This essay aims to further the understanding of the meaning and significance of the concept of postmodernism and the culture surrounding it, by exploring the distinctive role which television and films play in modern societies. It highlights the ways in which movies and programmes have altered and continue to alter our everyday experiences. Since the early 1980’s the debate on postmodern culture and the issues of cultural change, and other relations between time and space has been immense.
For a long period of time now it has been taught that we are moving from the period known as the ‘modern’ era into a time of uncertainty, known as the ‘postmodern’ era or ‘postmodernity’. The ‘modern’ context refers to the self confident, highly secular, humanistic worldview, whereas the ‘postmodern’ reflects the collapse of the Enlightenment paradigm, and abandonment of the search for objective truth and meaning. It represents not a complete rupture from modernism, but where elements that could be found in modernism appear in postmodernism with added emphasis and intensity.
It has been said that one of Postmodernism’s absolutes is choice. We have the right to refuse to passively absorb the postmodern ideology reflected through television and films. It is our own free will that enables us to do this, if we desire. It may be thought that postmodernity is the preserve of the academic world, and therefore has no bearing on culture and the individual. However, I believe that it affects the majority of people and is not just seen in extreme cases, but is expressed through popular culture by pop bands (U2 and Madonna are good examples), magazines, books and films and television.
Hutcheon (1989) argues that even as postmodernism makes representations, it also challenges the reality of representations. He argues that postmodernism ‘takes the form of a self-conscious, self-contradicting, self-undermining statement: it is rather like saying something with inverted commas around it’ (1989:1). In other words, postmodernism is a form of ironic knowingness. It is ironic because it understands the very limitations and conditions of its own knowing. There are two paradigms of postmodern thinking. On the one hand are those who condemn the postmodern.
According to this dystopian model, by imploding the opposition of high and mass culture, past and present, outside and inside, postmodern culture prohibits the possibility of analytical awareness and historical consciousness. Television combines multiple narratives within an omnipresent flow, so might consequently be seen as a form which neutralises any position for the viewer to take time and consider meaning. Before the audience has time to consider meaning, another position is offered in turn, disrupting the possibility of critical reflection.
The contrasting Utopian model on the other hand, claims postmodernisms self-reflexive strategies allow liberation. According to this theory, TV’s multiplicity may construct an open text. The viewer is allowed to wonder freely producing whatever meanings best correlate with the cultural competencies brought upon them. From such contrasting concepts, evaluations of television have polarised around the question of postmodernism and ideology, claiming we are either in a realm of complete pacification due to an endless disposal of meanings or in an affective democracy where the power of ideology is null and void.
As mentioned before, we live in a time which offers us, as an audience, multiple realities. Television is a good example of this. As Glenn Ward writes: “Moving into different realities can be done at the push of a button. Everywhere you look different, perhaps contradictory messages, images and ideas jostle for attention. In this new media domain, anything can go with anything; like a game with no rules”. As there are no charges for broadcast reception, the free availability of television entangles its viewers in a continual cycle of consumption, implicating us further into capitalism.
The popularity of melodramas has historically been linked to times of intense social crisis. This is not to say our crises are more meaningful or meaningless than those of other eras, but that postmodern life has been represented, leading to a particular cultural and televisual landscape. Television programme, Miami Vice is seen as postmodern in two ways. Kellner (1992) argues that the identities of the two main detectives- Crocket and Tubbs are ‘unstable, fluid, fragmentary, disconnected, multiple, open and subject to dramatic transformation’.
This is indicated through their constantly changing appearances and style, together with their exchanging of identities as cops with undercover roles. In adopting these roles, Crocket and Tubbs slip in and out of a variety of identities suggesting that identity is not prearranged but a construction based on style and choice. Hence, this preoccupation with surface appearance is closely linked with consumerism as people are encouraged to buy an image rather than content.
The Simpsons is also seen as postmodern in that it has made a ‘dysfunctional’ American family the ironic stars of a series which is on the one hand not only a cartoon, but on the other hand also reflects American life and culture. It is not a surprise that the centre of the Simpsons’ life is the television set and that the programme makes a series of references to other TV programmes and genres. ‘The Itchy and Scratchy show’ is a cartoon watched by the Simpson children.