Postmodernism For Beginners

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Postmodernism For Beginners

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Philosophy (Modern)


by: Jim Powell

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Like a lot of folks youre probably not sure what Postmodernism is. And if this were like most books on the subject, it probably wouldnt tell you. Besides what a few grumpy critics claim, Postmodernism is not a bunch of meaningless intellectual mind games. On the contrary, it is a reaction to the most profound spiritual and philosophical crises of our time -- the failure of the Enlightenment. This book takes the position that Postmodernism is a series of maps that help people find their way through a changing world. The book features the thoughts of Foucault on power and knowledge, Jameson on mapping the postmodern, Baudrillard on the media, Harvey on time-space compression, Derrida on deconstruction and Deleuze and Guattari on rhizomes. The book also discusses postmodern artifacts such as Madonna, cyberpunk sci-fi, Buddhist ecology and teledildonics.


More Foucault needed: A major problem in this book was a mis/nonrepresentation of the subject brought on by the ultimate brevity of the complete work. Foucault, for instance, is given a paragraph or two of treatment and then is immediately dismissed by a nonsensical (possibly just unexplained) assumption that because power/sexuality are everywhere they are also nowhere, and therefore Foucault's works are essentially meaningless in the postmodern landscape. And yet, that critique ultimately becomes a meaningless one as gender, race, sexual orientation and other cultural constructs could be subjected to the same analysis, but this wouldn't change the fact that these are all very powerful ways to separate and systematically oppress people in our culture.
For example, Question: the critique holds that since sexuality is everywhere it is nowhere. But what kind of sexuality is everywhere? Answer: Heterosexual relations holding the constructed feminine gender subordinate to the constructed masculine gender; mostly what we call "white," rarely "interracial"; and mostly in the context of pre-marital (read committed) relationships. This form is everywhere and nowhere--pervasive but invisible. But what does this then do? As Foucault himself might say, this dynamic impresses itself onto the lives of everyone not within this hetero conception--it turns them into society's perverts; it touches their lives and bodies in the most intimate ways.
Of course, these comments here could be seen as a (feminist) critique of postmodernism itself, but the intent is only to show how difficult it is to handle such a large concept or thinker within a few lines. So this is not so much a failing of the book per se, but a failing of any introduction of this length to introduce such a gigantic concept as "Postmodernism." If you are really interested in the subject, we would recommend either reading the original thinkers or reading books (like Foucault's Power/Knowledge) which contain interviews and overviews of the thinker's major works. This gives you a much better feel for the subject than a 100 page "comic book" is, simply, able to do.

Where's Nietzsche? On the one hand, this bookl gives excellent summaries of individual "postmodernists" and their positions. His readings of Baudrillard, Jencks, and Derrida, among others, are especially revealing. For this reason, I do recommend the book.
On the other hand, the book never adequately distinguishes the various understandings of what "postmodernism" is. There are several discrete views of postmodernism, and they are not all compatible. At least four of these views are discussed by Powell: (1)postmodernism is viewed by some as a recent global-cultural condition in which different societies confront one another; (2)postmodernism is understood by some as a technological condition brought on by new electronic and mass media technologies; (3)postmodern architecture, as a response to modern architecture, attempts to recover the human element of architecture, and to make it meaningful rather than just functional; and (4)postmodern art, as a response to modern art, varies from aimless free-play to a rejection of the very idea of representation. One can see how some of the thinkers discussed by Powell overlap these categories. For example, Lyotard blends views (1) and (2), while Jencks blends views (1)and (3). And one can imagine other possibilities. For example, one could be a postmodern -- i.e. anti-modern -- architect, without being a postmodernist in senses (1), (2) or (4).
Lastly, and most problematic, is that Friedrich Nietzsche is discussed as a modernist rather than the postmodernist who started most of all this. Powell's reading of Nietzsche has some merit, but I disagree. When Nietzsche proclaimed the "Death of God", he rejected all modernist commitments to other-worldy realities. This left the "void" which Powell discusses. And Nietzsche did attempt to fill in the void. But he did not do so by positing a new "essence of humanity" or "eternal value", as some of the modern artists after Nietzsche tried to do (pg. 13). What Nietzsche put in place of modernism was the view that reality is lived experience, and that reality is largely the product of human invention. One's "essence" is what one makes of one's self. This is what Nietzsche meant by the idea of a Superman. It is the vision of a post-modern human being who decides his/her own fate.
Nietzsche's critique of modernism, then, is a fifth distinct position: (5) some view postmodernism as a philosophical rejection or skepticism of all metaphysical systems. This is what Lyotard means when discussing the loss of "metanarratives". It is what drives Derrida's program of "deconstruction". And it is the post-Nietzschean "void" which frames the work of many postmodern artists. Indeed, philosophical postmodernism informs most of the thinkers discussed by Powell. In the end, postmodernism can be understood in philosophical, global-cultural, or technological terms. (Postmodern art/architecture is art/architecture motivated by one or several of the above concerns.) And again, the various thinkers summarized in "Postmodernism for Beginners" are responding to one or more of these distinct understandings of postmodernism.

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