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Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction – Christopher Butler

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Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, Christopher Butler, once described postmodernism  and its advocates as a “loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party.” Now in an extremely accessible and compelling introduction to postmodernism, he explains the rationale underlying such a proclamation. Postmodernism quintessentially refers to a careful cultivation of an attitude of skepticism that liberally extends to art and institutions. Postmodernism attempts to elevate text and language over aesthetics and appreciation. This wholesome application of a literary analysis and attributing theories to all phenomena gives rise to its own set of attendant problems, as Butler demonstrates in his book.

Postmodernism embeds a degree of anarchy within its confines. A disorder that views ‘pushing envelopes’ as a necessary norm. More concerned with the processes of understanding than with the pleasures of artistic finish or unity, postmodernism derives its logic from philosophical, political, and sociological thought processes. For example, the artwork for which Martin Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 is a classic homage to post-modernist thinking. It is an empty room, in which the electric lights go on and off.

Professor Butler opines that the postmodernist period is one of the ‘extraordinary dominance of the work of academics over that of artists.’ In fact in the words of Jean-François Lyotard (an avowed acolyte of post modernism), postmodernism is ‘postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.’ This wanton expression of incredulity covered within the hair of its cross-sights, a whole gamut of human endeavour. From art to architecture; from Marxism to masonry; from Freud to feminism, every aesthetic venture was dissected and dismembered using the rapier like criticism of postmodernism. Garish forms of art raised their audacious head under the ruse of interpretative originality. A good example being Jon Portman’s Westin Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles. This bewilderingly complicated piece of architecture which in essence is a warren of perpetually moving elevators is identified by Marxist commentator on post modernism, Frederic Jameson to be a ‘mutation’ into a ‘postmodernist hyperspace’ which transcends the capacities of the human body to locate itself, to find its own position in a mappable world.’

Yet another rabid purveyor of the post modernism theory, Jean Baudrillard – a French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist – even took an incredulous potshot at the scientific and political space within which the infamous Gulf War was fought. Baudrillard wrote that the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity and the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean.’ Countering this provocative claim, Professors of Physics, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, demolished Baudrillard’s proposition by comprehensively demonstrating that the element of ‘hyperspace’ “simply ‘does not exist in either mathematics or physics’ and that it makes no sense to ask what a Euclidean space of war would be like, let alone to hypothesize the kind of space which Baudrillard has just ‘invented’ through his misunderstanding and misuse of scientific terminology.’”

Christopher Butler explains in a language amenable for assimilation and reflection, the perils associated with embracing a post modern outlook. American photographer Sherrie Levine was renowned for making photo-reproductions of famous art photos taken by her male predecessors. The quintessential objective behind such a reproduction in the words of the Canadian Academic, Linda Hutcheon was to ‘contest the cult of originality’, and to question the ‘canonic’ ‘male point of view’. Ascribing an abstruse and esoteric motive to an ordinary but appealing act of photography, by resorting to a garble of inaccessible theory reveals in no uncertain fashion, the very edifice undergirding the tenets of post modernism.

Post modernism also proclaims the “Death of the Author” in so far as literature is concerned. Popularised by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, this bewilderingly convoluted theory accords unquestioned license to the reader to engage in free interpretation or even deconstruction of the words set out by the author in the original text. A lack of dissent or a meek acceptance of the text as it has been published signifies in the view of the post modernists, a submission to a bourgeoise notion. In fact as Professor Butler illustrates, Derrida took this philosophy in its most literal sense by delivering lectures, which in actuality represented ‘freewheeling, disorganized, unfocused, lengthy monologues.’

Professor Butler ends his book on a note of optimism. Arguing that the halcyon days of post modernism are well behind us, he urges his readers to explore reliable and sturdy alternatives. Whether it be in the neo expressionist paintings of Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Colescott, Nicholas Africano, and Elizabeth Murray, or the novels of John Rawls, Joseph Raz, Michael Sandel, Stuart Hampshire, Amy Guttman, Martha Nussbaum, Will Kymlicka, John Gray, Ronald Dworkin, Brian Barry, and Michael Walzer, there is available a rich repository of art and culture that refrains from obfuscating the pleasures of simplicity and unity by placing undue and at times unnecessary reliance upon the dialectical prowess of linguistic theory and arcane interpretation. And in the process, he succeeds to a substantial degree in convincing his readers.

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