July 6, 2008

This Is Not PoMo

It is somewhat surprising yet altogether enlightening that extensively negative critiques of postmodernism continue unabated at the present date. Certainly it goes without saying that our chronological time is “postmodern” as we negotiate “late modernist” trends in nearly everything cultural, anthropological, technological, philosophical and theological. Yet the critical appraisals of postmodernism, at least in art and culture, seem determined to assert a reactionary position in as much as they call for a “return” to older traditions and definitions. What is not as clear but what I would like to address is that the anxiety provoked by postmodernism reveals a suppression of “new” thought by these critics apparently founded by fear. It appears to be fear of the teleological nature of reflection itself. As the shock of advanced theories on the “social order” and its cultural manifestations has proved unfathomable and threatening to these critics it has surely caused an irruptive transformation in our socio-cultural world as postmodernism becomes both sustained and revelatory.

Case in point is Donald Kuspit’s essay “The Semiotic Anti-Subject”.(1) Well-versed and equally well-published in art criticism, Prof. Kuspit engages in a mean-spirited romp through the basics of PoMo, introducing various mistaken and subjective opinions on what he terms “postmodern art” and artists (including but not limited to Marcel Duchamp, Sherrie Levine and Joseph Kosuth), along the way substantially trashing Rosalind Krauss and Roland Barthes for good measure. The many inconsistencies, misinterpretations and biased opinions present in Prof. Prof. Kuspit’s piece reveal several opportunities for deconstructive reversals as well as elicit sympathy prior to our inquisition. Nevertheless, let us tally them up:
  • Ostensibly to define postmodernism, Prof. Kuspit begins his biased and decidedly negative interpretation of postmodern art by comparing it to “Alexandrianism,” by way of Clement Greenberg: “In Alexandrianism, a known art is reduced to a linguistic facade, which is reified into a copy that is appropriated as a look, and as such stripped of its esthetic and expressive implications. . . the moment it is seen as an exercise in language it becomes a hollow ghost in an intellectual hades (sic).”(2)
On the contrary, the “façade” of postmodernism (unpacked via poststructuralism à la Barthes and Derrida) allows language to open upon a multiplicity of implications, as well as the “ghosts” of texts relating to other “ghosts.” Further, the use of Greenbergian terminology is selective and misrepresentative, for Prof. Kuspit eliminates Greenberg’s full definition of Alexandrianism as “an academicism in which the really important issues are left untouched because they involve controversy, and in which creative activity dwindles to virtuosity in the small details of form, all larger questions being decided by the precedent of the old masters.”(3) Clearly, PoMo has not ignored the “really important issues” (it often seems to bask in controversy) and has rarely acquiesced to “old masters.” Thus, in these initial paragraphs of his essay Prof. Kuspit misrepresents postmodernism to serve his own subjective points-of-view.
  • “For me the denial of depth is the key to postmodernism. It is a rebellious attack against and contemptuous dismissal of the modern belief in depth -- the modern idea that surface is a symbol and symptom of depth, rather than to be taken at face value. Where the modern artist wants people to see the depth behind the surface, the postmodern artist thinks everything you need to know and that can be known is on the surface.”
Symbolism has perhaps suggestions of superficiality but in some arts, particularly literature, symbol reverts to allegory and becomes a reinforcement of PoMo’s skepticism(4). “Depth” may still be apparent within the discourse of art as these “surfaces” have been deconstructed via the “archaeology of knowledge”(Foucault). Just as the surface elements within a sentence (its grammatical structure) do not guarantee its meaning, the elements within a work of art do not confirm meaning. However, through techniques learned form linguistic analysis, now transposed to visual “texts” like paintings and photographs, we may elicit a “depth.” It is presumptive of Prof. Kuspit to imply that this has been denied in postmodern art.
  • “It [postmodern art] lacks any sense of mental development, and, more crucially from the point of view here, it denies the dynamic unconscious. If the inner world is a derivative extension and construction of linguistic signs then it is more self-conscious than unconscious, and without its own dynamic.”
Obviously, one’s perception of one’s “inner world” is impossible given that we have limited access to the unconscious.(5) Thus, it does not follow that this is proof of the “denial” of one’s “dynamic unconscious.” Our “self-conscious” apprehension of an “inner world” is manifested to us through the social-cultural construction of “linguistic signs” and definitely has its own dynamic in our interpretive self-conscious examinations of, for example, pleasure versus anxiety, (6)
  • “The idea that "everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the 'unconscious'," as Redon wrote, so that the semi-consciously constructed surface of art is "suggestive" of the unconscious depths of the "subjective world," which has its "own logic,"(7) dies with postmodernism. So does the subjective world. The "emotions" that Baudelaire thought supplied "the particular element in each manifestation" of beauty(8) die with postmodernism. So does beauty.”
The putative “logic” of the artist’s subjectivity and submission to the “unconscious” is indeed suspect in postmodernism but PoMo cannot destroy the “subjective world.” Redon’s capitulation to the all-consuming power of the unconscious is clearly a modernist view that has been rejected by PoMo. That the “surface” of an artwork can “suggest” (other) meanings, however, is an idea that is still very much in play. The belief that “beauty” has “definition” outside of the language we use to describe it reflects a logocentricism that Derrida and postmodernism refute. Neither Baudelaire’s “manifestations” nor “beauty” itself are dead, however, as poststructuralism holds that experience has a semiotic structure. Prof. Kuspit’s accusation that beauty “dies” at the hands of PoMo reflects an oft-held supposition that the search and representation of “beauty” and all of its manifestations have been abandoned in postmodern art. This misrepresentation successfully inflames the public’s hatred of postmodern art as it incorrectly depicts PoMo artists as nihilistic destroyers of “beauty.” As afterthoughts by Prof. Kuspit, these comments are chief among several subjective and unsubstantiated “judgments” that are a disservice to his attempt to define postmodernism.
  • Prof. Kuspit’s designation of “the semiotic psychosis” of postmodern art concerns “the denial of any link between the linguistic sign and subjective reality.”
This is a misinterpretation: PoMo’s “denial” is more accurately of the link between a sign and its meaning which is seen to be an arbitrary relationship. However, the “play between signs” still links us to possible “realities,” both subjective and objective.
  • “More particularly, in semiotic psychosis the linguistic sign is removed from and elevated above the context it makes emotional sense in, and from which, in a sense, it emerges, and to which, in a sense, it continues to refer long after it has become part of common sense.”
Again, misinterpreted. The contextuality of the linguistic sign was never denied in postmodernism, rather, it is through the sign’s application within a text that we determine how “meaning” is contextual. In this “hermeneutic circle,” details may be understood by the whole just as the whole may be understood by the details. Contextuality is therefore emphasized.
  • “This radical decontextualization in effect isolates the linguistic sign as a transcendent absolute, a kind of Ding an sich standing above all the human contexts in which it might appear.”
A most blatant misrepresentation: Derrida denied the “transcendental signified” as evidence of man’s belief in “truths” that exist independent of the language we use to express them. Moreover, to cast the sign as “a transcendent absolute” reveals Prof. Kuspit’s muddied understanding of poststructuralism. “Every new signified is, Derrida cruelly reminds, also a signifier, and so on ad infinitum. . . There is no such thing as what Derrida and Derridans (sic) choose to label the ‘transcendental signified’ which the idealists ask us to believe in: a meaning outside language altogether.”(9) Even Kant acknowledged that we are “utterly ignorant of the noumenal realm” and that we are unable to attain such transcendent knowledge.(10)
  • “Semiotic psychosis is clearly an example of omnipotence of thought. Without its emotional context, the sign loses its fundamental human meaning -- broadly speaking, its function as an expression of human nature.”
Another misrepresentation: Prof. Kuspit confuses “emotional context” with the contextuality of linguistic analysis. Whether or not language can be a valid expression of so-called “human nature” has certainly been questioned in postmodernism. Exactly how that qualifies as “omnipotence of thought” remains unclear, however. Perhaps he meant to characterize PoMo as exemplary of the “independence” of thought from the language we use to express it?

Prof. Kuspit then proceeds with a tangential attack of that “advocate of linguistic boredom in art,” Rosalind Krauss. He suggests that Krauss theorizes “impersonally” about art and does not “spontaneously and personally feel it.” Ms. Krauss may be guilty of crafting arcane (possibly elitist) theories of art, well supported by her meticulous comprehension of Saussure’s structuralism, Barthes’ poststructuralism and Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, but most certainly she has a “feeling” for art. Prof. Kuspit’s subjective anti-semiotics come to full focus in his generous suspicions of Krauss’s articulate criticality. Time will not permit more detail but it has to do with the search for the Golden Fleece.

Prof. Kuspit mercifully wraps up with this final alarming point:
  • “In both cases, as in all postmodern art, the authentic is turned into the inauthentic by being treated as no more than a linguistic sign of something that does not exist -- the authentic self, authentic art -- except as a sociolinguistic mirage. It is because of the absence of any belief in let alone idea of the authentic that postmodern art is boring and depressing.”
If I may forgo the accepted chronology of postmodern art, I want to introduce an artwork to provide a better appreciation of this “sociolinguistic mirage” through a distinction between resemblance and similitude. In 1926, Magritte painted Ceci n’est pas une pipe [reproduced above] and much later Michel Foucault’s little book appeared, wherein Foucault stated the obvious about the sentence, as well as the painting:

“Each element of “this is not a pipe” could hold an apparently negative discourse – because it denies, along with resemblance, the assertion of reality resemblance conveys – but one that is basically affirmative: the affirmation of the simulacrum, affirmation of the element within the network of the similar.”(11)

As an affirmation of the elements within the “network” of representation, Magritte’s painting wonderfully expresses the sociolinguistic structure of art nearly forty years before “continental philosophy.” When Foucault does address it, he clarifies that resemblance “presupposes a primary reference that prescribes and classes” the copied image at the service of representation. This referent is missing in similitude, as the “similar develops in series that have neither beginning nor end.”(12) The word “referent,” used in semiotics for the “extra-linguistic objects” designated by a sign, also engenders the endless repetition and emptiness of artworks of “mechanical reproduction.”

As PoMo has shown no respect for binary oppositions like “authentic-inauthentic,” it seems redundant to state that both concepts are defined by their difference from the other, i.e., authenticity determined by its difference from inauthenticity. It follows then that postmodern art that engages in “play” with inauthenticity must first conceptually grasp authenticity. Thus, PoMo is not guilty of “absence of belief in” authenticity, as Benjamin’s essay still resonates in conceptual photography circles. Duchamp’s readymades, Sherrie Levine’s copies and Joseph Kosuth’s definitions emanate from a postmodern awareness, attraction and passion for the sociolinguistic structures underlying images and texts. These artists and their great art cannot be summarily dismissed through misinterpretation, misrepresentation and subjective judgments like “postmodern art is boring and depressing.”


1. Lecture delivered at University of Southern California’s School of Fine Arts on April 10, 2000.

2. This and all subsequent quotations from the essay are at Artnet.com.

3. For more on Greenberg’s Alexandrianism, see his “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”.

4. “In postmodernist allegorical narratives, like those written by John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, scepticism is taken so far as to put into question the culturally constructed nature of subjectivity itself. In such narratives as Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, far from acting as a hermeneutic authority, subjectivity is shown to be an intertextual construct incapable of revealing anything but that which is already known. In the absence of any external authority, the allegorical protagonist is unable to determine whether meaning is projected or perceived. The modern ‘crisis of belief’, in postmodernist allegories, renders unknowable the national destiny that has been Europe’s allegorical legacy to the New World.” – From Allegory in America: From Puritanism to Postmodernism by Deborah L. Madsen.

5. According to the modernist credo, the unconscious is available to us in limited fashion through dreams, hypnosis and art.

6. See Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny”.

7. Quoted in John Rewald, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin, New York, 1961, 25.

8. Quoted in Jonathan Mayne, ed., The Mirror of Art, New York, 1956, 129.

9. Sturrock, John. Structuralism, Oxford, 2003, 125.

10. Kant: Experience and Reality.

11. Foucault, Michel. This Is Not A Pipe, Berkeley, 1982, 47.

12. Ibid., 44.


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Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Welcome to Theory Now and thanks for your comments.