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The Postmodern: Looking to the past or going back to the future?

Lecturer: Graham Jones

Originally Taught: Summer School 2019

From the vantage-point of 2018 it would seem ‘obvious’ to many in both the arts and the academy that postmodernism is clearly done and dusted – an amorphous and relativistic paradigm that ruled for a time but is now thankfully passé. And now in the aftermath of its seeming demise, assorted theorists rush to fill the vacuum it has left in the market-place of ideas, with all manner of new movements and manifestos that profess or promise unambiguous objects for cultural analysis (eg. post-postmodernism, the ‘new realism’, ‘post-9/11 paranoia’, ‘surveillance culture’, the ‘new sincerity’, ‘metamodernism’, etc.). However, assuming for a moment that we accept this declaration of its supposed extinction and the heralding again of all things new (or even old), surely then we should be able - with the benefit of hindsight - to say what postmodernism is or was? Why it mattered? Whether, in fact, it was a case of an era or an error? Or even how something that once seemed so important to so many has ended up as a universal term of abuse on both sides of politics?

This course will examine whether these are valid queries or instead the ongoing symptoms of a conceptual failure – a refusal even - to understand what has occurred, and is still unfolding in the arts specifically, and Western society more generally. As such the course begins by identifying relevant issues, concepts and constraints pertaining to the way the notion of the postmodern has been conceived and approached over the last seventy-five years - particularly its relation to the notion of modernity, on the one hand, and of modernism, on the other – whilst illustrating these with examples drawn from literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. After providing this initial overview it will then closely examine the ideas of the three most well-known and influential theorists associated with understanding the postmodern condition.

Course Schedule

Seminar 1

This seminar presents an introduction to the key issues and concepts, framing them in terms of context, history and taxonomy. It also briefly examines some of the purportedly ‘typical’ phenomena associated with postmodernism (not just in respect to the arts but also the social, political and economic domains). This will also require some detailed excavation of related terminology such as ‘globalisation‘ and ‘post-structuralism’ - which are often mistakenly conflated with postmodernism – and raises the important question of scope in respect to what a theory of the postmodern can be expected to encompass in explanatory terms. It also will address the two closely related and potentially misleading issues of characterisation and periodisation that beset any attempt at coming to grips with the notion of the postmodern in all its supposedly most well-known iterations.

Seminar 2

This seminar provides a brief survey of a number of different accounts of the postmodern (including those of Venturi, Jenks, McHale, Harvey, Haraway, Hutcheon, Huyssen, etc.) which characterise it in terms of an identifiable style or set of conceptual features, on the one hand, and often congruently reduce it to being merely an historical period or stage, on the other - as well as briefly examining the complex relationship that has emerged over the last seventy-five years between commerce, the arts in general, and ‘innovation’ more specifically.  It then turns towards examining Fredric Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’ of postmodernism as culturally symptomatic of fundamental shifts within global capitalism and his analysis of the key traits experientially indicative of this transformation, including the new ‘depthlessness’, the waning of affect, the loss of historicity, and the shift from parody to pastiche.

Seminar 3

This seminar examines the theories of Jean Baudrillard, particularly his critical examination of the shift in Western society from production to consumption, the loss of the symbolic dimension, the role of the mass media (and the related notion of ‘hyperreality’) and, most importantly, his account of the changing nature and function of signs in contemporary culture.

Seminar 4

This seminar focusses on the work of Jean-François Lyotard, particularly his highly influential (but largely misunderstood) book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledgeand its account of meta-narratives and ‘paralogy’. It will also look at the article ‘Answering the question: what is postmodernism?’ appended to the Report which specifically addresses the relation of the postmodern to the arts.

Seminar 5

In this last seminar we return to Lyotard, looking at the seeming ‘revision’ of his position in the paper ‘Rewriting Modernity’ (although, more accurately it is a teasing out of the implications of his earlier view), which presents a more constructive way of conceiving of the relationship between modernity, the modern and the postmodern. Finally, time-permitting, we will follow this up with a brief discussion of issues and criticisms pertaining to more recent phenomena – such as potential confusions or false groupings of disparate philosophical ideas; the emergence of identity politics, cultural appropriation and issues of ‘authenticity’; and glocalisation and cultural imperialism (ie. coca-colonisation) – in the light of whether or not a theory of the postmodern can still prove useful for addressing such matters.

Key Readings:

  • Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation
  • Lyotard, J-F. The Postmodern Condition

Excerpts from the above works as well as a reading-list and several other relevant articles will be provided on-line just prior to the beginning of the course.