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Postmodernism

Humpty Dumpty – the manifestation Lewis Carroll met on his drug-infused travels Through the Looking Glass rather than the nursery rhyme father of the omelette – would feel at home with the word postmodernism. It was Carroll's Dumpty who declared 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.'

Different disciplines have adopted the term 'postmodernism' in quite different ways. Indeed, even within disciplines there is heated controversy about what the term denotes. For some postmodernism is the way of the contemporary world. For others postmodernism denotes a problem. Both these approaches to postmodernism can either be celebrated or attacked.

One use of the word 'postmodernism' relates to the arts, where painting, architecture, cinema, music, literature (and indeed all the art forms that refuse to be neatly categorised) have all been deeply influenced by a reaction to the 'modernism' that was dominant from the 1930s to the 1970s. Exponents of each of these art forms have enthusiastically embraced postmodernism ideologies, with varying success.

Since the mid-1980s postmodernism has surfaced in a wide range of intellectual disciplines. The ideas which 'make up' postmodernism approaches are hard to define, partly because the different disciplines bring out different aspects of the underlying philosophies.

One way of trying to unravel postmodernism is to think of it as having three aspects:

  • a way of thinking about society
  • ways of representing and describing 'the world'
  • a theory of knowledge (or, more specifically, 'facts' are constructed and therefore relative to specific viewpoints, leaving the notion of 'truth' as decidedly problematical)
But, in a truly postmodernism manner, even these three aspects are not really seperable.

Postmodernism rejects the modernist 'rationalism' which sees scientific knowledge as the paradigm for all other ways of knowing. In so doing it rejects the idea that notions such as 'truth' have any objective basis. Instead, knowledge (and the values placed on that knowledge) is relative to prior cultural preconceptions and therefore pluralistic. Dominant 'élites' – not least academics who have not embraced postmodernism – may consider that their ways of 'knowing' are 'priviledged' over alternative ways of knowing. Instead we should regard all world views as incomplete and therefore only 'partial' (in both senses of being incompete and biased). The postmodernism world-view celebrates fragmentary, ever-relative, provisional, continually-renegotiated attempts at understanding.

Postmodernism offers a world view where everything is ultimately meaningless (or, rather, everything can have many more-or-less arbitrary meanings resulting from different cultural preconceptions). However the fun starts once we have recognised that our entire ways of thinking and knowing are merely ways of camouflaging this underlying abyss. If nothing is true then all beliefs can be thought of as tools for achieving specific outcomes.

Most postmodernism writers have looked at postmodernism in society. However, from the perspective of foamy custard we should also take a postmodernism look at the individuals who make up societies. From this perspective even deeply acculturated 'givens', such as the sense of individual self and identity, can become fluid and 'experimental'. As Peter J. Carroll has written:

    Some philiosophers and psychologists bemoan the disintegration or fragmentation of the self in the contemporary world.

    We celebrate this development.

    The belief in a single self stems from religious monotheisms having only a single god. Let us throw out the baby with the bath water.

    [...]

    If you consider yourself an 'individual', in the sense of 'indivisible', you have not lived.

    If you merely consider yourself as a single being capable of playing various roles, then you have yet to play them in extremis.

    The selfs must allow each self a shot at its goal in life, if you wish to achieve any sense of fulfillment and remain sane.

    Peter J. Carroll Psyber magick: Advanced ideas in chaos magick 1995

Elsewhere Psymon Danser asks:
    What is an individual? Is it the 'enbodied individual' – eating, walking, sleeping, making love? Is it the 'thinking individual' – a sequential stream of thoughts/memes? Is it the 'social individual' – ever-varying relationships with a variety of other people, whether close (such as family) or transient (such as shop assistants in a strange town)? (And deeply embedded in the 'social individual' are the politics of power – who has power over who, how this power may be 'traded'.) And, in the modern Western world at least, there is individualism – independence of thought and action.

    An 'individual' is not simply the sum total of a multiplicity of social variables such as age, ethnicity, sex, gender, class, social status, religion, education, aspirations. An 'individual' is all possible permutations of these variables, not some constant 'lowest common denominator'.

    Psymon Danser 'Beyond individuality'

Timothy Leary approached the dilemma of 'self' and 'individuality' differently:

    We see the human in the world as existing in three parts:
    1. one's interior personal world,
    2. the external world of artifacts and others and
    3. the interface – the sensory and affective channels through which one perceives and manipulates the external world
    The experience of self/consciousness resides at the interface, able to look within or without, toward 'imagination' or 'reality'. Self is a semipermeable boundary.

    Timothy Leary Design for Dying 1997

Cultural studies has long embraced much of the 'relativism' of postmodernism, although generally avoiding the issues associated with individual identity. In contrast, mythology and folklore remain essentially 'modernist' and there have been no overtly postmodernism approaches (although mythologists such as Bruce Lincoln have used a different type of 'deep criticism' to critique previous approaches).

For a more extended overview see Mary Klages' introduction to postmodernism

For masses of links to Web sites about postmodernism see the Everything Postmodern Web site.

Arguably postmodernism is already passé and we have entered into hypermodernism, where information (and its accessibility over the Internet) has more importance than physical artefacts. Governments and the mass media strenuously strive to control access to information. Major music and cinema corporations try every trick in the book to make money from the copyrights to their 'product', yet the 'product' itelf is just a near-copy of so many other pop songs or films. 'Brand images' are more important than the objects being sold under the brand name. Megabucks financial mergers are more significant to the economy than the human and concrete assets of the businesses concerned.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003; revised 2004


feedback:

(this refers to an earlier version of this page)

I liked this intro, but found it over-focussed on notions of the self/individual. Possibly a novice to ideas of postmodernism would be misled into thinking that this was the main thrust of the theory? I'd like to see a bit more here about general breaking down of boundary stuff; possible mentions of notions of time/space getting shorter/smaller, maybe linked from the discussion of identity through ideas of nation-states. But also to show how the breaking down of the notion of the self is leading to more global/social fracturings/schizophrenia. And also then, nicely fitting in with myth, to discuss how possibly one effect of post-moderism is for people to almost consciously construct myths/narratives for themselves in the face of ever-fracturing ideas of self? I'm sure all this is covered elsewhere in your site (which so far I think is fantastic, a forum like this has been needed for far too long), but if a lot of readers are going to go to introductory articles first it might be nice to make the scope as broad as possible? Excuse me if this isn't too coherent.

Charlotte Staples

 

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