Post-Modernism – Wriggling in the Crushing Grip of Reason

Song of the Day: ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles

‘Postmodern art’ – Calvin and Hobbes (By Bill Watterson)’

There are some conversation staples that almost always occur. Minus the weather, politics, pseudo-economics, pseudo-philosophy, words such as ‘existentialist’ and ‘post-modern’ will find their way into even the most mundane conversation. The scenarios, the definitions, the examples, and even the concepts themselves are never cohesive.  Sure enough, before you know it that very mundane conversation has evolved into a passionate diatribe about nothing of substance and everything of fluff.

Anywho, I discovered quite accidentally one Dick Hebdige. What a character! I started reading up on his work and must say they make for a very interesting read. Check him out and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’ a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament of reflexitivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of ‘placelessness’ (critical regionalism) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates: when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword. [Dick Hebdige, “Staking out the Posts,” Hiding in the Light]

I am so glad that someone pointed out the absurdity of the usage of a term such as ‘post-modern’. There is hardly any consensus on defining it and finally the debate has fizzled out due to this attrition. Perhaps, because it seeks to eschew exacting definitions. If one were to describe it in psychological terms, one could compare it to a Rorschach test. In other words, when it comes to perceiving reality whatever a man perceives to be true is true. Such an individual makes no distinction between his truth and objective truth. It is probably easier to understand this person not by what they believe in but by what they deny.

 'Expressionist Art' - A painting by Jackson Pollock. (1950s)
‘Expressionist Art’ – A painting by Jackson Pollock. (1950s)

The ‘post-modern’ is sceptical about all long-standing traditions; particularly concerning science, religion and politics. Truth is to be found in one’s own impressions of reality and not in some universal objective norm. No one truth is superior to another. In fact, the only ‘wrong’ in post-modernism, if it can be called that, is to call something ‘wrong’. But as appealing as this approach may seem, this ‘open-mindedness’ comes with its own set of problems. With the loss of absolute meaning, one feels as if life has become one giant Jackson Pollock painting, a collage of colours without any real shape or form; like one truth heaped upon another but without any rhyme or reason (see the above painting).

I don’t know if one can make out my jumbled thoughts above. But to sum it up, methinks that if one has a reasonably clear definition of what makes for ‘modern’ literature, art, music, etc; then its ‘post-modern’ version could justifiably be anything that is in critical (and not necessarily negative) relation to its core principles, but is also deeply informed by them.

Maybe, music provides a good venue for expressing the nature of this ‘post-modern’ anxiety, for it can only really be captured with broad impressionistic brush strokes, and certainly not by way of a discrete formula. For example,

There is not a single song from the Pink Floyd repertoire that doesn’t suggest ‘post-modernism’ (as I’ve defined it above). Their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is a sunny celebration of child-like simplicity. With songs about Siamese cats, scarecrows, borrowed bicycles, and gnomes, one gets the sense that Pink Floyd are playing in the sand box of childhood merely to have a good time, and in a way they are. But this is not a return to childhood in the natural sense. Children have the freedom to let their minds and imaginations wander without restriction, for their parents’ inevitably inculcate boundaries like someone on break-time duty. Both principles must inevitably be in place for a child to develop normally. Thus, if a man who is no longer an innocent child unleashes the power of his imagination—without any recognition of its appropriate limit – he is in danger of becoming one of two things: a psychopath or an invalid. For Pink Floyd, the latter is what’s portrayed. A loss in oneself in a misguided attempt to recapture childhood, which can’t merely be attained by behaving as you please and turning one’s brain into a lab experiment by using drugs.

“Another Brick in the Wall” highlights (at least as visualised in its short movie) how ugly this complete rebellion against structure can ultimately become. It may all begin in the land of gum drops and marmalade skies, but it ends, as the video suggests, in a riot of destruction. For those who ‘don’t need no education’ it is not a tremendous surprise that their march to ‘freedom’ concludes in flames. Indeed, it is hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Flies in all of this. The words of the song have the feel of a kind of mass hypnosis: ‘We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control … Teachers leave them kids alone.’ It is at once a rebellion against the education system, and a repudiation of education itself. Hence, if the man is wicked, then so must be his message! We are left with kids who speak in barbaric speech, who lack the basic skills of logic and reason, and who engage in anti-social behaviour – but at least, like good modern barbarians, they are quite capable of burning everything to the ground.

Any thoughts guys?

Till Next Post!

PS: Do read Dick Hebdige’s book, Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things, as it is not only well-written but also well-researched. Another recommendation would be Discourses: Conversations about Postmodern Culture, which is an anthology of interviews and discussions which document the polemical positions and strategies of contemporary critical thought in the making.

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9 thoughts on “Post-Modernism – Wriggling in the Crushing Grip of Reason

  1. Keith Lutter

    I just think that a term like ‘postmodern’ is going to seem silly in a hundred years… but, er, uh… ditto

  2. Adam Goldstein

    Hahahahahaha!!! The extent to which I identify with this ridiculous paradigmatic framework makes me simultaneously uncomfortable and joyous. I feel especially close to the notion of “collective chagrin.” Thanks for the wonderful epiphany! And thank YOU Dick. I’m such a goddamned product!!!!!!!

    1. That’s funny. I especially liked ‘Collective Chagrin’ and ‘Morbid Projections’ too … I only wish he footnoted every phrase with examples.

  3. Arlen Asano

    Hello, I really loved your site. Unfortunately i found it on the second page of google. its really a shame that big G is not ranking your site among the best of the best. Anyway keep writing. Have a nice day. Greetings from the UK.

    1. Thank you.I hope to see you visit more often. Unfortunately, monetising this site is not a goal for the moment. However, should I ever decide to do so, I would most likely look some of the search engine optimisation options that are out there.

  4. Drusus Tacitus

    And do you really think that because children are not educated in schools on how to read or how to do math that they would become savages? What about their parents? Wouldn’t they teach their children how to do those things and also to behave in a human-like way? Of course they would. We would after all still have to live in community and the only way for it to work is to have those basic things functioning. Much of the stuff that one pretends to learn in school is completely useless anyway. And I use the term pretend because it is all about being a parrot who repeats every word he ears. It is precicely because of that system that people even consider giving credit to these modern degenerates (a.k.a. artists).

    1. I think you may have misread what I was trying to point out. This entire post was about the absurdity of the term ‘post-modern’ and its usage in contemporary life socially be it in the arts or music.

      And now to answer your question on whether I think that children become savages if not educated in formal schools. I don’t think that I ever suggested such a preposterous notion anywhere in my post. Perhaps, you may have gleaned that in my analysis of “Another Brick in the Wall” as its video suggested; but that is not my argument. I merely pointed out that is the message of the video.

      Society has functioned well and has had rules to co-exist within a group since time immemorial; so I would be a fool to think that only formal education makes one civilised.

      Even then, there is a value to a formal education and a literate society is one that can progress, be it economically, politically, socially and even in the arts and music.

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