The Troubles With Postmodernism
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The Troubles With Postmodernism

Stefan Morawski

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The Troubles With Postmodernism

Stefan Morawski

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In this original and eye-opening study, Stefan Morawski sheds light on the often confused debate about postmodernism, postmodernity and human values. Drawing upon a wide range of evidence from the experience of everyday life in the sciences, religion, visual arts, literature, film, television and contemporary music, The Troubles with Postmodernism is an indispensable guide to our understanding and evaluation of contemporary literature.

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There are at least three varieties of postmodernism: social-cultural, artistic and philosophical. It might seem to be pointless singling out the first of them since the remaining two are also cultural in character. But it is necessary to make the distinction because the latter two refer to changes in the sphere of symbolic culture while the first, which is in all probability the variety of key importance, pertains to the civilizational process taken as a whole. Three different disciplines are concerned with these aspects: the sociology of culture, the theory of art and philosophy itself.
The concept of postmodernism is undoubtedly fashionable. But as so often happens (especially in the humanities) to categories used as catchwords or slogans, it has come to suffer from semantic fuzziness. One cannot abstain from using the concept, but at the same time one does not know how to define it precisely. This does not belittle the importance of the set of phenomena to which it refers. The fuzziness is a symptom of spiritual tension and confusion. One senses intuitively that something long dominant is collapsing or has collapsed. However, it is far from certain if these phenomena of collapse are entirely new or whether the name we use to fix it in clumsy definitions (definitions which are often at variance with one another) makes sense at all. We read again and again that postmodernism is not in the least a sequel to modernism, but merely ‘a state of mind’ characteristic of modernism’s current incarnation. It is at least debatable whether that present incarnation of modernism betokens its renewal.
Postmodernism in its artistic variant has had a brief but highly instructive history. It is a revealing history because during the last thirty years or so the term has been used in so many incompatible ways. This is due to the basic difficulty of the ambiguity of the oppositional concept: modernism.
There are at least four or five versions of modernism:
Modernism 1 This form is based on stylistic formulas characteristic of constructivism and functionalism. Typical are the works of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier in the 1920s and 1930s. Their models of the purity of artistic activity are strikingly different from what might be called ‘modernism 2’.
Modernism 2 In Central Europe and Scandinavia it is associated with Sezession and Lebensphilosophie: Gaudi rather than Loos is the exemplary figure; dramatic plays of the expressionists, not the spectacles of Schlemmer; films by Wiene, not, say, by Richter. It is apparent that there is a world of difference between the two meanings. To make matters worse one might still identify a ‘modernism 3’.
Modernism 3 The form which embraces all significant avant-garde achievements from the 1890s to the 1930s.
Modernism 4 This covers the artistic movements from the theatre of the absurd and the nouveau roman and may be extended to embrace all new avant-garde endeavours which emerged in the middle of the 1950s (since pop art) and continued into the 1970s (i.e. conceptualism with its corollaries and sequences).
These conflicting or just mutually exclusive definitions of modernism illustrate the confusion which lies at the heart of the discussion of postmodernism. One cannot be confident of shared premises or even shared working assumptions. The more so that ‘modernism 5’ (pace Bell) seems to cover all preceding solutions under the umbrella of the secular cultural trend, alien to any eschatology and transcendence, at odds with the return to the sources, the archaic and archetypal. The matter is further aggravated by the fact that most contributors to the debate recognize that aspects of postmodernism have a long or short past (Hassan 1987). For example, the idea has been advanced that performance art, which invites people to participate in the play and at the same time invest it with a substantial content in the here and now, is characteristic of postmodernism.
For me, this interpretation of performance art is interesting but unconvincing. Its shortcomings can most convincingly be demonstrated by concentrating on Schechner’s work (1982). He begins from the assumption that the whole epoch following the Second World War was one of postmodernism. The nuclear revolution accompanied by other devastations, mainly ecological in character, is supposed to bear witness to the end of the epoch of humanism, the end of the epoch of faith in the unlimited Promethean potentials of collective and individual humanity alike. This understanding of humanism as ultimately leading to the possible destruction of humankind, is an axis of modernist ideology. Hence the concept of modernism is narrowed: it is largely similar to that laid down by Weber and continued in another way by Habermas – the difference being that they were its heralds while Schechner is opposed to it, somewhat in parallel to Bell. Schechner opposes it with the planetarism (cosmism) typical of Eastern cultures and with a plea for participation in the heritage of humankind as a whole. In Schechner the restriction of the concept of modernism means the identification of postmodernism with the branch of the late avant-garde which drew its stimulation from magical and archaic heritages: from oral culture, from the traditions of Japanese and Indian theatre and from following in the footsteps of Artaud’s Mexican lessons.
At the same time, the scheme proposed by Schechner describes the postmodernism orientation in such a way that it practically concerns almost the entire new avant-garde. Schechner refers to the primacy of the principle of indeterminacy (the abandonment of the logic of action and narration); to reflection on oneself (which is seen as narcissism); to the turn towards ritual and in general to the primitive sources of mind; to religious (but not church-based) inspirations; to consciousness which does not respect linear spatio-temporal sequences but is immersed in deep experience close to the mysterious cosmic elements which Hinduism calls maya and lila. Since Schechner also stresses the fact that postmodernism is based on originality, spontaneity, collective creative work, integrated and organized approaches to the world, multi-perspectivism and multi-dimensionality, we are offered the repertory of the most interesting programmatic premises and most valuable achievements of the so-called anti-artists from the years 1955 to 1975. He draws on them when he analyses the fall of the avant-garde. He deplores the fact that formalism gained the upper hand and that soloist performances have more and more edged out the messages oriented towards planetarism and interculturalism. Scheduler’s inconsistencies and even outright self-contradictions show how his interpretation of modernism versus postmodernism is misleading and unreliable. He rightly sees Grotowski and Artaud, for example, as modernists because they search for a theatrical element which unites everything. However, Grotowski is also described as the postmodernist ringmaster of The Theatre of Sources’ which reveals all-human and even supra-human communication networks. If my argument is right then such intellectual exercises as Schechner’s prolong the confusion over the meaning of postmodernism. They miss what is the most important thing: the spectacular rejection by postmodernism of the avant-garde heritage.
I ascribe particular importance to avant-garde tendencies. Modernism radicalized artistic attitudes. It bestowed upon them revolutionary momentum. While respecting or altogether reinforcing the autonomy of artistic values, it assigned to art the role of the transfiguration of reality. It set a premium on novelty, required constant progress in creative work, smashed stylistic uniformity and destroyed all canons except the unceasing revolt oriented to the future. Of course, at the root of modernism’s case for the avant-garde was the ensemble of humanistic ideas shaped by the Enlightenment and Romanticism. But, on the other hand, it was sensitive to the ethos of transcendence and to eschatological considerations.
This depiction of the avant-garde does not remove obscurities but it clears the field of some of its conceptual fog. It enables us to see that if emphasis is placed on the anti-avant-garde and post-avant-garde nature of postmodernism we come close to the crux of the matter of what postmodernism means. One might say that postmodernism in this sense is marked by certain spectacular properties that can be referred to the entire area of artistic culture. Of course this is not to deny the ambiguity of the concept (an ambiguity caused by the immensely varied manifestations of postmodernism in the particular spheres of art – it is obviously different, say, in architecture than it is in literature). Yet I suggest that the more these ambiguities are pointed out the more fruitful is the approach to the idea of postmodernism.
But this understanding raises the question of the distinctive properties of artistic postmodernism. What are they? A preliminary list might stress:
• rejection of all emancipatory and Utopian aspirations;
• palpable, even if not declared, conformity;
• the denial of avant-garde faith in the development of art through the activity of the future-oriented elite;
• the ostentatious turn towards mass culture with its laws of the market;
• the return to figuration, narration and melody and in general to those components of the work of art that support close contact with the broadest public;
• the eclecticism, quotation of old styles of art or masterpieces in order to produce pastiches or playful juxtapositions of them;
• the use of parody – not as a method of self-ridicule or criticism, but merely in order to indicate that the world of culture abounds with used signs and any presence of authentic novelty or originality will be a mystification;
• hedonism consisting in the unpretentious pleasure of producing something which, according to the institutional rules, is still treated as a work of art and at the same time affording short-term joy and relaxation on the part of the recipient.
The objection to this argument is, of course, that the avant-garde deliberately reached for mass culture as well. It was fascinated by cabaret, music hall, spectacles and the circus. One can hardly deny this. However, this objection forgets the decisive issue that one form of art reception is not identical to another. The modernist avant-garde drew from mass culture in order to undo the sanctuary of academicism, to refresh and broaden the repertory of expression, to give the public a wholly new and different vision of the world. Underlying this was perhaps the most important consideration of all; to offer the recipient a vision of reality that would be an alternative to the received one. (Recall Shklovsk’s device of strangeness, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and Benjamin’s idea of montaging citations.) But in the postmodernist perspective the process goes in the reverse direction. Mass culture does not fertilize elitist culture but brings the latter down to its own level. No distinct vision of the world is at stake. Rather one runs away from this option in so far as is possible. The creative intention is not animated by the desire to renew art; on the contrary, the wear and tear of art is bluntly stressed. Any idea of progress is suspect, any intellectual (especially theoretic) endeavour of the artist is judged to be miserably hypertrophic.
If this account holds good it will not do to limit ourselves to the field of art. To understand fully the differences between modernity and postmodernity we must leave art and aesthetics and move into the sphere of sociology and the philosophy of culture.
Weber is a crucial figure here. His disenchanted world is founded on the rejection of mythical and magical thinking and the banishment of religion to the margin of the social structure. In their stead stands scientific and philosophical reason. Gradually, under the impact of technology and pragmatic demands, these become instrumentalized. Communally internalized bonds are driven out by external bonds based on the organization of the state with its hierarchically arranged institutions. Formal rationality is embodied in growing administrative networks which become bureaucratized. Cognitive rationality finds its extension in customary and legal rationality. Instrumental-pragmatic-rationality leds credibility to the maximal exploitation of natural resources. In this system self-propelling production is a cardinal value. The principles by which the modern mentality is guided are considered to be of universal relevance. Needs are subordinated to the ethos of work; one lives not for pleasure but to multiply and accumulate material goods. In this process one consolidates the goals of one’s own existence and the existence of the group of which one is a member.
Higher (elitist) values are in turn set up. The professionals and intellectuals are their carriers. But thanks to the spread of education, modernism is exposed to the danger of the levelling-down of the standard of knowledge. Regional and national barriers crumble before the values of the international market. Democratic values of co-existence and the growth of wealth produce the atomization of society and the phenomenon of the Hegelian Entzweiung – a gap between private and public life. The growth of materialism and the increased domination of the commodity economy are followed by the painful reification of human relations. The bureaucratization of everyday life makes the social system resemble life in the barracks. The obsessive concentration on perpetual progress forgets about the zigzags and blind alleys of history. The free-floating Eros is bridled. Although Weber did not state the consequences of these apt observations, his distance from what he analysed is quite obvious. Thus, modernism must be interpreted more broadly than it was treated by him. Its soil bred counter-tendencies to all embracing Reason. Degenerating rationalism necessitated recourse to the imagination, emotions and intuition. Mytho-poietic drives expelled from the Promethean kingdom of Logos returned like a boomerang. Instrumentalized science yielded a turn towards the archaic sources of culture. Philosophy reduced to a dry metaphysical discourse had to find an opponent in philosophy pursued in an artistic manner. Religion made private since Luther, under the influence of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, turned to existential problems. Nature, trampled pitilessly by the juggernaut of modernist industry, was restored to its authentic dimension in poetry, art and the escape from big city life. Above all, there was the defence of Eros and the endeavour to understand the ‘oddities’ (up till folly) proscribed by Reason.
All that Habermas (1985) describes as a remote discourse on modernism (from the Jena circle via Nietzsche and Heidegger to Bataille and Adorno) is actually a discourse within the frames of modernism. This discourse reveals the striving to endow humankind once again with its lost balance of spirit, to deprive rationality of its absolute value, and to free and promote the energy of what Adorno called ‘another reality’ (das Andere) and what Bataille rendered as specific para-philosophical knowledge (heterology). Thus conceived, modernism comprises both Lebensphilosophie and all artistic movements ranging from symbolism to surrealism as well as the neo-positivist philosophy and artistic trends which emphasize the material values of artworks, their construction, function and connection with vital needs.
Postmodernism is based on opposite assumptions. It obliterates the difference between the authority of fundamental values and their being superfluous. It brings forth a flood of signs at various levels which function both as commodities and political messages. Fast and vertiginous consumption becomes the pulse and basic object of societal life, which in turn bestows upon everyday life a spectactular quality governed by marketing and advertisements. Mass culture dominates over the high-level circulation of cultural goods, and the ethos of work is subordinated to the ethos of hedonism. Life becomes absorbed by a merry-go-round of reproduced artefacts and spectacles which must be absorbed and discharged.
Baudrillard sees this as an ob-scene world which is most fully realized in the USA and particularly in California. In Amérique (1986) Baudrillard describes it as a magnificent spiritual desert, an unending game in which the maximum intensity of short-lived experience is at stake. The European Utopia of prosperity, equal chances and problem-free existence is materialized there in a diabolical manner. Everything is accessible: the world is transparently unambiguous – or almost unambiguous. The shining neon lights (as in Las Vegas) combine to form a reality transferred from a fairy-tale to the social substance. Reality is devoid of deeper meaning: one has to exist greedily and nothing more. In these conditions Carpe diem becomes the catechism because there is no reason to long for something which might go beyond the glutton’s desire to have more and more. A kind of ‘end of history’ thesis operates with humankind put into the most banal paradise imaginable.
For his part Bauman (1987; 1992a) claims that postmodernism culture has rid itself of all authorities, abolished all hierarchies of values and eliminated all binding codes and norms. It frees everybody from obligation to tradition, and ridicules Utopia. Everything is possible and allowed. Clashing values coexist in a state of passive indifference; they may be freely shuffled and exchanged. Their meaning is interpreted according to context or circumstances. What Baudrillard defined as the paralysing result of excess in every domain of life is linked by Bauman with not only the tendency towards an institutional waste of goods and the incessant change of stimuli and needs, but also, above all, the lack of any teleology whatsoever. People do not think about why their existence is given to them; rather they see existence as theirs to take. Nor are there any connections among the fragments of everyday life; we find in them no dramaturgy, no culminating points that could be foreseen or attained. The chaotic and episodic nature of events, programmed only ad hoc without personal responsibility in an opaque, protean world, is that element from which the postmodernist mentality emerges. When it is seen in this way, history may be freely arranged as a mosaic in a kaleidoscope. A television show, or any imagined set of events, is accepted as equal to a record found in archives or chronicles. There are no criteria which can be treated as ultimate. No ideological priests are tolerated because emancipatory reflection is taken to be obvious dreaming or outright nonsense. The traditional elites are replaced by managers or experts who give up claiming to be lawgivers in any possible sense.
To Steiner (1975), with the so-called post-industrial epoch we have entered the post-cultural epoch as well because culture without an axiological order and transcendent (or Utopian) thought loses its identity. Bauman thinks otherwise: it is merely a different mutation of culture, based on the pluralism of attitudes and aspirations and the evaluation of all fixed coordinates without a system of reference to what would be the Alpha and Omega of individual and collective existence. It also abandons the Eurocentrism which assumes and confirms a definite code of values and especially the unquestionable superiority of elite culture. This mutation singles out from the past and present that which at a given moment can be conveniently applied in the play of sign-objects. It is not in the least disturbed by the fact that criteria are altered pragmatically from one moment to the next. On the contrary, it consciously distances itself from any strivings to universalize the meaning of criteria and procedures of conduct. This mutation rejoices in ridding itself of nostalgia after paradise lost or any paradise in the future. It is a mutation devoid of illusions about alleged progress. Thus it rejects the charms of ceaseless innovation. Its relation to tradition is purely functional; it extracts from it what is suitable under given circumstances and remoulds it arbitrarily.
Bauman emphasizes the replacement of the axiological ‘Holy Trinity’ of modernism (the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity) with a new trinity based upon contingency, diversity and tolerance. He points to the fact that in consumer society arbitrariness very easily changes into the incessant confirmation of the supremacy of those who have much over those who have fewer and fewer material goods; that diversity is dazzling but often of poor quality, and if the quality is high then it is accessible to only the chosen ones. As for tolerance, this often takes the form of unbridled managerial decisions and/or total indifference to the majority of human beings manipulated by the temptations of the market which disregards the non-extinct demands of self-management and self-determination. Everyone is left to him or herself. Hence there is an acceptance of the plurality of levels and sty...

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