Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G.Bennington and B. Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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