Mary Klages, Postmodernism Again

Trying to find out where that first article came from, I found another article on postmodernism by Klages. According to my Google search, it appears that the previous article is one that is often recommended to students as an introduction to the concept of postmodernism, so I probably got it from the OCA website after all.

This second article reads more like a blog entry, but I like the style since it reads easily and doesn’t bog one down in philosophical terminology and abstract ideas. It continues and elucidates some of the ideas set out in the first paper.

“postmodernism is hard to pin down… because one of the fundamental principles of postmodernism is indeterminacy–once you pin something down, name it, categorize it, you have already tried to fit it into a humanist or Enlightenment model of knowledge; postmodernism is, in general, whatever resists or destabilizes the Enlightenment mode of thought, knowledge, or action.”

Which is why when it is explained in such a fashion, even a layman can understand the idea. Klages then goes on to explain the enlightenment model of knowledge – that what could be objectively known (through the faculties of reason, rationality and science) was true, good, right, beautiful, subsequently our legal, moral and aesthetic codes were built upon this knowledge system:

This idea of knowledge supported, and was supported by, the binary opposition “reason/madness” and “rationality/irrationality.” Within these binary structures, what was deemed “reason” was favored, aligned with positive elements like “self” and “mind” and “masculine” and “Western,” while what was deemed “madness” was aligned with “other,” “body,” “feminine,” and “non-Western/Oriental.”

All of which I have already discussed, but the fact that she echoes my own extrapolations gives me pleasure in that I follow her ideas completely. She then admits that it was Lyotard’s idea that “In a digitally based age, all knowledge must be digitizable to be preserved; anything that is not digitizable will not be called “knowledge” and will be excluded from our systems of data collection, organization, and preservation.” I thought that this was Klages’ idea, but apparently it was Lyotard’s. even further: “The opposite of “knowledge,” for Lyotard, is not “ignorance, ” as it was for Enlightenment thinkers, but “noise”– a mode of expression or existence that cannot be included within digitizable categories.” And then she says that a lot of postmodernists talk about noise, as well as waste and shit, for substances that are held to disrupt the orderly flow of knowledge or production.

Here Klages touches on the idea of narrative: that any text requiring legitimation is by definition scientific, since a narrative exists in its own right as a story and doesn’t need to be proved or attributed to an author (e.g. myths or folk tales). Although I do believe this is merely skimming over the surface, since the whole question of authorship goes a lot deeper than this, to my mind (authorship rights, plagiarism?). Of course there are artists who work to undermine the very idea of authorship (such as Ra’ad). Someone’s version of an event is a personal recollection, and cannot be ‘wrong’ if it is not used to explain anything other than that person’s opinions or point of view. In supplanting the enlightenment’s grand narratives, according to Klages Lyotard proposes micronarratives, or small stories that explain particular specific events without attempting to assert any universal truths.

Such micronarratives would have use value; they could arise from and be applied to specific situations, but none would claim to explain everything, or to explain all other theories, or to be the preferred or dominant framework through which any event could be understood. Postmodern micronarratives thus are multiple–there is one for every situation, rather than one narrative covering all situations– and they are necessarily different and largely incompatible; there’s no way to put all the micronarratives together to form one unified coherent idea of how the world, or human beings, operate.

The idea that things exist in their own right, without any particular significance within a greater scheme, they just are.

Klages then goes on to discuss an important idea that I have come across when reading Butler, that identity is not something essential or unique to each individual, but something made up of the signifiers (in modern society these are consumer goods, buying habits) with which one chooses to surround oneself. The idea that I choose a particular product not because of its functionality, but because of what it signifies about my social status (which, as I have elsewhere discussed is not fixed, since a woman can be loving wife, doting mother and aspiring professional and wish to signify all those selves at different points of the day – or even within one supermarket trip). This is also linked to the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia, where different linguistic devices are used when speaking to different audiences about different topics and for different purposes. Which makes sense, really, since the self is not fixed (hopefully). The bottom line: “Selfhood, for Baudrillard, as for Lacan, is thus always already an alienated position, something defined by externals.” You are not what you are but what you consume. This is a frightening concept, but one that is ever more increasingly becoming evident with the spread of social media – now you are defined by what you like, what you post and repost, who you follow, who follows you and how many friends you have (and who they are!). And everyone can see it and read it. Not only was Warhol a postmodern artist with his mass reproductions, but he was also prescient with his “world famous for 15 minutes” quote. He was also using hyperreality to explain how he felt when he was shot – like he was watching TV, and his ideas about accepting people on the basis of their self-images, which have more to do with the way they think than their objective-images do – this is pure postmodernism! “the hyperreality of the created worlds becomes more “real” than the real world, and in fact highlights how what we have always thought of as the “real world” is itself a constructed hyperreality.” Baudrillard’s paradox.

The final idea that Klages analyses is the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari. Using plant organisms as analogues, D&G propose that the enlightenment model goes along the lines of an acorn that grows into an oak tree:

“a small idea–a seed or acorn–takes root and sends up shoots; these shoots become a sturdy trunk, supported by the invisible but powerful root system, which feeds the tree; from this unified strong trunk come lots of branches and leaves. Everything that is the tree is traceable back to a single point of origin; everything that is the tree is part of a coherent organic system which has grown vertically, progressively, and steadily.”

On the other hand:

“A rhizome is an organism which consists of interconnected living fibers, but with no central point, no particular origin, no definitive structure, no formative unity. A rhizome doesn’t start from anywhere or end anywhere; at every point in its existence, it is the same, a network of individual but indistinguishable threads. A rhizome is much harder to uproot…”

Which is why a terrorist organization, as I have already discussed, is a postmodernist structure – Al Qaeda did not cease to exist or stop its activities when its leader was killed. Accordingly, the rhizome model is difficult for people who have been brought up and educated according to the linear model: it appears to be unstructured, unruly, chaotic, without sense. According to this model, I don’t need to read a book from the first page to the last, but can choose the order in which I read the pages (Cortazar’s Hopscotch springs to mind)! Maybe this is something to consider for the presentation of my material? Or would the conceptuality detract from the message? Is that important..? In my last project I aimed for non-linear narratives, which somehow built towards points of culmination without attempting to be didactic or illustrative.


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