Chapter 8, Postmodernism, Indie Media and Popular Culture
Many ways to look at Postmodernism; it was much more than a style that came ‘after the modern’
Exhaustion of the modern energy; an end to its confidence in progress; loss of self-critique as
any guarantee of its truth or progressive nature
In fact, today, postmodernism isn't even a central concept: as if we have lost the focus and ability
to even doubt the modern, a permissive, infinite flat plain of possibility
Has the market simply absorbed everything, the sole justification for whatever we do,
leaving no room for critique and opposition?
(Only a disorganized Occupy movement without even demands?)
But it’s worth looking at the question still, of what overall is the role of culture (and design) today, starting with modernism itself:
Tony Pinkney, “Modernism and Cultural Theory,” Introduction to Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism (Verso, 1989)
Raymond Williams, studies many aspects of culture, indeed establishes ‘cultural studies’ as a field
Sees modernization and modernism (the art of modern societies) as “acceleration,” true of Wordsworth (English Romantic poet, 1770 – 1850) as it is of post-structuralist French philosophers today
Modernism the accelerated culture of a mass industrial society, serving the capitalist class it arises with?
By the 1950s, it was, in Williams’s words, a kind of “glossy futurism,” (9) a highly efficient and
effective form of mass communication, perfect for corporate needs
Postmodernism continues the role of modernism, de-familiarizing, questioning, but in a popular idiom
Using irony and imagery from mass culture, not an oppositional avant-garde of difficult, negative works
Or is postmodernism just what it appears, an endless play of forms, without choices or distinctions
Once again perfect for corporate needs, but now on a truly global, mass scale?
Williams argues against postmodernism, as a newly dominant and misleading ideology
In “When was Modernism” he suggests 1880 – 1950; the late 19th Century crucial for media innovation:
photography, cinema, magazines, radio, recordings, etc.
Just as World War One (incidentally) produced income tax, propaganda, passports and
workers’ revolution throughout Europe (but especially in Russia)
Modern art movements an incidental product of these energies and technologies; modern forms
easily absorbed back into global capitalism: marketing and innovating in “heartless formulae” (35).
So, perhaps postmodernism is not too far removed from modernism, a continuation of it
Shares same problem: how to understand culture (let alone oppositional culture) in a world
No doubt many people (like me) first became aware of postmodernism in this collection of essays:
Hal Foster, Ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, Essay on Postmodern Culture (Bay Press, 1983)
Foster argues “the project of modernism is now deeply problematic.” (ix)
Modernism successful, but absorbed: became dominant culture, its jarring innovations new norm
Modern exploration of specific demands of a medium (painting is the prime example), now becomes
about “cultural terms,” ideas that cross boundaries of discipline and media
We explore the idea of the sublime, or push issues representation, across high and low art,
mixing popular and avant-garde culture, re-using and re-writing them like so many texts
Positions within a wildly plural field defined by politics, “affiliations,” interests
Play of the economic on culture not repressed, but celebrated, explored, to play with
Both “a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction”: take apart the dominant
paradigm of high modernism; or just use history to rehash the past and leave things as they are
To be critical, postmodern practice cannot just return to old forms, in quote and pastiche
Foster insists on a critical distance, “a critique of origins, not a return to them.”
But: I think the proliferation of so many critical approaches—like the many topics and chapters in
Practices of Looking—no longer have a meaningful way to engage, or to conflict with each other
In modern practice, certain works were validated as “genius,” most was rejected as kitsch or trash
But if everything is equally interesting, useful, worthy of study, and representative of some specific
culture, how are we to decide which way to move, what is progress, and what to do next?
There must be a material basis from which all art and design arise, it must represent something more than stylistic or personal preference
Modernism pushed against the academic and stale culture based on Renaissance standards,
which had become a parody of itself, badly in need of radical vision and artistic revolution
How are we to push against a culture that can buy and sell anything? Not whom do we work for,
Other key writers in this very 1980s debate on postmodernism, many of whom happen to come from a Marxist perspective, seeing history as based in material interests, and the struggle between classes:
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke, 1991)
100 year old modernism exhausted; popular forms, not difficult ones, become central:
pulp fictions, Las Vegas architecture, ‘B’ movies, gothic and science fiction, etc.
Postmodernism is a new period, where all forms of art and design are passively accepted
“Aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”
A culture of depthlessness (no deep meanings); schizophrenia (can’t separate what is real and what is not); impersonal intensities but not emotions (like movie effects or video games); and a “waning of affect,” no feeling or expressive power, just a cool surface of images copying each other
Another important text, by a Marxist geographer who puts postmodernism in a wider social and
economic perspective. This is a great overview of modern intellectual and social history:
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, 1990)
We experience life as if guided purely by ideas; postmodernism makes a kind of sense
As if the struggle of ideas alone creates cultures and change; fail to see the material basis of ideas
Postmodern ideas arise in universities, among academics, not arising out of wider social upheavals
A rising capitalist class had an interest in Enlightenment and modern ideas: they has to displace the
monarchs and privileged aristocratic classes, to build a society based on investment and merit
Who is the postmodern for? Who fights for it, what social interests are represented by it?
What drives this plural, permissive culture, what determines its logic, its boundaries? Are there any?
Harvey traces rise of modern in the city, in philosophers (Condorcet, Weber, Nietzsche)
In new modern culture: writing (Proust, Joyce); art (Picasso, Duchamp); music (Stravinsky, Bartok)
theatre (Brecht); science (Einstein); industry (Ford); and other fields (Saussure)
Class inserted itself in the modern: workers’ revolutions of 1917 and later in Russia, Germany
or realist art of working classes in the depression, 1930s
Do we see the world through that lens today? Understand the forces and struggles that drive it?
Tracks key postmodern figures, like Foucault: drive to power diffuse, everywhere in society
Lyotard: there are no big “meta-narratives” anymore, universal themes that can liberate ‘all mankind’
only local constructs; a vast middle class, not workers vs. the bourgeoisie; just people, not ‘Man’
Harvey also explains the changes in global capitalism since 1973, the first big postwar recession
From 1945 to the mid-1970s, it seemed as though the economic system had solved its crises,
Depression a distant memory, not a real possibility; only a question of how much growth
Why did economy boom after the war, and why did it return to crisis and slow growth in the ‘70s?
Capitalism has become highly flexible, investments move rapidly across globe,
new cheap sources of labour appear (tens of millions of Chinese peasants move to cities, e.g.)
Still not enough to create sustainable, livable, and equitable modern world
Like Marx, Harvey looks for the contradiction, the self-defeating principle at the heart of capital
It needs human labour to grow and profit, but it constantly replaces workers with machines
Efficiency pushes out the source of all new value (that’s us), in search for short term gain (see: banks)
A culture that thinks it can escape the need for living labour is the basis of a postmodern culture?
With its rootless images, a culture without origins or essences, change without progress
This all seems to beg the question: Are Indie media and popular forms of culture an adequate practical response to the loss of confidence in a progressive, or even just a professional, modern culture?