Postmodernism: Decor of a Room, Proliferation of Surfaces or Something Else? Essay (Critical Writing)
“When it becomes possible for people to describe as “postmodern” the decor of a room, the design of a building… a proliferation of surfaces… the collapse of cultural hierarchies … then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword” (quoted in Storey 181-182). With this bright and quite continuous quotation, John Storey illustrates the confusion that exists in point of the term “postmodernism”, and thus demonstrates significance of the discussion presented in the Chapter 9 of his (2009).
Indeed, today the term “postmodernism” is actively used in different fields of our social, political and cultural life, and in many cases this use is spontaneous, confused and shallow. Thus, despite postmodernism is given a concrete definition in specialized literature, the occurring everywhere vagueness connected with it requires further discussion of this term.
Having outlined the field of interest which is the notion of postmodernism in relation to popular culture, Storey observes the evolution of postmodernism from its origin to nowadays and makes the effort to define the “general aspects of postmodernism” (182). The discussion includes both alluding to other researchers’ works and providing the author’s own commentary. In turn, we will try to find the correspondence and points of agreement between different researchers’ views and thus approach to understanding of postmodernism.
Origins of Postmodernism: Back from Museums and Academia
It is impossible to discuss a theory in isolation from conditions of its origin. To help a reader to understand better the essence of postmodernism, Storey describes the cultural environment of the late 1950s and 1960s characterized by domination of modernism. Despite of its name, the modernist art did not seem “modern” any more; it became “a set of dead classics” (cited in Storey 182). The new generation challenged “canonization” of modernist art which was considered “high”, elitist, not comprehensible for an average viewer, listener or reader (182).
The generation of 1960s brought a new view on the world and, particularly, culture, a so-called “new sensibility” (cited in Storey 182). On the one hand, young people did not wanted culture to be an issue for the select few and thus opposed to the modernist approach to culture and art. Storey describes this difference quite brightly: at that moment, instead of remaining “the best that has been thought and said”, culture became “a whole way of life” (183).
On the other hand, popular culture evolves towards seriousness: it is expected to be more than just an opposition to “high art” and the means of entertainment (ibid.). However, we should understand that it was the attempt not to make “low” culture “high” or backwards, but to reject the notions of “low” and “high” in culture, or so-called “great divide” (cited in Storey 183). This rejection, according to Storey, became the crucial distinction between two generations’ view on culture.
Thus, the significant changes took place during the discussed period. However, can we define them as a cultural revolution? Based on Storey’s work, we cannot say so: the author does not tell about dramatic confrontation between “old” and “new” cultures and their adherents, but provides a quotation by Lawrence Alloway, “We felt none of dislike of commercial culturestandard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as a fact, discussed it in details, and consumed it enthusiastically” (quoted in Storey 183). Thus, appearance of popular culture seems a new logical, consequent step rather than revolution.
At the same time, Storey’s narration may provoke a range of questions in a reader’s mind. Particularly, it would be rather interesting to discuss the origin of the 1960s generation’s desire to eliminate the border between “high” and “low” culture.
Despite the author outlines the field of discussion as postmodernism in popular culture, we nevertheless cannot omit the fact that any cultural phenomenon does not appear only in cultural environment itself: it is always triggered by (or, at least, consonant with) certain factors “from outside”, particularly, social processes.
Thus, a reader might be interested: what caused this desire to take art back from “museum and academia”? Why and how did aspiration for “popular culture” and this “new sensibility” appear? Storey glances over the events in the USA, such as the war in Vietnam, the wave of feminism and defense of black citizens’ rights et al (184).
Despite being almost left behind the focus of discussion, the questions above seem quite significant and outline the directions of the possible further study: answering them would provide a reader with more complete and eloquent picture of what postmodernism is.
Another point for the additional discussion is American cultural environment as the origin of popular culture (183). We may state that for several decades, the American society had been enjoying culture that can be hardly called “elitist”. For example, we may recollect the American jazz of the 1930s-1940s which was popular with various strata of the society.
At the same time, we see that the time border of the appearance of pop culture, the origin of postmodernism, refers to a later period. Thus, it would be interesting to define more exactly the “point” at which “not elitist” culture became “pop culture” discussed in Storey’s work, and to specify the difference between them: this difference might play the role of the soil on which postmodernism grew.
Jean-François Lyotard about Knowledge, Money and Resurrection of Modernism
To approach to defining the phenomenon of postmodernism, Storey observes ideas of authors who substantially contributed to the debate. Particularly, Jean-François Lyotard contributed to introduction of the term “postmodernism” into academic discussion and devoted his study to contemporary postmodern condition.
Lyotard talks about postmodern condition in contemporary science. The purpose of a research is no more finding the truth but generating the material that can be used, sold and bought, “It will hear only, “What use is it?” “How much is it worth?” and “Is it saleable?”” (Storey 185); the purpose of education is not providing students with absolute knowledge, but teaching them “how to use knowledge as a form of cultural and economic capital…” (ibid.)
Thus, we can conclude that Lyotard’s ideas emphasize several characteristic “shifts” of postmodernism: the shift from matters to manners, from absolute to relative, from “truth” to “performativity” (ibid.), from knowledge to exploitation of intellectual capital, from ideal to money.
The last shift is quite consonant with Andy Warhol’s statement about popular culture and its commercial essence provided by Storey, “commercial art as real art and real art as commercial art” (183). Thus, we see that in the process of discussion, this elimination of the border between “real”, “true” and “commercial” emerges as one of the significant attributes of postmodernism.
Together with the pessimistic view on the postmodernist condition, the French philosopher expresses his hope for the light at the end of the tunnel, “postmodernist culture is not the end of the much superior culture of modernism, but the sign of the advent of a new modernism” (185).
Jean Baudrillard about Originals, Copies and Hyperreality
The ideas of another French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, look “codirectional” with Lyotard’s statements discussed above. According to Baudrillard, “it is no longer possible to separate the economic or productive realm from the realms of ideology or culture” (quoted in Storey 186).
Baudrillard introduces the notions of simulation, simulacrum and hyperrealism into the discussion of postmodernism. He emphasizes the general tendency in contemporary culture which is “copy instead of original” or “copy without original” (187). Baudrillard defines the process of elimination of distinction between a copy and an original as “simulation”; a copy is called “simulacrus”. Thus, Baudrillard’s version of postmodern condition is hyperrealism: the mode where simulation dominates.
The world where copies substitute originals… Copying CDs and watching films in the different corners of the world, introducing “cardboard police cars”, “Sex and the City” New York tours – we do not even notice how “the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV” progresses (quoted in Storey 188). However, Storey makes an important statement: hyperrealism is not that people lose understanding of the difference between reality and simulation; it is that this difference gradually becomes less important (189).
Storey outlines one more point of intersection of Baudrillard’s and Lyotard’s positions: the “metanarratives”, such as God, science, Marxism et al do not define the truth any more.
The matter of truth itself becomes not just relative, but simply insignificant. In other words, like a researcher is more interested not in discovering the truth, but in applying and selling a discovery, an average citizen is more interested in Deirdre Rachid’s story (188) itself than in veracity of her existence. Thus, though holding the discussion from different angles, two philosophers nevertheless demonstrate agreement in understanding the essence of postmodernism.
Fredric Jameson about Cultural Periodization and Historical Amnesia
Despite Jean-François Lyotard buries Marxism as a “metanarrative” (Storey 184), Fredric Jameson holds the discussion of postmodernism in a Marxist or Neo-Marxist framework. He demonstrates Marxist approach to defining the essence of postmodernist culture.
Analogically to the Marxist periodization of economical development of the society, Fredric Jameson talks about periodization in culture determining three cultural “formations”: “realism”, “modernism” and “postmodernism” (191).
He nevertheless does not state that domination of one cultural mode is accompanied by collapse of other modes: while nowadays postmodernist mode dominates, other ones are “emergent” or “residual” (ibid.). This statement reminds us of Lyotard’s idea about postmodernism as “the sign of the advent of a new modernism” discussed above.
Cultural modes (above, we defined them as “cultures”: modernism, postmodernism et al) are not mutually exclusive; nor is evolution of culture linear (this means that domination of one mode does not eliminate the possibility of future domination of “previous” modes”). However, this approach does not “match” with Baudrillard’s view of cultural evolution as a “linear, unidirectional story of decline” (quoted in Storey 191).
At the same time, we can notice that the further narration demonstrates that Jameson’s ideas are rather consonant with those of Lyotard and Baudrillard. Jameson defines postmodernist culture as “pastiche”, which is parody without a satiric motive; he talks about its unoriginality, perpetual “borrowings”, “quotes” and repetitions with minor changes.
He gives the example of “nostalgia films” and states that today we see a switch from history to “historicism” which is shallow and full of clichés (193); this “historical amnesia” reminds us of the changes connected with the notion of truth and switches noticed by Lyotard, as well as simulation discussed by Baudrillard. The history shown in films is only the simulation of history, but it becomes less and less important for viewers: they prefer to see bright and recognizable clichés rather than historical truth.
Another significant point of agreement is the connection between culture and economy, commercial essence of postmodern culture. Outlining the correspondence between multicultural capitalism and postmodernism, Jameson states that postmodernist culture favors and promotes “the logic of consumer capitalism” eliminating the difference between “aesthetic production” and “commodity production” (quoted in Storey 194).
Jameson’s statement about “aesthetization of everyday life” is consonant with the statement about turning culture into “a whole way of life” mentioned above.
John Storey about Pluralism of Value, Globalization and Convergence
Having observed ideas of philosophers who made significant contribution to emergence of a notion of postmodernism, Storey continues the discussion. He formulates three aspects of postmodernism which he considers crucial.
Storey emphasizes the changes of cultural values that take place in the epoch of postmodernist culture: what seemed absolute and certain does not seem such any more. This provokes the following questions: “who is “valuing”?” and “what is “valued?” Storey alludes to Pierre Bourdieu’s idea: distinctions in culture are defined by existence and competition of different social groups; these are social groups who evaluate “a particular mode of dress” or “a poem by T. S. Eliot” (Storey 202).
Correspondingly, cultural values identify and maintain the difference between them. We may notice that this idea of “challenged cultural values” has much in common with the idea of “challenged notion of the truth” and “destroyed metanarratives” discussed above.
The second issue discussed by Storey is globalization in culture. In fact, instead of becoming a “global village”, our planet turns into the “American global village” (204). Here, the connection with the idea of commercial in culture is eloquent: firstly, the USA exports commodities that are popular throughout the world, which makes export of culture much easier; secondly (which to some extent results from the first point), the American culture is always commercially successful: selling, buying and copying it is beneficial.
The third aspect of postmodernism in culture is convergence. The same content can be used with the help of different platforms: we listen to the same songs on a laptop, a player or on the radio; we do an incredible number of operations with our mobile phones (210). Why not? In the world where “copies” do not need “originals” any more, transferring culture through different platforms is natural and simple. A consumer’s task is just to choose the most convenient platform in order to get the most pleasure.
John Storey’s discussion of postmodernist culture is of big significance: it helps a reader to comprehend the term “postmodernism” deeper than a “buzzword” which it is sometimes seems to be. In his work, Storey provides material that gives opportunity to understand the origin and the essence of postmodernist culture.
Having got familiarized with Storey’s and other researchers’ ideas, we may notice that they often intersect and complement each other. There are several distinctive features of postmodernist culture, such as challenging traditional values and notion of truth, important role of “simulations” and commercial essence of cultural production.
The ideas of Storey et al are not just the words; we can notice their numerous illustrations around us. Today people watch reality shows and burst with emotions awakened by characters’ behavior even not believing that the “show” is “real”; we know well what “fashion of 60s”, “70s” or “80s” means, but we do not find words to describe “fashion of 00s”, as it is full of repetitions of previous decades’ trends.
The term “postmodernism” has been defined, but the question about its “eternity” remains unsolved. Today, it seems impossible to predict whether culture will again divide into “high” and “low” and continue “taunting” (Storey 194) commercial motives or not.
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5th ed. New York, London: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.
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