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The Postmodern Condition

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Wednesday, Mar 28, 2007

Baudrillard’s death made it clear how far postmodernist theory has sunk in the estimation of those paid to write about such things for a general audience, with most writers dismissing him as a charlatan, and his ideas as performative, self-aggrandizing sophistry. This, naturally, seems to reinforce one of his great themes, how the ability to convincingly reproduce the real (i.e., the conditions of “truth”) has become increasingly difficult, or rather increasingly easy to simulate. A superfluity of information, kept in motion by proliferating media and accelerating technological developments, makes us simultaneously overinformed and helplessly confused. We can’t assimilate information, so we come to treasure novelty for its own sake, as a sensation rather than a building block for the edifice of our understanding of the world.


Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition seems to have been a fairly prescient book—published in 1979, it accurately predicted much of the change brought by the internet, which he anticipates as a massive interactive database, brings to society, making information ubiquitous and those who can best manage that information into a new strata of movers and shakers. Technology has made information’s usefulness more accessible, and this usefulness has been commercialized, making what information can produce its most important quality over whether its true in some idealized sense. Easily accessible information allows for the manufacture of what Lyotard calls “proof” for use in “language games” that reproduce legitimacy—what gives society’s basic institutions their authority and enables them to renew it. He paraphrases systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, claiming that “in postindustrial societies the normativity of laws is replaced by the performativity of procedures.” Efficiency produces its own truth and colors the truths we find elsewhere; efficiency (which is the profit motive in operation) suddenly becomes indistingioshable from common sense—we do things the fast way, not the way our elders did, etc. Lyotard goes further to suggest we see that which is efficient as what is truly real, what remains when the layers of mediated illusions are stripped away (and not itself an effect of media saturation).


So possibly as information becomes easier to obtain and process and turn into productivity, we begin to translate our sensations and desires into similar information to be processed, to be made useful and productive—we assess our own feelings for their efficiency, though we think of this not in managerial terms, as a way to get more out of our natural states, but in terms of personal ease, convenience. As society makes ubiquitous instrumentalized information the basis for its institutions, a similar process takes place at the personal level, as we make convenience an overriding value, an end in its own sake, as it seems to bring us closer to what’s real (what’s most efficient). And the sensations we can’t figure out what to do with, the ones we don’t know how to make use of, become unreal to us, nightmares, surreal delusions. A substantial portion of our consciousness becomes incomprehensible to us, even as we are processing more external information than at any other time in the history of the human race.

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