What are the strengths and limitations of the conception of postmodern society?
Victoria Basye 08/02/04
What are the strengths and limitations of the conception of postmodern society?
I am going to look at what postmodern society is, how it refers to the world we live in and who we are. In looking into its strengths and limitations I will adapt my thoughts to the thoughts and findings of other sociologists.
When trying to define exactly what postmoderism is I have to start by considering the events and thoughts that have led to this particular school of social theory. In sociology, postmodern society rejects the theories of the past, and represents a break from the “modern” way of thinking. For example, Marx envisaged society evolving through social change into the “perfect” communist society, where there would be no issues of class or general inequality. Postmodernists would refer to his theory, and those of other sociologists, as a metanarrative. Metanarratives are stories told to explain the belief systems that exist within a society.
When some sociologists think of the postmodern society, as I do, they are likely to think of a shopping centre. It is quite possible to argue that “shopping centres are the cathedrals of postmodern society.” Times have changed since Marx argued that who you are is what you do and Durkheim stated that who you are depends on your religion. These days, who you are seems to be what you buy. People all over the world now go to shopping centres to make their lives simpler and more fulfilled. They go to these centres to buy items that increase their status in society or to increase their leisure and ease of living. Also in the postmodern society, people tend to want to be different and look different. So, where else would you go but to a shopping centre where you will find a greater number of choices of whatever product you desire. This is where people go to shop for their "identity makeovers". One of the major characteristics of today’s society is that the postmodern self needs to be transportable. People represent themselves by things that they can carry with them all the time. For example, clothing is a major way of representing yourself in postmodern society. One can express his or her views and beliefs just by dressing in a certain style of clothing. And of course, a shopping centre is the place to go to get these transportable, representational items.
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Jean Baudrillard presents a negative view towards postmodern society. He also represents an extreme view of postmodern society where our postmodern world is no longer real, but only a simulation of the real. He says that the signs that used to represent things are drained of their meaning, becoming a hyper- reality. Our mass society is dominated by the supremacy of signs over things, which develops simulation. Our society is viewed as one that has lost touch with reality and is subject to mediatisation. Mediatisation is a process where symbols become increasingly mediated by apparatuses of the media industry. This mediatisation leads to lack of real interaction between people. Representations become more important than the real thing.
For many post-modernists, Marx’s theories had failed due to the fact that socialism and communism (or at least communism as Marx saw it) had failed to overthrow capitalism. Baudrillard, on the other hand, accuses Marx of accepting, and reinforcing, the bourgeoisie’s own ideology, particularly with regard to the ideal of work as a “fulfilment of human essence”. And so we have two major theorists in the field of post-modernism, one claiming that this new diversity is a positive aspect, the other claiming that it leaves society in an inescapable trap. The main themes that they both agree on, even if they are for different reasons, is that the old metanarratives can no longer be used to analyse society, and that there is a great deal of diversity that exists in the post-modern era.
David Harvey, a Marxist whom many consider to be writing in the postmodern tradition, argues that post-modernism is just another form of capitalism. David Harvey (1990) accepts that important changes have occurred but still claims that capitalism is at the heart of contemporary western societies. Despite having entered a postmodern society, he believed that there are three main characteristics that remain. The first is that capitalism is based upon economic growth. If there is no growth, capitalism is in crisis. The second is that capitalism is based upon the premise that workers are paid less than the value of the goods they produce thus making a class struggle between owners and workers inevitable, and the final is that capitalism is constantly changing in order for manufacturers or producers of goods to stay ahead of their competition. As capitalism is constantly changing there will be periods of crisis leading to economic changes, which will have not only economic consequences, but also to important effects on society and culture. Harvey sees postmodern society therefore merely responding to such a crisis. As economic crisis hit capitalism in the seventies, with the rise in the price of oil and increased unemployment, capitalism entered a period of adaptation. As a result many cultural changes which were referred to as ‘post-modern’. Capitalism, Harvey argues, still exists; it is merely adapting in order to survive. It has had to move into new areas. In other words Harvey sees post-modernism as a new phase of capitalism, and this phase will give way to another form. He suggests that there have always been different strands of capitalism that have adapted throughout history. He said: “there is never one fixed configuration, but a swaying back and forth between centralization and decentralization, between authority and deconstruction, between hierarchy and anarchy, between permanence and flexibility.”
Kellner (1990) argues that: “There is nothing like a unified ‘postmodern social theory’…there is a plurality of different postmodern theories and positions” Lyotard, another sociologist (1984) sees society embracing the differences within it and uses culture as an example to illustrate his point: “one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro clothes in Hong Kong” Sociology has considered in the past that there is a certain commonality to the way societies function.
Ritzer (1992) shows strength in postmodern society and describes it as “a celebration of a range of different theoretical perspectives” He goes on to state that postmodernism has a tendency to break down the boundaries between disciplines and sub disciplines creating a new approach encompassing ideas from a whole range of areas.
Whilst Lyotard, a sociologist mentioned briefly above, embraces this diversity seeing it as giving individuals more choice and ultimately more freedom, other writers, such as Baudrillard, paint a much more depressing picture of the “post-modern” society. He considers society to have entered a new era and relates this change to language and knowledge, but sees the results of this change as an inescapable trap. For Baudrillard society is no longer based upon the production of material goods, but upon the selling of signs and images. He also suggests that these signs and images have little or no relationship to reality. An example of this could be seen in popular music. If one considers many of the modern day groups the main focus is on selling an image. Whether or not an artist can sing, perform, or write their own songs is immaterial. What is important is the marketing.
Lyotard insists that we reject all metanarratives. There is no truth, and therefore surely we must reject the idea of post-modernism, which after all is yet another metanarrative. By its very nature it defies definition. Maybe Lyotard’s own, if simplistic, definition is the one we are forced to accept. In my own view Lyotard’s view is as idealistic as that of Marx’s communism. Despite the fact that society is becoming more diverse and we are becoming more tolerant of different groups of society, for example homosexuality, I doubt that we can truly say we have reached the post-modern era. As was shown by many anti- gay demonstrations occurring all the time for example. As accepting as we would like to think society is of different points of view, there are still many groups who remain resistant to such groups. Unlike Lyotard, Baudrillard sees society as leading meaningless lives in this new postmodern society. Like Lyotard he sees society as being made up of diversity, with boundaries falling in all kinds of areas but this is portrayed as a negative aspect.
In reality I feel that society most resembles Harvey’s views. The workforce, with the demise of trade unions, seem to have lost any power that they once hold, and the owners are able to carry out their exploitation with the minimum of opposition. Capitalism has had to change and one only has to consider the world of the Internet to realise what important part capitalism plays in our own leisure time. Already the capitalists are taking over the “virtual” world. Consumers are able to order virtually anything over the Internet. Capitalism is evolving again replacing the workforce with a new cheaper slave, the computer. Post-modern society will continue to redefine itself as time continues. Yesterday’s post-modernity becomes today’s modernity and as a result we can never truly say we are in a post-modern age and therefore never truly define it. The advantage that this perspective holds for sociologists is to admit that when analysing society it is impossible to apply one all encompassing theory. A range of theories must be considered and all viewpoints listened to.
Harvey, D. (1990) “The Condition Of Postmodernity”
Oxford:Blackwell Kellner, D. (1990) “Postmodern Society: Jameson: Critique” “Sociological Theory” (third edition): The Postmodern Condition: Ritzer, G. (1992)
Understanding of Postmodernism http://aril.org/adams.htm#TEXT20 Cuff, E.C., Routledge & Mizrach, S: An analysis of the postmodern movement