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High Postmodernism and Its Self-Understanding. Seminal Postmodernist Work of Art, Literature and Visual Culture

©2017 Essay 38 Seiten


This work attempts to examine the movement of Postmodernism in retrospective with a special emphasis on its signature elements such as the "metanaratives", the "hyperreality", the "simulacra and simulation" and additional attached motifs like feminism, post-colonialism, gender and racial equality. It seeks to introduce the reader to a core set of characteristics of postmodernism through a close interpretation of seminal works of art (for example Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol), literature (for example Sonny's Blues, Recitatif) and cinema (for example Blade Runner) that have been considered as postmodernist.


The Critical Overview of High Postmodernism and its Self-understanding through seminal postmodernist work of art, literature and visual culture

Martin Mares

Self-understanding of High Postmodernism

Diving into a topic of high postmodernism, it is more than fitting to start with Jean- Francois Lyotard´s canonical work The Postmodern Condition (1979) was originally aimed to explore, analyse and evaluate a concept of knowledge and its role in the age of digitalisation and consumerism. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define the postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives”, stressed Lyotard in his book. (Lyotard, xxiv). Understandably, Lyotard identified one of the key characteristics of postmodernism in society´s reluctance to blindly follow dogmatic grand narratives, dominating fields of culture, politics or religion. These “metanarratives” are not seen as universally negative per se, but Lyotard insists there is a large number of such narratives that are no longer useful for an increasingly fragmented society of digitalised age. Thus, Lyotard sees a possible solution in new approach characterised by plurality, which might help us with a deconstruction of these metanarratives and their dogmatic power over people. The ongoing scientific progress works undeniably in favour of de-legitimisation of obsolete Conversely, Lyotard proposes that people will be leaning more towards “petit narratives”, originating from the collapse of metanarratives and the subsequent rise of plural, fragmented and doubtful narratives without hegemonic aspirations (xxiii).

This shift should be seen as a positive change because it urges us to abandon hegemony of particular ideologies and rather cultivates the space for mutual understanding and “it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable” (Lyotard, p. xxv). However, the role of scientific progress is not seen as entirely positive contribution due to the reason that science in a postmodern world no longer aims to simply produce new knowledge, since it also serves to its commercial side and seeks to produce knowledge with a marketable potential. In fact, Lyotard firmly believed that there is no middle-ground within the realm of producing knowledge for the sake of knowledge and the production for the later commodification of knowledge. For this reason, knowledge for knowledge´s sake and commodified knowledge cannot co-exist in Lyotard´s theory of postmodernism. Of course, new scientific and technological narratives backing up society´s knowledge would be competing for their a question of Government”, Lyotard suggests (9).

There seems little doubt that the problem of legitimisation in Lyotard´ theory might be linked to the emergence of coded information in digitalised age and the relentless rise of consumerism that tend to establish new norms and barriers. Lyotard proposes the legitimisation should be achieved through "parology" or in different words; by experimenting against or beyond well-established norms of reason. Scientific knowledge seeks dominance over narrative knowledge, but it is not justified because reason should not be seen as totalising either. Moreover, Lyotard criticised technology in relation to the state and its function as determining access and availability of knowledge as well as decisions what is important and what is not (44). Of course, the narrative knowledge in postmodern times need be defended from the totalising power of scientific knowledge, because, after all, these two areas are using different “language games” in a Wittgensteinian sense (Lyotard, 41-42).

Technological progress, however, was not embraced without doubts and French theorists Jean Baudrillard belonged to influential critics of emerging hyperreality, which was sitting on the fence between the reality and the simulation (122-123). In series of seen as a copy of non-existing original because a difference between the reality and the simulation in a digital age has become indiscernible due to the reason that the simulacrum gradually begins to precede the real thing, and therefore the simulacrum is the one determining the mode of our reality and how we perceive it (Baudrillard, 126). Moreover, the simulacrum tends to resemble something, which appears to have originated from the reality, but it does not, but it keeps influencing the society nonetheless. Unfortunately, Baudrillard believed that hyperreality was a process that was already well-established in the 1980s and people were already living their everyday lives under such conditions, where people were mistaking artificial things for the real things. Unfortunately, Baudrillard observed that the biggest problem was that artificial things no longer corresponded with the reality (2)

For example, Disneyland as a product of unrestrained capitalism is intentionally constructed as a fantasy park to show us fabulous and imaginary things, making us believe that that the world outside the park must be real by the implication of binary analogies (Baudrillard, 12). It may have been because our lives are controlled by the logic simulation, which deviates from the original order and the causality of the reality. As such, be experienced directly and are only mediated and delivered to us in television, films, radio or newspapers or governmental organisations (Baudrillard, 38). In such a configuration, the world gets increasingly distorted and manipulated by mass media to that extent that the reality is intentionally suppressed and silenced for the sake of creating interpretations of the reality. In this point, we might be inclined to see this manipulation with the reality as the process driven by postmodern interest such as consumerism, multinational capitalism, virtualisation of money, rapid urbanisation and the exploitation of language concerning power relations within the society. In all these respects, Baudrillard´s negative attitude towards “the simulacra” and “the simulation” is reflected in is deduction that these artificial concepts keeps bleeding through media into our personal lives, influencing modes and topic of conversations, free time activities, formation of one´s identity and an attachment of values to simulated imitation of real-world processes (12). Consequently, the simulacrum is no longer seen in the postmodern world as a copy of the original, but it precedes the original, and thus it makes the original an empty and almost irrelevant concept.

In contrast, Massumi undoubtedly reacts and elaborates on Baudrillard´s dichotomous take on the concept of simulacra, but instead of telling us like Baudrillard that we have to choose between naïve realism or “being a sponge”, Massumi follows Deleuze´ s abandonment of dichotomous concept and proposes an idea of “positive simulation” (Massumi 91,97). The positive mode of simulation simply lies in the fact that “simulation is all there has ever been” and we should be very well aware of this condition to identify two modes of such simulation (Massumi 93). That is to be able to know difference between a “network of surface resemblances” and its counterpole, functioning “against the entire system of resemblance and replication” (Massumi, 95). Massumi argues that it is not necessary that simulation should be inevitably replacing reality because it rather “appropriates” reality, for the reality in itself is only a “well-tempered harmony of simulation”. To put it differently, Massumi rejects the overly negative understanding of hyperreality as it is presented in Baudrillard´s theory and rather believes that the hyperreal has a potential to re-define our understanding of concepts that were seemingly too grounded to be challenged. Massumi challenges the idea of the binary relationship of the real and the artificial by stating that the “simulation is a process that produces the real, or more precisely, more real (a more-than-real) on the basis of the real” (Massumi, 93). original thing, serving as a template during the process of simulation to create countless representations of the real thing.

Literature and High Postmodernism

Dealing with hyperreality and artificial beings, In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, penned by Phillip K. Dick in 1968, the readers dived into a grim post-apocalyptic future torn apart by nuclear conflict labelled as “World War Terminus”. The catastrophe transformed Earth into an uncanny place covered with a large amount of radioactive waste, forcing governmental structures to support colonisation of other planets with help from technologically advanced androids produced to fill roles of labourers and slaves in new territories. We follow a story about an elite hunter of replicants named Rick Deckard, who desperately wants to buy a real sheep to replace the artificial one he and his wife owns. Compared to Ridley Scott´s Blade Runner (1982), Dick puts, even more, emphasis on the role of real animals that are presented in his book as an extremely rare and valuable of their owners. Firstly, real animals are due to their scarcity precious, and only members of the upper class can buy them because they are extremely expensive. Secondly, animals play a role of comfort objects and social manifestations of owner´s emotional capacity for feel empathy in connection to all living creatures. Fort this reason, Deckard accepts a job to hunt down and “retire” six runaway replicants in cooperation with local San Francisco police forces (Dick).

It is worth pointing out here that both the book and the movie address the issue of a blurred line between the real and the simulacrum in connection with one´s identity. We can find characters, who think that they are human, while the are replicants and vice-versa. It is reasonable that the story raises questions about what exactly defines one´s humanity and why it is necessary to differentiate androids as non-human, which in-itself implies another form of racism, which helps to defend the ideology of using replicants as slaves in “off-world” colonies. Taken to its logical conclusion, one can hardly suppress the feeling that especially Dick tried to make disguised comments on the whole issue of de- colonisation in the 1960s, when the old type of colonialism was abandoned, and many people believed that we might be able to colonise other planets in not so distant future and dystopian and apocalyptic aesthetic served as an indirect warning during the fragile peace throughout the Cold War, remaining people what would possibly become with our civilisation as we know it after the nuclear fallout.

His first steps lead him to the Rosen Association, which constructs types androids in question, and Deckard tries to perform a test tailored to evoke empathy to differentiate human beings from androids due to the conviction that androids are unable to express them as oppose to humans. Following the incident with Rachel Rosen during the test, Deckard leaves tea factory reassured that the “Voigt-Kampff” questionnaire would help him to avoid killing humans by accident (Dick). Of course, in case of testing replicants and Rachel, Baudrillard´s stages of simulacra’s development surfaces as a parallel between highly advanced androids masking the absence of reality or even acting as pure simulacrum, and technically inferior androids exposing themselves as faithful copies or worse, functioning as mere perversions of reality, masking their artificial origins. With the wisdom of experience, Deckard embarks on his quest to “retire” all androids, but in the process of doing so, he is confronted with doubts about the human capacity for empathy when he witnesses his colleague Phil Resch mercilessly killing their second target Luba to feel empathy for them and later feels hesitant to finish his job. The subsequent spiritual experience with local religious leader Mercer further solidifies the notion that Deckard desperately longs for a true feeling of empathy, which seems to be experienced by the majority of people in rather pretentious way due to their emotional emptiness.

Despite the fact that Blade Runner departs from Dick´s book in numerous ways, both works explore the thin line between the real and “the simulacrum” in case of the character Rachel, who is either present in form of highly advanced “realer than real” android or the replicant designed purposively to resemble the real Rachel to cause emphatic response in Deckard (Massumi, 92,97). Viewed straight on, the world of Blade Runner borrow extensively from Dick´s concept of the society unable to deal with ethical questions as well as technological progress transforming Earth into polluted, overcrowded and pretentious place. For example, neon lights and interactive advertisements signify the strong presence of mass-media shaping our understanding of the world. As one would expect, Blade Runner manages to appropriate several postmodernist strategies such as blending iconic dystopian visuals in neo-noir style with textual references. Unsurprisingly, Blade Runner works as a pastiche of various classical movies (Metropolis), cultural



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University College London
2019 (November)
Postmodernism Art Culture Literature Cinema Postmodernist History Analysis Hyperreality Digital Segregation Postcolonialism Feminism Gender Intertextuality pop art lispector warhol baudrillard lyotard hucheon blade runner androids Judy Chicago Fluxus Cremaster

Titel: High Postmodernism and Its Self-Understanding. Seminal Postmodernist Work of Art, Literature and Visual Culture