Book: modernity and postmodern culture

The CS course materials talk briefly about the concepts of modern and postmodern in the context of visual art. I often feel a woolliness when these areas are discussed; either that the person talking has not firmly grasped the meaning or that there is no solid meaning available to grasp.

Jim McGuigan’s Modernity and Postmodern Culture provides a wider discourse on the subject area (ie broader than visual art) and I looked to it for clarity. It is, incidentally available from the UCA library as an ebook. The text is dense and would serve as a useful reference. However, my reading this time was to coordinate myself.

Attached below is a mindmap of summarising ideas that were useful to me. I note as text a few points I wish to keep in mind and some useful quotations from the book itself.

Understanding that the terms modern and postmodern are primarily about ways of thinking about what is happening across all elements of culture (including the non-elite) and that any reference to material reality (including art) is secondary. So art itself is better understood as exhibiting certain characteristics of the terms rather than helping to define the terms. It is also helpful to think of the terms as not referring to a certain historical period, but as an attitude towards the present. Part of a model / system for thinking. So modern art may have been more popular in a certain period, but it does not preclude art that exhibits those characteristics being produced at any other time. And it is not to be conflated with intellectual discourse that continues outside of material fashions.

Post-modern is defined in terms of modern, so modern must be understood first. McGuigan explains that modernism is a legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment movement and quotes characteristics proposed by Peter Hamilton (ibid, 40):

  1. Primacy of reason and rationality, tempered by experience and experiment.
  2. Empiricism – all thought and knowledge is based on empirical facts (things humans understand through senses).
  3. Science is key to expanding all human knowledge.
  4. Universalism – reason and science can be applied to every and any situation.
  5. Progress – idea that condition of human beings could be improved.
  6. Individualism – concept of the individual being the starting point.
  7. Toleration – we are all essentially the same.
  8. Freedom – opposition to feudal and traditional constraints on belief, social interaction, sexuality etc.
  9. Uniformity of human nature – always and everywhere the same
  10. Secularism – frequently anti-clericalism.

While it might be impossible to meet all of these characteristics, the rationalist functionality materialised in architecture in particular: concrete tower blocks that largely proved to be uninhabitable. McGuigan references Charles Baudelaire (ibid, 46) as having an essentially aesthetic view of modernity, rather than expressing conditions of knowledge: ‘modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’. There is an important distinction between the intellectual and the aesthetic.

Before moving to the postmodern, the author offers a personal view that the ‘project of intellectual modernity is revisable and, in theory, renewable … there were always alternative positions … contradictions … and struggle.’ This seems coherent within the characteristics quoted above – one wouldn’t expect its ideas to be fixed. However, perhaps for the purpose of labelling, some commentators prefer to fix them.

Postmodernism supersedes modernism, but into exactly what is uncertain, hence the open terminology ‘post-‘. Some ideas of what it might mean are noted in my mindmap. A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to Manual Castells’ The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, which is important to understanding our culture now in the context of the information age (notes in mindmap). Castells is quoted (ibid, 127):

Our world, and our lives, are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity. The information technology revolution, and the restructuring of capitalism, have induced a new form of society, the network society.

Castells’ work is concerned with the reshaping of the capitalist model and relations of production, power and experience through information technologies.

A quote from Ulrich Beck’s book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity offers another perspective on postmodernism (ibid, 140):

… everything is ‘post’. We have become use to postindustrial … With postmodernism things begin to get blurred. The concept of post-Enlightenment is so dark even a cat would hesitate to venture in. It hints at a ‘beyond’ which it cannot name …

McGuigan later quotes Eric Hobsbawn (ibid, 164) with a similar view on the problematic ‘post’, ‘… when people face what nothing in their past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, event when they can neither define nor understand it …’. McGuigan, himself offers, ‘at its worst, postmodernism encourages and ironic detachment and nihilistic indifference when confronted with the complex problems of a rapidly changing world. At best it opens up new terrains of criticism …’

McGuigan concludes with a call for us to do more than simply throw our hands up at the absurdity of it all (the modern world) with the ‘ironic detachment which is the epitome of postmodernism’. He calls for different modes of reasoning for different functions (ibid, 171) – ‘instrumental reason is useful but blind. Ironic reason is fun but irresponsible. Critical reason is vital.’

I’ve not much concerned myself with visual culture in this post, but I think it will help me with an intellectual understanding of the modern and post-modern and allow me to better contextualise visual culture, which is secondary to the intellectual aspect. There is a connection here to my Self & Other level 2 critical essay, A very postmodern anxiety in which I express a dissatisfaction with the postmodernist critical perspective on photography. I will revisit this as I explore visual cultural aspects.