Postmodernism Again

            What’s written here bears only a loose relation to what we did in class. I came in with a “postmodern” lecture: I had two typed-out pages of full sentences, four legal-pad pages of scribbled notes, and a lot of ideas. What we did in class was talk first about examples of postmodernism from our everyday lives; we then talked through the list, and I worked to show how various examples illustrated some of the main ideas of postmodernism.

            Like lots of postmodern events, however, what happened in class was a performance, which is not repeatable or translatable into written text. Had I the expertise, I would videotape the class session and put video clips on this web page. But I don’t. So you’re left with a plain old modern written version of what happened. This is probably more coherent (and certainly more grammatical) than what went on in class, but it’s far less postmodern. So read at your own risk.

            As I said last week, postmodernism is hard to pin down, not only because it appears in so many different contexts and through so many different discourses, but because one of the fundamental principles of postmodernism is indeterminacy–once you pin something down, name it, categorize it, you have already tried to fit it into a humanist or Enlightenment model of knowledge; postmodernism is, in general, whatever resists or destabilizes the Enlightenment mode of thought, knowledge, or action.

            The question of what constitutes “knowledge” is an important one for humanist and postmodern thinking. As we talked about last week, and as Francois Lyotard (“lee-oh-TAHR(d)”) stresses, the idea of “knowledge” in the Enlightenment was based on reason, rationality, consciousness, and science: what could be “objectively” known was what was true. And following from that, what was true was what was good and what was right and what was beautiful– moral, legal, and aesthetic codes were built on the knowledge produced by scientific/rational modes of thought. This idea of knowledge supported, and was supported by, the binary opposition “reason/madness” and “rationality/irrationality.” Within these binary structures, what was deemed “reason” was favored, aligned with positive elements like “self” and “mind” and “masculine” and “Western,” while what was deemed “madness” was aligned with “other,” “body,” “feminine,” and “non-Western/Oriental.” The poststructuralist theories we’ve been talking about all semester raised challenges to these binary oppositions, working to deconstruct them or at least shake them up. Postmodernism takes this deconstruction in a different direction.

            Frederic Jameson (“JAY-meh-son”) argues that postmodernism is associated with electronics and specifically with computers as the “means of production” which determines all social practices; Lyotard takes that idea and argues that knowledge itself is transformed by our reliance on computer technology. In a digitally based age, Lyotard says, all knowledge must be digitizable to be preserved; anything that is not digitizable will not be called “knowledge” and will be excluded from our systems of data collection, organization, and preservation. The opposite of “knowledge,” for Lyotard, is not “ignorance, ” as it was for Enlightenment thinkers, but “noise”– a mode of expression or existence that cannot be included within digitizable categories. A parallel might be the radio: clear transmission is “knowledge,” and static is “noise,” which interrupts the broadcast of knowledge. Postmodernist theories talk a lot about what constitutes “noise” because “noise” disrupts knowledge; postmodernists also talk about “waste” and “shit” and other names for discarded (and often revolting) substances as modes of disrupting the orderly flow of knowledge or production.

            Lyotard also argues that knowledge can take two forms: it can be “science” or “narrative.” He associates both with ideas about “language games” from the linguistic philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein . A “language game,” in brief, is any linguistic act (statement, utterance, sentence, etc.). He calls it a “game” because each linguistic act follows certain rules and uses certain strategies; you might think here about Bakhtin’s ideas about heteroglossia, and the different kinds of languages you use in the course of a day in talking to different audiences about different topics and for different purposes. Lyotard talks about “narrative” as a language game that doesn’t need any outside legitimation: when you tell a story, the story simply exists on its own, and you don’t need to prove it or footnote it or assert that it’s true. We talked about a version of this with Foucault, who pointed out that authors become necessary when stories do need to be legitimated, when you have to attribute the story to someone who made it up. Some stories, like legends or folk tales, don’t ever need authors; other stories–which are more linked to “science” than to “narrative”–do. Lyotard says that no narrative needs legitimation, by definition; if something needs to have an authority behind it to insist that it’s true, then it’s defined as “science.” But, Lyotard says, “science” can never legitimize itself; it always has to refer to narrative (or a narrative) as the authority outside itself that guarantees its truth.

            More specifically, according to Lyotard, science depends on what he calls “grand narratives”– he refers to the grand narratives of the Enlightenment enthronement of reason and Hegel’s narrative of the unity of all knowledge. Such grand narratives, or metanarratives, serve as the basis for most forms of knowledge in modern Western culture. The structuralists, for instance, believed in a grand narrative in their attempts to find universal structures in language, in social relations and families, and in myth, which would explain all human behavior at all times everywhere. Such a search for the universal “truth” is common to both the humanist project and to the structuralist project; both depend on the metanarrative that there is something that all humans at all times everywhere have in common, and that it is possible (and desirable) to discover what that commonality consists of. Similarly, the grand narrative of psychoanalysis lies in the premise that the Oedipus Complex, and its related phenomena, are universal, and can explain all human behavior at all times everywhere; the grand narrative of marxism lies in the premise that material conditions create relations of production, which then determine human behavior at all times everywhere. (For marxists, however, these relations of production which determine human behavior will differ over time and place, as modes of production shift; what is universal in this grand narrative is the idea that modes and relations of production–whatever those might be–determine all aspects of human behavior.)

            Lyotard’s postmodern perspective shows the flaws in these grand narratives, which work to justify and support the broad theories, like structuralism, psychoanalysis, and marxism, through which the modern (Western) world has come to understand and represent itself. In place of these grand narratives, postmodern theorists like Lyotard propose sets of “micronarratives”–small stories, small theories, which might explain a certain set of phenomena, but which don’t make any claims to universal “truth.” Such micronarratives would have use value; they could arise from and be applied to specific situations, but none would claim to explain everything, or to explain all other theories, or to be the preferred or dominant framework through which any event could be understood. Postmodern micronarratives thus are multiple–there is one for every situation, rather than one narrative covering all situations– and they are necessarily different and largely incompatible; there’s no way to put all the micronarratives together to form one unified coherent idea of how the world, or human beings, operate.

            This idea of multiplicity and incompatibility, of lots of things existing at the same time but not forming any kind of pattern or unity, is central to pretty much all theories of postmodernism. As we put it in class, postmodern things are “a big jumbled mess” out of which order does not arise. This multiplicity is also referred to as a smorgasbord, as bricolage, as collage, or as pastiche: a seemingly random collection of events, actions, signifiers, or ideas which do not coalesce. One of the examples in class was “my apartment at 3 pm.” When I asked what was postmodern about a student apartment at 3 pm, the answer given was that one roomate is listening to Aerosmith, one is listening to girl punk, and one is playing Transformers on the computer. If you read about these events in a (modern) novel, you’d think about why the author had chosen to put those three activities together; surely they would have some symbolic meaning when juxtaposed. In a postmodern world, fictional or real, these events wouldn’t be symbolic: they’d just be, a random coincidence of noises and music which happened once, for no particular reason.

            One place where this jumbledness becomes evident is in mass media, particularly in television, videos, movies, and the internet, and this is the territory analyzed by Jean Baudrillard (“boh-dree-ARH(d)”), another important postmodern theorist. Baudrillard’s analysis (as presented in Jim Powell’s Postmodernism for Beginners) starts with our old friend the signifier/signified connection. Baudrillard says that commodities–the stuff you buy–are all signifiers. You buy stuff, not necessarily because you will use it, or because it gives you pleasure, but because the stuff means something beyond itself–it is a signifier that points to a signified. That signified, according to Baudrillard, is social status, or a subject position within a variety of social codes or models. Thus when you buy a car, you don’t buy just any car to drive around in (which would be buying a commodity largely for use value); the car you buy is a signifier of your social position, your income level, your recreational habits, your political/environmental views, whether you have children, etc. So those who buy Mercedes are signifying something different from those who buy minivans or SUVs or hybrid gas/electric cars. What is being signified is in fact your position(s) as a subject; according to Baudrillard, identity (subjecthood) is thus a product of the signifiers with which one surrounds oneself, rather than something essential that is unique to each individual, as in the humanist model. Selfhood, for Baudrillard, as for Lacan, is thus always already an alienated position, something defined by externals.

            Baudrillard takes this idea of the signifier/signified relationship further in discussing one of his most well-known ideas, the concept of the simulacrum. He starts with the idea that the signifier/signified relationship is a relationship of a symbol to a notion of “reality”– signifiers are representations (words, pictures, symbols, whatever) that point to something beyond or outside of themselves, something which supposedly has a reality of its own, regardless of how it is represented. A chair, for instance, just is, whether we designate it by the word “chair” or by some other signifier; the object with 4 legs and a seat continues to exist no matter what we call it, or even whether we call it anything. In the world of mass media which Baudrillard studies, however, there is no signified, no reality, no level of simple existence to which signifiers refer. Rather, Baudrillard says, there are only signifiers with no signifieds; there are only pictures of chairs without any real chairs ever being referred to or existing. He calls this separation of signifier from signified a simulacrum, a representation without an original that it copies. Simulacra (the plural of simulacrum) don’t mirror or reproduce or imitate or copy reality: they ARE reality itself, says Baudrillard..

            In Western thought since Plato, Baudrillard points out, the idea of an original or real thing has always been favored over the idea of an imitation or a copy. This is particularly evident in the arts, where an original painting, or a first edition, is worth tons of money, while a reproduction (a print, a second or eighteenth edition) is worth very little. In the postmodern world of mass media, however, the original largely disappears, and only copies exist. An example of this is music CDs: there is no “original” master version of any music CD, but only thousands and thousands of copies, all identical, all equal in value. Think also about xerox copies: when I make a hundred copies of this typed page, I have an “original,” but there’s no difference between my original and any of the copies–so the “original” page that came out of my printer is no different from any of the copies that came out of the copier. Mass mediated forms of communication in postmodern culture revolve around this idea of simulacra, of imitations and copies with no original. (This is why it’s tough not to claim Andy Warhol, and his mass produced images of Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, as a postmodern artist).

            Simulacra, as signifiers with no signifieds, produce what we know as “reality,” according to Baudrillard; mass media disseminate these simulacra everywhere, constantly, so that they are unavoidable and inescapable. The simulacra forever being projected at viewers by the mass media provide what Baudrillard calls “codes” or “models” which tell us (viewers, consumers) what and how to think, act, believe, buy, desire, hate, etc. Humans in postmodern culture occupy passive subject positions within these codes or models; this idea is similar to Althusser’s notion of how ideologies interpellate subjects, but Baudrillard is not following either structuralist or marxist “grand narratives” in formulating his theories.

            A simulacrum creates a passive subject who takes the simulation as the only necessary reality; Powell gives the example of a kid playing a race car video game, who then gets behind the wheel of a “real” car and may not be able to tell the difference between the two experiences of “driving.” The lack of distinction between game and reality is another feature of postmodern culture, one which is illustrated in a host of movies, starting with War Games (1983) where a computer simulation of nuclear war threatens to start a real nuclear war, and including Top Gun and The Matrix. Another example of the collapse between image and reality can be found in such pop figures as Madonna and Michael Jackson, who exist as all image, all “surface,” all signifier. A humanist investigation of either of these two people would look for the “real person” behind the glitzy image; a postmodern investigation of Madonna and Michael Jackson would assume that there was no “real person” behind the image, and that the image itself was all that mattered.

            When the image is more “real” than any other “reality,” where there is only surface but no depth, only signifiers with no signifieds, only imitations with no originals, Baudrillard says, we are in the realm of hyperreality. One of the best examples of such a hyperreality is Disneyland, which is a minutely created “reality” of things that don’t exist in the modern version of the “real world.” For postmodern theorists, the hyperreality of the created worlds becomes more “real” than the real world, and in fact highlights how what we have always thought of as the “real world” is itself a constructed hyperreality.

            My favorite example of this is the movie Wag the Dog, subtitled “a comedy about truth, justice, and other special effects.” Starring Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman, the movie tells a story about a President (de Niro) who is caught in a sexually compromising situation with a girl scout. To keep this story from being the headline news for the next number of months, the President hires a Hollywood producer (Hoffman) to film a “war” with Albania, and to broadcast that on the evening news as if it were really happening. “Truth” thus becomes a “special effect,” something created by visual images in film and on TV; what is on the screen is more true, more real, than what is “really” happening off camera, and the (passive) viewing public takes it as such. What’s funny in the movie, though, is what Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists say is happening all the time. Whenever you turn on CNN, or the nightly news, how do you know that the film clips you’re seeing represent something that’s “really” happening, and are not just produced like a sit com or made for tv movie? Baudrillard and others would say you can’t know, and in fact there can be no difference between “reality” and its representation: what’s on tv IS what is “real,” is the only reality we can know.

            And now, with no transition (since transitions imply an overall order, a grand narrative that governs the shape of a lecture, and gives it coherence and unity) let’s talk about Deleuze and Guattari . (They do have first names: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, but they’re always referred to, in pomo-speak, as Deleuzeandguattari, pronounced “dee-LEWZ-and-git-TAR-ee”). They are the authors of a number of rather difficult works explaining postmodern ideas, including Anti-Oedipus, which (as you might guess) deconstructs and reworks Freud’s ideas about the formation of the self and the psyche and the unconscious. The main idea I want you to get from the essay “A Thousand Plateaus,” taken from their book of the same title, is the concept of the rhizome as a basic structure in the postmodern world. Deleuze and Guattari start by talking about the idea of arborescence, or the model of the tree as the predominating model for how knowledge operates in the Enlightenment/modern Western world. In this model, a small idea–a seed or acorn–takes root and sends up shoots; these shoots become a sturdy trunk, supported by the invisible but powerful root system, which feeds the tree; from this unified strong trunk come lots of branches and leaves. Everything that is the tree is traceable back to a single point of origin; everything that is the tree is part of a coherent organic system which has grown vertically, progressively, and steadily. This, according to D&G, is how all humanist/Enlightenment/Western thought has worked, and how all art and literature from that humanist culture has operated.

            They want to throw out the model of the tree and replace it with a model of fungus, a rhizome. A rhizome is an organism which consists of interconnected living fibers, but with no central point, no particular origin, no definitive structure, no formative unity. A rhizome doesn’t start from anywhere or end anywhere; at every point in its existence, it is the same, a network of individual but indistinguishable threads. A rhizome is much harder to uproot; an example is crabgrass, which continues to survive no matter how much of it you pull up, since no part is the “governing” part of the organism. Another good example of a rhizomatic structure is the internet, the world wide web. Unlike a spider’s web, the world wide web has no center; there’s no place that starts it, controls it, monitors it, or ends it. Rather, the web is just the interconnection of all the zillions of websites that exist–and which exist only in hyperreality, only in digital form, only as images on a computer screen, and not in any material form. Take any individual website out and the web still exists, without any impairment of functioning; take out Yahoo and Google and maybe even Microsoft (gasp!) and the web will still exist and will still work the same way.

            D&G argue that stories, narratives, literature operates like either a tree structure or a root structure. “Tree” stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end; they have a linear progression, and tell a story about growth, about achievement, about upwardness. Tree narratives, they say, make the statement “to be,” continually talking about what is, what becomes, what will be, and what was. Rhizome stories, narratives, literature, on the other hand (or limb) don’t have these delimited starting and ending points. They are about a maze of surface connections, rather than about depth and height; they make the statement “and...and...and...” rather than “to be,” as they show connections between events and people and ideas without necessarily offering any causative explanations or direction for those connections. Rhizomatic narratives offer what D& G call “lines of flight” and “strategies of deterritorialization,” rather than maps of a territory or terrain.

            So. No ending, no conclusion. The writing just stops (except for its legitmation/author function/disclaimer).

Last revised December 12, 2001.

All materials on this site are written by, and remain the property of, Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado, Boulder. You are welcome to quote from this lecture, or link this to your own site, with proper attribution and citation: http://www.Colorado.EDU/English/engl2010mk/pomo2.html