This lesson introduces postmodernism, where everything is enclosed in “inverted commas”, deconstruction is imminent, nothing is true and copycats are cool. It is a culture of the bricoleur, a critique of authenticity and the final nail in the coffin of high culture.
What is Postmodernism?
The “post” in postmodern suggests “after”. Meaning a time after the “real”; after structure; after grand narratives or universal truth. In fact, postmodernism is best understood as a questioning of the ideas and values associated with its predecessor: modernism.
Take a look at this poster which provides a graphic overview of postmodernism’s reaction against modernism.
Modernism was a period of rapid growth and significant change occurring throughout the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It valued reason, logic and order above all. It sort to improve society and culture by establishing new orders, new forms of artistic expression and pursued original thought, scientific innovation and industrial progress.
Postmodernism rejected this by claiming nothing can ever be new or original, true or false; reason can be found in illogic and emotion; nothing will ever progress or improve, it will only change, and art can be anything you want.
For example: is this chicken soup? Is it art? Or is it advertising?
Postmodernism eroded the distinction between high and low culture by giving style precedence over content. Thus it becomes more difficult to maintain a meaningful distinction between art and popular culture. There is no longer any agreed and insolvable criteria which can serve to differentiate art from popular culture. Compare this with the fears of mass culture critics that mass culture would eventually subvert high culture. The only difference seems to be that these critics were pessimistic about these developments, whereas, some, but not all-postmodern theorists are by contrast optimistic. One aspect of this process is that art becomes increasingly integrated into the economy both because it is used to encourage people to consume through its role in advertising and because it becomes a commercial good in its own right.
Explainer: what is postmodernism?
I once asked a group of my students if they knew what the term postmodernism meant: one replied that it’s when you put everything in quotation marks. It wasn’t such a bad answer, because concepts such as “reality”, “truth” and “humanity” are invariably put under scrutiny by thinkers and “texts” associated with postmodernism.
Let’s begin by watching the video entitled Post Modernity below. Based on its aesthetic qualities and thematic content of the video, try and establish a definition or a succinct description of the narrative qualities of a postmodern text.
Now let’s watch another video entitled I’m So Postmodern by the Bedroom Philosopher (below) and let’s see if your first descriptive summary holds true.
📢 HAVE YOUR SAY
Adapt your definition if necessary. What additional characteristics might you consider or reconsider including in your original definition and why?
Now that you’ve watched both videos, come up with a new definition and tweet your thoughts to the @SAE_CIU twitter feed.
Define postmodernism in 140 characters or less
— SAE Media & Culture (@CIU_SAE) February 9, 2015
Even if we cannot identify many similarities between the first two videos, this lack of aesthetic cohesion or structure suggests that, if nothing else, postmodernism is incongruous and ambiguous with an availability of meaning. There is a certain kind of messiness in this definition, and for this reason, postmodernism is sometimes accused of being frivolous or trite, lacking substance, sensibility and utility. But before you make that mistake, let’s consider the following set of characteristics in relation to the first two videos you watched and hopefully you will start to see the creative possibility that postmodernism offers.
★ Critique of grand narratives (a singular history, usually white, male & European) in favour of local narratives.
★ Fragmentation of an essential narrative of self into polyvocal (means many-voiced) narrations.
★ Affirmative and skeptical positions i.e. cynicism; nihilism.
★ Genealogical discourse (how stories, concepts, paradigms, history changes over time).
★ Reject stories of time told in linear sequence, i.e. atemporality
★ A focus on how collective memory involves forgetting pain and suffering and recomposing memory to encompass new or previously excluded stories.
While you may not have known how to describe these features yourself the first time you watched the videos, I’m sure now that you’ve watched them you could probably identify most of the narrative characteristics in one or both of the above videos.
Is postmodernism simply nonsense?
Now read this passage below and try and distill the meaning of it. It may first sound like nonsense and not mean much, but maybe that’s the point. What do you think?
Perhaps we could say, that postmodernism is a way of playing with meaning; poking fun at the limitations of certainty and instead embracing new interpretations and multiple possibilities of what any text can mean.
Let’s hear what Mike from the Ideas Channel has to say about postmodernism through an analysis of Community. While you’re watching this, try and establish a list of the stylistic and aesthetic qualities that Mike identifies as postmodern.
Postmodern Media Aesthetics
In modern culture, we could observe clear delineations between genres and styles, such as romance or detective novels, blues, rock and pop music, documentary and comedy films. Postmodernism breaks down these distinctions, borrowing from different genres and styles of media as well as different cultural traditions, places and times reassembling them to create something new. For example, Hip Hop and house music use sampling to create new music styles from existing records, often bringing together sounds and visual aesthetics that originate from vastly different genres, cultures and times. The music video below is a prime example of this technique, which we call HYBRIDITY.
Similar to hybridity, BRICOLAGE is another example creating something new from ‘borrowed’ and reassembled cultural artifacts. This is caused by putting things together in a manner that they were not designed for and thus creating new meanings and conventions, where elements or conventions are juxtaposed. Bricolage was adopted by the punk scene to add to its cultural identity. For example, the safety pin became a key object in a punks outfit, as it was used to patch up old clothes in a DIY way. Also, punk fanzines sometimes used a Bricolage style, in particular, Sniffin’ Glue, which uses handwriting as opposed to having letters printed. Bricolage is a way for subcultures to defy the meanings of mass culture. It uses the meaning of objects to bring about their own identity. The safety pin was sometimes used ironically, playing on the word safety by, for example using it through their nose. (Hebdige, 1979).
PARODY and PASTICHE are both examples of INTERTEXTUALITY. Intertextuality is when the meaning of one text is defined through reference to and our understanding of other texts. Look at these examples where The Simpsons reference classic rock album covers and Madonna references Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”.
INTERTEXTUALITY is like a shortcut to meaning, it relies on the audience’s understanding of media texts and pop culture to make new meanings.
A text that is made up of elements borrowed from other texts. PASTICHE differs from parody in using imitation as a form of flattery rather than mockery, and from plagiarism in its lack of deceptive intent.
📝 CRITICAL REFLECTION ACTIVITY
Parody, Pastiche and/or Homage? Take a look at the following three examples of intertextuality and discuss the postmodern aesthetics operative in each pair.
Can you think of any other examples of postmodern aesthetics? If so, what are they? Find the Youtube videos and share them with your class on social media or via your Campus Online discussion forum.
📚 PRESCRIBED READING
Don’t forget that there’s course reading to be completed. The reading for week one and week two is Edgar, A., & Sedgwick, P. (2007). ‘Postmodernism and Poststructuralism’. In Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts (pp.256-266). London: Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.
3 thoughts on “Postmodernism”