A Guide To The Postmodernism Theory in Sociology

What is Postmodernism Theory?

Postmodernism (theory) is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.

Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.

For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), a contributor to postmodernism theory, the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented as an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is hyper-reality – the mixing of the two.

The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The big growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the further fluid change of individuals across the planet, and therefore the progress of multicultural societies – all of those mean that we do not sleep in a contemporary world but during a postmodern world. However, on this view, there’s no such reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.

The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analyzed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation-states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centered, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such sociology would look like.

Fredric Jameson Postmodernism

FREDRIC JAMESON, in his imperious work, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic lately Capitalism (1991), has given us a very prominent analysis of our current postmodern situation. Like Jean Baudrillard, whose concept of the simulacrum he adopts, Jameson is very critical of our current historical situation; indeed, he paints a rather dystopic picture of this, which he associates, especially, with a loss of our connection to history. What we are left with is a fascination with the present.

Consistent with Jameson, postmodernity has modified the historical past into a series of emptied-out stylizations (what Jameson terms pastiche) which will then be commodified and consumed. The result is the threatened victory of capitalist thinking over all other forms of thought.

Following from this economic base for thinking about postmodernity, Jameson proceeds to pinpoint a number of symptoms that he associates with the postmodern condition:

1.) The weakening of historicity.

2.) breakdown of the distinction between “high” and “low” culture.  

High culture in postmodernism theory refers to a group of cultural products that are held in really high esteem by society. In the past, high culture may have existed for the pleasure of the elite or the aristocrats. Usually, they are in form of arts. From serious music to operas, from marble statues to illustrations in chapels, these are all rated high culture because they’re related to intelligence, finery, class.

Meanwhile, low culture refers to works of art that are more related to the masses (non-elites). it’s going to be more widely referred to as popular culture, and it’s probably the entire antithesis of high culture. Example: afternoon gossip programs.

3) “a new deathlessness, which gets its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and during a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum (imagination)”. This deathlessness is, of course, supported by a point. The deathlessness manifests itself through literal flatness (two-dimensional screens, flat skyscrapers full of reflecting windows) and qualitative superficiality. In theory, it manifests itself through the postmodern rejection of the belief that one can ever fully move beyond the surface appearances of ideology or “false consciousness” to some deeper truth; we are left instead with “multiple surfaces”. One result is “that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism”.

4) “the waning of affect”  and “a whole new type of emotional ground tone—what I will call ‘intensities’—which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime”. The general deathlessness and affectlessness of postmodern culture are countered by outrageous claims for extreme moments of intense emotion, which Jameson aligns with schizophrenia and the culture of (drug) addiction. With the loss of historicity, the present is experienced by the schizophrenic subject “with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of effect”,  which can be “described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality) a whole new technology (computers, digital culture, etc.), though Jameson insists on seeing such technology as “itself a figure for a whole new economic world system”. Such technologies are more concerned with reproduction rather than with the industrial production of material goods.

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