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What is postmodernism

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Based closely on a lecture by Eleanor MacDonald, political scientist at Queen's University this is an introduction to some of the history and ideas behind the philosophy of postmodernism.

Based closely on a lecture by Eleanor MacDonald, political scientist at Queen's University this is an introduction to some of the history and ideas behind the philosophy of postmodernism.

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  • Not necessarily going to answer the question Try and provide you with the tools to answer that question for yourself.This is an abstract idea, a philosophical idea but it finds its expression in Art and Literature, architecture and music and film and television.I’m going to look at 3 areas that this philosophy springs from to give you some context and introduce you to the body of work that has come to be known as post modernism.The term itself means different things to different people – very often used as a euphemism for contemporary, cool, hot, edgy, new.Actually has a precise meaning.
  • 1. Historical philosophical movement dated 17th / 18th century – body of theory focussed on the importance of human reasonSummarised very simply by Kant – ‘Sapereaude’ – dare to be wiseUse our own reason to advance human civilizationThe purpose of reason is progress of humanity not God’s willHistorical break with traditions that are outmoded – religion, monarchy, feudalism.Kant called it ‘maturity’How do we measure this advance? Through the advance of human freedom.Freedom of the individual significant.
  • There has always been a Counter EnlightenmentPut most simply it include all of those thinkers that were not convinced that we were getting it rightThat human freedoms were not in the right balanceRousseau in the 18th – intent on rewriting the Social Contract – concerning himself with issues of liberty and educationMarx in the 19th – concerned with freedom that would come out of liberation from capitalism’s oppression of the working class and the poorFreud in the 20th – concerned with defining, analysing and ultimately freeing the subconscious mindThe ideas of the enlightenment have always been controversial – freedom is not easy to define
  • 2. Structuralism based on the work of Ferdinand de SaussureRewrote linguistics by taking the traditional view of language The nominalist view (nominalism - denies the existence of universal entities)Said that this is wrongNominalism says that there is a word and this refers to a thing – paper, book, wall, door,Every word has an object outside of itself to which it refersSaussure said that’s not how language really works at all – language works by differentiatingWhat’s really going on in language is that when you say paper what you are really doing is making a distinction from everything else that paper is not.Story. Wall, door, knee, elbow.What we do with language is differentiate…Once this new understanding of language as a system of differentiating was established what Saussure became interested in was the system.He wanted to know what was the structure, what were the rules that gave this system meaning?How does syntax work?How does grammar work?How does the system of language work?SemioticsRealised that what we thought we knew was wrong – realised that the words we use to describe things are importantOnce this idea of an underlying system was realised in Linguistics it gave rise to the same kind of approach in all kinds of other areas of humanities and social sciences and investigation…
  • In Anthropology‘The underlying structure of society is kinship structure’You want to understand society, religious symbols, totems etc. look at family groups, kinship structures.Re-readings of Marx stripping out all the humanist philosophy to summarize it as really what Marx was about the economyStructuralist understanding of the economyFreud was re-read to gain a structuralist understanding of the psyche it was now about the relationship between the id, and ego and superego.Range of theorist all hoping for a more scientific understanding of societyThe success of Saussure’s General Course in Linguistics was not just that he explained how the system of language worked but allowed a way in which we can understand all the appearance and surface phenomena as a corresponding to a hidden underlying structure.QUOTE.
  • Just as the enlightenment led to a counter enlightenment so too structuralism had a counter movement that responded to the way people tried to explain these underlying structures and truths.Working with the theory presented some challenges and one of the challenges was ‘Who said the underlying structure was stable?’Why should there be one way that society should be structured based on the economy and not multiple ways and why wouldn’t those structures be constantly changing?Post-structuralist thought questioned whether there was an underlying structure or whether or not that too was unstable – just opinion – and always changing.Another concern was whether we have the capacity to step back and see the underlying structure because just like in the exact sciences there was a concern over whether the scientist themselves changes what they see simply by looking at it.Similarly in the social sciences and in the application of structuralist theory there was a concern that you might change something by looking at it. Hawthorne Effect - The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing older experiments from 1924–1932 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred due to the impact of the motivational effect on the workers as a result of the interest being shown in them.Observer effect - measurements of certain systems cannot be made without affecting the systems – the observer effectively becomes part of the system being observed.
  • 3. The next area I’m going to look at is Modernism – specifically Aesthetic Modernism.
  • ModernismPiet Mondrian (1872-1944)What’s going on?Trying to get to the essence of what art isA combination of lines and colours…
  • CubismPablo Picasso (1881–1973 ) - lets not pretend we’re not putting these things on a flat surface – he wanted us to see the world differently
  • A sense that you are trying to get to the essence of things
  • Abstract expressionism Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) attempts to get to the essence of painting - painting is about paint, dripped, thrown, painted, dropped, flicked. An honest sense of what art should be…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bICqvmKL5s
  • SurrealismSalvador Dali’s painting – what art is, is about the irrational, THE EMOTIONS the unconscious, what’s behind the face…‘To systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.’Attempting to get to the point of what art really is
  • ARTIST AFTER ARTIST tries to answer the questions as to what art really is?Equivalent things are happening in music, literature, poetry…architecture
  • Modern buildingsBuildings are of glass and concrete and steel – so architects let us see what they are – a kind of honesty of design and materials and functionLooking to get to the essence of things
  • Just as with the enlightenment came the counter enlightenmentJust as with structuralism came post structuralismSo out of the discussion about what art is (modernism) came a critique that went in a variety of ways (post-modernism)What if there is no underlying truth to Art?’As there’s all these other ways of representing things‘What if, just like in post-structuralism, there is no underlying structure?’No underlying truth to Art because no-one can decide what it is…Another way of looking at itIs art something that makes the thing seem like what it is?
  • Things that are usually hidden are on the outside – you can see all the functioning bits of the building – air conditioning, waste and water disposal, elevators, escalators –
  • Colour is used to highlight the functions of the building
  • Another side of postmodernism - Juts into space – draws attention to itself – is playful – cheeky - fun
  • Form no longer follows function – like the Bauhaus modernism – buildings are a work of art in themselves – they are sculptural in form – they are beautiful to look at – they are surprising – they challenge orthodoxies
  • Another way of looking at it – Modernists would sayIs art something that makes the thing seem like what it is?‘Art is what makes the stone, stony’That what Art is, is what makes the truth, seem like truth? Truthy.Postmodernist would say What is going on is there’s no truth to Art as it’s just artifice just a subjective representation all the way no depth only surfaceThis emphasis on pure form resulted in a kind of rigidity to Art – there’s only so many ways you can be truthful to materials like stone and glass and steelThis modernist approach became very elitist - sat in contrast to the kind of Art people actually put on their wallsWhile Picasso is drawing his weeping woman your great-grandparents weren’t buying itIncreasing there was a split between high art – the Art for Art’s sake conversation that’s taking place - the stuff of museums and galleries and magazines – and popular art, mass art – the stuff that people want to listen to on the radio, or hang on their walls, or read, or buildings they want to live in – and so as Picasso and Mondrian and Dali are trying to advance democracy they increasingly became distant from the people, from popular interests.
  • So there are the 3 different theories or theoretical models and post-modernism, as I’ve suggested, is a reaction against these things a response to these things – it assembles a responseIt takes some of the concerns that come up in Art, in Aesthetic Modernism, that we can’t know the truth of thingsIt takes some of the concerns of post-structuralism that there is a constant shift or change – that we need to start to ask different questions – we can’t ask the question what’s the underlying structure of something And it sides with some of the concerns of the counter Enlightenment that we aren’t doing things quite rightWe are going to look at some theorists who get lumped in as post-modern theorists
  • 1. Michel Foucault work started off using a structural model to challenge ideas about knowledge and historyBut adopting the view that there is no underlying truth, there is no underlying structure, this pushed his work in a certain kind of directionHe became interested in how effects of truth are producedHis analysis of discourses came to be about how we order or understand at any given point in time what we think or commonly believe to be trueHe said that this is an effect this was a belief, there is no underlying truth to for example human sexuality or to human health or how to build an effective prison or school!He said what there is a discourse about sexuality that makes at a given period of time certain kinds of sexuality normal that makes our identity seem natural and how are those effects produced.His analysis of discourse showed that not just the discourse at the level of language but all of those practices that go into normalising meaning – for example the practice of education – or the practice of healthcare – create divisions of teacher and student – or doctor and patient – and in those divisions power worksThere is a certain way in which power functions based on the divisions that get set up by the predominant discourses in our society – so you all sit and listen quietly while I speak and that is a certain kind of power relation which the current discourse on education supports.Freedom then is not about discovering some kind of underlying truth about human beings but about analysing and resisting the ways we are produced as specific types of social subjectsIn his writing‘Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political double-bind of the discourse which simultaneously individualises us and reinforces the totalising power structures of our society’
  • Another theorist Jacques Derrida whose work is associated with deconstruction – this term has come to mean simply critique or analyse – I’ve got a problem with something I’m not happy about something I’m going to deconstruct itWhat Derrida meant by deconstruction was something quite specific – it was a way of reading a text to see how meaning was produced in that text – how does a text work to produce your belief that it is true, that it is fact and not fictionOne of the ways in which Derrida does this is typically to read 2 texts together he read Marx and Shakespeare in and against each other and he found looking at the ways in which metaphors worked looking at the ways in which both of them used language he actually interplays them until you forget which one is the philosopher and which one is the playwright – they’re both full of some of the same imagery some of the same sentiment – he’s playing with the ideas we have about the difference between truth and fictionMost of the things that he is interested in is the way in which meanings of good require for sense that we think that something is bad – reason, so heavily touted by the Enlightenment, to make sense has to be differentiated against something like emotion – we need a kind of binary opposition to make meaningWhen we say that something is central – what we are saying is that we can see something as peripheral – he interested in the way meaning is produced without us realising what’s going onJust like Saussure noticing that we don’t actually just mean paper when we say paper or wall when we say wall – we think we are always just dealing with the positive term – that good is something we could go about defining – that it is actually there – but Derrida says that no, it’s always based on differentiating, there’s always something being cast out, for us to think of something that is good we are always differentiating it from something that is bad – we have to see how, subtly that works its way into a text – we have to deconstruct the text to find out how meanings are being produced and what is being dissembled or subordinated in order to produce that meaning – a meaning which is often very arbitrary
  • There are other theorists you could look at Judith Butler is concerned with the production of our identities – and repeating here that our identities – of gender or sexuality or race are not pre-given but are produced, they’re performed, not necessarily in a conscious way but because an identity is produced in the actions which present someone as recognisable to someone else as male or female, as professor or student, Butler’s work is specifically interested in our gender identities in a book called Gender Trouble.Jean Baudrillard – if there is no such truth what should theory do? Go around pointing out that things aren’t true? In 1991 he stated There is no Gulf War – We all have AIDS – We are all schizophrenic – not because these things are true but because theory has to be provocative, to push us.
  • So you can HOPEFULLY see that there are different positions people can take within post-modern theory - if all of these people are post-modern theoristsYou can also probably see some combination of these approaches of how they might come together – they may differ but there are some common themes – for exampleChallenging accepted ideas, playing with familiar themes, recognising limitations of theory, deconstructing common meanings, revisiting well-rehearsed discourses, revealing the underlying structures of texts, accepting that there is no essence, that there is no difference between high and low culture, that anything can be Art.So - How do we answer the Q as to whether we are postmodern?One way is to say – which response is being emphasised? Are the theorists emphasising their relationship to the counter enlightenment project – in other words in putting these things forward it probably hasn’t escaped you that there are more than one Truth being offered here – The truth about how meaning is produced in a textThe truth about how power functions in society ‘Knowledge is not made for understanding it is made for cutting’Knowledge is about making interventions into things, for dissecting, for dividing the world up, for shaping itAnd so, is Foucault in saying this and is Derrida in his investigations into texts to be read as pushing in the direction the Enlightenment was intending, pushing in the way many of the counter Enlightenment theorists did - suggesting that we have to exercise our reason at a deeper level – we have to understand more the ways in which we are trapped in power relationships we didn’t even understand were there beforeSo one way of reading the theories is to see them largely as counter Enlightenment theoriesAnother way of reading the theories is to see them predominantly in relation to Structuralism – as post Structural theories – in which case what we are emphasising here is not the structure but the process – how are meanings produced – they are not produced the same way once and for all and for all time – but we are going to analyse the process instead of the thing itself – it’s a bit like in science when they came to understand that you couldn’t both look at the thing and study its trajectory – Observer effect – you either have to look at it’s motion, or you have to look at the thing itself, it’s impossible to measure both things at the same time.It would be the equivalent of saying in the humanities that we can’t understand what the structure is in any permanent way what we have to do is see how education or sexuality or gender or truth or textual meaning is produced, how identity is produced, how a sense of justice is produced, Or you could take it in the direction that post modern art took it in which is to say there is no truth and when we move from those very serious earnest questions of modernism to what we know think of as postmodern art there was kind of an abandonment of any effort to find an underlying truth about anything – there’s no effort to try and make a cohesive thing – here’s an example - Toronto Museum of Art – because cohesion is a falsehood.
  • there’s no effort to try and make a cohesive thing – here’s an example - Toronto Museum of Art – because cohesion is a falsehood.
  • So – you can read postmodern theory in any of these waysAs counter EnlightenmentAs a rejection of all truthsAs an emphasis more on processThe best analogy I can think of is the magic eye pictures that were popular in the 90s when you look at the whole picture you lose the ability to focus on anything - it’s as if there is nothing there
  • For many people trying to work with the range of theories in post modernism can be where you get stuckThe theory is interesting but all you see is the pattern of the theory itself – it’s difficult to know where to apply itBut – most post modernist theorist don’t stop there – what they make you conscious of is that there isn’t a right thing to look at – but then when and where you decide to look is a choice and you need to think about how you make those choices and so – I did say I wasn’t going to answer this question for you – but I will give you a way of answering the questionIf when you look at this landscape painting you say the way in which I would choose what to look at would be partly based on what I thought I needed to know about how the paint was mixed or how the position of the couple and the trees works – these kinds of questions – we need some understanding about the truth of the environment or the history of landscape painting – or why is there a space left on the woman’s lap – or even that the expression of the man hints at subtext like KEEP OUT! And HANDS OFF! I would suggest you are more on the modernist side.
  • But – most post modernist theorist don’t stop there – what they make you conscious of is that there isn’t a right thing to look at – but then when and where you decide to look is a choice and you need to think about how you make those choices and so – I did say I wasn’t going to answer this question for you – but I will give you a way of answering the questionIf when you look at thislandscape painting you say the way in which I would choose what to look at would be partly based on what I thought I needed to know about how the paint was mixed or how the position of the couple and the trees works – these kinds of questions – we need some understanding about the truth of the environment or the history of landscape painting – or why is there a space left on the woman’s lap – or even that the expression of the man hints at subtext like KEEP OUT! And HANDS OFF! I would suggest you are more on the modernist side.And if you’re the sort of person who says I think what I would focus on is why do I need to focus on this painting at all – why is this genre of painting being privileged above the still life or above a photograph or a frame from a movie or comic book – or what I will look at is what interests me – what I will look at is partly out of hoping that other people would also want to see the same thing – then you are probably more on the post modern side of any divide
  • Ultimately we need both sets of questions – both kinds of responses – we all need to be aware of what we can do with the ways in which we can understand truths – of trying to know what we can understand about the way in which power works in societies on the basis of scientific or social scientific investigations and we need to understand what motivates us and the other things that are beyond our scientific rationalisations.
  • Transcript

    • 1. WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM ?
    • 2. LITERARY POSTMODERNISM The consciousness of the break between language and reality – the understanding of the limitations of language An awareness of the text as an artificial thing – self-reflexivity or hyperconsciousness How does this manifest itself? Unreliable narrators Drawing attention to the text as a construct (rupturing or metatext) Blurring of lines between genres (hybridity) Between high and pop art (democratisation) The parody or pastiche of other texts Or the intertextual borrowing from other texts and genres (intertextuality) The blurring of lines between truth and fiction…reality and invention…history and literature… And the irony that it recognises its own contradictions yet continues to use literature to express these contradictions…
    • 3. OUTLINE THREE areas that postmodernism ‘responds’ to: 1. The Enlightenment; 2. Structuralism; 3. (Aesthetic) Modernism. THEN going to look at some theorists and how they approach contemporary issues using post-modern approach. THEN going to think about how we might begin to answer to the question… WHY? Because both the texts we’ve studied could be called post-modern and we need to know why…?
    • 4. THE ENLIGHTENMENT Sapere Aude! Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
    • 5. COUNTER ENLIGHTENMENT Karl Marx (1818-1883) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
    • 6. STRUCTURALISM Course in General Linguistics (1916) ‘Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world.’ Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) Roy Harris, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, University of Oxford
    • 7. STRUCTURALISM & ANTHROPOLOGY ‘The underlying structure of society is kinship structure’ Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) ‘For centuries the humanities and the social sciences have resigned themselves to contemplating the world of the natural as a kind of paradise they will never enter. The sciences have truth over there, we just have strong opinions, and all of a sudden there’s a small door which is being opened between the fields and it is linguistics which has done it.’ Claude Levi-Strauss
    • 8. POST STRUCTURALISM • ‘Who said the underlying structure was stable?’ • ‘How do we know that we don’t change the results in the act of observing the structure?’
    • 9. (AESTHETIC) MODERNISM
    • 10. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) ‘Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow’ (1930)
    • 11. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) ‘Figure dans un Fauteuil’ (1909-10)
    • 12. ‘Art is the lie that makes us realise the truth’
    • 13. Weeping Woman (1937)
    • 14. ‘Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face or what’s behind the face?’ Weeping Woman (1937)
    • 15. Jack the Dripper
    • 16. Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) ‘Blue Poles’ Number 11 (1952)
    • 17. Salvador Dali ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)
    • 18. ‘…to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.’ Salvador Dali ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)
    • 19. MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, New York (1958)
    • 20. POST MODERNISM • ‘What if there is no underlying truth to Art or architecture?’ • ‘What if, just like in poststructuralism, there is no underlying structure, there’s no one way that things can be?’
    • 21. POSTMODERN ARCHITECTURE The Pompidou Centre, Paris (1977)
    • 22. The Pompidou Centre, Paris (1977)
    • 23. Will Alsop, The OCAD U, Toronto (2004)
    • 24. Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (1997)
    • 25. ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone, stony.’ Viktor Shklovsky
    • 26. WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM ?
    • 27. discourse Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) ‘Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political double-bind of the discourse which simultaneously individualises us, and reinforces the totalising power structures of our society’
    • 28. deconstruction Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) ‘there is nothing outside the text’
    • 29. Judith Butler (1956-) Gender Trouble Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) There is no Gulf War
    • 30. WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM ? COUNTER ENLIGHTENMENT AN EMPHASIS ON PROCESS RATHER THAN SYSTEMS A REJECTION OF ALL TRUTHS
    • 31. Daniel Libeskind, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (2007)
    • 32. WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM ? COUNTER ENLIGHTENMENT AN EMPHASIS ON PROCESS RATHER THAN SYSTEMS A REJECTION OF ALL TRUTHS
    • 33. John Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750)
    • 34. KEEP OUT! HANDS OFF! John Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750)
    • 35. WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM ? GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!