Friday, July 06, 2007

PoMo Primer: An introduction to Postmodernism

In a probing article on the goings on in the fin de siecle days of the Bush White House, Alexander G Rubio claims the administration “is founded on a post-modern belief in creating reality by sheer force of will and exporting democratic revolution world wide”. Rubio uses the example of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum where an invented conspiracy came to pass to show how the Bush administration ended up believing in their own web of lies and spin.

Rubio quotes from the surrealistic White House 3 July press briefing by Tony Snow where he defends Bush’s action’s in the Libby case using a weight of logical contradictions. According to Snow, Bush wasn't "granting a favour to anyone" but that the case got his "special handling." It was not done for "political reasons" even though "it was political." It was also handled "in a routine manner," yet it was also "an extraordinary case.” And "we are not going to make comments" on the case, even though Bush had already issued a 655-word statement commenting on the case. Rubio argues that the façade of the administration has crumbled leaving nothing but naked power underneath. And the moral according to Rubio is “postmodernism might make for some half way decent art, [but] it produces really bad politics.”

But what exactly is postmodernism? Woolly Days has just finished reading Kevin Hart’s “Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide”. The book was attempt to explain the subject for people who know little or nothing about it. The Australian born Hart was Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana this year and has now moved to the University of Virginia. He has 18 books to his name including seven volumes of poetry.

Hart begins with a list of the various important strands of postmodernism. The first branch is French and begins with Francois Lyotard (1925-1998) whose 1979 work “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” first popularised the word. Lyotard argued the postmodern was an attitude of suspicion towards the modern. The modern always appeals to a “meta-narrative” which guides human activity towards some sort of moral progress. The postmodern does not follow the modern but maintains an attitude of disbelief towards it. The postmodern presents what cannot be conceptualised.

The next major French postmodernist is Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). Lacan was a combination of psychoanalyst, philosopher and literary critic. He was fascinated by the “subject” and how it is organised and disorganised by language. The subject is the combination of being and meaning and Lacan thought of it as “the space of desire”. Using methods of metaphor and metonymy, Lacan constructs a nebulous subject that is motivated by a desire for something not quite symbolic and not quite real. It is also always changing.

In 1975 Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) wrote an essay based on Lacan’s work called “Le facteur de la verite” (which puns on “postman/factor of truth”). Derrida expanded Lacan’s examples into the world of economics, politics, architecture and elsewhere. Derrida’s teaching can be condensed into a French expression “plus d’une langue” which means variously “more than one language” or “no more of one language”. In other words, there is no master language of communication. Translation is always necessary.

Derrida draws on the works on metaphysics by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger said that metaphysics (Greek meta ta physica “what comes after physics”) asks the question “what are beings?” but doesn’t ask the more fundamental question “what is being?” This means that being is figured by way of beings so is never considered to be God or Mind.

Others rebelled against the preoccupation of subject found in Freud and Lacan. Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote several books together where they tackled the free flow of desire. Desire, they said, doesn’t arise from the subject but is flowing everywhere. They claimed that experience is not maintained in the consciousness of the subject and drawing from Scottish philosopher David Hume said there is no ground of experience, either within or without the mind. Humans have no exclusive rights to experience, perception and consciousness.

French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) had similar ideas. He analysed the relationship between power and knowledge. He was most interested in humanity’s “rifts, ruptures and contradictions”. Foucault tried to think outside the realm of the subject and argued that power is everywhere. It isn’t concentrated in individuals but lives in structures and systems, he said. Power can be resisted but it is impossible to get outside of it.

Others argued that this wave of French philosophers were not true-postmodernists at all, they were post-structuralists. That is convenient, because post-structuralism rejects definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world it is itself difficult to define. Nonetheless many argue that postmodernism is more truly an American construct rather than French and Las Vegas represents postmodernity far better than Paris.

And indeed postmodernism is rife in the US. Company branding is one example: when drinking Coke, what you are really consuming is the image. Artists as diverse as Madonna and Britney Spears perpetually remake themselves. War is presented as a sanitised operation from TV studios and would eventually lead to Jean Baudrillard’s “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” (the title ending up more well known than the book itself) which showed we are hostages of media presentation which create illusions he described as “simulacra”. What CNN provided was a hyper-real simulacra of the First Gulf War (the second was no better), not what “really happened”.

In essence American postmodernism is about taking things out of context, pulling them to pieces and playing with those pieces. It is about data and simulation rather than nature. In literature, the Irish first dabbled in postmodernism with Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and Beckett’s “The Unnamable”. Pynchon, Calvino, DeLillo, and Eco followed on from there. Postmodernity became a complex reaction to the mid-twentieth century failings of modernity. The idea of modernity being a series of steady unabated progress has been shattered.

Nonetheless there are those who argue that postmodernism offers the chance for re-enchantment and a new opportunity for thinking ethics and the mystery of the godhead. Modernity had no place for gods and instead put its faith in universal reason. It was fascinated by abstractions, secularism and nihilism. But the extermination camps and gulags put an end to this faith. The postmodern is now the site of the post-secular. They believe there are no fixed essences only what Hart calls a “differential flux”.

Kevin Hart himself belongs to this branch of postmodernism. Hart points to Derrida who, although not a believer himself, opened a way to develop a sophisticated non-metaphysical theology and one that rejects idolatry. Postmodernism for Hart and others allows them to re-elaborate the central doctrines of Christianity.

So the word “postmodernism” means different things in different contexts. The Modernism to which it refers is the melange of avant garde cultural phenomena of the first 30 years of the 20th century as represented by the work of Eliot, Pound, Joyce (Ulysses), Woolf, Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse and Le Corbusier. Postmodernism questioned and then played around with various strands of modernism beginning in the 1950s. William Burroughs early collage novels were important examples. The French then tied together the American experience with local threads and re-exported the mix across the world.

Hart quotes Jorge Luis Borges’ “Of Exactitude in Science” in which an empire’s cartographers devise a map so complex it has a one-to-one correspondence with the land itself. But when the empire declines, the map falls into disrepair. Baudrillard suggests that the same is not true of postmodernism. We can no longer be sure which is priority the map or the terrain. In the end there is no substantial difference between the two. We no longer live with the real but instead with the hyper-real. And that includes the hyper-reality of the White House.

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