Mar 26, 2010

The emergence, characteristics and influences of Postmodernism

Jing Ke
Nov. 2007
Course Title: Media and Culture Analysis

The emergence, characteristics and influences of Postmodernism
- A brief review of the semester

The emergence of Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a set of ideas appears in a wide variety of disciplines including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology, it emerges since the 1950s and popularized in the 1970s and 1980s. There are two main historical events catalyzed the emergence of postmodernism:

1. World War II (1939-1945)
This worldwide military conflict resulted in the deaths of over 70 million people and made numerous cities destroyed and people homeless, it is the deadliest conflict in human history and a calamity in human civilization. After WW2, the dream of a peaceful and harmonious society had collapsed in the capitalist world and the reliability of human rational thought and self control are under suspicion, people began to reflect the society and human nature and are also less confident in their own judgment, these had caused a sense of loss, insecurity and anxiety. In one word, the traditional values and beliefs are re-examined.
On the other hand, WW2 also greatly stimulates the development of technology.

2. The revolution in science and technology since the 1950s
Science and technology in human society have developed rapidly since 1950s, for instance[1]:
1951-The first commercial computer was invented
1952-First animal cloning
1962-Launched the first satellite to carry TV broadcasts
1969-The original Internet was born in America
Every new invention and development has triggered off profound transformation in people’s life styles and ideas, especially in developed countries. Technology has greatly enhanced human power, making people stronger and smarter. At the same time, under the impact of technology, especially the Internet and mass media, people are separated from the reality and are living a digital, virtual life. The identity is diversified and the clear sense of “self” is disrupted.

From Modernism to Postmodernism: The relationship
There are mainly two viewpoints on the relationship between modernism and postmodernism:
1. Postmodernism is a reaction to or even rejection of modernism.
2. Postmodernism is the development and new generation of modernism and they are two aspects of the same thing.

According to Frederic Jameson, modernism and postmodernism are cultural formations which accompany particular stages of capitalism; he outlines three primary phases of capitalism which dictate particular cultural practices:

However, Jameson’s outline is not a precise portrayal, as we know there is not definite division of time between modernism and postmodernism, and to judge objectively, postmodernism is either emerging from, in reaction to, or superseding, modernism.
Compare modernism with postmodernism:

Since postmodernism is emerging from modernism, they’re similar in some basic propositions, e.g. they are both in opposition to fully developed modernity and disgusted with the banality and “dehumanized” quality of life in industrial capitalism. However, to concentrate on their differences can help us understand postmodernism more profoundly.
Modernism is about the pursuit of order, unity and coherence and constantly fights against “disorder” which might disrupt order. Modernists believe in a binary opposition between “order” and “disorder” and then create a grand-narrative to protect the “order”; they also believe the knowledge produced by science is always the truth. However, postmodernism acknowledge disorder and allow it coexist with order, it advocates pluralism rather than dualism, thus postmodernism is the critique of grand narratives and favors mini-narrative.
Further more, although they both tend to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history, modernism presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be mourned as a loss. They uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which have been lost in modern life. But postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't mourn the idea of fragmentation or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. Like one postmodernist said, “The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.”[2]

Postmodernism: the characteristics
1. Death of metanarrative (central to the concept of postmodernism)
Before Lyotard, one fundamental premise of modernism is that the knowledge produced by science is “truth”, and is eternal, it will always lead toward progress and perfection, which means all human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science and then improved. However, Lyotard separates knowledge from scientific truth and argues that science can’t explain everything in the world and science is as same as other narratives.
Let’s go back to the “order” pursued by modernism, for Lyotard, “order” is maintained in modern societies through the means of “grand narrative” or “master narrative”, which is a story a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. According to Lyotard, every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, for instance, Marxism, the “grand narrative” for Marxism is the idea that capitalism will collapse and a utopian socialist world will evolve. Metanarrative is a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist. Lyotard argues that modern societies are depending on these grand narratives.
Postmodernism is the critique of grand narrative. Lyotard tells people since a message can be reproduced by mass media for any purpose to anyone in a society, there is no real value or meaning in the metanarrative in postmodern society and it’s not trustworthy, so he shows incredulity towards metanarratives and claims the death of it.

2. Death of history
According to Jameson, postmodern world is a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, and what is left is the imitation of dead style which he called a “pastiche” (an empty copy). He asserts that in postmodern society, history has stopped because we can’t relate authentically to our past, we don’t remember the real thing any more and what we have is a representation of it. In his point of view, people see things in postmodern world from the empty image which represents no “reality”. In such society, sensations or passions are dissociated, individual and social life passes into linguistic fragmentation.
For Jameson, society lives itself through an understanding and organization of narratives by which it orders itself (Which is something similar to Lyotard’s metanarratives). In postmodern society metanarratives break down and as a result, postmodern culture becomes pastiche.
The representation of past ideals and objectives lead to what Jameson calls contemporary nostalgia culture. It is the collective desire for the images of a past one cannot regain in postmodern culture. In his book Postmodernism, he wrote, “The nostalgia form of postmodern culture approaches the ‘past’ through stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image, and ‘1930s-ness’ or ‘1950s-ness’ by the attributes of fashion.” Nostalgia recalls traditional memories of the past by expressing them through the postmodern images. For instance, Superman Returns can be read as a nostalgia film for it uses the postmodern aesthetics to produce a nostalgic effect. Superman is one of the most famous and popular comic book in the US in the 1930s and the film brings back memories of the 1930s comic reading as well as the image of a superhero who can save the world and fight against injustice – which gives audiences a utopian circumstance in the dystopian realities.

3. Disappearance of depth and aura
In the beginning of the semester we learned how a meaning is produced by the combination of signifier and signified:
Sign = Signifier + Signified
Modern societies depend on the idea that signifiers always point to signified, and that reality resides in signified. In postmodernism, however, there are only signifiers. The idea of any stable or permanent reality disappears; together with the idea of signified that signifiers point to. Rather, for postmodern societies, there are only surfaces, without depth; only signifiers, with no signified.
According to Baudrillard, in postmodern society there are no originals, only copies, or what he calls “simulacra”. For example, like a painting by Van Gogh, besides the original work there are also millions of copies of it, but the original work is the one with the highest value, with something called “aura”. Contrast that with CDs or music recordings, there is no “original”, they are only copies, millions of copies, all the same, all sold for the same amount of money. The process of industrial reproduction caused the extinction of aura.
Baudrillard’s “simulacrum” can be interpreted as virtual reality, a reality created by simulation, for which there is no original. In one word, the original depth and aura is disappeared in postmodern society.

1. Problems in identity under the impact of globalization
Globalization is one of the most influential trend in the postmodern time, it is the worldwide integration of economic, cultural, political, religious, and social systems; it brings in a growth of cross-cultural contacts and the homogenization of culture which caused the confusion in identity and cultural diversity.
In the beginning of the semester we learned that people define their identities through the ideologies conveyed by the media. In the era of globalization, the traditional distinctions between races and ethnicity are breaking down and many people have a multi-culture background. Take the immigration for instance, which means leaving one's home to become a member of another community. The differences in race, culture, language, religion etc. build up an inevitable boundary and many immigrants have an experience of marginalization.
Conflicts also exist inside the immigration’s own communities, as in the film East is East, from the son’s rebellious actions towards the father we can see the differences in self-definition and identity between the first and second migrant generations are emerging.
On the other hand, since the global impacts permeate in every aspect in the society, there is a growing series of cosmopolitan values and phenomena of cultural uniformity. As a result, people are creating their distinction and uniqueness in the overall uniformity in order to fix their own identities. Like the individual dresses, hairstyle, the way they speak and things they do – the personality is worshiped and developed but what is left behind is the traditional value and ideologies. This is the inevitable trend in this postmodern time and it is hard to simply define it positive or negative.

2. Panopticism and ISAs (Ideological State Apparatus) - Foucault’s theory of Surveillance
Panopticon is a type of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, to allow an observer to observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not. The Panopticism theory was invoked by Michel Foucault as metaphor for modern disciplinary societies. Foucault suggests that in contemporary society we behave as if we are under a scrutinizing gaze and therefore internalize the rules and norms of society.

Docile bodies
Foucault's argues that discipline creates “docile bodies”, ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age - bodies which function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms.

It refers to the practice of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations”.

ISAs (Ideological state apparatuses)
It is a term used by Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser for how society reshapes the individual in its own image.
Within capitalist society, the human individual is generally regarded as a subject endowed with the property of being a self-conscious agent. For Althusser, however, a person’s capacity for perceiving herself in this way is not innate. Rather, it is acquired within the structure of established social practices, which impose on individuals the role of a subject. Social practices both determine the characteristics of the individual and give her an idea of the range of properties they can have, and of the limits of each social practice.

3. Technology, humanity and citizenship - Foucault’s power-knowledge relationship
According to Foucault, knowledge is an important power and power is changing constantly in postmodern society. Modern societies are structured on a basic relationship of power/knowledge. Modern societies produce citizens who self-regulate their social behavior, creating more invisible political states.
Power systems develop the criteria for knowledge in a given society validated through social institutions such as the press, medicine, education. Expertise (journalist, doctor, and teacher) is a fundamental aspect of power relations.
This power produces a certain knowledge that produces certain kinds of citizens and subject.

A Cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a working human-machine combination, blurring many edges, allowing for a world that is free of gender demands and categories. Cyborg represents the breakdown of the human-machine boundary.
Cyborg-citizen live in a completely networked world, all information is easy to get. But on the other side, technology also deconstructed and alienated humanity at the same time constructing cyborg citizen, and privacy seems to be nowhere found due to pervasive surveillance.

4. Gender studies: Masculinity, Sexuality
Since the 1950s, the male film actors were mainly body-builders.
-Tarzan films (1910-1940s)
-Italian films (aka peplum) (1950s-1960s)
-Muscle stars such as Schwarzenegger, Stallone (1970s)
But nowadays, we can see a stronger female role in many movies. (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
Foucault believes that power plays a productive role: We live in a society that represses sexuality through its emphasis on heterosexual monogamy, which opposes premarital sex, homosexuality, multiple partners, GLBT, etc. However, we need not succumb to power exercised over us. We have a choice to rebel against it. That power is everywhere and belongs to everyone. It is not tied to institutions nor is it a structure.

5. Post-feminism and the Third Wave
Three stages in the history of feminism:

From the Women’s Liberation Movement to the Third Wave, feminism develops synchronously with the change of society and ideology. The Early Feminism focus on gender inequality and the promotion of women’s right, they believe the equality between genders is presented by things like they are doing the same job, or something that can prove women have the same competence as man, both physically and mentally.
However, in the 1980s, after decades of women’s liberation, and the idea of “knowledge is power” spread as the development of technology, some sociologists argue that women no longer lack equality in the social life and the oppression to women already belong to a bygone era. Accordingly, Post-feminism began to backlash against Feminism and assert that early feminism had exaggerated and created the “victim” image for women, they suggest the relationship between genders should be interpreted as “how to obtain harmony between male and female” rather than building up a binary opposition. Also, they call for a return of women to the traditional domestic role.
The Third Wave Feminism begins in the early 1990s, in response to the post-feminism, they challenged the post-feminism’s paradigm as to what is, or not, good for females. As women are becoming better educated and more powerful, the consciousness among women is a strong impetus of the Third Wave. Take Angela McRobbie for instance, she suggests a rethinking of feminism to new generation of women in postmodern world, she also advocates women live with fragmentation and re-invent themselves rather than search for the “real me” according to paradigms. For McRobbie, the disassembled self can be picked up and put together again and the new generation of women has the freedom to be who they are and what they want to be. Like in the film Somersault, Heidi finally find herself and understand what is the “real me” through her fragmented identity. This reflects the real nature of the Third Wave: To be yourself.

In this semester we have a panoramic view on postmodernism. Although there is no general concept or organized principles for it, this extremely complex, contradictory, ambiguous and diversified trend of thought really inspires us to reflect many phenomena around us. It is a way to understand and interpret the contemporary life, to explain social changes, to spur us rethink and rediscover our life as well as ourselves.



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