Postmodern confusion
© Werner Hammerstingl, 1998, 2000

This topic is intended to generate a sense of understanding and, of course, debate around the issues that emerge from the transition of modern culture to the postmodern era. I hope to put to rest at least some of the anxiety that surrounds this topic by creating a summary of the main issues. But remember that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". I suggest further reading on the topic by following the links I have provided on a separate page and the reading of some of the texts listed in the bibliography page connected to this site.

In my opinion "Modernity" is a period which began roughly with the Bauhaus. The new attitudes which were not just based on style, but on the utopian ideals of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" flowed on into a broader public realm from the Bauhaus because the end of WW1 provided the climate and the public attitudes that helped to fast-track the modernist evolution. The modern era provided a climate in which:

  • science established facts,
  • political theory established the social state
  • psychology established the importance of the individual
  • secularism overcame religious opinion
  • the notion of shame was denied or explained away with various social conventions.
    It was an era dominated by the thought of Freud and Marx. Its tendency was toward the legitimacy of the social welfare state. Sweden represents its culmination.

    "Post Modern" embraces a period from about the late seventies to the present, characterized by the emergence of:

  • the post industrial information economy
  • the replacement of the previous classes of aristocracy (upper class), middle class, and working class with the new paradigm: information elite, middle class, and under class.

    The postmodern period is also typified by the emergence of:

  • mass-culture
  • feminism
  • multiculturalism,
  • environmentalism
  • queerism

    The many belief systems called into question include the modern faith in scientific certainty and to some degree we see this manifested in the replacement of the old mechanical metaphors by cybernetic ones.

    Postmodernism rejects the modernist ideals of:

  • rationality
  • virility,
  • artistic (creative) genius
  • individualism. These values are trade for:
  • anti-capitalism
  • contempt for traditional morality
  • radical egalitarianism.

    The most recent feature of PostModernism is the rise of Political Correctness and the attempt to purge dissenting opinion from the ranks of the academic/artistic/professional elite, together with a systematic attack on excellence in all fields.
    Post Modernism is an anti-Enlightenment position wherein adherents believe that what has gone before, as "Modernism", is inappropriately dependent on Reason, Rationalism, and Wisdom, and is, furthermore, inherently elitist, non-multicultural and therefore oppressive.

    Finding fertile ground in academic departments of literature (particularly literary criticism), art history, and sociology - and more recently in history and political "science", its origin can be traced to the French academy of the 1970's whose proponents are now called "deconstructionists", the essence of which is that in any literary creation (any "text"), the actual meaning of the screed is to be found in the reader, not in the author. That is to say, it is futile to try and know what an author meant by what is written, but what you Can know is what you interpret from what you have read and That becomes the true meaning. A Text, the postmodernist insists, is "ultimately self-contradictory". (Except, of course, the texts written by postmodernists!)

    In the sense that the Enlightenment encapsulated an acquired series of rational observations into Truths, and then wove those Truths into a coherent philosophy of the world, general laws which apply to it, and the consequences of such laws to its inhabitants, the postmodernists reject the notion that anything can be resolved to be True. Everything is in the mind of the beholder: relative, forever shifting; and anything perceived to be a "fact" is the mere disillusionment of a cultural bias. With such a philosophy, adherents can move beyond the critique of books to the critique of anything, even science, about which they tend to be supremely ignorant. But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King, and in postmodernism, the man in best possession of obscurantist jargonism is Professor and Chairperson.

    Postmodernism is the unifying philosophy of the academic left which has replaced discredited Marxism. It might also be claimed that Marxism has morphed into postmodernism. Like all academic foolishness, it has an argot of jargon, tropes and incoherent phraseology recapitulated continuously by the cognoscenti. It distills, ultimately, to mere posturing as a substitute for intellectual fervor. Although nothing, according to the postmodernist, can be determined to be "true", postmodernism itself is, of course, True.

    A number of recently introduced academic disciplines reflect postmodernist ideology. They include subjects such as "women's studies", "gender studies","interdisciplinary studies" and a new interpretation of "linguistics".

    Frederick Jameson remarks that with postmodernism, the world has come to a stage in which "one no longer believed in the existence of normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm" and in which,literature being the mirror of a fragmentary, schizophrenic consumer society, a new kind of discourse emerges: the "undecidable" one. Speech becomes fragmentary and complex in the sense that it "no longer quotes,it incorporates".

    First deconstruction and then reconstruction reassemble linguistic signs into a new type of discourse which escapes all consecrated norms and hardly fits into a new, singular definition. The one thing which seems clear beyond the shadow of a doubt is that this postmodern conglomerate of styles springs from the individual and unmistakable styles of modernism, rearranging the elements as if to prove that in the postmodern world such styles are no longer possible.

    Individuality dies and individual discourse with it. As society is multinational and multiracial, obsessed with thingness and led by ultra-short and ultra-rapid commercials (read cliches), language as an instrument will express the conditions which determine it. A chaotic society produces chaotic means of expression.

    Jameson's "death of the subject" and crisis of identity coincide with the birth of a kind of discourse whose "language impersonally fuses a whole range of contemporary collective idiolects, most notably rock language and black language: but the fusion is dictated by problems of content."

    Syntax and punctuation evade the conventional concept of coherence. Unity is smashed into units whose fragmentarism reflects the postmodern mind, functioning in fits under the pressure of time. Time ceases to be a carrier of metaphysical meanings; it becomes matter: in the consuming society, time is money and the new measurement of it is the TV commercial or the interval between two trains in the underbelly of a city

    They also stand for what Eli calls the "dislocation of the psyche" which triggers the dislocation of the discourse in a natural relationship between the signified and the signifier.

    The dislocation of the psyche is actually the root of the falling apart of the speech. The postmodern world sees itself in relation to artistic manifestations which are themselves yet undecided, somewhere in between kitsch and avantgardism. This is an age which replaces myths and archetypes with personae (masks), an age of acting and dissimulation in which identity becomes more and more difficult to define. Psychology and sociology have specific ways of projecting their influence on modernism and on postmodernism respectively. Modernism seems to be more concerned with individual psychology than with the one of the masses.

    The shifting of the stress from individual to collective as well as the increasingly racial opposition and selfconsciousness have an effect on the language used by the characters. Not only will it "quote and incorporate," showing how the postmodern human being agonizes between possible superficial identities, usually suggested by movies or media, without assuming any and without reaching the true one; but will also use the language as an intensified way of taking out the frustration. People seem to be made up of pieces pulled apart by antagonistic forces.

    Postmodernism undoubtedly surpasses the norm of appropriateness, which presupposes a selfassumed fix identity anyway. In as far as language and discourse are concerned, postmodernism frees itself from boundaries, norms and structure. It opposes the relativization of the denominative function to the modern overrated symbolism of names, unquotable (by modern standards) language to conventional, metaphorical, "nice and cosy", defyingly vernacular to exotic vernacular, careful gradation of the discourse to fragmentation, unexpected violence and broken syntax. This transformation corresponds to equally disturbing social changes influencing the selfrepresentation of the individual (which gives the entire measure of causation in postmodernism). All other links between causes and effects are more hidden, apparently occult as compared to the pretty obvious determinism in modern plays. Reflecting a new way of searching for identity, concludes Jameson, "contemporary or postmodernist art is about art itself in a new kind of way.

    In a world in which Nietzsche had long before announced that God was dead, Jameson and Derrida discover the death of the subject and of the structured discourse. link to the resource page on postmodernism