Jessie Kuei-yi Chu
Dr. Kate Liu
Postmodern Film and Fiction
Journal of theory review
Summary of Norman Denzin's "Defining the Postmodern Terrain"
Norman Denzin's "Defining the Postmodern Terrain" presents a systematical introduction to postmodernism and the postmodern self from three perspectives; class, gender and race. Denzin emphasizes on the interaction of these three categories that bring to postmodern culture and postmodern self. There are three major questions contributing to Denzin's argument: The first is the polyphony in academic terrain, because there are various new theories with post ~ism to articulate different voices from different class, race, gender, etc.. How do they locate themselves in the postmodern world? The second is that the vague boundary between image and reality puzzles people in the postmodern world. It is difficult for postmodern self to link the present to the history. Third is that how can an individual present his/ her race, gender and class interacting with self identity? And how these postmodern self represented in the dominant power of mass media, such as Hollywood film?
Firstly, Denzin presents the definitions of postmodernism from four aspects: (1) postmodern art; (2) a new theory in contemporary world; (3) lived experiences after World War II; (4) social, cultural, and economic life after late capitalism. (3) Then he points out the threat to the ideology-"cultural eclecticism" (5), which is the characteristic of postmodern life. It allows the variety and plurality presented in each field, breaking the monolithic belief in the past. The use of pastiche and collage exactly present the spirit of eclecticism and pluralism. There is also romantic nostalgia for the order, stability, harmony and peace in the traditional society.
In addition to postmodern eclecticism, mass media is an important apparatus to present and prevail ideology and to represent visual images which become the "hyperreal sign" according to Baudrillard's opinion. Individuals become "cultural object" (8) and "new vehicles for the production and reproduction of social ideology" (8). In other words, individual becomes a disseminator of dominant ideology by the information from the mass media. On the other hand, postmodern self becomes a "restless voyeur" (9) who is involved in the visual impact and pleasure, the spectacle of pornography, beauty, youth. As for the intellects in the postmodern society, they still desire to control everything, such as popular culture and images. So there is a stream of "anti-aesthetic, anti-situation, anti-intellectual impulse" (10) in the postmodern production. It aims to vacillate the center and to demonstrate the possibilities and varieties.
In terms of cinematic formation, besides the use of pastiche and collage, film producers also use the technique of parody. Some films are self-reflexive, for instance, Robert Altman's The Player parodies the production of Hollywood film. Both Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and David Lynch's Blue Velvet convey nostalgia and mixture of pastiche and parody. The visual impact and voyeuristic pleasure also stimulate postmodern self's ocular and sensual experience. As Baudrillard mentioned, "watching themselves watching the performance on stage, the audience engages in an ecstasy of simulated communication, which transforms the real into its simulated image" (11). That is to say, the viewer mesmerizes into the content of the film and has fraudulent 'real experience' through spectacles.
Lastly Denzin emphasizes on feminist in postmodern realm. Denzins thinks that within the theories of three masters of postmodernism, Baudrillard, Jameson, and Lyotard, exclude feminist theory. Connor indicates that woman's silence is labeled to be 'other' in patriarchal ideology. Owen pinpoints that postmodern theory 'scandalously' nonchalant to women's position and right. Kristeva tries to subvert the cause of woman's peripheral position. Denzin points out that postmodernism and feminism share some similarities in their assertion. They both attempt to "avoid essentialist, functional categories and dichotomies" (17). That is to say, postmodernism and feminism deny to be put in any specific traditional category. They both allow a state of uncertainty, instability and fluidity in order to have multiple voices. To narrow down the discussion, sexual multiplicity also has to be studied, either the dominant/ majority or the marginal/ minor group. Postmodernism and feminism are circulated in "the production, distribution and consumption" (18). The visual impression of over-productions of erotic and violent gendered relationship makes it difficult to eliminate sexual inequality because there are more messages of patriarchal ideology than woman's emancipation transmitted from the mediums.
To sum up, Denzin suggests the crisis of postmodern self in this information-swelled society. "When the picture becomes the reality, and when that reality is ideologically coded, then the essential humanity of human beings is reduced to a code. That code strips each of us of our dignity and pride. It reduces us, in the end, to signs which bear the traces of racism and sexism" (18). The passage illustrates the uncertain and unstable state in the postmodern terrain that postmodern self has no centered principles to follow. The obstacle of postmodern individual is that one has to choose the signs and codes and to represent himself/ herself based on his/ her gender, race and class weaving with self-identity in the postmodern world.
Denzin, Norman. "Defining the Postmodern Terrain." Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema. London: Sage, 1991. 1-19.