Mary Klages, Postmodernism, from ‘Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed’

Don’t recall where I got this article, but it seems to me that it was on the OCA website. Anyway, it’s a solid text that gives a clear understanding of the modernist and postmodernist positions. Her description of the fundamental ideas of modernity helps the reader to understand why much of postmodernist discourse is intertwined with gender, race and other forms of discourse that challenge norms that were accepted and promoted during the modern, industrial era.

Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). As I have already analysed with the so-called pioneering work of Galton et al. Social Darwinism demands that society seek increasing levels of betterment, and as such the chaff of humanity (the weak, feeble-minded, etc) should be separated from the better part (and of course be corrected, prevented from procreating) “anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of “disorder,” and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society“. The fact that this is an absurd pursuit has been discussed, but Klages points out that the disordered part of society/humanity was essential to define the superiority of the ordered part – here we have the essential ‘other’ by which modern man was to define himself; the binary opposition that is responsible for many –isms (including Orientalism, which I looked at during my last project, and ableism, which I am currently exploring). Klages also points out that these ideologies were maintained by the totality of ‘grand narratives’ (Lyotard’s metanarratives, or what she calls meta-ideologies). We are then shown that the essence of postmodernism is to critique such grand narratives, to expose the myths that they sustain, to unmask the inherent contradictions they conceal in a bid to organise society: “Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors “mini-narratives,” stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern “mini-narratives” are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.” This then links in with the Baudrillardian idea that there are no originals, and there is no permanent reality – only surfaces without depth, signifiers without signifieds. Is it possible then that my mini narratives can be considered in this way? By exploring the seemingly mundane, everyday lives of people with disabilities, am I challenging the ‘grand narrative’ about able-bodiedness? I would surely hope so, but I wonder how easy it is to get that idea across.

The final point that Klages makes is the most frightening and thought-provoking. She asserts that knowledge is becoming only that which can be digitised (case in point is Bill Gates’ amassing and storing of over 100 million images, only a fraction of which have been digitally scanned); since most production techniques these days use computer interfaces, this scanning of the original negative will not be necessary in the future. “In this paradigm, the opposite of “knowledge” is not “ignorance,” as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather “noise.” Anything that doesn’t qualify as a kind of knowledge is “noise,” is something that is not recognizable as anything within this system.” Isn’t this a daunting prospect, that if something cannot be made to conform to a system of 0s and 1s, it will not be considered as having value. The fact that a camera actually makes approximations (interpolations) when the wrong kind of light falls on the pixel sensor means that the whole of digital photography is suspicious. Noise is generally seen these days in a kind of negative way, something that has to be reduced or gotten rid of. Purists still go for the grainy look in film and the scratchy sounds of vinyl LPs, but in the digital world noise is a nuisance. I recall an interview with photographer Vincent Laforet, who said that when he was photographing from the antenna on top of the Empire State Building, he had to switch to using film because the radio waves were so strong he could actually see them on the digital images (those would probably have been some cool images!).

Why don’t more artists make use of noise? If modernism is all about order (and therefore sharp contrast and crisp focus in images) shouldn’t postmodernism, with its drive to subvert all that is modernist, embrace noise as being the ultimate disturbance of the binary equilibrium? It seems to me that the binary oppositions that modernism built up and reinforced are embodied in computer language, and as such postmodernism would do better to reject all that can be digitised! Thinking along these lines, could ISIL (so-called Islamic State, or Daesh) be viewed as truly postmodernist? I think so. They utilise modern digital technology and create polished multimedia products, they stage performances for the camera in which they appropriate symbols (such as the orange jumpsuits actually made famous by the US prisons in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; they are garbed in black and wearing terrorist-style balaclavas – their two-tone flag is even reminiscent of the jolly roger! Ranks of armed fighters shot from a low angle a la Riefenstahl, the list goes on), while terror attacks themselves are like mini narratives, unpredictable and carried out by individuals or small coordinated groups, which is why they are so terrifying and effective in disrupting the modern lifestyle.

Actually, I later came across a series of images by Antoine d’Agata showing trafficked women that makes use of noise.

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