Postmodernism and the Trumps
We live in a postmodern world.
It’s such a weird word, “postmodern.” It’s a weird condition. Modernists of all political stripes, from George Bush to the Pope to the Marxist critic Frederick Jaemson all hate the concept of postmodernism (although Bush is certainly a postmodern president).
What does it mean to be after modern? Some people insist it indicates the condition of the world post WWII, the last time a master narrative and a true melodramatic paradigm, when the old rules of war and diplomacy held sway—that is until the war was over and the true horror of the holocaust and nuclear weapons were revealed. In other words, it’s anything late twentieth century.
Jean-François Lyotard suggested that postmodernism was the breaking down of all master narratives. The idea that there is one single truth which can be discovered or understood through faith is challenged by all the other ideas that exist in a contradictory world. Faith in particular took a double blow from the holocaust and the H-Bomb, as many people—particularly of the Jewish faith—lost their faith in God after six million human beings were summarily executed simply for the crime of having been born, and then we showed that we now had the power to destroy all life on earth ourselves, with no help from God. So, too, Manifest Destiny and its consequences came to be recognized. Marx, Darwin, Hegel, even Shakespeare and Da Vinci who heralded modernism at its beginnings, came under fire. Only Einstein is different for, although a modernist, his theories opened up the doors to post modern thought. He laid the groundwork for the Bomb.
Artistically, though, postmodernism is defined not only by a breaking down of master narratives but also for its use of pastiche. A central concept is the idea that there is not one truth but many truths. It naturally follows then that there are many different ways to say the same thing. A separate but equally important idea is that there is nothing truly original in the world. Language itself quotes what came before, and therefore everything is a quote, a reference to something else. Referential art, which clearly borrows tropes from other places—not only steals from other works but does so blatantly, proudly displaying the structure of theft, is clearly postmodern. So too is self referential art, that which calls attention to its artifice. This is why artistically many works going back to Shakespeare and beyond can be called postmodern, and later critics have created a non-temporal definition of postmodernism, one not confined within the master narrative of time. MTV and the music video are considered the ultimate expression of postmodernism artistically. One professor I knew said the triumph of postmodernism was the elevation of parody to high art.
The only two narratives to survive postmodernism are capitalism and force, but that is because they trump all other narratives. Ultimately, force is irresistible save with superior force. Talk all you want about pacifism, but Gandhi would have been shot in the head and thrown in a ditch if he had tried his tactics against the Germans instead of the English, who still believed in some form of God. Force is postmodern because it breaks down all master narratives. The ultimate expression of this is how the existence of the hydrogen bomb, for many people on this Earth, calls into question the existence of God.
As for capitalism, it is an even better expression of postmodernism then force. If nothing has an intrinsic value (a necessary condition of postmodernism) then things only have what value we place in them. I can value a particular thing—say a picture of myself that brings back fond memories (what used to be called “sentimental value”). Another person, cleaning out my closet after I’m dead, might see the picture and throw it away. That doesn’t mean it never had value, it just didn’t have value to the person going through my stuff. Both assessments of value are perfectly valid. The breaking down of master narratives inherent in postmodernism leads to a leveling of hierarchies. Nothing is inherently “better” then anything else. The only way people have come up with to assign value to anything has been through money. However, the implication here is that, socially at least, the only *real* value anything has is its commercial value. This is why Frederick Jameson called postmodernism “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” To Jameson, postmodernism was marked by hyperconsumption and commodification.
Marxists hate postmodernism because the leveling of all hierarchies must include the hierarchy of class. If class no longer matters then Marxists have nothing to say, and there is nothing that pisses a Marxist off more then not being able to complain. The breaking down of master narratives means that their own narrative, built on the struggle of the proletariat, gets thrown out with everything else.
So what has this to do with media studies? Well, obviously, the commodification of everything is expressed through our consumption of media. Everything has a monetary value which is set, at least partially, by how it is used or advertised in the media. In an era of hyperconsumption marketing becomes an imperative. The more channels we have on cable the more images we are able to consume and the more fragmented our media and out lives become. The internet intensifies this, creating a space where master narrative simply cannot exist. Napster was one of the recent highlights of postmodern thought, the idea that ideas simply cannot be owned.
Perhaps I should have said that capitalism Trumps all other narratives.
Donald Trump is one of the best examples of postmodernism in action. Not only has he created a brand around himself, turning himself into a valuable commodity, but look at the way he has commodified his wedding. He is marketing it and using it to market himself while at the same time allowing others to piggyback onto it by giving him free stuff in return for that all important publicity. The $100,000 dress is likely to be free. He is getting deep discounts on everything. Rest assured, he will find some way—either through a reality special or thorough a liscencing deal, to actually make a profit--*PROFIT*--on his wedding.
Now that’s the art of the deal.
Check out this article from business week to see what I mean: