(Series) Postmodernity Ahoy!


Yes, it is that time once more; where I delve deeply into a book in order to give it justice. My first such undertaking regarding serialization was, for those who may remember, Adolf Hitler by John Toland. In thirty something odd posts I explored each and every chapter, giving a brief summary of the contents while saving many readers the actual hassle of reading the book. Since it was close to a thousand pages, this was probably a good thing. In any case, though our current project is not anywhere near as long, it is far more demanding. So crank out your theatrical lens for this one!

The current project you ask? Well none other than “The Postmodernism Reader”. Published by Routledge, this collection of “Foundational texts” offers the reader an introduction to the heavyweights of postmodern theory (in addition to a hearty headache). All the major figures are present: Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida and more. Heck, by the end of it you may have your PH.d, so stay tuned!

Intellectual capacity is exactly why high quality readers are a necessity for academic work. Because whether you are an undergraduate or a graduate student, these readers are meant to be sophisticated enough for the needs of each, without being too damning. In this Routledge reader n especially helpful introduction explaining the philosophical roots of postmodernism surfaces; this introduction, which will be briefly explained below, would help any newcomer become versed in the origins of a theoretical apparatus which is as frustrating as it is varied.

Fundamentally, postmodernism “can be seen as contagious with romantic sensibility and its critique of rationalism and system building. (2)” Which means it challenges the “assumptions of the enlightenment, while… retaining the enlightenment’s impulse towards individual and social liberation.” From this basic starting point a whole slew of theorists critiqued Western philosophic tradition. Building off of one another’s theories, each thinker created an alternative manner of examining the world which, despite its conservative origins, eventually culminated into a bourgeois progressivism.

The term “postmodernism” was first associated with the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Charles Olsen in the 1950s. Each artist “sought to challenge received wisdom and established norms in their respective discipline”, which for Olsen meant poetry and for Rauschenberg art. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, various artists and literary critics expanded the term to include such discipline such as architecture, sociology and psychology. Soon it expanded into an outright movement with the publication of Daniel Bell’s “The Coming Post-Industrial Society” and his later work “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Each work echoed a conservative sentiment in their defense of the cultured West in the face of perceived excesses; this manifested as a kind of pseudo-religion advocating for the cultural redemption of mankind through submission to a higher power. The belief being that as soon as the “spiritual hunger” was satisfied, the decline would fade in light of a strengthened faith. Critiquing both science and the dichotomy between nationalism and industry, English historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that the destructive impulse of industry to expand outward while nationalism coerced forces inward, resulted in the previously revolutionary class of capitalists to become complacent and fall forward into decay and stagnation; the obvious solution, being, a sort of society which paced the technological pace so as to render the contradictions between the two as balanced and impervious to conflict. Bell and Toynbee’s theses would resurface in various forms over the years with the basic tenant of skepticism remaining intact until the present day. The decided upon term for this renewed society was a postmodern society (as seen in its descriptive uses).

Following this historical understanding of civilization, literary and aesthetic critics would join forces to fond boundary 2. This journal was an attempt to recover humanity’s authenticity through the employment of an aesthetic theory of de-composition (8). This essentially meant that the manner in which objects and other such cultural objects appeared could play a vital role in the formation of ideology; this would be stretched to two ends, the first being with the stress on a postmodern conception of architecture opposed to modernist (oppressive) buildings which reduced every dwelling to a blasé collectivism; and to Derrida’s lingual “deconstruction” which assaulted both the emphasis on speech over writing, as well as the binary oppositions inherent in linguistics (good/evil, sun/moon, etc.). When these decadent modernist ideas were discredited, they believed, it would then be possible to return the human subject to self-awareness.

Provided, this self-awareness did not ultimately amount to mastery. As Heidegger would later display through his attack on humanism, through his focus on being, the concept that a “coherent human subject could discern an overall pattern to human history and thereby improve the past (18)” was to be forsaken as modernist narrative. This was assured by the champions of such beliefs: Claude Levi-Strauss, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes. All of which were principal figures in the influence of formation of ideas whose authors form the bulk of the reader.


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