Aspects of Late Postmodernism

    Aspects of Late PostmodernismAspects of Late Postmodernism

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 :: This painting is called Interactive Classroom 2. This painting, was one way in which I was attempting to address the following classic postmodern conundrum: as we focus on augmenting our technologies we focus on diminishing our humanity. In this case, teachers are replaced with closed circuit televisions and local area networks, which was a pilot educational program in the mid-1990's.


    There have been many attempts to describe or categorize a seemingly evident paradigm shift in Arts, Culture, and Society, which has moved beyond the category of "postmodern." Some authors have described early postmodern works of Art (for example), as being indecipherable for different reasons (Susan Sontag). The groundbreaking work by these groups represents the beginning of new ways of communicating content and ideas. The first attempts at expression in a new form are crude and limited in vocabulary. It's only with historical experience that artists learn to use the newer language to communicate in subtle ways, with a heightened sense of nuance and a more developed vocabulary. Artists, whose work has built on the work of early postmodernism, and have developed the language to the point where their work is (arguably) more "decipherable," might include many living artists working today. Some of my personal favorites include Bruce Nauman, William Kentridge, Kara Walker, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois and many others.

    An attempt to define a cultural state that is completely beyond postmodernism is premature. While the qualities that exist now are quite different than those that were dominant 10 or 20 years ago, the condition seems to have taken on a more acute stage of postmodernism.

    Earlier postmodernism exhibited some of the following traits:

    • Global Village (Marshall McLuhan)

    • Viewer of artworks is a passive reader of signs and signifiers

    • Cultural and semiotic environment resembles the psychological state of schizophrenic personality disorder (Lacan - The New School)

    • Viewer's identity is related metaphorically to scenarios expressed in artworks

    • The artist is a replicator of content

    • Populations are managed by international paramilitary organizations

    Recent developments in postmodernism present a slight paradigm shift, but not a drastic change from this scenario:

    • Global Village (Marshall McLuhan)

    • Viewer of artworks is an active replicator of content - viewer is now a "user"

    • Cultural and semiotic environment resembles the psychological state of narcissistic personality disorder

    • User's identity is assimilated into a semiotic environment and regurgitated back as part of the simulacra of popular culture

    • The artist creates scenarios or environments that engage the "viewer's/user's" decision making process

    • Populations are managed by the use of information and entertainment media

    I won't get into extensive explanations on postmodernism, because there is more than enough literature on the subject. Given the nature of what content currently exists, it seems that an assessment of the present situation, in some general form may be due. I'll try to describe the differences as I see them.

    the Role of the Viewer
    Some writers note that in earlier postmodernism, that the viewer is an active reader of content. I differ with them in referring to the viewer as "active." While compared to the modern era, the viewer had to be more engaged to gain an understanding of the work, the level of activity this required was significantly less than it is now. Users, in the larger scope of cultural communications, are more active than they have ever been before. The type of activity in which they are engaged is different, however. The earlier postmodern scenario engaged the viewer in active pursuit of synthesizing and following the string of concepts presented before them. This was a highly cognitive action. The level of activity that has changed surrounds the fact that "users" participate in a form of the creative process. Contemporary artworks engage (what Richard Serra has called) the "behavioral space" of the viewer; making the viewer an active participant in the "performance" of an artwork. Viewers are continually made unwitting participants in works of art. To use the example of Serra's sculpture, the work becomes a performance piece, a sculptural form designed to provoke or invite "user" participation; making the viewer a participant in the performance of the work. This becomes the environment that the artist has orchestrated. The content from publishing industries, popular film and television depend more and more heavily on marketing research data, which is perpetually harvested from an array of internet-based social utilities (data are given voluntarily and unwittingly by the user).

    from Schizophrenia to Narcissism
    One of the scenarios is the link between the mediated "Global Village" and schizophrenia. If the scenario of the mediated environment becomes interactive, using electronic media, the situation is transformed. The condition known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder mirrors the cultural environment resulting from this transformation. The earlier form of postmodernism featured a perpetual series of content snippets that were never meaningfully tied together; the simulacra described by Baudrillard. From its inception, this media diet focused almost exclusively on propagandistic concepts related to "celebrity" and "opulence." As Jerry Mander wrote about television in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, "it makes [you] watch it," referring to the hypnotic state induced by staring directly at pulsations of phosphorescent light emitted by the CRT screen. The messages of "celebrity" and "opulence" were woven into our cultural fabric in a simultaneous rhythm for over 60 years. With the propagation of personal computers and the internet, the culture industry (Theodor Adorno) has expanded to wide area networks whose viewers are behaviorally active "users." This has made it possible for virtually anyone to contribute to the popular culture environment. While in the hypnotic state described by Mander, the viewer accepts the validity of the content conveyed. When users upload any content, it has the appeal of instant credibility, via mediation hypnosis. This environment, combined with repeated messages of "celebrity" and "opulence" led to the recent development in the cultural and semiotic media environment; a shift from schizophrenia to a more pronounced narcissism.

    The Mayo Clinic describes patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder as exhibiting these qualities:

    • Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness

    • Exaggerating your achievements or talents

    • Expecting constant praise and admiration

    • Believing that you're special and acting accordingly

    • Failing to recognize other people's emotions and feelings

    • Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans

    • Taking advantage of others

    • Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior

    • Being jealous of others

    • Believing that others are jealous of you

    There are other qualities exhibited by NPD patients. Social networking websites succeed based on how well they manage narcissistic tendencies in their target user groups. Developers and software engineers know that people will work for more "social status," and the result will be that they will be able to gather more reliable statistical marketing data, if engineered correctly. Some of the particulars about the semiotic environment of narcissism are explored in the section "the user's identity."

    the User's Identity
    Previously, the viewer related to works of art, which provided a metaphorical mirror for the self and the world to which we might or might not relate. With a mediated environment of unrelated images, it was close to impossible to navigate systems of signs and signifiers, in order to derive meaning from them. As our societies became used to this environment, the semiotic environment became more understandable. We could begin making sense of artworks again. We still have the mediated environment (which is much more mediated). However, we are now feeding our personal iconography directly into the semiotic system, as well as content about our lives, real and imagined. The work of amateurs is juxtaposed with that of professionals. Amateurs are given templates with which they can display their media. The juxtaposition with the professional or celebrity reinforces the power or status fantasy, or the exaggeration of achievement. As stated before, there is the instant sense of validity given to the amateur content, when placed in the same context as that of professionals. Voting on the amateur content, the push to display banality, forming "groups" and requests to "join" them, all reflect narcissistic qualities.

    Much of this can often be seen as the equivalent of scribbling some idiotic drivel on a piece of paper, going to the museum and taping it to the wall, while making claims to have exhibited at the MoMA. Plato's "Cave Allegory" provides an excellent portrayal of this predicament. The enlightened one who has left the cave comes back to see that the prisoners have taken to giving each other awards for guessing which shadow will pass against the cave wall next.

    An advantage to the immediacy with which users can upload content is that it has become easier for individuals to gain recognition for legitimate scholarly and critical work.

    the Role of the Artist
    The artist has taken a step into the role of authority on content and social commentary. Earlier postmodernism was described as exhibiting an unabashed, and vicarious exploration of unrelated symbols. "Anything goes, and it doesn't matter anyway" is an interpretation of postmodern art making that I often hear. There is more and more evidence to suggest, that the role of the artist is shifting from that of the "replicator of symbols" to a role of social engineer and/or commentator. Artists now develop works that require viewer interaction in order to create the meaning of the work. In fact, I would argue that artworks are designed with the concept of how the viewer/user will interact with the artwork, now more than ever. Artworks take on the incorporation of a wide range of approaches to inviting user interaction. The question then becomes, "How does behavioral interaction by the viewer/user, with creative works, shape how the viewer/user thinks and emotes?" Culture industry and popular media are the most obvious examples. Toy designers study this issue extensively. Video game developers know how this changes the thought process of the user, to such a point that the U.S. military is intimately engaged in the development of combat strategy games (Aaron Ruby, Heather Chaplin, SmartBomb).

    Population Management
    One of the more disturbing trends in contemporary (recent postmodernist) culture, is the comprehensive effort to suppress the intelligence of populations. The torture, brainwashing and interrogation scenarios from the 1940's through the 80's have been exposed in the news media. But, all of these techniques have already been extrapolated to the wider population as control devices. Governments have a much easier time managing populations by maintaining a cult mentality among constituents and by waging information warfare on their citizens. The election protests in Iran of 2009 would be a classic example: the Iranian government was blocking and posting disinformation about protest rallies on social networks. Web searches for "Tiananmen Square" are restricted if you live in China. Political party loyalties in the United States are now inseparable from cult mentalities as there seems to be a rabid push for a pseudo-polarization of what is supposed to look like a two-party system. This cult mentality is on display as an accepted matter of critical discourse in the "news" media.

    In the former stage of postmodernism, governments needed the military to control their citizens. We currently attempt to use our military to control the citizens of other countries. In the United States, the last real protest (to my recollection) of a worldwide governmental/economic entity occurred in the late 90's, in Seattle during the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference. The protesters were apparently calling for an end to police brutality, fair wages for workers and other similar issues. These messages seem to have emerged from individuals who possessed some understanding of global economics. You were able to find out about these issues just by reading the paper or watching the news. More recently, in Pittsburgh, we had the G-20 Summit. Most of the media outcry brought forth headlines such as "What is the G-20" and "Peaceful Protests at the G-20 Summit". Coverage by the "local news media" showed protesters wearing masks and strolling down a street, some locals telling the "idiots" to go home. The "news media" didn't convey that the protesters had any grasp on the socioeconomic issues at hand. As a final slap in the face, the President of the United States thanked the city (a town with two major University Campuses) for a very "tranquil" hosting of the summit.

    There is more evidence to suggest that debate and discourse surrounding serious macroeconomic and societal issues exists solely as a fictitious narrative in the media. However, this is an aspect of recent postmodernism. This writing isn't an attempt to bring forth a complete overview.

    For further information on this subject, writings by the following authors are good resources:
    Fredric Jameson
    Jean Baudrillard
    Theodor Adorno
    Walter Benjamin
    Susan Sontag
    Rosalind Krauss
    Jaques Derrida
    Marshall McLuhan
    Jerry Mander
    Roland Barthes
    Ben Watson
    Naomi Klein
    Harry Stack Sullivan
    Elsa Ronningstam
    Douglas Hofstadter

    This essay was also published on "Check out Art" - which can be found here.


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