3:1 — Postmodernity — 2 of 3

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Growing up with Baudrillard, Lyotard and Luhmann as well as with Bobby Brown, White Noise and Twin Peaks it always seemed to me that the tenets of postmodern thinking are so deeply engraved into my perception that I can hardly distance myself from that. This is still evident whenever I see someone raising a point that just has the smell of modernism: “trust in the independence of science!”, “We can manage our natural resources in a rational way!” or “This is why Ukraine wants to turn towards the West!” As a well trained postmodern I cannot help myself, I have to utter at least a statement of doubt, if not disbelieve. I also never felt the need hide this well habituated scruples when it comes to modernism, as for me, feeling well aligned to a tradition from Weber and Simmel to Adorno and Luhmann the task of sociology has never been simply to understand modernity but to work on the intellectual tools to deal with the both the pleasures and the discomfort it creates.

On the other hand: raised in sociology just before the turn of the chiliad I also never experienced the playfulness that made postmodern thought so appealing to some that were trained just a decade or two earlier. It must have been liberating for someone raised to be a modern, serious sociologist in a time when quite obviously the principles of modernism were crumbling. But I never really felt the pleasure of pastiche, bricolage and of following the interwoven threads of intertextuality – for me what was most evident about the postmodern condition was the inevitable horror and the unshrinkable terror that Jean Baudrillard´s hyperrealism and David Lynch´s Blue Velvet captured so well. There it was again, the discomfort that I assumed early sociologists tried to deal with at the turn to modernity. Modernity was gone, the terror remained. For me postmodern sociology, like its modernist sibling, was damn serious.

Only that of course it was not. Diving into Cultural Studies and Semiotics, into Intertextualities and interwoven layers of denotation and connotations when I turned towards media studies I could not help it: All that emphasis on empowered readers and on the politics of pleasure that consumption offered seemed to me seemed to just cover the entrance to the limbo of our contemporary condition. The doubt about ways of the moderns — isn´t it also justified in the case of the postmoderns? If we have never been modern, have we ever been postmodern? My best guess is that we have not. We do not need to be. We need to take the achievements of both the moderns and the postmoderns serious: science, technology, politics as well as hyperrealism, simulacra and irony — without trying to be either modern or postmodern. And we are still in need on the intellectual tools to deal with both the pleasures and the discomforts that both modernism and postmodernism provided us with.

*image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/julie_coulter/5070699614 (CC)

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About Jan

Jan studied Sociology, Political Sciences and Computer Science. As a Research Group Leader at the MCTS in Munich he connects Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies by working on problems of social structure and infrastructures, human and non-human agency and discourse and material culture.

12 thoughts on “3:1 — Postmodernity — 2 of 3

  1. I also love that form follows function — Bobby Brown and Lyotard appear in the same line without (much) hierarchy separating them! I agree with the form following function on this matter as well because I remember seeing POMO as a way to loosen what counted as “scholarship worthy” topics and materials. I cannot, for example, imagine a serious cultural study of romance novels from a feminist perspective before the postmodern turn. Same with comic books, etc.

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  2. My other major thought about this is precisely what WHNBM (from Latour) provided us or perhaps reflects: sustained theoretical discussion as a kind of valued scholarship in the face of tradition after tradition of hard empiricism of the quantitative flavor reigning supreme. It opened the door for the discussion of all manner of non-quantifiable phenomenon. I am thinking of Ashmore’s “Reflexivity Thesis” and the like — even though, I will concede, lots of really, really lame work came from reflexivity going too far (I’m thinking of some of Woolgar’s cheeky work where he shows a picture of himself writing the book chapter you are reading). Still, after the dust settles, of course, we had to put up with some weird reflexivity readings from the education school of thought and some odd stuff from qualitative researchers, but in the end, a few kernels emerged of some considerable utility (I’m thinking of Lynch’s 2000 paper and Latour’s 1988 book chapter on infra-reflexivity).

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  3. ah the play/pleasure wasn’t separate from the pain/horror/uncanny-alienatioon, see Kristeva and Co on jouissance, the carnivalesque, or any of the footage of New York City in the 70’s.
    But in terms of getting on with the work I think attending what and who is at hand (getting back to the field/rough-ground if you will) and into the scenes (at the tables) and into the mix where events unfold is the crucial post- po-mo move.
    An anthropology of the contemporary to borrow a term, pace Heidegger and all.
    http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/rorty/rorty_CIS_full.pdf

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    • Yeah, that is exactly what I was aiming for: that the pleasure and the horror are deeply interlinked, even two sides of a coin, was of course what made us Postmoderns tick. But as Nicholas mentioned: when that was turned into a research program it took a life of its own. Blended with UK post-marxism it became a way to understand the pleasures of working class teens watching Coronation Street into political acts of subvert hegemonic meaning systems. Blended into a style it became a way to celebrate the play to gloss over the horror.

      An anthropology/sociology of the contemporary (or: of the Moderns and of the Postmoderns instead of a modern or a postmodern one) is exactly what is needed – because the chaos and the rational, the horror and the play are all still there, practically.

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      • so the gestalt-switch that I make here following my forays into Wittgenstein is to emphasize “showing” over “saying”, by doing detailed/thick case-studies (which foreground differences/particularities/settings/etc) we can provide examples (or as I call them proto-types) of off the page effects that avoid the generalizations/misplaced-concreteness/pseudo-science of abstractions like say Derrida writing on The Gift or early Foucault on Power. make some sense?

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      • Indeed, makes a lot of sense. Although I am not in principle against “big picture” questions (like “the gift”, “power”, “the (Post)Moderns”) — but thick cases and particular details need to both focus on specifics AND on how such specifics perform the effect of such big pictures …

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      • well the “big” picture question for me is more along the lines of when I’m trying to understand some particular/local phenomena how wide a frame/net do I need to cast to catch what is vital in what I’m trying to do.
        I don’t have much sympathy for more in the way of neo-platonisms, except to the degree that in comparison/assemblage they may offer another aspect/gestalt than had been previously available.

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        • I would tackle it at the first step, and ask “why do we want to know how wide a net we need to frame an issue effectively or practically?” — put another way, why “wide” rather than “how narrow?” I realize that part of it is in response to vast over-generalization in the social sciences and whatever “laws of economics” or “principles of civilization” developed yesteryear as part of the modernity project. Perhaps part of the “big” picture question for you, dmf, must be selecting between the relatively influence of seemingly relevant influences in any given situation with the knowledge that “it starts new every time” (your “dmf prototypes to the bottom, below even the tortoises” theory of everyday practice) and that this is a response to the repeated failed attempts to find statistically relevant influences on the average person at a previous time period whenever said data were collected for analysis. Put another way, per the Latour piece on digitization we discussed earlier this week, it is hard to use sociological research — esp. of the quantitative, but also the qualitative too — to guide decision-making in the moment when we wish they would work. It is that recognition and sensitization to how social science might not be immediately or directly useful other than hinting at relatively present or absent factors that might shape our understanding of behavior or solutions to the problems facing another person whom we just want to help.

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      • that’s well said and all helpful, I tend to think in terms of subjects and/in environs and for research we usually try and narrow things down (process often literally of elimination, cleansing) to the active agents (the signals from the noise) but than we know that we are always-already in the midst of the greater blooming-buzzing-confusion so how to know how much and of what sort of factors/agents/etc to include or exclude?
        so my own tendency is to (in googlish-map-terms) to start at street level (where we are at) and than zoom out as needed (as needed by the demands of trying to re-solve whatever is at hand). Another way to think of this as adding more and more factors/agents to the mix (not unlike say modeling molecules), fleshing out the picture, but for me I like to see the brush-strokes (tools marks, rough-edges, etc) thanks for all this, not sure we are getting the kinds of interactions/attendance you folks were aiming at but it’s been enriching for me.
        http://syntheticzero.net/?s=romare

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  4. Pingback: How French Postmodernism “Ruined the West” | Installing (Social) Order

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