Postmodern Culture Constitutes A Crisis In Representation
Essay, Research Paper
In a world of delusions, illusions, allusions and virtual realities, but also of constructed realities and of ?deconstructed? textualities, the means of representation, the signs, have dissolved in the ongoing process of infinite semiosis. The crisis of representation is the apprehension of a world in which the signs have lost their power to represent anything. Where is the structural foundation of text in a network of hypertextuality, exactly what is this structural ground for postmodernism to exist?
Jean Francois Lyotard argues that the ?post? in postmodern has always existed, that modernity always contained moments of postmodernism. From early architecture onwards mankind rarely rebuilds a space but ?generates a multiplicity of small transformations in the space it inherits?(Defining the postmodern). This succession is dependable upon earlier periods whether progressive or regressive. Lyotard claims that chronology is totally modern and if postmodern means breaking away by forgetting or repressing the past, then we would be repeating it and not overcoming it. His second point in differentiating modern and postmodern is contained within the idea of progress ?rooted in the certainty that the development of the arts, technology, knowledge and liberty would be profitable to mankind as a whole? (Defining the postmodern). Yet what is the subject to be emancipated between the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier periods and surely liberation is too be held by discoveries, institutions and enterprise as well.
Lyotard further questions Auschwitz in relation to modernity as empirical and utopian. Then there is the progress of science and its resulting ?complexification?; the ability to complexify, mediate, memorize and synthesize every object is seen more as an obligation rather than emancipation. His third argument is related to the expressions of thought, for example art and the avant garde. It is apparently to mankind?s relief that avant gardism is over because of its strict structure and military connotations. Yet was it not the works of such artists such as Manet, Duchamp and Newman that paved the way for others, were their presuppositions of modernity taken into consideration? Surely we should not see postmodernism as an attack on our failed attempts thus leading to the modern neurosis and Western schizophrenia which I will later talk about. Lyotard reckons postmodernity is not a process of ?coming back or flashing back, feeding back, but of analyzing anamnesing, of reflecting.? (Defining the postmodern). Thus it is a need of reflection and understanding, but as a whole do we have a language that can thread us together towards enlightment in realization of our postmodernity. Apparently not, Lyotard reasons that postmodernism are an ?incredulity towards meta-narratives.?. There is no such thing as a meta-language, meta-narrative or meta-theory through which all things can be connected or represented. This crisis needs to desperately be addressed since by condemning such interpretive notions of reality we make ? war on totality? which then results in the power discourse theory by Foucoult and the fragmentation of language by Lyotard.
Thus, according to Harvey this branches into two theories that are closely related. Briefly Foucoult reasons that there is ?no relations of power without resistance? we therefore cannot escape from the power-knowledge relation in non-repressive ways. Foucoult acknowledges that we must all ?explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse, and there by intervene in the way knowledge is produced and constituted at the particular sites where a localized power discourse prevails?.(The condition of Postmodernity)
Harvey recognizes that Lyotards Language games in which each of us have separate codes depending on the situation we find ourselves along the constant flux of Language itself refers to a certain power-knowledge production in communication itself and should be pinpointed within a heterogeneity of language games and therefore with greater flexibility of utterances, perhaps true communication can take place as long as we realize the change in flux of language. To which certain institutions will never recognize because they have been erected to define only certain points of power-knowledge production. Thereby giving rise to smaller institutions ? ?Let us make war on totality?. At this point one recognizes that postmodernism is fragmented by language, by power and difference of metaphysics and if mankind must be considered as a whole then how do we represent a totality through postmodernism.
Frederic Jameson, whom portrays Foucoult as a postmodern theoretical discourse, since he is nether categorized as sociologist, nor philosopher, nor literary critic but a generalized mixture of thought. Jameson?s significant features towards the identification of postmodernism in ?Postmodernism and consumer society? are termed pastiche and schizophrenia. In an elaborate prose he questions that which parody mocks – style and individuality in respect to the ?linguistic norm?. Yet what if linguistic norm did not exist and in this postmodern world we fragmented to the extreme scenario where each individual became a linguistic island. What then does parody mock in a world of such rich diversity and heterogeneity? Parody becomes weak and no longer mocks but mimics into ?speech of a dead language?.
Jameson argues that either the ?death of the subject? (individualism) is truly ?dead? due to globalisation, corporate capitalism, bureaucracies in business as well as state; the modernist aesthetic of the older bourgeois individual is dead. Or that it was a myth that individuality never existed at all in which we fooled ourselves by some philosophical and cultural mystification. Either theories result in this ?death of the subject? which raises the question again; what are then representing as artists and writers of this postmodern period? Are we left with pastiche, wearing of dead masks and imitation of old styles that we once mocked, or is the new message of art the failure to represent the new whilst imprisoned in the past?
Could this art be collage/montage, Derrida reckons this is the primary form of postmodern discourse. Its heterogeneity of that (be it painting/architecture/writing/photography/textiles) stimulates us. In which each element ?breaks the continuity or the linearity of discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its test of origin or that of the fragment as incorporated into a new whole, a different totality?(The Condition of Postmodernity). I must emphasize upon Derrida?s ?different totality?, for it is a totality that recognizes elements of Foucault?s power-discourse theory and Lyotards language games. Taking into consideration, Lyotards argument that ?modernity? has always had its ?post modern? moments then is not the art of John Heartfield a postmodern attack on power, on fragmentation, on language and totality and if so then surely hope and strength of the minority in a time of a Holocaust is perceived as a valiant attempt to struggle against the complexity rather than as a paradoxical representation when discussed today.
?There is nothing fortuitous about Heartfields compositions. The voracious animal, skull and the hood, the skeleton and the midnight landscape, the snake, the cemetery and the medieval architecture all echo the traditional iconography of German, not to say Western European art.? .(beyond art).
Using a knife of intertextuality, Heartfield merges the iconography of modern militarism and that of technology and commerce.
Yet is there a point in dissecting what is schizophrenic in the first place. Postmodernism insist we cannot aspire to any unified representation of the world, or picture it as a totality, then how do we act coherently with the rest of mankind? Is the postmodernist answer an illusion, deemed to aspire further dissolving of any solid community. Or is the answer the ?local determinisms?, in which we enter small incongruous worlds like that of Blue Velvet questioning which is reality and which is truth. This unhealthy preoccupation with the fragmentation and instability of language, discourses and representation can be seen as schizophrenic, a development from the paranoia of modernism? Jameson according to Harvey, sees this as
?a linguistic disorder, a breakdown in the signifying chain of meaning that creates a simple sentence. When the signifying chain snaps, then ?we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.? .(The Condition of Postmodernity)
Are these the signifiers that postmodernisms are occupied with? The surface meanings or appearances rather than the root meanings and disappearances? By breaking down the signifying chain are we then left with a spiral of endless present moments of fluctuating changes where nothing can be deemed anchorable? If this is so, then in our treatment of the present of which Lyotard has described as
?the degree zero of contemporary culture?; ?one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonalds food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong?.(A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory)
How then do we treat the past or the future? Must we see the past as mans futile quest of enlightment and the future as a further fragmented spiral of pluralism? There seems to be little attempt to sustain continuity of values, beliefs or even disbeliefs when discussing the postmodernist condition, everything seems questionable.
This collapse of time and obsession with instantaneity can be traced along a firm line of cultural production. Harvey talks about the constant ?re-emphasis of fleeting qualities of modern life.?(The Condition of Postmodernity) Thus with new technologies such as multimedia our meanings can be directed easily across the masses, decreasing the gap between popular culture and cultural production. Although this has been continuing for some time now, Dadaism and Surrealism desperately tried to close the gap between high art/low art in search of all art to be a quest of reason. As Jameson mentioned earlier, we have covered our Arts whether ?low? or ?high? into pastiche, borrowing from other texts and styles across a multicultural discourse of genres until all cultures, all past, all present and even future is broken down. Popular culture is now a ?self-ironic eclecticism and knowingness? in any form of expression. I can now compare this to the clever and highly kitsch film , which is in contradiction of being popular although without taste, which I feel has succeeded by its immense cynicism and postmodernist questioning? Trey Parker, the creator of the adult cartoon relies on our knowledge of current fleeting events in order to use parody against the masses. He introduces Sadam Hussein as Satan?s lover, Bill Clinton as a robotic mediator, the crowds as paranoid sheep, the educators as schizophrenic, different cultures as pathetic, the Resistance as agnostic and Capitalism as our God. His humour and artwork is based on photomontage/collage, repeatedly mocking post modernist conditioning whilst integrating its supposed teachings. The main theme of the movie is based on the controversy of its existence. He plays on the parental guidance concerns with the launching of the cartoon film, since there was controversy in America about children watching South Park due to its cute artwork yet brassy content. This clearly plays on our double crisis of fragmented discourse. South Park relies on our conditioning in which we have no truthful representation of ourselves and thus can only laugh or be outraged by its parody. Please take into its account that the parody Trey Parker uses is not concerned with the ?norm? but the lack of ?norm?. It is the postmodern acceptance of futility that has the masses laughing and the serious artists crying.
Allan Sekula however is neither crying nor laughing but pleading and screaming at this MTV acceptance;
?these crises are rooted in the materially dictated inequalities of advanced capitalism and will only be resolved practically, by the struggle for an authentic socialism!? (Dismantling Modernism)
He describes how artists are gifted with the freedom of expression and how we must educate the working class towards a non-formalist semiotics of media. In his writings he clearly differentiates between ?them? and ?us?. ?Them? are the Capitalist, the Monopoly, the Marketers and Advertisers of the global future. He warns ?us? that ?High art is rapidly becoming a specialized colony of the monopoly capitalist media.? The ?us? are those who refuse Postmodernism, its Art, its fashion, its liberal obfuscation. Yet Sekula praises Heartfield for his ?deconstruction of images? even though Heartfield is well known as a postmodern artist as discussed before. Is Sekula contradicting himself, I personally would not think so. My reasoning is that according to Jameson ?postmodernism replicates or reproduces ? reinforces ? the logic of consumer capitalism? By this he refers to multinational capitalism and globalisation in which their power has very often ruined the fabric of society yet their products or services are somehow deemed necessary because of lack of competition which is a result of their monopoly. Yet if Postmodernism works as a form of mimicry then would not ?the critical, negative, contestory, subversive, oppositional art work in representing the resistance of that logic?
Sekula although disagreeing with postmodernism is part of the oppositional mimicry of postmodernism. This would also relate back to Foucoults ?power discourse? theory. Sekula is screaming for ?an art that documents monopoly capitalisms inability to deliver the conditions of a fully human life.? Although he acknowledges that a representation must occur he realizes that it would be of an ?insufficient condition for the transformation of society?. Sekula ends in hope whilst the world continues to commodify all that is there, unfortunately that will include the movement of art and its representation of commodification.
In answering the question: what is postmodernism? Lyotard discusses knowledge digressing into commodity in the same league as art, he talks of wisdom spiraling into multinational corporations and power the exploitation of knowledge itself.
?Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ?use value?.? (Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?)
Lyotards foreseeable future seems to be closer to our present, information technology, the internet and globalisation seems to be our developed countries culture. Recently Microsoft was taken to court for monopoly of software integration, Microsoft lost however an appeal has been made, who knows how long this will last. Lyotard reasons that Nation States will be without control of multinational corporations. I will have to agree; if modernism has been deemed incomplete and art is corrupted and commodified now and in turn knowledge will closely follow, then is it not as clear as water that some rules have been forgotten and will we bother to retrieve them. Postmodernism denies itself the ?solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable.? (Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?)
What we seek seem to be rules and those rules seem to be searched for already, we might forget and return but realization springs to mind that postmodernism is an agitated understanding of paradoxical thought and Disneyland is easier to live in.
Lyotard, Jean Francois Defining the Postmodern
Harvey, David ?The Condition of Postmodernity? in The
Post-Modern Reader by Charles Jencks [Academy Editions 1992]
Jameson, Frederic ?Postmodernism and Consumer Society? from E Ann Kaplen (ed) Postmodern and its Discontents
Scharf Aaron ?Beyond art? in Art And Photography [Penguin Books 1986]
Brooker Peter Under ?Postmodernism? in A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory [Oxford University Press Inc..New York]
Sekula Allan ?Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary ? Notes on the Politics of Representation? in Photography against the grain [Halifax 1983]
?South Park ? The Movie?
Lyotard, Jean Francois ?Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?? in The Post-Modern Reader by Charles Jencks [Academy Editions 1992]