‘Meaning in an increasingly meaningless world; Post-Structuralism and the departure to (Post) Modernity’

Publishing a college essay here, thoughts and constructive criticism welcomed

Literary Theory


Conor Ryan

10 Dec. 2015


‘Meaning in an increasingly meaningless world; Post-Structuralism and the departure to (Post) Modernity’

Postmodernism is difficult to define, characterised by a reactionary series of intellectual movements critiquing the consequences of modernity in cultural production.  According to Lyotard, this followed a specific series of events and was first visible in architecture (1986). Modernity saw massive advances in technology allowing the spread of ideas and the reproduction of art. European philosophy was influential, particularly French thought; radical reactions to Structuralism which was an attempt to scientifically understand representation and how meaning is attached. The poststructuralist considerations raised are hinged upon meaning and contradictory aspects of its connection to representation; similarly postmodernism is characterised by being resistant to interpretation – understood as interplay in self-contained systems. Postmodernism became popularised around the same time as deconstruction (Derrida). Lacanian understanding of the human psyche focuses on the interpretation of symbol, constantly trying to create meaning and build up a ‘reality’ based on perception. Postmodernity marks the point at which experience became increasingly mediated and constructed based on narratives as the individual lives in the ‘simulacra’ (Baudrillard) – made up of representation pertaining to explaining reality, with connotations of illegitimacy. As a reaction, Postmodernism is seen to reflect a crisis in belief in the direction society is heading at this stage of modernity as metanarratives begin to lose their power to legitimise increasingly visible consequences contrary to perceived ideals according to Lyotard (1984).

Postmodernism is cultural, having first become manifest in aesthetic reactions. In “Defining the Postmodern” (1986) Lyotard uses architectural theory as a point of reference, pointing towards a broader philosophy encompassing more than just aesthetics. “The idea of modernity is closely bound up with this principle that it is possible and necessary to break with tradition and to begin a new way of living and thinking. Today we can assume that this ‘breaking’ is, rather, a manner of forgetting or repressing the past. That’s to say of repeating it, not overcoming it.” (1986, 1466) Jameson has a similar understanding of the Postmodernist aesthetic, seeing it as a result of late capitalist cultural logic. “There is another sense in which the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds, they’ve already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible, the unique ones have been thought of already” (1851).

Modernity saw unprecedented advances in technology and large scale urbanisation as cities expanded alongside industry. This allowed ideas to spread, and the life of the individual was changed forever alongside these widespread social changes. The printing press was invented, and recording technology for video and sound as education became increasingly accessible to sectors of society where previously even literacy was unattainable. “Around 1900 technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it also had captured a place of its own amongst the processes” (Benjamin 1052). If modernity marked the spread of ideas and technology, than post-modernity would mark the point at which a multitude of ideas and contradictory truths saturated the lived experience of individuals. Recognisable stylistic reactions have become amalgamated into modern culture, this resulted in a kind of homogenised mass of cultural elements, in part due to the ease at which ideas can be accessed and reproduced. Jameson argues one of the results of repetition is: “…the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so called mass or popular culture” (1847).

Lyotard sees postmodernity as arising following a series of events after modernity, as scepticism at the idea of progress began to grow:  “The disappearance of this idea of progress within rationality and freedom would explain a certain tone, style or modus which are specific to modern architecture.” (1986, 1466). Initially there were quite positive reactions to modernity focusing on the capabilities facilitated by technological advances before events like World War I and World War II soured the outlook of intellectuals and artists. Postmodernity in architecture was first visible following reconstruction in Europe, to reflect a new outlook appropriating elements of a myriad of architectural styles. “There is no longer any close linkage between the architectural project and socio-historical progress in the realisation of human emancipation or the larger scale.” (Lyotard 1986, 1466). Though first seen in architecture, this became something visible across all cultural fields.

It is hard to sum up what postmodernism is, suffice to say that it is reactionary: visible in aesthetic representation and increasingly self-contained artforms. Jameson was quite wary of postmodernism and approached it critically from a Marxist standpoint, the result of late capitalist cultures, seeing it as intellectual consumerism and listing examples: “Most ….. emerge as specific reactions against the established forms of high modernism, against this or that dominant high modernism which conquered the university, the museum, the art gallery network, and the foundations” (1847). Paradoxes and contradictions are hallmarks of postmodernism, an intellectual movement critiquing both philosophy and representation. “By substituting the hidden depths of modernism with the celebratory, sensuous surfaces of the postmodern, art transferred itself into both everything and nothing as it transgressed all established boundaries” (Snipps-Walmsley 406).

European philosophy was incredibly influential, with French critical thought being of particular importance following the revolutionary academic period of the 1950’s and 1960’s in France. “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Saussure, 854). When Ferdinand De Saussure conceptualised structuralism, and understanding of the use of symbol through linguistic science he identified the ‘sign’ and the ‘signified’; with the meaning, or what is signified, sliding further away all the time. “Whereas speech is heterogeneous, language, as defined, is homogenous. It is a system of signs in which the essential thing is the union of meanings and sound images, in which both parts of the sign are psychological” (Saussure, 850).

Post-structuralist considerations from the likes of Lacan and Derrida arose as reactions to de Saussere’s ideas and their application to a wide-ranging array of cultural and academic fields: usually around the interpretation of meaning and consequences as a result of the arbitrary interactions of semiotic systems. “Perhaps deconstruction is nothing more than the most extreme consequence of Saussure’s linguistics” (Lewis 1). Jameson acknowledges the influence of this dynamic ‘discourse’, drawing elements from sociological, linguistic and philosophical thought:  “This new kind of discourse, generally associated with France and so called French thought, is becoming increasingly widespread and marks the end of philosophy as such.” (1848). Postmodern reactions became common around the same time that deconstruction and similar theory became popular.

The poststructuralist considerations raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s are based around questions on connections between representation and meaning, postmodern aesthetic reactions reflect this, resisting interpretation and emphasising symbolic interplay. “Whereas structuralism assumed that meaning could be found in the arbitrary relationships of signs and systems that organise meaning, post-structuralists such as Derrida took this line of thought one step further and argued that any attempt at uncovering or revealing meaning is a comforting myth” (Snipps-Walmsley 411). Reality is always contained within symbolic systems, and endless referential chains make up a substitute for meaning.

Following Saussere, Derrida understands a ‘text’ in which a plurality of differences precedes any presence and makes it possible; and conversely, any system of differences may be deemed a ‘text’. The significance of each element of a text is determined by its differences from all of the other elements of the same system. A text is thus a system in the literal sense that no one element can act as a textual element or ‘signifier’ without standing together with (Syn-stema) others (Lewis, 1).

This was of course, one of many theorists looking to apply de Saussere’s ideas to the broader cultural spheres. It is this type of philosophy that postmodernist thought draws from. Heavily influenced by sociological thought, Lyotard (1986) uses a similar term ‘differend’ to describe a contradictory ‘truth’ which emerges from a framework specific to the representation at hand.

Scepticism and doubt were a part of the modernist condition, but not fully realised like Postmodernism which uses fragmented style. Playfulness with types of representation is evident, using parody and pastiche to make points through superficial aspects to highlight increasingly elusive and disconnected meaning. “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without the feeling that there exists something normal compared to which being imitated is rather comic.” (Jameson 1849)  This highlights a disjointed experience, pertaining to reflecting lived experience in a modernised world and a continuation of modernist aesthetics – departing from realism and highlighting doubt and scepticism through irony, challenging authority through sheer creativity.

Poststructuralist thought has been applied to the human mind and how we break down the systems of symbol that we encounter. Psychoanalyst Lacan synthesised this with Freudian ideas into dense theory with quite wide ranging application. The human psyche is based on interactions of semiotic chains, theoretically open to analysis in the same way as language. Lacan asserts that: “…in the unconscious is the whole structure of language.” (1169) Later Lacanian thought is seen as compatible with Deconstruction according to Lewis, encompassing a philosophy much broader than language; “…despite his stress on language and culture – a crucial part of psychoanalysis generally – Lacan did not characterise the human being in terms of language alone. For after all, the ‘animal that has language’ (zôon logon ekhon) is also the animal that has language.” (9)  Language is the point of access to the unconscious, containing the elements of cultural struggles which pre-exist the individual. The ‘animal’ must decipher meaning from the symbols which surround them, and postmodernism can be seen as a reaction to changes in their lived experience.

Language is not as simple as verbal and written form, being better understood as systems of interacting symbol. All culture can be analysed in a similar manner according to Lacan: “With the result that the ethnographic duality of nature and language and culture is giving way to a ternary conception of the human condition- nature, society, and culture- the last term of which could be well reduced to language, or that which essentially distinguishes human society from other societies” (Lacan 1170). Language and the interactions of semiotic chains provide the basis for how the individual understands the world around them. As culture complexifies their lived reality becomes increasingly hard to build meaning around.

Postmodernity is characterised by a mediated experience of reality, and its scepticism can be understood when we consider that the signifier has become more and more distant from the signified. “In a nutshell, postmodernism attacks ideas of a stable, autonomous being and the possibility of grounding being in certainty and truth” (Snipps-Walmsley 408). Baudrillard identified the ‘Hyperreal’, referring to mediated reality where the ‘real’ or the ‘truth’ becomes obscured in a barrage of symbol as reality becomes constructed through various narratives. The term ‘simulacra’ (Baudrillard) describes living in a ‘reality’ where one is bombarded with information, surrounded by representations with connotations of illegitimacy. “Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1560). It becomes increasingly difficult to even think about what is signified, as a snowball effect occurs and representations of representations begin to increasingly make up the experience of living in the postmodern world.

Barthes focuses on how meaning is attached to modern cultural phenomena in Mythologies; specifically looking at the cultural practices and the associations made with presentation and engagement in behaviours in a series of essays. In ‘Photography and Electoral Appeal’ he discusses the significance of representations, and how they relate to much broader value systems: “Insofar as photography is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an ‘ineffable’ social whole it constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio moral status” (Barthes 1320). We look at how meaning is attached to various cultural events and behaviours; how it is constructed in this case of electoral campaigns photographs in the example provided – deriving intended meaning as being to get votes by likening the figure (politician in this case) to the audience or ‘mirroring’ characteristics and implied sets of values. These photos are the result of structured effort at constructing meaning and legitimising authority. In modern times such cultural symbols are shattered. Jameson would assert that the purpose of media and other narratives in the postmodern seems to leave us lost in time and history: “- the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents – are both extraordinarily consonant with this process” (1860).

Postmodernism is characterised by a loss of faith in dominant cultural discourse, reflecting lived experience at this stage of modernity. Lyotard critiques dominant ideologies in The Postmodern Condition (1984), theorising a crisis in metanarratives as the root of postmodernist reactions: “This transition has been underway since at least the 1950’s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction. The pace is faster or slower depending on the country, and within countries it varies according to the sector of activity: the general situation is one of temporal disjunction which makes sketching an overview very difficult” (3). He identified mythic narratives such as religion; and science, technology and rationality make up a second type of metanarrative, both legitimising human behaviour and action. Snipps-Walmsley identifies key aspects of postmodernist thought as becoming manifest in representation through irony, parody and pastiche; “Skepticism, doubt and paranoia are tools of the trade for the postmodernist thinker who usually believes that agreement is always enforced, that truth is merely a coerced consensus, and everything is relative” (408). The individual’s experience in the postmodern world is increasingly marked by scepticism, due to disconnection between the narratives used to explain and rationalise worldwide events and the attachment of meanings to the cultural in a very much constructed manner.

The aesthetic result of postmodernism critiques representation and dominant modes of thought; fragmentation and experimentation with multiple perspectives highlight a disjointed and contradictory perception of what is signified. Modernity saw widespread social changes alongside advances in technology which impacted the everyday life of the individual and the production of art. French critical thought is of particular importance, particularly around the ramifications of interpreting meaning from symbol and the power of ‘language’ as semiotic chains.  Lacan’s understanding of the psyche as being made up of interacting symbolic chains, creating perception rather than ‘reality’ gives us a model for understanding the process of interpretation and constructing meaning. The lived experience of the individual in the postmodern world has become increasingly complex, the ever-growing sea of narrative turns reality into the ‘hyperreal’ (Baudrillard), resulting in increasing scepticism at perceived disconnect between actual events and how it is presented for consumption. Lyotard highlights the shift to postmodernity as occurring at different points in different locations worldwide, being marked by a loss of faith in dominant ideological metanarratives: both mythic and modern ‘progress’ – as what is signified becomes increasingly distant, obscured in a plethora of representations pertaining to explain and rationalise what is happening around us. Poststructuralist concerns stem from ramifications of structuralist thought, whereby representations become increasingly distant from what they represent or signify and are contained within their own reference systems: postmodernism as an aesthetic reaction and much broader cultural philosophy reflects this.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. ‘Photography and the Electoral Appeal’ From Mythologies. Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1320-1321.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra”. Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1556-65

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1051-72.

De Saussere, Ferdinand. “Course in General Linguistics”. Leitch., Gen. Ed. 850-67.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1846-61

Lacan, Jacques. From “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious”. Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1169-1180

Lewis, Micheal. Lacan and Derrida: Another Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U. P., 2008. Print

Lyotard, Jean-François. “Defining the Postmodern” (1986). Leitch., Gen. Ed. 1465-68.

– – –  The Postmodern Condition. Trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi. Manchester: Manchester U. P., 1984. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. Gen. Ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Ed. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Snipps-Walmsley, Chris. “Postmodernism” Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford U. P., 2006. Print.

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