One of the catches of postmodernism is that in order to speak about it, one normally needs to speak like it; that is, the complexity of postmodernism somehow requires an embodiment in the very language used. It seems to me that all sorts of other messages are given out by such language, particularly class privilege, education and an academic job. Needless to say, I will try to avoid such language.
My discussion has three steps: first, I want to characterize postmodernism in a few broad strokes (if that is possible); then, I will provide some examples; finally, I will consider some implications for theology and the arts. My own strategy for dealing with postmodernism is neither a wholesale opposition (it hardly seems possible anyway), nor an easy acceptance of its terms.
the big mac (postmodernism itself)
How might I describe postmodernism? It seems to me that much of the discussion of postmodernism can be boiled down to three terms: loss of depth, fragmentation, and globalization. These are quite broad and abstract terms, but that is precisely what makes them useful for my discussion. However, before I enter that discussion it should be made clear that the whole question of postmodernism assumes some idea of historical periods, that it is possible to break up history into units that have their own particular flavour or spirit: we speak of feudalism and capitalism economics, or of impressionism and cubism in painting, or of the 1960s, 70s, and so on. I neither approve nor disapprove of this approach; it is just that we should be aware of what we are doing.
One of the most frequently noted features of postmodernism is a certain flatness, or depthlessness, a focus on the surface of things rather than what lies behind the surface. There is little lamenting over the loss of a former depth, but rather an interest in that which has 'traditionally' been downgraded-the surface. Yet, to call someone 'superficial' is still for many a derogatory statement. It is better, we feel, to understand a thing more 'deeply', to know what a person is like 'inside', to perceive the more 'profound' message of a book or a film, to be 'deeply' moved, and so on. This is now, as we move into postmodernism, understood to be a modernist sentiment (that which precedes postmodernism). As a sort of revolt against the modernist idea of depth, postmodern writers have argued that the surface is far more important. But this is only the first step in the argument, since the next discovery is that there is no depth, that everything is surface, and that it has always been so. What we thought of as 'deep' is just another part of the surface. The final step in this argument is to realize that the term 'surface' is no longer useful, since it assumes its opposite, depth. We need other terms.
A key term for this is 'simulacrum'. This comes from a slightly different situation to that of depth and surface. One of the basic ideas of the production of books (for theologians and others) and artistic products has been the idea of originality: we produce an original manuscript, or an original piece of art, and then copies may be made of that original (this also applies to the world of ideas-the notion of 'intellectual property' comes into play here). The realization in postmodernism is that there is no original any more, in fact that there never was, and that everything is always a copy. It is not so much a copy of something else, but copiable the moment it is produced. Once again language fails, since the word 'copy' assumes an original: this is where 'simulacrum' comes in. A simulacrum (plural: simulacra) is a copy that has no original to refer to (like the file I am working on at the moment).
Depthlessness appears all over the place. There is an end to historical depth, or an awareness of historical context: historical items are now plastered all over the newest of buildings in blissful disregard of their origins. Architecture is concerned less with the structure than with the surface, or skin, of buildings. ('Skin' is my own favourite term for all of this: all that counts is skin.) But it is of course the dominance of the image of cathode ray tubes (TV and computer screens) and LCD screens which is the most obvious signal of this of flatness of representation, a flatness which then gives an intense impression of depth 'within' the screen.
I have collected a second group of features under the umbrella term of fragmentation. In this case there is a widespread perception that life is increasingly splintered, that disintegration affects even those areas of life that have formerly escaped this effect-Nature, the unconscious, religious belief. The key word here is 'difference/differance' (note the difference): the older ways of thinking about the world were very monolithic and single-minded, usually with an orientation that placed Europe (for many Australians this was specifically England) at the center of the geographical, cultural, intellectual, social and economic world. These ways of thinking have been described as 'master narratives'. To be aware of difference however, is to break down this sort of focus on master narratives and be aware of the sheer multiplicity and variety of the world: in terms of people, cultures, sexuality, political practice, social situation, and so on. I have tried to set this up in such a way that we might see difference as not such a bad thing: the recovery of the voices of women, indigenous peoples, lesbians and gays, and racially and economically oppressed groups is surely one of the great gains of postmodernism. But postmodernism also involves a more radical awareness that the idea of the whole, integrated, human person is a convenient fiction that we like to believe in: the sheer fragmentation of individual people, the splintering of any notion of unity and wholeness is one of the major inroads of postmodernism. As far as I am concerned, it's about time the autonomous individual was debunked as a convenient fiction. In fact, this is what is different about postmodernism: the earlier effects of disintegration- noticed already in the 19th century-were generally regarded as something that should be resisted: now, the splintered individual is a source of immense pleasure.
Since I am a closet Marxist, I always like to make connections with economics. In this case, disintegration and difference seem to me to be connected with what we all experience: commodities. On a basic level, we need to buy and sell commodities (food, clothes, shelter) to live. On a higher level, everything we do, say and think is already commodified: our thoughts are commodities, our actions are commodities (we sell our labour to someone else), and our words are commodities. Without going into this argument too far, it can summed up with the point that everything is for sale. The implications of this for art and theology are far-reaching, since my suggestion is that both these areas are thoroughly commodified.
My last bite of the Big Mac, however, is, in a sense, concerned with the Big Mac itself: globalization. It may appear contradictory to argue that disintegration and globalization are both central to postmodernism, yet this is precisely what is happening. I also supports my preference to deal in contradictions, a preference which is sometimes described as dialectical thinking. This means that it is possible not only to argue that disintegration and globalization exist together, but that it is possible to push the contradiction further: the more disintegration there is, the more globalization we have; the greater the globalization, the greater the fragmentation. But what do I mean by globalization? Quite simply, it is the world wide dominance of the economic system known as capitalism. This takes place in two ways: the expansion of capitalism into the former communist countries of Europe and Asia (including China); and the ever increasing tempo of obsolescence and upgrade. This is where my opposition of disintegration and globalization makes sense, since capitalism is both a global phenomenon and based upon the process of commodification I mentioned earlier. But this more than an economic question: there is widespread discussion of globalization in areas beyond economics such as politics, psychology, sociology, geography, religious studies, cultural and literary studies.
In the practice of our daily lives, globalization shows up in the food we eat (McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Coca Cola, agribusiness), in the clothes we wear, in the transport we use, in the televisions we watch and the whole area of telecommunications, especially the Internet.
These three terms-depthlessness, fragmentation and globalization-seem to me to be able to capture what postmodernism itself is all about. I will stress once again that we should suspend our negative reactions to each of these terms. In order to make the transition to the next section easier, I want to use one of my favourite French words, jouissance, the sheer enjoyment and pleasure that postmodernism brings with it. And one of the great moments of jouissance in postmodernism is a visit to McDonald's. soft serve (some examples)
My main example of postmodernism is my local McDonald's restaurant, in the central West of Sydney. In order to exonerate McDonald's from any ill repute, in a recent survey of bacteria generated by soft serve ice cream machines (still only 30 cents at Maccas), McDonald's machines were found to be by far the cleanest. McDonald's has made a reputation for itself as a place for cheap, clean food, and clean toilets. But let me run through the three terms I used in the previous section.
What is interesting about McDonald's is its surface, or skin. The new restaurants have a standard, recognizable architecture, enabling easy identification. If we step inside, however, we find, apart from the obligatory no-nonsense tables, fixed chairs, and rapid serve counters, an awareness of the historical situation of the restaurant. Prints of pictures of the area in its earlier, pre-suburban, days hang on the walls-in my local McDonald's there are pictures of old houses, hills, trains and orange orchards. If possible, the history of the site itself is displayed. Lest this be misunderstood as a new-found historical depth, we should remember that these pictures are stuck on the walls of one of the most successful multinational companies. What is more interesting is when McDonald's takes over an old building, restores it to a better condition than it ever was, and decks it out n such a way as to evoke the former uses of the building. This is a classic case of using the skin or surface so that the restaurant gives the impression of having always been there, that it has been part of the built environment for a long time. This is standard postmodern building practice: either reflector perspex to mirror the surrounding environment, or built in echoes of those same surroundings-McDonald's does the latter.
Depthlessness also appears in the food: the blandness of McDonald's food is carefully researched. Allowing for the local, ethnic or national patterns of taste expectation, the tastes are taken and then toned down, so that no-one may find the taste offensive: it is deliberately bland and flat.
Here the economic shows up. McDonald's celebrates its up-front commercialism or commodification: the presence of McDonald's and its various logos and slogans in many areas of public life is an extension of this commodification. Not only do basketballers such as Michael Jordon give their superstar support to McDonald's, but McDonald's itself has helped significantly in making these stars commodities as well. But the main commodity is not the food, nor the toys for children, nor the superstars, but McDonald's itself, symbolized by the powerful golden double arches. Once again I am pushing my discussion a little further: what we consume is no longer the food as a commodity, but McDonald's itself as a commodity.
Most obviously, McDonald's is one of the biggest multinational companies around today, seeming to find no check to its growth. Wherever there are people, there is McDonald's. What is interesting is how McDonald's embodies so well the ability of multinationals to be more local and original than the locals themselves. In Australia, the colloquialization of McDonald's into 'Macca's', particularly in the common speech of young people, has been assumed by McDonald's itself in advertising. The effort to be aware, often more so than the locals themselves, of selected and appropriate pieces of local history, is another sign of the fragmentation inherent in globalization itself. Yet, there is a down side to all of this: McDonald's is known for its vigorous commercial expansion: we all know of the employment of young people in order to keep wage levels down, the non-unionization of McDonald's workers, the strong competition in the cheap food market, and so on.
It would have been possible to take other examples-shopping malls, Pizza Hut, freeways, beaches, high rise buildings, Pepsi-Max, Coca-Cola, Disney Land, sport-but now that we have visited McDonald's we should be able to do similar sorts of analyses of other parts of our everyday lives.
the happy meal (theology and the arts)
What is the relevance of this for theology and the arts? Once again I use the three areas I noted above.
An urgent issue is that of authenticity, since that term relies so heavily on the notion of depth: what is authentic is assumed to lie beneath the surface. For the artist this is embodied most clearly in the understanding that art gives expression to and/or evokes a more fundamental dimension of human existence. The collapse of depth also threatens, in theology, the historical critical approach to reading biblical texts. This approach searches beneath the text to discover the 'real' history, thereby freeing the text to bear religious or theological truth. The split between scientific/historical truth and theological truth becomes a problem in postmodernism.
In dealing with the opposition of original/copy, art probably has a headstart over theology, particularly in the light of Walter Benjamin's essay with the self-explanatory title 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. It is easy to extend this to the 'The Work of Art/Theology in the Age of Electronic Reproduction', but the point remains the same: the idea of an 'original' is in dire straights.
Regarding fragmentation, the question of the subject is paramount. In theology this goes to the heart of the doctrine of God and Christology: how does an understanding of Christ work in the light of a splintered and fragmented individual subject (my initial reaction is that it would dissolve some of the problems of Christology, such as divine and human, and trinitarian function, as false problems)? Similar sorts of questions apply to the conventional area of Christian 'anthropology': how are questions such as faith, sin and redemption to be understand when there is no longer an integrated individual to whom these might apply. Less conventional theological approaches are not immune from the disintegration of the private individual. Art is also affected by these developments, particularly in the deeply ingrained modernist assumption of the autonomous artist: the standard image is one of the artist facing the empty canvas with paint on the brush, or with a chisel before the block of stone. The idea that such an artist is somehow more immune from socio-economic forces needs also to be re-thought.
Another concern is the area of master narratives: Christianity (like most religions) understands itself as a master narrative, focused most sharply in the universal significance of Jesus Christ. If the universal claims regarding Christ dissipate, then Christology has some serious work before it. Yet, there is a trade-off, since the presence of political pressure groups has become a feature of postmodern life, and the Church is not exempt: gays, lesbians and bisexuals (or 'queers'), indigenous peoples, women, oppressed and marginalized groups are increasingly gaining a voice.
And globalization: theology has a headstart here, since it has insisted on a monotheistic stance, with a universal church and a claim to uniqueness over against other religions. Art, by contrast, has not so consistently made universal claims, except perhaps for the unique insight of artists themselves. Yet the more recent (capitalist) globalization has raised more urgently the question of the validity of other faiths: globalization has made Christian universal claims disintegrate. But global capitalism has to my mind a deeper effect on both theology and art: our most basic perceptions and ways of thinking are now affected in ways we don't even realize, so that the faith we might have, or the art we might produce, are inevitably affected by the basic patterns of capitalism.
A gloomy picture? Let me finish with two postmodern possibilities: the Christian sublime and jouissance. It is quite obvious that Paul had read all the postmodern authors, since he argues that through the utterly wretched character of Christ's earthly life the divine shines through all the more powerfully. To go a step further: it is not that God appears through the contrast between God and the lowest form of human existence, but that God is the contrast, the gap between the highest and lowest, rather than either one. Postmodernism is something like this: it is neither the loss of what we held dear, nor the pinnacle of human achievement, but rather the space in between. And this is where we find jouissance: there is much (erotic) pleasure in this space, this gap. For this reason I entitled this section 'The Happy Meal', since postmodernism can give us back this critical pleasure. Here theology and the arts may have an important role after all: the pleasurable space or gap of the Christian sublime and postmodernism is also the space where an alternative vision may be presented.
Theology and art may give us a glimpse of what is beyond and thereby enable us to get there.
Benjamin, W. (1968) 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Illuminations. Trans. H. Zohn; New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Boer, R. (1995) 'Theology and Cultural Studies', Australian Religion Studies Review 8.
-(1997) Novel Histories: The Fiction of Biblical Criticism. Playing the Texts, 2; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
-(1999) Knockin' on Heaven's Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. Biblical Limits; London: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1990) Signatures of the Visible. London: Routledge.
-(1991) Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitahsm. Post-Contemporary Interventions; Durham: Duke University Press.