Friday, November 25, 2011

Contemporary Problems, Response to Chapter 8

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
       so completely dominated by private ownership of production, global markets, and the profit motive

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,
       but what are we working against?

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?  


  1. Claudia Yuen

  2. The pastiche nature of postmodernism has, undoubtedly, spawned a generation of irony and parody. Popular culture has grown with postmodern ideas to accelerate this nature in an almost overbearingly self-reflective style. As this meme grows (and, in fact, internet "memes" grow), one is left to wonder what the future of postmodernism is. What's next? Can society parody itself into an endless cycle? The knowledge that the concept of originality is, essentially, non-existent is not only a detriment to our collective psyche, but a detriment to our society's creative future.

    As popular culture loses confidence in itself, indie media instead is beginning to gain more attention, maybe because of its ability to be creative without the constraints of the status quo, or maybe actually due to its lack of confidence in itself—another example of self-reflectivity. So, is this the best response? Maybe it is. If postmodernism concerns itself primarily with objectivity, perhaps it is smaller communities and locally-based creative parties that culture needs to focus on.


  4. I think that in some ways modernism, in the sense that there is still a desire for progress, has not died. This desire is not necessarily a desire for progress of visual form. The way we pursue technologies (green technologies, “smart” technologies) is definitely similar to the way technologies were pursued during the modernist movement. Modernism and Postmodernism both questioned the previous cultures before them—for modernism, “is this necessary”, “how can we be more clear or efficient”. For postmodernism, “why should I be clear”, “why not use something just because”. Postmodernism, as Pinkney said, at one point did continue the role of modernism, by de-familiarizing and questioning form, but in a popular idiom.

    It seems to me that modernism, while focused on objective progress, pushed and pursued dominant, homogenous ways of representing things. Postmodernism questions this need for a dominant mode of representation, division, objectivity, and directness. These things aren’t necessary in all situations. Postmodernism still exists in a form too, the parody, and the seemingly never-ending pastiche of style. I don’t think that, while parodic and reliant on sarcasm and pastiche, popular culture is inadequate in terms of igniting progress. As Jameson put it, we live in a postmodern culture of depthlessness, schizophrenia, waning of affect, and intense experiences from which we cannot derive deeper meaning.

    Hal Foster wrote that modernism was successful in pushing for innovation, but that it became the norm. It seems now that the norm is of parody, pastiche, and an acceptance of many styles, that postmodernism has lost it edge in the way of questioning culture.

    I think that design’s escape from the constant parody may be new technologies, just as new technologies allowed the modernists of the past to innovate and explore new modes of communication. While visual pun, parody, and pastiche may be softer approaches than the stifling need for objectivity and rationality of modernism, they do challenge culture on some level, but offer no solutions, only short escapes or entertainment.

  5. Popular forms of culture are constantly changing. The way technology evolves affect these changes. Because of today's technology, there really isn't anything that separates pop culture from Indie media. I believe that pop culture and mainstream media will eventually be Indie media.

    Since today's technology allows us to easily share media, anything can be downloaded from the internet. For instance, today, we just "share" and download all out music off the internet whereas back in a time before iTunes and Napster, we would have to go out and buy a physical CD or cassette. This has caused the music business to drop. Musicians began to seek new business models and more and more musicians began to market their music independently.

    With today's tools like Myspace and Youtube, music can be spread around to a wide audience very quickly without the help of a major record label. Bands like Metric were once categorized as "indie." But since, they have become very popular and their music can be hear on television, and on radio. Their popularity had made them "mainstream." Therefore, today's Indie media and pop culture can essentially be the same thing.

    - Amy Tang

  6. Postmodernism and Modernism coexist to create new definitions, new audiences, approaches, rebellions, parodies, and create new cultures. The problems of both movements balance each other and push one another to establish an identity. However, the way modern society translates these thoughts has developed and changed the way we view media and new art forms. With the increase in flexibility and ease of new, modern technology, comes new approaches to Indie Media.

    Popular culture has become mass culture and Indie Media has become easier to establish and build. Artists and creators are able to go beyond the former popular culture to create something new, something postmodern. However, the question remains if this source of flexibility has hindered the essence or depth within art. Jameson seems to disagree with the new forms of media, parody and pastiche stating how passively we accept new ideas and how emotionless, thoughtless and shallow the new world has become, a mere cool surface image. I must agree with Jameson on his thoughts of Design schizophrenia and lack of depth in Design cultures I see today, especially in new works and through parodies.

    Design today is being recycled again and again, parodies are constantly forming whether they are intended or not. I see around me, when I travel, online, all types of works and images that are parodies whether the designer realize their influence or not. Especially within Indie Media, there are influences and a care for aesthetics. I think a lot of work has become a repetition of the past, a parody made to look good and be safe. Once an idea has been done, an art movement has been recognized, it is as if the style has been confirmed or socially accepted. It is almost impossible to reject an idea that has been layered with value through our own textbooks. In this way I agree with Jameson that new media and images have no depth in their meaning as they work as a safe reproduction of the original with a modern message embedded into its stolen style. The message has been conveyed out of context as a parody with no account to the style's historical context or cultural reference. Style has become almost an excuse for new art forms to be respected and if we are able to label it, then we passively accept it.

    Through this I question authenticity and innovation. If Postmodernism is a rebellion against the modern movement, then why will new forms of art just be a safe reproduction of an originally modern thought? I think the problem truly lies in the reliance of the historically and socially accept styles of the past as a fail proof concept of today's work. Postmodernism lies without firm roots as society becomes more easily accepted and deficit in attention.