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Jim Powell lives in Santa Barbara, California where he enjoys surfing, writing, playing piano, and painting. His other books include Mandalas: The Dynamics of Vedic Symbolism, Energy and Eros, The Tao of Symbolism, Eastern Philosophy For Beginners, Derrida For Beginners, and Postmodernism For Beginners. Jim has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Sanskrit and Indology. His thesis was on Vedic mythology. He also holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature and wrote a thesis on Mark Twain’s relationship with the Mississippi River.
Joe Lee is an illustrator, cartoonist, writer, and clown. With a degree from Indiana University centering on Medieval History, Joe is also a graduate of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College. He worked for some years as a circus clown. He is the illustrator of a baker’s dozen of For Beginners books including, Barack Obama, [Howard] Zinn, Shakespeare, Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Eastern Philosophy, and Global Warming among others. Joe lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his wife Mary Bess, son Brandon, cat George, and the terriers (or rather terrors) Max and Jack.
Post - modernese
[Q] But wait a minute! If Postmodern thinkers have some really new ideas mapping the contours of our times, why haven't I heard of these ideas before?
[A] A major reason is that Postmodernese is such a difficult language to understand—and most books on Postmodernism are written in this particularly obscure tongue.
For instance—let's suppose you live in the 1970s, and you want to say "The way white guys treat Third World women as sex objects is shallow and disgusting."
The first thing you have to do to translate it into Postmodenese is to make the sentence stop making sense. You do this by substituting mysterious Postmodern buzzwords or phrases for ordinary words that do make sense. For instance "white guys" can profitably be replaced by the phrase "phallocratic and panoptic (in the Foucaultian sense) Dead- White-Male subject-positions." This is because, in Postmodernese, guys no longer exist. They have become "subject-positions." The same goes for women. Therefore the phrase "Third World women" needs to be gussified up to "post-colonial female subject-positions." The phrase "the way" could properly be rendered as "the hegemonic (mis)representation and de/valorization of." As you can see, Postmodernese relies upon using as many slashes and hyphens and parentheses and whatever other kinds of marks your computer can make as possible. Thus the word "shallow" should correctly be rendered as "a textually (re)inscribed praxis of pre-disseminated, (counter) subversive 'depthlessness.'"
To be perfectly correct, your final translation should sound something like this: "The hegemonic (mis)representation and de/valorization of the always-already multi-(de)/gendered plurivocalities and (de)centered de/constructed and dialogically problematized ludic simulacra of absent/present postcolonial female subject-positions, by hyper-eroticized and orientalized phallocratic and panoptic (in the Foucaultian sense) Dead-White-Male subject-position discourse, is a textually (re)inscribed praxis of pre-disseminated, (counter)subversive depthlessness."
[A] And if anyone asks you what all that means, you just behold them with a gaze of infinite bewilderment. Then you look them in the eye, compassionately, and tell them that the plurivocal ambiguities of (non)meaning inherent in their question obviously subvert the possibility of your delivering to them the kind of cheap and low-down phallocratic, and logocentric patriarchal hog-wallow of an answer which they are capable of understanding.
[Q] Well I'm not so sure I understand what Postmodernism is. And is it POSTmodernISM, postMODERNism, PoStmOdErNism, post-modernism or Postmodernism?
[A] It has been written in all those ways. Postmodernism—as the "post" preface implies, is something that follows modernism. However, people who think about such things as Postmodernism don't agree whether Postmodernism is a break from modernism or a continuation of modernism—or both. In fact, they don't even agree as to what modernism is, much less Postmodernism.CHAPTER 2
What Is Modernism?
[Q] Well, what is modernism?
[A] Modernism is a blanket term for an explosion of new styles and trends in the arts in the first half of the 20th century. If the modern era had a central image—it was that of a kind of non-image—a Void—and if the era had a quotation that summed it all up, it was Irish poet William Butler Yeats's lines:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
[Q] But what things fell apart in the modern era? What center could not hold?
[A] What fell apart in the modern era were the values of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. Probably the main value of the age, besides reason, was the idea of progress.
In the 18th century thinkers became optimistic that by using the universal values of science, reason and logic, they could get rid of all the myths and holy ideas that kept humanity from progressing. They felt this would eventually free humanity from misery, religion, superstition, all irrational behavior, and unfounded belief. Humanity would thus progress to a state of freedom, happiness and progress.
Francis Bacon saw progress taking the form of a wise, ethical and science-minded elite who would be the guardians of knowledge and who, though living outside the community, would nevertheless influence it.
Marx also believed in progress, and envisioned a Utopia. But Marx's Utopian vision was of a perfect world brought about by a materialist science.
Other thinkers, however, were not so optimistic. Edmund Burke was disgusted with the excesses of the French Revolution. And the Marquis de sade, the great-granddaddy of S/M, explored the perversities of sexual freedom—painting a dark picture of human liberation. The sociologist Max Weber prophesied that the future would be an iron prison of reason and bureaucracy.
[Q] Well, maybe Yeats and all the skeptics were right. It looks as if things did fall apart. What did Science, Reason and Progress get us, after all? The 20th century has been nothing if not a dark, Kafkaesque nightmare of ration-ally administered death camps, death squads, Auschwitz, World Wars I and II, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, ecological disaster–and various systems of totalitarianism. And all in the name of the Enlightenment values of Science, Reason, Liberation, Freedom and Progress!
[A] But I haven't even told you about the biggest skeptic of all—the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had no tolerance for Enlightenment values. Reason? Universality? Morality? Progress? All these Enlightenment pretenses meant nothing to him. He saw the world as the dance of the destructively creative and creatively destructive god Dionysus—the dance of the Will to Power—and Dionysus was his model of how to act in the chaotic storm of life. Any man who acted in such a way would be a Superman.
And Nietzsche hit the nail right on the head.
After all, many 20th-century Supermen have proven that you have to destroy in order to create: Hitler, Mao, Stalin, etc. Nietzsche also proclaimed the "Death of God" as well as the death of Christian morality and metaphysics. With one wave of his philosophical wand, the central symbols, institutions and beliefs of Western culture, which had already suffered a tremendous blow by the Age of Reason, disappeared—POOF—like a magician's rabbit into the dark folds of a cloak.
What remained were only dark waves of Nothingness—a Void.
Nature, however, abhors a vacuum, and we Westerners, unlike Buddhists and Taoists, do not tolerate voids very well. We do not drill holes in the walls of our houses and hallow these hollows, worshipping them earnestly with the words "O my Holy Hole, save me!!!"
No. We live in a culture that esteems presence over absence, icon over non-existence, voluptuous virgin over vacant vacuum, wholes over holes! And yet, where we previously had a center—whether in Christian religion or in the ideals of science and progress—suddenly we had nothing.
Some modernists, such as Hemingway, created works of art that expressed a kind of passive recognition of this lack of a center. In his short story "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," one of his characters, a waiter, reworks the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary—substituting "nada" (or "nothing" in Spanish) at significant places:
"our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee ..."
If modern thinkers could no longer believe in a Christian God, Christian morality, or scientific progress—if there was no longer a center to Western culture—it was necessary to find a new one for, after all, we don't like voids. And it was Nietzsche—who had proclaimed the death of Enlightenment values, God and Christian morality—that showed the way. Although he had deprived Western culture of a center, he only did so by putting something else in its place—not only the idea of a Superman who is beyond good and evil but also art beyond good and evil. Thus, among all the fragmentation and chaos, amidst everything falling apart, modern artists began to look for some eternal value that was beyond all the chaos.
These artists adopted the heroic, almost Superhuman role of rediscovering the essence of humanity, of finding an eternal value beyond all the chaos, of filling in the post-Nietzschean Void in various ways. In a world without a center, aesthetics—art—became central. Art for art's sake! Modern painting was about painting—self-absorbed, self-possessed, exploring its own primary possibilities: all possible interactions between perception, memory, identity. Bohemian, avant-garde, experimenting with traditional genres and styles—modern artists, who brought modern art to its fullest blossoming sometime between 1910 and the 1930s, rallied around poet Ezra Pound's battle cry "Make it new," seeing themselves as creators of the new rather than as preservers of old cultural forms. Such art became a way to represent the eternal in the midst of chaos. Cubism drew inspiration from the simple geometries of African sculpture, dematerialized objects, breaking them down into their basic geometric forms. Cubist artists painted, as Picasso put it, "not what you see, but what you know is there."
Impressionists such as Manet and Monet broke up objects in a different way, painting with dabs of color rather than continuous brush strokes, so as to suggest the play of light over the surfaces of objects. Thus objects in the Impressionist world were not solid, but appeared to have decomposed into fragments of light.
In literature, looking for and inner truth beyond appearances, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats attempted to create a new center by drawing upon exotic myths made known to them through recent discoveries in anthropology and the translations of the texts of Eastern religions and tribal myths.
Yeats wrote down his vision of vast, historical cycles of time turning and turning in ever widening spirals. He saw that the center could not hold, so he populated it with heroes, damsels and fairies from Celtic myth and folklore. D.H. Lawrence, in his novels and short- stories filled the post-Nietzschean void with "primitive" gods, goddesses and energies: the Sexuality of the Virgin and Gypsy, the Sun, the Snake, the Dark-Skinned Native. These images drew upon the findings of Sigmund Freud, depicting a conscious mind haunted and split by primitive, dark, erotic, violent subconscious urges and drives. James Joyce's A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the story of a Sensitive youth seeking to escape the confines of his Catholic upbringing in Dublin, is based on the ancient Greek myth of the hero Daedelus attempting to escape the Labyrinth. Thus, it has a myth at its center.
One symbol that attempted to fill in the void that had been left by the "death of God" was the symbol of the machine. Poet Ezra Pound saw words as machines. The poet William Carlos Williams said that the whole poem is a machine made up of words. Modern architects thought of houses as machines for living in. In fact, all of society was becoming more machine like: bureaucratic, technical, rational. From this kind of machine-like efficiency arose war machines as powerful as they were efficient: In Italy, the war machine of the Superman Mussolini. In Germany, Superman Hitler's Nazi trains ran on time, delivering their human cargo to death camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. These camps themselves drew upon modernist planning and architectural principles. And the Nazi war machine had its own center—the myth of the Super Race—the superiority of blue-eyed, blond members of the Aryan race.
So one problem with modernism is that science and reason didn't just create progress— they created Auschwitz and Hiroshima. And there were other problems—artistic ones.
Modern art and literature became increasingly difficult to understand.
Modernism - became High modernism. High modernism peaked in 1922, with the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."
In both Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, Joyce experimented with a stream-of- consciousness style, plunging the reader within the fluid, shifting free-flow of his character' psyches.
Eliot's "Wasteland" experimented with a fragmented poetry full of literary, historical and mythological tidbits from around the world—depicting a soul and a society in fragmentation and despair, seeking reintegration, a new center. Both Joyce and Eliot rejected the straightforward, and rational flow of the story or theme. They also rejected traditional character development, favoring instead a fragmented style. But this dislike of conventional character development and the celebration instead, of private, subjective experience added to the tendency of modernism's artists, assembled in small groups in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, London, New York, Chicago, Copenhagen, Munich or Moscow, to view themselves as an exiled, alienated cultural elite.
In "The Metamorphosis" the writer Franz Kafka symbolized this alienation of the artist with the image of a huge human-sized bug trapped in an absurd human environment. Such artists created works so challenging and weird that they could only be appreciated by a narrow audience. This only further added to their elitist image.
Modern art, in fact, was so far-out that it divided culture into "Highbrow" and "Lowbrow." It excluded the middle class, who could not understand it, and gave rise to a kind of "priesthood" of scholars and critics. Their job was and is to explain modernism's mysteries. To read James Joyce's Ulysses, T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" or Ezra Pound's "Cantos" is an adventure. You need a guide, as though you were exploring the Amazon.CHAPTER 3
What Is Postmodernism?
[Q] Then how does Postmodernism differ from Modernism?
[A] There is little agreement on the subject, partly because "Postmodernism"— whatever it is—is an attempt to make sense of what is going on now—and we can see the present clearly only in retrospect.
One Postmodern theorist, Ihab Hassan, offers a table of differences between the two movements:
[Q] It all sounds pretty chaotic. It's no wonder that we need "map-makers," intellectuals to chart the depthless new world without a center. Who are some of these "map-makers"?
Important Postmodern Thinkers
[A] Jean-Francois Lyotard was born in France in 1924 and taught in Algeria, Brazil and California, before becoming professor of philosophy at the University of Paris in 1968. In 1985 he became director of the College International de Philosophie.
For some 15 years he was associated with a leftist group called Socialism or Barbarism, which, among other things, criticized Soviet-style communism. Although Lyotard became disillusioned with socialism and Marxism as early as 1964, the events of the student revolt in Paris, in May of 1968, confirmed his unrest.
In 1971 we find him beginning a long, post-Marxist period in which he is given to thinking about philosophy, language and the arts. His book Discourse, figure, argues with the concept put forth by Jacques Lacan that the unconscious mind is like a language. Instead, Lyotard suggests that the unconscious is not so much like a language as it is visual and figural, like the figures one draws or paints. Language, after all, is flat, two dimensional. It represses desire. Dreams, on the other hand, are visual, figural, alive with three-dimensional dream figures, and dripping with desire. Like much modern painting, dreams are fragmented. In their attempt to make unconscious material visual, dreams disrupt the kind of linear awareness that language requires. The visual, figure-making nature of the unconscious, though at work within language, disrupts language, disrupts the rational order of language. This is because the figural nature of the unconscious is difficult to represent in language.
The figural resists representation in the same sense that the Holocaust resists representation. At Auschwitz the Nazis would drown out the screams of the victims in the death camps by playing music loudly. Similarly, to attempt to represent Auschwitz in language—to reduce the degradation, death and stench to a concept—drowns out the screams. According to Lyotard, it is therefore necessary that the Holocaust remains immemorial—that it remains being that which cannot be remembered—but also that which cannot be forgotten. Thus, any art attempting to represent the Holocaust should continue to haunt us with its inability to represent the unrepresentable, to say the unsayable. It should continue to haunt us with the feeling that there is something Other than representation.
Excerpted from POSTMODERNISM FOR BEGINNERS by JIM POWELL, JOE LEE. Copyright © 1998 James N. Powell. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
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Posted December 16, 2000
Powell is smart. If you have read his Derrida for Beginners or Eastern Philosophy for Beginners you will know what I mean. To this title he brings the same gift of being able to sum up a very difficult subject clearly and humorously. He covers many of the Postmodern influences of culture from technology, the media, theory, architecture, etc. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2000
This book, in a humorous and interesting way, presents postmodernism (or POSTmodernISM)to the reader in a clear, concise, and entertaining fashion. The book is full of funny illustrations that make the reading go fast.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.