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The Postmodern Age

Jan 24, 2007

For my first official post here on this lovely site I wanted to establish to our listeners and now readers the facets of the age we are said to be living in, which is that of the Postmodern age. Since my forte is literature, I sought to explain the idea of postmodernism in reference to literature. But have no doubt that these idea can be attributed to all aspects of the current culture that we inhabit. "Why are you telling us this Lando?" you are no doubt asking. Simple. We are living in an age akin to cyberpunk. Cyberpunk has been considered postmodern. We are living in a postmodern age, and we should really know just what in hell that means. Here is my attempt at it, I hope it makes sense. Don't worry, I will probably never unleash such a long post on you all as this. Buckle up, lock and load.

      I take on the precarious task then of explaining what Postmodernism is. It's not an easy task by any means, because Postmodernism is itself a term in constant flux. At the root, Postmodernism eliminates the final say of the critic and empowers the individuals opinion.  This means the reader is correct dependent on his or her perception.  Progressing out from literature to nearly every walk of life, Postmodernism has been referred to as a hydra which straight forward philosophical thought will never be able to cut down. As soon as you define it in one genre or art form, it evolves into something else, somewhere else. There are themes however which become prevalent in Postmodernism which I will try to explain.

      One of the first themes that comes to mind is that of how the importance of "high art" is broken down. By "high art" I mean the classics: the paintings of Michelangelo; the music of Bach; the writing of Hawthorne, etc. In the past, the critics had a strong control of what was and what was not considered "high art", critics could distinguish and attribute worth, deciding what deserved hanging in a museum. With Postmodernism, the critic has been neutered. The state of art is determined by the individual, and everything has a subjective value whether it is a painting of the Virgin Mother done in menstrual blood or the works of Norman Rockwell. "High art" and popular culture have collided violently into each other, shading and sometimes eliminating the boundary.

      The next theme I'd like to discuss has to do with something called a Simulacra. Jean Baudrillard is a phenomenoligist philosopher who proposed the theory of the Simulacra. A simulacra is a simulation of the ideal apple; a thing that is more real than the thing it represents. For example, when one thinks of an apple, they think of a shiny red apple with waxy skin that you can almost see your face in. When given a real apple right off the branch, it is often not so shiny or well presented. In fact, it can look kind of ugly and unappetizing. In this, the idea of the apple is the simulacra; we feel it is more real than the reality that has been provided to us. Another example would be when we go out for Mexican food. What passes for Mexican food in the United States is really just an idea of what Mexican food should be like; it's a simulacra of Mexican food. For those of us who have actually traveled to Mexico, we know that the reality is very different than what you most often end up with in the US. That said, in the realm of the Postmodern, we are presented with the Third Order of the Simulacra.

      In the Third Order of the Simulacra, there is no reality. The public is presented with a hyperreality that is completely fictional. A good example of this is in the way movies are being made now with actors walking across massive green screen sets, where in the scenery is added later. The hyperreality would be the scenery which technology looks so real and yet is completely made up by the special effects artists. The places depicted don't exist anymore or, in other instances, never have. This phenomenon evolves further by the creation of digital, who act alongside live actors as if they were actual beings. Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars are perfect examples of this in film. These characters do not exist, they are constructed from programming, and yet we act as if they are living, breathing actors. The Japanese have their own version of this in their Idorus. An Idoru is a made-up pop star, usually animated, that is presented as if it were a real pop star, selling music and movies. The closest thing we have in the United States to that is the pop band, The Gorillaz. The Gorillaz are a band which is made up of constantly changing roster of musicians who are fronted by an animated cartoon band that always remains the same.

      Another theme in Postmodernism is the way style takes precedence over substance. A novel is written which has no plot and no arch, but the manner in which it is written is so unique that it is trumped as genius and put on a pedestal. In the age of Postmodernism, style is the draw. Style makes things sell, style make actors bankable, style is what people want to buy in order to become stylish and "in." In the age of postmodernism, the cover of the book can matter more than what is behind it.

      In Postmodernism there is a great deal of recycling of old ideas. Whereas in Modernism a great emphasis was made on new ideas and stories, Postmodernism is conforming to the mold; the basic structure us coupled with a formulaic idea to repeat the original genius:  How many times has Frankenstein been rewritten and refilmed in some slightly different way? Mary Shelly, Dean Koontz, Robert Deniro. Shakespeare has been reconceived in the modern day, the future and across a multitude of cultures. Why is it there are no new Shakespearian-level works? As we see in the movie world, there are more remakes than new ideas. Characters such as Superman and Batman are made into countless movies while also heading up comic book series.  The series are without new ideas; the writers are afraid what may happen if they kill their characters off and then have nothing to follow with. Heroes used to die, now they just keep going till we get bored with them.

      The last theme I would like to explore is that of Postmodernism's lack of metanarrative. The French philosopher and literary theorist, Jean-François Lyotard, has said of Postmodernsim in a popular quote, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives."  (1984) A metanarrative can be explained as a story with a point or lesson; it's a story that tells a vast vision of human history. Sometimes a record of human events, other times the tale of one man's progression toward knowledge, the metanarative has a very important place in human social and literary history, a place that Postmodernism ignores or outright attacks. The postmodernists are skeptical of the lessons a metanarrative wants to teach and therefore they disregard it, then attempt to discredit it, and finally they ignore it. In this, no new metanarratives are being written; writers aren't concerning themselves with those types of tales. And when they do, it is only to display them as parody.