rough notes

Understanding the question of meaning in postmodernism

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This is an addendum to a post I began last week on the enthusiasm inherent in postmodernism, as explicated by Linda Hutcheon in her Poetics of Postmodernism (1988). In this, another long excerpt, Hutcheon explains what “meaning” in a postmodern world (that is, in our systems, our philosophies, our politics, our art forms, etc) actually means. Note in her words the classic, and necessary point that postmodernism sheds light on the contradictions in our world, but also that these contradictions exist because we, in as sense, ask them to:

Postmodernism challenges some aspects of modernist dogma: its view of the autonomy of art and its deliberate separation from life; its expression of individual subjectivity; its adversarial status vis-a-vis mass culture and bourgeois life (Huyssen 1986, 53). But, on the other hand, the postmodern clearly also developed out of other modernist strategies: its self-reflexive experimentation, its ironic ambiguities, and its contestations of classic realist representation.

However, I would argue not only that postmodernism, like modernism, also retains its own contradictions, but also that it foregrounds them to such an extent that they become the very defining characteristics of the entire cultural phenomenon we label with that name. The postmodern is in no way absolutist; it does not say that “it is both impossible and useless to try and establish some hierarchical order, some system of priorities in life” (Fokkema 1986b, 82). What is does say is that there are all kinds of orders and systems in our world – and that we create them all. That is their justification and their limitation. They do not exist “out there”, fixed, given, universal, eternal; they are human constructs in history. This does not make them any the less necessary or desirable. It does, however, as we have seen, condition that “truth” values . The local, the limited, the temporary, the provisional are what define postmodern “truth” in novels like John Banville’s Kepler or Christa Wolde’s Cassandra. The point is not exactly that the world is meaningless, (A. Wilde, 1981, 148), but that any meaning that exists is of our own creation.


There are two incredibly important points that must be stressed here, especially for the naysayers who continue to this day to reject postmodernism as a relativist, empty social construct abject of any values or meaning. This first, as I have mentioned, is the stated (and commonly agreed) argument that postmodernism contests “classical realist representations” to the point that this becomes “the very defining characteristic of the entire cultural phenomenon we label with that name”. Indeed, postmodernism often asks us to question everything in order to understand the underlying systems and constructs that prop up what we see. But postmodernism’s demand that we actually give mind to that man behind the curtain (so to speak) does not mean that we reject everything that this little wizard stands for. Looking behind the curtain doesn’t eliminate the need, or the significance of the machinery. Rather, as Hutcheon suggests, it adds importance to our own lives. It acknowledges that “there are all kinds of orders and systems in our world – and that we create them all”. The systems – this society and its culture – are our own to work with, to alter and to manipulate when necessary.

Therein lies both the enthusiasm held in postmodernism, and its meaning. Meaning is not wiped away in postmodernism but instead affirmed in ourselves. It is not that the world lacks meaning, but that “any meaning that exists is of our own creation”. That is to say, we become the masters of our texts, of our culture, and of our histories. It is a somewhat daunting proposition because it does remove the gravitas of any knowledge systems we once held on to, but, ultimately is liberating in that it teaches us that our histories are not necessary truths, but opinions aligned toward former systems, former powers and former constructs. It is with postmodernism that we can truly become masters of our own house.

You are commodified.

Hutcheon, Linda. Poetics of Postmodernism. New York. Routledge, 1988. 43-44.


Written by mitchellirons

August 17, 2007 at 10:04 am

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  1. […] Understanding the Question of Postmodern Meaning […]

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