A Few Notes Regarding Postmodernism

During the late 60’s and early 70’s one occasionally heard the slogan “Be here now.” This slogan apparently elevates the present to a primary position and abstracts the past and future. In terms of one’s attention, the nonpresent becomes mere distraction. The linear meta-narratives of the 40’s and 50’s, school, marriage, job, car, house, family, were rejected. The threat of nuclear obliteration had made the future far from certain and those responsible for the rules of the past were also responsible for the Vietnam war and the bomb. The initial inspiration of the enlightenment had metamorphosed into the limiting dogma of universal programs. The promised salvation of the individual, the salvation of Man, had yielded instead, Hitler and Stalin. The great meta-discourses of the enlightenment were crumbling evidenced by this antihistorical, and finally an ahistorical collective consciousness.

Science was having difficulty maintaining its authoritative position following its gift of the nuclear age in spite of the advertising campaign embodied in the space program. The space saga brought science to television as an attempt to appeal to the flourishing popular narcotic passion for spectacle while covertly enhancing the greater program of power structure justification and ideologies. Science was obscured and converted to technology and technology, a child born from the evolving efficiencies required by capitalism, was absorbed by consumerism. News, a big part of the informational drone, has no memory. It carries the “be here now” standard that has mutated into an advocate of remote experience. “Newsworthy” denotes consumability. “News maker’s” actions and programs are adjusted, or at least the released stories are edited to assure interesting copy on the six oclock news.

(Pure) science itself was beginning to reject, at least partially, linear rules of reason and started to admit intuitive leaps. The speed of light can never be attained because when it is approached, mass becomes infinite, time goes to zero and the required energy becomes infinite. Similarly, an asymptotic relation exists as the primal moment of space-time is theorized; the point of ultimate origin. It too can never be mathematically reached by means of traditional linear logic; time is zero and can only be approximated by division. The goals of quantum and astro physics begin to align with those of metaphysics and even accept some of the same tenets and intuitive methods. Although the enlightenment program is still implicitly alive within the program of theoretical physics, the final stronghold of the applied Greenbergian dogma of distinct disciplines is radically eliminated.

Renewed interests in Marxist ideals during the 60’s and 70’s, was transformed during the 80’s, into yuppified capitalist complacency. Oppositional historicism had changed to ahistoricism. Western pre-war Marxists had died, became disillusioned with communism (the distorted realization of Marxism) or, they too had been seduced by the comforts of capitalism.

The linearity described by Hegelian synthesis seems rather to describe the apparent linearity of the beginning iterations of a fractal series. The dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis may not ratchet linearly toward their ultimate becoming but instead, after a logically reversible infant stage, branch into the irreversible multiplicity of natural chaotic expression. The anticipation of the ultimate perfect expression of humanity is forgotten, lost in the fragmented A.D.D. / sound-bite new world order, pulsing through the distraction of the exponentially expanding network of text messages, IMs, chats & twitters woven through a media matrix of misinformation distilled down to an essence of jingoistic keyword baited banter bought and paid for by multi-national corporate sponsors.

Pastiche is a significant feature of postmodernism. It is blank parody, an adaptive appropriation that recycles the past. Its appropriative characteristic puts it at odds with the fundamental modernist tenet of unique authorship, of personal style. The break may be expanded to include a rejection of Greenbergian formal supremacy in favor of a new humanism. Jameson differentiates pastiche from parody in terms of linguistic norms or more accurately in terms of the deconstructed belief in those norms.[i] Just as idealized solutions must assume some fundamental standard for aspiration, parody ridicules its subject by inferring a norm. Pastiche does not. Its potential for multiplicity implies the characteristic nonlinear synthesis of fractals. Consider the return to materialism in the 80’s. The “Father Knows Best/Leave it to Beaver” meta-narrative of the 50’s was reduced to fetishistic consumerism. The material characteristics of that narrative became emblematic of postmodern fulfillment but the ideologies were forgotten. George Bush’s call for a return to family values reflects the potentially serious consequences for the capitalistic power structure arising from the unprogrammed society. It is clearly a simplistic view denying the non linearity of postmodern society, and is contradictory in that the real project is economic ideology and must therefore embrace consumerism as axiomatic. The “Father Knows Best”/nuclear family ideology is consequently reduced to just another nostalgia film.

Jameson focuses on fragmentation of the subject arising from the ahistorical “schizophrenia” of consumer society. His view is essentially Marxist. For him, arising from multinational capitalism, are the organizational man and corporate bureaucracies. The bourgeois individual, from the days of entrepreneurial (monopoly or imperialistic) capitalism, is an antique. He suggests a more radical view that posits the individual as myth. The myth probably originates from alienation converted to individualism by the ideologies of religion, the totalizing discourses of the enlightenment and finally, the rugged individual of capitalism. It is from the disappearance of the individual, that Jameson’s “schizophrenia” originates. He sees it in Laconian terms, as a language disorder resulting in no sense of time or history. “It is because language has a past and a future, because the sentence moves in time, that we have what seems to us a concrete or lived experience of time…schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic…does not know personal identity…since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ over time.”[ii]

Habermas sees fragmentation resulting, from division of the totality of life into independent and narrow areas of specialization, which are solely the domains of experts. The enlightenment’s promise of liberation is therefore denied to the public due to the inaccessibility of specialty language. “The differentiation of science, morality and art has come to mean the autonomy of the segments treated by the specialist……With cultural rationalization of this sort, the threat increases that the life-world, whose traditional substance has already been devalued, will become more and more impoverished.”[iii] He calls for a return to a modified modernist project, one that will provide a unity of experience.

Lyotard explains fragmentation in terms of the loss of meta-narratives in post industrial society. He sees as modern, “…any science that legitimates itself with reference to a meta-discourse… making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative…”[iv] and post modernity as the abandonment of any form of universal philosophy. The master narratives; the dialectic of the spirit, the emancipation of the worker, the accumulation of wealth, the classless society, were socially unifying programs giving direction and promises of change. Their loss of credibility, of legitimacy, their inability to compel consensus, implies fragmentation, and even societal schizophrenia inferred by the general loss of the stabilizing effect of meaning. Their loss of legitimacy was inevitable. Quantum mechanics and atomic physics yields an applicable theory. The energy required to define a system/universe is at least equal to the energy contained in that system. Lyotard clarifies with a quote from Borges. “An emperor wishes to have a perfectly accurate map of the empire made. The project leads the country to ruin – the entire population devotes all its energy to cartography.”[v]

“The idea of perfect control over a system, which is supposed to improve its performance… in fact lowers the performance level it claims to raise. This inconsistency explains the weakness of state and socioeconomic bureaucracies: they stifle the systems or subsystems they control and asphyxiate themselves in the process.”[vi]

Since the end of WW II, social structure has radically changed. The seats of power have shifted from the traditional political class to “…a composite layer of corporate leaders, high level administrators, and the heads of the major professional, labor, political, and religious organizations.”[vii] Not only are economic policies becoming less and less matters of state, but multinational capitalism is diffusing national boundaries.

Identity is getting harder to find. “…The old poles of attraction represented by nation-states, parties, professions, institutions, and historical traditions are losing their attraction.”[viii]

With the advent of computers, the state of learning and knowledge has changed from the traditional analog continuum of linear acquisition, from which the individual derived identity and position, to a digitally quantified and commodified status determined by application. Knowledge is no longer an end in itself but it is produced for its monetary value. “Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power.”[ix]

Commodification is being applied democratically, to all things. It appears to be a primary cause leading to the failure of the project of modernism. The avant-garde’s function was to provide a challenge to the autonomy of art, the art institution, its commodification and to propel the project forward. Habermas, a proponent for the return to modernism, and a bit of a romantic, describes the avant-garde: “The avant-garde understands itself as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future. The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.[x]” Clearly, Habermas’ view fuses the avant-garde with the enlightenment project. His view is optimistic and may have held true for the affirmative modernist program. A pessimistic view, expressed by Michael Newman paraphrases Thomas Crow, and describes the avant-garde: “…as a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry, setting in motion a one-way cycle of exchange: oppositional practices upward, the return of cultural goods downward such that modernist negation becomes, paradoxically, an instrument of cultural domination”[xi]

“A definition for postmodernism depends on how modernism is defined. Confusion may arise because modernism and postmodernism are used as both aesthetic categories and terms for cultural phenomena which coincide with epochs of history.”[xii] Newman suggests further confusion may arise from the lack of a clear definition of modernism. He identifies two branches of the project. First, is Clement Greenberg’s neo-Kantian formalist doctrine that insists on the racial purity of each discipline, and the second branch, a “critically reflexive tendency which might include Cubism, Dada, photomontage, the readymade and conceptual art.”[xiii] However, Bürger sees modernism and the avant-garde as separate phenomena. Modernism attacked traditional styles and techniques but the avant-garde attempted to change “institutionalized commerce with art”[xiv]. Modernism is concerned with linguistic strategies and formal issues, the avant-garde is involved in historical conflict and change. Newman’s view may be more accurate now. Currently, oppositional art is being produced but nothing is able to shock anymore. Senses have been dulled by extremes in media. Explicit acts of sex and violence, exposure to diverse cultures presented as anthropological artifacts or as contrived evidence of human homogeneity, consumable news, have all been pumped into our collective, democratized experience through our electronic sixth sense. We are addicted. We crave larger, more potent doses. The avant-garde’s teeth have been electronically removed. No longer dangerous, the avant-garde is greedily consumed by the art industry.

The two branches described by Newman may be traced to their Kantian and Hegelian roots. The Kantian view develops the autonomy of art from the necessarily subjective judgments required to define the aesthetic as an indication of the autonomous individual. Within the mutability of this subjective response the transcendental (immutable) is found. Mode, style, that which arises from influence and is mutable by obsolescence, had to be categorized as separate. Symbolist theory made a distinction between content and form and the aesthetic was viewed to reside in the latter. Greenberg would see kitsch in the former.

The Hegelian view sees “the withering away of art into social practice or theoretical discourse.”[xv] This certainly seems to describe a great deal of the art produced today. Content enjoys a restored status and the rule of autonomy for art is ignored rather than challenged but the issue of political correctness is apparently the new aesthetic. The restrictions imposed by the Greenbergian dogma provided boundaries for art based on formal considerations. Now the rules apply to content, and these limitations must be observed in your work if it is to be included in this year’s salon.

It is interesting to consider the apparent objective quality of style. In an expression’s initial manifestation, prior to its modality, it may exhibit transcendence, and in a way, stylization objectifies, or reifies the initial expression through consensus. This notion finds validity within the modernist program, but if viewed from a deconstructuralist viewpoint, it falls apart because it assumes universal or fixed meaning, which is necessarily a quality of the transcendent, and from a poststructuralist viewpoint, relies on authorship; “The Author-God,” and Greenberg’s metaphysical self dissolves into the cultural stew pot. Whereas Greenberg’s subject / author, because of the work, is immutable, transcendent, unique, and therefore immortal, for Foucault, the text kills the author. “He becomes a victim of his own writing.”[xvi] Foucault’s assertion extends Barthes’ view of modern text. Derrida further expands it to be inclusive of all representation. Derrida’s view aligns with, what I will call, an organic, or fractal viewpoint where signifiers and signified are constantly breaking apart and reattaching in new multi-dimensional combinations, mutations without an absolute defining origin. Non linearly organic, meaning is dispersed throughout the signifier’s infinite and untraceable (nonlinear) genealogy. Meaning is therefore only momentarily present and infinitely transitory. The Heisenburg uncertainty principle coupled with Brownian motion provides a subatomic analogy if we substitute momentary meaning for position and mutant ancestry for motion. Brownian motion provides an impenetrable barrier to the regressive mapping of the signifier’s nonlinear lineage.

The unconscious, unknowable Other is Lacan’s contribution to this “chaos theory of meaning”, expanding it to “chaos theory of being.” The Lacanian view expands Freudian psychoanalytic theory and substitutes signifier for phallus. Subjecthood is substituted for ego[xvii], and arises from transference of the signifier. “The subject is born insofar as the signifier emerges in the field of the Other. But by this very fact, the subject – which was previously nothing if not a subject coming into being – solidifies into a signifier.”[xviii] In the pre-verbal stage, the child / pre-subject is profoundly divided, identifying with everything, but in another sense, undifferentiated, unlabeled reality implies a non-judgmental unity. Acquisition of language and the laws of language are transferred with the father’s name and authority. The transfer marks an alienation of the psyche but return to a pre-verbal state is impossible. The Oedipal complex is the child’s transition from a natural, externally self identified and desiring condition, to the laws, language and organization of cultural group exchange.

Lacan sees the real, that which is absolute, as unknowable. It is what resists symbolization absolutely. Jameson views the Lacanian “real” as simply “history” and ignores the potential metaphysical implications.

Perhaps postmodern consumerism when viewed from a fetishistic viewpoint, can be seen as the transference of infantile desire and as a projection of identity onto the external. The object of desire becomes that which will complete, make whole, just as the mother is the infant’s pre-verbal identity as well as object of desire. “The magic of the fetish depends on the projection of consciousness into the object, and then forgetting the act of projection.”[xix] The obsession for material acquisition arises out of the transformation of this most primal identity related response. The dualist nature of the infant and its object of desire fragments into the multiplicity of potential consumables.

Althusser expands Lacan’s theory by asserting ideology’s authority as essentially “The Law of the Father.” The transfer of the signifier is the interpolation of the subject. Lacan’s subject is composed of language. Althusser’s subject is corrupted by ideology. The assurance of the West’s political stability can be explained by this concept. Stabilizing ideologies have been rigorously installed and although radical viewpoints may effect change, their influence can only be minimal and therefore they are tolerated. Political instability can be explained by an unstable, a lack of, an ineffectual, or a destabilized Ideology.

Postmodernism, as a cultural phenomenon, is associated with multi-national capitalism, consumer based society, the proliferation of computer based informational systems, and a collapse of authority of the meta-narratives of the enlightenment. Progress is seen as a myth. Politically, it is at odds with Marxism and culturally, it rejects the project of modernism. The formal transcendence of abstract expressionism has been challenged by a neo-conservative return to humanism. The austerely elegant functionalism of the international style in architecture has been replaced with a new stylistic eclecticism. Deconstruction of the existential models of authenticity and inauthenticity and of the semiotic opposition between signifier and signified have respectively left the individual and meaning without concrete definition. Appropriation and pastiche have replaced the unique expression of transcendence.

In spite of the social structure and in spite of their own arguments, there seems to be a common desire expressed by theorists for a return to the modernist project. Habermas openly leads the pack and calls for a resurrection of modernism in a transparent and fully communicational society. Lyotard takes issue with Habermas’ position because it assumes the possibility of universal rules for language games. In spite of this, he expresses a kind of nostalgia for a return to openly narrative discourse.

Jameson’s identification of the Laconian “Real” with history, and his desire to recover social history from its misrepresented invisibility, suggests a desire to restore individual social identity. Although he does not call for a return to modernism, he is critical of the commodification of postmodern aesthetic production: “This whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, death and horror.”[xx] For Jameson, the cure resurects the avant-garde: “We have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces-reinforces the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic.”[xxi]

[i]Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, in Hal Foster (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle Washington, 1983.

[ii]Fredric Jameson, op cit.

[iii]Jürgen Habermas, Modernity – An Incomplete Project, in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle Washington, 1983.

[iv]Jean-François Lyotard, in an interview with Christian Descamps, in An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, Madan Sarup, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1989.

[v]Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, Dutton, New York. 1972; quoted in Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984.

[vi]Jean-François Lyotard, op cit.

[vii]Jean-François Lyotard, op cit.

[viii]Jean-François Lyotard, op cit.

[ix]Jean-François Lyotard, op cit.

[x]Jürgen Habermas, op cit.

[xi]From Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts, quoted in Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism, Michael Newman, ICA Documents 4 Postmodernism.

[xii]Michael Newman, Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism, op cit.

[xiii]op cit.

[xiv]op cit.

[xv]Michael Newman, op cit.

[xvi]Michael Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Quoted in: Michael Newman, Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism, op cit.

[xvii]For Lacan, the ego is unknowable because to do so would require an impossible reflexivity.

[xviii]Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Quoted in: Michael Newman, Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism, op cit.

[xix]W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

[xx]Jameson, New Left Review, No. 146, quoted in An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, op cit.

[xxi]Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, op cit.


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