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Home > Culture and Society

Terms of Bewilderment: Postmodernism

In which we discover that even Toyah can be postmodern, if she puts her mind to it.

27 September 2003

Here is a quote from one of the anti-globalisation protestors in Cancun - Dan Gingold:

"That's the postmodern protest dilemma. You're a protester, but in a way you're also... I don't want to say pandering - but you are in a way."

Dan's "postmodern protest dilemma" is that he finds himself throwing projectiles at one corner of big business simply to get noticed by another (the international news media). But why is this a "postmodern" dilemma?

Why not simply "modern"?

Or "ironic"?

It's easy enough to bandy around the term "postmodernism" without really understanding what it means - and relatively harmless too (it is not like a surgeon confessing to being 'a bit vague' on the difference between an appendix and a penis). But does that make it right? (Obviously it is 'right' in a postmodern sense, but that wasn't the question).

In the everyday sense, postmodernism can reasonably be defined as the use of pop culture references, pastiche, parody, and general playfulness in TV, film, literature and art. The films of Tarantino are relentlessly postmodern, as is pop art and 'Brit art'. There's even something a bit postmodern about seeing Toyah on Songs of Praise.

Head honcho of postmodernism is Jacques Derrida, who invented the theory on a bored afternoon in the 1960s, and is (experts would verify this) a balls-aching read. He writes stuff like this:

The unity of the signifying form is constituted only by its iterability, by the possibility of being repeated in the absence not only of its referent - but of a determined signified or current intention of signification.

The sheer obscurity of so many postmodernist writings infuriates sceptics. Obscurity is cherished and celebrated by the theorists - ("This project does not claim to understand Baudrillard," trumpets one unversity website devoted to him. Whatever scholars may think of Marx, very few take "I don’t understand Marxism" as their starting point).

Ironically (postmodernly?) Derrida is best known for the idea that words have no concrete meaning. When you read a word, eg. 'Davro', you don't mentally form the concept of Bobby Davro, instead you think of all the words that are related to 'Davro': man, comedian, the Games, TV, Five Alive, vodka, noose etc. Then you think of all the words that relate to the words you just thought of, and on and on and on.

This is deconstruction, and an obvious criticism of the theory is that it overstates the inadequacy of language. Do we really end up with a big mess of words whenever we think or communicate? Probably not, unless you’re John Prescott.

Deconstructionism gets (sort of) interesting when it attempts to deconstruct ideological biases based on gender, politics, culture etc. In short: the questioning of assumptions and received wisdom.

Another famous postmodernist, Jean-Francois Lyotard, rejects 'grand narratives' or universal structures that apply to everyone and everything. People have looked for universal structures in things as diverse as language, reason, psychoanalysis and Marxism. Lyotard believes in 'micronarratives' - small theories that don't attempt to provide a universal truth.

By now you may have noticed that postmodernism lends itself to nebulous, intellectual-sounding conversations - assuming you can find anyone who’ll listen. Still, next time you’re trying to impress someone in the pub, why not throw in a few postmodernist buzzwords? You might even pull. For starters, try: 'signifiers' and 'simulacra' - both coined by Jean Baudrillard.

Baudrillard takes the view that things are signifiers that point to a signified. A car is a signifier, the signified are your social position, your income and so on. Meanwhile, simulacra are those items that are unique to the modern world of mass media, such as CDs, where the original largely disappears, and only
copies exist.

If you've read this far, you're probably (a) feeling a bit cleverer in a French intellectual kind of way, and (b) wondering if postmodernism isn't just a load of intellectual wank.

There's certainly a fair bit of evidence for the latter. Is postmodernism anything more than a trendy label for fairly obvious things like irony and self-referential art? Similarly, 'signifier' and 'simulacra' are nice words, but are they expressing anything more significant than age-old expressions like 'status symbol' and 'mass production'?

One academic who felt postmodernism to be pure pretension was Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University. He took umbrage at a postmodernist critique of physics, which suggested that we can find the same kind of ambiguity in science as we can in literature. Sokal wrote a gibberish parody of postmodernism ('The Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity') and got it published in a deconstructionist magazine.

No doubt more than a few such pranks have found their way past editors of learned journals. But it's hard to see postmodernism as much more than a handy umbrella term for a variety of dramatic and artistic devices. Apart from that, there just seem to rather a lot of old ideas dressed up in new clothes - quite possibly the emperor's.

Is Derrida dead? Sometimes it feels like it.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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