Published 25 Oct 2017
Culture is part of a “set of ideas” that defines society. The current state of affairs puts premium on what is visual. The popularity of television, internet, and billboards utilizes the appeal of images to transmit messages. In studying visual culture, it would be difficult to separate it from the dilemma of what is real and what is not, especially in this period, which scholars and even ordinary observers refer to as postmodernity.
What is postmodernity, and what does it have to do with culture? Postmodernity poses the assumption that a view is not more or less valid than another view. Characterized by “exhaustion, pessimism and irrationality” (Ward, 2003, p. 9), a postmodern society defies the existence of any universal truth, and to some extent, seeks to establish the extinction of ‘what is real’.
Let me first discuss the three prevalent ways of using the term ‘culture’ according to Downing (2003). The first way associates culture with arts, thus using the term ‘high culture’. A ‘cultured person’ is someone who is well aware of specific arts of ballet, opera, theatre, sculpture, or paintings among others, that they enjoy themselves with these. The second way by social scientists offers a broader concept of culture. They perceive culture as everything we do in our lives from what we eat for breakfast to how we perceive death, or from why we surf the net, to where we invest our money. Lastly, national and ethnic definitions of culture tend to generalize the qualities of a nation or people, as in American culture, Asian culture, or French-Canadian culture. “The first and second way, narrow and broad, respectively, share a common feature of focusing on products such as arts, and activities. The third way by contrast, refers to ways of understanding the world, or perspectives on the meaning of life. For example, conservative Asian nations value female virginity as a gift of complete faithfulness towards a husband, while most Western nations value individual control of one’s sexual actions.
Until now, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of what culture is. The reason lies on the interconnectedness of societal aspects. Culture is an effect and affects the underlying set of ideas prevailing in a society. One way of understanding culture as an interactive, changing process, is through the study of signs, known as semiology or semiotics. Originally, Semiotics examined patterns of communication rather than specific content or messages, much in the same way a specialist in linguistics might study the grammar and structure of languages without focusing on the meaning of a given sentence or word. For example, Russian writer Vladimir Propp argues that thousands of folktales and fairy tales can be reduced to a few basic storylines. Apart from being intriguing, Propp work is important because it suggests that what is communicated in a folktale—and currently in soap opera—is not just the specific details of the content. Then, the form and the underlying structure cultural products also appeals to the audience. The founders of semiology thought they were mapping the inherent structures of the human mind, and unearthing human fundamentals of what are good and bad. Nowadays, however, today, it is only used as a tool of analysis that must be supplemented by historical and political researches. Most analysts now agree that signs should be properly put into context. For example, the identification of American Negroes as villains in old movies rests upon a particular value system, namely white racism.
But is the value of semiotics overestimated, or the times simply have changed? This question leads us back to postmodernism. Some of our postmodern forerunners spoke about society entering a new phase. They claimed that we were in a historical period with unique features that distinguished it from any other time in history. The word ‘postmodernism’ itself suggests that it comes after ‘modern’ times, or what they tagged as Modern Age. “The exact character of this age, as well as the precise dates of its beginning and end, has been described in different ways by historians, but it is of ten associated with faith in progress, optimism, rationality, the search for absolute knowledge in science, technology, society, and politics, and the idea that gaining knowledge of the ‘true self’ was the only foundation for all other knowledge” (Ward, 2003, p. 9). Modernity is also known as the Age of Reason (or Enlightenment). As modernity intensifies, overlapping developments created new perspectives to the point of diversification of ideals. In this time of globalization, the characteristics of modernity had declined, but it could also be said that postmodernism is the latest point of progress. Postmodernism celebrates the erosion of conventional distinctions between high and low culture; fascination with how our lives seem increasingly dominated by visual media; a questioning of ideas about meaning and communication, and about how signs refer to the world; a sense that definitions of human identity are changing, or ought to change; and skepticism about the stories we tell to explain ‘the human race’, and about the idea of progress.
Let me illustrate how postmodernism came to be an erosion of conventional distinctions between high and low culture, and a fascination of visual media. During the early stages of modernity, the rapid spread of industrialization was pushing and pulling farmers off the land into factories in bigger cities, and in the process uprooting many traditional ways of life.
Conservative-minded observers feared that the old order was in terminal decay, an order they often viewed through very rosy spectacles, where (as they saw it) the “well-bred” aristocrats ran everything for everyone else’s benefit and the poorest pig herdsman was humbly grateful, along with his wife and children. In its place they saw the rise of a new class of factory worker, disconnected from the land and these traditional ties. They lamented the disappearance of the old “culture”, under threat of being trodden under foot by the new, truculent working class. They believed the arts would be destroyed by the extension of democracy to these lower orders—and thus was developed the notion of “high” culture in the arts.
Social life gradually became faster and more complex than it was in modernity. More and more demands and roles are placed on each individual, not just familial relation. In opposition to high culture emerged a collection of identities to signify the cultural preferences of a more general public known as pop culture. Examples from the United States include musical forms such as jazz, soul, gospel, and blues, which represent the crucibles of American Negro experiences. Downing (2003) differentiates pop culture from mass culture. The latter consists of cultural expressions generated by big businesses simply and solely to advance the bottom line.
The intimate connection between culture and power is never far beneath the surface. Take, for instance, the question of personal appearance and dress. During centuries of the Chinese Ming dynasty, the Manchu conquerors who created the dynasty forced all Chinese men to wear their hair in a pigtail as a cultural symbol of their conquered status. Or consider the demand of Muslim fundamentalists in some countries that women should wear veils, although the veil is found nowhere in the Koran, the holy book of Islam, and is not worn by Muslim women in a number of other countries. This seems a case of traditional masculine power over everyday culture and communication, controlling women and signifying their subordinate status.
The effects of consumerism and technological innovations have implied that there are a variety of identities to choose and frame our lives with. In place of the earnest modernist search for the deep, authentic self, we have recognition, and sometimes a celebration, of disintegration, fragmented desires, superficiality, and identity as something to shop for. As a result, there is a struggle for “cultural capital”, a term coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984). Upper-middle class professionals, use certain kinds of cultural awareness, and information both to maintain their socioeconomic status, and to pass it to their children. Parents endow through museum and cathedral visits, materials of literature and music, exposure to adult discussions of art and politics, and use of the latest gadgets. They hope that these investments will give their children the ability to land on executive careers through versatility and “networking”. These valued skills take a long time to develop, and possession of such cultures is an edge. Lower middle class and working classes may want to achieve cultural capital as well, but they will find it harder to achieve. They don’t have the time and the resources. Some will blame themselves; others will simply dismiss these cultures as pretentious.
Nevertheless, this is the essence of postmodernism. As Jean Baudrillard (1994) suggests, all representations has saturated reality to such an extent that we experience the world only through a filter of preconceptions and expectations fabricated in advance by a culture swamped by images.
- Downing, J. Mohammadi A. and Screberny-Mohammadi A, eds. (1995) Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. CA, Sage.
- Ward, G. (2003) Teach Yourself Postmodernism. 2nd ed. London, Hodder and Stoughton.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
- Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulations. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.