Recently I have engaged in some more or less heated word battles with one of my professors at university. Although I like him, admire his knowledge and appreciate his opinions, I felt rather offended by some of the things he said about cultural studies. I have started off as a literary studies student myself but lately I feel more and more fascinated by the lure of cultural studies and everything it entangles. I have fun analysing Batman, a Britney Spears video clip, Shakespeare on the internet and more (pop)cultural phenomena like these. This blog certainly proves this and I always hope that you have as much fun with it as I do.
However, my professor argued that pure postmodern thinking degrades literature and the “high arts”. What you basically think in postmodernism is that nothing has an essence anymore, nothing has meaning by itself. Instead meaning is created in acts of consumption and by means of representation. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard goes so far as to argue that we live in a hyperreality governed by simulacra in which we have lost every connection to a prior reality because the signs that structure our lives are more real to us than reality. His prime example is Disneyland which presents to be unreal and fictional just to disguise that actually it is America itself which is fictional and created by arbitrary sign systems. (Sounds a lot like The Matrix, doesn’t it? Well, it is certainly no coincidence that Morpheus has a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation on his bookshelf.)
Postmodern thinking was formerly more restricted to artistic products. For example, it argued that Shakespeare as we know him is no longer the historical person Shakespeare but became “Shakespeare”, the myth. We have lost the “real” Shakespeare and everything we have is a “Shakespeare” that can take on any meaning we would like him to have: we can freely deconstruct his authorial authority (according to Roland Barthes the author is dead anyway), we can see him as an original genius and the greatest poet who ever lived, or we can see him as a cultural projection of our nostalgic desires.
Nowadays postmodernism has taken a grip on every aspect of life: love is a cultural construct, fear is a cultural construct, sex is a cultural construct. We are no longer divided into men and women, but Simone de Beauvoir has taught us that we are not born as girls/boys but raised as such. We no longer fall in love but are on a psychoanalytical quest trying to fill the void that has been left with us as soon as we entered the symbolic stage… leaving reality behind.
When my professor asked me whether I really thought that Shakespeare can be analysed in the same way as TV commercials can be analysed and whether I really thought that fear is an ideological construct, I answered yes. His next question was whether this wasn’t a very pessimistic perspective. I do not think so. To me, postmodernism doesn’t mean getting rid of all feeling and emotion but to see your life itself as a story. Once you really believe in the artificial construction of everything that surrounds you including feelings of love, friendship, or even death, it is actually quite liberating. You need a good amount of what Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to lead a “normal life” but it works. Heterosexuality works for me although I know that it is a social construct and I believe that there is no essential difference between the sexes. Falling in love works for me and when I fall in love I do not think about its constructedness but indulge in the feeling.
My life is a postmodern jigsaw puzzle: I chose the best constructs and assemble them in a wonderful deconstructionist bricolage and I am having a hell of a lot of fun with it!