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What on earth does ‘postmodern’ mean? A very good question and one that is not easily answered, because the word, many believe, is as meaningless as it is ubiquitous. It is a word that has been applied to everything from making love (over the Internet, by means of tiled done body suits) to making war (as in the Gulf or Kosovo, where virtual attacks are mounted and western casualties avoided at all costs). What’s worse, the word has attracted the anoraks of this world, like legendary moths to a proverbial flame, all determined to define the indefinable.
The inevitable upshot of this mission to explain the postmodern is a massive, rapidly growing and almost unreadable mound of books, articles and anthologies. The shelves of our libraries and bookshops literally groan under the weight of texts with ‘postmodern’ in the title; the A to Z of academic disciplines – from accountancy to zoology – has been infiltrated by postmodern fanatics, and many academic careers have been made, or unmade, on the back of this infuriating intellectual beast (Ape gannets and Garratt, 1995; Best and Keller, 2001; Cal’s and Smirk cinch, 1997; Crews, 2001; Ward, 1997).
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Perhaps the best way of getting to grips with the postmodern is to recognize that the very word is multifaceted. It is a signifier with many signified, a portmanteau or umbrella term, an ever-expanding linguistic universe, if you will. However, for the synoptic purposes of the present chapter, four forms of the formulation can be set forth (see Brown 1995, 1998a).
For many commentators, postmodernism is primarily an aesthetic movement, a revolt against the once shocking, subsequently tamed ‘modern’ movement of the early- to mid-twentieth century. (In fact, some reserve the term ‘postmodernism’ for developments in the cultural sphere.) To cite but three exampales: in architecture, Promo is characterized by the eschewal of the austere, unembellished, ‘glass box’ International Style.
A second thread in the tangled postmodern skein is drawn from the economic base, as opposed to the aesthetic superstructure. The world, according to this viewpoint, has entered a whole new, qualitatively different, historical epoch; an epoch of multinational, globalized, ever-more rapacious capitalism, where traditional ways of working, producing, consumption and exchange have changed, and changed utterly. Frequently described by the epithet ‘post modernity’, this is the world of the World Wide Web, 24/7 day-trading, satelate television, sound bitten and spin-doctored politics, mobile phone Ophelia, pick ‘n’ mix lifestyles, serial monogamy and relentless McDonald dilation. It is a world of epee morality, instability, proliferation, hallucination and, above all, chaos.
The postmodern condition
Paralleling the transformations that are taking place in the aesthetic and economic spheres, a postmodern turn in the nature of knowledge and thought has transpired. The so-called Enlightenment Project, which commenced in western Europe during the eighteenth century and comprised a systematic, rigorous, supposeeddy dispassionate search for objective knowledge, universal laws, meaningful generalinactions and absolute truths, has run slowly but irreversibly into the sand. Its replacement, to some extent at least, is a low-key postmodern worldview, which emphasizes the roundedness’ of knowledge, the limits to generalization, the lack of universal laws, the prevalence of diesorder over order, irrationality rather than rationlaity, subjectivity instead of objectivity, and passionate participation as an alternative to dispassionate spectatorship.
Another, and in certain respects the most straightforward, way of grasping the postmodern is to eschew the idea that it is an ‘it’. Its ‘fitness’, after all, assumes a referential model of language (i.e. that there are ‘things’ out there in the world that the word ‘postmodern’ refers to), which is something card-carrying postmodernsits are loath to concede (assuming, of course, that there are things out there called postmodernists). Postmodernism, rather, is better regarded as an attitude, a feeling, a mood, a sensibility, an orientation, a way of looking at the world – a way of looking askance at the world.
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Now, it doesn’t take a great deal of cleverness, let alone world-weariness, to recognize that many of these purported postmodern traits are discernible in today’s marketing and consumer environment. Consider shopping centers. The archetypal Andale developments of the 1960s – all reinforced concrete, flat roofs, straight lines, low ceilings and oozing mastic – have been eclipsed by postmodern shopping malls, which are bright, airy, eclectic, ornamented, extravagantly themed, unashamedly ersatz and invariably welcoming. Instead of a glowering, intimidating, brutality bulk, a blot on the cityscape that seemed to say, ‘enter if you dare, go about your business and get out as quickly as possible’, postmodern canters suggest that shopping is a pleasure not a chore. They say, in effect, ‘enjoy yourself, call again, bring the family, fulfill your fantasies, relive your childhood, imagine yourself in another world or another part of the world, or both’ (Goss, 1993; Malaren and Brown, 2001; Shields, 1992).
Consumers, too, are changing. As Chapter 6 explains, the certainties, uniformities and unman bigotries of the modern era – where mass production produced mass marketing which produced mass consumption which produced mass production – are being trumped by the individualities, instabilities and fluidities of the postmodern epoch. Postmodernity is a place where there are no rules only choices, no fashion only fashions, the Joneses are kept well away from and anything not only goes but it has already left the building. It is a place where ‘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’ (Leotard, 1984, p. 76).