On Postmodernism

These are the lecture notes I prepared back when I handled a Reading Visual Arts class early last year. The actual lecture happened on March 29, 2019. Since this is a lecture note, I did not attempt to add any “new” insights on the subject matter. This is a plain general review of ideas on the subject of Postmodernism sourced from the literature of Jean Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Hal Foster, and Mark Fisher.

“…in acquiring more and more life, machines demand in return more abstract human vitality … Computers, expert systems and artificial intelligence add as much to thought as they subtract from thinking.”

Felix Guattari, Chaosophy


There’s a paradox when one attempts to talk about Postmodernism.

But before we talk about that paradox, let’s talk first about the tendencies when one talks about Postmodernism. 

There are basically 2 tendencies:

First, one would believe that there’s such a thing as postmodernism.

Second, one would believe that there isn’t. 

The second would settle to believe that postmodernism isn’t true, and therefore, we must not talk about it. 

The first had the responsibility, and also the sin, of committing the paradox that we are talking about. For one to talk about postmodernism is to define its meaning: to answer the question “what is postmodernism?”

So let us start with looking for a definition.

Jean Francois Lyotard is one of the first to map out the very definition of postmodernity, in his book The Postmodern Condition (1979), as one which defies any sort of definition. For Lyotard, postmodernity, in simplest terms is an “incrudility to metanarratives.” Metanarratives are what he also calls as grand narratives, to which we base our life and the basis of our own meanings, like the Father in Lacanian psychonanalysis as the basis of all trauma, and therefore, the fate of one person. Metanarratives are our basis for truth. For Lyotard, computer technologies and the development of artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift in linguistic and symbolic production which has resulted in the plurality of language games. At the same time, what happened in the hard or exact sciences in the postmodern turn, was a replacement of the goal of truth with “performativity”. Science now merely functions according to need, not to explore unknown things, or to “produce knowledge”, so to say. But this doing has also shifted our notion of knowledge: the postmodern turn also shifts our idea of knowledge into the performative aspect. 

This notion of performativity explains the shift in visual art by the postmodern turn. Most of the ideas in postmodern art came from a very diffused poststructuralism, which first and foremost, calls to attention to the form. Form, we can say, in the postmodern sense, is “what the piece performs.” Understanding a postmodern art demands this kind of shift in thought: that art no longer has meaning: that art now performs. And to define what it performs is the role of aesthetics in postmodernity. The question to answer is not “what is the work saying?” but “what is the work doing?”

See, for example, this work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L5gIMHZ7_8

The work is performed by Joseph Beuys, entitled “How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.”

We will not try to explain “what the work means” here, but to make sense of what is the artist is doing. I think Joseph Beuys also noted the same approach to his art, that it isn’t meant to be “understood” in a cerebral or intellectual way, but more in an affective sense. Which, of course, is another paradox.

As a historical period, the signifier “post-“ referring to something which “came after”, we are noting no actual historical time mark to when postmodernism started, which is to say, there’s no definite time mark when modernism has ended. Some theorists, as the younger ones such as Hal Foster and Mark Fisher, would note that it started in the 80s or the 90s. Lyotard noted that it has started in the 1950s when the projects of European restoration from the war was finished. 

This historical marker is very important politically. As it is when the majority of the world’s economic capital is beginning to acknowledge the necessity to abandon great modernist projects, such as nationalist dominations which have led to totalitarian tendencies back in the war, with Fascism and Nazism. To also prevent another imperialist war, the then-established World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund asked United Nations member-states to abide by a globalist opening of each members’ market for each of the other members, the later-signed General Agreement on Tariff and Trade. The Philippines, recognized as a sovereign state, finally, after 1946, also joined this project.

After restoring what each of the nation-states’ thinks to restore, is the seeming development of each of their own country’s economies. What is playing within the globalist trade agreements, is, of course, the unfair playing field of the liberal free market. The free market can only handle much, the Philippines, of course, can’t compete to the United States and all the other former colonial states’ (which is still under imperialist states’) trade without the help of international debt to support his own trade. And to support the payment of this growing debt, the then-president Ferdinand Marcos adapted the new economic policy of UK in the 70s which economists called neoliberalism

Neoliberalism works in three ways: through further liberalization of markets, privatization, and deregulation

When we say, “liberalization of markets” this is in its literal sense, an opening of the market, to what? To other foreign competitors. The justification for this is the classic supply-demand theory. Let’s see the recently approved law, the Rice Tariffication Law. This law gives more taxes to foreign rice which is going to be imported, at the expense of accepting more rice imports. The rationale of this comes in two: first, to make “rice prices competitive” (i.e., making local farmers sell their rice at a lower price), second, the taxes that will come from this will be used for the development of rice industry. The general tendency of protective tariffs is that, since most exporting countries export surplus, they can lower the cost of their own produce, pay the taxes, and still get the expected profit. They will sell low. While local farmers need to compete with these by selling lower than expected.

Next is privatization. It is the conversion of government-owned companies and industries into the hands of private companies. Late in his term, Ferdinand Marcos was supported by World Bank with a massive loan of $300 Million for privatization campaigns. These campaigns were later pursued and completed by the Corazon Aquino administration with the privatization of the following companies: 


The privatization projects were never completed until the mid-90s, under the Fidel Ramos administration, with the (re-)privatization of the most basic of our industries such as Oil (Petron), Water (MWSS/Manila Water/Maynilad) and Electricity (Napocor/Meralco).

Deregulation is letting go of government control over at the price of a certain controlled commodity. The rationale mostly on deregulations is, still, to make prices “competitive. 

These highly corporate-leaning realities beg for further explanation of its effects which Jameson has provided in his now-classic book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989). In his critique of postmodernism, he cites the following symptoms:

    • Weakening of historicity – in the postmodern age, we follow history but not in the sense of a grand narrative but rather in further questioning of truth, or rather it is always posited in the way that truth is elusive. We can site how our pop history brought us to this direction. See how, for example, the fascination over people’s psychological states, or the menu at the dinner (in the case of Ambeth Ocampo), or whether one is involved with a certain person romantically or not is our notion of Historical truth. (Lourd de Veyra’s history chismis). We never really care about the development of society as a whole: on how each change on the way we do things affected our lives in the present. We’re more concerned whether or not the Marcoses had Ninoy killed than, say, the actual violence not just of Marcos’ martial rule, but of his political and economic policies. The breaking of semiotic chain.
    • The breakdown of high and low culture – as we see the breakdown of grand narratives, and so is the breakdown of the formerly bourgeois high culture, and be diffused to what we formerly referred to as the low culture. But not for the benefit of a certain flattening, not to the convergence of bourgeois and working-class cultures. See how dance clubs, for example, formerly of lowly culture, is now affiliated with the ruling class with exclusive clubs. 
    • A new depthlessness – Jameson refers to this in a literal sense. See how postmodern architecture emphasizes on cleaner lines. These are not manifests of minimalism: none of the skyscrapers are actually minimal or minimalist. Back in the day, we are led to believe that we can move beyond ideology at this phase, now that we do not care about grand narratives. That we can explore “deeper truths”. But as manifested in our visual culture, we are left instead with what Jameson refers to as “multiple surfaces.” Really, there’s no deeper meaning on this architecture. Much as there’s no deeper meaning, say, in this illustration: (image of cyberpunk, of “aesthetics”)
    • Waning of the affect – the image-led us to what Jameson refers to as the waning of the affect. “general depthlessness and affectlessness of postmodern culture is countered by outrageous claims for extreme moments of intense emotion”. Most of the time, I encounter this symptom of students whenever I ask them about a certain profound art. They are trying to explain the art in the most abstract sense, but never really reach any sort of understanding. They mostly say that this conveys some emotions, but an emotion they cannot say. As categorical imperatives go, nothing which isn’t intelligible—be it physical or psychological – can exist. These are what Jameson called “intensities”, these aren’t emotions, but merely intensified affects emitted by the visual, but in a sense that it is emitted through a certain lack of affect. Perhaps, the waning of the affect is an intensification of lack. Jameson refers to this lack of emotion in the same manner that a certain kind of emotion is communicated by a Rimbaud still-life. 
    • A general tendency of the postmodern in visual culture can be found in pastiches. For Jameson, these breaking of semiotic chain, of class identities in culture, its surfaces, the waning of the affect, contributed to the “increasing unavailability of personal style.” Since our sense of history, of temporality, has weakened, what now happens is a certain repetition of styles from the past, being revived like zombies. Pastiches are the undead of culture: they are cultural products with appropriated styles from the past without their specific cultural or historical context.

It is in this general idea of the pastiche in the Postmodern that Mark Fisher reflected on the words of Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, and the primary driver of neoliberalism back in the 1970s, when she said that “there’s no real alternative in capitalism.”

See how everything seems to be having a kind of revival. No one among the following artists is original, and they actually are pastiches of old styles: Bruno Mars, The 1975 (note the name), Amy Winehouse, Adele, and most pop artists you can think about who came from the west. Not to mention, the capture of the cinematic industrial complex of the “cinematic universes” which finds its history on whether it can capture a comic book accurately. We’ve become captured nostalgia audience without memories. Of course, I guess, we are excited to see the next season of Stranger Things

Along with Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history has ended at the fall of Berlin Wall, Fisher saw the time from the 80s and later as the time when the future is slowly being canceled. In this canceled future, Capitalist Realism becomes the prime ideology. It is loosely defined as “the dominant conception that capitalism is the only viable economic system, and thus, there can be no imaginable alternative.” It is a kind of ideology that fits into the postmodern mold: it is a project-less ideology that seeks to reinforce and reconstruct itself.

Fisher refers to this quotation, both attributed to Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, to further enlighten what capitalism is: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Fisher, of course, refers to the dominance of dystopian tales post-911, from the revival of Zombie Apocalypse movies to I Am Legend, to Hunger Games. At times, promising rebellion, but never really to the full extent. 

It is not that postmodernism waived all our grand narratives, a lot are still intact, in fact. Like our conception of competition as “natural law” in the capitalist appropriation of Darwin’s natural selection. Hence, the further promotion of every state of neoliberalism and neoliberal policies despite it bringing us to different cycles of crises until we get a sense of normalized crises. Things can get worse, but at least we get by.

Art, of course, is in crisis. But it is still beautiful. Even if our sense of “aesthetics” has been reduced to one color palette set, we still do not panic. What the multinational and globalist market has given us is this desensitization to crises. Our emotions for panic also wane, as we are consistently in panic. This crisis affects our sense of time: see how fashion forecasts tell us that the next trend is going to be a comeback from the past. Why can’t we think of a future style? Why can’t we think of a future at all?


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