POSTMODERNISM AND POPULAR CULTURE
THE ‘SOWETO DASH’
Rather than starting with a definition of postmodernism as referring either to a condition of contemporary life, or to a textual, aesthetic practice, I want to begin by suggesting that the recent debates on post-modernism possess both a positive attraction and a usefulness to the analyst of popular culture. This is because they offer a wider, and more dynamic, understanding of contemporary representation than other accounts to date. Unlike the various strands of structuralist criticism, postmodernism considers images as they relate to and across each other. Postmodernism deflects attention away from the singular scrutinizing gaze of the semiologist, and asks that this be replaced by a multiplicity of fragmented, and frequently interrupted, ‘looks’.
The exemplary text or the single, richly coded image gives way to the textual thickness and the visual density of everyday life, as though the slow, even languid ‘look’ of the semiologist is, by the 1980s, out of tempo with the times. The field of postmodernism certainly expresses a frustration, not merely with this seemingly languid pace, but with its increasing inability to make tangible connections between the general conditions of life today and the practice of cultural analysis.
Structuralism has also replaced old orthodoxies with new ones. This is apparent in its rereading of texts highly placed within an already existing literary or aesthetic hierarchy. Elsewhere it constructs a new hierarchy, with Hollywood classics at the top, followed by selected advertising images, and girls’ and women’s magazines rounding it off. Other forms of representation, particularly music and dance, are missing altogether. Andreas Huyssen in his 1984 introduction to postmodernism draws attention to this ‘high’ structuralist preference for the works of high modernism, especially the writing of James Joyce or Mallarmé. ‘There is no doubt that centre stage in critical theory is held by the classical modernists: Flaubert…in Barthes…Mallarmé and Artaud in Derrida, Magritte…in Foucault…Joyce and Artaud in Kristeva…and so on ad infinitum’ (Huyssen, 1984:39). He argues that this reproduces unhelpfully the old distinction between the high arts and the ‘low’, less serious, popular arts. He goes on to comment: ‘Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the postmodern first took shape…and the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism’s relentless hostility to mass culture’ (Huyssen, 1984:16). High theory was simply not equipped to deal with multilayered pop. Nor did it ever show much enthusiasm about this set of forms, perhaps because pop has never signified within one discrete discourse, but instead combines images with performance, music with film or video, and pin-ups with the magazine form itself. As a Guardian journalist recently (3 January 1986) put it, ‘Rock and pop performers today have to speak in multi-media tongues’.
With the exception of Barthes, ‘heavy-weight’ criticism has been focused towards memorable texts, while light-weight cultural analysis is given over to the more forgettable images of everyday life. And the ‘purity’ of the about-to-be-decoded image is reflected in the pivotal position occupied by semiology and structuralist criticism in media courses up and down the country. Despite gestures towards intertextuality and interdisciplinarity, this centrality given to the structuralisms in effect squeezes out of the picture all the other complex relations which locate the text, or the image, and allow it to produce meaning. These relations include those which mark out its physical place within the world of commodities, its sequencing, and its audience as well as consumers. Such issues are frequently relegated, with some disregard, to the realm of sociology or ‘empiricism’ as though these were the same thing. And while critics argue that this outside reality is really nothing more than a series of other texts, they are in the meantime happy to treat questions about consumers, readers, audience and viewers, as intrinsically uninteresting, as though this entails hanging about street corners with a questionnaire and clipboard.
Postmodernism allows what were respectable sociological issues to reappear on the intellectual agenda. It implicitly challenges the narrowness of structuralist vision, by taking the deep interrogation of every breathing aspect of lived experience by media imagery as a starting-point. So extensive and inescapable is this process that it becomes conceptually impossible to privilege one simple moment. So far only Dick Hebdige’s (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style has broken out of this inadvertent reproduction of the old divide between high culture and the pop arts, as well as between representation and reality. In Subculture, Hebdige recognizes that familiar objects warrant analysis as signs and repositories of organized meaning, as much as linguistic or ‘pure’ visual signs. Under the conceptual umbrella of subculture, he brings together art, literature, music, style, dress and even attitude, and places these on the same analyti cal plane. Hebdige also brings a speed and an urgency to the business of interpreting the familiar marks of contemporary life.
It is surprising, then, that in a more recent article, where he engages directly with the question of postmodernism, Hebdige (1988) disavows the playful elements in Subculture…and, more manifestly, in the new fashion and style magazines. In contrast with what he sees now as an excess of style, a celebration of artifice and a strong cultural preference for pastiche, Hebdige seeks out the reassuringly real. He suggests that the slick joky tone of postmodernism, especially that found on the pages of The Face, represents a disengagement with the real, and an evasion of social responsibility. He therefore insists on a return to the world of hunger, exploitation and oppression and with it a resurrection of unfragmented, recognizable subjectivity. He only fleetingly engages with what Jameson (1984) has described as an important characteristic of the postmodern condition, that is, the death of subjectivity and the emergence, in its place, of widespread social schizophrenia. Hebdige seems to be saying that if this rupturing of identity is what postmodernism is about, then he would rather turn his back on it. What I will be arguing here is that the terrain of all these surfaces Hebdige mentions—pop, music, style and fashion—is neither as homogeneous nor as limited as he (or The Face) would have it. This landscape of the present, with its embracing of pastiche, its small defiant pleasure in being dressed up or ‘casual’, its exploration of fragmented subjectivity—all of this articulates more precisely with the wider conditions of present ‘reality’: with unemployment, with education, with the ‘aestheticization of culture’, and with the coming into being of those whose voices were historically drowned out by the (modernist) meta-narratives of mastery, which were in turn both patriarchal and imperialist.
Postmodernism has entered into a more diverse number of vocabularies more quickly than most other intellectual categories. It has spread outwards from the realms of art history into political theory and on to the pages of youth culture magazines, record sleeves and the fashion spreads of Vogue. This seems to me to indicate something more than the mere vagaries of taste. More, also, than the old Marcusian notion of recuperation, where a radical concept which once had purchase, rapidly becomes a commodity, and in the process is washed, laundered and left out to dry. Later on in this chapter I will locate this coming together of the worlds of intellectual analysis and pop journalism (as well as pop production) around postmodernism, by considering the role of education, and in particular ‘cultural studies’. Here it is sufficient to point to the extensiveness and flexibility of the term.
Postmodernism certainly appeared in the UK like a breath of fresh air. It captured, in a word, a multitude of experiences, particularly what Baudrillard (1985) has called the ‘instantaneity of communication’. This refers to the incursion of imagery and communication into those spaces that once were private—where the psyche previously had the chance at least to explore the ‘other’; to explore, for example, alienation. Baudrillard claims that this space has now been penetrated by the predatory and globally colonialist media. But as the frontiers of the self are effaced and transformed, so too are the boundaries which mark out separate discourses and separate politics. Baudrillard interprets the new associative possibilities thrown up by ‘instantaneity’ gloomily. ‘Everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication’ (1985:130), which in turn generates only an ‘ecstasy of communication’. But need Baudrillard be quite so pessimistic? Why must this speeding-up process, this intensification of exchange, be greeted with such foreboding?
The remainder of this chapter will be given over to arguing the case for postmodernism. It will suggest that the frenzied expansion of the mass media has political consequences which are not so wholly negative. This becomes most apparent when we look at representations of the Third World. No longer can this be confined to the realist documentary, or the exotic televisual voyage. The Third World refuses now to be reassuringly out of sight of ‘us’, in the West. It is as adept at using the global media as the old colonialist powers. Equally the ‘we’ of the British nation no longer possesses any reliable reality. That spurious unity has been decisively shattered. New alliances and solidarities emerge from within and alongside media imagery. A disenchanted black, inner city population in Britain, can watch in an ‘ecstasy of communication’ as black South Africans use every available resource at hand to put apartheid into crisis. Jokily, and within a kind of postmodern language, Dick Hebdige wrote, in Subculture, that TV images of Soweto in 1976 taught British youth ‘the Soweto dash’. Ten years later this connection has amplified. The image is the trigger and the mechanism for this new identification.
Of course it’s not quite so simple. The South African government has recently  banned journalists from the black townships. And in less politically sensitive arenas, the media continue, relentlessly, to hijack events and offer in their place a series of theatrical spectacles whose relevance to what is going on is only tangential and whose formal cues come from other, frequently televisual, forms of representation. The year 1985 was rich in examples. Reagan’s illness was relayed to the public, overwhelmingly in the language of soap opera. A Guardian correspondent pointed out that nobody would have been convinced if his doctors had not appeared at the press conferences dressed in white coats. A few weeks earlier Shi’ite militiamen took over a TWA airline office in Athens. In what was largely a bid for space on western prime-time television, the captors could afford to appear smiling and jubilant as they offered their victims a Lebanese banquet, against a backdrop of random gunfire at the ceiling, before packing them off to the United States.
This easing out of the real in favour of its most appropriate representation makes it more difficult to talk about the media and society today. It creates even greater difficulties in assessing the relationship between images, or between popular cultural forms, and their consumers. The consciousness industries have changed remarkably over the last ten years, but so have the outlook and the expectations of their audiences.
Against a backdrop of severe economic decline, the mass media continue to capture new outlets, creating fresh markets to absorb their hi-tech commodities. Symbolically the image has assumed a contemporary dominance. It is no longer possible to talk about the image and reality, media and society. Each pair has become so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two of them. Instead of referring to the real world, much media output devotes itself to referring to other images, other narratives. Self-referentiality is all-embracing, although it is rarely taken account of. The Italian critic and writer Umberto Eco recently (1984) contrasted what TV was (paleo-TV) with what it now is (neo-TV). ‘Its prime characteristic is that it talks less and less about the external world. Whereas paleo-television talked about the external world, or pretended to, neo-television talks about itself and about the contacts it established with its own public’ (1984:19).
Self-referentiality occurs within and across different media forms. One TV programme might be devoted to the production of another (Paul Gambaccini ‘on’ The Tube), just as television films based on the making of other large-scale cinema productions are becoming increasingly common. There is a similar dependency for material and content, as well as a relatively recent redefinition of what is interesting, and what readers and viewers want, in the print media’s use of televisual stories. The Face magazine ran a piece on The Tube and, more recently, one on Michelle, the pregnant schoolgirl in EastEnders; The New Musical Express carried a major feature on Brookside, and City Limits sent two journalists to the Coronation Street set for a week. It’s not so much that fiction is being mistaken for fact; more that one set of textual practices (in this case British soap) has become the reference point for another (reading the newspaper or glancing at a headline).
Media interdependency is both an economic and a cultural imperative. Children’s TV on a Saturday morning evolves entirely around the pop music industry, offering an exclusive showcase for new ‘promo’ videos. The contents of these programmes are orchestrated around all the familiar pop business, phone-in to the stars, interviews, the new single, the talent competition for young hopefuls. This shows the feeding-off effect between mass media today. Where once the middle-class world of Blue Peter documented children’s initiatives for charity, now Capital, in the form of culture and visual communications, penetrates further into the youth market. In the classless world of these programmes this means pushing back the frontiers of young people as consumers by transforming children and even toddlers into fans and thus part of the record-buying public.
The implications of this endless cross-referencing are extensive. It creates an ever-increasing, but less diverse, verbal and visual landscape. It is these recurring fictions and the characters who inhabit them which feed into the field of popular knowledge, and which in turn constitute a large part of popular culture. It would be difficult not to know about Victoria Principal, it would be impossible not to know about Dallas.
Texts have always alluded to or connected with others. Simone de Beauvoir’s (1984) Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter gives up many pages to all the books she read during her childhood, adolescence and early adult years. Indeed this critical bibliography forms a major strand of the work. The difference now is that the process is less restricted to literature, more widespread, and most apparent in the commercial mass media where there are more spaces to be filled. And such an opening up doesn’t necessarily mean an extension of rights of access, only rights of consumption. More often it means a form of cosy, mutual congratulatory, cross-referencing and repetition (Wogan in Denver, Clive James in Dallas). Baudrillard greets these recent changes with some cynicism. He claims that more media offers less meaning in the guise of more information: ‘All secrets, spaces and scenes abolished in a single dimension of information’ (Baudrillard, 1985: 130). Eco follows this when he describes the scrambling effect of multi-channel choice on TV: ‘Switching channels reflects the brevity and speed of other visual forms. Like flicking through a magazine, or driving past a billboard. This means that “our” TV evenings no longer tell us stories, it is all a trailer!’ (Eco, 1984:25).
Images push their way into the fabric of our social lives. They enter into how we look and what we earn, and they are still with us when we worry about bills, housing and bringing up children. They compete for attention through shock tactics, reassurance, sex and mystery, and by inviting viewers to participate in series of visual puzzles. Billboard advertisements showing an image without a code impose themselves, infuriatingly, on the most recalcitrant passer-by.
However, what is often forgotten is that the media also enter the classroom. This remains an undocumented site in the history of the image. But in seminar r...