THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN
Texts and Textuality
The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.
In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.
According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.
American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.
Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.
The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.
Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.
The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.
The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.