Postmodernity, Architecture, Jameson and Foster

Architecture is important in the understanding of postmodernist thought, Jameson notes ‘of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship’.(1.) He continues to state that it is ‘not surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it’.(2.) According to Jameson postmodernist architecture has a symbiotic relationship with multinational corporations. Postmodernist architecture arose due to the loss of faith and the end of the governmental post-war funding for housing projects. Significant modernist projects are the Park Hill flats in Sheffield, and Robin Hood Gardens, a council housing complex in London, both projects were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. These projects failed significantly in their humanitarian, rationalist aim and this is argued to be a contributing factor to the style of the postmodernist architecture. Lyotard notes ‘the disappearance of this idea of progress within rationality and freedom would explain a certain tone, style or modus… a sort of bricolage’ [bricolage means tinkering].(3.) Charles Jencks, a highly influential postmodern architectural theorist, proposed the “double coding” style of architecture, which ‘entails a return to the past as much as a movement forward… tradition with a difference’ in essence a history and a locality, treated with irony.(4.) This style, similar to Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism”, can be found in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans which replicates the local Italian community by referring to ‘the Trevi fountain, Roman classical arches, even the geographical shape of the country itself, transcoding their historical forms into contemporary materials [Steel rather than marble] as befits a symbolic representation of Italian-American society’.(5.) Postmodernist architecture is a “popularist” doctrine, which aims to bring the sublime into social environments, refusing to attempt to transform the inhabitants of a city to fit in ‘pre-decided rational schemes’ it aims for organic growth which transforms itself to fit the inhabitants of a city.(6.)

Charles Moore Piazza Italia New Orleans

For all the rhetoric of popularism architectural postmodernism suffers from the same elitism of style it accuses Modernism of exhibiting. As Hal Foster notes postmodernism ‘far from [being] populist (as is so commonly claimed) is alternately elitist in its allusions and manipulative in its clichés’.(7.) The ironic treatment of history is evidently a treatment only understood by those with architectural training however it could be argued that the fusion of highbrow allusions and lowbrow clichés is the degeneration of the high/low cultural divide that is seen as an important positive democratic aspect of postmodernism. Hal Foster continues to explain that ‘architectural postmodernism exploits the fragmentary nature of late-capitalist urban life; we are conditioned to its delirium even as its causes are concealed from us’.(8.) What this means is that postmodernism is but a ‘gratuitous veil drawn over the face of social instrumentality’.(9.) The local identity and history referred to in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia are but a cynical reference to the local culture, and traditions of that distinct area. The “Italian heritage” the Piazza refers to is a flat, arbitrary, almost racist version of what it is to be Italian. Rather than simulate and reflect the local culture postmodernist architecture reveals – unintentionally – that multinational corporations exploit the image and history of a neighbourhood without considerate understanding or care for the people. By reducing the neighbourhood into a flat image of “Italianness” the community is commodified, reduced into an image. “Italianness” is idolised; the problem with idolisation is that it reduces a Being into an image, an image that can be brought and sold: slavery. History warns us of the dangers of commodifying, idolising individuals with the suicides of “icons” Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain who broke underneath the weight of their extreme commodification or as it is often named “fame”.

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Postmodern architecture, theorised by Jencks and Frampton, styled itself by a returning to the past ironically and with a regionalism that refused to fit people to architectural designs, preferring to fit the designs to the people. I noted that Moore’s Piazza d’Italia was rather a cynical simulation of a cliched sense of “Italianness”. Postmodern architecture is the aesthetic of an inconsiderate corporate ethos which reduces a community and its people into flat images which are easily reproduced and replicated. Rather than reflecting the surrounding community postmodernist architecture isolates communities, reducing their image into easily reproducible cogs; the transference of communities and individuals into commodities is slavery.

1. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

2. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

3. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1613.

4. Charles Jencks in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

5. Linda Hutcheon in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

6. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 17.

7. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, Perspecta, Vol. 21 (1984), pp. 145-153, p. 146.

8. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 148.

9. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 147.

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Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.

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If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

borg

The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

 

1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.

Blade Runner and the Postmodern use of Mise-en-scene

 

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film that explores contemporary theories of the postmodern. The film explores, through the detective figure Deckard, questions of authenticity. An aspect of postmodernity is the loss of faith in traditional meta-narratives [meta-narratives are the overarching stories that explains and legitimises knowledge or belief. Some traditional meta-narratives are Christianity, Communism and Scientific progress]. Questioning or losing faith in these narratives means that the individual inquires about their own subjectivity; and is left with no system of authentication. History, or how we have become to be, is a meta-narrative that is questioned explicitly in Blade Runner. History is a narrative which tends to explain events as linear, every event has its cause and affect; eras come one after another in dialectical progress. Even though in reality the change of era and cause of events are not easily understood the narrative of History constructs and validates a reality of existence which is understandable and rational.1


Blade Runner subverts our sense of history through the technique of mise-en-scene. In Blade Runner, Rachel, dressed as the archetypical femme fatal of film noir, goes to Deckard’s apartment with the intention of questioning him about the results of a ‘Voight-Kampff’. The scene moves smoothly into the new space of Deckard’s apartment with the traditional establishing shot, the framing of the important scene adheres to the Classic Hollywood continuity editing system. The use of the establishing shot gives the viewer time to process the alien-like mise-en-scene. The mise-en-scene combines the common domestic with the bizarre and unrecognisable, imbuing the scene with an eerie sense of the familiar, which raises questions about a disconnected sense of heritage. Although the domestic aspects are familiar with our own, the kitchen sink and cupboards, we are unable to relate the aesthetic and technological advances to our contemporary life. The mise-en-scene is important as it reveals that underneath all of the questions about Rachel’s authenticity there is a lack of rational connection with our society to the society shown. The structures that surround the characters are disconnected from any logical progression in fashion and science.

Ridley Scott raises problems concerning the conception of history as dialectical progress, cause and affect, in Blade Runner. Earlier in the film, during the opening scenes, we see that the future Los Angeles is a vision of an alien future disconnected from the present day geographic entity. Los Angeles had been transformed into a city splintering upwards with harsh vertical lines, dark shadows and bright lights; Los Angeles has been transformed into a city more reminiscent of New York.2 The philosopher Derrida once declared that nothing is outside the text; the use of continuity editing could itself be seen as an ironic example of this.3 The classical Hollywood system of narrative is itself an organizing system which explains and legitimises knowledge, and like the historical meta-narrative it orders events into cause and effect. Blade Runner critiques the use of meta-narratives to explain and rationalize while functioning from within one, therefore is a representation of postmodernity.

 

1R, Appignanesi & C, Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners, Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, (1995), p. 82.

2Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner BFI Classics, London: BFI (1997), p. 61.

3R, Appignanesi & C, Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners, p. 79.