From Futures, 23 (2) 189-203 (March 1991)
Postmodernism sees itself as a champion of plurality and seeks to represent voices
of ‘other cultures’ which have been suppressed, neglected or marginalized by
modernity. But is postmodernism necessarily a good thing for non-Western
cultures? Is it, in its rejection of all metanarrative, its overriding concern for the
present at the expense of history, its insistence on blurring the distinction between
image and reality, and its absolute moral relativity, a liberating force or a new form
of cultural assimilation? Is postmodernism totally divorced from modernist
philosophy or is it simply the cultural logic of secularism? This essay explores these
questions on the basis of four new books: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by
Richard Rorty;’ The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey;2 Contemporary
Political Culture: Politics in a Postmodern Age by John R. Gibbons (editor);3 and
Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism by Andrew Ross (editor).4
‘Total Recall’ is one of the new breed of postmodernist films that has emergedover the past few years (others include ‘Robocop’, ‘The Old Gringo’, ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and ‘Blue Velvet’). Directed by Paul Verhoeven (a Dutch one-time arthouse director with impeccable liberal credentials), it has Arnold Schwarzenegger (an ardent supporter of both the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association) as a secret agent whose mind has been reprogrammed. Schwarzenegger spends most of the film searching for his original identity only to discover that his ‘real’ self is evil and the new brainwashed character is in fact good. The film is mostly set on Mars where a rebellion is under way against an evil corporation, Recall, which controls the planet’s air supply. The rebel colony consists largely of grossly deformed
mutants who are in fact victims of Recall corporation’s unrestrained pursuit of profit.
The themes of ‘Total Recall’ personify the concerns and characteristics of postmodernism: its concern with plurality of worlds-Earth, Mars, the world of Recall corporation and that of the resistance of the mutants-including the plurality of its politics-left-wing director, right-wing star, left-wing appropriation of a popular, apparently reactionary genre; its deliberate playful confusion of image and reality; and its dislocation and erasure of the personal history, and hence the identity, of the hero. In addition, postmodernism has two further characteristics: its emphasis on the meaninglessness of everything and an overriding concern with fiction-fiction both as narrative and as a lie. ‘Total Recall’ is both: its other fiction lies in the hope that the marginalized will be saved by extraterrestrial intervention. This conclusion renders the whole narrative meaningless; as a spectacle it can only be judged on the basis of haw spectacuiar it is-hence, the uttra-viotence and high-tech gloss.
‘Total Recall’ ends with the dawn of a new age on Mars. Postmodernism heralds the beginning of a new age on Earth-an age transcending the modern, and which,in the words of ]ohn Gibbons,
both explains contemporary behaviour and attitudes and offers a radically new set of experiences, practices and life worlds for its inhabitors. The move from the modern to the postmodern worlds, like that from the ctassical to the medieval to the modern, were at first imperceptible. But unlike these transitions, and more in line with the development of the Renaissance and Enlightenment movements, postmodernists are conscious of the charige.5
The transition from ‘the modern to postmodern worlds’ is based on a number of key developments that have jotted our modern consciousness in the pasf two decades: the demystificatian of ‘scientific objectivity’ and ‘scientific truth’ by Kuhn and Feyerabend; the emphasis on indeterminacy in quantum physics and mathematics (and the rise of castastrophe and chaos theory and fracal geometry); Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuity and difference in history; Bell’s sociology of postindustrialism; the rise of the ‘magical realism’ school of fiction; and the newly discovered concern for the ‘the other’ in ethics, anthropoiogy and politics. The underlying
theme in all these developments has been the rejection of ‘metanarrative’ (large-scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application), including Marxism, Freudian&m and alt forms of enlightenment reason. In the
carry 188Os, these developments served as the basic edifice from which a recognizably coherent postmodernist outlook was forged. It is the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, Jean-Franc& Lyotard and Richard Rorty that gives postmodernism its distinguishing character.
The cultural discourse of postmodernism---the term ‘postmodernism’ originally referred to an antimodernist movement in architecture-now permeates every aspect of contempurary society. We have not only postmodernist architecture, but also postmodernist art, postmodernist fiction, postmodernist cinema, postmodernist refigion, even postmodernist science---and underfying it all a set of beliefs and behaviour that
shapes a culture. But is postmodernism a liberating force? Do the rejection of suffocating and totalizing metanarratives---the arch-concern of postmodernists from the left to the right---and close attention to ‘other worlds and ‘other voices’, the emphasis on understanding differences and otherness, as well as the representation that postmodernism gives to a whole host of social movements (women, gays, blacks, ecologists, regional autonomists, colonized peoptes with their own histories, etc) spell a liberationary potential? Or is it a new
twist to an old narrative: a new form of cultural exploitation?
These are important questions especially for those in ‘other’ non-Western ‘worlds’ whose ‘voices’ have been silenced and whom postmodernism seeks to represent; particularty when, as Andrew Ross points out, postmodernism ‘holds the promise of a cultural politics that would have no institutional boundaries, high or low, and that would fight over, if not infiltrate, every fast inch of new historical terrain’. The issue of ‘other worlds’ is central to postmtrsdernism, an issue that raises a number of natural questions:
What world? Whose world? and what possible world! Suddenly postmodernism has become an epic production almost in spite of itself, or at least in spite of what many saw initially as one of its possible vital impulses---a dissenting response to the epic, or universal, claims of modernism.6
The world is an onion
The truly epic nature of the postmodernist production can be judged from the project espoused in the philosophy of Richard Rorty, the American guru and anti-foundational apologist of postmodernism---Rorty’s basic thesis, outlined over a decade ago in Philosophy, the
Mirror of Nature,7 is that thought cannot represent the world, mind is not the mirror of nature, and Western philosophy has been totally misconceived in its central project. Indeed, Rorty argues, philosophy with a capital P is no longer a possible and credible entreprise. As nothing---mind or matter, self or world---has an intrinsic nature which may be ‘expressed’ or ‘represented’, the ultimate context within which knowledge requires meaning is conversation. There may or may not be a world out there; but, for Rorty, there is definitely no ‘truth out there’ waiting to be discovered; the quest for ‘the nature of truth’ is as meaningless as discussion of ‘the nature of God’ and ‘the nature of man’.
In his new book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty declares the ‘contingency of language, self and community’ and spells out the true dimensions of the postmodernist enterprise: ‘to drop the idea of language as representation and to de-divinize the world’, to get to the point where ‘we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as quasi-divinity, where we treat everything-our language, our conscience, our community-as a product of time and chance’. How are we to proceed to this de-divinization of the world? Since philosophy, and by extension theory, no longer function to ground politics and social criticism, the very shape and character of criticism changes: it must become more pragmatic, ad hoc, contextual and local. Thus Rorty’s ‘goal’ is sought ‘not by inquiry but by imagination’. Fiction, rather than philosophy, and narrative, rather than theory, provide a better perspective on human behaviour. Fiction, like that of Nabokhov and Orwell (both of whom receive serious attention from Rorty), provides us with insight into what sort of cruelty we are capable of, and awakens us to the humiliation of particular social practices.
But postmodernism is not solely dependent on fiction: the postmodernist world is being built by ‘the novel, the movie, the TV programme [which] have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress’. Rorty leaves out a few other equally important social outposts and agents of postmodernist change-the shopping complex, the postmodernist built environment, design, fashion and the glue that binds it all together, viz the postmodernist economy. Postmodernism is thus not some autonomous artistic and cultural current; it is deeply rooted in daily life.
The goal of postmodernism and its by-products, then, is to unanchor the thinking self, its language and community from its telic moorings; to demonstrate the total meaninglessness of the metanarratives. Lack of direction and perspective, with the underlying message that all is meaningless, is the central hallmark of all things postmodernist. On the spatial plane, this is demonstrated by Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles-a postmodernist enclave, a mirror facade, a self-enclosed structure in which it is impossible to orientate oneself. On the intellectual plane, novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses8 and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum9 illustrate the total meaninglessness of everything.
Foucault’s Pendulum is an excellent mirror of Rorty’s philosophy on contingency culture. According to an endorsement by Anthony Burgess on the dustjacket of the UK edition, ‘it exemplifies what postmodern fiction is about, with its learning-real and bogus-its concern with books talking to books, its elements of self-mockery, its semiological obsession. This is the way the European novel is going.’ A long, erudite novel, it plunders almost every religious and mystical thought conceivable, and uses them to play typographical, numerological and linguistic games.
The narrative concerns three editors of a Milan publishing house who by contingency get involved in an occultist mystery. The ‘small but serious’ publishing house of Garamond receives a visit from a mysterious Colonel Ardenti clutching a photocopy of a manuscript excavated from a Templar stronghold in Provins. The colonel tells how the 11th century parchments reveal a coded message to untap a source of extraterrestrial radioactive material ‘greater than atomic energy’. Using the parchment, the publishers decide to play a joke by fabricating an elaborate masterplan, a metanarrative, which explains the whole of world history.
But the joke backfires as the 20th century followers of the old Templars, their dreams of ancient power still very much alive, believe in the reality of the plan. Indeed, it seems that all absurdities, however far-fetched, fit with the previously estabiished structure of the plan. Eco hammers home the main point of his thesis: the world is a whirling network of kinships, a ‘saraband of anagrams’; there is no truth, all is relative and man can put down his moorings, the fixed point of the world, anywhere he wishes; and, when all is said and done, everything is meaningless; in fact, the infinite universe is nothing more than an infinite onion which after countless peelings comes down to. . . nothing.
Like most postmodernist artefacts, Foucault’s Pendulum offers only the suggestive power of swift juxtaposition; there is not even a hint of a perspective of any kind. ‘Why write novels? Rewrite history’, says one of the publishers; especially when history and fiction are interchangeable. The total lack of perspective within the novel is reflected in the lack of perspective in the new urban environs around Paris where another of the publishers wanders aimlessly. As Fredric Jameson notes,
not only has the street diasappeared [that was already the task of modernism], but all profiles have disappeared as well. This is bewildering, [the] existential bewilderment [of] this new postmodern space [results in] the loss of our ability to position ourselves within this space and cognitively map it. This is then projected back on the emergence of a global, multinational culture that is decentered and cannot be visualized, a culture in which one cannot position oneself.10
While the culture of postmodernism is without perspective, it is certainly not without its crusading spirit. Postmodernists of both left- and right-wing credentials use all the power of their cultural products to promote their worldview. Rorty, despite reducing everything to contingency, cherishes cultural hopes that are not so contingent. No sooner does he denounce all metanarratives as meaningless, than he erects one of his own to take over all other metanarratives: ‘postmodern bourgeois liberalism’, to use the title of his well known essay.” It is a narrative that explains all and marks the culmination of all human endeavour:
For in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a divinized self. Such a culture would have no room for the notion that there are nonhuman forces to which human beings should be responsible. it would drop, or drastically reinterpret, not only the idea of holiness but those of ‘devotion to truth’ and ‘fulfilment of the deepest needs of the spirit’. The process of de-divination would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meaning of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings.12
The culture of liberalism is also the only culture in which plurality can function. The argument goes as follows: since we cannot justify any particular culture on the basis of rationality, we are forced to tolerate a whole variety of cultural forms. Thus, the rejection of the Enlightenment faith in the power of reason, leads to pluralism. This argument, which has also been advanced by Isaiah Berlin,13 has a well known logical flaw. lt involves an appeal to the indefensibility of all forms of cultural life in order to defend a single one.
The error of the argument lies in the belief that since liberal democracy contains a plurality of beliefs it is the only political system which reflects the fact that no one set of values is more worthwhile than any other. But to preserve that diversity one has to defend the values of liberalism and this cannot be done by declaring the indefensibility of all values.
Undeterred by the serious flaw in his argument, Rorty triumphantly proclaims the metanarrative of ‘anything goes’, that absolutely nothing is Bad, that no action or attitude can be perceived as naturally and inherently ‘inhuman’, and that there is no tribunal-even in times like that of Auschwitz-higher than that of ‘finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings’, and that liberalism is all that really matters. Rorty’s notion of ‘liberalism’ incorporates two ideologies-capitalism and democracy. He thus seeks to defend his contingency culture with both the power of capitalism and the institutions and practices of the rich industrialized democracies. The postmodernist onion now reveals a worm-infested hard core!
How does the original sin of contingency cope with the real evil out there, the evil personified in ‘Total Recall’ by a corporation that has no moral scruples in controlling other people’s air? In a human world configured by the contingent forces of language, self and community, how are we to cope with cruelty and suffering? Rorty provides us with a strategy to come to grips with the postmodernist onion. ‘Irony’, he suggests, is the only thing that can overcome public suffering and reconcile the demands of self-creation and human solidarity. lronists are the Grand Saviours of postmodernism because they realize ‘that anything can be made good or bad by being redescribed’, and because they renounce that ‘any criteria of choice between final vocabularies exist’, and because they are ‘never quite able to take themselves (as well as the world and truth) seriously’.
Once again it is Umberto Eco who provides us with a fictional demonstration of Rorty’s philosophy. The Name of the Rose (reduced to linear narrative in the 1986 movie) is an erudite reworking of Conan Doyle (it too comes with an iconoclastic endorsement from Anthony Burgess!) and has William of Baskaville, with an adolescent sidekick, solving a murder mystery in a mediaeval monastery. The novel’s main protagonist is Jorge, an elderly monk who takes himself too seriously and does not laugh. A tragic figure, he is the incarnation of dogmatic belief-outdated, a kind of living dead, a remnant of the past. The main message of its ideology, ‘which might be called-on the model of spaghetti Westerns-spaghetti structuralism: a kind of simplified, mass-culture version of structuralist and post-structuralist ideas (there is no formal reality, we all live in a world of signs referring to other signs . . .)‘, is that lack of irony and of laughter is the source of totalitarianism. This thesis, as Slavoj Zizek argues, has two basic flaws:
First, this idea of an obsession with [a fanatical devotion to] Good turning into Evil masks the inverse experience, which is much more disquieting: how an obsessive, fanatical attachment to Evil may in itself acquire the status of an ethical position, of a position which is not guided by our egotistical interests. [Second], what is really disturbing about The Name of the Rose, however, is the underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance. Our thesis here is almost the exact opposite of this underlying premiss of Eco’s novel: in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally.14
Thus, irony can and does serve to maintain the status quo. What Rorty seems to be saying is ‘laugh at bourgeois liberalism, it will ease the pain of finally accepting it’. Irony, ridicule and cynicism are what secularism used to undermine Christianity. And taken to their extremes, irony and cynical reasoning, as Peter Sloterdijk’s classic work, Critique of Cynical Reason, demonstrates, produces nothing but paralysis, a sensibility which is ‘well off and miserable at the same time’, unable to function in the real world. ‘Other cultures’, therefore, have to take postmodern liberalism, with its deep moorings in the grand narrative of secularism, literally. In its eagerness to represent and subsume ‘other worlds’ and ‘other cultures’ into a de-divinized world, postmodernism acquires a totalitarian character: with or without irony, postmodern liberalism spells the death of the ‘other’.
History as fried bananas
The first port of call in the postmodernist project of de-divinizing the world is history. It is history and tradition that give identity and meaning to the existence of non-secular cultures-the ‘others’. History and tradition provide ‘other worlds’ with their modes of knowing, being and doing. In non-Western cultures, history provides, to use the words of Ashis Nandy, a ‘means of reaffirming or altering the present’:14
- Past as a special case of the present.
- Fractured present (competing pasts).
- Remaking of present including past.
- New past.
Such a view of the past gives an authority to history, but the ‘nature of authority is seen as shifting, amorphous and amenable to intervention’. History therefore has a constant presence in traditional cultures, not least by its periodic reenactment. The ever-present historical memory provides a source of cultural identity, social cohesion, a sense of permanence among change and means of rejuvenating the present and shaping the future.
By contrast, postmodernism is concerned solely with the present and the immediate; in rejecting Enlightenment metanarratives, it abandons all sense of historical continuity and memory. Just as Rorty makes the philosopher redundant, Foucault reduces the role of the historian to an archaeologist of the past. But postmodernism does more than simply abandon a sense of historical continuity in values and beliefs; it conceives itself as a struggle against history, as a site where the final battles against history will be settled. Postmodernism thus seeks to represent the very form and substance of historical reality; and postmodern practices are claimed to be ‘the very fabric of reality, the historical site of the collapse of any gap between ideology and history, between appearance and reality, between meaning and representation’.
Postmodernism thus freely plunders history to render it meaningless, to fictionalize it, to appropriate it. Postmodernist novelists like Borges, Fuentes, ECO and Rushdie freely mimic history, dig up its remnants, juxtaposing and ‘assembling them’ side by side, in a museum of modern knowledge’. In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie reproduces the entire life of Prophet Muhammad, as though from a standard textbook, juxtaposing it, fictionalizing it, in postmodernist attempts at irony and cynicism, but most of all seeking to render it meaningless, to de-sacralize it.16 These distinguishing features of postmodernist texts-to rewrite history, to drain it of invested (non-secular) meaning, to reappropriate it for secular culture-have two specific purposes. On the one hand, it neutralizes the identity of the ‘other’ by subsuming all non-Western identities and histories in the grand Western narrative of secularism; and by inflating the history of secularism as the history, the yardstick of reality by which all other cultures and histories are measured, it ushers in an ‘era of inflated truth’ which reasserts the claim to power of the author, the producer. In as much as any history has a role in postmodernism, it is as the history of victors who are now rightly claiming the spoils. As such, postmodernism can on/y have a murderous love for ‘the other’-like that of the mother for her gifted daughter, ‘Carrie’, in the Brian de Palma film of the same name.
Historical identity is a function of the motivational power of tradition. After reconciling living history to archaeological sites, satirizing it into ‘magical realism’, postmodernism transforms tradition into a commodity and markets it as such. Postmodernism and the heritage industry are intrinsically linked and interweave to produce a shroud that separated our present lives from our living history. The search for Roots often ends up as a television series-as a series of images, or pastiche, of some romantic past.
How postmodernism sanitizes history of meaning and identity, and transforms the traditions of other cultures into commodities, is best illustrated by a chain of 27 or so ‘Banana Republic’ stores throughout the USA. Now owned by the clothing retail corporation, The Gap, the Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company was started in 1983, and apart from department stores, it also functions as a mail order business. In his sharply observed essay, ‘Visiting the Banana Republic’, Paul Smith” points out that in its decor, rhetoric and retail practice, the company seeks to evoke an image of the colonial and postcolonial world of British imperialism. But in ‘the company’s postmodernist discourse’ colonial ‘historical data are taken up and altered’, much as in postmodernist fiction.
In the company’s catalogue, irony and historical nostalgia are combined to produce an image of the Third World as ‘a kind of benign theme park for adults, as well as a place redolent of a certain kind of purity’. All economically dependent Third World countries are comically described as ‘banana republics’ in which the owner ‘visiting vanishing cultures. . . to celebrate their uniqueness and discourage them from slipping into global homogeneity’. One of the catalogues proclaims that ‘in Africa the dawn of the twenty first century casts its shadow on the dawn of man. On this continent there’s no mistaking it: You know where you come from.’ These kinds of announcements in the catalogues are accompanied, writes Smith,
by quotations from the travel writings of men such as Sir Richard Burton, Henry Stanley, and Theodore Roosevelt. These in turn are juxtaposed with the writings (very often ‘reports’ on a particular item of clothing) of contemporaries like the photographer Carol Beckwith, wildlife biologist Mark Owen, a self-described glacier and bush pilot, and contemporary writers as various as Gerry Trudeau, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cyra McFadden, and Roy Blount Jr. In most of the season catalogs this peculiar admixture of the historical and the contemporary, along with fairly unabashed reference to current affairs or historical events (such as Watergate, Lord Kitchen&s subjection of the Sudan, or-in a piece of copy designed to sell ‘paratrooper briefcases’-the Israeli raid on Entebbe), is accompanied by some thematic motif. [such as] a discourse on Africa (‘we’ve opened the pages of this issue to many voices from Africa’, few of which turn out to be ‘native’). . .18
The initial object of the exercise is to make the multinational postmodernist consumer feel at home in the world: ‘You will never overheat or be at a loss for pockets, always look intelligently assembled.. . You’ll feel competent to haggle in the souk, chat up the concierge, sample untranslatable cuisines’.
But the narrative does not end here: it also aims to make the consumer feel at home with the injustices of history and legitimize the injustices of the present. As Smith notes:
By adopting its own ‘brand’ of postmodernist discourse Banana Republic has re-placed or reconstructed a whole history and its discourses the history of colonialism-and re-represented the current phase of domination in such a way that those discourses cannot properly be called mystification. Rather, they are de facto the active, effective, and the real truths of contemporary American culture and need to be treated as such.19
Postmodernism, then, reconstructs history, represents it as the real truth of contemporary reality, to absorb the identity of the ‘other’ in its own discourse. A feature of Banana Republic catalogues is their multivocalism; it gives representation to ‘other voices’ but only, as in postmodern fiction, on its own terms. The ‘other’ is not allowed the use of its own categories and concepts, partly because they have already been rendered meaningless-by definition-in postmodernism, and partly because they will be quite incomprehensible to its audience.
The presentation of history as fried bananas not only humiliates and deprives the ‘other’ cultures of their historic identity, it also undermines their future: without historic identity other cultures do not have a future as other cultures, their future becomes an extension of the future of postmodernism. Without a sense of continuity and a confidence in their history, other cultures become archaelogical sites fit only to be represented in museums or existing only as a source of entertainment for the postmodernist tourist.
The other side of the reduction of history to instant consumerism is a total loss of depth. Much of contemporary postmodern cultural production, with its fixation on appearances, surfaces and instant impacts, has no sustaining power over time. The reduction of historical experience to ‘a series of pure and unrelated presents’, writes David Harvey,
further implies that the experience of the present becomes powerfully, overwhelmingly vivid and ‘material’: the world comes before the schizophrenic with heightened intensity, bearing the mysterious and oppressive charge of affect glowing with hallucinatory energy. The image, the appearance, the spectacle can all be experienced with an intensity (joy or terror) made possible only by their appreciation as pure and unrelated presents in time. The immediacy of events, the sensationalism of the spectacle (political, scientific, military, as well as those of entertainment), becomes the stuff of which consciousness is forged.20
In ‘Total Recall’, the Recall corporation actually sells just such a consciousness; a slug in the brain ensures that one can experience ‘other worlds’, ‘other cultures’, other times, from the comfort of one’s chair as ‘pure unrelated presents in time’. The images offered in the mental trips to other worlds are said to be more real than the real thing. History as hyperreality--that is always and only a distorted image, that has already been deconstructed and remodelled, that is merely that which can be modelled according to a Grand Paradigm, and that which already fits the model--this is what postmodernism offers ‘other worlds’.
In modernity, ‘other worlds’ are excluded, overlooked and marginalized. Over four decades of ‘modernization’ programmes in the Third World have only led precolonial dependencies into postcolonial underdevelopment, destroying traditional societies, cultures and environments in the process.21 But, argue the exponents of postmodernism, all that was in the bad old days:
Postmodernism signals the death of such ‘metanarratives’ whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of ‘universal’ human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous range of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalize and legitimate itself. . .22
ln postmodernism, marginality is the central means by which Western culture discovers otherness and its own ethnocentric perspectives. ‘Today’, notes George Yudice, ‘it is declared, the “marginal” is no longer peripheral but central to all thought.’ As such, marginality has become a liberating force:
. . . by demonstrating that the 'marginal' constitute the condition of possibility of all social, scientific, and cultural entities, a new 'ethics of marginality' has emerged that is necessarily decentered and plural, and that constitute the basis of a new Neo-Nietzschean 'freedom' from moral injunctions. 23
That is the theory. In practice we face an immediate hurdle in unleashing this liberating force with postmodernism’s uncompromising emphasis on the negation of history and historic identity. As Yudice admits, ‘the very attack on the notion of identity is problematic in this respect, for identity is a major weapon in the struggle of the oppressed’. By disarming the marginalized of the principal source of their struggle, postmodernism reduces the ‘other’ to an object of mere play. Once the other is deprived of history and identity, it can serve no
purpose other than simply to heighten what Harvey calls ‘the sensationalism of the spectacle’. In both postmodernist cinema and fiction, ‘other worlds’ are there not just to emphasize plurality but also to ‘enrich’ the narrative and heighten the spectacle.
To achieve this, postmodernism emphasizes plurality of worlds in a particular way. Foucault’s notion of ‘heterotopia’ which he defines as coexistence in ‘an impossible space’ of a ‘large number of fragmentary possible worlds’ or more simply, in Harvey’s words, ‘incommensurable spaces that are juxtaposed or superimposed upon each other’ explains how it is done. In this implosion of different worlds in an impossible space, characters are not concerned with unmasking some central mystery, but wander totally dazed and distracted through these worlds without a clear sense of location, asking, ‘which world am I in, what is to be done here and which of my personalities do I deploy?‘.
The films of David Lynch illustrate the point. In ‘Blue Velvet’ the central character moves to and fro between two incompatible worlds: on the one side, the adolescent world of small town USA in the 1950s with its high schools and drugstore culture; and a bizarre, violent, sex crazed world of drugs, dementia and sexual perversion, on the other. From one world to the next, the central character is not sure which is the true reality.
In ‘Wild At Heart’ the dreams of the two lead characters frequently blur the distinction between hallucination and reality; the mother of the heroine exists in yet another world of her internal angst which gets mixed up with an evil external underworld. In the television series ‘Twin Peaks’, the lead character, Agent Cooper, shapes his reality by his dreams, as all sorts of characters existing in different mental worlds wander in and out of the narrative which is itself concerned more with the absurdities and obsessions of characters than with solving the central mystery.
Postmodern fiction explores incongruent ontologies in a similar way, forming an ‘anarchic landscape of worlds in the plural’. In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the two central characters, Saladin Chumcha and Cibreef Farishta, perpetually deluded and confused, swim through over a dozen diverse and distinct metaphysicai worlds, instantly changing personalities as though changing suits from a well stocked wardrobe. The central characters of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum start off as perfectly normal, but soon fose all sense of the real to the extent of believing in their own fictional! and totally nonsensical, plan: all ontologies, even those which start life as a joke, become real. The postmodernist ontoiogical landscape cannot be surpassed both in its capacity to delude as well as in the degree of its plurality.
When postmodernism gives representation to ‘other voices’, as for example in Rushdie’s fiction, it does so on a particular condition: it represents them soieefy with the categories and notions of the dominant system. In Paul Hogan’s ‘Crocodife Dundee’, the aborigines not only appear as an appendix, but their voice is filtered through the character of Dundee. The storyline of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ is simple: in the words of Meaghan Morris,
a small, remote community of Walkabout Creek, with its fumbling exotica industry (emblematic of Australia’s place In the global cinema economy), manages to export its crocodile-poacher and, with a little help from the American media, market him brilliantly in New York.24
It is an ambitious fairytale which combines the inner and outer reality of the film in a truly postmodernist style: the American success of Dundee in the film is reflected in the American success of Hogan. During the course of the narrative, ‘Dundee does reat or feigned battle with phantasmal Others of an equally phantasmal “white, male, working class”---beasts, blacks, deviants, uppity women, snobs.‘ To counter any criticism of its treatment of the Australian ‘others’---the aborigines---the film places itself ‘post’ : ‘it historicizes radicalism as obsolete opinion’.
Moreover, its very form of ‘questioning’, engaged in the form of a dialogue between Dundee’s muscular innocence of politics and the enfeebled liberal conscience of Sue, the American reporter who comes to the outback to interview him, ‘is a mode of American ignorance’. The dialogues take place at night. Sue asks two questions:
Each raises a problem of appropriatton, framed in two different ways: bad (white land-taking, black taking back the land) and good (recipracal borrowing between cultures). On the first night, Sue begins by posing the ultimate global question: the arms race. Dundee refutes the need for general political statements (‘gotta have a voice’) by specific cultural context: ‘Who’s going to hear it out here?’ Foiled by outback eccentricity, she tries something ‘closer to home’: Aboriginal land rights. We still doesn’t state ‘his’ opinion. instead, he paraphrases Aboriginal belief-Aborigines don’t own the iand, they belong to it. This is, in one sense, true. But it is significantly partial truth.. While implying that a land-rights politics of reappropriation is un-Aboriginal, he discursively’ aipropriates the right to Aboriginal speech. . . Aboriginal land claims, however, are not made for ‘the land’ in general, but for particular sites. Dundee effaces this distinction in a discourse on (European) romantic nature-and confirms its supremacy by casually throttling a snake.25
This is not to say, as Morris is quick to point out, that those who watch ‘Crocodile Dundee’ ‘emerge as anti-land-rights fanatics’; the point is that the opinions are shaped not just by contents, but as much by mood. ‘Film is an industry in a Western megaculture’: it establishes a mood across the globe. When this mood is reflected and reinforced in television programmes and literature, it crystallizes into something permanent. The average Anglo-Saxon can be forgiven for believing that ‘the eye of the beholder, wherever it is placed, is always American’.
Postmodernism thus plays a double con-trick on non-Western cultures. On the one hand, it invites plurality, attempts to liberate other cultures from marginality and seeks their representation under conditions that are not tailored on the exclusivist and dominating cultural rationality of modernity; on the other, as Andrew Ross argues in Universal Abandon, postmodernist plurality ‘brings with it a new arrangement of power and therefore new structures of inequality’. For plurality in postmodernism serves an end in itself: it is not the
contents of ‘other cultures’ that concerns postmodernism, but simply the fact that they are different.
The emphasis on difference generates a meaning itself; but, as Frederic Jameson argues so powerfully, it is ‘not a meaning that has content’. Postmodernism does not pose the problem ‘how do we relate to other cultures’, ‘how do we fight our own ethnocentricity’, ‘how do we understand the other in terms of its own categories and description’. It is interested on/y in registering the difference. It is a strategy both of negating the difference (by elevating it into a hyperreality) and, as Jameson notes, ‘a way of getting rid of content’. In postmodernism, the very invitation to plurality is an exercise in domination through representation, discourse and subjectivity. Hence, Andrew Ross is forced to conclude: ‘for those closest to the center-white, Western, middleclass, for example-it has had the greatest appeal; for those farther away, it often looks simply like a new kind of assimilation or collaboration’.26
The one-dimensional chop suey
The new kind of postmodernist ‘assimilation’ of non-Western cultures is best seen in the market place where the concerns of postmodern cinema and fiction, with their different worlds collapsing upon each other, are mirrored with a vengeance. All manner of world commodities, with all manner of ethnic cultures juxtaposed, are assembled under a single roof for the consumer to experience ‘different worlds’. Most Western cities have an array of ethnic restaurants where one can dip into an ‘other culture’ for the evening. The cultural plurality of the postmodern market place has all the familiar features: concern with ‘the values and virtues of instantaneity’; the concern with fiction-diffusion of the real and the imaginary, the amalgam of fact and fantasy; and the total absence of meaning and depth.
What this means is not simply an emphasis on instant goods and services (fast foods, disposable consumer items, built-in obsolescence, instant gratifications) or being able to throw away consumer baggage, but also, in the words of David Harvey, ‘being able to throw away values, life-styles, stable relationships, and attachment to things, buildings, places, people, and received ways of doing and being’. It further means a total confusion between the original and the copy, with the real taking on many qualities of the imitation and the fake being indistinguishable from the real. A common sight in the cities of south-east Asia is people totally dressed in fake designer labels looking every bit as chic as their counterparts with real goods on the street on New York, Paris and Geneva. ‘Made in Thailand, a thousand years ago’ mocks a famous Thai pop song, ‘made in the USA two hundred years ago’.
In this banal plurality and confusion of the real and the artificial, meaning is sought by the purchase of an image. For the postmodern society, the image is all powerful. It makes and breaks individuals; it shapes the present and the future. ‘The acquisition of image (by the purchase of a sign system such as designer clothes and the right car)‘, says Harvey, ‘becomes a singularly important element in the presentation of self in labour markets and, by extension, becomes integral to the quest for individual identity, self-realisation, and meaning’.
The construction of new sign systems and images is a major feature of postmodernism; and nothing plays a stronger part in the creation of images of instantaneity than television. Television is the real world of postmodern culture which has
enterfainment as its ideology, the spectacle as the emblematic sign of commodity form, lifestyle advertising as its popular psychology,
pure, empty seriality as the bond which unites the simulacrum of the audience, electronic images as its most dynamic, and only form, of social cohesion, elite media politics as its ideological formula, the buying and selling of abstracted attention as the locus of its marketplace rationale, cynicism as its dominant cultural sign, and the diffusion of a network of relational power as its real product.27
The first target (beneficiaries or victims depending on your perspective) of the manipulative power of television is youth. As Bo Reimer argues, on the basis of a survey, the proliferation of postmodern signs and messages engendered by television means that young people are now more and more concerned about immediacy, with subjectivity, as the only value criterion, spreading across all youth.28
The active use of public relations to shape and sell politicians and political images is another indication of the power of signs and images produced by television: the manufacture and imaging of Thatcherism, the projection of an ex-movie actor, Ronald Reagan, to one of the most powerful positions in the world, the use of subliminal images in the French general election of 1989, are clear signs that postmodern politics is shaped largely by images. Novelists too are produced and packaged as images: both Rushdie and Eco have been projected as mega-images on the international market.
Media images play a significant part in postmodern cultural practices. And advertising is no longer about selling products; it is about creating lifestyles, manipulating desires and tastes, selling images and outlooks. The diversity and plurality of the world is experienced only as an image, a simulacrum, in the postmodern scene:
The whole world’s cuisine is now assembled in one place in almost exactly the same way that the world’s geographical complexity is nightly reduced to a series of images on a static television screen. The same phenomenon is exploited in entertainment palaces like Epcott and Disneyworld; it becomes possible, as the US commercials put it, ‘to experience the Old World for a day without actually having to go there.’ The general implication is that through the experience of everything from food, to culinary habits, music, television, entertainment, and cinema, it is now possible to experience the world’s geography vicariously, as a simulacrum.29
Just as advertisements appear to have less and less to do with the products being sold, so also postmodern capitalism seems to have little to do with commodities. As Baudrillard argues, capitalism is now predominantly concerned with the production of signs and images. The world stock markets trade not in commodities but social and political signs and electronic images. The Western economy is now largely based on the production of fictitious capital which is lent to real-estate agents who inflate prices on behalf of the stockbrokers and bankers who manufacture fictitious capital. When, during the Writer’s Guild strike, the image production machine of Los Angeles came to a sudden halt, people realized ‘how much of its economic structure is based on a writer telling a producer a story, and that finally it’s the weaving of the tale (into images) that pays the wages of the man who drives the van that delivers the food that’s eaten in the restaurant that feeds the family who make the decisions to keep the economy running’.30 The concrete monuments of capitalism are also based on a similar fiction:
It is, perhaps, appropriate that the postmodern developer building, as solid as the pink granite of Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, should be debt-financed, built on the basis of fictitious capital, and architecturally conceived of, at least on the outside, more in the spirit of fiction than of function.31
But the price of fiction is stagflation. The cultural products of postmodernism have much more to do with sheer profit seeking than aesthetics. Inflation has affected the production and consumption of art and ideas just as much as the commercial market. Just as fashions and tastes change overnight, new readymade intellectual and artistic movements emerge from nowhere, signalling ‘the reign of the cult of creativity in all areas of behaviour, an unprecedented non-judgemental receptivity to Art, a tolerance which finally amounts to indifference’. Art and literature are no longer a function of aesthetics but only a cultural aspect of postmodern capitalism. Art practice, Jameson notes, is now fully capitalistic practice. Moreover, the abandonment of historical continuity in values and beliefs and the reduction of the work of art to a text emphasizing discontinuity and allegory, has made criticism superfluous:
The quantum increase in the scale of the international art market, the unprecedented importance of dealers in creating (or managing) reputations and manipulating supply and demand, the emergence of a new class of ‘art consultants’, and the large-scale entry of corporations into the contemporary art market have all contributed to the effective redundancy of art criticism. Art stars and even ‘movements’, with waiting lists of eager purchasers in their train, stepped into the spotlight before any art critics knew of their existence. . . the current state of art criticism represents the final dissolution of what was, in any case, only a fragile bulwark between market iorces and their institutional ratification, a highly permeable membrane separating venture capital, so to speak, from blue-chip investment. As a result, art criticism has been forced to cede its illusory belief in the separateness or disinterestedness of critical discourse.32
Postmodernism thus implies little more than the logical extension of the power of the market over the whole range of cultural production. The quality of a novel is measured by the size of the advance received by its author; the aesthetic value of ‘high design’ and craft depends on the price tags. An example of the latter is the furniture produced by the Memphis group of Milan in the early 1980s: ‘this work’, Peter Dormer tells us, ‘had no popular appeal, nor is it clear that it was intended to. Museums have bought it as a cultural phenomenon and a few wealthy collectors have followed suit’.33
Given its deep roots in the market, its inflationary hyperreality, its historic amnesia, its pathological concern with instantaneity, its confusion with reality and image where the simulacra can in turn become the reality-given all this, postmodern culture is simply a lie, but a lie that is experienced as truth, a lie with pretensions to be taken seriously. It is a deceit that is spread far and wide by transmitters of cultural images, namely education, fiction, cinema, television, theatre and museums-all who process and influence the reception of serious cultural products. When ‘other cultures‘ are trapped by this deceit, the endproducts will be rather like the replicants in Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’. These are not simply imitations but totally authentic reproductions, quite indistinguishable from human beings but with two distinctions: they only have a lifespan of four years and are the slave subjects of humans. The postmodernist embrace for ‘other cultures’ is designed with the same goals in mind.
Tie your camel
Postmodernism represents itself as a new movement, as a sharp break from modernity. As such it has become a rallying call around which Western intellectuals have gathered to discuss the ‘wholesale abandonment of the universal proposition that provides the ground for the Enlightenment idea of politics and social transformation’. But this exercise, as Andrew Ross notes, itself resurrects ‘the position of the “universal intellectual” (as opposed to Foucault’s “specific intellectual”), who speaks as, and on behalf of, the consciousness of society as a whole. This is a position concomitant with the universalist Marxist tradition itself, and it brings back with it the moral high ground that has been shunned by new types of organic intellectuals’. But it is not just Marxist positions that are intact in postmodernism; the entire philosophical grounds of modernity are stable too.
Postmodernism does not represent a discontinuity with history, a sharp break from modernity, but an extension of the Grand Western narrative of secularism and its associated ideology of capitalism and bourgeois liberalism. Whereas Nietzsche, providing a philosophical basis for modernity (1886, 1081, declared that ‘God is dead’, ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’, and ‘there is no truth . . . there are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena’, postmodernism reaffirms that God is indeed dead and there is no truth, and it extends Nietzsche’s assertions by declaring that even moral interpretation of phenomena is impossible.“4
Whereas Nietzsche announced that ‘life itself has become a problem’, postmodernism adds that it is a meaningless problem. Whereas Nietzsche (1872, xxiv) declared that ‘this world can be justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’, postmodernism has appropriated aesthetics and made it its own to ensure that aesthetics triumphs over ethics as a prime focus for social and intellectual concern. Whereas for Nietzsche (1901, 853) art is, ultimately, ‘worth more than truth’, postmodernist fiction extends the dictum by elevating itself to the level of the absolute where it has become a source of values and where it ensures that images dominate narratives, ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths. Nietzsche (1901, 853) desired ‘art and nothing but art’, and postmodernist capitalism delivers inflationary art for an inflationary era.
Whereas Nietzsche announced that ‘philosophy, religion, and morality are symptoms of decadence’, postmodernism embarks on a crusade to ensure that those with these symptoms-the nonsecular cultures, the believers in an objective moral order, the ‘others‘-are either transformed into an ahistorical identityless mass (like the mutants in ‘Total Recall’), isolated and excluded from representing the existing social and political powers by ridicule and irony (like Jorge in The Name of the Rose), or subsumed into, and hopefully transformed into champions of, the grand narrative of secularism (like Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie). In short, postmodernism is nothing more than the domestication of modernity and the reduction of its tarnished aspirations to a faissez-faire ‘anything goes‘ market capitalism and ideology.
Such a system of thought cannot be made the basis of social organization and cultural endeavours. As John Gibbins asks, ‘how are society, politics and morality possible when we accept partiality, relativity, uncertainty, the absence of foundations, incommensurability, pluralism, fragmentation and polyculturalism’? And, after Harvey, we can ask further that if we ‘cannot aspire to any unified representation of the world, or picture it as a totality full of connections and differentiations rather than as perpetually shifting fragments, then how can we possibly aspire to act coherently with respect to the world?‘.
The postmodern answer is that we should rely solely on pragmatism, instead of seeking coherence and meaning. But even pragmatism has to be based on certain logic:
Baudrillard. . considers the United States as a society so given over to speed, motion, cinematic images, and technological fixes as to have created a crisis of explanatory logic. It represents, he suggests, ‘the triumph of effect over cause, of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of surface and of pure objectivization over the depth of desire’. This, of course, is the kind of environment in which deconstructionism can flourish. If it is impossible to say anything of solidity and permanence in the midst of this ephemeral and fragmented world, then why not join in the (language) game? Everything, from novel writing and philosophizing to the experience of labouring or making a home, has to face the challenge of accelerating turnover time and the rapid write-off of traditional and historically acquired values. The temporary contract in everything, as Lyotard remarks, then becomes the hallmark of postmodern living.35
But the greater the ephemerality, the greater the fragmentation, the more acute is the need for individuals and societies to manufacture some kind of eternal truth from the situation. In a period of confusion and uncertainty, a pronounced turn to aesthetics is only natural-the next natural step is for aesthetics to acquire the position of absolute truth and ensure that the function of all cultural practices becomes one of domination and solely of that.
The idea that nothing is to be believed, the supreme reign of perpetual doubt, is itself a kind of orthodoxy of belief. For, as Peter Dormer argues, ‘in its extreme form, scepticism undermines everything and everyone; it legitimises every act of cruelty, neglect and intolerance because it denies the point or purpose of anything’.36 While there is a place for scepticism in all spheres of human thought and action, ‘even the hardest sceptic has to head for the warm sea of belief if he or she is to find what makes any kind of life tolerable-innate values’.37
Despite its total denial of all beliefs and rejection of all metanarratives, postmodernism is itself a system of belief (or disbelief, if you like) and a pathological kind of grand narrative. Even if all the beliefs and metaphysical underpinnings of postmodernists are supposedly surmounted by rational and pragmatic thought and action, belief systems are deeply engrained in the cultural products of postmodernism. Postmodernists may no longer believe, but their cultural products believe for them.
‘Other cultures’ thus get trapped in a system that denies all beliefs but is itself an overriding system of belief. While actively seeking plurality and representation for ‘other voices’, postmodernism in fact dismembers ‘other cultures’ by attacking their immune system: eradicating identity, erasing history and tradition, reducing everything that makes sense of life for non-secular cultures into meaninglessness, it places what is inhuman and degrading on a par with the humane and ethical. It is thus the most pathological of all creeds of domination, the final solution of the cultural logic of secularism-the acquired inhuman domination syndrome (AIDS) of our time.
In ‘Total Recall’, Schwarzenegger recovers his memory and the associated original identity with sheer muscle power and brute violence. The dominating powers are beaten by activating a nuclear power generator that provides Mars with an atmosphere and free air for all. The power station was built by aliens. It is probably much easier, and more rational, to believe in God and tie one’s camel.
Notes and references
Richard Rorty, Confingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989).
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989).
John R. Gibbons (editor), Contemporary Political Culture: Polifics in a Postmodern Age (London, Sage Publications,1989).
Andrew Ross (editor), Universal Abandon! The Politics of Postmodernism (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1988).
Gibbons, op cit, reference 3, page 14.
ROSS, op cit, reference 4, page vii.
Richard Rorty, Philosophy, the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1979).
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London, Viking, 1988).
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (London, Seeker and Warburg, 1989).
Anders Stephanson, ‘Regarding postmodernism---a conversation with Fredric Jameson’, in Ross, op tit, reference 4, page 7.
Richard Rorty, ‘Postmodern bourgeois liberalism’, Journal of Philosophy, 80, October 1983, page 585.
Rorty, op cit, reference 1, page 45.
Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (London, John Murray, 1990).
Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Desire (London, Verso, 1989), pages 27-28.
Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1983), page 57.
For a detailed analysis of The Satanic
Verses, see Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, Distorted Imagination: Lessons from fhe Rushdie Affair (London, Grey Seal, 1990).
Paul Smith, ‘Visiting the Banana Republic’ in Ross, op cit, reference 4.
Ibid, page 143.
Ibid, page 141.
Harvey, op cit, reference 2, page 54.
See Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Surviving the Terminator: the postmodern mental condition’, Futures, 22 (2), March 1990, pages 203-210.
T. Eagelton, ‘Awakening from modernity’, Times Literary Supplement, 20 February 1987, quoted by Harvey, op tit, reference 2, page 9.
George Yudice, ‘Morality and the ethics of survival’, in Ross, op tit, reference 4, page 214.
Meaghan Morris, ‘Tooth and claw: tales of survival and Crocodile Dundee’ in Ross, op cit, reference 4, page 111.
Ibid, page 116.
Ross, op cit, reference 4, page xi.
Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene (London, Macmillan, 1988), page 270.
Bo Reimer, ‘Postmodern structures of feeling: values and lifestyles in the postmodern age’, in Gibbons, op cit, reference 3.
Scott Meek in The Independent, 14 July 1988; quoted by Harvey, op cit, reference 2, page 332.
Harvey, op cit, reference 2, page 292.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘Living with contradictions: critical practices in the age of supply-side aesthetics’, in Ross, op cit, reference 4, page 192.
Peter Dormer, The Meaning of Modern Design: Towards the Twenty-First Century (London, Thames and Hudson, 1990, page 10.
Quotes from Nietzsche are taken from Ian Forbes, ‘Nietzsche, modernity and politics’, in Gibbons, op cit, reference 3.
Harvey, op cit, reference 2, page 291.
Dormer, op cit, reference 33, page 179.
Dormer, op cit, reference 33, page 12.