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March 1, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Blowing your mind in the space of three pages: a non-wanker’s guide to postmodernism

If ever there is a term to send one screaming into the dead of night, it is postmodernism. It is big, it is long and it is scary. It has a prefix. It can be double-barrelled, like a shotgun. And like a shotgun, the people wielding it can know less about its consequences than what is either safe or reasonable. So while a gun may kill you, postmodernism will let you live. But both will turn your brain mushy. If only Hemingway and Cobain read Salient, it would’ve saved a whole lot of headache.

This article will give a layperson’s guide to the term postmodernism. What it (partially) is, what it (usually) means and what (kind of) came before it. Why dickheads on Cuba St still constantly whip it out like a Diner’s Club card, though, is anyone’s guess. Diner’s Club cards, like postmodernism, aren’t accepted by everyone, and people really don’t know what to do with one when it is presented to them. This ends here.

It begins

One universal thing most humans share is the urge to know about the grand scheme of things. What things are, where things are going, where they’ve been, how they were made and what everybody else is thinking about them. This is an urge that exists at both the level of the individual and on the broader level of a society. It is a constant urge, and it is seemingly never-ending. We explore this urge by searching for meaning in some of our most beloved pastimes: creative outputs. These outputs, made by an individual, a movement/subculture, or a whole society, are divided into disciplines. In Western society (and most societies in general, for that matter) these disciplines include: literature, art, architecture, music, language and social theory.

These disciplines are the stomping grounds for fresh thoughts, new perspectives, original concepts and archetypal ideas. How they differ are the mediums in which they are expressed, be they through prose, paint or plaster. The beauty of these disciplines, aside from the obvious, is that they can be quantifiably and qualitatively evaluated. This is why they are so important. By analysing and justifying the movements and outputs associated with all these disciplines, the grand scheme of things begins to rear its elusive head.

Within all these disciplines is a definition for the term ‘postmodernism’. These definitions change slightly depending on the subtle nuances of each discipline. How each discipline approaches the term ‘post-modernism’ goes great lengths to shed light on what the term itself means in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, how these slightly differing definitions then interact with each other on an inter-disciplinary level also opens up a whole new can of worms, but quite frankly I don’t even want to think about that just yet.

Coming to terms with the term

A common feature of postmodernism across all disciplines is the concept of ‘deconstruction’. The idea that something that is present now (or was present in the past)—be it an idea or a building—is either flawed or inadequate. So, to gain a bit of perspective on the matter, one can separate oneself from the thing in question, strip it down, poke around a bit, then selectively put it back together with whatever new truths or perspectives one may now have on it. Truths brought about after peering at the soft white underbelly. Deconstruction doesn’t comprise the whole of postmodernism, but it’s a well-known facet of it. And seeing as we’re all friends here, let’s deconstruct the term ‘postmodernism’ itself. How very postmodern. Oh god, my brain.

A lot of the problems with postmodernism come from the etymology of the term itself. The term ‘modern’ was coined in 1127 by one Abbot Suger, a man who, after reconstructing his abbey the basilica of St Denis with his own freaky architectural ideas (vaulted arches, ye gods), would eventually pave the way for the style of architecture known as ‘gothic’. Unable to decide what to call his vaulted arches, he settled on the latin term opus modernum, meaning ‘a modern work.’ Indeed, the term ‘modern’ derives from the latin ‘modo’, meaning, quite literally, ‘just now’.
So what, then, is postmodernism? Beyond ‘just now’? A rejection of ‘just now’? A progression? The aftermath? The climax? The morning after? It is linguistically illogical to be ‘after’ something that is in inherently defined as ongoing, and therein lies a lot of the trouble. The term itself doesn’t even know what it means or what it defines.

This brings me to a real doozy of a paradox, the subject-object problem. This is a real bee in postmodernism’s bonnet and one that you will encounter all the fucking time at university. It is the inability to subjectively separate oneself from the object they wish to objectively examine, because at the end of the day it’s all subjective. Really.

Come again?

Alright, an example: first-year philosophy students will often attempt to shoot down the whole concept of postmodernism using some variation of the ‘absolute truths’ argument. They will cackle in a high-pitched voice: “Postmodernism argues that there are no absolute truths, yet that itself is an absolute truth! Thus, the logic is flawed, the whole thing is wrong, and postmodernism quite frankly doesn’t exist. Yes, watch me gloat and stroke my neck-beard. I am geniusness.” While they may be right in that it is a tricky situation to get caught up in (and please don’t think about it too hard, your head will bleed), it isn’t postmodernism’s fault that the subject-object paradox exists.

This paradox (and various manifestations of it) has been in existence far longer than the term ‘postmodernism’. Furthermore, because postmodernism hasn’t solved the paradox doesn’t mean that this whole era of thought and ideas should fuck off and die. In fact, the notion that humanity is now actually aware of the paradox is evidence enough to suggest that the paradox is one of the main influences of postmodernism. After all, a large portion of po-mo is the examining of the narratives of people and societies, from the large Christian Eurocentric white male narrative that really started to get going during the Age of Enlightenment, to all the smaller narratives that cropped up after said big one keeled over and died after it caused 20th century Germans to logically conclude that voting for Hitler was a good idea.

The fact that history and cultural perspectives can now be defined as a stratified series of interacting narratives (both large and small) is evidence of the subject-object paradox in motion. It shows postmodernism staying true to one of the ideas that birthed it. Like I said earlier, it really is best not to think about it too much. How about some art?

Art, postmodernism and you. The liar, the thief and their lover.

Though each creative discipline found in Western society has its own take on po-mo, for ease of reading I am going to stick with art. For a start, I don’t want to write a goddamn book, and also because art is one area where postmodernism can get really quite pretentious. Generally speaking, art has enjoyed a relatively linear evolution to the present day. Where the shit really hits the fan is in 19th century Europe, with the advent of a little-known technique called photography. With this emergent state-of-the-art (pardon the pun) technology, art no longer had to reproduce reality. Realism was no longer a seam holding the art world together. Of course, art was never only about capturing nature as realistically as possible, but the concept of realism could no longer hold as much influence as it did up to this point. In fact, after the Nazis revived realism during the Second World War in their propaganda, realism was abandoned by the democratic West completely (see above: ‘Voting for Hitler is a good idea’). Cuba, China and North Korea still don’t mind it, though.

Anyway, artists no longer needed to paint life as accurately as possible, because they simply could never hope to outdo the realism of a photograph. The floor was wide open for art to take a radical new path, and this path was trailblazed by the impressionists and post-impressionists in France in the late 19th and early 20th century. Of particular note is Cézanne.

Cézanne was one of the first artists to apply abstract concepts to his artworks, and dared to truly incorporate the viewer into the works themselves. By featuring multiple geometric planes and perspectives on a single subject or scene combined with selective colour palettes and unworked brushstrokes, Cézanne made the viewer just as much a part of the painting as the painting itself. The viewer now felt obliged to offer their own interpretations and meanings to Cézanne’s paintings, rather than to simply say “that—right there—is a cow. And a realistic one at that.” Now, that is not to say Cézanne wanted to apply his own subjective take on the cow reality and lead the viewer on a wild cow goose chase, but rather he sought to establish a foundation where one can interpret reality. And all of its inconsistency.

Suddenly, art no longer had to imitate life. Life now imitated art, and life had to apply its own meanings and justifications to art. If life couldn’t, it wasn’t art’s fault, it was life’s. This provided the springboard for Cézanne’s contemporaries and successors to emerge and evolve, including: Picasso and the Cubism, Pollock and Abstractionism, and Dali and Surrealism. Even today, the art world—by and large—heavily plays off of this viewer-artwork interaction. Sometimes (in fact, oftentimes) to the viewers annoyance, especially when they don’t know what fuck it is they’re looking at and can’t be bothered thinking about it (hint: it’s a cow). This feeling would only get worse as time went on.

Now, Cézanne is all well and good. Unfortunately, none of this is postmodern… yet. Where modernism truly becomes postmodern is with artists like Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. Mondrian’s works are some of the most expensive paintings bought and sold today, with auction prices ranging from anywhere between 3-21 million US dollars. That’s a lot of money for paintings comprised entirely of straight black lines, white planes and the occasional square filled in with a primary colour. But what do these works ‘mean’, exactly? They represent something called ‘formalism’, a form of art where the artwork itself has absolutely no reference to anything derived from nature or reality. Instead, all artistic value is placed in the forms, lines, geometric shapes and physical brushwork of the painting. That is what is so baffling about them. Nobody can ‘understand’ them because they aren’t directly (or indirectly) based on anything in nature. It is art in a very abstract form, and it is where the lines between modern and postmodern begin to merge.

Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst would help complete the merge. Warhol did this by marrying the art and the artist into one seamless whole: becoming a work of art himself through his image, lifestyle and celebrity status (as well as the whole Campbell’s Soup thing, which is something to do with the artistic reproduction of a mass-produced commodity that is widely viewed to be intrinsically valueless in an artistic sense… I think). Hirst, on the other hand, separated the art from the artist to an extreme degree, and doesn’t even make his works himself. Instead he thinks up the ideas and commissions others to make them for him. Then, he sells a shark preserved in formaldehyde for a cool $8 million. That, right there, is postmodernism diverging in a creative discipline.

Tying it all back together by watching the Watchmen (actually, reading The Watchmen, not watching it, the movie was average)

In the end, it is difficult to fully encapsulate the entirety of postmodernism, and I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew by doing it in a three-page article. It is an umbrella term, infiltrating all the different disciplines of creative output our society celebrates. In the 21st century, it digs even further. The internet and cyberspace and the fact that it exists in the gap between a computer screen, a phone line and your brain, is postmodern. That the vast majority of Westerners will only ever experience the realities of war through a television or computer screen, where aspects and truths of the conflict are selectively reported on and sensationalised by the mainstream media (thus making it a fallacy to attempt to claim that the war is “really happening” if you only “saw it on the news”) is postmodern. It is a term that applies to everything and everyone. As a product of an at least partially postmodern society, aspects of its perspective are subconsciously inbuilt. According to Derrida, postmodern narratives are made through the act of communicating via language. It is in the way we talk, write, and communicate.

I leave you now with a quote from Rorschach, the main protagonist of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Here he intentionally (or not so intentionally) monologues the exact theory of postmodern narratives. Watchmen is a comic that is one of the most clear and didactic examples of postmodernism available. It deconstructs the superhero mentality, pays homage to an era of American comics that is no longer relevant, simultaneously experiments with and creates a rigid structure from the visual storytelling of sequential art, and wraps the whole thing up in a Cold War parable. It is one of the best and most entertaining ways to learn about postmodernism, and quite frankly should be on the reading list for English courses at university. Go, read it. And don’t watch the movie, the Silk Spectre sucks. Dr Manhattan looks cool, though.

“Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.”


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Comments (9)

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  1. Bangs says:

    Nice article. One only hopes that its publication will result in art students whoring the term less frequently than a 100 baht Thai hooker.

  2. Raptor says:

    I think it is a bit rich that Valentine describes himself as a non-wanker.

  3. Po Po Mo Fo says:

    The statement that realism is directly tied to facism is provably incorrect making the whole movement and argument of this article untenable.

  4. smackdown says:

    yeh well i’ll fight u

  5. Fo Po Mo Po says:

    You’ll lose.

  6. smackdown says:

    i was voted most likely to be big at my high school fights on see you at sundown

  7. Hank Scorpio says:

    smackdown! return to your cage.

  8. Ian Anderson says:

    Seconding Mr or Mrs Po, see also: surrealism & fascism.

  9. ryse says:

    lol lol this was suuuch a good article. Thanks.

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