Postmodernism and the Loss of Mastery


Feminism, Post-Colonialism, and the Loss of Mastery Over the World Picture

In 1986 Postmodern painter Mark Tansey (1949-) produced a large orangish monochrome painting of a long white fallen column. Broken in three places and lying next to a flight of stairs, the pillar vaguely resembles the Vendôme Column toppled by Gustave Courbet and his Communard comrades. The figure that was once on the top could be read as Napoléon in classical dress but over all the fallen totem allegorically reads as the fall of Western civilization and given that the column is phallic, that collapse seems specifically male. In the distance, a razed city spreads out and in the foreground the maternal is on full display: a woman and her children play among the ruins. Tansey, a well-read son of art historians, titled the painting, Triumph Over Mastery.

Modernism thrived upon the grand récits, or master narratives of modernity, which were narratives of mastery, each one a telos of conquest and fundamental solidarity. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expressed this confidence in “The Age of the World Picture,” a lecture given in 1938 under the title of “The Establishing by Metaphysics of the Modern World Picture.” For Heidegger, Being was “what is given to thinking to think.” As a teacher, Heidegger encouraged his readers and his audience in forceful language to think and to follow though through an evolutionary process of thinking. Humans relate to being through language, which is “the House of Being.” Following the metaphysical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger placed the self-conscious human subject as dominating through evaluation and judging the world. The modern world describes the world as a picture and conjures up the transformation of the world as a representation. The “world picture” is “taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”

It is the essence of the modern age is that the world becomes a picture. Everything exists only through representation and the world exists only in and through the subject. This narrative is the conquest of the world as picture, which is a structured image, the creature of production. Modernism is characterized by two events, the transformation of the world as a picture and the person as a subject. However, the “world picture” is a delusion and humans who seek to dominate the world can never know themselves or encounters himself and remains alienated from Being. As Heidegger wrote,

Where the world becomes picture, what is, in its entirety, is juxtaposed as that for which man is prepared and which, correspondingly, he therefore intends to bring before himself and have before himself, and consequently intends in a decisive sense to set in place before himself. Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.” Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

It is human beings who create the world picture and place themselves “in the picture” they create for themselves.“The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings,” Heidegger said. In contrast to the Greek world view or the Medieval world view, the modern world view or world picture puts humans in the center. As he continued,“Now for the first time is there anything like a position of man at all.”Because we have made the picture, we can place ourselves, position ourselves in the picture, where we wish. This ability to conflate Being with thinking and thus the will to power to create the world picture and to be in the picture–this is power indeed. To be able to create “the world as a picture” is mastery. Associated with Nazi thought (the epitome of mastery) and tainted forever by his association with Nazi ideology and damned by his treatment of his Jewish colleagues, Heidegger is a nearly irredeemable philosopher. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 in “A Master from Germany,” “Heidegger’s books will be read for centuries to come, but the smell of smoke from the crematories — the ”grave in the air” — will linger on their pages.”

Given that Heidegger was very important to the Postmodern thinkers in France, his continued presence in philosophy presents a problem. In his forward to the important 2009 book by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Tom Rockmore pointed out that the French scholars turned to Heidegger as an alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre and in the process successfully put his Nazi convictions aside and focused on a very narrow body of his writings. Rockmore stated that Faye’s book, originally published in France, was the first of force the intellectual community to deal with the extent to which, as Faye put it, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” Faye recovered neglected works by Heidegger, characterizing these writings as “..every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official “philosophers” of Nazism..they surpass the others by the virulence of their Hitlerism, which no other “philosopher” of the regime has equaled.” To this day, the debate over what to do with Heidegger continues. The past has a way of surfacing at inconvenient times but Heidegger managed to live out the rest of his life relatively unscathed (unlike the Jewish scholars he allowed to be expelled from the university) and the expatriate Yale scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983) was not exposed as a writer for the Nazi cause until four years after his death.

One of the problems of Postmodernism, diehard Modernists claim, is its relativism. If one follows the tenets of intertextuality, “the death of the author” then the writer must be divorced from his or her work and thereby has no moral responsibility for the contents. Heidegger was merely reflecting his own time; de Man was merely surviving during the occupation of Belgium. If it is impossible to “master” language, then this distancing from morality or ethics is an Adamic Fall from Grace. Therefore Postmodernism mourns this loss of mastery and reflects back on its reign with nostalgia. The “mastery” alluded to in Tansey’s painting and in the numerous writings on the fall of Modernism breaks, as did the column of Tansey, at numerous fracture points. The “fall” of the column of mastery was linked to the disillusionment over the failure of the humanist promise of the Enlightenment as exemplified by the stain of Nazism in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The drive towards the desired “end” regardless of the means during the Second World War fractured the moral core of the West. On one hand, the ethnics of ending a destructive war and putting an end to dangerous enemies was not in doubt but the way in which that end came about, whether the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden or the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provoked a moral quandary. In addition, over time, there was a slow realization that the “greatest generation,” whether in America or France or England, had fought a war for democracy and equality but were not willing to countenance racial or gender equality after the war in their own nation. Nor were any of these Euro-American powers willing to forego their respective empires without a struggle.

By the 1960s, there was the loss of control over the master narrative, the story that explained the world, which will be discussed in another post. Once the metanarrative could no longer be mastered, Postmodernism lost authority, and as the result of a multiplicity of cultural events, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Stonewall uprising, the Women’s Movement, to name a few, there was a decline in the belief system that “liberty and justice” was for “all.” In Europe, the Empire was coming home, forcing European nations to deal with the consequences of their “civilizing” projects and the transnational hybridity that provoked a diaspora and the post-colonial condition. Once the singular voice of the master narrative or the will to power of the dominant group is fractured from the univocal to the polyvocal, the Other began to emerge as an actor. In his seminal essay on women as the “Other,” Craig Owens (1950-1990) quoted Paul Ricour (1913-2005), who wrote in 1962 that “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other”among others.”

Ricour’s “we” was presumably in 1962 white males. In returning briefly to Heidegger’s world picture, one can assume that women were not part of the picture, because as has so often been pointed out by philosophers, women were outside of representation. Rooted in nature or in the pre-linguistic semiotic, women were pictured only in terms of the male symbolic. Michèle Montrelay’s 1978 essay, “Inquiry into Femininity” (Recherches sur la Féminité) coined the term “the ruin of representation. In many ways this essay should be considered a deconstruction of Freudian/Lacanian theory as it related to representation or the entry of the child into the symbolic. She exposed a contradiction lying at the heart of the theory in her recounting of the Oedipal complex. The inescapable fate of Oedipus lay in his inappropriate desire for his mother and the repression of this desire for the mother is the mechanism that brings about the entry into language: the symbolic. Representation, the symbolic substitution, is a creature not only of desire but also of the fear of castration, but as Montrelay pointed out, women have no stake in this game. Being the object of desire, they do not desire and do not have to be repressed; having no penis they do not have to fear castration and hence are not psychically wounded.

The sexuality of women remains, as Montrelay pointed out, “outside” of repression and “the stake of castration is displaced,” meaning that feminine sexuality is “outside of the economy of representation.” “Locating herself as maternal body (as well as phallus),” Montrelay wrote, “..woman cannot repress, ‘lose’ so to speak, the original stake of representation. As in the Greek tragedy, she finds herself threatened by ruin. However, in the principle of such a threat, different processes are at work. For Oedipus, the restitution of the stake occurred by chance or from the Gods. This restitution occurred despite an interdiction. For woman, on the contrary, nothing is forbidden. There are no enunciations, no laws that prohibit the recuperation of the stake. This is because for woman, the real that imposes itself and takes the place of repression and desire, is the real of the body proper.” Therefore the woman, described as the “Dark Continent,” have no stake in the game of representation and her presence serves to break down discourse and ruin representation.

One of the social breakdowns of Postmodernism is the realization that the Other has never had a stake in the game or a place in the world picture and those who are not include or who are excluded will not have the “mastery” of the tools of the master. The response of Postmodern theory to the recognition of the Other was one of passive aggression: to turn Otherness into theory to further silence the others under the discourse of the master who retained the power to represent, all the while critiquing representation. The late Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism noted that “The absence of discussions of sexual difference in writings about postmodernism, as well as the fact that few women have engaged in the modernism postmodernism debate, suggest that postmodernism may be another masculine invention engineered to exclude women.” Owens was writing in the wake of the realization that, contrary to Heidegger, language has no power to shape the world and the consciousness has no power to shape the subject. But he was also writing, in 1983, in the midst of a social revolution that had resulted in the rise of the Other, including women and gays and lesbians, who were very much involved in the protest against the government’s neglect of the epidemic of AIDS, voices that would have been silenced.

As a gay man interested in the Other, Owens was not alone. Along with many feminist writers, he was joined in his critique of the patriarchy which was extended to the exclusion and othering of people of color. A year after the publication of his essay which noted that the Postmodern male artists–think Julian Schanbel, were reduced to simulating “mastery,” a New York exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly presented another example of a nostalgic longing for a Eurocentric mastery long extinct, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Curated by an aging William Rubin (1927-2006) and the rising star Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), the show was blasted by one of the dissident generation of critics, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” He attacked the entire premise of the show which was that Western artists used art from “primitive” cultures to nourish itself, acting from a position of imperialism and exploitation. But the Museum of Modern Art undercut the power of the other and the extent to which the response of the Western artists was disruptive by making the strange familiar, thus mischaracterizing the violence of the “primitive,” decontextualized into vitrines and masking the exploitation of European colonialism. As McEvilley wrote referring to

“the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which isolated from one another in the virtrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far way…if the primate works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also..the show is about classical Modernism.”

Although today, it is easy to criticize McEvilley for writing in such Eurocentric language, he was quite correct in pointing out that the attempt to “master” the “primitive” was based on a discourse of dominance under the auspices of “affinity” which kept “information at a minimum,” relieving the non-Western objects of their own empowering context, thus bringing each object under Western control. As he wrote, “The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture..The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness..I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong..In depressing starkness, “Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects to itself.”

Published in Artforum magazine in the fall of 1984, this article engendered a series of angry replies from Rubin and Varnedoe and became a clarion call for a new generation of art critics and art historians who would fall into the category of Postmodernism, if only because McEvilley had rejected connoisseurship as the basis for an art exhibition. Whether or not the dominant male painters, who staged a vigorous comeback after a decade of feminist art, understood that their (male) social mastery was lost, they were aware that the only way to lay claim to the exhausted tradition of Western painting was to either parody the history of Modernism, like Mark Tansey, or manifest what Craig Owens called “symptoms.” As he stated,

Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent in cultural activity today–nowhere more so than in the visual arts..contemporary artists are able to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs;since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor–violent, “impassioned” brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal–and disavowal always pertains to a loss..of virility, masculinity, potency.

To women and people of color, still kept outside of the art world during the 1980s, it seemed that merely simulating mastery was sufficient to maintain mastery. It would take another generation and another century to find out the consequences of not giving half the sky a stake in the game of culture.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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