Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Denzin , Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema (Michael)

Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema.
By Norman K. Denzin
Denzin’s book is a study of the postmodern self as it is represented in two places: postmodern social theory and a selection of contemporary Hollywood movies.


The book is organized into two parts.
Part 1: “The Postmodern” which is four chapters.
1. “Defining the Post-Modern Terrain.” A description of the post-modern contemporary world in all its aspects.
2. Postmodern Social Theory.” Where a post-modern theory fits among a current school of theorists who disregard it. “A certain nostalgia pervades contemporary social theory, a longing for a past which postmodern social theory says is over.” These theorists are in danger of being past over as irrelevant.
3. Takes on the Postmodern: Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson. The relevant, though flawed, theorists, in Denzin’s view.
4. Learning From Mills (or C. Wright Mills, who wrote Sociological Imagination, which was one of American sociology’s first treatments of the postmodern condition. Mills’s main topic was the relationship between personal troubles and public issues.)

Part II: In the second part Denzin works back and forth between social theory texts (Mills, Baudrillard, Barthes, Derrida, poststructuralism, post-modernism, feminist cultural studies, etc) and cinematic representations of life in contemporary America in six films: Blue Velvet, Wall Street, Crimes and Misdemeanors, When Harry Met Sally, sex, lies and videotape, Do the Right Thing. He uses the films as “readings of contemporary life in America, finding postmodern contradictions in them which mirror the everyday in the society and its popular culture.”

Denzin says that his goal is “to fit Mills’s call for a postmodern sociological imagination to Baudrillard’s reading of contemporary America.”
In the preface and the first chapter Denzin defines “postmodern,” post-modernism” and “post-modern self” often and in a few different ways. I think Denzin does this to get a handle on the sometime vague definition of postmodernism and also to try to show how vast and encompassing postmodernism is, in terms of the way it affects and defines culture and society.
Denzin talks of the postmodern self in terms of three cultural identities: class, gender and race. And, evoking Baudrillard he talks about how “the postmodern self has become a sign of itself, a double dramaturgical reflection anchored in media representations on one side and everyday life on the other.” And Denzin thinks that this double self is too often reduced to its markers of class, race and gender.

Overall, Denzin is interested in finding a new sociology that stays in touch with the experience of the late 20th century. He also wants to figure out how individual human beings can emerge from the things that define them: the signs, the reflections and the assignments of race, class and gender. I think this is a laudable, if ambitious and difficult, goal to achieve. But I worry about the things he worries about and I am happy to follow him and see what he proposes.
What is scary to see is just how much further down the road we are on the postmodern path that Denzin lays out in his book only 13 years ago. The world is so much more hypermediated and remediated, and people, especially young people, are so much more defined by image and reflection, while race, gender and class are still essentially what marks each of us.
It has been occurring to me lately—and this book has been part of the catalyst—just how constructed I am by the post-modern condition. I was at an art gallery the other night, a small one with students and artists commingling, sharing their work, and I realized I was resisting it because the media wasn’t validating their work. Sub-consciously I have come to believe that an actor is not a “true actor” unless he is on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, a painter, not a painter, unless her work is covered in The New York Times. My apartment is top to bottom with representations. My walls are covered with framed movie posters—representations of representations—and I see myself reflected in them. Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia—I have constructed myself, my attitudes of romance, adventure, philosophy in their image. What is real about me? Where is my essential humanness? Who would I be without these images, this postmodern society to form and inform me?
So I find the book readable and interesting if not attempting to be (so far at least) entirely original. Denzin does a very good job of situating theorist and theories in context and in providing summaries of theorist’s work.



15 Comments:

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This is a very useful piece - only just discovered how useful Denzin is in such a variety of contexts...

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