Contemporary Theory Postmodernism Cultural Studies Essay

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Postmodernism is a term denoting structurally similar phenomena in the world of public life and culture of the second half of the 20th century: it is used to characterize the post-non-classical type of philosophizing.

In the early 20th century the classical style of thinking of modernism changed to non-classical, and at the end of the century to post-non-classical. To fix the mental specificity of the new era that was radically different from the previous, a new term was required. The current state of science, culture and society in general in the 1970-ies was characterized by J.-F. Lyotard as postmodern state (Lyotard, 1984). The origin of the postmodernism took place in the 1960 - 70-ies; it is connected and logically follows from the processes of modernism era as a reaction to the crisis of its ideas, as well as to the so-called death of super foundations: God (Nietzsche), author (Barthes), human (humanitarian).

The term appears in the World War I in "The Crisis of European Culture" by R. Pannwitz. In 1934, in his book "The Anthology of Spanish and Hispano- American Poetry", a literary critic F. de Onis uses it to describe the reaction to modernism. In 1947, Arnold Toynbee in his book "A Study of History" gives the postmodernism a culturological meaning: postmodernism symbolizes the end of western dominance in religion and culture (Delanty, 2000).

The announced beginning of the theory of postmodernism is considered the article "Cross the Border - Close the Gap" by Leslie Fiedler, defiantly published in Playboy magazine. However, the term "postmodernism" acquired popularity due to Charles Jencks. In his book "The Language of Postmodern Architecture", he pointed out that although this word was used in American literary criticism of 60-70-ies to identify ultramodern literary experiments, the author gave it a totally different meaning. Postmodernism means the abandonment of extremism and nihilism of neo-avant-garde, a partial return to tradition, the emphasis on the communicative role (Delanty, 2000).

It can be argued that postmodernism absorbed the post-structuralism, structural psychoanalysis, neo-Marxism, the philosophy of Heidegger, traditions of post-scientific thinking and poetic thinking, as well as the traditions of semiotics and structural linguistics, and in its later versions, the philosophy of dialogue, the theory of language games. That is, the influence of non-classical philosophy is more noticeable. A characteristic feature of postmodernism is that having emerged as the antithesis of both modernism and classicism, it was primarily the result of the negation as such. For this reason, the characteristic features of postmodernism are, first of all, pluralism and eclecticism (Debrix, 1999; Fielding, 2009). Further we'll focus on the main ideas and concepts of postmodernism theory, as well on its limit and practical implications.

Definitions of concepts and relationships among them

Jurgen Habermas, Daniel Bell and Zygmunt Bauman treat postmodernism as a result of politics and ideology of neoconservatism, which is characterized by aesthetic eclecticism, fetishization of commodities and other distinctive features of postindustrial society (Habermas, 1994; Bauman, 2010). Emerged as the antithesis of modernism opened for understanding by few only, postmodernism (putting everything in the game form) eliminates the distance between the mass and elite consumer, relegating the elite to the masses (Delanty, 2000).

In the theory of postmodernism, the instrumental view on scientific methodology is marked, and therefore, the question of the legitimacy of the choice of different scientific paradigms is put. The philosophy of postmodernism believes in impossibility of legitimating one single way of describing a scientific picture of the world, for the reason that the world can be described by an infinite number of ways, none of which can be legitimized without going beyond the scientific or philosophical methodology. Postmodernism theory generally includes the mechanisms of deconstruction of ideological poles, leading to a rethinking of the historical situation (Koro-Ljungberg, 2008).

Deconstruction is central concept in postmodernism theoretizing, meaning the understanding and perception, which emphasizes not the system, principle, or structure underlying the basis of the perceived, but those things which are a kind of secondary being still included into this system. Deconstruction involves changing of the meaning of the perceived, a play with this meaning and possibility of granting this meaning with the different content (Derrida, 1985).

As the result of the denial of legitimating or certain ideological paradigms, postmodern theoretical concepts suggest free dynamic design of philosophical and cultural tools in dependence from the local situation. Postmodernism factually declares the philosophy that in principle denies the possibility of accuracy and objectivity (Delanty, 2000). Postmodernists subject the concept of truth to deconstruction, since the same event cannot be interpreted similarly by different people. In general, the picture can be described as decentralized through discourses (Derrida, 1985).

Discourse is the notion interpreted in the theory of postmodernism as a self-contained procedurality of verbal game practices, where the phenomenon of "self" is losing its autonomy during the interpretation of the perceived. Discourse contributes to the multiplicity of interpretations of the same phenomenon, finding an infinite number of meanings in what previously seemed to be understood one-dimensionally. Thus, understanding is based not on the cultural dominant of meaning, but on the principle of random guesses (Fielding, 2009).

Undoubtedly, the social theory of postmodernism is unlikely to claim for a strictly systematic unity of its tenets, but also beyond doubt is that its basis consists of some fundamental ideas that are regarded as common, universally accepted. They were assimilated by postmodernism primarily in the form they were given by the French post-structuralism. Let us identify several initial postulates of the social theory of postmodernism.

Culture as a system of signs is the first and main idea of postmodernism. Postmodernism rejects the old belief in referential language, that is, in language able to truly and accurately reproduce the reality, to say the truth about it. Therefore, the understanding of the world, possible only in language and through language, according to postmodernism, is not a product of "the world as it is", but the consequence of the "history texts" (Bauman, 2010).

"The world as text" is one of the most well-known theses of postmodernism. In postmodernism the whole reality is conceived as text, discourse, narration. "Narrative", "textuality", "intertextuality" are the most important concepts that are used by postmodernism to describe current reality, the basic words of its language. According to Derrida (1985), nothing exists outside the text. Deconstruction as a general method of postmodern analysis, applicable to analysis of any cultural phenomenon and any text, inevitably turns into multi-meaningful and endless interpretative process that relativizes any text, any notion, and therefore deprives the sense of the problem of truth. Thus, the language turns out to be unstable environment; it cannot directly carry the meaning or truth. Hence the major thesis of postmodernism about non-self-relation of text and the fragility of knowledge obtained by means of language, and as a consequence, about the problematic nature of the picture of reality, Foucault's episteme, which exists in a particular historical epoch (Foucault, 1982).

"The death of the subject" is the second, equally important philosophical component of postmodernism. The most influential is the developed by M. Foucault and R. Barthes version of the concept of death of the subject (Foucault, 1982; Barthes, 1991); Jacques Derrida's concept of deconstruction also lead to the same conclusion (Derrida, 1985). Postmodernism grounds the impossibility of an independent individual existence, proves that the individual is constantly and mostly unconsciously conditioned in its thinking by linguistic structures. This position, common to the whole postmodern way of thinking, one of the main constants of the general post-modernist doctrine, was called "theoretical anti-humanism". Its essence is in recognition of the fact that regardless of the individual consciousness and will, through him, above him and beside him some powers, phenomena and processes manifest, which he cannot control, and therefore the individual cannot be explanatory principle in the investigation of any "social whole" (Derrida, 1985; Habermas, 1994).

Decentration. Postmodernism criticizes the centrality as a basic principle of the European culture of modern times, the rational thinking of modernity, which is rejected as metaphysical. According to Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by two main features: the collapse of the unity and the growth of pluralism (Lyotard, 1984). Postmodernists consider it impossible and pointless to try to establish any hierarchical order, any system of priorities in knowledge, culture and life. They are against any totalitarianism, especially modern technological, informational one. Their slogan is the equivalence of all life forms. Therefore natural for them is a rejection of the notion of historical progress, from the universal forms of historical development, the very idea of linear development of history, which was replaced by the concept of Michel Foucault about the abrupt alternation of epistemes, the metaphor of rhizome as an unordered, multi-directional development (Foucault, 1982).

"Postmodern sensibility" is one of the key concepts of postmodernism. Disappointment in the ideals and values of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with their belief in progress, triumph of reason, boundless human potential was transformed into a rejection of the entire tradition of Western rationalism. This led to the formation of a "post-modern sensitivity", a specific vision of the world, decentered, fragmented, disordered, deprived of a cause-effect relationships and values, perceived by consciousness only in the form of hierarchically disordered fragments. Any attempt to construct a model of such world is meaningless (Barthes, 1991; Koro-Ljungberg, 2008).

Promotion of new categories by philosophers-postmodernists is not as much caused only by the desire to replace the main categories of classical aesthetics, as by an attempt to explain the changes in art, and is preconditioned by a change in attitude of modern man.

Current status of the theory and critique

Postmodern philosophy calls itself "post-structuralism" and essentially denies the paradigm of "structure", including with respect to itself. This, however, does not mean that we cannot separate supporting constructions of philosophical postmodern structure. And, according to the rules of argument, let's start with epistemology and reimburse an important philosophical question regarding the relation of notion to being, language to the flow of phenomena, of the signifying to the signified.

Postmodernism theory solves this issue in a pretty original way. It abandons the question of the cognitive capacity of subjects, as well as the fundamental epistemological "subject-object" opposition, and posits the language and text as the self-sufficient reality, considered outside any connection with objectivity. Hence it logically follows the postmodernist rejection of the notion of meaning as the notion provided by extra-textual reality and correlating with objectivity (Koro-Ljungberg, 2008).

For the philosopher-postmodernist, language has never been, cannot be and finally stops being considered to be a neutral repository of meaning (Fielding, 2009). The process of speech and the semantics of the text are never an objective process of the detection of meaning, but the inserting of the meaning into the text, which itself has no meaning (Koro-Ljungberg, 2008).

Thus, postmodern thought is focused not on "meaning" (the relation of the signifying towards the signified), but on "signification" (closed in itself movement within the sphere of the signifying). Therefore, creation of meaning becomes the purely subjective process, given to the voluntarism of the signifying subject from beginning to end. Semantic variability, unpredictability of interpretation, and the play of relativism are, according to post-structuralism, the condition of the narration: the statement cannot be determined by one voice and one meaning; the statement contains a lot of codes, and a lot of voices, and none of them can be preferred. Postmodernism produces a certain amount of indeterminations or overdeterminations: this amount is factually signification (Barthes, 1991).

It can't be said that poststructural position in relation to language and text is totally illegitimate in the sense that it does not have any epistemological roots. This position absolutizes one of the points in the relationships of object and its verbal, textual representation. Indeed, in a sense, the language is conventional: a specific object can be named by any word. However, this does not cancel the real essence of the subject. Thus, relative conventionality of language does not negate its structuredness. Any language reflects the ontology; we fix the statics of an object (noun), dynamics (verb), qualitative determination (adjective), etc.

Denying any ontological referent of the text, poststructuralism is only interested in labeling the subject of valuation in terms of its affiliation to a particular cultural tradition. But what caused this tradition if not ontology, praxis? Can we say that the language of Karafai cannibal tribe of Papua New Guinea is not less informative than the English language?

But even within a particular tradition, a subjectivist imposing of meaning into the text, the post-modernists speak about, in the final analysis, is preconditioned by an ontological referent (one or another interest of a person, group, social community, etc.) arising about significant benefits.

The negation of ontologically set meaning of logos causes destruction of the very idea of ontology by postmodern philosophy. From the perspective of poststructuralism, ontology is principally impossible (Ryan, 1999).

The world is understood as text, surrendered to the chaotic subjective interpretations. Something like the collapse of reality happens. Words become the sounding shell deprived of meaning (Matthewman, 2006). Postmodern chaos constitutes itself in the concept of "rhizome": unstructural unstable organization of integrity, opposing the classical notion of organization of integrity metaphorically represented as a tree grown from a single root.

Apparently aware of the inherent unacceptability of the idea of chaos to consciousness, postmodern theorists focus on the potential creativity and activity, embodied, in their opinion, in such a worldview. Ontological constructions of philosophy of postmodernism (in other words, anti-ontological destructions) are built on a number of modern natural science theories and hypotheses subjectively interpreted by experts in humanities.

But the main impetus to the theoretical basis of the ontology of chaos, in our opinion, was the general socio-cultural situation in the last decades of the 20th - the beginning of the 21st century. On the one hand, it was the crisis of classical liberal value molds, and, on the other hand, marginalization and crisis of counter-systemic ideological projects (stalinism, fascism). Important role in the development of postmodern concepts of cultural relativism was played by the processes of exchange and interpenetration of different cultures, especially actively unfolded during the manifestation of globalization (Hector, 2010).

It has to be noted that cultural globalization in its current form is not on a line of deep meaningful dialogue between cultures, but on a line of surface exchange of artifacts taken out of context-semantic field.

Cognitive futility of philosophical postmodernism can be seen on the example of the analysis of the mythological complex. From the perspective of poststructuralism, myths of holy stairs, mountain, tree, vine, post, etc., that exist in the cultures of almost all the nations, are the same "narratives" which have no objectivity behind them, and which actually can be applied as a substrate for all the subjective interpretations (Matthewman, 2006).

Factually, all these myths, various in the cultural and genetic terms, express the same archetype of space organization, i.e. the Axis of the World. The similar situation is with the archetypes of time. The existing myths of cyclical time movement from harmony to entropy and a new beginning reflect the movement of a natural cycle (Fielding, 2009).

Postmodern style of philosophizing rejects the articulation of certainty of not only object but also subject. It postulates the death of the subject. In this theory, language is presented as a form of the existence of unconsciousness, but according to poststructuralists, "I" is determined primarily by constructs of the general symbolic order, by connection to "signifier", that is, linguistic structures setting articulation rules.

Based on the Freudian opposition of the sphere of the unconscious to the sphere of coercive power of "superego" (culture), postmodern philosophers come to the thesis about decenteredness of nature of the subject, which is torn between the unconscious and the symbolic (objectified in the signifier) (Ryan, 1999).

Replacing the traditional understanding of subject as rational subject, as well as Freudian lusting subject, the simplified postmodern type of decentered tool of representation of cultural meanings (signifiers) of language comes.

Disappearance of human in discursive practices on consciousness and determinational impact of structures of language logically leads postmodernism to the "death of man". One can see, therefore, an obvious contradiction of postmodernism theory. On the one hand, many postmodernists claim that the imposing of meaning into the text cannot be an objective process. But on the other hand, postmodernists speak about the death of the subject.

But who is then investing meaning in the text? Thus, on the one hand, they declare futility, randomness and unpredictability of text's life, but on the other hand, claim the absolute rule of linguistic structures. This contradiction, however, can be easily explained.

Postmodernism is, in some sense, the descendant (and logical finale) of the liberation line in the Western philosophy, implicitly moved by the pulse of liberation from everything, what, according to postmodernists, can be the limiting structure, entity, phenomenon, or force. Attempt of text ontologization, deontologization of existence and dissolution of the subject is factually another idealistic mystification. Consideration of the text in terms of its "self-existence", out of the foundation of its subject-object opposition, can be equaled to a denial of any and all cognitive criteria, impotence of thought and factual self-destruction of science (Matthewman, 2006).

Besides, postmodernists represent their theory as the one opening up new perspectives of creative activity. But in fact, the adoption of this kind of worldview brings a man into a deadlock of absolute spiritual emptiness, to the total devaluation of ethical values and, consequently, to passivity and conformism.

Meanwhile, criticism of postmodernism has a totality character, despite the fact that postmodernism denies any totality, and belongs to both the supporters of contemporary trends and their enemies. The death of postmodernism has already been declared several times: such shocking statements have appeared after R. Barthes (1991), who proclaimed "the death of the author" and gradually become the conventional stamp), postmodern has also been characterized as the culture of second hand.

It is generally accepted that postmodernism bring nothing new, that it is a theory without its own content and therefore, using all sorts of previous achievements as a building material, and consequently it is a synthetic theory which is most structurally similar to the Socialist Realism, i.e. deeply traditional (Groys, 2003).

Taking largely justified criticism of postmodernist approach, it is worth noting its promising qualities. Postmodernism rehabilitates previous traditions, and together with it, rehabilitates realism, academism, classics, actively blackguarded throughout the 20th century.

Implications: Social communication and media in the postmodernist vision

According to Foucault, in every historical era there exists a specific, more or less unified system of knowledge, which is formed from the discursive practices of different disciplines - an episteme. It is implemented as a language code, language norms, unconsciously predetermining linguistic behavior, and hence the thinking of individuals. According to Foucault, episteme is always internally subordinated to the structure of power relations, and serves as totalitarianizing discourse, legitimizing power, so it cannot be neutral or objective. This original and main idea of postmodernism and all the critical pathos associated with it, giving birth to the installation of the resistance to the power of language structures, is impossible to understand outside of the radical changes of social and cultural situations that occurred in the world, primarily in the Western society, under the influence of a globalized media system, mystifying mass consciousness, generating myths and illusions (Foucault, 1982).

These changes lead to fundamental ontological transformation of culture. Jean Baudrillard's theory of hyperreality is the most representative in the interpretation of these changes. (Baudrillard, 1985). Hyperreality, according to Baudrillard, arises when the cultural beliefs and knowledge are losing contact with social and human reality they must describe and become autonomous (simulacra). Simulacrum means pseudo-thing, substituting "agonizing" reality, blurring the distinction between real and imaginary, a simulation, which does not have any referents. Baudrillard claims that the relationship of imagery and reality goes through several stages marked by the increasing emancipation of codes of referents: the reflection of objective reality is replaced by its perversion, then - by the concealment of its absence, and finally - by the loss of any connection with reality, the replacement of visibility - simulacrum. The whole modern world is made up of simulacra, which have no foundation in any reality except their own one; it is a world of self-referred symbols, i.e. a completely artificial world (Baudrillard, 1985).

Thus, the relationship with the world is transformed in a fundamental way. No one is appealing to the "real" object, since in a world where artificial models dominate, no distinction is made between "words" and "things". Subject, devoid of the object, cannot compare its perceptions with the object and becomes completely dependent on hyperreality. Human life becomes visionary and unauthentic, and evokes a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness, chaos and lack of harmony, instability and general disorganization of the world (Baudrillard, 1985). Thus, postmodernism reveals the internal mechanism of the process of mystification of social consciousness, which occurs under the influence of the media, proves unreliability, and untruth of knowledge about the world, formed in this way (King, 1998). According to Derrida, this demystification of knowledge takes the form of the denial of ontological boundaries, and leads to the fact that the dividing line between the world and knowledge is no longer clear (Derrida, 1985; Debrix, 1999).

As an example, M. Foucault's concept of "perfect intellectual" can be used, who, being an outsider in relation to the contemporary "episteme" is able to implement its "deconstruction" or G. Deleuze's concept of "schizophrenic in the highest sense", whose "privileged" position gives him access to "fragmentary truths". Anyway, taking for granted any common view or a concept, a person takes the path of integration, absorption of his mind by the "bourgeois system of values", one more system of meta-narrations (Bauman, 2010).

In modern theories of communication, message is treated as a cultural-semiotic construct, allowing us to describe a multi-level process of production and broadcast of meanings. Here, society is presented as a self-perpetuating structure that bears the holistic nature by virtue of communication links of its members. According to Habermas, multiple meanings are structured in the process of cultural production and make up the "life world" of communication participants, i.e. holistic implicit knowledge, which is a set of cultural samples of the interpretation of the world. Thus, communication is a meaningful reconstruction of society. Semantic structuring of social systems provides the necessary connectivity, and through it, the integrity of the society (Habermas, 1994).

Under the dominance of written language, texts (text meanings) start functioning as social entities in the society of people and the society of signs. The text ceases to be an autonomous entity; it is constructed from previous texts in the process of continuous processing and reinterpretation. Hypertext as a new textual paradigm can be considered a way of communication in the society oriented to multiple, simultaneous streams of information that cannot be accepted and internalized by the subject. Assimilation of the entire sum of knowledge becomes impossible, moreover, the rigid structuring of such knowledge is difficult to achieve (King, 1998). Knowledge is now organized in hypertext, a network of relatively free messages that can unite and break in the process of production and consumption of knowledge. An important feature of hypertext, approximating it to postmodernism, is the so-called "immanence", or the intergrowth of consciousness with the means of communication, the ability to quickly develop new media (Delanty, 2000; Hector, 2010).

When we speak about the fundamental refusal of postmodernism from the correlation of cultural texts with the reality, we are talking about cultural texts that are in their functions aimed at searching for meaning. Media texts, as it is known, solve other problems, speaking in a different discursive context. Discourse of the media today is far not the sphere of free communication of free individuals, oriented at the search for meaning and cultural "cross-fertilization" (Hector, 2010). Although media-texts bear the imprint of the culture of the age, and even act as its represetants, they still serve to a rigid sphere of social interaction of political and economic interests of social groups. Under these conditions, the unreported transfer of "the refusal for correlation with reality" to the texts of the media contributes to the intensification of their suggestive loading, for quasi-real emotional perception of the reality by the recipient is actually one of the cognitive-psychological preconditions for the effectiveness of various kinds of manipulative techniques in the contemporary social communication space.


Generally, postmodern discourse tends to use any material for the fracture of the sustained communication between signifier and signified. On the one hand, postmodernism emphasizes the particular social situation - postmodernity, characterized by the prevalence of information technologies and consumer practices. On the other hand, it provides a description of the social status through a row of provocative epithets, like "disorganized", "dead", "fluid", "decentered", etc. Postmodernist subject of analysis is the non-community of non-organized non-institutions, an intertextual, rhizome reality saturated by weakly coordinated processes. Instead of classes and groups, the theory offers temporary communities of autonomous individuals, and simulation and isolation instead of structural integrity. Dispelling the conceptual set of the classic approach also involves its pivotal notion - the society, making it a no notion or a concept of the absence. As a result, for the postmodern man, a quick switch of TV channels is "reading".

In postmodernism, everyone can become a transmitter of information, using the latest technologies, such as Web 2.0. The number of such centers of information is growing exponentially, and most of the information produced is practically useless, which is caused by its poor quality and uncertainty. Constant expansion of the information field is a major obstacle to solving the problem of information overload.