Postmodernism

A brief economic, historical and societal backdrop to Postmodernism.

In 1959, Richard Hoggart (Uses of Literacy) noted the shift in modern societies particularly the impact on our ‘neighborhood lives’, which was ‘an extremely local life, in which everything is remarkably near‘ (1959:46). As John Urry comments, this was ‘life centred upon groups of known streets’ where there was ‘relatively little separation of production and consumption‘ (2014:76). Urry goes on to note that ‘because the global population grew during the twentieth century from 2 to 6 billion. Cities, towns, villages and houses all became high-consuming energy centres’ (97). Thus, a characteristic of modern (postmodern?) societies, is the creation, development and concentration of centres of high consumption, with a displacement of both consumption and production that has radically altered the nature of societies and individuals living in them.

This approach in terms of postmodernism is associated with Fredric Jameson‘s 1984 essay, and subsequently 1991 book; Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism which located postmodern culture (for example, music videos) in the expression of a new phase of capitalism, one which was aggressively consumerist, rampantly commodifying all of society as potential new markets. For many this is reflective of the new global economy (globalisation), which has created a high polarized class division between the rich / the really super rich and the poor / underclass (ie the really, really poor) made possible through the rapid increase of new forms of technological developments. For instance, it may be possible to identify the extent to which our economic experience is now characterised by what we buy (consumption) than what we make (production). Think for example, about the the extent to which the UK and much of Western Europe has shifted from manufacturing economies to consuming economies – ie we are structured around consuming things more than making things.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

The shifts in modern society from an economic perspective – ie the ‘financialisation’ of the modern world are explored in John Urry’s book, Offshoring (2014).

In other words, there is an argument that postmodern culture is a consumer culture, where the emphasis on style eclipses the emphasis on utility or need. So that ultimately there is no real value to postmodern culture other than the need for consumption. If this is the case, then it is possible to link postmodernist cultural expression with broader shifts in society, specifically around economics and politics.

Think, for example, about new communications technologies, such as mobile telephony, which has created new (digital) worlds connected across time and space in ways which were completely unimaginable to previous generations. Often these are acts of individualised and personal consumption, where we are more likely to consume what we want, when we want, where we want and how we want.

consumption by its very nature bolsters a self-centred individualism which is basis for stable and secure identities

Strinati (238)

Fragmentary consumption = Fragementary identities.

This process of fragmented consumption separating, splitting up and dividing previously homogeneous groups such as, friends, the family, the neighborhood, the local community, the town, the county, the country and importantly, is often linked to the process of fragmented identity construction. Again think about mobile telephony which is now able to construct multiple possibilities identities, at multiple moments in time and space. Think about the way we construct, our (multiple) digital identities, visable and varying across different digital platforms – work identity, social identity, family identity etc, which is most often not consistent with our analogue (human?) identity – look for example, at your profile pictures?

As an example, mobile telephony (both hardware and software) now appears to proliferate and connect every aspect of our lives, and generally does so from the perspective of consumption – consuming images, sounds, stories, messages etc – rather than production. We don’t make mobile phones, mobile networks (hardware) or Apps, content and platforms (software).

Putting it very simply, the transition from substance to style is linked to a transition from production to consumption.

Strinati (235)

So in summary, the focus on FRAGMENTATION OF IDENTITY is characterised and linked to an increase of consumption and the proliferation of new forms of digital technologies. In effect, another key characteristic of postmodernism is the development of fragmented, alienated individuals living (precariously) in fragmented societies.

So is there a way in which can understand and contextualise these shifts? One approach would be to look at the key conceptual ideas and thinkers that articulate arguments and key approaches to this topic.

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