The Post Modern Problem

Linda Hutcheon’s “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History” examines postmodernism through the lens of architecture. I found this to be an interesting choice as architecture is far from the first thing that comes to mind when I consider culture. I think immediately of art, literature, and music. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to know exactly what is meant when we refer to ‘culture’. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers many definitions, including:

  1. The act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education.
  2. An enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.
  3. Acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills.
  4. The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
  5. The set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.

Culture as it pertains to discussion on postmodernism can be understood as a process of individual enrichment. Through experiences and education, someone can gain cultural knowledge. We sometimes refer to people as ‘cultured’, for instance if they seem to know a lot about literature, art, history, or philosophy. Every person’s cultural capital is determined by their upbringing, their education or training, and their exposure to cultural influences. Because these things vary greatly from one individual to the next, this can sometimes create vast distances in understanding, which postmodernism aims to close.

As Alex Busch examined in her response to Linda Hutcheon’s “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History”, postmodernism seeks to make culture more accessible. Hutcheon is, however, contradictory in her use of a sophisticated vocabulary and tone, excluding those without the academic background needed to easily understand her writing. She uses terms that most people would be unfamiliar with, such as “hermeticism”, “technocrat”, “hegemony”, and “parthenogenetic”. Postmodernism’s goal of making culture universally understandable is impossible with the imbalance in cultural capital, and Hutcheon’s writing, somewhat ironically, emphasizes this. Many people may find themselves at a loss when reading her piece, lost in a dizzying swirl of incomprehensible words. While her writing may be easily understood by those who share her extensive vocabulary and are familiar with such an academic tone, it is inaccessible to most people. This contradiction led me to a question: who is responsible for bridging the distance created by a difference of cultural knowledge?

While it seems easy to blame the imbalance on academics like Hutcheon, forcing writers, artists, architects, and creators to dumb down their work so that everyone can understand feels like a waste of human potential, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”. In Vonnegut’s short story, members of society with any above-average ability are handicapped. Anyone who was more intelligent than others “had a little mental handicap radio in [their] ear… Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people… from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” The fictional society depicted by Vonnegut is one of clumsy ballerinas and geniuses incapable of holding a thought, of beauty hidden behind masks and of strength countered by weights. It is a society in which people are literally weighed down.

If we want to eliminate the drastic imbalance of cultural capital without suppressing talent and disregarding creative potential, the only solution is to increase cultural capital. Equality in terms of cultural knowledge should not be at the expense of anyone; it should be beneficial. We can close the gap in a positive way by better incorporating culture into education, by raising rather than lowering cultural capital, and finding some semblance of balance at the peak.

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