Postmodernism

From Key Concepts in Drama and Performance, Kenneth Pickering, Palgrave, 2005

Postmodernism, pp.236-239

[Nietzsche] is sometimes credited with being the forerunner of that set of ideas we now know in the West as ‘Postmodernism’. With his famous assertion in Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘this old God liveth no more. He is dead indeed’ (p. 231), and his belief that ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’, Nietzsche had articulated the sense of uncertainty that we can trace in the drama, music, poetry and art of the twentieth century. The concept of modernity or modernism was really created by the attitudes of the Renaissance, and brought to its summit in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. It was based on the belief that humankind could provide a rational, scientific explanation for everything within a Divinely ordained Universe, and that this certainty could be expressed in reliable language. Faith and science were an issue of some divergence and there were various beliefs about the relationship between the two, ranging from the hostile to the complimentary. Nevertheless, a sense of order, confidence and certainty was reflected in drama and literature. With Postmodernism, however, no such certainty exists, and this set of ideas, which we now largely associate with the twentieth-century French [p.237] philosophers Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, has been particularly prominent since the 1980s and has had profound implications for the study of drama, and for philosophy, aesthetics, religion, history and various forms of literary criticism.

We can already see the seeds of doubt and loss of faith, together with the increasing secularisation of modernity, in the almost prophetic work of the nineteenth-century English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, and it is significant that the vision in his poem Dover Beach (1867) of the ‘Sea of Faith’ became the title of a television series in the 1980s dealing with the collapse of conventional Christian belief:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy; long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

wrote Arnold. Similar images of a bleak and desolate landscape and a sense of disintegration have reappeared in the music of Elgar, the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the drama of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter in a century that witnessed humankind constantly invoking science and technology to descend into a new kind of barbarism.

The first characteristic of Postmodernism then, is a sense of loss of meaning. For the postmodernist there is verifiable certainty other than immediate sensory experience and there is no ‘grand narrative’, or what Lyotard terms Meta-Narrative, that explains existence or gives it a purpose. [TM note: Classical Marxism has been said to be a grand narrative – it could be used to explain why everything is the way it is/was/will be.] In short, there is nothing outside of human life to provide a scale of values, sense of destiny, or set of rules for living. Baudrillard reckons that postmodernity is largely a product of the age of mass media and that we live in a world of images… These images have, of course, been created by ourselves, so in no way do they provide an external explanation of anything from which we can derive an external sense of over-riding ‘meaning’. Even science, Baudrillard maintains, is ‘just the name we attach to certain modes of explanation’ (Sarup, 1993).

Given that there is no external set of values to which we can relate, it follows that, for Postmodernism, there is no hierarchy of human activity, and an absence of any form of discrimination between what is profound or trivial, of high artistic value or of merely populist appeal […p.238…] Cultural activity is placed by the postmodernist critic on a continuum rather than in a hierarchy. There is no ‘great’ work of art as opposed to popular art…

…[A]nother of the key issues in the concept of ‘postmodernism’…is the indeterminacy of language and the unreliability of the text or of anything that is meant to communicate meaning. This relates to the wider epistemological concern of Postmodernism: the perception about what we can know and how we can know it. Traditionally, for instance, it has always been assumed that a text could be analysed in such a way as to reveal the meanings or insights that it was intending to convey; such a belief lies at the root of much traditional study of drama and literature. However, Derrida has attacked such assumptions, arguing that ‘there is nothing beyond the text’, and alongside other structuralist and poststructuralist critics has emphasised an approach that insists that any’reader’s’ interaction with the text is a form of discourse from which the original author is absent. This is particularly troubling for the notion of written history because the postmodernist would consider that while the events described may have generated the written text, at best that text tells the reader something about the political and cultural views of the author, and more significantly, the interpretation of the text reveals a great deal about the political and cultural influences of the reader. Postmodern approaches to the text also include and awareness of the way that any one text may relate to other texts. This intertextuality is in fact, quite common; there are, for example, many texts that relate thematically, structurally or in direct quotation to the Bible.

How, then, can we determine the ‘truth’? Is seems to be possible that language refers to nothing outside itself, and we can see the significance of Roland Barthes’s concept of the ‘Death of the Author’.

A further important and essential element of postmodernism is the deeply suspicious and antagonistic attitude towards institutions and aspects of the Establishment. These are seen as instruments of control: Foucault and Derrida, in particular, view the world as a place in which humans are largely engaged in the business of attempting to exercise power over each other. In the view of many recent thinkers this would [p.239] include the institution of the mainstream, commercial theatre. The playwright Howard Barker (1989) reckoned that ‘the authoritarian art form is the Musica’. You may care to debate this. Even language is viewed as a means of control and manipulation because it so often claims to contain the truth, when, in fact, it is concerned with the domination and power over those who are asked to believe. Whether it be the various forms of media or the teachings of a particular religious Faith, those claiming to know the truth dominate those who listen, read and believe. The constant attempts of one section of society or of one individual to achieve dominance over another is part of the vision of an essentially violent world portrayed by the postmodernists, a world concerned with oppression and the preservation of the self.

The idea that power and knowledge directly imply one another (Foucault) raises once again the question of how we can know, and what is the purpose of knowing. Derrida uses the term logos as a key concept in his thinking. We traditionally associate the logos with the opening of St John’s Gospel, where it is translated as ‘The Word’. More recent translations of the Bible use the expression such as ‘The Idea’. For postmodernists, the term implies the founding principle in any discourse, which is beyond interrogation and from which all claims and formulations in that discourse derive their status as truth.