Postmodernism -- some debates

I have written this as a dialogue between 'me' and a 'student'. The debate mostly turns upon the philosophical issues raised by postmodernism -- the 'scepticism towards metanarratives' and how this led to a crisis of confidence in standard social sciences. I show how this might kead to serious doubts about apporaches like Freudianism, marxism or feminism. En route, I consider some film criticism too. A published version appears in my 1996 book.

 Very briefly, postmodernists have identified serious problems with the old ways of doing social science. These turn on the claims which are made in these older approaches : that they have discovered special foundational concepts which can explain practically everything, and, secondly, that the knowledge they deliver will make us better able to lead an emancipated life. These foundational and emancipatory claims have been interrogated and found wanting -- hence the crisis in 'modernism'.

Foundationalism in Freudianism

Why Freud? Isn't he the old chap with a beard who used to try  to cure neuros and psychos by talking to them and then charging them lots of money? Didn't he say it was all down to sexual urges in the end? Hasn't he been proved wrong? Isn't he a chauvinist pig? Didn't he deny child abuse?

Freud has always had a greater significance for Continental thinkers than for us here in Britain. Social theorists tend not to bother much with the actual work on neurotics nor with the practical outcomes and 'cures', but to focus instead on the general theoretical issues. Freud can be read (eg by Bocock 19XX, or Habermas 1972) as a writer who developed a general theory about the way human beings construct meaning, and as the inventor of a method to understand subjective meaning. The practical and political (including feminist) issues are relevant, of course, but...

You haven't got time to go into them now?

Quite so. I'm glad you're here.

So what were these general theories and methods you are determined to talk about?

It's a matter for debate, of course, but Freud can be read as a metapsychologist, a writer trying to spell out a general model of the human psyche. There are probably several models in fact (seeWollheim 1979). Freud wanted to generalise away from abnormal individuals to found a theory that would explain routine and quite normal phenomena too.

Such as?

Dreams, jokes, politics, art, and parapraxes -- the everyday slips we make in speech or writing or in mishearing others. In fact in his own accounts of his work (1974a, 1974b), he introduces his models of the psyche by taking us through some analyses of parapraxes and dreams before getting on to the hysterias, obsessions, fetishisms and perversions.

He can't lose with that sort of material, can he?

No -- and as with Marx, above, [another section] he demonstrates a close familiarity with story telling devices, including excellent narrative skills and effective involvement of the audience, phoney dialogues, crushing rebukes to his rivals, self-serving accounts of his heroic struggles towards the truth -- and so on. He clearly thought this style appropriate, although, of course, he also presented his work in impeccably scientific style, apparently, when he published in psychological journals. We have the same interweaving of science and rhetoric, though.

OK. One step at a time. Tell me the story 'straight', then we'll do the demolition job...

Fine. The usual view of the personality sees the conscious, rational part of the mind as the dominant aspect -- it's the bit that's engaged in ordinary conversation, the bit that manages ordinary life, plans out the day, governs most of our normal behaviour.Occasionally, we are aware of a higher sort of ego too,that talks to us and reminds us of our duty, of morality and the higher things of life -- the superego. If we are honest with ourselves,  we can also detect a darker side, a kind of fringe of semi-conscious (preconscious for Freud) thoughts trying to intrude, and these are often far less respectable, certainly by the standards of Vienna in the early C20. These thoughts, wishes and desires are bubbling up from a substantial reservoir (or they are visitors from another, much larger room, to use one of Freud's metaphors) -- the unconscious. 

By definition, the unconscious is not routinely available for our inspection, but it is terribly important in understanding our psychic lives. Its existence and power can be demonstrated in dreams, Freudian slips, and mental illnesses, but only after we understand the mechanisms at work. Very briefly, the unconscious offers a source of powerful pre-rational, pre-verbal thoughts in the form of images. Flows of energy (the drives or instincts -- basic pre-rational wishes and desires) connect (cathect) these images to our conscious and rational thoughts, often in apparently mysterious ways. Visitors from the unconscious have to struggle past a censor to get over the threshold to the preconscious, and then wait to be noticed, sometimes almost randomly, by the conscious. Psychic phenomena thus have a rational, conscious element 'at the surface', and an unconsious tap root leading us back to the unknown depths.


Actual examples involve long and detailed analysis.Let's take some simple and common ones from Freud's own introductory lectures. We'll focus on the material on dreams.

Can't we do the perversions?

I'm far more nervous about discussing them- and far less competent to do so. You'll have to read them up for yourself in Freud 1974a, 1974b, or in Freud/Jones (19XX.)

Dreams of flying or floating, for example represent half-censored sexual desires, often energised by some event that has happened in conscious life recently. Flying or weightlessness is connected with sexual arousal in men, since erection gives the male organ that floating, gravity-defying feeling. Male organs are also represented by sticks, pins, umbrellas, the number three, fire-arms, watering cans, reptiles, fishes, hats overcoats and cloaks. 

Ah yes -- the famous phallic symbols.

For that matter , female bodies are also represented by houses with balconies, vessels and bottles, cupboards, rooms, wood, snails, fruit in general, jewel cases (and, in one actual dream, a clock). Parents often appear as royalty, , children as vermin or small animals, dying by a journey, masturbation by 'piano playing... gliding... sliding and pulling off a branch', sexual activity by walking upstairs and getting out of breath, dancing, riding, climbing, being run over, certain manual crafts (Freud 1974a pp186-9).

So these are all symbols of some kind?

Yes, and the dream work does the symbolising, taking the real but hard to express wishes and desires (eg sexual desires), and representing them in a way that permits us to experience them as dreams. Further, dreaming is complicated by two additional processes -- displacement and condensation.

  1. Displacement occurs when the 'psychical accent is shifted from an important element on to another which is unimportant, so that the dream appears differently centred and strange (1974a p.208).Freud's running example in the Introductory Lectures concerns a dream where a woman's dissatisfaction and regret at an early marriage is displaced on to an absurd arrangement in booking theatre tickets for another married couple. 
  2. Condensation occurs too, since the original unconscious material (the latent dream) can often be reduced in the translation, as it were, into the actual (manifest) dream: the easiest example, perhaps, concerns the composite figure in dreams -- the threatening stranger is both your Dad and your examiner. Puns, including visual puns often contain condensed meanings of this kind.
Dreams show us the difficulty in representing our unconscious desires,laid down, so to speak, before we had adequate language to depict them. Imagine trying to represent the contents of a newspaper by pictures alone, says Freud -- and under the close eye of a censor too. The resulting dream is a wonderful testament to human ingenuity (and to the flexibility of language and symbolism), and a great challenge to the interpreter.

OK -- so what's the problem?

Well, clearly, the intepretation can be questioned in terms of its coherence and rigour. Freud has been attacked long ago as offering us a series of self-justifying arguments that can never be falsified. Sometimes the elements of dreams are to be taken literally, sometimes they are symbols, and sometimes the symbols have to be supplied by the analyst. Sometimes the causes of dreams or illnesses are biological and predisposed, and sometimes accidental (or traumatic), or both, as in the 'complementary series'. Freud supports his analyses with all sorts of references to biological theory (inlcluding some rather dodgy stuff on evolution of the species as well as the development of individuals), and also to linguistic theory. His examples are empirical case-studies and elements of poems or literary works.

We can check our interpretations by getting the dreamer to confirm the meanings -- but there are problems here too. In neurotic patients, for example, Freudian interpretations are often fiercely resisted, but this is to be seen as a part of the illness, as evidence of the very correctness of the diagnosis. Further, it is clear that the patient is to be involved in a fairly close relationship with the analyst, essential if the necessary transference is to take place.

What's transference?

It's technical again, but basically, understanding and cure take place after a kind of intense personal psychodrama involving the patient and the therapist acting out conflicts between the old (infantile) irrational elements in the complex and the strong wish to avoid the contradictions in them, and the rational (mature male, paternal) understandings of them.

So this psychodrama can get very emotional?

Very. Deep feelings involving sexual and ego developments are awakened. Great struggles take place. Denial, abuse (verbal), scorn, bitterness and admiration and sexual attraction for the analyst are common, Freud tells us. And Freud only took patients who had already spent time and money on the treatment

So patients probably have all sorts of reason for wanting to agree with nice old fatherly Dr Freud, apart from the disinterested pursuit of science?

Got it in one. Those who still disagree with his diagnosis, or leave treatment early can be written off as still neurotic. Freud wasn't above using his skills to diagnose the psychic flaws in his academic critics too (and vice-versa).

So far so good. All this is nice material for us English sceptics who never liked the old devil anyway -- well, apart from a few social workers. What's it got to do with postmodernism?

Freud's work developed in a special way following Lacan's re-reading of his metapsychology to connect it with then-fashionable structural linguistics.'The unconscious is structured like a language' in his famous dictum. This built on the linguistic concepts already in Freud (symbolism, puns, representation etc), but rewrote them in the new concepts -- you know -- metaphor, metonym, paradigm/syntagm, signifiers and signifieds, codes and all that. This completed the Continental move away from seeing Freud as a bloke who cured individual loonies, and joined Freud to great French intellectuals like Barthes.

Once the join was made, Freudian metapsychology could be used much more generally: the work on the 'mirror phase' in infantile development was used in fields as diverse as marxist politics (Althusser on ideology -- Althusser 1977) and film theory (see Buscombe et al in Screen 1993.).

The mirror phase became a key metaphor to explain in the construction of individuals in ideology in Althusser. More generally, Habermas and Apel saw Freudian theory as a model to explain the unhelpful 'blocks' on emancipatory thought and practice ( see McCarthy 1984). Lacan on the Oedipus complex spawned a whole generation of feminist work trying to disentangle the connections between the infant's entry into the linguistic order and her falling under the control of male domination in the Symbolic Order (see Kristeva in Moi 1986 for an appealing discussion)

I suspect there's a lot of stuff here that I don't understand, but which would take you far too long to explain to me -- right?

Thanks again -- I was just getting out of my depth. So Freud takes his place among the Greats of French theory just in time to experience the Crisis of Representation.

Which is?

The product of an ambiguity shared by Freud and by structuralism concerning the signifier and its connection to the signified. Let's take this slowly:

  1. Signs express a relation between signifiers and signifieds.The signifiers(symbols in Freud) clearly represent something real, a signified -- an air balloon represents a phallus etc.. But this signified is a concept, not a real object in classical structuralism -- signs never just connect simply to real objects, they are never simply the same as real objects.
  2. Further, signifiers take on meaning by being connected to other signifiers, in processes of signification. A signifier like a word gets modified by other words in sentences,or it takes on meanings from puns or allusions, or because of its own condensed nature. The air balloon then does something in the dream, on its own, as it were, in a way not governed by its original function as a representation of a phallus -- it triggers associations of World War 1, or of the Imperial War Museum, it decondenses into 'ball' and 'loon' and recaptures the sensation of wearing tight purple velvet loon pants in the 1960s, or it follows David Niven's title of his autobiography (The Moon's A Balloon) and turns into a moon -- or whatever. Signifiers float (geddit?), drift away in currents of signification, free from any mooring in 'reality'.None of these are very far from adventures of the phallus -- but I hope you get the idea?
Maybe -- continue anyway, as I'm sure you would whatever I answered!

OK. Well the point is that it becomes very hard to trace back the meaning of signifiers to an original signified. Freud himself struggled to decide what the real meaning of a dream or symptom was: in the most famous or notorious case, he prevaricated over whether the (very common) reports of infantile sexual abuse among his patients were representations of real events or just fantasies. The specific and general dilemmas are well discussed in Maccabe 199X.)

More pragmatically, perhaps, the whole enterprise of 'centred readings' came into some disrepute. Basically, even if you could reliably trace back chains of signifiers to some 'real' origin, it would still not be clear why you wanted to do this -- what's so special about a moment of origin? Why should the connection with the signified assume such an overwhelming importance? Think of all the interesting meanings contained in the signification processes after that original moment -- why should they be subordinated in some hierarchy, arranged according to some non-theoretical interest in practice?

This sort of 'poststructuralist' argument is discussed very well in Culler (1976) and it is widely exhibited in a range of cultural studies. To take one example dear to my own heart, Hebdige's mature work shows this shift in his analysis of youth cultures. The most popular marxist explanation of youth cultures was as some kind of symbolic representation of the real conditions of life for the young (as in Hall and Jefferson 1976, for example). Hebdige was already identifying a shift away from this representational line in his famous study of 1979 (the Introduction charts a similar one in the work of Barthes). By the time he writes Hiding in the Light (1988) he is into inner histories of the signifier, (the 'objects themselves -- scooters not Mods) to explain the significance of youth cultural icons, and we never hear again  of the legendary 'class problematic' of the Hall and Jefferson stuff.

Well look, hang on a minute -- wasn't the whole point of Freudian theory to treat real people with real illnesses?

That was one point, admittedly, but for Freud as a psychologist. We've moved well away from that intention into general theory. Incidentally, not everyone agrees that Freud's theory really is general or universal -- for some writers, it represents a generalisation based on selected cases -- males, or moderns. Gane (1990) says Baudrillard believed that the Oedipal scene, source of individuality and the basis of the whole of symbolic order and its regulation, is a modern hangup: preindustrial societies managed the whole thing by symbolic regulation, and social rituals. Baudrillard isn't keen on trendy attempts by Guattari to generalise from Freud a basic theory of 'desire' that underpins culture, either.

Look, I can't respond to that issue now (I expect yopu're very relieved again): I want to return to an earlier point. Doesn't general theory also have a kind of mission to 'cure' people? To offer better, more open, insightful, less sexist readings of films or cultural phenomena?To engage with real 'blocks' to the imagination among the viewers?

Well yes, especially in those endeavours connected to marxism or feminism. But that's the whole point -- these impeccably emancipatory intentions can't be grounded in a rigorous theoretical practice any more. Theoretical and practical interests no longer coincide, and, to be honest, after years of high-powered endeavour, they can't be made to. Freud couldn't really rigorously explain how to cure people. Marxists or feminists can't really do any better with pinning down the precise site of ideology or patriarchy. If we can't do it rigorously in theory, we might as well admit it and rethink our commitments.

Along what lines exactly -- give up politics?

Not necessarily give it up -- but stop arguing that we are somehow driven to marxism or feminsm by the sheer force of arguments, almost against our will, without any sordid or vulgar interests on our part being engaged. Theorists also have to stop claiming some unique voice in political matters. Mind you -- I don't think that means theorists need be silent altogether, nor that because 'scientific' politics fails that therefore anything goes.

Did they ever have all that much influence then?

On the Continent, certainly, and in certain cultural politics circles in Britain. This follows, after all, from the whole foundational approach, where only highly skilled theoreticians can penetrate beneath the surface to detect the real mechanisms at work, and help ordinary folk avoid the temptations of merely superficial politics (or superficial treatment of symptoms). Now, politics based on social theories have no special claims -- they take their chances with all the other political stances and run the same risks. All politics are now calculative or pragmatic politics. Academic activists have to say what they want to achieve, how, and for whom exactly, and to specify a pragmatic path to those goals. The age of scholarly research as 'struggle in theory' , interspersed with campus tokenism or witchhunts of the politically incorrect, claiming to be a valid and essential politics is blown.

Blimey -- do I detect a personal interest in there somewhere?

Could I deny it, after all this deconstruction? It is anger partly directed at earlier beliefs of my own as well, though.

Postmodernism and Film

We've seen that, so far, postmodernism has been discussed in terms of social theory, and we've been involved us in lots of discussions about foundationalism, Freudianism and the like. Yet postmodernism is also a term used to describe cultural changes, including the two we're highlighting here -- film and (below) popular culture.

Well-you don't know very much about other examples, do you -- literature? music? architecture? photography?

Quite. Docherty (1993) has a broader discussion, though, and Outhwaite and Bottomore give a useful very quick introduction (look under 'modernism'). So how might the discussions we've had, about social theory mostly, be connected to discussions about postmodernism in film:

  1. Some critics have noticed changes going on in film and elsewhere, and have generalised from them to suggest some underlying cultural trend or shift going on in society itself, perhaps via some term like zeitgeist ('spirit of the times'), or perhaps in some other way (appointing individuals to be spokespersons for the whole culture) etc. This is a form of analysis best developed in 'Humanities' like Eng Lit, and I don't know much about how it works -- perhaps you do?
  2. Social theorists, pursuing the implications for culture in the writings on the eclipse of metanarratives etc, have turned to film theory for specific exemplars to test their theories.
  3. Various theorists, critics, artists and film-makers have read some social theory and each other and have popularised the term 'postmodernism' to describe what they think is going on. It is not that they rigorously apply social theory and the debates about it (although Hebdige (1988) tells us that 'Hollywood reads Screen'), but rather that they apply looser inferences from a received general intellectual debate. (Featherstone (1991) outlines this approach in more detail, and charts the oscillations between Europe and America). They may well be motivated in doing this by 'political' goals in the sense we discussed above (in the section on postmarxism) -- as a form of social distinction, as a way of eroding the claims of traditional classes and advancing their own. If this is so, the more flexibly that terms like 'postmodernism' are used, the greater tactical advantage they may give.

You're building up to tell me that postmodernism is not used consistently in film theory?

Well yes. There is some kind of agreement about stylistic changes in films and TV programmes, and it is possible to connect these loosely to elements in the crisis of social theory. Clearly there will be vagueness and overlap, and, as we'll see, a major problem in trying to spot the difference between 'real' (sic) or 'serious' (sic again) postmodernism and its vulgar copies or imitations, simulations (sic for the third time) even. Let's have a nice list of stylistic clues first: 

  • scepticism towards metanarratives in social theory might mesh with further departures from narrative in film or TV, the rise of popular non-narrative pieces (including films or programmes as sequences of episodes or spectacles). The end of narrative could explain the deliberate absence of authorial control, the end of the author (a big theme in Barthes -- see his essay 'The Death of the Author' in Barthes 1977)
  • anti-foundationalism in social theory might connect with the disinterest in 'depths' in film, in a focus on surfaces and appearances (eg Almodovar, especially Pepi, Luci, Bom...). Again, there are connections with the end of narrative, and a turn away from realism and representation
  • the crisis of signification in social theory might mesh with interests in treating films as signification, as communication, as experiment with the signs of the cinema. This would produce a disinterest in representing the underlying 'truth' and an increase in self-referential ('intertextual' or 'metafictional') elements in film -- films would  primarily 'be about' other filmsor about how films came to be made. Commercial films would also feature the spectacular or the hyperreal rather than try to confine the meaning of signs tightly to some external reality.
  • scepticism about emancipatory claims would extend to 'political cinema' at least, with film-makers like Godard or Costa-Gavras (or Loach or Potter) abandoning their interest in using film to educate the masses, represent universal classes, or to somehow 'speak for humanity'. We might expect even Hollywood to abandon Freudian themes for films, say (except as a heavy-handed joke, possibly, say in Lynch), or to stop making 'earnest' films that tell us of the state of the nation. Irony, playfulness, cultural relativism, parody, pastiche, even plagiarism would all figure instead.
  • the collapse of internal differentiations could help locate the growth of new or cross-genre pieces, including lots of 'posts' (post-western, post-gangster etc). More generally, high and low cultures would mix -- Bergman would meet Bill and Ted, Beethoven would meet football hooliganism (A Clockwork Orange), directors would cross between feature film and Barclays Bank advertisement, or direct both horror films and Michael Jackson parodies of horror films.
Film criticism would become more playful and de-centred, less concerned to point out the dreadful operations of ideology (marxist or feminist) inherent in every film. There would be more interest in the details and processes of signification, perhaps, instead of the main concern with representations: the distinction between the 'reality of the film' and some superior external reality somehow immediately available would be weakened, as critics took seriously the view that it is impossible to get to external reality 'outside (any) text(s)'.

The critic would no longer claim to speak on behalf of Reason, Science, Enlightenment or Humanity as a Whole, but would be much more modest, self-referential, and aware of ironies. It would be no longer possible to claim some special insight denied to ordinary people, and the great barriers would disappear between 'critic' and 'fan', or between newspaper reviews and academic criticism. Within critical pieces, we would notice increasingly the phenomenom of the 'slippery pronoun', as critics spoke in the first person (not as some disembodied Voice of Reason), and slid between the identities of 'academic' and 'ordinary punter'.

Now look, all this is all very well, but I'm a student of Media Studies, and I can see some real problems here...It might be OK to be nice and playful, open and ironic, and to celebrate multiple meanings etc as a film-maker or as a critic -- but I'm a student, and I rely on somebody telling what the film's about, or at least laying out the main issues so I can write an essay about it.

Yes there are implications here -- only some groups will find postmodern style liberating, of course. Others will have an interest in centred readings -- including academics. Featherstone (1991) sees universities as some kind of bulwark against the relativising tendencies of postmodernism (rather nostalgically, I thought), and it is certainly possible to see assessment and grading as the embodiment of 'centred reading'. The whole exercise is based on the assumption that there is indeed some kind of universally accepted academic discourse, and that students are rewarded if they develop it in their assignments, and penalised if they do not. This is quite a different practice from those which structure film production or freelance film criticism (although these actvities too have practical constraints as we'll see).

On the other hand, Bourdieu (1986, 1988) has done much to suggest a connection between academic judgements and the cultural predispostions of academics which inform them. One important group within academic life stresses playfulness, detachment and irony in student assignments -- although there does seem to be a sting in that ideal candidates are supposed to do all this effortlessly and 'naturally', which is only possible as a result of long practice gained well before entering university.Whether this 'aristocratic' indifference is quite the same thing as postmodern relativism is still unclear to me.

Incidentally, Lyotard (1986) and Baudrillard (see Gane 1991) argue that the game is up with universities, that they no longer have a credible claim to be offering some service in the name of universal discourse, and that the public (and more importantly the politicians) are no longer willing to let university academics 'legislate' on matters of social concern. There are just too many rival discourses these days, and they all look equally plausible: who can seriously tell the difference between a sociological work on the relation between crime and television watching, and a journalistic account in a Sunday lifestyle supplement? Which one is more likely to be believed and have influence? Academic analysis becomes a rather specialised game for those who are interested, and will gradually drift still further away from public discussion (except the occasional 'spectacle', of course).

So what am I to do? I have two problems -- (a) on my course we watch a lot of films that are obscure, full of private languages and contexts which I don't understand anyway, and (b) I have to write some sort of 2000 word essay on them.

Some directors of 'art' movies like Greenaway have realised the value of providing commentaries for their films, either in the form of written pieces containing scripts and personal accounts, (eg Greenaway 19XX), or they've given interviews to critics, or made TV documentaries which help explain the films to audiences, which decode some of the 'private languages'. Critics have always had this semi-pedagogic function, of course, and many directors have done this job for other directors. There still is a role for criticism and for readings of this kind,although none of them can be accepted as definitive -- directors' accounts suffer from the same problems as authorial ones, no critic can claim to offer simple truths. There may be no simple 'understanding' to develop.

It is a special relationship to film you are describing here, though, which makes this a problem -- you watch films not because you choose to do so but because it is pedagogically necessary in some sense, and your readings are structured by the assessment system (as well as by any other factors that affect your encounter with the film). In those circumstances, I agree, ambiguity and polysemy can be sources of anxiety, not pleasure, and your watching is a sign of obedience and conformity, not cultural experimentation and resistance to dominant trends. 

I can only urge you to treat your case as an interesting alternative to the way the audience is usually conceived, and to let this lead to a critique of the assumptions in most writing about the effects of postmodernism. It is a major omission, in my view, that the specifics of the student reader are not discussed, even though many texts are written by university academics for university students!

Meanwhile, in more practical university terms -- find out the rules of the games your tutors are playing, and let them play (in) your assignments? At least the 'end of the author' has one nice benefit for students -- you don't have to think of assignments as personal expressions of your inmost being, but can afford to take a more distanced stance. You can manage a 'student reading' and a 'private reading' (or for that matter, many private readings), without assigning (sic) any one reading a major priority.

Just as an aside, how would films like Schindler's List fit in here? Wasn't it made with an emancipatory intent (to inform people about the Holocaust, Spielberg said in his Oscar speech), and wasn't it based on some universal interest in Humanity? Looks like old-fashioned modernism to me.

I'm always surprised by student remarks like that, which can appear to collide pretty fundamentally with academic discourse. Let's analyse your question a bit in my terms:

You're saying first that postmodern films have not replaced 'ordinary' ones,and that despite what the critics say film-makers are still going to want to do emancipatory pieces with underlying concepts -- 'modernist' pieces we'll call them for now. This is quite right -for its defenders, 'postmodernism' might express only the leading edge of cultural changes. Or it could be,on the contrary, that popular tastes will never respond favourably to it. In that case, postmodernism as merely the tastes of the petit bourgeois vanguard would be the correct diagnosis after all. We'll have to see how far postmodernism goes in cinema, won't we?

Secondly, there's the issue of whether any 'modernist' (or 'postmodernist') quality lies in the film itself, so to speak, or in the intentions of the film-maker. Do artists have to openly embrace the theoretical frameworks of modernism and postmodernism? Would a film still be (post)modernist even if the directors and production team had never heard of the term, ,or were unaware of how academics have used it? Much depends here on how you see (post)modernism enteringthe area of film production -- as a universal cultural trend affecting people without their knowing it,or as a particualr term used by collections of film-makers and critics etc., as we discussed it above.

Thirdly, there is the connected issue of whether the director's stated intentions exhaust the meanings of the film. One thing we do get from the post-structuralist wing of film theory is the understanding that authors' intentions cannot be fed straight into systems of signs in films -- signs 'have a life of their own', they take on additional meanings. This makes films radically polysemic (ie capable of bearing many meanings). Some of these will contradict Spielberg's stated intentions, no doubt, as my own brief review of the film (below) shows. Whether or not Spielberg's intentions reflected some 'modernist' desire to tell some deep truth about concentration camps in World War 2, his emancipatory claims can be critically discussed, and ironic unintended outcomes can be seen to haunt the piece.

For example, it's a film based on a book which itself is a mixture of 'fact'and 'fiction', and it clearly has references to other texts all through it -- Primo Levi's accounts of life in Auschwitz, or the documentary Shoah are two I noticed, and others spotted stylistic quotes in the camera work (eg from Eisenstein in the clearing of the ghetto sequence). This makes the film, like all attempts at 'realist' documentary, a film about other texts rather than a simple depiction of 'reality'.

This raises the problems of representing Jewish inmates of camps. Spielberg treats them very conventionally as (a) deeply religious, rather mysteriously ethnic people,(b) easily moved, by a kind word and gesture, to overlook any ambiguities in Schindler's stance (as in the dreadful farewell scene where thankful Jews offered their simple token of esteem, modestly clutching their hands together and looking meek -very reminiscent of scenes of black slaves gathering to bid farewell to the plantation owner -- thank God the Jews didn't burst into song -- Hava Nagila, perhaps). In Schindler's List (unlike Primo Levi or other documentaries) there were no Communist Party Jews, no fighting or resisting Jews, no criminal Jews, no Jews who survived by exploiting their fellows, or by collaborating to varying extents with the SS. I didn't like the Goth character either much -- despite glimpses of his perverted rationality and work ethic, a dangerous savage easily charmed by Schindler's banal remark that it is a sign of power to forgive. A very Hollywood view of Humanity here in these representations!

After all the fuss about the ethics of representing 'the Holocaust' and rebuilding Auschwitz's gates, I was amazed to find that the existence of purpose-built death camps in the Nazis' extermination programme was alluded to very indirectly rather than represented (a camp inmate reported stories she had heard of the existence of death camps and was generally disbelieved by the others -- and we had the dreadful scene in the showers at Auschwitz which on this occasion really did deliver just water). The denial of systematic attempts to kill people, the explanation of deaths as the result of poor conditions or individual acts of brutality, could also be seen as the main 'political' point of the film -- and this happens to be a line shared by modern fascists. 

You didn't like the film, did you?

It was a marvellous display of Hollywood representational techniques, applied to Nazis and concentration camps instead of the usual topics of spectacle. For me, it was a comment on realism rather than an attempt to be realistic, a selective summary of books and films about concentration camps, an appeal to the box office or to Spielberg's director peers rather than to Humanity. It made the camps hyperreal. With any other subject matter, I might have enjoyed it, and diverted myself by spotting the intertextual references and processes of signification -- but with this subject matter I got depressed and cross.

Let's get back to our initial 'technical' problem then -- can we see the emergence of postmodern cinema or TV? What would it look like? What do real critics say? 

There are some unusual and complex films and TV programmes about, and these have been hailed as 'postmodern' by some critics. The argument seems to be about whether these pieces have been produced primarily by general social and cultural changes called 'postmodernism' or 'postmodernization', or by the same old mechanisms that produced everything else that went before. If so, then we can reject the strong claim made by postmodernists -- that all must change, that we are entering a completely new epoch which makes redundant all the old understandings and interpretations.

So what are these 'old mechanisms' you referred to?

Well -- commercial pressures, conventional aesthetics or cultural theories, or conventional political theories (like marxism, socialism, feminism, humanism, surrealism etc), or even cultural politics ofan old and familiar 'generational' kind -- new directors take the piss out of older styles, invert the values of the older generation, find ways to shock and outrage their elders or those who belomg to earlier epochs (the 'sixties generation', the 'baby boomers who control the media' as the Guardian writer of a recent obituary for K Cobain put it).

Can we get to specifics?

Gladly. Take the controversy over MTV, and, more broadly the rock/pop/music video. There is aseparate handout on this available from DH on request (sectiona appear in your booklet). Some writers, like Kaplan (1987), see the great success of the non-narrative, encyclopaedic, non-discriminating, free-wheeling nature of MTV as a clear sign of the emergence of postmodern sensibility. Mercer( 1986) sees in M Jackson's Thriller video (another best-seller) clear attempts to be playful with the signifiers of horror, black pop culture, and American teen pics, and to create a new amalgam of genres (a pastiche one might call it). More generally, Laing's (1985) history of the pop video traces a development from attempts to represent the reality of performance and to illustrate lyrics or promote 'stars' in the band, to a far more self-conscious venture into signification and 'art' -- from Woodstock via Sledgehammer to (Cyber stuff), you might say.

However, other writers (Laing 1985, Frith 1988, Goodwin 1987) are far less willing to see this in terms of general cultural trends, and point to the strong commercial influences at work in attempts to construct a visually appealing product that will sell records, in the specifics of the music market.Spectacular 'pomo' visuals go together with banal old sentimental songs and very conventional musical narratives. That market is notoriously volatile and unpredictable anyway, and so a mixture of styles and a good deal of stylistic variety makes good economic sense. The specific technology of music production accounts for the polysemy of the music video, as multitracking techniques to layer sounds find an analogue in video editing and the layering of images. What might be called the peculiar production contexts of the music organisations also have an influence -- there is a shifting balance of power between the groups (and individuals within them), the companies, and the teams /individuals who make videos. For some insight into these tensions, see the BFI pack on promtional videos for Wham!! (a popular musical singing duo of the 1980s) (BFI 1989). If there is some sort of input from general cultural trends, it is via these important intermediaries and in these specific circumstances and contexts (which is exactly what Featherstone (1991) says we should be looking for in order to tighten up the whole postmodernism debate).

In a parallel way (maybe), Fiske (1987) has described definite changes in television culture, briefly towards more 'producerly' texts (which permit much more cultural involvement and completion by the viewers), rather than 'writerly' ones, where a great man (nearly always) outlines his privileged viewof the world on behalf of the rest of us. Grossberg (1987), in an influential piece, has identified a new quality in TV programmes, which manifests itself in several ways, including an indifference towards the politics of representation (race and gender are no longer used as major signs to structure stories), and an indifference towards narrative (Miami Vice is a cross-genre piece offering sequences of spectacular scenes rather than a conventional cop show narrative, despite the occasional token summary and moral at the end).

Again, though, both writers suggest that these moves are inspired by the response of the television companies themselves (although both would wish to avoid economic determinism). Producerly pieces sell (hence the great international success of the notoriously vague and unfinished Dallas, which can be inscribed with meaning by just about any culture). TV makes 'indifferent' programmes because the audience has lost interest in strong narratives and social comment pieces, and has to have its attention grabbed by short sequences of spectacles and multiple appeals (action, clothes, 'stars', sex etc).

In fact, Fiske (1989) uses Miami Vice to show how viewers further dismantle narratives -by switching off before the restoration of equilibrium at the end. This kind of viewer behaviour has been much discussed recently as 'the audience' came into prominence after long years of textual analysis. Less well discussed possibly is television's role in creating this sort of viewer.

How do you mean?

Some shows pretend to encourage this sort of viewing. There's a kids' show called Why Don't You Switch Off The Television and Go and Do Something More Interesting Instead?, a paradoxical appeal if ever there was one. More generally, TV presents playful and ironic pieces like Moonlighting or Soap, presumeably to cater for and 'hook' the ironic viewer? If you want to watch MTV, zapping the boring bits and making ironic comments about the videos, Beavis and Butthead show you how, and in such a crude and heavy-handed manner, you can't help feeling superior. Lasch's famed polemic (Lasch 1982) is particularly scathing about the way advertising and the culture industry generally encourage lightweight, disengaged, 'ironic' detachment from TV programmes -- it all leads to shallow and insecure 'narcissistic' personalities for him.

Do you mean to say that postmodernist production and viewing habits might be an effect of the entertainment industry after all?

If that's overdoing it, let's just say that there might be an interest from the entertainment industry rather than hostility. After all, it's cheerfully tolerated, incorporated and even promoted challenging cultural movements in the past. To exaggerate Goodwin (1991) just a little, music promoters very rapidly go to hear of postmodernism, especially among the student market, quickly got the main points about mixtures and pastiches, grafted a few elements from 'College rock' and produced 'pomo', as a nicely categorised and harmless 'style'.

So this is where simulated postmodernism might come in?

Yes. Both Lyotard and Baudrillard, widely regarded as leading postmodernists, have found it necessary to deny any support for this kind of commercially produced pastiche or irony. Mere eclecticism for commercial purposes is how Lyotard describes it (in his first piece in Docherty 1993), while Baudrillard sees it as a kind of cultural yuppiedom. Lyotard wants to rescue a new kind of experimental 'art of the sublime' (as we'll see below) as 'real' postmodernism. Baudrillard is less optimistic.

Isn't this a bit paradoxical? Didn't they both set out to mock and deride foundational claims to have pinned down the real? Didn't they both head into relativism? Don't their followers like taking the piss out of 'the serious'?

Yes. I see this as the same sort of problem as the one that confronted postmarxism  (there's another section on this on the big file) -- the critique tends to rebound when taken seriously (sic).

Don't start all that sic stuff again -- we know you're pointing out oddities and expressing incredulity.

Sorry. Anyway, basically it's one thing to use antifoundational or deconstructionist arguments to discomfort marxists (or freudians etc), but this leads to the unpleasant consequence of demolishing all academic endeavour if you're not careful. If we take the relativism of Lyotard seriously, we can't really distinguish between cultural trends like McDonaldisation (which he doesn't approve of), and certain types of experimental art (which he does), or between the poetry Baudrillard writes to show the importance of the poetic impulse in communication, and the stuff Pam Ayres does to raise a laugh. When their critics have pointed out the dreadful activities that go on in the name of an undifferentiated 'postmodernism', they both have had to shift ground rather dramatically. Mind you, Marx once had to deny he was a marxist.

In Lyotard's essay 'Answering the Question: what is postmodernism' written after his debate with Habermas (in Docherty 1993), he admits  that some kinds of artistic expression are motivated by politics (in a general sense -- class interests, for example) and some by commerce. Yet he says it is important to defend other kinds of artistic experiment that genuinely aims at pushing back artistic boundaries for aesthetic purposes only. This is experiment that heads for the 'unrepresentable', that tries to allude to 'the sublime' (briefly, that sentiment which arises when one realises that one can conceive of ideas which cannot be represented -- 'We can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to "make visible" this absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate' ( in Docherty p.43)). Lyotard thus argues that postmodern aesthetics is avant-garde,and, further, that it is 'undoubtedly part of the modern' (Docherty p.44), although only that mode of it that celebrates the 'jubilation which results from the invention of new rules of the game' (ibid p.45).

The aesthetics of the sublime in Lyotard help us to make a judgement about genuine postmodernist experiment. In Baudrillard, it seems to be more to do with concepts like 'seduction', the pre-industrial symbolic order, the poetic. In both cases, these are elusive criteria, of course, and I am still pursuing them. To be blunt, can we recognise the sublime or the poetic somehow in ourselves when we look at works of art, or do we need to take into account the intention of the artists again? (see the second essay in Docherty here). Is the 'we' who feel the pain and pleasure of the sublime humanity in general (which would be in line with Kant's admired definitions of the aesthetic judgement as one which is disinterested, and which therefore involves some reference beyond individual interest). 

Baudrillard too surely began speaking in the name of humanity, despite his own strictures, when he urged us to keep alive those elements of social life which had existed before capitalism:Gane says that his later works merely express a schadenfreude (malicious pleasure in the misfortunes ofothers), however, as he writes for no general audience.

That does seem to be the choice for postmodern theorists: to backtrack a bit and recant (sorry), to introduce some sort of aesthetic judgement into all the relativism, or to go into exile, withdraw into self, pouring doubt on all efforts and all culture, and enjoy(?) a kind of cultural delirium (what earlier critics might have called 'anomie'). In that latter state, you might as well go for a BigMac as read a social theory text, or rather enjoy detesting both.

 Can't we just have fun making strange films and videos that mock and annoy our leaders, and which hide behind irony when challenged?

Of course! Have fun! But let's not dignify this with the term 'postmodernism' and blend it in somehow with heavy French philosophy.

It reminds me of the problems of Hebdige's (1988) essay which tends to do this when reporting the strange reluctance of his students to read magazines which he likes (Ten point Eight) and their enthusiasm for magazines he doesn't like (the Face). The behaviour he describes among his students -- a kind of nervous, jokey, ironic, self-effacing refusal to engage with 'serious' (gramscian?) cultural critique -- Hebdige seems to think arises from some kind of postmodern sensibility which finds affinities with the postmodern style of the Face.

And your view?

No-one really knows -- but it could be just tactical, a way of dealing with a high-powered academic like Hebdige by refusing to come on to his ground, an insecure refusal of challenge. This certainly describes better my own behaviour as a student when challenged in seminars by people who knew lots more theory than I did. The Face, far from being for those who have an interest in postmodern aesthetics could cater in practice as a kind of Reader's Digest for those who want the latest rundown on trends in cultural studies, as a guide to style for the nervous and insecure, ratrher than a cedlebratoion of ironic detachment (and think of Lasch's analysis again here). Postmodernism could be easily mistaken for pre-modernism, for those activities whichappeal to those people who have never really begun as yet to tackle Freud, Marx, or other proud bearers of the modernist project.

There's a nice Fry and Laurie sketch involving a college lecturer desperately  trying to manage a sullen and silent class by pursuing a strategy which Woods (1984) calls 'going through the motions' -- pretending that that sullen silence is a meaningful intervention, a subtle comment on the options laid out by the lecturer, a sophisticated choice which needs careful interpretation.

Not very far from what you're doing here, with this imaginary dialogue then?

Quite -- shall we leave it here?

Foundationalism in Feminism

Now look, hang on, you can't write about this!

Why not?

You're a man. You'll be biased. You won't understand. You'll be pursuing the world-historic mission of patriarchy to discredit women and install feminism under essentially male categories.

You seem to be getting close to ad hominem arguments again (see above). I am a man, but that fact may not be decisive as a key to unlocking the entire truth about me, any more than Freud's Jewishness is about him. Why should biology determine argument? Or is it that all men have the same cultural or political predispositions towards academic work -male academics as well as male builders' labourers? If this argument does run for men, why shouldn't it for women - has anyone disqualified McDonough or Morris from talking about marxism because they are woman and would therefore be predisposed, biologically or culturally, to misunderstand what was indisputably written by a man or men? What sex or gender are you, and is it solely responsible for your objections?

Well OK - I still think you'll be badly misunderstood, though

You risk that everyday as a pedagogue. I will admit my knowledge of feminsm is limited, of course. I know best some of the earlier work attempting to develop marxist and Freudian insights into feminist theory. I am aware that other insights crucial to the development of feminism seem to have come from women's direct experiences in the women's movement or more generally from being a woman (see Brunsdon inWomen's Study Group 1978 )- and clearly I cannot claim any expertise there. I have also read some more recent stuff by leading female feminists on foundationalism in feminism (eg see Docherty 1993), although again I realise there is much I haven't read (Morris's piece in Docherty gives a large list of neglected commentaries on postmodernism written by women feminists).

OK - off you go

Feminism became of interest to me initially as a source of critique of foundational claims in Marx or Freud.

You've never been gripped by the politics then?

I've been sympathetic to some of the initiatives, but I feel the politics is not really my concern (and indeed, some feminists of my acquaintance have forcefully agreed!). I think males should support but not be involved. I believe male academics should read feminist work primarily because it offers an essential corrective to the limits of classic work. Its great gains for male academics have been cognitive ones - we now know a lot more about the world than we did. Certainly some fields I am interested in - like cultural studies - have developed so well because they have been 'feminised' (Morris1988).

Certainly marxism was subject to a most impressive critique by the likes of Beechey, Bland, Brunsdon and the other Birmingham feminists (in Women's Study Group - WSG - 1978). It's too powerful to condense very easily, but basically marxism was interrogated in some detail, and found to lack sufficient explanatory power in key areas. Bland et al argue that the workings of the labour market can only be grasped by considering a sexual division of labour too ( a theme developed by Beechey in Kuhn and Wolpe 1979) - that members of the 'reserve army' of the unemployed, for example, are disproportionately female, and that their labour has already be assigned a low status by families and more general ideological mechanisms. Detailed interactions between sexual and economic divisions of labour are needed to grasp the complexities: marxism hitherto had just assumed rather than analysed some of the effects of the sexual division of labour. More generally, family and kinship was connected back into economic analysis - seen as an important area of 'political' effects not just a matter of consumption and distribution of rewards, for example - by breaking one of the boundaries between academic specialisms, exactly as Marx himself had done (see above).

Freud too, came in for the same sort of critique and 'symptomatic reading'

What's symptomatic reading?

A form of critical or 'depth' reading to winnow out the real theoretical insights which sometimes lurk beneath the detail - a kind of corrective reading,  to show what Freud (or Marx) really would have written, had they had the time and a solid interests in systematic theory. Althusser popularised the term.

Freud's insights had been pressed into feminist service before, following a rejection of his biological mechanisms, and a rebuke for his feeble analysis of female sexuality specifically. The Lacanian re-reading seemed more promising (see above) to overcome and generalise away from these limits and permit a proper account of patriarchy via the Oedipal moment. Burniston et al (WSG 1978) review a number of classic pieces, including some by Mitchell and by Kristeva, and identify one problem with Freudian feminism of this kind - it's too abstract, offering some very general theory to explain patriarchy as such. When Freudians do get to the concrete level, it is to consider individuals. What's missing is an analysis of social structures, 'material practices' in concrete sites like families, media, work, and education.

OK, sounds gripping, if a little 'difficult'. What's it got to do with foundationalism?

This sort of argument illuminates some of the problems in feminism of this kind. Some early arguments had simply tried to 'add women in' to existing conceptual schemes in marxism and Freudianism. These critics, often men, had been guilty of foundationalism, assuming that the privileged concepts - mode of production, reserve army, Oedipal complex, mirror phase etc - could be just applied to women too. These feminists I've reviewed briefly, argued that that was too simple, that the position of women had to be seen as a complex concrete one, the product of many determinations and concrete material situations and practices.

That's good anti-foundational stuff then? Feminism is exempt from the critique you've been developing?

Not exactly. Foundationalism reasserts itself in two sorts of ways:

  1. Not all feminist work has been as careful and as thorough as the material I've reviewed. Some of the more popular or polemical stuff uses foundational concepts like an unexplained and general 'patriarchy' in exactly the same flawed way as did advocates of 'dominant ideology' (see above). It was everywhere, at the bottom of everything, from school curricula, to Disney cartoons. It explained oppression of women and their apparent liberation (as tokenism or incorporation). It fitted every case. Critics were guilty of a patriarchal blindness. 'Patriarchy' was biological in origin, or cultural, or both. It was incoherent and/or dogmatic. Feminists in the tradition of Hindess and Hirst (see above) had little difficulty in applying their critique to a range of feminist work (see, for example, Kingdom's critical review 1980).
  2. Even the more concrete analyses found it difficult to keep foundationalism out of their work. Another Hirstian (Adlam 1979) was able to argue that the concept 'capitalist patriarchy'. for example tended to slide between a marxist and a biological foundationalism, and that, at the end of the day, all the concrete diversity of social relations must be reduced to one essential difference between men and women in feminist analysis. As with other radicalisms, this is partly because of an attempt to tightly connect theory and politics in an emancipatory narrative - 'scientific' interest in a coherent feminist theory, and the political need to build an activism around gender combine together to make sexual/gender differences into a privileged foundation. As with other Hirstians, Adlam suggests that a more calculative politics of alliances, some between men and women, some involving bases other than gender, needs to be developed instead.
Could that be what 'postfeminism' is?

You can see parallels with poststructuralism, possibly (see above), but I'm still not at all clear what a decentred but still feminist analysis might be. One that keeps the 'methods' of feminism but abandons the need to trace everything back to gender?- but that raises all sorts of difficulties about whether there are feminist 'methods' (see Hammersley 1994) and whether they can be generalised away from the original political and theoretical project. The same difficulties arise for 'postmarxism' and for a number of other 'posts' - whether that 'post' means a complete break or a partial one with what has gone before.


Women's Study Group(1978) Women Take Issue
Docherty T (1993)(ed)  Postmodernism
Morris M (1988)   'Banality in Cultural Studies' in Discourse 10
Kuhn A & Wolpe A-M (eds) (1979)Feminism and Materialism
Kingdom E (1980)   'Women in Law' in m/f 4
Adlam D (1979)   'The case against capitalist patriarchy' in m/f 3
Hammersley M (1994)  'On feminist methodology - a response' in Sociology 28 1:293-300

Foundationalism in Postmodernism

You must be joking! I thought postmodernism began with a major assault on  foundationalism in all the other disciplines and writers we've reviewed so far?

So it does -- but as we've just seen, it isn't that easy to dispense with foundationalism. It tends to creep back in. Postmodernism has unleashed a whole anti-foundational bandwagon, and it has been found guilty by its own creature -- ironic,no? Some writers would say it must do -- that at the most general level, you cannot have a presuppositionless argument, that all arguments privilege some concepts over others.

Crook (1991) argues this particularly well.

Didn't you used to work with him?

Yes, but that's not the only reason I cite his work a lot.

You also have the book to hand, right?

That's closer, certainly, Anyway, it is a good book, and argues that the postmodernists also deploy privileged concepts, that they tend to reduce complexity to certain fundamental processes -- 'monism', Crook calls it. Hindess and Hirst have a privileged kind of rigorous discourse in mind when they critique others for incoherence or dogmatism, for example.

And they never define it coherently but use it dogmatically?

What do you think? Baudrillard has a privileged model, a 'physicalist' process of explosion followed by implosion, or differentiation- hyperdifferentiation-dedifferentiation-hyperdedifferentiation.

Come again?

See Crook's other justly famous book -- Crook et al (1992). Explosions of information via the media lead to 'the masses' becoming a over-stuffed imploding 'black hole', indifferent to any more kinds of communication. Processes of social differentiation  -- eg in modern consumerism -- escalate into hyperdifferentiation, and then collapse and reverse as they become so widespread as to lose any social meaning or significance.

Foucault has a foundational process -- the 'microphysics of power' -- at the heart of his work, says Crook. Lyotard has been accused of deploying a new metanarrative of his own (Callinicos 1985) under the guise of a scepticism towards all metanarratives, Derrida hasn't escaped 'metaphysics' and 'centring' (Ree 1984) despite his scorn for it in others.

A particularly famous and influential critique comes from Bourdieu too. His attempts (1986) to chart the nature of (petit) bourgeois aesthetics makes a neat link with postmodern aesthetics. We'll discuss aesthetics below (in the sections on postmodern culture) -- but the description of postmodern experience in someone like Vattimo (1992) celebrates the cultural diversity, the liberation of local 'dialects', the displacement of absolute value-systems by relative ones, the centrality of 'communication', as everything becomes 'cultural', and the joys of experiencing 'freedom as a continual oscillation between belonging and disorientation' (p.10). As we'll see, for Bourdieu, this sort of playfulness is characteristic of bourgeois aesthetics; it is accomplished largely by the economically and financially secure, and its social use is to distinguish itself against the relative certainties and immediacies of both popular and 'official' taste.

Apparently, although I'm not sure I understood this, Baudrillard also refers to the famous unsentimental nature of the reforming bourgeoisie, (see Gane (1991)), first as they unceremoniously tore away the 'veil' of absolute values in order to transform feudal society into capitalism (as in Marx's and Engels' famous remarks in the Manifesto...), and ,later, as finance capital triumphs over all activity, and as actual production becomes regulated by one system of financial laws -- the finance signifier loses its referent indeed! Finance capitalists can experience that joy of oscillating between belonging and disorientation as they invest first in shipbuilding, then they liquidise, then they reinvest in the heritage industry, or as they belong first to Australia, then Britain, then theUSA (not to mention any names, of course). Lasch also points to the sphere of asdministrative, financial and bureacratic work as a major source of abstraction and detachment from the real world

So how can we avoid foundationalism?

Constant vigilance, pal. A modesty and self-awareness rather than rash claims to have invented new sciences, made major breakthroughs, made all previous knowledge redundant, have founded a new liberating politics grounded in the truth. Just on liberation specifically, we all know that marxism, Freudianism and feminism have had their dogmatic and oppressive manifestations, despite their liberating intent. I'll discuss below suggestions that postmodernism might support conservative or manipulative developments too. 

A sustained open-ness in our writings is needed, as we 'lay bare the assemblage' of our arguments. An account of, and justification of, our privileged concepts. A grasp of the ironic ways our work turns out to have consequences which we did not intend.

Feminists always did this?

The best ones, yes. And some classic writers have been better at it than others -- it's not altogether absent in real Marx and Freud. The danger is that this self-reflective approach also turns into a mere style at the end of the day, one designed to disarm the critic, give the appearance of open-ness to involve the reader and prepare them for the strong claims of 'prime knowledge' at the end, after all the modesty, doubt and irony -- but we'll come to that below. Time for a serious break now, I think...

So we're back, then. When are we having this conversation exactly?

April 1994, on vacation.

And where are we having it -- in the Franciscan monastery at Oxford?

No -- at home in Plymouth, in the middle of ordinary life, in between marking student essays, preparing lectures, feeding the cat, playing bass guitar with the kid -- etc.

No wonder it's a bit disjointed then!

Yes. Looking back on what we've covered so far, I'm a bit concerned that I haven't quite go to the detailed examination of postmodern critique, as opposed to other, slightly earlier anti-foundationalist material. This material is in definite kinship with postmodernist critique, and it's always fun to demonstrate that nothing is new, but there's one additional element which came to prominence in Lyotard and Baudrillard especially which I ought to discuss -- the 'linguistic turn'. As before, we have had them in earlier social theory, and the linguistic turn is not confined to pomo -- but they've popularised and pushed it. So....

Language and Reality

French social theory rediscovered the importance of language as signification, as a process of conferring meaning in its own right, as itwere, in the path from structuralism to post-structuralism. We've sketched this out above, in the section on the Crisis of Representation.

Oh yes -- hang on, I'll go back and have a quick look through it.

You are very much an ideal reader, aren't you? You'll recall the issue right at the heart of the famous material on the sign and its component parts (signifier and signified).

Yes -- something about.. Oh here it is...I've edited, copied and pasted...

'But this signified is a concept, not a real object in classical structuralism -- signs never just connect simply to real objects, they are never simply the same as real objects.'

Good. We know that the relation between concepts and real objects has long been the subject of philosophical dispute -- empiricists see real objects as somehow forming concepts in our heads, idealists see it the other way round.

The first version seems much more plausible to me -- what's the case for idealism, exactly?

It's rather a 'philosophical 'one, at odds with 'common sense'. It's to do with how we gain knowledge of the real world in any way other than through our consciousness of it. In principle, we can't separate out a 'real world' from our conception of it , can we?

Well no -- but our experience so often outstrips our initial conceptions that it is tempting to see 'reality' in terms of some independent level. Things take us by surprise, after all. We don't always conceive of the car before it knocks us down. The real world continually intrudes on us, in ways beyond our control. Indeed, that very often is a working test of whether we've really experienced something or not.

Yes, but none of that addresses the general case. Even if individual humans can be taken by surprise by a real world, that doesn't mean to say that that reality exists beyond the consciousness of humans in general. Another common working test to see if you're in touch with reality is to get other people to agree something is happening. Anyway, let me try on you a softer and more 'linguistic' variant -- we can't experience the world, at least the most important cultural and social aspects of it, outside of language -- being knocked down by cars we can leave for the moment. Until we can name, reason about and analyse our experiences, we can't really have them as human experiences. Linguistic abilities of this kind are the most important aspect of human being. Linguistic abilities, note -- not some characteristics of consciousness or biology, or some esentialist aspects of social life (that we labour etc). Language is prior. It constitutes our world. And it can be studied much more concretely and materially than 'consciousness', since using language involves concrete practices -- like writing.

You're alluding to Derrida and his critique of phenomenology?

Get back into role, will you -- no reader is that ideal!!

Bet you're glad I didn't call your bluff and ask for further clarification here! Derrida is still a bit of an unknown for you, isn't he?

Yes -- one day I'll catch up. Anyway, the linguistic turn seemed to offer an important development for all kinds of social theorists -- including Habermas, who I do know a bit about. See Bernstein (1985) for a discussion.

The renewal of philosophical argument at this level combines nicely with the trend I've already described -- away from analyses of representation and towards analyses of signification. Let's just re-run the arguments:

  1. It is no longer clear that there ever was some originary pure moment at which a lump or real raw material had to be 'coded' into language (represented by a signifier). We don't know who first decided to call little furry animals that purr at you and then scratch your leg 'cats'.(NB God says it was Adam -- in Gensis). It certainly wasn't us. It hardly matters what happened at that originary moment.
  2. We can never experience cats directly, since we already have a language and a linguistic system which we use to even recognise the objects in question. Even recognition or naming isn't innocent. That word 'cat' is part of a whole lexicon, it comes complete with associated meanings ('connotations' in the old terms, including opposites and differences) and with rules that we need to say anything sensible about cats. Most of what we know about cats comes from that linguistic system -- it is inseparable from our actual moments of direct experience with cats. We already know what cats typically do, for example, what to expect, how to interpret what they do, what to call our own reactions, how to use the experiences to add to our knowledge about animals and ourselves- and so on. In other words, we don't really have to do any decoding either. For us, in practice at least, there may be no (real) cats outside the texts about them to which we have access.
Sounds to me as if you've left no room for individual subjectivity either. And did I detect another slight dig at gramscian work on 'coding and decoding'?

Quite so -- 'the subject' has long been abandoned in French theory (although not in British common sense, and it lingers suspiciously in gramscian notions of the 'active viewer'), so it's hardly a surprise to see people like Baudrillard being pretty sceptical about individualism and subjectivity in general in popular culture -- differentiation, yes, but as an effect of social changes.

Well how does all this square with the use of the label 'postmodernist' to attach to great film auteurs like David Lynch, or to describe individual artists?

We can tease this out below [we've had a go with Spielberg above]: you might know already of some criticisms of auteur theory along the lines that great persons really operate as novel tweakers of exisiting conventions and codes?

Before I leave Baudrillard, let's just consider his particular version of the linguistic turn as it affects marxism. Briefly, it involves a rediscovery of the signifying powers of commodities. commodities circulate in culture as well as in markets. One particular use value -- the dominant one these days -- is using commodities to signal qualities about oneself, by wearing the right sort of trainers, or driving the right sort of car, or eating the right sort of food. These signifying activities are at the heart of modern consumerism and the modern economy, and this makes Marx's analysis highly limited (to a particular stage in social development) and largely redundant (since it never really go on to the issue of symbols but stayed analysing 'objects').

While we're here, we can also mention briefly Baudrillard on the intertwining of 'reality' and signifiers, via his famous thesis about hyperreality (eg in Baudrillard 1983). The real and the representations of the real have become fused together totally in our society, so we no longer know or care whether the America represented in Disneyland's American Pavilion is more or less real than the cities which lie outside it: that 'real' outside Disneyland (or outside any other versions of it) is disappearing anyway. In fact, massive efforts are needed to talk up the fast-disappearing real -- including providing obviously naff places like Disneyland, so we can all still believe in some reality outside of it!

Most of the familiar politics of representation stuff -- whether or not America is accurately depicted in Disneyland, whether or not social classes/races/genders are fairly represented in the media -- becomes similarly pointless and meaningless, except among academics that is. As with other academic critiques, especially marxist ones, criticism of this kind runs the risk of only connfirming the wider game anyway: it holds out some notion of the real again, nostalgically, usually. Academics find themselves as the allies of big business and politics in wanting to talk up the real.

The issues are laid out nicely (if powerfully), and much more fully, in Gane (1991)

But look -- those trainers and theme parks are still produced in conditions of exploitation, they still appear under capitalist conditions, and they are still consumed unevenly, in a highly stratified market.

Yes, but why are these aspects so important as  to dominate all the possible ways to analyse consumption? What is being claimed exactly -- that the conditions of production outweigh all the other aspects? That all the specifics of trainer use in the peculiar cultural displays of Plymouth male under-elevens can be read off from the one originary moment of production? Haven't we got some highly problematic foundational and emancipatory metanarrative going on here? Don't we know of some difficulties with these? Isn't this why marxists had to develop some additionalconepts todeal with the cultural aspects of trainer-use?

You have sold out, you bastard.

Look -- I'm as concerned about Korean trainer makers as you (ie not a great deal really, I suspect), and as appalled by the dreadful hype and the facile cultural associations of sports footwear. But I have to take responsibility for these views. I can't claim I'm forced to take them by the logic of cold scientific analysis developed by Marx over 100 years ago. Marxist analysis has to be defended and justified -- it can't just be asserted any more as some self-evidently morally or politically correct 'last word'. There are serious problems with the analysis anyway (eg adapting it to fit modern conditions of high technology machinofacture), and serious difficulties in developing an adequate politics, as we all know by now. Waving moral slogans about doesn't help, does it: why don't we just get down right now and pray for these exploited workers? And how many times do you have to be rebuked for ad hominem criticisms: I may be a bastard who has sold out -but am I right?

You need some lunch, pal...

OK -- we're back, and, in the meantime, I've had a quick look at Gane's book on Baudrillard and discovered that (a) there's a bloody sight more to it than you've told me, and (b) Gane says that Baudrillard denies he is a postmodernist, that he detests the 'yuppies' who peddle postmodernism, that he is interested in pursuing political strategies to accelerate the demolition of the modern social order, and that loads of English readers, (including you, mate, I reckon) have relied far too much on marxist critics of Baudrillard instead of reading him for yourselves.

Look, I said this is only an introduction and reading guide. I'm not offering a fully justified scholarly account. I know there are debates about all these matters, and that there are huge amounts of work I've had to gloss, both because of the constraints we know about and because I haven't fully read or grasped the arguments myself. I want you to go off and read stuff for yourself. I expect you will disagree with my readings. It's OK to disagree with my readings. I'll be pleased to discuss any points with any individuals or groups.

You won't penalise me in the exams?

Reasoned disagreement is healthy, desireable, to be encouraged. It is a damn sight more interesting to read someone trying to debate and discuss issues than to bluff or parrot stuff back. It's refreshing to be able to step out of the role of abstract Voice of Knowledge, All-Knowing Being, and to reflect in your teaching the proper state of academic knowledge -- uncertainty, insecurity, doubt, debate. I have always supported the view that students should be allowed to disagree fundamentally with their tutors and still gain good grades -- anything else is indoctrination and bias.

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