Questions about Postmodernism

What are the different versions of post-modernism (historical period, style, theoretical approach)?

Postmodernism can be defined as the collapse of distinction between the real and simulated and the blurring of boundaries between the physical world and its signification in society and culture.

In a simplistic sense we could argue that early man’s use of smoke signals was a form of post-modernism. The relationship between what is being signified and what is actually meant is in this sense arbitrary i.e. only understood because of a common consensus on what symbols means not because there is any connection between the form or pattern and meaning.

In a more contemporary context post-modernism can be seen in the way in which media texts play with their own status and conventions. In this sense, they acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the meaning that is being communicated. Another key convention is that of intertextuality: the way in which post-modern texts have the tendency to borrow, re-work and parody the conventions of other texts

While the term ‘post-modern’ tends to be used as an adjective to define the aesthetic or ideological qualities of cultural phenomenon, Postmodernity is a proper noun used to refer to a specific historical period in which society became dominated by information technology and consumer culture.
Generally speaking it is used to describe the period in Western society after the end of the Second World War up until the present day. However, there is clear distinction between the rate at which Britain and America embraced Postmodernity. Arguably America was much more advanced compared to Europe for much of the latter part of the 20th Century.

Arguably, that division is less with the sophistication of British culture in the 21st Century outstripping our American contemporaries, particularly in terms of foreign travel and engagement with creative digital technology as media producers. With the rise of the Tiger Economies and consumer spending in Asia, however, it will be fascinating to see the way in which postmodernity develops globally.

What are the arguments for understanding some forms of media as post-modern?

The principal argument for understanding media forms as post-modern is that there is no pre-postmodern moment in culture i.e. all forms of communication rely upon the suspension of disbelief and having faith in meanings that are arbitrary. This could be said to apply to early forms of speech or the cave paintings created by primitive man. Moreover, issues of inter-textuality and parodic qualities often deemed characteristic of post-modernism has a place in European culture in the form of the carnival, which goes back to the middle-ages.

If we trace the development of modern media to the invention of the telephone and the proliferation of cinema in the 20th Century then it is easy to see the way in which these technologies further blurred the boundaries between what is real and what is simulated. Nobody questions the meaning of a conversation because it takes places on the telephone: its truthfulness is taken for granted. Likewise the representation of society and culture on the silver screen has framed and shaped the way audiences think about society and culture. In both instances the everyday use of media technologies that blur the boundaries between the real and the simulated compound the post-modern experience.

While the early part of the 20th Century was characterised by significant development in media technology, the accelerated speed with which information technology permeated society and culture in the West in the second half of the century, emphasised this post-modern sensibility. In addition to this, the advance of consumer culture and decline of heavy industry throughout this period has seen Britain’s become a more post-modern economy in which workers engage in creative and information based employment.

The 21st Century has, of course, been characterised by the proliferation of the Internet and the convergence of media technologies on the PC, laptop and smart phone. Social networking has further emphasised the way in which society is dislocated from traditional geographic bound notions of community. In particular, the success of Web 2 has seen user generated content dominate media consumption, blurring the boundaries further between media producers and consumers.

What are the arguments against understanding some forms of media as post-modern?

Many of the arguments against understanding media forms as post-modern, run parallel to those arguments that support that viewpoint. Indeed, the very notion that there is no pre-postmodern moment in culture (i.e. all forms of communication rely upon the suspension of disbelief and having faith in meanings that are arbitrary) suggests that post-modernism is an inaccurate term. In this respect, it could be argued that those inter-textual and parodic qualities that are seen as definitional of the post-modern text would be better served by the pre-Enlightenment term ‘carnivalesque’.

Before we can discount the possibility that a text might be considered post-modern, however, it is necessary to understand a little bit more about where the term comes from. In this direction the history of Art is useful starting point. In this sense, when we refer to post-modernism we are quite literally referring to work that came after Modernism. Modernism in Art is typified by the paintings of Mondriane or Picasso, whose works experimented with form and structure. Unlike the preceding Romantic era, Modernism was not concerned with authentic emotional expression but rather experimentation and innovation in terms of form. One of the arguments against understanding media texts as post-modern is that they might more accurately fit within definitions of Romantic or Modernist cultural forms.

While contemporary media texts may well embody post-modern cultural practice by dint of their reliance upon digital technology, in many instances they explicitly embody very different aesthetic rationales. The music of Van Morrison, for example, may well be a post-modern product but at text level it is very romantic in its projection of emotion as aesthetic experience. In this sense, post-modernism could be viewed as a conceptual framework that is trust upon media texts for whom it is not central to the way in which they communicate.

The final argument against post-modernism as a way of understanding contemporary media texts is that the proliferation of digital technology has actually reinforced key aspects of community. Facebook, Bebo and MySpace all encourage people to interact with one another and in many instances are very geographically specific in their usage – connected to colleges, for example, or workspaces. In this sense, while contemporary society is more globalised, in many instance our media consumption is very localised and inward looking.

How do post-modern media texts challenge traditional text-reader relations and the concept of representation?

Post-modern media texts challenge traditional text reader relations in that they allow for creativity on the part of the audience. In this sense the audience is viewed as active rather than passive: the meaning of the text is constructed by the reader. From a theoretical perspective this concept can be framed by the work of Roland Barthes and his essay ‘Death of the Author’ in which he argues that the reader of a text is also its writer i.e. they impose the meaning.
Arguably all texts are post-modern in the way that Barthes is talking about, as the meaning of words, images and sounds is open to multiple interpretations and in this sense we revert to Saussure’s work on the sign-system and the notion that the relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. Where post-modern texts differ is that they explicitly embrace this ambiguity of meaning and explore the creative and arbitrary ways in which audiences engage with cultural artefacts. Examples of this include intertextuality, irony, parody and pastiche.

Intertextuality is a key feature of post-modern text/reader relations. It supposes a degree of prior knowledge on the part of the audience i.e. that they will have read certain book, seen certain plays or watched certain films before they encounter the new text. J.M Coetzee’s novel Foe (1986), for example, reworks elements of Daniel Defoe’ Robison Crusoe (1719). By the same token both Mike Myer’s Wayne’s World (1992) and The Simpson have borrowed the ending of Mike Nicholls 1967 film The Graduate. Intertextuality draws upon elements of what Bourdieu would define as ‘cultural capital’: the knowledge individuals acquire through their informal and formal education.

Of course, one of the key ways in which post-modern media texts utilise the prior knowledge of the audience is in the form of parody. Films like Scary Movie (2000) and Airplane (1980) self-conscious play with the audience’s familiarity with a specific genre: horror and disaster in the case of these two films. Parody is, in this sense, as Frederic Jameson suggests, very different to pastiche. While parody tends to be tongue in cheek, knowing and ironic, pastiche copies without necessarily acknowledging that there is an original text with which the audience might be familiar. The cover version in popular music is an excellent example of this, particularly when the new version remains faithful to the original. Homage is in this sense slightly different: this tends to be version of text that is faithful to the original out of respect and reverence.

In addition to this, Web 2 and the affordability of creative technologies is blurring the traditional boundaries between the producer and consumer of a text. While active audiences may have once engaged in ironic or oppositional readings of texts that challenged preferred meaning, that same audience can now engage by producing their own versions of the text, be that in the form of a remix, mash-up, YouTube spoof or tribute. In short, post-modern texts blur the boundaries between the producer and the consumer of the text.

How do we discuss issues of representation in post-modern media texts?

One of the big problems in deconstructing post-modern texts is the issue of representation and the notion that the way in which individuals are represented is politically loaded. In particular, the ironic sensibility of post-modern texts sometimes undermines traditionally serious issues of age, race, class, national identity, ability and disability. And, in this sense the post-modern texts can defy scrutiny.

Context is perhaps everything. For example, while if might be acceptable for a black African American to use the term nigger, the same term would be deemed problematic if used in another context. Comedy is perhaps, unsurprisingly, the area in which post-modern texts push the vanguard of the genre. The BBC television sitcom Goodness Gracious Me is a good example of a text that walks this fine line in its ironic critique of British Indian community. Taken out of context, it’s humour could seem racist; however, this would be to miss the point that the show is produced by second generation British Indian’s who are in fact poking fun at their own community and using humour to neutralise cultural prejudice.

The inherently carnivalesque sensibility of British popular music, likewise, throws up some very interesting examples of the ways in which post-modern texts are difficult to analyse. There is, for example, a lineage of male performers who explicitly flout the conventions of normative masculinity: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, mark Bolan, Adam Ant, Jarvis Cocker etc. However, to over-analyse this is to miss the point: these representations not about sexuality per se but rather part of the topsy-turvey world of the carnival that popular music embodies.

In what ways do media audiences and industries operate differently in a post-modern world?

Answering this question requires a clear understanding of the distinction between the use of the term post-modern as an adjective to describe the way in which a text makes meaning (i.e. intertextuality, playing with its own status etc) and the use of the term Postmodernity to define a particular period in Western cultural history. As previously discussed, Postmodernity refers to the period after the Second World War in which Western societies embraced information technology and consumer culture. In addition to this, the term is synonymous also with social change and a less restricted attitude towards issues of sex, class, gender and the family.

To understand the ways in which audiences and industries operate differently in a post-modern world, therefore, it is important to understand the implications of the proliferation of consumer cultural and information technology. In this direction the work of French theorist Jean Baudillard is particularly useful. Baudrillard views post-modern society fairly negatively. In particular, he suggests that individuals are alienated from each other because their interaction is mediated through mass communication industries i.e. the media. In addition to this, he suggests that identity is negotiated in relation to consumer behaviour and that in the purchase of material goods we reflexively construct our sense of self.

It is this connection between the proliferation of communication and consumer technology that is central to the way in which audiences and industries operate in a post-modern world. One way of thinking about this is the different ways in which audiences engaged with cinema in the first and second half of the 20th Century. In the first half of the Century, in an age before television, it can be argued that cinema was a popular form of entertainment that people engaged with more passively. Consumers were less discriminating as films were a popular form of everyday distraction: hence the number of B-movies and short features made during the age of the Hollywood Studio system. In the second half of the 20th Century, with cinema now competing with television, visiting a film theatre became a less common event and consequently consumers became more particular: choosing films connected to their own project of identity construction.

Of course in the latter part of the 20th Century, the media industry became much more sophisticated in the way that it marketed its products. Advertising in particular has become less instructional (Buy this washing powder it will make you whites whiter than white etc) and more about ambience and lifestyle. Consumers didn’t want to know what a product did but how it would make them feel and most importantly what it would say about them in terms of lifestyle. Of course, in recent years, consumer fatigue has set in and prospective customers are less likely to be impressed by slick marketing but prefer the authenticity of gorilla campaigns and viral marketing.

How has the relationship between audiences and instiution changed in the postmodern era?

Perhaps the key way in which the relationship between audiences and industry has changed the most over past fifteen years is with the deregulation of broadcast media at the end of the 1990s and the proliferation of the Internet. This has seen a shift away from broadcasting to a wide demographic and a move towards narrow casting for a defined community of consumers. In particular, the success of niche market products like the BAUER magazine title Kerrang, for example, can be attributed to the complex relationship between media consumption and the construction of personal identity. As Dick Hebdige pointed out in the 1970s, subcultural groupings are central to the behaviour of media consumers.

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the past five years has been the success of user-generated,Web-2 content on the Internet. Ever since the Artic Monkey broke into the mainstream on the back of MySpace, sites like YouTube and Facebook have challenged the traditional relationship between consumers and the industry. In particular, audiences have become more creative, whether that is in uploading photos to Facebook or posting home videos on YouTube. Increasingly, it would seem we are making are own entertainment, blurring the boundaries between traditional consumers and producers of media text and compounded also by the affordability of media technology. If one thing has remained consistent throughout the evolution of post-modern society then that thing is our narcissistic fascination with ourselves. From consumer goods to Facebook profile pictures, it would seem that everybody in a post-modern society is fixated with the reflexive construction of commoditised and objectified versions of themselves.

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