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Postmodernism is a cultural phenomena that arose during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In western democratic societies, Post Modernism was influenced by popular culture and new technologies of reproduction that created new sensibilities that formed in response to these cultural shifts.
This article looks into some of the nuances of Postmodernism in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of where we are heading in regards to cultural media ecologies in 2018 and beyond.
Writer David Foster Wallace (DFW) explains the ambivalent nature of Postmodernism in conversation with Charlie Rose. He stated that Postmodernism inspired him as a young writer, however believes that it has now “run its course”, being overrun by consumer entities and corporate culture. Unwillingly musing on the subject Wallace shares;
(Postmodernism) “It’s a very useful catch all term, because we all hear it and nod soberly as if we know what we are talking about, but we don’t.” “It was the first text that was highly self conscious. Self conscious of itself as text. Self conscious of the writer as persona, self conscious about the effects of narrative had on readers and readers probably new that. It was the first generation of writers that read all our criticism…It was a beaker of acid in the face of the culture at the time..The problem though is now that a lot of the shticks of postmodernism; Irony, Cynicism, irreverence, are now apart of whatever it is that’s enervating in the culture itself. Burger king now sells hamburgers with “You gotta break the rules.”” (Foster Wallace, 1997.)
Emerging following the modernist period, Postmodernism is used as means of analysing our world. It rejected the core values of modernism; these values included the principles of;
- There is one true god.
- History is progress
- Peace on earth.
Postmodernism lacks the optimism of the modernist movement, there is no singular truth that can end war and create a new utopia on earth. For this reason, micro truths are contextual and individualised. Reality only comes into existence on what it means to us individually. For that reason Postmodernism is characterised by it’s self referentiality, moral relativism, irony and cynicism. The self referentiality of PM emerges as self conscious meta references, pop culture references, meta humor, cynicism, dramatic irony and irreverence. (Schoder, 2016.)
Meta narratives are the foundation on which all narratives are built upon. Ideologies formed by historic events in which values are developed that govern logic and cultural being. The narrative structure of who , what , when , where, how and why provide the audience with the representation of a situation. Although they do not discuss the metanarrative directly, quite often the metanarrative is the moral meaning that can be derived beneath the dialogue of a narrative. Dominant metanarratives provide a foundation which meaning is given and other stories are told on top of. Post modernism is a playful engagement of many conflicting micro narratives. In questioning the grand metanarrative writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg wrote in response to american conformity tired of consumerism and the Korean war. As postmodernism questions the grand metanarratives , this results in the creation of a whole new metanarrative. Postmodernism exploits this idea through self consciously referencing meta ideas bringing them to the forefront of the story. (Gerlach, 2013.)
The civil rights movement of the 1960’s questioned the metanarrative driving American democracy which openly excluded many due to race and gender. Counter cultures began asking if the progress of the west was a mask of oppression and hegemonic dominance. (Gerlach, 2013.)
In creating new metanarratives using irony, cynicism, pastiche and irreverence artists are able to comment on implicit bias that is the result of an old metanarrative that is embedded in cultural dogmas.
“The media can be both a site of change, but also fundamentally a site that perpetuates ideologies and norms. The media uses representations—images, words, and characters or personae—to convey ideas and values. Media representations, therefore, are not neutral or objective. They are constructed and play an important role in imparting ideology.” (Critical Media Project, 2017.)
“Sexism. Racism. Heterosexism. Classism. Ageism. Ableism. Anti-Semitism. Islamophobia.”
“These terms reflect beliefs that posit the superiority of one identity over another: men over women; whites over non-whites; straight over gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender; wealthy over other classes; young over old; able-bodied and mentally fit over disabled and mentally ill. Historically, the terms have been used to call attention to discrimination and bias. They further challenge ideologies that perpetuate hierarchical structures and limit a subordinate group’s opportunities and freedoms. Intersectionality offers us an additional frame to understand the way multiple systems of oppression (ie., sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism) intertwine across individuals’ experiences.” (Critical Media Project, 2017)
The re appropriation of metanarratives and values leads me to consider the context of today. It seems that in some ways we are not too dissimilar from the 1960’s information barrage written about by Susan Sontag.
“Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modem life-its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness-conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.” (Sontag, 1964.)
This new sensibility that arose in the 1950’s and 60’s in turn removed the separation between high and low art. Where modernism was ingrained in official culture, found in museums and accessible primarily to bourgeois society. Postmodernism was a populist attack on the elitist canon of modernism.
“To a large extent, it is by the distance we have travelled from this “great divide” between mass culture and modernism that we can measure our own cultural postmodernity.’ The American and British pop art movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, with its rejection of the distinction between popular and high culture, is post modernism’s first cultural flowering.” (Mambrol, 2018.)
Yet more than 50 years later technology and history have continued to write new narratives on top of old ones. Postmodernism has been at work, and some people say that postmodernism has transformed into something new. Can we still use Postmodernism as our lens of analysis to deconstruct the world and politics in this new digital, virtual terrain?
It seems that we have now shifted into the “post-colonial, post humanist and digital culture.” Yet i cannot agree about us being postcolonial when political domination prevails and economic power struggles continue to play out in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria and even North Korea. (Flynn, 2014.)
We have shifted into the post truth robotics representation. Say one thing but act another. Words are losing their power and images are the currency of the status hungry. In marketing and branding in the creative industries we speak of authenticity, and selling the narrative of authenticity through company values. However I question this notion, is it authenticity we are aiming for or the representation of it.
“Truth has always been more about power then about truth.” (Leistner Rita, 2018.)
To conclude with the insights of the David Foster Wallace;
“What really great artists do is, they are entirely themselves. They have their own way of fracturing reality and if its authentic and true you will feel it in your nerve endings.” (Foster Wallace, (1997.))
It is in the nerve endings that we realise we are alive. Despite this change in sensibility and numbness, to feel is to be reminded of our human nature.
Critical Media Project, (2017). Why Identity Matters. [Website Article] Retreived From: http://criticalmediaproject.org/why-identity-matters/
Flynn, Christopher. (September 16 2014). Postcolonial Theory. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG1HL8h8aMM
Gerlach, Eric. (Nov 27 2013). Unboxed: Lyotard, Postmodernism & the Metanarrative. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEpZJ0NpxH8
Kouwenhoven, Bill. (2018). Where are we now: A conversation with Rita Leistner. After Image Magazine, Issue 45. Pages 20-26.
Mambrol, Nasrullah. (March 29 2018). Postmodernism and Popular Culture. Retreived from: https://literariness.org/2018/03/29/postmodernism-and-popular-culture/
Schoder, Will. (October, 6,, 2016). David Foster Wallace – The Problem with Irony. [Video File] Retreived from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=62&v=2doZROwdte4
Sontag, Susan. (1964). Against Interpretation. [Essay] Retrieved from: http://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Sontag-Against-Interpretation.pdf
Wallace, David Foster. (March 1997). DFW and Charlie Rose Discuss Postmodernism, David Lynch and Irony. [Video File] Retrieved from: