Ira Chernus  



Ira Chernus

Many interpreters of today’s U.S. culture contend that we are now in a new phase of history, which is often called postmodernism. One way to understand the basic features of postmodernism is to examine the problem of representation. The problem, in essence, is whether the symbols and images of human culture can faithfully represent reality as it really is. Social scientists like Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger make this a central issue in their work. In order to have a sense of meaning in our lives, they say, we must have symbolic images that we believe do represent external reality. Words are the most important kinds of images we have, but we also use pictures, gestures, sounds, and other sorts of images. These all "re-present" reality: they make some part our world present to us once again. They interpret that part of reality, give it a certain significance, and therefore show us how to relate to it. These images are the building blocks of all culture, including religion.


Before modern times people assumed that symbolic images could fully and faithfully represent reality because the images were an inherent part of the reality they represented. The king was inseparable from his crown; a grandmother was inseparable from the word grandmother. Furthermore, people assumed that an image could represent many, often imaginary, realities simultaneously. For example, gold, or just the word gold, could symbolize royalty, brilliance, generosity, and eternal life. A tree, or just a picture of a tree, could symbolize fertility, solidity, the cycle of life and death, and the connection between heaven and earth.

According to some historians, the modern era began back in the late Middle Ages, when some radical thinkers suggested that a word has no intrinsic or necessary relation to its referent (the reality that it represents). They said that words are arbitrary. We could call a desk a sked, or a bathtub, and it wouldn’t change the desk, or our experience of it, one bit. The next step into modernity came when capitalists, in order to prosper, needed more people to adopt a technological, analytical approach to reality. Capitalism rejected the traditional idea that an image could have many symbolic meanings. It spread the idea that every image (including every word) is only a sign. A sign is an arbitrary image that represents a single, isolated, objective, literal part of reality.

Once this view of representation took hold, the word gold denoted only a particular place on the table of natural elements and a fixed price per ounce on the London gold market. A tree now represented only a collection of molecules to be dissected and a fixed quantity of timber to be shipped to overseas markets. People were well aware of this momentous change. They were excited by how new everything was, what a clean break they had made with the past. Whatever might have been lost, the advances of science and technology seemed to make it worthwhile.


Eventually, though, the same scientific mindset taught people to see the sign-image itself as an isolated literal object. Once the sign was separated from its referent and taken as a literal reality, it could become a meaningful thing in and of itself, having no connection with any other reality. For example, many linguists began to view language simply as a collection of random and arbitrary sounds. A language could be understood like a self-contained mathematical system. Its relation to external reality was irrelevant. Many creative artists began to experience the world in a similar way, and they found it very liberating. If signs were separated from their referents in reality, and related only to each other, people were much more free to combine signs in new ways. The result was a cultural style called modernism. Cultural creations (poems, paintings, etc.) became collections of signs. But the signs no longer had a one-to-one correspondence with reality. They were independent creations, so they were free to make independent comments about reality. These comments were supposed to help people see and experience reality in new ways.

For example, a modernist painting is an arrangement of brush strokes on a canvas. We may have no clear idea what it is a painting "of." The painting does not represent anything in reality. But it claims to say something about reality. So we wonder about its meaning. There is a tension between image and reality that opens up a new space for us to think and feel in. Ideally, this gives us some new perspective on reality, which becomes the meaning of the painting and its brush strokes. The comments the signs make and the new experiences they evoke become their meaning.

(A note on some confusing terminology used by Gitlin: The cultural style of the early modern era, which I call modernity here, is sometimes called premodernism because it does not raise the questions or problems that modernism does. Premodernism [ = modernity] assumes that our images can have a direct one-to-one correspondence with the reality they represent. Premodernism therefore accepts the literal viewpoint of modern capitalist culture, which modernism seriously questions.)

But the new freedom of modernism also raised a new problem. If culture meant manipulating signs, and if the signs had no necessary relationship to reality, how could we be sure that we had any contact with reality at all? If words had no necessary link to things they signified, how could we know whether our language could say anything true about reality? How could we know if external reality was ever getting through to our real or true selves? By the early 20th century, this problem had became the focus of modernist culture. 20th century modernist painters, for example, commented primarily on this problem. Their paintings were now "about" the confused relationship (or lack of relationship) between what we experience, what is really there, and who we really are. Philosophers explored the same problem. They asked whether we could still have "authentic" experience; i.e., whether we could make contact with the real reality of world and self. Eventually this raised another problem: How can we know what our "true" self really is, or whether we even have a "true" self?

People who were troubled by the problems of modernism began to wonder whether the changes of modernity were in fact worthwhile. They wondered whether earlier eras, with their rich symbolic images, had offered a more direct contact with reality. 20th century modernist culture was based on the tensions between sign and referent, appearance and reality. Beneath or beyond the sign that appeared in the present moment there was something else: the problem of how to get in touch with the referent, the true reality. People could still have deep experiences, though, because they felt and thought about these tensions between the surface and what was beneath it. The tensions gave the culture a sense of depth.


Postmodernism gets its name because it is the phase of culture that has followed, and perhaps replaced, modernism. In postmodernism the process has gone one step further. The problems that plagued modernism have disappeared, and so has the sense of depth. Now everyone simply assumes that signs are detached from any referent in reality. No one expects signs to comment on reality. And no one is troubled by this any more. The sign poses no questions about its relationship to reality. So it has no kind of meaning at all. The sign is now a word or other image that represents nothing beyond its own existence. It is what Jean Baudrillard calls a "simulacrum"--an image that has no original referent at all, because it has been artificially produced (usually mass-produced) solely for the purpose of being a cultural sign. These interchangeable reproductions do not point beyond themselves to any original reality, so they can have no message beyond their own existence. Their meaning is totally arbitrary. They do not raise the problem of how to contact some other, more true, reality.

The most obvious examples are the endless string of logos invented in advertising firms. The logo is made up mainly on the basis of its visual and psychological appeal. Its supposed meaning is made up afterwards. It has no inherent relationship to the history or substance of the institution it represents. It is meant to be a public relations gimmick and nothing else. Yet we accept logos as if they were fully meaningful realities. Ad agencies make TV commercials using the same principles. They overwhelm us with dazzling visual images that have little or nothing to do with the product being sold. Often we don't know what the product is until the very end of the commercial. The commercial creates its own reality. Anyone who asks how it relates to "real reality" simply misses the point (and show that he or she is an old-fashioned modern person). We are not supposed to care if there is anything "behind" these advertising images. The tension between image and reality that gave modern culture its depth has now disappeared. Postmodern culture is one-dimensional, superficial. It doesn't represent or comment on anything beyond itself. What you see is what you get; there is nothing more.



APOCALYPSE: a disintegration of the world, usually accompanied by a hope of creating a new, better world

BRICOLAGE: putting together random pieces in a random manner

COMMODIFICATION: turning everything into a commodity judged by its price

EXCHANGE VALUE: a thing's price, the amount it can be exchanged for

LATE CAPITALISM: capitalism as practiced by large multinational corporations; the kind of capitalism that has dominated the world since the '60s

MODERNISM: the art style that dominated between World War I and the '60s; art that challenges the modern nomos from within the modern nomos

PASTICHE: a random collection of items put together in a random way; the result of bricolage

PREMODERNIST: the art style that preceded modernism; premodernism was part of modernity but accepted the basic values of the modern nomos

SELF-REFERENTIAL: referring only to itself, not to anything beyond itself

SIMULACRUM: an image created solely for the purpose of being mass-produced as a cultural sign; it is not a copy of any reality that existed before the simulacrum was created; the simulacrum is the original reality

TRANSCODING: interpreting the signs or images of one code in terms of another code

USE VALUE: what a thing is really worth in practical terms, based on what it is useful for (as opposed to its exchange value)

ZEITGEIST: the "spirit of the times," the prevailing cultural mood