, Research Paper
Michael Drach December 8
Philosophy Research Essay
Society currently exists within a sphere of “reality” that can be classified as post-modern, or superseding the modern. This is a social condition that has come under much scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and its very being has been the subject of a great deal of debate. It is a very difficult concept to understand and classify, due to its endless interpretations. However, there is a somewhat general consensus that is considerably easier to agree on. As Dick Hebdige pointed out in the mid-1980’s, the term “postmodern” now applies to just about everything we take for granted in society. It can refer to things as specific as the decor of a room, or to the broad societal and economic shifts in the media. Postmodernism can be defined, in the sense that this essay will focus upon, as an evolution of modernism, in art, science, and philosophy. It is opposed to the Enlightenment, the period beginning with the Renaissance, and ending with the modernism of the early twentieth century. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism is classified as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” (Jameson 124)
The “Grand Narratives,” as they are also called, with their emphasis on artistic genius, reason, virility, and individuality, were the brainchildren of thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Kant, and Bacon. In the postmodern world, their ideas are met with scepticism and extreme criticism, and replaced by a general preference for eclecticism, anti-historicity, cynicism, hyperreality, political correctness, reproducibility, and “zero-consciousness.” Postmodernism is marked by an ironic, apocalyptic stance that either predicts the End of an era, or the impossibility of an End. While there are many different facets of postmodernism that can be looked at, the pressing question is whether this condition has an antidote. The answer, of course, depends on whether one extols this situation or not. This essay intends to prove that the extent in which our society is postmodern is limited by sporadic changes in the human understanding of how our culture functions. Therefore, knowledge must be considered the enemy of postmodernism. Knowledge is a powerful, inevitable force that has stood the test of time, and when pitted against the deceptiveness of postmodernism, could prevail. The widespread awareness of the postmodern condition and its symptoms could lead to its non-existence, theoretically. Furthermore, knowledge and ingenuity can lead to visions and ideas for the future, which are lacking in (post)modern philosophy. Finally, since postmodernism sets itself against Enlightenment, the opposite stance must therefore be essential in defeating it.
A general public awareness, or rudimentary knowledge of the postmodern situation could lead to its discontinuity. Therefore, the first step is recognizing its existence. As Linda Hutcheon asserted, postmodernism’s existence can be proven merely by the existing literature written about it. The problem we face, is that many contemporary intellectuals simply review the topic without changing our conceptualization of it. Several stances have been taken on it, but society as a whole will need tolerance, solidarity, imagination, and consciousness if we are to deal with the new diversity of postmodernism. (Hutcheon 8)
Postmodernism, according to Baudrillard, is inherently deceptive. It is a societal condition in which the public cannot see the illusion for what it is, and we trick ourselves into thinking that there will be an “end” to it. If this is true, then postmodernism as a sociological phenomenon does not appear or disappear by itself, but is rather something conceived by the people, and yet we are not aware of the “monster” we have created. It stands to reason that as a society we should come to our senses and eventually emerge from the shadow of postmodernism by knowing our enemy, if we wish to see it that way. As Adorno said, “the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, it is deceit and fraud.” We may know something of how contemporary culture and society work, but when we are faced with hyper-real trickery, we need a more active form of knowledge. Adorno also stated that “knowledge knows no boundaries”, and that its very nature is to combat deceit. The postmodern philosophers that Hutcheon studied were not “wrong” in trying to understand the topic, but she is calling for a new breed of thinkers to come up with solutions rather than propagate the status quo.
Baudrillard once suggested that the youth of today should turn their backs on the mass media that promotes this condition. He believed, for instance, that the Gulf War did not actually occur, and that it only existed with the help of CNN and its sponsors. He claims that a televised war prevents us from having to face the reality of a real one. Mark Poster also believed that media- literacy can only take us so far in an age of “surveillance culture,” and that actually ignoring the media will help us understand the truth. If ignorance is not the opposite of knowledge, we would not be less educated if we disregard the media, that saturates us with false promises of salvation. We cannot forget that postmodernism exists once we begin to recognize it, but we must move on, and work even faster than a culture that constantly accelerates. We must recall the past and look towards the future, and detach ourselves from the present. This is easier said than done, but as a collective this idea can effectively accomplish a great deal, if we are willing to accept it.
Postmodern society is characterized by cultural stagnation. The kind of knowledge that we currently lack is that of imagination, or a willingness to create something universal and eternal. This cultural standstill is a direct result of the deaths of the ideals of modernism, a pervasive and progressive theory to change art, science, and religion. Such an assertion may sound pretentious nowadays, but that is probably due to our cultural conventions. Modern Western culture is marked largely by eclecticism, kitsch, and nostalgia, where the aesthetic process as been thrown out the window and replaced by a drive towards commercialism. This is a result of the artistic movement’s attempt to innovate at a pace so rapid that it refuted the reality occurring immediately before it. Does this mean we should bring an end to innovation? Hutcheon suggests that human ingenuity will outlast a social condition that does not remember the past. We need to revive the idea of art for art’s sake. Since “you cannot step outside that which you contest,” we need to take historicist’s critical stance against today’s postmodernism. (Hutcheon 18) Michel Foucault stressed the idea of memory in The Archeology of Knowledge, issuing the challenge of reconstituting meaning, creative inspiration, and action, as opposed to the “counter-memory” found today.
Baudrillard insisted that concerning the ideas of the past, “their resurrection, too, is hyperreal. Reinvoked values themselves are unstable and subject to the same fluctuations as fashion or the stock exchange.” This may mean that postmodernism is an oxymoron, because if it truly envelops all meaning, the unity of its theory would break apart. Perhaps “postmodernism” is a meaningless term that we invented to explain the world, but it has fragile foundations. Cheetham argued that postmodernism is not really a degeneration into hyperreality, but a self-conscious acknowledgement of its existence as representation. It questions reality but fails to explain it. That is why Baudrillard’s assertion was over-the-top, because unless we begin to shape reality through productive power, we will have no choice but numbly sponge up postmodernism’s images forever. After all, this condition is found mostly in the West. The rapid industrialization of the Third World is an example of how their optimism and drive dissociate them from our stagnation. As Adorno said, “technology is the purest essence of knowledge” (Adorno 65), and this has not been forgotten outside our borders.
Postmodernism is decidedly opposed to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Therefore, a reconsideration of the Enlightenment, through knowledge of the past and a regaining of the ideals of the past, may lead to the disappearance of postmodernism. Jean-Francois Lyotard explained postmodernism as a disease metaphor in which the Master Narratives of the past have disappeared, which he applauds. (Bulhak 2) The Enlightenment failed because it tried to explain the world in totalizing terms, leading to the erasure of difference. In its place is a pluralized narrative space, with reproduction instead of production, such as Venturi’s architectural ideals of multiplying differences. In Learning From Las Vegas, he says that people would prefer a hyperreal situation similar to Disneyland, where money and dreams are interchanged in a magical “kingdom.” Foucault claimed that we need to again consider the ideals of Enlightenment thinkers now that postmodernism has destroyed the possibility of progress. Modernism’s optimism in humanity and the knower was succeeded by the insistence that there is no knowledge.
Postmodern politics have rejected the Marxist metanarrative of future emancipation, yet theorists such as Francis Fukuyama have claimed that since the threat of communism has ceased, we have found utopia in a liberal democratic capitalism. Now that socialism has effectively been sold off, it is rather hypocritical that postmodernism has brought about political correctness, multiculturalism, and egalitarianism when they are in themselves the “New Metanarratives,” albeit with less focus or direction. The new class structure that has developed, actually reduces power to the knowledge of technology. This technology enables the illusion of domination over nature, when we really have power of those who do not have the same knowledge. But Baudrillard would contend that the “information elite” as they are sometimes called, cannot be said to be more knowledgable than anyone else. Information is expendable these days, and there is too much of it available for anyone to sort through.
Adorno, has admitted to the postmodern accusations of the “dictatorship” of truth and knowledge, but it is the only way to legitimize and make sense of the world. In order to evade use of the term “totality,” one must stigmatize the very concept of society. He stated: “It is almost tautological to say that one cannot point to the concept of totality in the same manner as one can point to the facts, which totally distances itself as a concept.” (Jameson 231) More important, “there is nothing socially factual which would not have it’s place in totality.” In other words, the postmodernist critics cannot be taken as totally correct. One writer pointed out that Postmodernists do not believe anything is factual except postmodern works.
It is not possible to start from the beginning, or to reconcile the past with the present. This would just comply with the postmodern tendency to ignore what has already happened. We cannot forget postmodernism, but we must embellish the current reality in a way that will lead us into a new Enlightenment. Some Postmodern artists have already taken this step, according to Hutcheon and Cheetham. There is a trend to use the knowledge of memory, combined with innovation and skill, to create a product built on precedent and Real History, but not necessarily imitating the past. In the entire postmodern scene, literature and visual arts are the only media to display an appreciation and knowledge of the past, possibly because they are inexpensive means of expression. Fredric Jameson lamented that postmodernism has a “weakening of historicity, both in our relation to public History and the new forms of our public temporality,” meaning our lack of understanding about the past will restrict our ability to act in its future. However, the world of postmodern art has begun to understand that “memory is history,” and has called to question such claims.
As the twenty-first century rapidly arrives, postmodernism threatens to engulf our entire culture and swallow up the past. Our only weapon to counter it is knowledge in all of its forms. Baudrillard once urged the young intellectuals of today to become “hyper-sceptical” in the face of a world with no meaning or aesthetic beauty. A world where reality has become commercialized and the companies that control us keep in business by deceiving each other and ourselves. We must reject these messages of falsehood and once again welcome truth, beauty, wisdom, optimism, and faith in human progress into our society.
Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990.
Bulhak, Andrew. “Postmodernism: A Concept in Flux.” WWW document. Available: http://www.cs.monash.edu.aw/cgi-bin/postmodern.
Cheetham, Mark A. and Linda Hutcheon. Remembering Postmodernism. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Deer, Glenn. Postmodern Canadian Fiction and the Rhetoric of Authority. Kingston: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1994.
Gablik, Suki. Has Modernism Failed? London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Seabury Press, 1972.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism. New York: New Left Books, 1990.
Janz, Bruce. “Is There a Definition of Postmodernism?” WWW document. Available: http://www.dreamgate.com/pomo/corelli
Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.