More arguments with friends

I recently had friends over again and, as always, a discussion emerged. Only this time… it was postmodern.

First, however, I must include a disclaimer: Firstly, I am not a philosopher or literary major;  so my arguments are probably not made in the correct manner. My understanding of postmodernism comes primarily from my own limited look into it, combined with a fair bit of argument among other students. This means that my take on postmodernism itself is probably missing some of the subtlety and nuance it probably contains. That said, I think I know just enough about the topic to have an understanding of some of the core concepts involved.

Secondly, my counter-arguments for post-modernism come almost entirely from Carol (a good friend and someone who genuinely understands the concepts involved). Where they are feeble and incorrect, the fault is not hers but mine: I probably misheard, misunderstood or misremembered something vital. All blame, in other words, is on me.

It is well known that I have beef with the post modern movement. I was introduced to the concept in high school, when we covered it as part of art history. Since then, my antipathy has only grown. The problems I have with the idea are essentially thus:

  • The concept of ‘the death of the author’. I really don’t like the idea that the artist creating a work effectively gets no say in how it is interpreted. This factor, above all others, has led to the tedious practice of artists producing a work and then spending ten times as much energy writing a tome defending their interpretation of it as was put into the work itself.
  • The concept of ‘the critic as artist’ generally. I have no problem with critics examining and contextualising an artwork. It is the practice of effectively appropriating the work by demanding the primacy of critical interpretation over artistic intent that I dislike.
  • The artistic concept of post-modernism as a catch-all for all current artistic movements. One of the central themes of the postmodern movement in art was the idea of de-contextualising and appropriating prior movements under the banner of reconstructing them into new art. This, to me at least, is a very pessimistic approach to art, effectively an admission that nothing new can ever occur, so all we can do is recycle the old. Worse yet, it becomes self-fulfilling: nothing new can ever occur, because it is immediately snapped up and incorporated into the existing paradigm. Post modernism killed art history as a study of growing and competing movements by strangling them at birth.
  • The over-extension of relativism into other realms of intellectual life. As the Sokal affair showed; a philosophy which allows opaque, meaningless drivel to thrive to the point that it becomes impossible (even for experts in the field) to separate it from the ‘real’ views it espouses is simply an exercise in sophistry. To then simply ignore the implications of this tendency, once found out, is indicative of the sort of lazy ( some would say protectionist) thinking intellectualism is supposed to be above. That it should then continue to blithely extent its claims to subjects beyond its field is just wrong.

Talking to someone who is both wonderfully sceptical and knowledgeable about postmodernism reveals a different story. Postmodernism (at least as originally stated) is rather more subtle and nuanced than is usually portrayed. Firstly,  it is not generally applicable. It was never meant to be used outside of its narrowly philosophical field. The Sokal affair, then, should simply not have happened. Social Text should have either rejected it outright or else published it with a disclaimer that it makes no claim to the truth of the paper in a scientific sense. That this did not happen is, it seems to me, a sign that postmodernism has moved away from its own core ideals towards some other, darker realm.

Secondly, it was never about the primacy of the critic over the artist. Rather, the work was supposed to be allowed to speak for itself. To make a statement about the interpretation of a text, for instance, would ideally be done using only the text itself to justify the interpretation. A claim about the relationship between state socialism and the works of T. S. Elliot would have to come from impartial examination of his work, not from re-interpretation of its meaning. In this, the very obvious differences in opinion over an artwork are simply extended and given a structured forum in which to play out.

De-contextualisation is another matter in which the theory of postmodernism varies from the form practised. It was supposed to  liberate art from the baggage of context in order to allow appreciation of its innate values. A renaissance picture of the Virgin Mary, under this idea, can be seen simply as a powerful expression of the female form devoid of an overtly religious subtext.

I must say that I’m still not entirely convinced. Even under this (to my mind, at least) more favourable view of postmodernism, there are still worrying problems. By reinterpreting according to text, for example, you are left with the problem that the most ‘interpretable’ text will have nothing concrete to say. To my mind, the primacy of the artist should be respected even when disagreeing with him/her. To say that someone who has made something has no ‘right’ to it beyond simply holding it in hand offends me at a core level, even when this involves giving the made thing an intellectual life of its own. Indeed, even the most ardent relativist would be offended if his reinterpretation was itself reinterpreted. Or else there would be no argument about whose view was right or whose understanding was incomplete. That the victims of the Sokal hoax (to harp on about it) complained endlessly about the hoax itself denies their commitment to multiple valid interpretations.

I think what I’m trying to say is simple: As someone viewing art (books, movies, paintings, music, cars, whatever), I like the idea of having my own opinion on it acknowledged and debated amongst others. As someone making art, I want my own vision for it to be respected and acknowledged in its own right. Postmodernism, I feel, comes down rather more on the side of the viewer than the maker. It is this lack of balance, I feel, that leads to all the rest of the problems inherent in the movement.

I could, of course, be completely wrong.

PS: I found this as I was looking for a wiki page on postmodernism itself. I think it may be a better guide (at least given the usual caveats about wikipedia) to those who want to look for more information on the full, formal academic debate on the subject than hearing about my ramblings with friends. See also deconstructionism, which seems to have become synonomous with postmodernism.

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