Postmodernism


From sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (p. 81):

“Postmodernity is, to put it in a nutshell, a time of constant, everyday choice–for humanity as a whole as much as for the individual men and women.”

Source: Zygmunt Bauman. 2000. “Sociological Enlightenment–For Whom, About What?” Theory, Culture, & Society 17(2): 71-82.

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The secularization thesis held sway in sociology for a long time. Sociologists assumed that secularization was inevitable and religious faith would decline, retreating first to the private sphere and then dwindling away to nothing. Some sociologists suggested, however, that perhaps religion wouldn’t totally disappear but would assume non-traditional forms. In the 1960s, sociologist Robert Bellah suggested Civil Religion one possible form in the United State. Others suggested that religion could take other forms, serving as “functional equivalents” to religion, so long as they fulfilled the social functions that religion traditionally filled. Sports, and the fanaticism they engender, is often suggested as an example.

Jennifer Porter, a Canadian professor, offers a college course analyzing Disney as a functional equivalent to religion. BoingBoing has a post about it here: Disney as a religion, the college course. They link to a post from “The Disney Blog” that provides additional information from Porter about the phenomenon. Regarding Disney as religion they write:

My current view is that Disneyism, as a religion, is a reality. But it’s at an infantile stage (even though some would argue that it started with Walt’s approval of the Mickey Mouse Club back in 1928 as a way to recruit young practitioners (aka, audience members for his cartoons). There are cathedrals (the theme parks), acolytes (myself, other Disney authors and subject matter authorities), and even worship meetings (NFFC groups, MouseFest, and online discussion boards).

I am intrigued by the idea of functional equivalents. And the concept of “fan” does derive from “fanatic” which has religious connotations. And having made a pilgrimage to Disney World last year…

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So I’m sitting by myself watching a bit of TV after having just talked in my intro class earlier in the day about the impact TV has on community (see, for example, Putnam’s Bowling alone) when I see a Panasonic TV commercial that puts forth the image that the family that watches TV together, stays together (or something like that). There’s an Adweek story about their ad campaign here, “Panasonic Touts TV Time for Families,” includes a link to a video of the commercial. It provides this description of the commercial:

In the 30-second spot “Introduction,” a mother, father, older brother and younger sister all introduce themselves to one another as if they’ve never met before. After the introductions, the family awkwardly pauses and looks at one another as a narrator says the words displayed on screen, “It’s time to bring back family time.” The family is shown watching a Panasonic TV. “Panasonic ideas for family. Panasonic ideas for life” is the tagline.

It also provides this link to a website devoted to Pansonic’s larger ad campaign where they ask the question “Are you suffering from famnesia?” They also provide a family time quiz and say, “Take the quiz now to get a better sense of just how committed you are to family time. And, at the end of the quiz, be sure to express your commitment to family time by pledging family time hours.”

I use bloglines to keep track of a variety of sites so that I know when something new appears on one of my favorite sites (not counting the favorite sites I check obsessively for which I need no notice). One of those favorite sites is Critical Mass which is written by National Book Critics Circle board of director members. They have a post up titled, “Around the World on Friday.” In the listing of various links-of-the-day, they include this one: “Khalid Mir wonders if there isn’t such a thing as too much connectivity when your goal is reading.” Not surprisngly, this link leads to a post by Khalid Mir (on a blog at GuardianUnlimited). He writes about being overwhelmed with information in the Internet age.

I post the various steps by which I came to his post to reinforce the degree of information to which we have access. Along the way I could have followed numerous alternative paths leading in countless possible directions to more links, posts, stories, images, videos, etc. It’s enough to make a person wonder how we might seek to make sense of it all. Which is, I suppose, the point of Mir’s post. He wonders about “the profound way in which the internet affects us in our ability to communicate meaningfully with one another.” He raises red flags about the consequences:

It is, rather, whether how we think about something is radically altered when information is available at the click of a button. What does access to vast amounts of information and the pressures of instantaneity do to our age-old habits of discernment (Google’s “top gaining queries“, for instance) and quiet reflection? Will we ever be able to return to the “exalted silence” of the book or even read “linearly” (as Jonathan Franzen asked in his celebrated Harper’s essay)?

The assault on the senses – whether the dazzling of the eye by the profusion of images around us or the drowning out of silence by background music and conversation and now the hyperinflation of words – can only lead to overload, triviality, and an eventual collapse of meaning.

He concludes the piece by writing:

Ultimately, in an age of “instant living”, does the Internet offer us any sense of permanence? How many of you will go back and read this article in three days, I wonder?

One of the things that got me interested in sociology in the first place was the impact technology has on our individual and collective lives, especially its impact on community. So I always find essays such as Mir’s intriguing (even if, in three days, I won’t be able to remember that, not only did I read his article, I wrote about it).

I watched the premier of NPR’s This American Life on Showtime (it’s possible to watch it online at this link). The title of the first episode was “Reality Check,” and I confess that sociologically I found this intriguing. When I saw the final segment, I couldn’t resist posting about it. It was about a group of people, called Improv Everywhere, that do various events/pranks as a kind of performance art, and one of their bits was to pick out a band that is just starting out and show up as rabid fans. Their post about the event is available here, and it is called “The Best Gig Ever.” They describe it this way:

Agent Lee approached me a few weeks ago with a wonderfully simple idea. “Best gig ever,” he said. “Pick a struggling rock band and turn their small gig into the best show of their lives.” We had already thrown a birthday party for a stranger; why not throw an awesome concert for an unknown band?

The band they picked out was called Ghosts of Pasha and was from Burlington, Vermont. They were doing a show in New York City, only there 4th show ever. The details about how the improv group pulled this off are provided at the above link, but the short version is that the group of almost 40 participants learned the songs, made t-shirts and temporary tattoos, and showed up as rabid fans. They sang along, requested favorites, and acted like they would with their favorite bands.

The band had no idea what was going on. When the concert was done, the “fans” quickly departed. It wasn’t until later that the band members found out that they were part of this performance/prank when a friend or relative emailed them the link to the Improv Everywhere site. Initially they were embarrassed, devastated, confused and more. Eventually they made their peace with it.

One of the questions they raise in the TV segment is whether or not the joy of the show that the band experienced at the time (“the best gig ever”) was worth the anger and pain that resulted from finding out that it was all a setup, that it wasn’t “real.” Of course this raises questions about what constitutes the real in the first place. It certainly was real for the band at the time. And what if they’d never found out? Would not knowing make it more real? Was it cruel or not?

NPR also did a radio program on this episode. That link is available under their show “Mind Games,” and it is possible to listen to it online.

Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard died March 6, 2007. Baudrillard raised questions about the relationship between objects and representations of objects calling into question the nature of reality itself. Two key Baudrillard concepts include simulacrum and hyperreality. BoingBoing offers this post with multiple links about his life and his work. RIP.

It used to be that cyborgs existed only in our science fiction imaginations. As I talk about in the chapter on “Postmodern Life” (The Big Picture, Chapter 8), one of the lessons we learn from Donna Haraway, author of the “Cyborg Manifesto“, is that we are already cyborgs. While Haraway’s discussion extends far beyond the simple human/machine version of cyborgization, examples in which we are pushing that boundary toward its science fiction potential abound.

In a BoingBoing post there are links to research in which scientists were able to hook up a monkey to a robotic arm and the monkey was able to feed itself. BoingBoing has featured other cyborg related posts as well, including this one, “More cyborg attack-critter technology revealed,” which includes links to multiple cyborg related posts, including a pointer to a Wired post, Military Cyborg Menagerie, with additional links.

There does seem to be growing concern about our cyborg futures. In his book, “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” Bill McKibben suggests we stop ourselves before we go so far as to no longer recognize ourselves as human. Taking a less cautionary approach, James Hughes, in his book “Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future,” suggests we need to begin now to address the consequences of our inevitable cyborg futures. Of course both authors are addressing issues much more inclusive than the kind of Terminator cyborgs implied in the previous posts, calling us to consider our moves toward our becoming transhuman or posthuman before they happen.

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