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Almost every discussion of Postmodernism (AKA pomo or PoMo) I've read
begins with an acknowledgement that there is little agreement upon any
definition. Ironically, this constitutes one of the few, general, points of
agreement There is, I think, a very good reason for that and I'll get to
talking about that shortly.
This is all going to be my own ideosyncratic perspective. Its open to all
sorts of criticism and complaint. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I'm writing "live", not off-list and uploading as some I know do. So, I'm
just going to write and not pay too much attention to spelling or grammar.
My apologies to those whose aesthetics in such matters will be offended.
(I'm just hoping that this note won't "blow up on me leaving me to write
the whole thing all over again)
Pomo is many things; an era, a school of thought or art (particularly
architecture), a method of literary criticism, a lifestyle or attitude,
an academic philosophy.
The first general use I have found of the word to date was in Toynbee's
world history. In art, Leo Steinberg is generally given credit. If anyone
has other citations, I'm always interested. Jenks did a great early piece
in the field of Architecture in the '60s.
I'm guessing that the early uses to which the word was put were mostly
acknowledgements that something new was happening that could be
distinguished from the contemporary. Seeing that the word Modern had been
thrown about consistantly for several decades the easiest thing to do
appears to have been to supercede the term. Para-modern might have been an
alternate option but I've haven't run into it (haven't looked for it
either... maybe I ought to?)
So "postmodern" may begin something new that isn't "modern" and I'm not
sure I want to go back and define "modern" just now. Let's just go on. We
can chat out "modern" on-list if we want to.
Mostly, I think of postmodernism as a set of tools for thinking. And,
mostly, I use these tools to challenge ideas which are "fixed",
"certain", "facts", and set on "determining" a final perspective on "how
things are". Beyond that, pomo can be used as a reason to give credit
where due, to cite earlier references with a nod, a wink or a quotation.
This is probably a good time to recall what I said up at the top about
there being little general agreement about what postmodernism is, includes
or ought ot include. If we are about challenging universal ideas, what
better place to begin than the school of thought that to some extent
formalizes that challenge. When postmodernism is finally and tidily
defined it will be "history" as far as I'm concerned.
Postmodernism gained its academic reputation and much of its formal
structure in France. If you care to read up on it you will encounter
names like Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Saussure, Bourdieu,
Lyotard, Deleuze, Barthes and numerous others. It is possible to discuss
pomo without ever leaving this community and for many people this
neighborhood is all that counts. For my part, this material is
interesting and difficult. There is a huge amount of word-play here and
very subtle word play. This is probably where postmodernism initiates
its concern with language, and it can be VERY, VERY concerned with language.
The thing of it is that it becomes very quickly apparent that ideas turn
on the most subtle elements. When I thought about it it occured to me
that I don't read French and what I was reading was almost exclusively
translations. Mark Twain, long ago encountered a french translation of
Huckleberry Finn (or was it Tom Sawyer?) and transliterated it back into
English. Transliteration is where you go word for word out of the
dictionary. Translation is much more artistic and is an attempt to catch
the spirit of a work as much or more than the literal text. There can be
quite a gap between original and translation as Twain demonstrated. I
began to feel less than confident about the translations I was reading.
I'll still pick up a translation, but I do believe that I'm usually
getting an more of an interpretation than anything else. I haven't yet found
a translator that I feel in tune with, but I keep looking. So that's my
caveat about the seminal authors of Postmodernism.
What I have ended up doing has been to identify the issues that concerned
the french writers: language (of course), structure (post-structuralism
came before postmodernism), incompleteness (Godel), relativity/relativism
(two different but related things), uncertainty (Heisenberg), semantics,
rhetoric, semiology/semiotics, logocentrism, the other, and an entire
dictionary of esoteric terms which, for the most part, serve as a massive
barrier to getting seriously involved in postmodern thinking.
Wading through this language is tough, no doubt about that. It's worth it
if you can perservere and have a big dictionary handy. All together
postmodernism picks up its political affiliations here as well as
language. There is a lot of Marxism mixed in with the philosophy. On one
hand that means a deep concern for the underdog, the marginal people the
"workers". On the other hand it brings in a number of ideas about how to
deal with social problems that date back to Marx's own era. That was
always a problem for me, maybe not for some of you, however, and why not?
So far I've sketched in a bit about the philosophical ideas and the
history. Diane was asking about art and art history in relationship to
Postmosdernism. Lets get into that now.
Earlier I mentioned Jenks as well as giving credit where due. That fits
in here. In art and architecture probably the most obvious effect of
postmodernism has been the "Quote". The big moment pointed to has been
one Philip Johnson's skyscrapers. Somebody remind me who the client was,
it escapes me just now. In any case what Johnson did essentially was to
paste onto the top of this building a pediment such as you might find on
your grandmothers (great-grandmothers?) china cabinet. You do know what I
mean. A kind of triangular slab of wood with a circular hole where the
top point would be...
/ \___/ \
~ ~ .... look kinda familiar?
So, with this structure Johnson "quotes" or makes reference to a design
from another context. Thereafter it becomes a fashion for some to make
similar clear references to earlier works. In fact, there is a notable
tendency to abandon "uniquely new" designs and create designs grandly
derived from components from other eras and cultures. Thats the most
obvious earmark of pomo art or architecture.
Now postmodernism is a complex "living" changing thing, growing more
convoluted all the time (for obvious reasons I hope) and so we found that
the more political or socially concerned postmodernists reflecting on the
ethics of "appropriating" the work of other cultures. (this is a BIG
condensation BTW) so postmodern quotation in visual art demands some care
now. Probably music and performance too.
Well, this is getting very long and while I think I've kept the
language accessible I've probably bored some of you to sleep. (and
stuffed some poor persons mailbox much too full -- sorry 'bout that)
I'll wrap up with some reflection on the problems I think postmodernism
poses for us.
Because it is so willing to challenge "facts" or universally applicable
standards such as offered by nineteenth science; (You'll notice that late
twentieth century science makes fewer bold pronouncements about what IS TRUE)
because of the attention paid to how uncertain things are and the
emphasis on relationships (contexts) over objects;
because of its unwillingness to accept notions of absolute truth or
eternally determined courses of events
because of pomo's tendency to see things in relative terms ("...it may be
"true" for you but it is not true for me.")
because of postmodernism's involvement with diversity and pluralism
(we'll get to that in another post if you are still interested)
because of such aspects critics have argued that postmodernism makes
everything meaningless and so is essentially meaningless itself.
Postmodernism is seen as a form of nihilism (nihil=nothing - latin).
I like the diversity of opinion. I have my own notions of "how things
are" and it works quite well for me, thank you very much. I can, if I
wish, move temporarily over into that context and I can come back. All i
need are a few people in agreement with me. I don't feel comfortable
evangelizing about what IS or SHOULD BE so but also I don't feel
uncomfortable voicing my own opinion in fairly strong terms.
Postmodernism asks us (I think) to think for ourselves and not rely on
some outside authority. From all the threads of pomo I see, this seems to
be a general goal. It seems to be one of the prime reasons this toolkit
was put together -- to "destabilize" authority, abusive authority in
particular. To undermine the trend towards universilization in thought...
the idea that we all ought to think the same way about the same things.
I've mentioned before the notion that the sciences CONVERGE on general
universal rules or laws while the arts DIVERGE towards unique personal
elaborations or expressions of those rules. I see teaching as an art much
more than a science. This is not my original observation by the way.
Postmodernism offers some support to that personal "artistic" side of things.
Life, as a rule, is just too big and complex. sometimes we have to rely
on general "universal" rules of thumb. But, where things get important it
is often useful to seek a finer more detailed resolution or view. There
it might not be so important to agree with everyone, to force-fit life to
some Procrustean standard. (Procrustes was an old Greek guy with a
"hotel" and a bed he guaranteed to fit anybody. It was made out of iron
and the way it worked was that he stretched or "trimmed" his guests to
fit. A useful metaphor, eh?)
Well, that's it for Postmodernism. I hope I've covered useful stuff.
Postmodernism is being seen buy some as the paradigm of a new era.
(Suzanne K. Langer talked about that somewhere) If there is any "truth"
to that then it's easy to see that this is only an appetizer and that
I'm unlikely to have covered most of the important ideas.
Allison and Diane's orignal list include some that I have yet to get to.
Deconstruction construction and reconstruction
Pluralism and value pluralism
If people are still interested they should take much less space to introduce.
I hope its been useful.
I hope this provokes some disagreement!
Thanks for the invitations.