Teach Yourself Postmodernism

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  • Book:Teach Yourself Postmodernism. By Glenn Ward


Michel Bauwens, 2003:

- Modernity can be seen as characterized by a faith in

   - Progress
   - Optimism
   - Rationality
   - the search for absolute 'objective' knowledge
   - the search for a 'true self'

- By contrast, postmodernity can be seen as characterized by:

   - the erosion of the distinction between low and high culture
   - fascination by the domination of visual media
   - the recognition that we live in a universe of signs
   - definitions of human identity are changing
   - scepticism about grand narratives

- Postmodernism is about:

   - I. Changes in society
   - II. Changes in art and culture.
   - Thus about the world, and our interpretations about it.

- The main themes of postmodern discourse seem to be:

   - the end of history: there is no progress
   - the end of 'man': humankind is a social construction and is now challenged by machines
   - the death of the real, as we live in a universe of signs

- Expressions in literature

   - From Realist fiction and the all-knowing author to modernist literature of a selective, struggling author to:
   - Postmodern literature as meta-fiction, conscious of itself, capable of using irony

- Expressions in art:

   - Uses 'plural coding'; it allows myriad access points, an infinitude of interpretative responses; it is a constant testing and playing with boundaries
   - Modernist art had a spiritual mission, struggling both against tradition and against mass culture: postmodernism has abandoned that struggle

- Planet Baudrillard: The world has emancipated itself, only referring to other signs, and no longer to any underlying reality. We live in a world of images ruled by the principle of simulation, "in a centerless network of communication". It is in fact the simulation which produces the real. This then generates 'panic', and a rush to experience reality, hence a hyper-reality is manufactured, such as extreme sports, reality TV, piercing ... But of course, they are also simulations

Chapter 5: Structuralism and after

- The 3 theses of structuralism:

   - Language constructs reality: reality cannot be separated  from its representation
   - Meanings can only happen in relation to structures: no single thing gives meaning by itself
   - Language demonstrates the structural/relational properties of meaning.

Structuralism does not look at history, but at the present workings of a system; not on the content of what it studies, but on the relationship between its elements; it sees everything as texts.

Just as language, society is also made up of signs, whose structure can be examined (the science of semiology/semiotics)

A language consists of rules of combination, and so are other systems, such as fashion, etc .. These systems of signs precede any individual intention, and this also applies to art and literature (and thus questions the romantic notion of the original author with unique works).

The meaning of a sign is never its own property but is the product of its difference with other signs. Thus the key question of structuralism is: where does meaning come from ?

Post-structuralism continues the quest, but refuses the give any single answer. It is centered around 3 overlapping ideas:

   - I. language cannot point outside itself
   - II. language produces, rather than reflects, meaning
   - III. language does not express individuality

So 'post' means that it goes even further in the radicality of its conclusions:

   - I. it is more anti-foundational (there is no underlying ground, texts are just flat surfaces)
   - II. It is less all-embracing: you cannot step out of reality to have an all-encompassing point of view
   - III. It makes more of difference: a text is no longer complete, it is full of holes; thus differences come to the foreground.

In conclusion: where structuralism looked for order, poststructuralism looks for the chaos behind the illusion of coherence

Derrida and the meaning crisis

Derrida argues that truths and meaning are always framed by socially and historically specific conditions of knowledge. It is these frames, which are contingent, that Derrida wants to deconstruct. Nothing has to be considered 'natural' or obvious. Derrida rejects 'presence', as in assuming that meaning is present in a text. He also rejects depth of meaning, differing from structuralism that was still looking for deep structures.

'Difference' is a word play on both difference (a word has meaning because it differs), and 'deferance' (i.e. no word can be known without knowing other words), so that the final meaning is foever delayed. All thought is based on arbitrary splittings of binary oppositions (f.e. 'science' vs 'magic'), in which one term is always inferior, but these binaries are dependent on each other, f.e. postmodernism 'creates'modernity. Thus, there is always 'differance'.

All texts create coherence by leaving things out, though they are embedded in term, and this is what deconstruction aims to show (i.e. the preservation of any coherence)

Derrida: Centrality is created by marginality

In texts, Derrida looks for present absenses' or 'productive silences'. Structuralism sought the facts behind texts, but poststructuralism sees no facts, only interpretations. Neither speech nor writing both seen as texts, are neutral or transparent. They are opaque, never directly reflecting thoughts. As a result, many cultural products have become self-distancing, clearly aware, and not hiding behind artificiality.

The Self

In premodern societies, identity is social, and not beset by doubt. Modern societies, starting with the Enlightenment, offer a wider range of social roles, even a combination of them (a Catholic, a doctor, father, a Scot). Doubt and worry set in, but it is still assumed that there is an innate self, and your aim is to find it. Identity has become an issue!

In postmodernity, society fragments even further, and it is said that the stable self is either lost, or has never existed. According to some, appearance and style become more important. The 'stylized self' can change identities more flexibly, using 'lifestyle shopping'. Whereas the crisis of modernity is associated with the city (mid-19th cy. UK, when 50% of the population started living in cities); postmodern identities are associated with networks and virtuality.


Cyberspace ...

   - 1) undermines borders
   - 2) encourages multiple/diffuse communication
   - 3) consumers (of messages) become producers
   - 4) no central authority for signs
   - 5) distinction between private/public self becomes eroded
   - 6) authenticity seems irrelevant

The author then takes up the example of Madonna, who can never be pinned down on one identity, instead she takes control of the stock of images, and plays with expectations. For her and others, "identity is a construction". This is an argument against the 'deep down private self that may exist behind the appearance, and of which the pubic self would be an expression. Post-modern views of the self are anti-essentialist: surfaces are all you get.

Amongst constructionists, 2 versions compete:

   - 1) one which stresses the social factors which determine you
   - 2) one which stresses the freedom in constructing the self (the old debate between free will and determinism resurfaces here)

Chapter 7: Subjectivity, Discourse

- "Foucault proposes that humanity is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history: the archeology of our thinking demonstrates clearly that man is a recent invention, perhaps approaching its end."

For Foucault, being a self, a subject, is a social fact, it means being subjected to socially produced constraints, thus, it is related to power. Discourse is a specific form of language and representation, linked to a specific discipline (such as literary criticism), related to particular institutions. Discources create experienced realities, by the very language they use. For example, psychology produces individuals as its object of inquiry, and in doing so, contributes to the impression that individuals need to be inquired into.

Discourses produce divisions and judgments (i.e. sane/insane; proper/improper), which are historically particular, and therefore subject to change. Just so, discourse has invented sex. Every bodily pleasure is now linked to it. Discourse has problematized it. Foucault argues that wherever you find discourse, you also find conflict between those who control it, and those who have been denied the right to representation through it. Suppression creates subversion (this means resistance is always possible). In general, he insists that modern discourses are 'dividing practices', which affect our experience of identity.

For Lacan, the unconscious <is> (structured like) language, and it is therefore cultural, not biological, and thus pretty much like a text to be read. He shows how the self is constructed (from 6months old to 18m) by looking at the mirror, and one's reflection vs others. This illusory self comes from the outside, and is an illusion, thus we cannot make ourselves whole: the psyche <is> conflict!!

Summary of Deleuze-Guattari

This theme was then taken up by Deleuze and Guattari, in the Anti-Oedipus. The self is only a locus for a flux of desires, it has no rationality, unity, or stability. But as capitalism generates multiple commodities which generate multiple desires, far from being a homogenizing factor, it creates multiple possibilities of flight and resistance. Deleuze/Guattari criticized Freud for his reductionism of influences to the triangular relationship within the nuclear family, while there are many others, and of putting the unconscious outside of these as well: "The unconscious has effects on us, but itself remains untouched. They propose that the unconscious is constantly rewritten by society and history. They stress the unconscious lives in the present! Thus, you have to account for all the present influences. In this entire field, there can be no center or margin, but only a free floating network of relationships. "Subjectivity should be seen as extended through or dispersed over many complex circuits of culture and society." Unconscious wishes do not simply belong to you, it is public and partakes of the spread of signs to the most disparate flows. It is all animated by a free-flowing desire, that modern structures try to control. Their own discourse then culminates in an ode to the schizofrenic, who 'un-does' all the codes.

Their theses summarized:

- They see the idea of stable identities as a harmful illusion and celebrate difference, chaos, and the ongoing process of change as the only liberation

- Reject the idea that the psyche is naturally whole, unified, or coherent

- deny the possibility of providing a total or universal theory of the psyche in general

- propose an approach in which 'pure difference' reigns, and cannot be reduced to underlying foundations or essences

- see the self as a flux of desires and intensities which both shoot out in many directions and absorb many influences

- argue that the production and circulation of desire in society is more important to an understanding of identity than needs or instincts

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes attached the romantic notion of a single author translating his unique vision to a work of art

His 3 theses:

- 1. the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the birth of the author: meaning changes over time, and it is the particular reader which ultimately gives it meaning

- 2. the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture: not text exists in a vacuum but always in a condition of intertextuality. Both authors and readers depend on previous texts.

- 3. It is the language which speaks, not the author. The idea which arises in the author's mind is always already in a field of language. Thus, meaning does not travel from the author to the sign; the sign <is> meaning.

So Barthes concludes that:

- the author is not available for study, what we have before us is not an author, but a text

- no author can control the various interpretations that people will give to a work; you can't restrain a text's polysemy

- words generate meanings free of the author's wishes; no author can master language in its entirety

- the idea of a genius is a mystification which distracts from art's social and political meanings


Lyotard, in his "The Postmodern Condition", analyzed the truth claims of science, concluding that it is also a set of language games, constrained by institutional frameworks. They are fragmented narratives which can no longer draw truth from their connection towards a greater meta-narrative. People in general have grown incredulous toward meta-narratives, and in particular, the scientific one.

Postmodern science:

   - 1) is no longer coherent
   - 2) is no longer linked to human progress
   - 3) no longer believes that one day, "a state of total knowledge will be attained"
   - 4) has become a mass of hyperspecialized 'little sciences', which are no longer part of a larger framework in which they can be measured. 

The ideas in Lyotard's report were thought to concern culture at large, and were therefore very influential in the humanities.

More information

Documentation 1: Three works exemplifying structuralist analysis

   - 1. The system of objects. Jean Baudrilard, 1968: furniture and interior decoration as a system of signs
   - 2. Sign and meaning in the cinema. Peter Watson, 1972: John Ford's work as exemplary of a series of binary oppositions referring to each other
   - 3. Decoding advertisements. Judith Williamson, 1978: the product as signifier, the ads as signified, but also the other way around.

Documentation 2: Key poststructuralists works

- 1. Pierre Macherey. Theory of Literary Production, 1966: texts as hiding chaos. 'Marxist' poststructuralism, highlighting how cultural texts are meant to bind us to our conditions.

- 2. Julie Kristeva: a) Revolution in Poetic Language, 1974; 2) Desire in language, 1980: avant-garde works as subversive attempts to free the self from fixed identities. 'Feminist' poststructuralism showing the emancipatory possibilities for marginalized women