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Quotes from Appignanesi’s and Garrat’s Postmodernism for Beginners, Part 1 of 2

Rob Annable kindly sent me two books to help me understand deconstruction better. Have read the first one, Richard Appignanesi’s and Chris Garratt’s Postmodernism for Beginners, so am ready to continue with Jeff Collins’ and Bill Mayblin’s Derrida for Beginners.

This is just a dump of things I liked in it.

On the “dilemma of reproducibility,” which is one of “three urgent items” on the agenda of ‘real’ postmodernism>

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 prophecy of an elimination of the aura and autonomy of original works of art through mass reproduction has not come true. We have seen it have the opposite effect. Multi-million dollar prices for originals might be said to be proportional to their availability in mass reproduction [...].

The second and third:

A consumerist aura now extends to anything with a halo of the relic – Marilyn Monroe’s panties or Al Capone’s Pontiac – or anything with nostalgia value – art deco radios, bracket phones, biscuit tins – because they are the souvenirs of yesteryear’s ancient manufacture.

This is image consumerism. The reproduced is taking the place of reality or replacing it as hyper-reality. We are living what has already been lived and reproduced with no reality anymore but that of the cannibalized image.

I like rules and constraints:

[...] there are no longer any rules or categories to judge the experimentally unfamiliar. [Said Jean Francois Lyotard:] “Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for.” Postmodernism means working without rules in order to find out the rules of what you’ve done.

On Baudrillard and the simulacrum:

It seems that the genealogy of postmodern art can only be disconnected from the modern in theory. Theory is not in this sense a culmination but a negation, literally, an “end of art.” Let’s look at the extreme postmodernist conclusion advanced by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, that the representational image-sign goes through 4 successive historic phases…


  1. it is the reflection of a basic reality

  2. it masks and perverts a basic reality

  3. it marks the absence of a basic reality

  4. it bears no relation to any reality whatever – it is its own pure simulacrum

He means that the border between art and reality has utterly vanished as both have collapsed into the universal simulacrum. The simulacrum is arrived at when the distinction between representation and reality – between signs and what they refer to in the real world – breaks down. [...]

Reality becomes redundant and we have reached hyper-reality in which images breed incestuously with each other without reference to reality or meaning.

Structuralism, semiology, semiotics:

Postmodern theory is a consequence of this century’s obsession with language. The most important 20th century thinkers – Bertrand Russel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and others – shifted their focus of analysis away from ideas in the mind to the language in which thinking is expressed. Philosophers or logicians, linguists or semiologists, they are all language detectives who seem to agree about one thing. To the question, “What permits meaningful thinking?”, they reply in different ways, “The structure of language.”

Here there was a quite good explanation, which I won’t quote here, of la langue, the synchronic, and la parole, the diachronic; syntagmatic and paradigmatic series (combination and substitution); metonymic and metaphoric order.

Roland Barthes and post-structuralism:

We can see the beginnings of a po mo attitude in the mid-60s with the overlap of structuralism and the “post”-structuralist second thoughts of Roland Barthes. [...] Barthes was an early and elegant exponent of semiotics who recognized that anything in culture can be decoded – not just literature but fashion, wrestling, strip tease, steak and chips, love, photography and even Japan Incorporated.

In 1967, Barthes caused a sensation by proclaiming “the death of the author”. He meant that readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question. [...]

On deconstruction:

[...] Derrida mobilizes the central insight of structuralism – that meaning is not inherent in signs, nor in what they refer to, but results purely from the relationships between them. He draws out the radical “post-structuralist” implications of this point – that structures of meaning (without which nothing exists for us) include and implicated any observers of them. To observe is to interact, so the “scientific” detachment of structuralists or of any other rationalist position is untenable.

Structuralism’s insight to this extent was correct. It was incorrect to suppose that anything reasoned is ever universal, timeless and stable. Any meaning or identity (including our own) is provisional and relative, because it is never exhaustive, it can always be traced further back again … almost to infinity or the “zero degree” of sense. This is deconstruction – to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meanings.

On art and knowledge:

Literature and art are closely linked to knowledge in [historian Michel] Foucault’s view of history, not situated within the episteme [earlier in the book: “from the Greek epistomai, ‘to understand, to know for certain, to believe’, which gives us epistemology, the verification theory of knowledge concerned with distinguishing genuine from spurious knowledge] but rather articulating its limits. Art is meta-epistemic: it is about the episteme as a whole, an allegory of the deep arrangements that make knowledge possible.

The book then talks a little about Jacques Lacan, and there were a couple of interesting things on the unconscious and language acquisition:

The unconscious functions by signs, metaphors, symbols, and in this sense it is “like” a language. But Lacan’s point is that the unconscious only comes to exist after language is acquired.

Between 6 to 18 months, the infant makes its first startling discovery of itself in the mirror as an image which appears total and coherent. The infant imaginary phase precedes language and contributes to the way we acquire it [according to Lacan].

A sense of self arrives externally, from a reflection, or from the imaginary. Identity comes from mis-recognition, a false persuasion of Self, which remains with us as an ideal ego for the rest of our lives. The mirror supplies the first Signified and the infant itself acts as the Signifier.

A couple of pages later; postmodern science, the “Theory of Everything” of physics (Stephen Hawking) and Paul Feyerabend:

Postmodern science can be said to be in a condition of anarchy, a position affirmed as a good thing by the self-styled Dadaist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend.

A quote from his Against Method:

The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes… Without chaos, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress… For what appears as “sloppiness”, “chaos”, or “opportunism”...has a most important function in the development of those very theories which we today regard as essential parts of our knowledge… These “deviations”, these “errors”, are preconditions of progress.

I’m about halfway through. This will have to come in two parts.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on March 12, 2005. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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