The Postmodern World

The Post-modern world.


The comedian and activist, Mark Thomas, observed in his one-man play, Bravo Figaro, that in the 1970’s and 1980’s, while the political Left took on the right-wing politics of Margaret Thatcher, it left itself completely open to the undermining influence of postmodernism. In a few sentences, he effectively summed up the postmodern influence on politics and culture without explaining it at all. While the remark, in the ‘knowing’ environment of his show, caused a ripple of amusement (which was its intent), it neatly encapsulates the position of many. The term is in common usage, but very few can define what it actually means (although Thomas is clearly one of those few).

We live in a postmodern world, we’re often told – and nowhere is this more apparent than in photography. No longer do we accept the doctrine that ‘the camera never lies’. With modern technology, everything is suspect, every colour can be changed, every  model  can be ‘enhanced’ to help sell a product, every image can be ‘photo shopped’.


Postmodernism makes little sense without reference to the terms modernity and modernism, but again, there is little consensus about the definitions of these terms either. Rather there is a more or less, shared world view that unite modernists or postmodernists as groups. As  such both terms are epistemological, concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge itself.


As Barker ( 87, 2003, Cultural Studies,SAGE, London) says, the concepts of modernism and postmodernism concern:

  • “cultural formations and cultural experience, for example modernism as the cultural experience of modernity and postmodernism as a cultural sensibility associated with high, or post-modernity.
  • Artistic and architectural styles and movements, that is modernism as a style of architecture (Le Corbusier) or writing (Joyce, Kafka, Brecht) and postmodernism in film (Blue Velvet, Bladerunner),  photography (Cindy Sherman) or the novel (E.L. Dotctorow, Salman Rushdie).
  • A set of philosophical and epistemological concerns and positions. That it, thinking about the character and knowledge of truth. Modernism is associated with the enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau and Bacon along with the socio-economic theory of Marx, Weber, Habermas and others. Postmodernism in philosophy has been associated with thinkers as diverse as Lytard, Baudrillard, Foucault, Rorty and Bauman, not all of whom would welcome the characterisation. In broad terms, enlightenment thought seeks after universal truths while postmodernism points to the socio-historical and linguistic specificity of ‘truth’.”

While useful in pointing out the problem, this account of the difference between modernism and postmodernism only begins to explain the two concepts.


Historian are often divide history into different ‘ages’, or as Marx suggested, ‘epochs’. Modernism, then is the historical period following the middle ages. Starting with the enlightenment,  it developed in the period of the ‘twin revolutions’. Enlightenment thought is marked by the belief that Reason can demystify and illuminate the world, replacing religion and superstition. Human creativity, rationality and the march of scientific progress are a break with, and in stark contrast to, the traditional values of the middle ages.

The first of the above mentioned  ‘twins’  was the emerging industrial revolution of the mid eighteenth century. Moving from the land to the town, there was a massive increase in productivity in Britain (the first of the new industrial nations) and a marked shift towards a capitalist mode of production based around the exchange of labour for money in the newly developing industries.

Instead of producing goods domestically for immediate use, there was a shift towards the production of mass consumer goods. Rather than productivity being based around the family unit (mainly in the countryside), production was arranged around a strict impersonal division of labour using industrial equipment.

The second ‘twin’  was the development of political and indeed revolutionary movements. The American war of independence in 1777 was followed by a quite different revolution in France in 1789. Britain, of course, had experienced its own civil war from 1642–1651, but harness to the industrial revolution here there was the feeling that real change in society was possible.

All around the established feudal system was being attacked or eroded. For the first time in century’s people began to believe that the established social order was neither innate, nor inevitable.

Giddens (1990) (Giddens, A. The consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge) provides an account of the development of modern modernism as having four aspects.

Firstly, the Industrial revolution transformed an a pre-industrial society with low productivity and zero growth rates into a society with high productivity and growth.  As Hobsbawm points out (1969, Industry and Empire, Penguin, Harmondsworth) the population trebled and the value of economic production quadrupled in this period.

Secondly, Giddens introduced the concept of surveillance.  The emerging industrial labour force was constrained into new, and quite foreign,  work practises.  Rather than the weather or the needs of the season determining the pace and nature of work, under industrialisation, the mechanisation and intensification of work under capitalism meant that work itself could be used as a means of exerting discipline and new working habits.

As Giddens puts it, “who says modernity say not just organizations, but organization – the regularized control of social relations across indefinite time-space distances.”  (Giddens 1990,91) The term surveillance refers to the collection, storage and retrieval of information as well as the direct supervision of activities and the use of information to monitor populations. Under modernity, the population were put under and new and intense surveillance very different from that of pre-industrial societies.

In this aspect of modernity, the development of photography has proven itself to be a great tool of the industrial nation state. Recording of people and places greatly aides the process of surveillance in society,  but used as a propaganda tool by the state, can be used to  form and shape opinions and attitudes in society. Photography, in the hands of the makers of policy, becomes a powerful implement to form and reform beliefs about the nature of reality.

The third aspect of the development of modernity  for Giddens was Capitalism itself. The processes of inquiry and innovation that capitalism brought with it were perhaps best summarised by Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

“Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive powers slumbered in the womb of social labour? (Marx and Engels, 1967, 12)

Modernity, through capitalism proved a highly dynamic force. In its desire (need) for new markets, new sources of profit, capitalism has effectively spread across the world from its European roots .

Lastly, Giddens lists the nation-state and military power as an aspect of modernism. Giddens recognises that the modern state as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon. The state, as we understand it is a container of power constituted by, “ a political apparatus recognized to have sovereign rights within the borders of a demarcated territorial area.”

Nations are not just political formations. Very importantly they are cultural entities which function to produce and reproduce national and cultural identity. For many people, we identify ourselves primarily as belonging to a perceived national identity based upon a shared culture and ideology. Here, again the photograph can be used as an element of cultural hegemony. Through photographs of places we have not been, or people we cannot personally know, we form stereotypical opinions about the world which are mere caricatures of the real world. With no better sources of information we cannot form more accurate pictures (sic) and are therefore have our ideas about the world framed by others.

So far, the above description could (and perhaps should) be described as modernisation. Modernism refers to the cultural forms bound up with this modernisation. Modernism is inherently an optimistic world view, based as it is upon a history of industrial, economic and cultural progress. Modernists have faith in the power of science, rationality and industry to transform our world for the better. Perhaps, above all else it refers to the optimism than come from believing in the superiority of your own culture. That is not to say that modernism equates to certainty about the future. On the contrary, it is a world view based upon the constant revision of the dominant theories in the light of new knowledge or new ideas. Modernism is society based upon the scientific method, with a more or less constant improvement in the lot of individuals as society progresses.

Photography can be seen as a metaphor for modernism. It could not exist in a mass form without the productive basis of the modern world. Through photography, we impose order on the world, slicing reality into finer and finer time segments. Photography, almost by definition keeps it’s subject under surveillance and the use of photography to record people and events fixes them in time in a way impossible before it’s invention.  From the beginning of photography, it has been used to inform and form feelings of nationalism and identity. It creates notions of similarity and difference in a visual form that resonates with the stereotypes held by individuals, and as such reinforces and helps create those very stereotypes. Lastly, the manufacturing and distribution of cameras and associated accessories is inherently capitalistic. The drive for increased profits and market share creates an atmosphere of innovation and competition. Cameras get better, in real terms they get cheaper, and the large corporations are constantly seeking new ways to engage consumers and create brand loyalty.

In, The God Delusion, Dawkins describes the zeitgeist of modern society as a broadly advancing front of reason advancing into the future. There might be uneven development of progress, and there might be occasional setback, but generally the history of the industrial age has been the advance of reason and progress. Although writing about religious beliefs, Dawkins clearly sets his thinking within the modernist project. Moderism, therefore can be seen as a metanarrative, a grand narrative common to all. The term developed in (ironically) postmodernism refers to to a comprehensive explanation, a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience or knowledge. In other words a cultural paradigm to which almost all subscribe. For Dawkins, the cultural paradigm is one of modernism, but Dawkins would be the first to acknowledge that such general progress might have severe problems along the way.

There is a dark side to modernism, and this dark side is not new. While Darwin is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest thinkers of his age, not only did his work and writing truly revolutionise our understanding of evolution and the interconnectedness of all life on earth, it also gave rise to the phenomenon of social Darwinism, and to  the pseudo-science of eugenics.

The critics of modernism point to the disruptions of traditional lifestyles and the continued existence of poverty and squalor in industrial cities. During the modern age we have experienced two world wars, death camps and the threat of total global annihilation after the development of nuclear weapons.

Photography has documented many of these paradoxes. War photography was initially a propaganda tool to show the glory and justification of war. When Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to record the war, his posed, stilted images avoided images of the dead and wounded. But by the time Robert Capa took the shot, ‘The Falling Soldier’ in 1936 of the death of a republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War clearly showed a more graphic interpretation of a similar event. In both instances the allegation has been made that the photographers involved are part of an attempt to form opinion rather than simply recording events. While the establishment looked to Fenton to record images that reflected the war in a more positive light, critic of Capa have claimed (from the publication of the shot) that this was a staged event designed to give a distorted image of the conflict and to raise the fame of the photographer.

Modernism has always been associated with such paradoxes. While the industrial age has brought huge increases in the material wellbeing of individuals there has been is some quarters a rejection of this ‘science will conquer all’ enthusiasm and the search for natural laws which will fully explain the nature of reality.

Some go as far as to suggest that modernity actually lies to us about it’s progress and achievements. Conspiracy theorists have long argued the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960’s and 1970’s were staged events to dupe the public into accepting huge budget increases for NASA and the American military. It’s probably no coincidence that this conspiracy gained signicant ground arfter the release of the film Capricorn One in 1978, a thriller movie based upon a hoax landing on Mars!

Adorno and Horkheimer (1979, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso. London) argue that the logic of the enlightenment and modernity is actually a logic of domination and oppression. They equate the desire to dominate and conquer nature through science and rationality, with the desire to dominate and conquer human beings. The logic that leads to the industrial revolution also leads to the death camps. Modernity effectively eliminates opposing ways of thinking and claims to be the only basis for truth in the world.

Foucault (1984:76 ‘Nieztzche, Geneology, History’ in P.Ranbow (ed), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon) goes further and his arguments break with classical enlightenment though in a five keys ways. As Barker (2003:201, Cultural Studies Sage London).

  1. Knowledge is not metaphysical, transcendent or universal. Rather, it is specific to particular time and spaces. Foucault talks not of truth per se, but of ‘regimes of truth’, that is, the configuration of knowledge that ‘count as truth’ under determinate historical conditions.
  2. Knowledge is perspectival in character. There can be no one totalizing knowledge that is able to grasp the ‘objective’ character of the world. Rather we both have and require multiple viewpoints or truths by which to interpret a complex heterogeneous human existence.
  3. Knowledge is not regarded as a pure or neutral away of understanding. It is implicated in regimes of power.
  4. Foucault breaks with the central enlightenment metaphor of ‘depth’. He argues against interpretative or hermeneutic methods that seek to disclose the hidden meanings of language. Foucault is concerned with the description and analysis of the surfaces of discourse and their effects under determinate material and historical conditions.
  5. Foucault casts doubt on the enlightenment understanding of progress. Knowledge as discourse does not unfold as an even historical evolution, but is discontinuous. That is, Foucault identifies significant epistemological breaks in knowledge across time. He rejects any notion of telos or the inevitable direction of human progress.

However, Foucault argues that it is not simply a case of making a clear break between two ways of thinking, modernism and postmodernism, but of questioning the nature of the tools we use to explain the physical and human world around us.

“What is this reason we use? What are it’s historical effects? What are the limits, and what are the dangers? (If) philosophy has a function within critical thought, it is precisely to accept this sort of spiritual, this sort of revolving door of rationality that refers to us its necessity, to its indispensability, and at the same time its intrinsic dangers. (Foucault 1984, 249, What is the Enlightenment? In the Foucault reader)

Others, such as Lyotard, go much further, claiming that there is no unity of language, no common understanding between all people, but islets of language, small groups who understand each other but have no common understanding with other groups. Meaning, understanding, world view, is determined by a specific set of circumstances which are simply not understandable for any other than the group to which they apply. There are no universal truths. There are no rules which apply to all people. Everything is relative and culturally specific, not only between obviously different cultures, but within national cultures.

For many commentators postmodernism is a form of cultural relativism. Claims to truths cannot be weighed against each other and are of equal merit. One person’s opinion is regarded as being as valid as another’s. This view is very seductive to many people. Under modernity there is a hierarchy of knowledge, with professionals and the educated having primacy over more ‘common sense’ views and opinions. Under postmodernism, why shouldn’t everyone be able to voice their opinion?

With the advent of digital photography and the birth of social media, the relativism of vying photographers clamouring for attention has reached fever pitch. With vastly easier to use (and cheaper) equipment, more and more photographers are attempting to make a mark for themselves, often arguing that the old standards of knowledge, professionalism, and experience means little or nothing in the face of their ‘talent’ and better editing software.

The modernist rejoinder to this remark takes many forms, but here I take the example of capital punishment. Poll after poll suggests that the majority of the British public are in favour of a return to the death penalty for certain crimes. Periodically, the issue is raised in Parliament and, on a free vote where each Member of Parliament can vote on his or her conscience, the motion is rejected. To many this seems undemocratic, and is clearly out of step with the public mood. However, under the British system of democracy each MP is a representative of their constituents rather than a delegate. MP’s vote on the basis of more informations, and frankly better educational standards, than the majority of their constituents. The argument from modernity is simply that information and education trump ignorance.

While there is a dark side of modernity, likewise there is a dark side of postmodernism. In a culturally relative world where you can effectively choose the position you hold with regard to personal truths, it is perhaps no surprise that in large bookshops there are as many books on angels as there are on popular science, and that some hold the healing power of crystals to be as efficacious  as medication prescribed by a doctor.

In the photographic ‘world’ is therefore becomes easy, and fashionable, to draw a (in most ways quite artificial distinction) between the digital/social media world on the early twenty first century and the the film based technology of the last century. Photographers, instead of being shamefaced about their ignorance of the nuances of film and traditional darkroom practise, applaud and rejoice in this lack of knowledge.

Living in a world where using technology is considered far more important than understanding that technology, and ‘talent’ amounts to trusting the ability of the automated settings of the camera, photography is the almost perfect metaphor for  the postmodern world. Endless debate on forums about the merits (or otherwise) of different cameras, camera systems, or the size of a sensor disguise the simple truth that the vast majority of camera users (sic) have absolutely no idea how a camera works.

Attitude replaces knowledge as a measure of ‘professionalism’.


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