Reflection on Linda Hutcheon’s “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History”

The word postmodernism encompasses a wide variety of styles, and different definitions, depending on the discipline. As someone beginning the semester with absolutely no preconceived notion of what postmodernism is, I have narrowed it down to the following:

  1. An investigation of the nature, limits and possibilities of art.
  2. Inherently contradictory: first establishes then subverts conventions.
  3. At the same time dependent upon and independent from the modernism that made it possible.
  4. Uses historical references to incorporate and modify the past in order to give it new life and meaning.
  5. Confronts uniformity and the commodification of mass culture.
  6. Seeks to undercut elitism and make culture a part of everyday life.
  7. Uses parody as a mechanism to critique a subject from within itself.

I would like to focus on number six for a moment. Postmodern artists, be they painters, musicians or authors (or anything in between), want their work to be understood by the general public. They are guided by two main principles: accessibility and communication. The idea is to critique social and ideological issues – and for said critique to be understood by the whole of the population it is relevant to, not just those elite few with enough cultural capital to understand hidden allusions.
Linda Hutcheon uses architecture to highlight the differences between modernism and postmodernism. Take the modernist public housing projects for example. The architects believed they were superior to the intended users of their buildings. They viewed the housing projects as an experiment where they could dictate the lifestyles of their tenants – an indifferent and arrogant attitude that caused the projects to fail. Postmodern architects, however, have returned to the idea of architecture as an act of community. They believe that public spaces should focus on the practical needs of the users, and should appeal to the general public.

Hutcheon writes about postmodernism’s desire to undercut elitism, and break down the social barriers it creates. However, she seems to contradict herself by displaying her own vast cultural capital through her broad vocabulary and academic prose. My initial reaction to the paper took me back to the Woody Allen clip we watched in class, if I was the girl who thought the exhibit was “very good,” and Hutcheon was the woman impressed by its “negative capability.”

On the other hand, it is possible that Hutcheon purposely assumes an academic tone as a parody, the way she argues postmodern art often does. Turning your attention back to number seven on the earlier list: if postmodernism uses parody to critique a subject from within itself, it is possible that Hutcheon intentionally raises questions about the nature of elitism through her commendable vocabulary and academic – dare I say somewhat snooty? – tone.

I do not mean to disregard the value of being well-educated, nor do I think postmodernism intends for artists to hide their education in order to appeal to the general public. Rather, it seems that postmodern artists want to use relevant, accessible art forms to raise questions aimed at the masses. It returns to the desire to critique a subject from within itself. What is the point of challenging widely held conceptions if most of the people with those conceptions are unable to understand the questions being asked of them? It seems to me that postmodernism demands equally intelligent artists as previous styles, but also insists that the art can appeal to and create meaning for a variety of social classes, thus removing the boundaries between the social classes and their ability to enjoy the same art.

Hutcheon’s paper reminds me of Bordieu’s claim that “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Does that idea still apply in a postmodern world? It is not the art itself that does the classifying, but the way individuals talk about art, or display their taste through the use of their cultural capital. Hutcheon is a perfect example: she writes about the desire to dispense of elitism, and to bring culture to the masses, and yet her writing displays sophisticated cultural capital. As a reader, I felt very keenly the social class divide between us.

Obviously there is a divide, because there were instances when I had to look up almost every word in the sentence, but it makes me wonder which one of us is accountable? Is it Hutcheon, putting on an unnecessary display of capital? Or am I the one lacking? Is it possible that our society, be it the public school system or the way I was raised, does not put enough emphasis on culture at early ages? Being in first year university, I have spent more than twelve years in the public school system and never come across half of the words or ideas Hutcheon employs in her paper. We have become so caught up in science and technology – which is wonderful, of course, and extremely important – that perhaps as a society we spend too little time fostering cultural appreciation in our children and our students. Perhaps we are not as well educated as we used to be. Perhaps our extreme advances in certain areas of study have left us lacking in others that used to be more appreciated.

Postmodernism serves as a reminder that, while the past cannot be worshipped as better than the present, it cannot be forgotten in favour of single-minded pursuit of the future. It is necessary to incorporate both past and present, art and science, “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture, to achieve a meaningful balance. In the words of Paolo Portogeshi: “It is the loss of memory, not the cult of memory that will make us prisoners of the past.”

Feature image credit: Matias Garabedian

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