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Postmodernism: introduction

This section is intended for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the terms 'postmodernism' and 'postmodernity'. If you have not already looked up the terms postmodernism and metanarrative, it would be a good idea to check them out now.

The terms are used with a degree of imprecision and may in fact be seen as referring more to a 'mood' than to any school of social philosophy. Some would argue that, when the camera work on the latest 'yoof' TV show, the editing of a detective serial, a new kind of sandwich, the budget, a linoleum design can be referred to as 'postmodern', or even just 'very post' or 'very pomo', then the terms are virtually meaningless. Certainly, there seems to be a lot of 'post' about at the moment and theorists seem only too keen to proclaim the death or end of one thing or another - the death of the author, the death of the subject, the end of history etc. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it,

When people face what nothing in their past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, even when they can neither define nor understand it. Some time in the third quarter of the century we can see this process at work among the intellectuals of the West. The keyword was the small preposition 'after', generally used in its latinate form 'post' as a prefix to any of the numerous terms which had, for some generations, been used to mark out the mental territory of twentieth century life. The world, or its relevant aspects, became post-industrial, post-imperial, post-structuralist, post-Marxist, post-Gutenberg or whatever. Like funerals, these prefixes took official recognition of death without implying any consensus or indeed certainty about the nature of life after death. In this way the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal social transformation in human history entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.

Hobsbawm (1994)

In the outline which follows I shall attempt to give a flavour of this postmodern 'mood'. (To attempt to define postmodernism would itself be quite unpostmodern, since postmodernism rejects all encompassing truths or definitions. Indeed, as Krishan Kumar explains, where the notion of postmodernity is concerned,

For every feature you select for examination, another one bearing on the question can be offered with equal aplomb, even though it may point in an entirely different and even contrary direction. Earnest examinations of the fit between theory and reality are met with an ironic smile. Contradiction and circularity, far from being regarded as faults in logic, are in some versions of post-modern theory actually celebrated

Kumar (1995: 103))

Let us begin with some brief quotations from one of the foremost writers on the postmodern:

Neither liberalism, economic or political, nor the various Marxisms emerge from [the last] two centuries untainted by accusations of crimes against humanity. We can make a list of names, names of places, persons, dates, capable of illustrating and substantiating our suspicion. Following Theodor Adorno I have used the name 'Auschwitz' to signify the extent to which recent Western philosophy seems inconsistent as regards the 'modern' project of the emancipation of humanity.

Lyotard (1988) p.110

My argument is that the modern project (of realisation of universality) has not been abandoned, forgotten, but destroyed, 'liquidated'. There are several methods of destruction, several names which are symbols of it. Auschwitz can be taken as a paradigmatic name for the tragic incompletion of modernity.

Lyotard (1988) p.32

Grand narratives have become barely credible.

Lyotard (1988) p. 46

These quotations taken from the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, refer to some of the main aspects of the postmodernist current in contemporary thought.

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Postmodernism: modernity

You will find modernity also referred to as the modern project, the modernist project, the Enlightenment project or, simply, the Enlightenment.

Normally the term Enlightenment is used to refer to the eighteenth century in Europe, especially France. Very broadly, the typical characteristic of that period is a boundless faith in human reason.

In the natural sciences great progress had already been made since Newton and it must have seemed that science would eventually reveal all the secrets of the universe, a belief typified in the scientist Laplace's remark that, if only he knew the present position of all the particles in the universe and the forces acting upon them, then he would be able to foretell the entire future of the universe. (Note, however, that, although this remark is frequently quoted by commentators concerned to show a fundamental break between the ambitions of  Enlightenment rationality and 'postmodernism', Laplace did not imagine that humanity would or could have such complete knowledge of the initial positions of all the particles and that he made the remark in the context of an essay on probability theory, a statistical method which allows us to reason and predict in situations of some ignorance. Still, never mind, it would spoil a good narrative if that were mentioned.)

There was a common belief that progress in science would be accompanied by progress in morality. Human reason was relied upon not only for seemingly unstoppable progress in natural science and technology, but also in the politics and social sciences. As in natural science, universal laws were discovered. The French revolutionaries overthrew the forces of darkness and immediately published the Declaration of the rights of Man, which were held to be the universal rights of 'all men', just as, a decade before, the American Declaration of Independence had published those rights to which American citizens were entitled by the 'Laws of Nature'.

The 'Enlightenment project', then, includes a belief in rationality, progress, the identification of truths which are eternal and universal, succinctly summed up in Habermas's comments on the eighteenth century philosopher Condorcet:

The concept of Enlightenment serves as a bridge between the idea of scientific progress and the conviction that sciences also serve the moral completion of human beings. In the struggle with the traditional forces of church and state, Enlightenment demands the courage to use one's own reason...'All political and moral errors originate from philosophical errors, which in their turn arise from physical errors. There is no religious system ... which is not grounded in ignorance of the laws of nature. (Condorcet)'

Habermas (1981) I, p.212

One may object that there have been many different and contradictory themes interwoven in the history of ideas from the eighteenth century onwards. However, as Isaiah Berlin observes, pointing to the profound differences between the two great political movements of romantic nationalism and humanitarian individualism, whatever may have divided those two traditions,

they had this in common: they believed that the problems both of individuals and societies could be solved if only the forces of intelligence and of virtue could be made to prevail over ignorance and wickedness.

Berlin (1969) p.5

and he goes on to point out that this faith in reason which stretches back from the great liberals of our century back beyond the eighteenth century, to the Greeks:

Man is in principle at least, everywhere and in every condition, able, if he wills it, to discover and apply rational solutions to his problems. And these solutions, because they are rational, cannot clash with one another, and will ultimately form a harmonious system in which the truth will prevail, and freedom, happiness, and unlimited opportunity for untrammelled self-development will be open to all.

Berlin (1969) p.8

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Postmodernism: Auschwitz

Postmodernists take the view that the Enlightenment project has failed. It is not merely an 'incomplete project', as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued. Rather, it has failed utterly and indeed was bound to fail. Indeed, even:

modernity has never happened. There has never really been any modernity, never any real progress, never any assured liberation. The linear tension of modernity and progress has been broken, the thread of history has become entangled

Baudrillard (1997) p.1

The symbol of its failure, says Lyotard, is Auschwitz. In this he uses Theodor Adorno's term to signal the huge question mark which hangs over the Enlightenment project. How is it that a project which began with the enlightened optimism of the belief in the universal rights of humanity and unlimited progress can end in the mass destruction of millions of those humans it was to emancipate? Adorno and Horkheimer, philosophers of the Frankfurt School, were coming at the problem from the optimism of Marxism, but their analysis is deeply pessimistic. They ask why

humanity, instead of entering into a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.

Adorno & Horkheimer (1969) p.1

The Enlightenment was intended to lead to universal freedom, but

For the Enlightenment, whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect .... Enlightenment is totalitarian.

Adorno & Horkheimer (1969) p.12

For them, the Enlightenment project was fatally flawed and they harboured a profoundly pessimistic suspicion that liberal institutions and culture could not survive the apparent collapse of the philosophical justification that the Enlightenment provided for them. It strikes me as questionable to argue, as postmodernists sometimes do, that rationality is totalitarian and leads directly to the holocaust any more than Voltaire's, d'Holbach's, Condorcet's thinking 'led to' the Terror of revolutionary France. I can't help thinking that the term 'totalizing', used to characterize the ambitions of the Enlightenment belief in reason simply suggests 'totalitarian' to such critics. Kellner and Best summarize what they refer to as the modern paradigm as essentially reductionist and materialist, with scientism as a modern faith. Typical of the development of the modern project in our century have been 'reduction by behaviourism of purposeful cosnciousness to observable signs and by logical positivism of ethics,a rt, and metaphysics to meaningles ('unverifiable') discourse' (1997 : 202). But this is an excessively narrow caricature. The Enlightenment project has had many different facets, indeed from the very inception of the project there have always been voices - apart from counterenlightenment movements - which, on the grounds of reason itself, have questioned reason's totalizing ambitions. Quite how Nazism can be seen as the outcome of Enlightenment thinking is a mystery to me, when it is a philosophy composed of a heady mix of prejudices, supported by half-understood ideas from famous German philosophers, many of whom could properly be considered counterenlightenment and anti-rationalist thinkers (it has been remarked, exaggeratedly perhaps, but with some justification, that German thinkers jumped straight to Romantic irrationalism without stopping at Enlightenment rationalism on the way), a heavy dose of German romanticism, the whole mishmash held together by the ideological justification provided by such intellectual giants as Hitler, Goebbels, Chamberlain and Rosenberg. Communism, as practised in the Soviet Union, and Nazism were both built upon the closing off of rational debate. The state machines developed by the two systems may, in some sense justifiably, be considered as the ultimate development of bureaucratic rationality, but political systems which eradicated rational and open questioning by a method of psychological conditioning which simply removed difficult questions, logical contradictions and so on from the universe of permissible discourse can hardly be seen as models of Enlightenment.

Lyotard says that grand narratives are no longer credible. Let's take a look now at that idea:

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Postmodernism: Grand narratives

Lyotard talks about grand narratives. The term he uses is grand récit, the French word for 'story', and you will find writers in English using the term 'story', as well as 'narrative'.

By 'stories' or 'narratives', postmodernists refer to the stories we tell ourselves about the way reality works. For example, the Enlightenment belief in the power of rationality, in progress and the discovery of truth are all 'narratives', a category which, of course, includes Marxism.

If you have read the section on semiotics and signification, you will be aware that semiotics and the literary and media critics who practised it do not regard signification as a neutral value-free process. It is no great step from regarding discourse as constitutive of reality to seeing rationality itself as part of that dominant, repressive and totalitarian discourse. One could reasonably ask: whose progress, whose truth, whose reason?

In the case of modernism, it was largely a project of a particular social and cultural class namely bourgeois white European men and the search for 'truth' in science, literature, politics or history, was done on their terms and for their interests.

Lovatt and Purkis (1996)

This, again, strikes me as an oversimplification, though it seems to have become established as part of the received wisdom of the postmodern standpoint (though postmodernists would doubtless dispute that there is any such coherent standpoint).  To argue that the French Revolution, for example, was solely bourgeois involves disregarding a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary - for further comment, see this section. In any case 'bourgeois white European men' could just as well describe the tenured professors of cultural studies who spin their incomprehensible sentences for the delectation of other tenured professors who have largely withdrawn from any contestatory engagement with social reality, btu who nevertheless flatter themselves that they are 'transgressive' and 'radical'. For postmodernists, knowledge has an essentially pluralistic character - we may, in fact, find it more appropriate to speak of 'knowledges' or 'truths' in the plural. The 'totalizing metanarratives' such as functionalism or Marxism, which lay claim to a total explanation of history and social life are no longer credible. They are obsolete, by postmodernism's account.

Truth is what we should rid ourselves of as fast as possible and pass it on to somebody else. As with illnesses, it's the only way to be cured of it. He who hangs on to truth has lost.

Baudrillard (1987) p.10

Lyotard and Baudrillard both see modern societies as having shifted from productive to reproductive cultures. In such cultures, where signs predominate, any distinction between appearances and 'reality' is lost.

The overproduction of signs by the media wipes out the distinction between the image and the reality and leads to the loss of any stable meaning:

The mass media [...] were once thought of as holding up a mirror to, and thereby reflecting, a wider social reality. Now that reality is only definable in terms of the surface reflections of that mirror. It is no longer a question of distortion since the term implies that there is a reality, outside the surface simulations of the media, which can be distorted, and this is precisely what is at issue.

Strinati (1992)

Thus the notion of ideology, fundamental to cultural studies, is thrown into question - for Baudrillard, for example, nothing more than 'legacy of a conceptual discourse that is already archaic/ancient' (Bayard and Knight (1995)).

Not surprisingly, one finds frequent spats between post-modernists and anti-post-moderns regarding the question of 'critical distance' in cultural studies. Once you undermine notions such as 'truth', 'objectivity', 'progress', it's a little difficult to see just what intellectuals are 'for'. If they have no privileged insight, then they might as well go away and do something more useful and entertaining, so it's hardly surprising that many have resisted post-modernism's relativism. The traditionalists hanker after critical distance in the application of 'method', whereas the post-moderns argue that the apparent critical distance of traditional method is illusory, since method itself is a social practice and thus cannot be 'distant' from the social practices it claims to analyze objectively. Any 'objective' analysis would require the use of some sort of universal metalanguage which somehow escapes linguistic differentiality. As Stanley Fish reminds us, 'philosophical, psychological, and moral concepts ... are built into the language we use... The significance of this is that the language system is not characterized apart from the realm of value and intention but begins and ends with that realm' (1980: 107) and 'description of that language will be inseparable from a description of ... commitments and obligations' (107-8). Consequently, there are no moves which are not moves in the language game, including the move whereby one claims not to be playing the game any more, as would the critical theorist who claims critical distance. Thus post-modern critique tends to be more 'literary', more 'self-reflexive' than is conventional. Where the post-moderns are accused of 'aestheticist' approaches, often presented as dangerously irrationalist and relativistic, the traditionalists, in their turn, are accused of totalitarian rationalism.

Clearly, as postmodernists use the term, Marxism, the mainstay of critical cultural studies, is a totalizing metanarrative. The problem with post-structuralism and post-modernism, from the point of view of many Marxists, is that Marxism is undermined by them, but it is difficult to get any leverage on post-structuralism or post-modernism, since Marxism is about the prospects for social change, whereas post-structuralism and post-modernism do not lead to any political project, indeed suggest that all political projects are similarly suspect. Post-structuralism and post-modernism are in the business of dismantling conventional ideas and assumptions, not in the business of building any kind of progressive politics, since there would be no basis on which to build.

It is perhaps from Marxist commentators that the most serious counter-attacks against post-modernism have come. From the standpoint of post-modernism, Marxism is just another outmoded metanarrative at best; at worst Marxism is implicated in the terrorism of which Adorno and Horkheimer accuse the Enlightenment project. Some critics such as Alex Callinicos (1991 in Hall et al (1992b)) counter that such condemnation of Marxism can be sustained only if Marxism is seen as being equivalent to Stalinism or, at least, as leading necessarily to Stalinism. Callinicos argues that there is no necessary linkage between Marx's theories and the ascendancy of Stalinism in Eastern Europe; quite the contrary - Marx's theories provide the best analysis of Stalinism. For Callinicos, the end of state capitalism in the Eastern bloc leaves us with much the same choices as we had in Marx's day:

Do we let the market rip, with all the disastrous consequences that will have for the well-being of humankind and perhaps the survival of the earth? Do we seek to humanize it, as social democracy has sought ineffectually to do since the beginning of the century? Or do we struggle to replace the anarchy and injustice of capitalism with a social system based on the collective and democratic control of the world's resources by working people?

Callinicos's preference is very clearly for the last of these three options, in other words for the emancipatory project of Marxism. From the post-modernist standpoint, however, there can be no coherent, unified representation of the world, except perhaps within the temporary and shifting confines of an interpretive community. There can therefore be no such thing as a universally valid project of global emancipation such as Marxism. The best we can come up with is a sort of localized pragmatism, as recommended by Richard Rorty, for whom there are not 'any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language'. For him and for Lyotard knowledge can be assessed only by looking at its performative effects. This pragmatism leads Rorty to ask why, under Nazism, Danes and Italians helped Jews. Was it because those Jews were fellow human beings, because of their essential humanity? As Rorty sees it, it was much more likely to have been because 'this particular Jew was a fellow Milanese, or a fellow Jutlander, of a fellow member of the same union or profession, or a fellow bocce player, or a fellow parent of small children'. (1989: 190) This kind of localized pragmatism leads Rorty to a consensus-view of truth, in his case the consensus of 'North Atlantic bourgeois liberal' culture.

This viewpoint is opposed to the 'essentialist' thinking of Enlightenment metanarratives, with their talk of 'universal human rights' and so on and is therefore a fundamental attack on the Marxist position. Unsurprisingly it attracted a broadside from Marxist critic Terry Eagleton (1996), who asks why Rorty stops at fellow Italians or fellow Danes. Why not 'demonstrate compassion to those in the next apartment, while withholding it from those down the street'? And what would be wrong with the standpoint of 'the kind of anti-universalist who believed that murder was wrong for everyone except for aristocrats who were above the law, benighted heathens who knew no better, and those whose time-hallowed traditions happened to sanction it'? For Eagleton, keenly aware though he is that 'universal' Enlightenment values were often in practice the values of white Western males, the whole point of the Enlightenment project was to provide the grounds to fight against such privilege. Similarly, Norris:

There are two things wrong - intellectually and politically wrong - with a pragmatist position like [Rorty's]. It ignores the extent to which reason, in its various practical or technocratic forms, has shaped every aspect of Western experience and so -inescapably - set the main terms for debate. And it also fails to see that this experience can only be grasped by a critique that upholds the values of enlightened reason, even while seeking to diagnose their present regressive or distorting effects. And it also fails to see that this experience can only be grasped by a critique that upholds the values of enlightened reason, even while seeking to diagnose their present repressive or distorting effects. For Derrida those effects are very precisely located in the discourse of legitimizing power and knowledge whose history is to be read in the texts of a philosophical tradition extending from Plato to Husserl and beyond. Simply to reject that tradition - thinking to occupy a whole new domain of 'post-modern' cultural debate - is effectively to give up any hope of informed rational critique.

Norris (1987): 157

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Postmodernism: Fragmentation

Since the grand metanarratives no longer have validity, since there is a plurality of truths, writers on postmodernity frequently emphasize the fragmentation of modern culture. The grand narratives are replaced by local narratives. The distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture also disappears. The postmodern mood tends to value the local over the universal, and popular over élite culture or high art. Popular culture signs and media images are seen as increasingly dominating our sense of reality. There is no distinction between the simulations of the media and reality:

... the cultural dominance of the mass media is emphasized, where reality and identity is constructed for us by fleeting and illusory stories, whether in advertising, popular music or TV soap operas. So although the mass media shrinks our world because of its ability to transcend space, this gives us no more meaningful a purchase on 'reality' - it simply multiples the number, frequency and impermanence of the accounts of reality we consume. What we 'see' via the media inevitably constitutes a major source of our knowledge in a post-modern world - but what we see and know, and therefore are, is only here and now, and only until another story comes along.

Jones (1992)

The individual human subject (or self) is also seen as fragmented. The unified 'Cartesian self' is abandoned in favour of the decentred self. Seen from this perspective, the revivification of the Enlightenment project attempted by Jürgen Habermas is an impossibility. Habermas envisages the achievement of a consensus achieved by a dialogue between free, rational and equal actors. He is quite clear that 'everyday communication' (kommunikative Alltagspraxis) permits a form of mutual understanding based on claims to validity - and this conceived of as the only alternative to exerting influence on one another by more or less coercive means' (1983: 26) From the post-modernist point of view, these 'claims to validity' of the Enlightenment project would depend on some sort of conception of humanity as a universal subject, which is impossible since even the individual subject is irredeemably fragmented, decentred. Further, there can be no rules, not even rules as to what constitutes rational debate, which apply to all players in all games. Rules can only ever be local and temporary, the 'temporary contract' now so prevalent in industrial relations, which Lyotard sees as emblematic of all our other social relations. The dispute between Habermas and Lyotard is not, I think, merely a passing storm in an academic teacup. 'Incredulity towards metanarratives' has the potential to undermine the very basis of cultural studies. For Habermas the unmasking of metanarratives makes sense only if we preserve at least some sort of standard by which we can explain the corruption of all reasonable standards. Without such a standard, we cannot distinguish between theory and ideology, the clear and the masked. If what cultural studies is about is the rational critique of existing institutions, which is of course central to the Enlightenment project, then cultural studies either collapses or has to go off and be about something else, since there is no rational foundation left for the critique. Of course, this may be seen as a problem fundamental to the Enlightenment project. Seen as the relentless pursuit of the critical method, the Enlightenment project eventually runs into the problem that it attacks truth-claims from the standpoint of other truth-claims which (temporarily at least) are accepted as valid. Those truth-claims in their turn will, however, also be subject to criticism. So where do you look for a set of truth-claims which are immune from such attack, where do you find an 'objectively valid' position from which to practise your critique? Habermas places much emphasis on the natural sciences as an example of a coming to a consensus whose validity is not merely context-dependent. Lyotard, by contrast, sees 'modern' science as in fact typically 'postmodern':

Postmodern science by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, 'fracta', catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable and paradoxical.

Lyotard (1984) : 60

For Habermas this is typical of the irrationality which the postmoderns must necessarily give themselves over to. Their unprincipled pragmatism does not permit reasoned critique. Thus, in his view, the critical rationality which permits the cultural theorist to engage with power, ideology, institutions, social reality is simply abandoned in favour of mere passive conformism. Hence his labeling postmoderns 'neo-conservative'.

It's probably worth mentioning in passing, though, that Enlightenment rationalism has always been accompanied by irrationalism. There is a strongly relativist strain in Montesquieu, one of the founding fathers of the Enlightenment; the French Revolution, often seen conveniently as the starting point of the Enlightenment project, soon celebrated the existence of the Supreme Being; the Romantic movement was in many ways deeply anti-rationalist; surrealism, once the high point of modernism, was counter-rational - and so on. So maybe irrationalism is not so obviously scary.

The postmodernists' emphasis on fragmentation leads many to celebrate place and local identities. Diversity and decentralization are applauded as expressions of local autonomy, as are single-issue political movements such as protesters against a the construction of a local by-pass. Whilst there can be no doubt that there is now a wider range of choices, to the extent that it may appear legitimate to question whether we can speak of 'mass culture' or 'popular culture' in the singular at all, the celebration of diversity may simply overlook the underlying capitalist logic behind the fostering of diversity. Where capitalism once benefited from economies of scale, it now also benefits from 'economies of scope'. A wider range of choices means greater market segmentation and greater market segmentation means greater profit. In the same way as capitalism may be seen as having created market through producing fashion and planned obsolescence, so it may now be seen as creating the apparent diversity of post-modern particularism. localism and eclecticism, now that new modes of production make possible the exploitation of such markets.

Further brief comment on postmodernity and fragmentation can be found here.

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Postmodernism & media studies

As Angela McRobbie points out (McRobbie (1994)), 'the word "crisis" is one which appears with alarming regularity in the discourses of cultural studies' and she goes on to say that panic might be a more appropriate word to describe its current condition.

She points out that in cultural studies between about 1975 and 1985, the Marxist approach reigned supreme. The writings of cultural studies may well have drawn on much beyond Marxism, but the collapse of the totalizing narrative of Marxism has left a void at the heart of cultural studies.

Further, the postmodernist emphasis on the centrality of the media challenges the assumption which underlay much of cultural studies, namely that there is a clear distinction between the world of the media and the world of social reality. This centrality was recognized in Britain by the 'New' Labour Government elected in 1997, whose Creative Task Force was devoted to fostering the creative industries of media, pop music, fashion and art, a far cry from 'old' Labour's commitment to heavy industry. As the manufacturing sector rapidly disappears, so many young people offer their services as self-employed stylists, DJs, makeup artists, composers as a means of avoiding (or supplementing) the dole or a MacJob in the service sector. There is no longer any clear distinction between the cultural and the social, nor between the cultural and the economic, big business and culture being closely intertwined. Indeed, culture is big business:

'Only 17% of working Americans now manufacture anything, down from 22% as recently as 1980,' wrote Robert B. Reich in 1992. According to the New York Times, American films 'produce the second largest trade surplus, after airplane sales, of any American industry.' Immaterial commodities dominate the domestic market as well: A recent Business Week feature reported that 'entertainment and recreation, not health care or autos - have provided the biggest boost to consumer spending' since 1991.

Dery (1996: 3)

Consider, for example, the centrality of advertising as culture in our society, consider the way that football and other sporting activities may become not just a way of promoting big business, but big business in themselves. Our daily lives are saturated with the products of the culture industries - television in the living room, the CD player in the bedroom, the radio in the car, the walkman in the library, the Department for the National Heritage when we go for a walk in the countryside. Any distinction between 'reality' and the 'imaginary' is blurred, illusory. In this situation, (what Baudrillard refers to as hyperreality) there is no possibility of distinguishing a signifier for its signified, a sign from its referent. It no longer makes sense to ask to what extent the representation conforms to or distorts the reality, since there are only signs and images, only the hyperreal.

Also, the emphasis on a plurality of 'truths' has tended to shift the focus of attention from the media texts, which supposedly manipulate audiences, to the meanings actively constructed for those texts by their readers. An important shift of emphasis as well is the 'deauratizing' of literary and media productions. This is not simply the valorizing of 'popular culture', but an emphasis that all texts are social texts anchored in the social, production and distribution practices of late capitalism. Thus there is also much emphasis on the contexts in which texts are produced. This may be seen as a democratization of the cultural studies field, opening it up to a plurality of voices, and may therefore also be seen as the realization of the radical project of cultural studies. (I think I would agree that this process of democratization has been a significant step, but I have some misgivings about what appears to me to be wilful obscurantism in some areas of contemporary cultural studies.)

It is clear also that there are fundamental cultural shifts taking place in society under the influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Organizations are rapidly changing shape, employees are working from home, political parties, newspapers and academics are publishing via the World Wide Web and so on. It could be that these rapid changes require different research approaches.

What postmodernism has picked up on is what is sometimes referred to as the 'aestheticization of everyday life' to summarize the characteristics I have briefly outlined above.

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Postmodernism: Baudrillard

BaudrillardJust as the insights of French philosophy and linguistics had an enormous influence on the development of cultural studies in the vein, so too have the French been influential in the further development of cultural studies beyond that Marxian school of thought, in the area of what is known as postmodernism. Perhaps the most influential of all the French in what is sometimes referred to as New French Theory is Jean Baudrillard (hip and cool at any rate), the pop-star of the postmodern. Not unlike Marshall McLuhan with whom Baudrillard is often compared and who is often hailed as the first communication theorist of the postmodern, Baudrillard has a remarkable gift for coining catchy phrases which tantalizingly encapsulate our experience of contemporary culture. As critical theory developed classical Marxism to apply to the culture of the time, so Baudrillard may be considered now to be reworking cultural studies to apply to our postmodern times (at least you may see it that way if you accept that we live in 'postmodern times').

Guy Debord and the Situationists

DebordTo some extent, Baudrillard's work, especially in its early stages, takes its cue from Guy Debord and the Situationists. Marxist commentators had recognized a shift from an early form of capitalism based primarily on production to a later form based on consumption, the media and manipulation of information. That is the point of view we find expressed in, for example, the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, who drew on Max Weber's theories of rationalization and bureaucratization in formulating their thesis of the 'totally administered society', supported by the 'culture industries' which acted to defuse critical consciousness: 'The spectacle is the moment when commodity has secured the total occupation of social life.' (Debord 1992/1967 : 39 (42))

1968 posterThese Marxist analyses of the consumer society were further developed by Debord. Debord considered that the 'late capitalism' of his day constituted a rupture with earlier capitalism, but was nevertheless accessible to Marxist analysis, applying especially Marx's theory of commodification to the consumer society, as world and commodity increasingly become inseparable (no longer are objects produced, but 'a growing multitude of image-objects' (1992/1967 : 61 (66)). World and commodity become indistinguishable from each other: 'the becoming-world of the commodity, which is also the becoming-commodity of the world' (1992/1967 : 22 (16)), strongly reminiscent of Baudrillard's comments on 'simulacra' (see below). Indeed, fundamental to Debord's understanding of the society of the spectacle is his view that the world is being replaced by spectacle:

The whole of the life of those societies governed by modern conditions of production looks like an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything which was directly lived has moved away into a representation

(1992/1967 : 15 (1))

There are elements of Gramscian influence in Debord as well, in his recognition that capitalist domination was not secured by force, but by consensus, the workers being distracted and kept satisfied by the 'spectacle' which is 'a permanent opium war to make us accept the identification of goods [biens i.e. in the sense it is used in, for example, 'the public good'] with commodities 1992/1967 : 41 (44)) The principle of commodity fetishism is the domination of society by things which are 'supersensory, though sensory' (suprasensibles bien que sensibles), the inversion of the real and the unreal, the domination of the tangible world of real social forces and relations of production and power by the intangible world of images and spectacle,

where the tangible (sensible) world is replaced by a selection of images which exists above it, and which simultaneously has imposed itself as the tangible par excellence.

1992/1967 : 36 (36))

There is not simply a blurred dividing line between reality and unreality; rather, unreality, appearance comes to be seen (as Baudrillard would put it) as more real than reality itself:

the spectacle is the affirmation of appearance and the affirmation of all human, i.e. social, life as mere appearance

1992/1967 : 19 (10))

Baudrillard, as we shall see, developed many of these ideas from Debord, initially developing, then later dropping the Marxist component and, ultimately, taking the ideas into the realm of something like science-fiction. Though Debord is often compared with Baudrillard it is important to understand that Debord clung to the conviction that people could see through capitalist illusions to the underlying reality and that through radical practice the passivity of the people could be overcome. Both of these convictions are alien to Baudrillard's thought. For Debord the spectacle is intimately linked to the imperatives of capitalism, whereas for Baudrillard the sign develops according to the autonomous logic of the code. Thus Baudrillard's analysis is fundamentally less politically oriented than Debord's.

Please note that I am aware of having done some violence to Debord's ideas in summarizing them in this way, especially in concentrating on the theoretical and the political. The Situationists' concerns were much broader, their activities much more original, anarchic and interesting than I have suggested here. They are well worth investigating further - try the excellent Situationist International site

The political economy of the sign

Postmodernists seem frequently to be keen to write the obituary of something or other. Baudrillard pronounces political economy dead, a death which must of course entail a move away from conventional Marxist analysis of culture and society based on the analysis of political economy. His early work concentrates on a critique of the consumer society, moving the focus of attention from the classical Marxian concern with political economy to the 'political economy of the sign'. He thus places more emphasis on what he calls 'sign value' than on the classical Marxists' exchange value and use value. In our consumer society commodities are characterized by this third kind of value - sign value:

the "truth" of the contemporary object is no longer to be of some use, but to signify, no longer to be manipulated as an instrument, but as a sign

(1970: 180)

As monopoly capitalism struggles to maintain its markets, so it turns its attention to demand management through the 'sign values' of luxuriousness, style, power and so on which, through advertising, marketing, packaging and the manipulation of fashion, become as much a part - or even a greater part - of the commodity's value than its use value and exchange value. Once capitalism was on the brink of breakdown, it produced the individual as consumer, no longer the slave as unit of labour, but a 'new type of serf, the individual as unit of consumption' (1972: 90) in a society in which consumption is defined 'not only structurally as a system of exchange of signs, but strategically as a mechanism of power.' Thus, Baudrillard rejects the standard view of classical economics which describes the mechanics of consumption in terms of a rational consumer setting out to satisfy needs with the aim of maximizing utility. For Baudrillard it is not possible to critique capitalism solely on the basis of political economy; any such critique must incorporate consideration of commodification and culture. For Baudrillard the era of consumption is also the era of

radical alienation. The logic of the market has become generalized, governing today not only the processes of work and material products, but our entire culture, sexuality, human relations, including even our fantasies and individual impulses. Everything is covered by this logic, not only in the sense that all functions, all needs are objectified and manipulated in terms of profit, but in the deeper sense that everything becomes spectacle [tout est spectacularisé], that is to say is evoked, provoked, orchestrated in images, in signs, in consumable models.

(1970: 309)

Under these circumstances individuals cannot perceive their own needs. Distinctions between 'primary' and 'secondary' needs, 'authentic' and 'false' needs become meaningless, as does, naturally, the Marxists' distinction between 'use value' and 'exchange value', use value itself being, just like needs, a social construction. (For more detailed comment, see Baudrillard on the concept of 'needs'.)

During the 1970s Baudrillard develops this idea of sign value further, presenting us with a picture of society so thoroughly imbued with mass media output that we are all caught up in the play of images and spectacles which assume at least as much importance as any reality supposedly external to those images. In The Consumer Society (1970 : 187ff.) Baudrillard accepts McLuhan's dictum that the medium is the message as a 'fundamental characteristic in the analysis of consumption'. The content of the medium of television conceals from us the medium's real function, which is the restructuring of human relations. Baudrillard argues that it is thus not the manifest content of TV's messages which is consumed, but the coded relations of signs which do not attach to any real referents. The

lived, unique, eventful (événementiel)' character of the world is neutralized and replaced by the infinite play of media which signify one another and refer to one another, to the point where they 'become the reciprocal content of one another - and that is the totalitarian "message" of a consumer society

(1970 : 189ff.)

As Baudrillard sees it, the 'culturalist platitude' that every individual is a product of society simply masks the more radical truth that the totalitarian logic of any system of productivist growth (not only capitalism) must produce and reproduce individuals as productive forces in their freedom, their needs, even their unconscious:

The system can only produce and reproduce individuals as elements of the system. There can be no exception.

Baudrillard (1972: 93)

For Baudrillard, subjects are nothing more than productive forces, productive of a system of needs of which they themselves are also products. Baudrillard's critique of consumer society, developing conventional Marxian critique through the application of semiology's insights into culture and ideology, is often enlightening. It is also intensely pessimistic. Douglas Kellner (1989: 27ff)draws attention to the fact that Baudrillard's conceptualization of consumption sees it solely as the locus of capitalist domination, discounting the possibility that consumption might be a sphere 'of self-activity, of self-valorization, of the use and enjoyment of objects for one's own ends', as it is presented in, for example, the works of Michel de Certeau. Since all consumption serves to integrate individuals into the system of needs and objects, there is, for Baudrillard, no way out. Kellner, however, argues, rightly in my view, that

Baudrillard's perspectives on needs, commodities and consumption are one-sided and incomplete. For he is theorizing use values and needs strictly from the standpoint of how they are perceived by capital and how capitalists might fantasize that they are actually producing use values and needs. From a two-class or multiperspectival standpoint, however, one can see that commodities have various uses, some defined by the system of political economy and some created by consumers or users. The system of political economy attempts to produce needs and specific utilities for objects, but individuals may in fact use objects in quite different ways from those and may exert much more autonomy and creativity within the sphere of consumption than Baudrillard allows.

(1989: 37)

I think this is a fairly typical Baudrillardian tendency to overstate his case. In part that's what makes him so provocative and contributes to his perceived importance, but it can get pretty tedious after a while. I suppose that - now if not then - Baudrillard would refuse to countenance de Certeau's tactics of resistance because they function within a discourse which is no longer valid. In view of postmodernists' rejection of totalizing narratives, it's surprising that Baudrillard goes around totalizing quite a lot, a tendency which leads him, after The Mirror of Production, published in 1973, to a thorough-going rejection of Marxism, which he sees as reductionist and imperialistic. Kellner accuses Baudrillard here of setting up a caricature straw-man version of Marx, the dismissal of whom is easy, but 'perverse', since it refuses to acknowledge a) how Marx himself paid attention to more than merely the logic of production and b) how the analysis of culture was indeed used to develop Marxism in the works of Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, Guy Debord and others.


From this point on, Baudrillard focuses on what he claims is a totally new era in which we have witnessed the end of labour, the end of production, the end of political economy and a whole load more ends as well. 'The era of the signified and of function is over, the era of the signifier and of the code is beginning,' he claims (1972: 248). This era is characterized by the dominance of new information technologies which supplant production and political economy as the organizing principles of capitalist society. Codes, he now claims, have become the primary organizing principles of society, codes of production rather than modes of production. From now on, Baudrillard turns his attention to the 'cyberblitz' of cybernetic codes which envelop us. He develops a kind of technological determinism reminiscent of McLuhan, but differing from him in its pessimism. In In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978), Baudrillard argues that the production of meaning has been overtaken by the production of the demand for meanings. Consider how the political debate between the major parties no longer seems to focus on what might be best for the country, but rather on what the people want, not on any political or economic principles. Indeed, in the cyberblitz, political and economic principles coalesce and dissolve. The masses passively consume the media spectacle. Academics, theorists, earnest politicians and broadcasters may want to have the masses better informed, better socialized, more cultured, but

the masses scandalously resist this imperative of rational communication. They are given meaning: they want spectacle. No effort has been able to convert them to the seriousness of the content, nor even to the seriousness of the code. Messages are given to them, they only want some sign, they idolize the play of signs and stereotypes, they idolize any content so long as it resolves itself into a spectacular sequence.


People are incapable of social action in their 'hyperconformity', with the result that conventional theories of politics, class conflict, revolutionary change etc. are simply obsolete. The 'death of the social' Note, however, that Baudrillard does not propose a simple 'manipulation theory' of the media. Rather than seeing the media as responsible for 'dumbing down' the masses, he seems to consider the masses responsible for 'dumbing down' the media.


Baudrillard's 'cyberblitz' is not just another way of saying simply 'there's a lot more communication going on'. He rejects the modernist nostalgia for some kind of undistorted communication à la Habermas, for authenticity. There is no 'authentic' reality behind the TV news. There may be critiques of the TV news and its 'inauthenticity' and 'distortion' of reality, but such critiques are another set of signs, another discourse, no more 'authentic' than the TV news. Debord lamented 'the affirmation of all human, i.e. social, life as mere appearance', but for Baudrillard there is no real behind the appearance, the illusion does not mask the real, the illusion is the real, which is the illusion, which is.... The very notion of 'reality' disappears, the images are more real than any other reality, the signs, the simulacra refer solely to themselves - the end of the real. In The Orders of Simulacra in Symbolic Exchange and Death Baudrillard develops his (by now quintessentially Baudrillardian) notion of simulation in what he calls the 'precession of simulacra', where the simulacra (the imitations which simulate reality) precede the reality. Disneyland is the real America, to use one of his best-known examples, or the hyperreal America, just like the rest of America, which is 'of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation', 'more real than the real' America. Under the influence of the all-pervasive media simulations of reality, the very notion of meaning itself 'implodes'.

Baudrillard's terminology is peculiar to him and his suggestive writing, for me at least, often has an oracular tone which certainly seems to resonate with my experience of the late twentieth century, but I have to admit I'm often not quite sure what he's getting at. As I understand him, though, some of the key terms are:

radical semiurgy - Baudrillard (1972: 228) develops his notion of semiurgy (by analogy with metallurgy), marking the passage from an industrial society to our present technoculture which has passed from metallurgy to semiurgy, a passing beyond the mode of production and the political economy of the circulation of products and merchandise to a stage where the 'finality of meaning of an object, its status of message and sign' is foregrounded. As an exemplar, Baudrillard takes the Bauhaus design movement which 'puts in place this universal semantization of the environment'(1972: 230). Currently, then, the over-production of signs through the ubiquitous and unavoidable mass media, leads to a society consisting entirely of:

  • simulacra - which Baudrillard considers have passed through three stages
    • in the first stage, signs corresponded to an underlying reality, they were fixed, obligatory, such that a person's social position, for example, could be read off his clothed
    • in the second order representation misrepresents and masks an underlying reality, industrial production enables exact replicas of the same object to be reproduced ad infinitum, a process which, through photography and film, extend seven to the work of art
    • in the third order we have reached 'simulation proper', models take precedence over things thirdly where it conceals the absence of a basic reality) to the fourth order of simulacra: simulations of reality which are the only real, bearing no relation to any reality, the
  • hyperreal - which dominates our experience while 'reality is abolished', any borderline between the real and the imaginary is eradicated, reality and meaning are subject to
  • implosion because it's an open secret that we live in a society dominated by simulation and nobody takes the supposed representational function of signs seriously


Having pronounced political economy dead, Baudrillard's primary concern is not, as is the case with Marxian cultural studies, to reveal the relationships of production and power behind the mass media's signs. For him, the examination of political economy and class conflict explains nothing of the reality of our social world, since we live in hyperreality, where the play of signs, the images, the spectacles of the mass media replace every other kind of reality (how's that for 'totalizing'?) and are the key determinants of the shape and functioning of postmodern societies:

The real does not disappear to the benefit of the imaginary, it disappears to the benefit of the more real than the real: the hyperreal. Truer than the true: such is simulation.

Baudrillard (1983) p.11

On January 4 1999, the day when the 'Euro' unit of currency first entered the financial markets, you might have expected such an event to be the headline item in the evening's TV news in the UK. In fact, the leading item was the resignation of Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's 'spin doctor'. The news focused intensely on Whelan's resignation, relating it to the earlier resignation of the renowned 'master of spin' Peter Mandelson For comment, they turn to Evening Standard journalists and political 'commentators'. The manufacturers of simulacra, the TV news team, focus their attention on the manufacturers of simulacra, the spin doctors, whose activities are analyzed by yet more manufacturers of simulacra. Soap opera villains need bodyguards in real life, that TV lawyers receive letters asking for advice, that real flowers are sent to TV funerals when a soap star dies, that advertising campaigns themselves become the subject of news stories, the British Prime Minister has a walk-on rôle in a Russian soap, he is asked to voice his opinion on the 'imprisonment' of a character in the soap Coronation Street. It doesn't take much reflection to see the force of Baudrillard's argument (mind you, the term parasocial interaction has been current in media studies for many years to describe just this kind of hyperreality, though the latter term is peculiarly Baudrillard's). That is fiction taken for the real, but where is the real on TV? Are TV shows like Oprah Winfrey's showing us real people in front of a real audience or are we seeing people simulating actors acting the real? (They don't, after all, appear to behave as 'normal' people!) How 'real' a President was the former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan? A US missile attack on a factory in the Sudan is just another plot development in the Clinton-Lewinski soap. To what extent is Tony Blair 'real'; to what extent is he Peter Mandelson's simulacrum of the then leader of the Labour Party? How 'real' are South-East Asian societies which have booming tiger economies which we all seek to emulate one minute and are bankrupt the next? How real was the 'boom without bust' which catastrophically imploded in 2008? As bankers continue to pay themselves huge bonuses, how real was that implosion? Consider this example provided by Mark Poster:

the Clinton forces at one point (mid-July 1994) felt that Congress was less favourable to their [health care reform] proposal than the general public. To convince the Congress of the wisdom of health-care reform, the administration purchased televison advertising which depicted ordinary citizens speaking in favour of the legislation. The ads. were shown only in Washington D.C. because they were directed not at the general population of viewers but at congressmen and congresswomen alone. The executive branch deployed the media directly on the legislative branch. Such are politics in the era of the mode of information.

Poster (1995)

The simulacrum of a public talking to a simulated public.

To what extent was the first Gulf War real, or rather a TV simulation of reality? In a sense the first Gulf war was the very first world war, since it was witnessed world-wide on TV. If you ask what images people recall of the Gulf War, they will almost invariably cite the US aerial footage of smart bombs disappearing down the ventilation shafts of weapons silos - not at all unlike a computer game, a simulacrum of war. Take a look at the news coverage of Parliament and consider to what extent the commentators are covering politics and to what extent they are weighing the politicians' ability to simulate the political process, even to simulate 'Tony Blair' or 'Bill Clinton' in that simulated political process. Or look at the popular tabloids - how much of their content is devoted to news about soaps, analysis of and speculation on the storylines, discussion of the characters in the soaps which blurs any distinction between the character represented and the actor playing the rôle, any distinction between the soap as a TV production and 'real' life? Where are the borders between entertainment and information; does everything just implode into infotainment and edutainment? The campaigning British journalist John Pilger points out how press reporting has become 'games with politicians, spin doctors, virtual reality .. and echoing 'media village' gossip: or what F Scott Fitzgerald called "bantering inconsequence".' (1996). As Pilger sees it, Tony Blair is so desperate for favourable media presentation that he is prepared to hand the 'whole media pie' over to the press barons, sweeping away the limitations on cross-media ownership. In a country, where, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, thirteen million live in poverty, a country which has a quarter of the European Union's poor, a country in which Rupert Murdoch (see the section on NewsCorp) has paid virtually no tax in ten years, the journalistic consensus is that the 'old left-right divide' has collapsed, a consensus which is hardly ever challenged in the British press. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how the media can be claimed in any sense to reflect reality; rather they make reality.

Post-structuralist deconstructionism problematized the relationship between signifier and signified. Where they speak of 'floating signifiers', of the self-referentiality of language in a process of 'infinite semiosis', Baudrillard sees these as the defining charactersitics of society under technocapitalism. For him any valid distinction between signifier and signified is obliterated in the unending, vertiginous flux of simulacra. And in any case, who cares? Modernists such as Jürgen Habermas might deplore the trivialising and distorting presentation of political issues in modern media-dominated democracies, our modern Leavises may deplore the supposed distortion of emotion by advertising. From Baudrillard's standpoint, the academic rationality of convetnional social critique just doesn't cut it any more. Baudrillard's 'silent majorities' know that it's just telly, that they're just adverts. They consume them for what they are, simulations, which give pleasure. Signs are without meaning, we are left with a load of signifiers that don't signify and we take them as such, experiencing the vertiginous flow, maybe enjoying it, sometimes maybe not:

The naive illusion about the media is that they are used by those in power to manipulate, seduce and alienate the masses. A vulgar interpretation. The more subtle version, the ironic version is precisely the opposite. It is that, through the media, it is the masses who manipulate those in power (or those who see themselves in those terms). It is precisely at the point where the political power thinks it has them where it wants them that the masses impose their clandestine strategy of neutralization, of destabilization of a power that has become paraplegic. At the very least, let us agree that matters are undecidable here; that both hypotheses are valid; and that, at any event, any interpretation regarding the media is reversible. It is precisely in this reversibility that the objective irony lies.


Under such circumstances the traditional Marxian critique of the culture industries, informed by notions of ideology and hegemony and equipped with the tools of semiotic analysis, is on a hiding to nothing. It is pointless to attempt to uncover the social realities dissembled behind mass media messages, to try to lay bare the ideological domination masquerading behind the media's portrayal of reality, since distinctions between the real and the unreal are collapsed by hyperreality, so such 'depth models' of meaning are pointless and misguided:

Overhastily, we can say that besides the hermeneutic model of inside and outside .... at least four other fundamental depth models have generally been repudiated in contemporary theory: (1) the dialectical one of essence and appearance (along with a whole range of concepts of ideology or false consciousness which tend to accompany it); (2) the Freudian model of latent and manifest, or of repression ....; (3) the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity whose heroic or tragic thematics are closely related to that other great opposition between alienation and disalienation, itself equally a casualty of the poststructural or postmodern period; and (4) most recently, the great semiotic opposition between signifier and signified, which was itself rapidly unravelled and deconstructed during its brief heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jameson (1991) p.12

It is pointless to try to distinguish between signs and reality, images and objects, reality and representation, reality and illusion. Further, Marxism is in any case just another totalizing metanarrative and postmodernism rejects totality. So, along with the death of the subject, the end of history, the end of the enlightenment project and all the other ends and deaths which the postmodern philosopher-kings proclaim, can we also announce the death of Marxist critical theory? Baudrillard certainly does so. The masses, in his view, are not somehow 'mystified', they do not, as critical theorists would claim, 'spontaneously aspire to the natural light of reason'. The illuminati, as Baudrillard ironically refers to the concerned intellectuals, are offended by the masses' attention to football rather than 'important issues'. They must have been duped, hoodwinked by power, narcotized by football. Two centuries after the French revolution, two centuries of exposure to unions, a free press, intellectuals, the masses continue to prefer football and intellectuals continue to explain that indifference to 'the issues' of the day by claiming that the masses are duped. "What contempt behind this interpretation! ", exclaims Baudrillard. For him,

It is exactly this indifference, however, that demands to be analyzed in its positive brutality, instead of being dismissed as white magic, or as a magic alienation which always turns the multitudes away from their revolutionary vocation.


This position towards the masses' indifference is one which Baudrillard later ironically summarizes:

It makes perfect sense to me that the great masses, very snobbishly, delegate to the class of intellectuals, of politicians, this business of managing, of choosing, of knowing what one wants. They are joyously dumping all those burdensome categories that no one, deep down inside, really wants any part of.


Clearly, such a point of view writes off the whole cultural studies project as a waste of time. If it is not possible to recognize and distinguish between what Debord referred to as the 'becoming-world of the commodity' and the 'becoming-commodity of the world' then there is no possibility of critique or analysis or of meaningful radical positions, whereas, as we have seen, Debord continued to believe in the efficacy of a critical hermeneutics which would reveal the capitalist social relations underlying the society of the spectacle. Kellner and Best consider that Baudrillard's move

from the collapse of the classical episteme to the thesis of radical simulation and implosion, from the fragmentation of meaning to the 'end of meaning' is far too hasty a move and obscures the ways in which we still can and must configure our world, not in an act of pictured reflection but, rather, in a theoretical and critical analysis that attempts to grasp the constitutive relations of society and to decode their ideological operations.

Kellner and Best (1997 : 113)

However, Debord himself eventuallly reached something like the same depressing conclusions as Baudrillard. In The Society of the Spectacle he had distinguished between the 'concentrated' form of the spectacle (the totalitarian form in the Soviet Union) and the 'diffuse' form (the Huxleyesque American form). By the time of his Comments on the Society of the Sectacle, written twenty years later, Debord recognized the development in the meantime of fusion of the two forms in the 'integrated spectacle', which has absorbed whatever critical opposition there might have been. Where Baudrillard goes to after the period around In the Shadow of Silent Majorities is, I confess, something of a mystery to me. His style becomes ever more impenetrable, especially as he moves further away from something I can more or less recognize as sociology, as a cultural critique, into something which is a weird combination of science-fiction and metaphysics - 'the Walt Disney of contemporary metaphysics' as Kellner calls him (1989: 179). To me he remains fascinating, but reads increasingly like a complete fruit-loop. Sometimes I think it's just me, so it's a relief to find Kellner agreeing that

Baudrillard's work of the late 1980s .... combines some incisive observation with repetition of pet ideas and sheer nonsense

(1989: 211

So, if I do come at some point to feel that I have a better understanding of Baudrillard's later thought, I'll add something here. In the meantime, don't hold your breath, as, frankly, I wonder with Sokal and Bricmont:

In the final analysis, one could ask what would actually remain of Baudrillard's thoughts if one removed the verbose veneer that cloaks them.

Sokal A and Bricmont J (1997)

Whether Baudrillard was thinking of his own portentous vacuities when he spoke of the 'ominous emptiness of all discourse', I don't know, but it sometimes seems a fitting phrase. I don't think that necessarily means we shouldn't bother reading Baudrillard. After all, if we remove the verbose veneer that cloaks Hamlet we end up with mildly deranged prince can't make up his mind what to do to avenge his dad's death; when he finally does decide to do something he makes such a hash of it that everyone winds up dead, including himself, but I still enjoy reading Shakespeare. On the whole, though, I'm inclined to think that Baudrillard matters less.

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General comment

Since, as we have seen, the postmodernists generally reject the idea that certain kinds of people (philosophers, critical theorists, intellectuals, Marxists et al) have some kind of privileged access to the truth, or indeed that anyone has any access to any kind of non-contingent, non-relative, non-temporary truth, then clearly a 'critical' theory cannot be sustained. Rorty, for example, would claim that there is not and cannot be any kind of vantage point somewhere outside the established (and temporary) norms of consensual knowledge, from where the intellectual could deliver a critique of society.

Certainly, when reading some of the classic studies of the media in the Marxist vein, one cannot avoid the feeling that they have become outdated, even quaint. They frequently - and unsurprisingly - adopt a moralizing tone, in this respect the balance is redressed by postmodernism's frequent emphasis of playfulness and pleasure (indeed, it's worth saying that it seems to me that is you approach some of Baudrillard's work in a spirit of fun, it can make a lot more sense - though most other theorists seem to be a pretty po-faced bunch); the Marxist critics' frequent concentration on news coverage and documentaries, excluding more 'trivial' media content (though there were also often studies of popular culture) seems inappropriate in an age when society is saturated by media content of all kinds; their tendency to assume effects has been seriously challenged by the New Audience Research's emphasis on semiotic democracy; there has been a tendency to approach media effects as always being top-down, an approach which is challenged by the increasing interactivity of media - in this connexion there is also the fact that many Marxist critics disregard the development of information technology and often seem to have little understanding of its potential (with the highly notable exception of Herbert Schiller - for more information see the section on Information Technology); even some well-established notions such as moral panics seem unrealistic in an age when interest groups such as Greenpeace are remarkably effective in setting the media agenda (for example, in the affair of the disposal of the Shell-owned oil rig, Brent Spar, Greenpeace succeeded in gaining airtime for its own VNRs (video news releases) in TV news and indeed much of the coverage seemed to be from Greenpeace's point of view); the notion that a dominant ideology is relentlessly communicated through the media also seems questionable when one considers the variety of output even on mainstream terrestrial TV; as the Labour Party moves further to the right, the simple distinction between Left and right even seems to fade.

However, none of this means for me that critical studies should be consigned to the bin. Nor is it readily apparent to me in any case that there is a radical rupture between post-modernity and whatever you care to call what preceded it. Jameson sees post-modernism as the 'cultural logic of late capitalism': 'Postmodernism is not the cultural dominant of a wholly new social order ... but only the reflex and the concomitant of yet another systemic modification of capitalism itself.' I accept that the challenge from most postmodernism should be taken seriously. I think the stalwarts of critical studies have been slow to engage with that challenge and where they have responded to postmodernism, they have often done so either defensively or dismissively. But that does not necessarily mean that there is no possibility of engagement. Postmodernism has achieved valuable political advances, no doubt. Its valorization of 'difference' and rejection of grand narratives have incorporated awareness of the needs and perspectives of women, racial minorities, the disabled, gays and so on so firmly into our everyday political understanding that it is hard to believe that they could ever be removed. And they are considerable gains. Those may be benefits of post-modernism, but it's worth bearing in mind that the needs and rights of such groups are also central, at least in principle, to the 'totalizing Enlightenment narrative' of universal emancipation.

It can be argued that the Enlightenment project for all its universalist pretensions was in its inception a bourgeois project, but that it may have come from a particular class position does not invalidate what it became:

The exotic new thesis was abroad that you were entitled to freedom, autonomy, justice, happiness, political equality and the rest not because you were the son of a minor Prussian count but simply on account of your humanity. We now had rights, obligations and responsibilities which put in brackets all of our most intimately individuating features. Postmodernism is in general allergic to any such trampling on the particular, and this ferocious abstraction trampled on it with a vengeance. It was also one of the greatest emancipatory ideas of world history, one which postmodernism has come so much to take for granted that it can apparently identify by its blindspots. It was not at all true in practice that everyone - women, for example, or non-Europeans or the lower peasantry - was accorded equal respect. But everyone's freedom mattered in theory, and 'in theory' is a sizable improvement on its not mattering even as that. It is an improvement not least because middle-class society could now be challenged by those it suppressed according to its own logic, caught out in a performative contradiction between what it said and what it did.. And this is always a far sharper form of critique than measuring a social order against values whose validity it would not even acknowledge.

Eagleton (1996) pp.112-113

To criticize the totalizing tendencies of Enlightenment is one thing; to equate them with totalitarianism quite another. The Enlightenment project was never as simplistically coherent as its critics try to suggest. As Habermas reminds us, the dangers inherent in a purely instrumentalist concept of reason were always pointed out throughout the 'counterdiscourse' during the history of modernity. Postmodernism's disposal of the emancipatory baby along with the totalizing bathwater plays into the hands of neo-liberalism. It is sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that the left have simply capitulated, though capitulated in the face of what is an intriguing question. It is almost as if the will to continue the struggle has simply evaporated. It is, as Eagleton (1996) puts it, 'as though someone were to display all the symptoms of rabies, but had never been within biting distance of a mad dog'. Essentially, capitalism is suddenly off the agenda, Marxism is 'post', socialism is dead. Oppression is readily debated in all its forms, the oppression of women, of gays, of Third World inhabitants, but the underlying oppressive system of capital seems to have come to be seen as an unbreachable system, indeed even to be taken for granted as a given; the neo-liberal reification of market forces as pseudo-natural laws is all-pervasive and the left see no possibility of resistance, indeed in many cases it seems never even to cross their minds that it could be resisted any more than one could resist, say, the second law of thermodynamics. The postmodernists can debate their floating signifiers until they are blue in the face, they can debate the semiotic resistances of the shoppers in the mall, the indeterminacy of meaning and the end of the Enlightenment all they like. Meanwhile capital ensures a 23% increase since 1979 in the incomes of the richest 10% of the British population and a decrease of 13% in the incomes of the poorest 10%, capital sees to it that the formerly cohesive mining villages around Barnsley become centres of heroin addiction and spiraling crime, that the education system polarizes into the élite education of the wealthy and the non-education of the poor, that the supreme achievements of the post-war generation in the construction of the welfare state are dismantled utterly, that society fragments into a Hobbesian war of all against all where the only certainty seems to be that the rich will win. As a teacher in state education, I have to deal on a daily basis with the consequences of this: with unemployed adult students terrorized by the social security services, with adolescent students facing a lifetime without stable employment, with poverty, insecurity, depression, drug addiction, with colleagues constantly under threat and afraid to risk stepping out of line. This is no simulacrum, no hyperreality, this is my daily experience of the reality of a society falling apart. This cries out for action; at the very least it cries out for an explanation of how some 40% of the electorate came to vote for this in four successive elections.

Instead of setting about delivering an explanation, now that cultural studies has become institutionalized, especially in the USA, professors of cultural studies talk to other professors of cultural studies, write articles which are reviewed by other professors of cultural studies, articles which tend in any case to be about cultural studies rather than about culture; deep, learned books are written about who said what in cultural studies, who the founding fathers were, what Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall contributed and earnest students try to learn who first used the term 'floating signifiers'. Was it Eco, Derrida or Baudrillard? And why, one might ask, should anyone care?

The Derrideans? They are in a sense our new femmes savantes. A strange race of philosophers who gravitate around the rue d'Ulm and a certain number of avant-garde periodicals. They speak the master's language and imitate all of his tics. They write 'differance' with an a and read Greek in the original. They go to the seminar as others go to mass or to the market: to look for a viaticum there or the latest fashionable concept. Today, the 'hymen', yesterday the 'pharmakon', the day before yesterday the 'architrace'. You don't understand? They reply that there is nothing to understand: for these are not 'concepts', but 'textual work'.

Lévy (1986) p.72

A project initially committed to progressive social change through uncovering the roots of social deprivation, which was by definition shy of orthodoxy and committed to interdisciplinarity is in danger of becoming a self-contained discipline itself, of establishing its own canon, its own priesthood speaking in a language which only the initiates, themselves a cultural élite, have any chance of understanding. Baudrillard, ironically, becomes today's intellectual fashion accessory, the latest status symbol, the essential career move, just as he described the development of intellectual and cultural 'planned obsolescence' back in the early 1970s (1970: 149). Take a look at this:

The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor.

That's actually a spoof, produced by computer scientist, Chip Morningstar (1993), who comments on postmodernism that

The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made indistinguishable from all the other verbiage.


[For a randomly generated, but depressingly convincing, postmodern essay, visit Monash University's external linkPostmodernism Generator

Sir Peter Medawar, writing about Jim Watson, who with Francis Crick first established the double-helix structure of DNA, comments that Watson was very lucky that he was not steered towards literary study by his schoolteachers:

It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English Schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability - much more brillianr, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about. This is an advantage which scientists enjoy over most other people engaged in intellectual pursuits...

()1996 : 99)

Quite. And one might add that Watson was equally lucky that he was not steered towards the pettyfogging, logic-chopping Oxford philosophy of the day, which wasted the talents of some of that generation's most brilliant minds. The flashy verbal pyrotechnics of contemporary cultural studies do not challenge the system, but, then, they probably are not intended to since those who produce them are sufficiently privileged that there is nothing politically at stake for them. Post-structuralism's and post-modernism's pretensions to egalitarianism must be cast into doubt by the choice of a style which is self-consciously exclusive and its demand, because of its predominance in academia, that any challenge to it be presented on its own terms and in its own vocabulary. In part responsible for this, I think, as Morningstar suggests, is the institutionalization of the subject, the fact that the practititioners talk only to other practitioners and have a vested interest in keeping outsiders out. It's not the first time this has happened, of course. The priesthood had a vested interest in preventing plebs from hearing church services or the Bible in the vernacular; scribes had a vested interest in trying to prevent the spread of reading; Hegel, Fichte and Schelling had a vested interest in (in Schopenhauer's words) 'serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses (1958/1819 : 429); indeed, even an average run-of-the mill teacher like myself has an interest in controlling and mystifying information (for an insightful overview of the historical resistance to the democratization of reading and to the use of non-print media today, see Spender (1995)). In part also, the current trend, although much influenced by the 'linguistic turn' may be a reaction against the self-imposed limitations of ordinary-language and analytic Anglo-Saxon philosophy of the 50s and 60s. That approach to philosophy may often have been boring and uninspired and one can understand impatience with it, but the retreat into the oracular, the florid, convoluted and often essentially bogus style of postmodernism is hardly progressive. What is more, to the extent that it terrorizes students into aping the masters' style, it debauches their minds and is downright immoral.

It might in any case be that postmodernist theorizing is an irrelevance to all but the intellectual élite, since, like it or not, appropriate or not, western rationality seems to be in the process of being rapidly adopted by the rest of the world. Capitalism seems to be doing a perfectly adequate job of 'totalizing' while our intellectuals are intent on undermining the possibility of any 'totalizing', macro-political perspective which might resist it. Democratically elected governments are at the mercy of unelected transnationals, whose only morality is the logic of the market place. Whatever makes money makes sense and any challenge to that axiom is clearly nonsense, whoever makes money is a valued member of society and whoever fails to make money fails to achieve membership of the society - in the US and Great Britain increasingly the poor are removed from society and banged up in prison. Society becomes as polarized as in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Globally, the world is divided into, on the one side, the Haitian workers who make Disney-branded clothing and, on the other, Michael Eisner, Dinsey's boss, who earns up to $50 million a year. This cries out for resistance, but none can be forthcoming from the academy which denies the validity of the social goals of modernity, derides them as unachievable utopias, or simply abandons them as discredited metanarratives.

Some of post-modernism's attraction to intellectuals, I suspect, is that it affords them an aura of subversiveness - it is supposedly transgressive, iconoclastic, demystifying etc. - in their universities without actually requiring that they take any genuine risks with their tenure. It is certainly not easy to disagree with the post-structuralist/post-modernist orthodoxy. A subscription to any of the relevant listservs would show how they frequently react with sneering scorn and derision to anyone who dares to challenge them, rather than with rational responses - but, then, rationality is totalitarian. It's intriguing that it consigns totalizing metanarratives to the bin at the same time as it seems to insist on its own superiority over any other perspectives, which are treated with contempt. I am reminded here again of Medawar, who commented that

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

1996 : 9

There goes old totalitarian Medawar again. In any case, he's not French and he's a scientist to boot, so his opinion hardly counts, I suppose. Whatever, for me at any rate his dictum that 'people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to some mischief' is something I prefer to bear in mind when reading cultural theorists. They frequently quote Wittgenstein, but seem to have forgotten his proposition that 'Whatever can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Whatever can be expressed can be expressed clearly' (1966 : 4.116), though, of course, that quotation is from the early Wittgenstein, whereas it's the late Wittgenstein who's had the most influence, the Wittgenstein of whose philosophy Russell wrote that it was 'at best, a slight help to lexicographers, and at worst, an idle tea-table amusement" (1959 : 217). In any case it's the Medawars - the scientists - who are going ahead and constructing the theories, with or without the postmodernists. Neuroscience, genetics, Darwinian theory are together poised to build a new and all-embracing theory of human nature. To stand aside from such development because of an extreme skepticism towards 'totalizing' theories is to do the humanities a major disservice, since the totalizing theories will be constructed without them, whereas they should be informed by just that skepticism. To turn one's back on science because of past excesses of rationalism is suicidal


What I have just written is not atypical of much of what appears currently to be a backlash against postmodernism, a backlash which appears to be growing in strength and support. In fact, there is a possibility that postmodernism is becoming unfashionable. I am aware that part of my own reaction against the postmodern may in part be driven by anti-intellectualism, in part because the writing is obscure and difficult and what I derive from working at it doesn't seem to repay the effort. So it could be that my impatience in that respect is simply a function of my own stupidity. Anti-intellectualism also in the sense that anti-intellectualism may rest on the belief that intellectuals don't 'do' anything 'useful' - and, of course, Marxist critics would be mindful of Marx's dictum that 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.' The same criticism was raised against Adorno and other representatives of the Frankfurt School, to which Adorno replied:

We older representatives of that for which the name Frankfurt School has established itself have recently had the reproach of resignation levelled against us. We had, it is stated, developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we were not prepared to draw the practical consequences from this theory. We neither designed programmes for action nor did we support the actions of those who felt themselves inspired by critical theory. I shall sidestep the question whether this demand can be made at all upon theoretical thinkers who always remain to a certain degree sensitive and by no means unshakeable instruments. The task assigned such individuals within a society characterized by the division of labor might indeed be questionable; they themselves might well be deformed by it. But they have also been formed by it. And there is no way in which they can repeal that which they have become merely through an act of their own will.

Adorno (1991)

Perhaps, indeed, after all of the 'ends' proclaimed by the pomos, we are by now (2002) at the 'end of postmodernism'. Angela McRobbie (1999 : ix) expresses her sense that postmodernism failed to engage with those who did not have the resources to become part of postmodernism's cosmopolitan world, that ' the aesthetic force of postmodernism did not fully acknowledge the way in which these changes were registered at ground level', a sense which has 'sent [her] back to a new kind of materialism, one which attempts to connect the large scale changes with the small scale cultural economies and livelihoods upon which so many people now depend for a living.'

There are plenty of serious arguments to be made against postmodernism, but they do tend to be formulated in rather 'mud-slinging' terms (as, indeed, I have formulated them in this polemic) - that postmodernism is relativist, nihilist, conservative, fascist. More seriously, perhaps, that postmodernism tends to celebrate the new technologies (though, admittedly, Baudrillard's view is intensely pessimistic) and, in doing so, depoliticizes them, removing any purchase on an analysis of their function as instruments of oppression or that postmodernism's questioning of rationality closes down the possibility of any development of a genuinely public sphere. Another serious objection is that its emphasis on consumerism colludes with free-market liberalism. Much of the attack on postmodernism tends to set up the argument as a binary opposition between the 'good guys', the earnest freedom fighters of critical theory and Marxian cultural studies, and 'bad guys', the self-consciously 'playful' conservatives of postmodernism. This, of course, depends on presenting postmodernism as an homogeneous field of enquiry, which it clearly is not. There are so many different variants of postmodernism that there is much disagreement over whether a given writer, painter, musician is postmodern or not. To an extent also, the presentation of postmoderns as neo-conservative relativists who deny that there can be any truth is a misconstruction too. Foucault, for example, often the target of such accusations (though I'm not at all convinced that he properly belongs in the postmodernist camp), simply did not see himself as being in the business of examining the validity, the 'truthfulness' of statements, but rather as examining the function of the truth claims of statements within their socio-historical context:

by truth I do not mean 'the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted', but rather 'the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,'

Similarly, Foucault is attacked for denying human nature, whereas he was generally concerned to examine the function of the concept of human nature in the various discourses in which it has been used.

In any case, the term 'conservative' needs to be used with care. There are similarities and parallels certainly between the politics of the New Right and postmodern philosophizing and relativism is one such similarity. Inevitably, the doctrine of neo-liberalism that the market is supreme and the consumer sovereign is apt to undermine any ethical or aesthetic absolutes. But that hardly qualifies as conservatism; indeed Thatcher's period of government in the UK was one of the most revolutionary this century. That she managed to combine the unleashing of free-market liberalism with what one might more reasonably consider 'conservative' qualities, such as moral authoritarianism, is a tribute to her political astuteness.

So, I think post-modernism does deserve attention, despite its often faddish and pretentious qualities. Whatever the intentions of post-modernist authors, their writings sometimes benefit from a reading of them as poetry or science fiction. The achievements of post-modernism are, I think, also deserving of respect, as Eagleton concedes. It's worth bearing in mind the distinction which Kellner and Best draw between oppositional and ludic (=playful) postmodernism. The former is the product of new social movements intended to oppose, resist and reconstruct existing society, seeking to develop new forms of opposition and resistance whilst distancing itself from modernist theory and politics. Ludic postmodernism, on the other hand, is playful, ironic and eclectic, some forms being very affirmative toward existing reality, others more pessimistic and nihilistic, this ludic form of postmodernism possibly leading to a justification of a refusal to engage with current political realities. (Kellner and Best (1997 : 26-27))

And why shouldn't a work be a mixture of social science, literary criticism, semiotics, poetry, graffiti, self-parody, science fiction? No reason at all, I guess - post-modern playfulness. However, the Sokal affair should give us pause. What Sokal particularly strikes out against is sloppy scholarship. In my view he unfailingly hits home.

Still, who am I to say? I might well qualify as one of those 'know-nothings' whom the philosopher Richard Rorty dismisses, 'people who have not read the books against which they warn others, and are just instinctively defending their own traditional rôles'. Well, I have read at least some of the books, but I often had to read other books to try and figure out what the first lot of books were all about and then found that, in going back to the originals, I had forgotten the clarifications in the books about the books and so ended up just settling down into a set of comfortable prejudices (see above).

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