Thoughts on Postmodernity 1: An Impossible Presentation.
Imagine being introduced to someone at a party. A friend of yours wants you to meet someone she knows and facilitates an encounter. Even before you have shaken hands with your new conversation partner, he exclaims: “I am not an alcoholic!”, before proceeding to tell you his name. Chances are that you will think your new acquaintance likes his alcoholic spirits a little too much—why else would he go to such lengths to emphasize that he does not?
Often, what one says he is not tells you quite a lot about what he actually is. The very emphasis placed on how someone wishes you to see him tells you that maybe the exact opposite is true. Overdoing self-presentation has a downside: one presents as it were an inverted image of one’s characteristics. The skeptical listener can reverse this image and attempt to reconstruct the real face behind the mask.
This little anecdote may serve to highlight a point I wish to make in relation to Postmodernism.[i] In a conscious move, the culture of postmodernity engaged in deliberate and ironic self-presentation. It was a self-presentation in a double sense: a “story we tell ourselves about ourselves” for the intimi—and simultaneously a conscious marketing attempt to the outside.
Not coincidentally, Postmodernism enjoys a comfortable relation to capitalism. The very insistence on “differences,” “polyvocality,” “suppressed narratives,” “alternative sexualities, “alterity” or “unnamed knowledges” was first conceived as a counter-reaction to the streamlined, monolithic future that modernism was taken to represent.[ii] The idea was to break the invisible ideological grid that structured our lives and embracing an all-encompassing and unconstrained freedom. Freed from the shackles of modernity, the thought ran, humanity would embrace its endless differences in a multicultural celebration of diversity. It would lead too far to work this—admittedly sketchy—postmodernist agenda out in a detailed argument here. It suffices for my main point to sketch its outlines.
As such, postmodern culture was an easy target for capitalism: the endless proliferation of sexualities, cultural backgrounds, language games and narratives could be marketed without too much effort. No wonder then, that large multinationals like Shell, Google or Exxon Mobil advertise their “diversity.” Like so many products in our contemporary society of the spectacle, the proliferation of identities and sexual/ethnic/lifestyle minorities offered endless marketing possibilities for catering for and appealing to various groups. Some of these groups have goals and aims that are completely incompatible—a company like Shell can appeal to environmentalists, capitalists, power-hungry businessmen and human rights campaigners all at the same time. For every group is a product, carefully customized for your sensibilities and preferences.
And you wonder why Marx thought that “all that is solid melts into air”? In this global and postmodern money scheme, our experience of reality itself is hijacked, ruthlessly marketed, tailored, customized and adjusted to what we want to see, hear, experience and above all—feel. We want emotion, dammit!, and reality is just not delivering it to us. And, lo and behold, let us fashion tailored mini-universes that satisfy the inexhaustible demand for real emotions, genuine authenticity and communal involvement. Even if we have to buy it on Amazon, order it by mail or if we have to Instagram ourselves into oblivion, fun is to be had!
In postmodern culture, the self-presentation as counter-response to modernism is a deliberate attempt to beguile, trick, dumbfound, bewitch and enchant the skeptical onlooker. By exclaiming “we are not modernists!,” postmodernity wears its modern origins on its sleeve.
It does so proudly—in a gesture of faux irony—to proclaim the decisive victory over modernity. It is hard to overestimate how much postmodernity has inherited from the modern culture it so publicly despises. The very act of distancing should be read as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: postmodernity is utterly unable to detach itself from the modernist cradle in which it grew up.
“I am not an alcoholic!” versus “I am not a modernist!”—the very insistence should make you suspicious, I believe. It should come as no surprise that postmodernity is just modernity with more colorful marketing.
The label itself is the first and most obvious marketing slogan. Postmodernity is still a kind of modernity—it defines itself not as something new, but as the overcoming of something existing, namely the wretched and despised tenets of modernity itself. By doing so, it still operates in the terms dictated by modernity, and there is no ironic self-presentation that can undo or divert attention away from this fact.
Here is a lesson from history: in the 1920s and 1930s, the term “Analytic philosophy” became established as an alternative to what later became known as “Continental philosophy.” You could easily tell that this was an English invention: “Analytic” is everything we do here—on our island. “Continental” is everything they do over there—on the other side of the Channel. No matter what they do exactly, it is “Continental,” as opposed to what we are doing here.
One of the core insights of postmodernity should be taken to heart: every statement is made from a given position, the “always already” from Heidegger and Derrida. The blind spot in the heart of postmodernity is that is does not appear to notice its own preconceptions, all the while busying itself with pointing it out in others.
Postmodernity is literally “an impossible presentation,” at least if you take its core tenets really seriously. If it was the overcoming of modernity, as it claimed to be, then it would not resemble modernity so closely. Moreover, it would not so effectively harness the core tenets of modernity in order to push its own agenda. The time is ripe for a good old-fashioned neo-Marxist critique of the notion of modernity itself. It should be a serious analysis, in that it shies away from the so-called “playful irony” of postmodernity. The very gesture of irony, playfulness, pastiche, collage, polyvocality etc. is a survival strategy to live in the here and now of our globalized, capitalist world order. It is most emphatically not an attempt to overcome it. While exclaiming that capitalism is the woe that befell us, postmodernity relishes it, lives it and stimulates it, selling its theoretical core of difference for the best price on the global market.
Differentiation in gender, personal identities, economic models, lifestyles and lifestyle choice, as well as an increasing fluidity of public and private life were core themes for French poststructuralism. However, they did not imagine the unholy alliance between the free market and commodified modes of expression.[iii] What they regarded as an unprecedented freedom from the broad universalism of modernity (for instance, a liberation from the fixed gender roles in private and public) became the most lucrative commodity of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the conscious shaping and marketing of identities.
Not coincidentally, we see an increasing rise of self-commodification. The “feel-good” posts on Instagram, the Facebook messages, forced professionalism on LinkedIn and the continuous rating and valuing of experiences points towards a new direction: no longer is there just a “free market out there,” but its mechanisms have pervaded the farthest corners of our personal identities. In this case, the most extreme example is that of a woman who provided taxi services via Lyft, and gave birth while driving a client. Lyft presented her with compliments afterwards and called it an “exciting story.”[iv] She was just an exemplary instrument for a predatory company that knows all too well that many people offering these services do not really have a choice.
Postmodernism has a point by insisting on the more-real-than-real character of simulacra. The Gulf War was a media phenomenon, and in claiming this, Jean Baudrillard was absolutely correct. This does not imply it did not take place as a real-world event. Instead, it possibly did not take place, but might have been an elaborate hoax. This is the tragic point of postmodernity. Nowadays, advanced software can manipulate moving images to such a degree that my facial features can be used to make it look as if I gave a speech in Parliament yesterday. The events of reality become a commodity, an impossible presentation that can be manipulated at will. Chronology becomes a collage, a pastiche in which fact, fiction, art, wish and nudge are seamlessly unified in an easy format that can be endlessly repeated and manipulated. In a world where the perception of reality is so heavily mediated by mass media, this software truly blurs the line between fiction and reality. No longer is propaganda a matter of clumsily constructed stories, but instead it assumes the guise of an everyday events that can be broadcasted and repeated easily.
Postmodernism postulated the fragmentation of perceived reality but mistook the phenomenon for the thing-in-itself. Our perception of reality became fragmented, but the substructure that determines its outlines and coordinates is thoroughly modernist. The range of phenomena through which we encounter reality has changed dramatically. Sometimes we fragment our perception voluntarily: we look on our iPhone, have an iPad nearby while in the background, our computer streams music. Three streams of images and sounds: three fragments of reality. Nevertheless, the field of forces that makes these inventions possible and that sustains the economic model in which they are sold is through-and-through instrumental and modernist. It just does not appear as such anymore. Your employer presents himself as your collaborator, or even worse – your friend. Anyone with interests that remotely resemble those of your own belongs to your “community.” Rules do not exist anymore—only guidelines. Make no mistake:authority just found out that management can be fun for everyone! To top it off, it is twice as much fun for those being unwittingly led. The austere face of modernity has been silently exchanged for the commodity-driven shopping-mall landscape of postmodernity.
Postmodernity claimed the victory of modernity too early and became therefore its most first and most tragic victim. One can imagine Postmodernism as a stumbling, undead soldier exclaiming victory over his enemies, although they were the ones who actually killed him. The fact that the soldier does not realize he is dead is his tragic fate, and increasingly, postmodern thinking seems to have convinced many of us that they “are not dead,” while in fact we all have fallen already.
For those who have not fallen prey to postmodernity-in-its-capitalist-guise: there is always room for good old ideology-critique, especially if your intellectual life depends on it!
[i] See also A.D. Chapman, “Thoughts On The Relationship Between Postmodernism And Fascism,” Against Professional Philosophy (10 April 2019), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2019/04/10/thoughts-on-the-relationship-between-postmodernism-and-fascism/>; R. Whyte and Z, “Ghosts of Postmodernism, Past, Present, and Future: Forget PoMo and Go Borderless,” Against Professional Philosophy (12 April 2019), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2019/04/12/ghosts-of-postmodernism-past-present-and-future-forget-pomo-and-go-borderless/>; and A. Keller, “Surrealism Is Not Fascism,” Against Professional Philosophy (15 July 2019), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2019/07/15/surrealism-is-not-fascism/>.
[ii] The claim that modernity was a monolithic development may apply more to its 20th century variation than the 19th century visions of moderns like Schopenhauer, Wagner, Baudelaire or Ruskin. See for a good discussion of this point: Marshal Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 2010).
[iii] With the exception of Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire—a book that triggered a change in postmodernist thinking.
[iv] The story can be found online at URL = <https://gizmodo.com/lyft-thinks-its-exciting-that-a-driver-was-working-whil-1786970298> [accessed 19 July 2019].