Anti-modernism and Postmodernism

October 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is the mind map we worked through today: Modernism / Antimodernism / Postmodernism

In todays lecture with Spencer we were further touched on some modernist perspectives and what provoked responses to modernism, which lead us on to the developing process of anti-modernism, finally leading to postmodernism. We were introduced to Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist interested in the idea of how technology drives cultures and their ideas, he views language and perspective as technologies, and how industrialisation dulled our senses.

McLuhan  looks upon technologies and cultures and shows interest in how technology drives these different cultures and their ideas. McLuhan broadens out the idea of technology, moving away from the concept of it being mechanical, of which most people view it as. He views both language and perspective as a technology, they are not straightforwardly machines, but he sees them as serving as serving similar purposes, to do with pragmatics (the branch of linguistics dealing with language in use and the contexts in which it is used, including such matters as deixis, the taking of turns in conversation, text organisation, presupposition, and implicature), or how we as a culture operate in the world. From this McLuhan also displays interest the invention of the printing press as a way of mass distributing text and how it became a mass phenomena over time, the ways language orders the world, as well as how perspective is a way of seeing where it grids the world into a spatio-temporal grid, this perspective is not natural, but technological – these have interesting optical and textual apparatus attached to them too.

McLuhan viewed production lines as a means that spacialises time, coming with industrialisation, (thinking from a modernist perspective) in one sense there’s a rationalisation of the world, and there’s a functionality to it where things are ‘chopped up’ into small parts, he sees this as alienating people. If you’re an artist or an artisan then you make stuff where these craftsmen are quite intimately modelling and creating things, it’s a rich process of creation, these craftsmen see what they are creating as a full expression of their craft and their vision, almost poetically related to the things that are made. McLuhan says that with industrialisation comes segmentation, labour is separated into stages rather than one whole process (as an artist would do), losing that intimacy/connection with these artefacts, summing up to a very meaningless process. For example anything on a conveyer belt where people perform repetitive and boring tasks such as soldering circuit boards, packing food products, putting on the limbs of a Barbie doll, or applying lids to toothpaste tubes, all very meaningless and menial jobs. This is how the production lines spacialise time, and  people are involved in that spacialised workflow, they are performing this tedious work over and over.

Tedious work – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Modernist tropes bring with it technocentric rationalism  – the idea that the industrial revolution brings with it a focus on rationalising production and making it as efficient as possible through the use of technologies; the other side to this is that it alienates people. McLuhan attempts to relate all of these forms of technology, such as the printing press, to a time before the industrial revolution where he thinks that people are much more richly embedded within the world, where these fragmented tasks are present.

McLuhan looks at how our senses are differently prioritised, before the industrial revolution, or pre-modern world, we had a much more multi sensory immersion in the world, we were so sensitised to our environment with touch, hearing, smell, and not just a prioritisation of the visual and the spoken, there was a much more fluid sensory flow. McLuhan said at this time you could look behind yourself by using these senses since we were so connected with ourselves and the world. McLuhan looks at how these fluid processes naturally connecting us with the environment become subjected to a kind of segmentation/disconnection.

To get the other sense of modernism McLuhan says that there is an interest in utility and functions, as well as experimentation and adventure, moving forward, all within a set of functional boundaries. To relate this to technology McLuhan (from his book ‘The Extensions of Man’) says that technologies are also vert enabling things, any technology that we develop extends an ability that we already have, such as the telephone extends our ability to speak, the horse extends our ability to travel, the camera extends our ability to see, these are sensory extensions, broadening the reaches of them. But with these forms of extensions come a form of amputation, a cutting off of an ability, for example, our legs cannot be used when the brake is in use, it increases our ability to move faster, amplifying the ability, but we also lose our natural ability (of our legs) – this removes us from our embeddedness  in nature. Another example includes not being able to have another conversation while on the telephone, it amputates the ability to speak as well amplifying it, McLuhan applies this theory to all technologies. McLuhan has a very postmodern set of tendencies, he collapses the distinction between higher and lower cultures, he was interested in taking low cultures such as television and comics and treating them as though they were high culture, this caused a lot of academic friction when he was teaching.

McLuhan’s pros and cons of modernity was popular at the time, theoretically impacting, but soon fizzled out to some extent. However in the 1990s there was a revival of McLuhan, this was due to him predicting the invention of the internet, and his theory of the extensions of man could be relevantly applied to this new technology which was a form of communication and media. It was Wired magazine that noticed that McLuhan’s theory and views seemed very applicable to this emerging technology. McLuhan spoke of this ‘Global Village’ where there is an interconnection with everything, for his time this was applied to the telephone, but this could now be related to the internet and this new digital era that was emerging, it connects people all over the world at an instant, the internet shrinks the world, compressing it, making distance from each other feel so much smaller, hence the name of the theory/book. There is this sort of smoke signalling (smoke signal being the first way to communicate at distances), this is amplified by all these broadcast technologies – television, telephone, internet, all shrinking distance gaining a mass worldwide community that’s interrelated. This theory is a big contrast in comparison to his theory of the extensions of man, where everything seems more intimate, this global village theory has the opposite effect.

‘The Medium is the Message’ is arguably the most important thing to come out of McLuhan, one of his most famous ‘McLuhanisms’, known globally. The idea of this is that any technology can be seen as a medium and a carrier of information, but it’s not what it is carrying that is important (such as the characters within a text message, the broadcast signals of a television, or the files that are spread on file sharing networks), but it’s how it transforms a culture that’s important. When he talks about print and perspective as technologies he’s referring to how they transform culture, making it more rationalised and disconnecting us from the world. Examples of ‘The Medium is the Message’ includes the invention of the electric light, a carrier of pure information, transformed culture immensely in a way that allowed for cultures to function in the evening when it became dark, simply with the flick of a switch, we now have 2 hour cultures that never switch off. Another example is that of the mobile phone, that transformed culture by totally altering the way we organise as collectives, plans become very fluid, so we can arrange to meet with a group of friends with a few clicks, then there’s the ability to change plans in the process of meeting which further shows the fluidity of communication, this is evident in logistics in the world (fluidity and transformation). Like with McLuhan’s other theories this can be applied to all other technologies too such as the phone and television. From this we can see that McLuhan is both interested in the rationalisation of certain technologies as well as the potential of others.

From what McLuhan says about his earlier stuff about print culture and perspective as a sort of rationalising, ordering phenomena, we can see where the critique of modernism starts to develop from, it’s with all of this that creates problems that people have with modernist perspective. This critique of modernism is interested in progress and the bettering of things, the embracement of technology, grid structuring, as well as utility and functionality, the postmodern phrase ‘the view from nowhere’ is a sort of parody of what modernism wants, ignoring the idea of perspective (individual perspective), the idea in trying to represent everybody at the same time, modernists try to pull this God’s eye view from nowhere, an impossible view/ambition.

Here are some McLuhanisms:

“The nature of people demands that most of them be engaged in the most frivolous possible activities—like making money.”

“With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the sender that is “sent.””

“You mean my whole fallacy’s wrong?”

“When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.”

“The answers are always inside the problem, not outside.”

“When a thing is current, it creates currency.”


Anti-modernism is the first cultural response to modernism and the rejection of modernism, mutating into post modernism later. The transition from anti-modernism to postmodernism is very interesting because something very fundamental changes about our world  view. Modernism and anti-modernism are complete opposites, anti modernism is a rational response to modernism, so people began questioning the modernist views, rather than seeing it as helping the world they instead created difficulties. Some similarities that modernism and anti-modernism have are that they both share include commitment, rationality with discourse and the engagement with dispute, they accept a shared space/meaning. The cultural commitments begin to vary when we progress into postmodernism, partly through the anti-modernist critique. Often the term ‘irrationalism’ is often used within anti-modernism writings., rationality changes as we move into the postmodern period. The destruction of nature comes with the idea that modernism seems to pillage to natural world, poisoning it, arguably the very concept of nature disappears, it becomes hard to locate areas of nature that are untouched by humans. This destruction of nature provokes different responses to the basic tensions of anti-modernism, two of these responses are hard and soft approaches to anti-modernism.

Soft Approach

A soft approach would follow McLuhan’s pre-industrial world, returning to craftsmanship, becoming more in touch with nature and ourselves, and ultimately restoring vitality – this should make any industrial worker question ‘What am I doing with my life?’. We can look at this pre-industrial world concept by simply looking upon the arts and crafts movement (1860-1910) which had these same approaches, where the likes of William Morris and John Ruskin wished to return to hand crafted items, these two practitioners also have romantic and poetic concerns through the movement. J.R.R. Tolkien was very much in favour of anti-modernism, and it’s aspects of escape from modernism, with it’s alternative infrastructural aspects such as the mythological, magical, arts and crafts centred, pre-industrial idealised world. In many of Tolkien’s fantasy books there’s this complex infrastructure within, of which contains many sub creations forming sub cultures, for example in Lord of the Rings, there’s good, bad and neutral beings, and within these three categories are many other creations, and more within that etc. micro-politics are at work. From this sub creation idea of Tolkien, from postmodernity we move away from the idea that culture is one thing, but rather as a multiplicity, with numerous subcultures within a culture. From this we can then see an incredibly complex structure of micro sub cultures within a single culture, connected like a viral construction. A prime example of this is the internet, this itself is a culture with a huge subcultural infrastructures, and is primarily embedded within culture in the present day. There are vast amounts of web based communities online catering for everyone from music, film, novel, role playing, and even the very niche areas, all becoming formations of a virtual reality within a structure, this allows people to position themselves in multiple places, they can be completely different people within these sub cultures. From all of this we begin to see the formation of cults, this process begins to transform anti-modernism to postmodernism.

Hard  Approach

A hard anti-modernism, looks upon a rational response, attempting to criticise the fundamental tendencies of this perspective, hard modernism is a much more fundamentalist perspective, more interventionist, and a much more radical response. Like modernism attempted, anti-modernism was trying to transform the world but in a way that moves away from modernist ideas, expressing entirely different agendas. From hard anti-modernism we can see an ecological movement, celebrating nature and doubting the exploitation of nature, there’s an emphasis on sustainability as a political agenda that drives different ecological criticisms. Some of these are quite interventionist, such as Greenpeace, there becomes this idea of warfare, a fighting of factions, political and ecological warfare. With this sort of thinking, rationality is present, there is reason and logic behind actions and ideas, there becomes a fixation on agenda, but in hard anti-modernist approach this can often involve extreme attacks. An example of this kind of very hard anti-modern rationalistic response is that of the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) The Unabomber was infamous for the letter bombs of which he produced and mailed out and planted, Kaczynski believed this to be a rational approach, targeting politicians, industry, and university staff. He had built a cabin in some woods in Montana where he’d stay (and stay off the grid), living a simple life with very little money and void of electricity or running water, teaching himself survival skills. His original intention was to live self-sufficiently and autonomously, but he soon realised that this was not possible as a result of watching the wild land around him get destroyed by development and industry; it was from this that he began his attacks, firstly on surrounding industry. It was from this location that he wrote his manifesto (Industrial Society and Its Future), would create his bombs, mail them out, and hide. This is an extreme form of conflict and attack, but there is however reason to his madness (in his thinking), exemplifying that he is an anti-modernist, neglecting the notions of modernism but acting in a rational manner.

Ted Kaczynski: the Unabomber

A fundamental change in postmodernism is how normality is perceived, we begin to question ‘What is the norm?’. As Tolkien emphasises, subcultural concerns are heightened and there isn’t a straight forward representation of things and images. There begins to be less of a universal sense of the human being as postmodernism begins to attack the idea of humanism, moving toward anti-humanism/posthumanism. The way we think of reality also begins to be questioned through various postmodernist treatments – ‘what is the real?’. At this point postmodernism can be put in a timeframe of early to the middle of it’s development. However, these different movements [modernism, postmodernism, anti-modernism etc.] are in no means in a linear timeline, they all sort of spring out from one another. one of the core symbols of postmodernism (expressed in almost all theorists work in some form or another) is the idea of the rhizome, this is the growth or structure of things (to put it into another context, in biological terms it’s the growth of stems from subterranean stems/plants). This criticises hierarchical (sometimes called Arboreal (as in trees)) aspects of the way the world is structured, theres a rational splitting of qualities, in a tree like fashion with roots, there is a narrative progression to the ordering of the world, this is very analytic and logical. Rhizomatic structures however are not very structured, are very irrational due to their complete lack of analytic view. They [postmodernists] argue that because of the way the world functions it is hard to order the world realistically in a hierarchical fashion. This is because [postmodernists argue that] when you look at anything in detail, it all seems to overlap with other things and categories, breaks down in multiple ways, and basically sprouting in and from many different directions, in a non ordered fashion- in a rhizomatic manner, growth (of vegetation, for example) doesn’t grow in a rational way.

A rhizomatic structure in nature

One of the first preludes to modernism – written in the late 50s (before postmodernity) by Wittgenstein. Here there is also Deleuze and Guattari’s version from the 80s (while postmodernity was in full swing). They both talk of the rhizomatic structure. Wittgenstein views all of this as a game(s), there’s a playful vision of language use, with a complex network of similarities, there is no core way of holding everything together, there are natural essences to things. He tries to get at that there is a sort of construction to everything, there are a lots of different sub groups and cultures working and transforming things. Deleuze’s writing is very similar to Wittgenstein’s, however it is different because it is infused with life and activity in comparison to Wittgenstein’s use of ‘ingredients’ (games) within his writing, but there is no movement or transformation, only complexity. There seems to be an absolute life in Deleuze’s idea, he writes “conducting wire”, “carried”, “tractions”, “ruptures”, “forces”, “interweavings” etc. all of which are words of motion, nothing is fixed, everything is moving, there’s an instability of things talking about it’s past and future, whereas Wittgenstein talks of a sort of ‘fossil’ of a rhizome. The connections are mobile, but there is a sort of leaking of structures, everything sort of spills out, further adding to the complexity of the rhizomatic structure. Complexity is a wicked problem (a wicked problem being a one that is very ‘thorny’ where it is difficult to find a solution), and postmodernism is riddled with these wicked problems, all problems within postemodernism are rhizomatic.


Jean Baudrillard (often described as the French McLuhan due to his similar thinkings, but in a different context) looks at how technologically everything is changing. Baudrillard looks at synthetic manufacture, the idea of smart materials (materials that change their properties e.g. more heat = more pliability) and the fact that we can make new synthetic materials that were unheard of through synthesis and combination, these are made with computing as a way of modelling. Baudrillard points out how computing has impacted on culture, how much of modern life is dealt with computers, and how much of our lives revolves, relies on, and uses computers, so many things have been touched through technology and computer modelling. Things touched by computer modelling include music, clothes, design processes, architecture, illustration and design styles, styles within different eras – material forms change due to the possibility of material software available, technologies radically influence these. Architectural computer modelling has allowed buildings to be designed and created that would never have been possible without the technologies assistance. The emergence of Photoshop had and still has massive influences on the design world, most design work you see in the world uses this design software/tool. Baudrillard talks about how these certain styles that emerge can only come from these modelling softwares/technologies, they are otherwise impossible. The culture of the copy is central to postmodernism, this can also be thought as the culture of the model. Bio engineering allows us to have an intimate connection with the world, we don’t just fix or repair organisms, but we actually create new kinds of species at a genetic level, creating new creatures and materials, for example we can grow skin. All of these things come together in the sense that they inform one another, Baudrillard gets at the idea that there is this advertising culture that informs practices, and it’s interested in the synthetic as the new, and the creation of new forms,  and the idea that the copy transforms reality.

All of these ideas come together in simulation, this is what Baudrillard is interested in, seeing [the above paragraph’s info] all as a simulation. The term ‘orders of simulacrum’ comes from Plato, where he has this idea that our experience of the world is a second hand experience, likened to people chained up and looking at a cave wall seeing flickering shadows from the outside of the cave, but what these people don’t know that there is a light source outside of the cave creating this projection screen, but outside the cave there are real things moving around. Plato looks upon this as an appreciation for the world, where we look upon things as a simulation. Baudrillard flips this idea around, looking at how we move from the notion of solid reality to appearance, he identifies these orders of the simulacrum, applying this all to a fashion system to contextualise it a little easier. In feudal times there was (and still is to some extent) a natural order, of which was visible in peoples attire, you knew what position in society you belonged to based on your clothes, clothing was very fixed and symbolic in these times: kings and queens had special customised clothing created that no one else would have access to, people had no way of faking that they were from a different class, there’s naturally an illusory appearance of order. From this Baudrillard talks about how transformations in technology (in this instance of manufacturing of clothes) have disrupted this, in the first order of the simulacrum this is where it starts to happen.

  • First order: 18th-19th century – this is the emergence of hand crafted goods, these are people who begin to make clothes, so it’s possible, yet difficult, to buy clothes and change the way you look and fit into society. This enabled the illusion of mobility, you could get further in life simply by the way you dressed e.g. bartering, slightly altering and troubling the system – the impossibility of impersonation becomes real.
  • Second order: the emergence of industrial production – suddenly everything becomes more easily attainable, it’s cheaper to produce and purchase, it’s all working on a mass scale. There’s all of a sudden more questionability of the orders of society, the mass production of clothing means the mass production of signs (Baudrillard is driven by semiotics and marxism, he’s very interested in the signs of clothing, and what signs it gives out, what does it say about that person), and what people are buying into signs. Clothing is no longer a functional thing, it becomes a sort of value in presenting yourself to a particular group of people.
  • Third order: post industrial, genetic mutation, computer modelling – the idea of the real of simulation, the imitation of things becomes more perfect than the thought of reality. We have absolutely synthetic products and forms of design which have no resemblance to anything, it’s all constructed (styles, materials etc.), all of which are coming out of technological conditions.

The model of this takes over the real, it becomes a culture which is purely made from science, there’s no natural order to which these things originate from, it’s a pure re-construction of orders, allowing for growth. Baudrillard looks at these contemporary cultural conditions in how everything we do is from the consumption of signs and the production of new signs, but they don’t sign anything that’s actually real, they sign possibilities of appearance that we all collectively engage in. It’s all about technologies moving toward the synthetic, of which our culture celebrates – Zizek says that in advertising we are longer selling products, but rather we are selling experiences, this is because we are told that if you have this ‘thing’ then you are engaging with this lifestyle which is a very Baudrillard thing to say – the prioritisation of the surface.

To finish the lecture we watched a scene from Psycho, with Hitchcock’s version along side with Gus Van Sant’s remake, of which he recreated scene for scene. We were viewing the space between the two films – the video below doesn’t perfectly demonstrate this as the video in the lecture did, as the one we viewed then flicked between each version, rather than showing it alongside one another.

From all of the lectures that Spencer has done, I found this the most captivating, I was very interested in all the topics mentioned in the lecture, as it may be apparent in the length of the post! I hope there are more of these truly interesting lectures to come.


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