What Is Postmodernism Essay, Research Paper
In trying to define exactly what post-modernism is I shall firstly briefly consider some of the events and thinking that led up to the development of this particular school of social theory. I shall then consider some of the common strands of thinking in postmodernism concentrating mainly on the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. I shall then consider the view of David Harvey, a Marxist many consider to be writing in the postmodern tradition, who argues that post-modernism is just another form of capitalism. Having analysed his argument I shall conclude by giving my own personal view of post-modernism and by showing that by its very nature it is virtually impossible to come up with one single all encompassing definition.
The term postmodernism was first used in relation to architecture. Modern architecture, namely the high rise tower blocks of the sixties, were becoming more and more unpopular. Charles Jencks (1977) traces the death of modernist architecture to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, and other writers (Lemert (1990)) have seen this as a symbol of the end of modernity. Society was reacting against modern architectural ideas having lost faith in the modern ideals. Although modern architecture might have been scientifically advanced using the latest and cheapest materials, people rejected it, preferring to return to a variety of styles from the past. Examples of this can be seen in the rejuvenation of the Albert Dock in Liverpool, and mock medieval squares.
Similarly in Sociology postmodernism rejects the theories of the past, and represents a break from the modern way of thinking. For example, Marx envisaged society evolving through social change into the perfect communist society, where there are no issues of class or general inequality. Postmodernists would refer to his theory, and those of other sociologists, as a metanarrative and writers such as Lyotard (1984) have seen the rejection of such theories as central to postmodernism:
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity to metanarratives
People have lost faith in the metanarratives of the past and Lyotard sees social life being organised around language games , which serve to justify people s behaviour in society. In these games a person endeavours to persuade others to accept his or her point of view as right or true with each statement being a move within these games.
Lyotard sees these games having evolved from the narrative, the telling of stories or legends, to the scientific, or denotative which became important during the enlightenment. Such scientific games relied upon evidence and argument to either prove or disprove them. As society enters the post-modern era faith is lost in the denotative language games and is replaced by technical language games. Truth is not the important factor any more, but whether or not an idea, or game , is useful. Knowledge becomes a commodity that is to be sold, and Lyotard sees it as possibly the most important commodities in what he calls:
the world-wide competition for power
Lyotard links the rise in the importance of knowledge to the rise in the use of computers in both society s commercial and social life. In my view there are few people who can dispute this fact. One only has to consider new media technologies and look at the rise in the use of the Internet to conclude that this is indeed the case. Bill Gates has become the richest business on the planet, and, to a certain degree, one could say that he does control knowledge , or at least people s access to it.
Another important aspect of the post-modern society is the diversity that exists within it. Even postmodernist theory is not a unified approach. Kellner (1990) argues that:
There is nothing like a unified post-modern social theory there is a plurality of different post-modern theories and positions
Lyotard (1984) sees society embracing the differences within it and uses culture as an example to illustrate his point:
one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong
Sociology has considered in the past that there is a certain commonality to the way societies function. In history for example it is assumed that human beings are in some ways the same as we are today, that people from different cultures are similar to our own. Such a view enables us to study past events and pass some form of judgement over them. In doing this however sociology is denying the individuality of human beings. History is drastically different from the past, and our culture is drastically different from that of others. Once again, if we accept this as the case, this leads us to reject many previous social theories. Ritzer (1992) describes postmodernism as
a celebration of a range of different theoretical perspectives
He goes on to state that postmodernism has a tendency to break down the boundaries between disciplines and sub disciplines creating a new approach encompassing ideas from a whole range of areas.
Whilst Lyotard embraces this diversity seeing it as giving individuals more choice and ultimately more freedom, other writers, such as Baudrillard, paint a much more depressing picture of the post-modern society. He considers society to have entered a new era and relates this change to language and knowledge, but sees the results of this change as an inescapable trap. For Baudrillard society is no longer based upon the production of material goods, but upon the selling of signs and images. He also suggests that these signs and images have little or no relationship to reality. An example of this could be seen in popular music. If one considers many of the modern day groups the main focus is on selling an image. Whether or not an artist can sing, perform, or write their own songs is immaterial. What is important is the marketing. Another example might be that of the marketing of the drink Sunny Delight . An image was presented that suggested a health drink that would be good for you . In reality what was being sold was a high sugar drink that had few health benefits. One could draw a comparison to Lyotard s work here in the respect that the truth seemed to be immaterial. Even though the media revealed the true nature of the drink the public had already bought the image; the truth seemed to be immaterial.
Baudrillard sees the post-modern society consisting of an exchange of images that he refers to as simulacra . These simulacrums are images of things that do not, or never have existed. Indeed he even sees political leaders as becoming themselves simulacra having no real power or ability to change things. Power has disappeared and nobody can therefore exercise it. The main reason for this is nuclear weapons. A war is pointless due to the fact that both countries would be destroyed at the push of a button. Baudrillard s writings have been criticised for being highly abstract, however his view is in my view not so easily dismissed. At present NATO are engaged in military action with Yugoslavia. Recent developments mean that Russia and China have become involved and are demanding a cessation to the bombing. What power do they really have? What power does NATO really have? If this crisis develops into a major conflict between major world powers what can either side do? If either side were to launch a nuclear attack the other side would retaliate. Threats can be made in the form of selling the image of a nuclear war, but in reality which side would launch such an attack in the certain knowledge that a similar attack will be coming straight back?
Reality has died and we are merely left with images. Baudrillard even cites the Gulf War as something that did not take place. He admits that there was some military action but argues that this was merely presented by the media as a war. It was not a war in the conventional sense of the word, meaning a major conflict between two military powers. Once again we were sold images that we accepted. Even the fighter pilots did not face their enemy, but merely saw computer-generated images on a screen. And so, unlike Lyotard, Baudrillard sees society as leading meaningless lives. Like Lyotard he sees society as being made up of diversity, with boundaries falling in all kinds of areas but this is portrayed as a negative aspect. There are no suggestions how society can regain a purpose or a meaning to its existence, merely an overriding pessimism and resignation to the fact that this is how it is.
Another similarity is that Baudrillard rejects the metanarratives of the past, namely Marx, but for entirely different reasons to those of Lyotard. Lyotard felt that people had lost faith in such metanarratives. For many post-modernists Marx s theories had failed due to the fact that socialism and communism (or at least communism as Marx saw it) had failed to overthrow capitalism. Baudrillard, on the other hand, accuses of Marx of accepting, and reinforcing, the bourgeoisie s own ideology, particularly with regard to the ideal of work as a fulfilment of human essence .
And so we have two major theorists in the field of post-modernism, one claiming that this new diversity is a positive aspect, the other claiming that it leaves society in an inescapable trap. The main themes that they both agree on, even if they are for different reasons, is that the old metanarratives can no longer be used to analyse society, and that there is a great deal of diversity that exists in the post-modern era.
But have things really changed as much as Lyotard and Baudrillard would have us believe? David Harvey (1990) accepts that important changes have occurred but still claims that capitalism is at the heart of contemporary western societies. Despite having entered a post-modern era, there are three main characteristics that remain:
1. Capitalism is based upon economic growth. If there is no growth, capitalism is in crisis.
2. Capitalism is based upon the premise that workers are paid less than the value of the goods they produce thus making a class struggle between owners and workers inevitable.
3. Capitalism is constantly changing in order for manufacturers or producers of goods to stay ahead of their competition.
As capitalism is constantly changing there will be periods of crisis leading to economic changes, which will have not only economic consequences, but also to important effects on society and culture. Harvey sees post-modernism therefore merely as a response to such a crisis. As economic crisis hit capitalism in the seventies, with the rise in the price of oil and increased unemployment, capitalism entered a period of adaptation. As a result many cultural changes which were referred to as post-modern .
So, underlying the cultural, political, and social changes that were the focus for writers like Lyotard and Baudrillard, are economic changes. Capitalism, Harvey argues, still exists; it is merely adapting in order to survive. It has had to move into new areas, for example leisure pursuits, encouraging consumption of a new group of goods. In other words Harvey sees post-modernism as a new phase of capitalism, and this phase will give way to another form. He suggests that there have always been different strands of capitalism that have adapted throughout history.
there is never one fixed configuration, but a swaying back and forth between centralization and decentralization, between authority and deconstruction, between hierarchy and anarchy, between permanence and flexibility.
Is post-modernism therefore a new, more flexible form of capitalism in disguise?
So, in reaching my conclusion, what is post-modernism? Lyotard insists that we reject all metanarratives. There is no truth, and therefore surely we must reject the idea of post-modernism, which after all is yet another metanarrative. By its very nature it defies definition. Maybe Lyotard s own, if simplistic, definition is the one we are forced to accept. In my own view Lyotard s view is as idealistic as that of Marx s communism. Despite the fact that society is becoming more diverse and we are becoming more tolerant of different groups of society, for example homosexuality, I doubt that we can truly say we have reached the post-modern era. As was shown by the recent race related and homophobic bombings in London, as accepting as we would like to think society is of different points of view, there are still many groups who remain resistant to such groups. Baudrillard, despite being very abstract in his writing, makes many valid points, however it is difficult to completely accept his notions of the demise of power. One has to only consider the Thatcher years to realise the effect a government s policies can have on people s lives. In reality I feel that society most resembles Harvey s views. The workforce, with the demise of trade unions, seem to have lost any power that they once hold, and the owners are able to carry out their exploitation with the minimum of opposition. Capitalism has had to change and one only has to consider the world of the Internet to realise what important part capitalism plays in our own leisure time. Already the capitalists are taking over the virtual world. Consumers are able to order virtually anything over the Internet. At present an experiment is taking place where five people have been locked in a hotel room with merely Internet access to provide food and clothing. Capitalism is evolving again replacing the workforce with a new cheaper slave, the computer.
Post-modernism will continue to redefine itself as time continues. Yesterday s post-modernity becomes today s modernity and as a result we can never truly say we are in a post-modern age and therefore never truly define it. The advantage that this perspective holds for sociologists is to admit that when analysing society it is impossible to apply one all encompassing theory. A range of theories must be considered and all viewpoints listened to. Only by adopting such an approach and by welcoming different points of view can we further understand the world in which we live.
Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition Of Postmodernity Oxford:Blackwell
Kellner, D. (1990) Postmodernism: Jameson: Critique cited in Ritzer, G. (1992) Sociological Theory (third edition) New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Lyotard, J.F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press
Ritzer, G. (1992) Sociological Theory (third edition) New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Adams, D.J. Toward a Theological Understanding of Postmodernism http://aril.org/adams.htm#TEXT20
Cuff, E.C., Sharrock, W.W., and Francis, D.W. (1998) Perspectives in Sociology (fourth edition) London: Routledge.
Mizrach, S. Talking pomo: An analysis of the postmodern movement http://glidare.isp.his.se/isp/ andreas/pomo.htm
Ritzer, G. (1992) Sociological Theory (third edition) New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
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