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doCarmo's Notes on POSTMODERNISM
Postmodernism is something that's been happening in -- or to -- the world since about 1960, though that date depends on which particular philosopher/cultural pundit/art critic you're listening to. The first thing we've really got to acknowledge at the outset, though, is that there's actually a number of postmodernisms. This is because the word means different things to different thinkers in different fields -and so there are three types of postmodernism I want to think about here: postmodernism as a philosophy, postmodernism as an artistic style, and postmodernism as a historical period.
Postmodernism: A Philosophy
In the late 1960s and early '70s, philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Francois Lyotard (all these guys are French, incidentally) started formulating philosophies they thought were well suited for -- or even necessitated by -- our information-drenched, increasingly globalized world. These guys' ideas are diverse, and it's a little dangerous to lump them all together, but I think we can identify at least three big, recurring trends in their thinking: 1. Postmodernist philosophers are intensely wary of rationality as a way of dealing with the world; 2. Postmodernist philosophers advocate for multiplicity and difference, rebuffing calls for totalization and regimentation at every turn; 3. Postmodernist philosophers believe all "truth" is socially and historically constructed, not fixed, eternal, or written in the stars. We can probably address the first two of those at the same time. It's because they're so distrustful of rationality -- of all modes of thought that break the world into schemas, systems, and categories -- that postmodernist thinkers advocate for multiplicity and difference, railing against demands for totalization and regimentation wherever they find them. They want us to give up all "totalizing" principles and ideas and accept a world full of ungovernable, irreconcilable differences instead. Postmodernist philosophers don't much care for the big ideas we've come up with to explain human nature or human history. They don't, for instance, like psychoanalysis (Freud's gift to the world) because it too reductively says all people everywhere struggle to resolve the same internal psychological conflicts. They're wary of Marxism, because it's also too reductive with its suggestion that all societies will eventually mature into communist societies. They don't much care for free-market capitalism, either, though, since it too would "totalize" the world, making everyone everywhere participate in a single global economy and a single consumer culture. And they're not too hot on religion -- the fundamentalist sorts, at least -- because it too can take on an absolutist, ours-is-the-only-path-to-truth stance. Also, postmodernist philosophers don't just throw out totalizing theories like those mentioned above ("metanarratives," they sometimes call those theories). They also discard the ideas that have long undergirded those theories. They don't want to hear any more, for instance, about notions of a self, or "subject," as philosophers like to call it: they believe each of us is a multiplicity of socially-learned selves, not a self-contained, monadic, self-determined individual. They shudder at the word teleology, which names the idea that history and human society are moving in some unavoidable, pre-ordained direction. And the idea of representation, or the notion that a word or image can stand in for some absent "real" thing, also goes out the window. Postmodernists don't denounce these theories and ideas because they're vicious or because they want to wreak havoc in the world. They do it, actually, because they want us to become better, more humane people. "Totalizing" theories and ideas, they say, too often become the whips and clubs we use to inflict uniformity and predictability on the world and our fellow citizens in it. Let's let all that go, they say, and accept some unexplainability, unpredictability, and difference instead. Maybe we'll all live longer. About that third item above -- the one that says postmodernists believe all "truth" is fabricated: it's true. Nothing is absolute for the postmodernist. We construct the truths and principles we live by depending on who we are, where we are, and when we are. Marx, for instance, may have believed all humanity is destined for a workers' revolution, that it's as inevitable as tomorrow morning. But a postmodernist
(When fiction writers go in for these sorts of escapades. lots of different "arts" out there: theater. or some other "text. In fact.") 2. Some of the traits described below can be found easily enough in theater. postmodernist art can be very "pop. they say." It often draws its subject matter from the realm of popular culture and employs pop-culture forms and genres.would say Marx was seeing the "truth" of a white male philosopher with certain personal experiences living in a certain part of Europe at a certain moment in the 19th century. Thus you have an acclaimed. Postmodernism: An Artistic Style There are." A famous pop artist named Roy Lichtenstein loved painting images taken right out of comic books. often in befuddling ways. music. Postmodernist artists often refuse to let their works be simply or totally about something else. Postmodernist artists love to defy our expectations and do things they're not "supposed" to do -. 4. What seemed universally true and imminent for him where and when he lived may look anything but from our own vantage point early in the 21st century. In other words.maybe to remind us that the rational categorizations we often use to understand art never work as well or as perfectly as we like to think they do. It creates a kind of historical collage. that "white" isn't synonymous with "normal. which looks like a classical Roman building all done up in Las Vegas-style neon lights. These movements have persuaded most modern Westerners to respect differences instead of hierarchizing them. telling about nothing more than how it came to be written. Or you have Andy Warhol painting Campbell's soup cans. 3. It's self-referential. It's how you get a building like Charles Moores' Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans. for the postmodernist philosopher. it's a little dicey to generalize about how to recognize postmodernist style in all of them. "Pastiche. It's not snobbish." and that there's no reason "queer" can't be synonymous with normal.. sculpture. That's "intertextuality. then mixing them all together in a single work of art. It bears noting here too that the many civil-rights movements of recent decades have a distinctly postmodernist flavor. are temporary truths that reflect the interests of the people who construct them. Anyway: you can tell postmodernist art when you see it because. film. That's intertextuality. and (of course) various genres of literature. We might go to a concert where the pianist sits in front of the piano and does nothing for four minutes. capital-L Literary author like Joyce Carol Oates writing a novel about Marilyn Monroe's life (Blonde. But not exclusively. it's called). of course. We might read a novel whose author has for some reason indulged in hundreds of tedious faux-scholarly footnotes." to recent art critics. which mixes up the war genre with sci-fi." even if in a visual rather than written medium. They've insisted to us that the male version of history isn't the only version. The postmodernist artist who creates a pastiche sees all of art history as a big toybox full of fun things to play with and stick together in new and interesting ways. to use our "truths" as weapons if we remember they are only temporary and constructed." That is. And this explanation being mainly for lit students. 1. or is about itself. I'll probably concentrate here on artistic traits you can readily find within postmodernist literary works." Fancy French word. 5. Similarly. Or it's how you get a novel like Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. that. Or you have Art Spiegelman creating a moving account of the Nazi holocaust in the form of a comic book featuring cats and mice as . too. dance. He made art about somebody else's art. film. it refers to itself. a writer named John Gardner wrote a novel in the '70s called Grendel that's a funny retelling of the medieval classic Beowulf. It's "pastiched. Since there are so many arts. it's art that often likes to be about some other work of art. John Barth's "Life Story" is a great example: it's a short story that is its own first-person narrator. and they constantly draw attention to themselves as artifices instead of trying to be windows on some sort of reality beyond themselves. to name just a few. And postmodernists would like us to recognize this not because they're hateful but because we're less likely. is the practice of borrowing elements of different genres and different styles from lots of different historical periods.. painting. So again: all truths. it's often called "metafiction. architecture. It's "intertextual. All of this could easily be postmodernist. painting. Their works are about themselves as works of art. We might go to the museum and realize the security guard in the corner watching us is actually a wax dummy. etc. music. It's category-defying.
We've got our antique car shows at the local conference center. We've got every edition of every New York Times ever published available to us on the Web. 2. often illuminating ways. or our pastors. But the new economy. And the intent. and selling abstract goods like information than solid tangible goods like the ones your parents or grandparents may have helped produce. is a great example. our stereos. to a "precession of simulacra. depending (as I remarked at the top of this ever-growing document) on whose opinion you're hearing. and "reality" dutifully imitates. It's global. it's always a story someone tells. etc. and they often re-tell "actual" textbook history in peculiar. and an old Humphry Bogart flick on AMC. billboards. Being schizoid and fragmented eventually starts to feel like our modus operandi. Illinois. Titanic. at least in surfaces and images. Its past is present. we're living in now -. we still need steel and lumber and cars and buildings and factories. fix a car. 6. We might feel we're one person when talking to our bosses and somebody else when talking to our kids. nothing seems ever to vanish into the past. We've got our Beatles and Miles Davis CDs. magazines. We can just as easily imagine someone having a business meeting in London tomorrow but needing to be in L.aren't much interested in the distinction between real and make-believe. We've got our bellbottom jeans.and have been since about 1960. Most postmodernist artists don't draw the sorts of distinctions between "high" and "low" culture many artists of the past did -. 4. We might go to a Chinese place for lunch and a Mexican place for dinner. It's all well and good to be able to rivet steel. It gets fact and fiction all mixed up. It's info. many cultural critics say. watching TV. newspapers. managing. that which is over there very comes over here -. is to remind us there is no such thing as "real" or "true" history. Information. databases and bandwidth.fiction writers especially -. It's the sort of experience people used to take LSD to have. Braveheart." which has President Lyndon Johnson interacting with other characters who are totally invented. moving. not sweat. which is a characteristically postmodern feeling if ever there was one.at least on our screens. or build a house.. Mixing fact and fiction is a way to amplify this idea. Postmodernism: A Historical Period It's the historical period..A. It can make us feel nostalgic for times we didn't even live in. What characterizes this postmodern historical moment of ours? Well. But the worker who wants to get ahead these days may need to know a little more about circuits and networks. flip back and forth between an NBA game.. the postindustrial economy. We can easily imagine an Indian lawyer educated in New Delhi starting a practice in Peoria. a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard says." What does that mean? It means that images and simulations often now seem to precede everything in the real world: the pictures come first. not to mention scores of recent Jane Austen movies. our lawyers.. postmodern world go around. We may have parents born and raised in Louisiana who can't get enough of a certain Celtic folk band." Yes.characters. web pages and content providers. It's schizoid. It lives on and on -. maybe. David Foster Wallace's story "Lyndon. sew a shirt. 3. Back to my homepage . by tomorrow night. We modern Western folks are truly swamped by texts and images flying at us from computer and TV and movie screens. In the postmodern world. and Saving Private Ryan. and in our fashions.. 1.in a hurry. We've got our Three Stooges and Little Rascals movies on cable TV. seems to be what makes the new. We've got multinational corporations selling their wares in every corner of the globe. 5. etc. unsettling. We might. They often make famous "real" historical figures interact with fictional characters in their works.and image-laden. seems more oriented towards creating. We've got McDonald's opening across the street from Tianenmen Square in China. etc. In the postmodern era. We've got people in Siberia and Sri Lanka watching re-runs of The Cosby Show. We might see a Shakespearean tragedy at our college one night and go for a Bollywood movie the next. Our inundation with all this stuff has led.and vice versa -. storefronts. We've got new mosques opening in New York City almost daily. In the postmodernist era. We've got "historical" movies like Ali. it's strange how the past seems to stick around forever. We might have been at an art museum an hour and a half ago and find ourselves in a business meeting now. a VH-1 "Behind the Music" show on KISS. It's "postindustrial.and so they defy yet another mode of categorization. Postmodernist artists -.
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