hugo :: ideas :: pomo culture
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: the pathology of extremes in postmodern culture :::

In today's postmodern consumerism culture, there is a peculiar pathology of extremes that renders us, as members of this culture, incapable of cognating moderate, balanced ideas.

First, let's examine all of this from a semiological perspective. Saussurian's binary oppositions laid the foundation for post-structuralist thought. The nature of oppositions like "rich vs. poor," "good vs. evil," and "young vs. old" is really a sort of mutual definition. How do you define a rich person? Well, he has a lot of money. How much money constitutes a lot? That's all relative to how much everyone else has, of course! In the same way, morality is negatively defined. Without a notion of hell, there can be no heaven, and without sin, there cannot be virtue. Binary opposition also figures prominently into Lacanian signification, which is a framework for understanding the psychology of thought and interpretation. According to Lacan, words in language constitute a system of signs, and when a sign is used, it is used as a surface signifier to represent or invoke a deeper signified. A church may signify piety, whereas a brothel might signify sin. An interesting artifact of signification is that certain signifiers are more unambiguous and lucid than others, and therefore, they emerge and dominate in the praxis of human social communication. Here's a thought experiment. Think about the act of giving a bouquet of red roses to a romantic partner, versus the act of giving a bouquet of sunflowers to that same partner. Which gift is a sign of greater love? Instinctively, almost all of us would think the red roses. But why? Perhaps the romantic partner also likes sunflowers, and the gift of sunflowers is just as expensive as the gift of red roses. The explanation that comes to mind is that red roses, in our culture, is a far clearer signifier of love than, say, sunflowers. On valentine's day, it is red roses that sells out, not sunflowers, or white roses, or blue roses, or any other flowers. Barthes argues that every culture has a system of signifier-to-signified mappings, and it so happens that red roses, in many cultures, signifies romantic passion, and love. But let me pose this question to you: What kind of flowers signify an almost-love, or an 80% passion? (Note: There aren't even words/signs for these concepts, so they require some linguistic finessing to even express.) I would argue that are all no such clearly articulated signifiers for these concepts. By the question is: why aren't there any? After all, not everyone loves her romantic partner completely or has 100% passion for her partner. In fact, most people fall somewhere in between love and hate (incidentally there are many signifiers for hate, but while they are known in social discourse, they are not always socially accepted, and even our linguistics has some notion of this bias: for example, if is grammatical to say "give her my love," but ungrammatical to say "give her my hate," or "my spite," or "my disgust," et cetera). Without further digression, the point to be had here is that there is a unequivocal bias toward the extremes.

If Claude Shannon were alive, he would surely say that this is obvious. Shannon thought about the informational aspects of communication. In Shannon's informational framework, oppositional extremes are more informative than any intermediate values. In the praxis of social communication, passing extreme signifiers is arguably a more economical situation then passing moderate signifiers. Also in linguistic praxis, it is not an uncommon convention to pass an extreme signifier as the root of an utterance, and to compose intermediate meanings by the addition of intensifier utterances.

So far I have described that words constitute culturally dictated systems of signs, whose signification results in underlying meaning. I have also argued that binary opposition extremes make for more attractive and powerful signifiers than their corresponding oppositional moderate positions, and I've argued how this makes sense both socio-phenomenologically and from the standpoint of information theory. But I also want to point out that all of this is true and has been true of language and culture even before modernity. So the 64,000$ question is of course, how did this condition become pathological in light of today's culture of postmodern consumerism?

The initial results of post-Enlightenment thinking were positive. We learned to question assumptions and be skeptical of axioms and absolutes and essentials. In modernity, rather than accepting our social roles and selfs as givens (passives, according to Nietzsche), we destabilised the essentialist assumptions made about Self, society, morality, and law, and began to regard things in an increasingly subjective manner, and we began to Will a self for ourselves. There is something intoxicating about the freedom to self-realise and self-actuate, but this wasn't without great perils.

When hyperglobalisation and mass media entered the picture, the virtues of modernity turned quickly to ills. We live in a culture where increasingly, our thoughts and identities are shaped by the media. The complexity of our lives increased in proportion to the complexity of the world that we live in - new discourses, new burdens and responsibilities, new words and signs. One of the artifacts of mass media is that we are constantly being flooded with signs and suggestions for signification chains. "Buy Axe deodorant and women will swarm all over you. Axe signifies sex," a particularly shameless commercial's subtext reads. The production of new signs and influencing the signification process has been completely institutionised: Born in designers and marketers, dessiminated through mass media. The tendency for successful and lasting signifiers to be extreme rather than moderate has been exacerbated by market pressures, and now, product differentiation is further driving signifiers to new extremes.

The media's pressure to deliver dramatic and entertaining programming has birthed new genres of extremes, like daytime soaps, sitcoms, and wacky cartoons. On daytime soaps, a mother-daughter relationship is never protrayed as one of balance or moderation. The mother is always either completely self-sacrificing to a fault, or overbearing and vindictive to a fault (increasingly, the latter). On sitcoms, the most shocking and outrageous storylines are selected, at the expense of more real or nuanceful moderations. Increasingly, cartoons are more and more outrageously wacky, the humanish characters with exaggerated features, mannerisms, and behaviours. Sadly, even the news is a form of infotainment, and even what was previously local news, or premature news, is now sold as national news alerts. The media is more unlikely to paint using a more extreme and polarised lens because increasingly, that is the market pressure.

But the real danger is not the media's increasingly extreme portrayals, it is that the postmodern human condition is such that our thoughts and our selves are deeply influenced and often a direct product of our consumption of mass media. We are addicted to signs! Social construction theories of identity posit that increasingly, we are constructing our selves by the interests we endorse or possess. We have become a bag of signifiers floating in the vast seas of consumerism. There isn't a single thing that we can't buy a signifier for. Want a new identity? Buy a self-help book which will lead you there. What to learn about love and betrayal? Watch Days of Our Lives. What's ironic is that while post-Enlightment began largely as a subjective re-evaluation of assumptions, in today's postmodern consumerism culture, we rarely have the time to subjectively examine and vet the barrage of signifiers thrown our way. The only thing subjective here, is our "free Will choice" in what signifiers we want to identify with, and it is not clear even how "free" that choice really is.

I don't think it's an overstatement in the least bit to argue that today, we are obsessed with extremes. The potentialities of a nuanceful mother-daughter relationship have all but been sabatoged by exposing our teens (and moms) to the overextremified signification instructions taught to us by pop culture and television, which tell them to think dichotomously about a mother as being either overinvolved or neglectful. The nuances of every aspect of the art of living have all been crispened away. This was all too eerily fortold by George Orwell in 1984. In the absence of a renaissance of subjective culture, we are big trouble as a global culture. Seeminlgy having acquired more "choice" and "free will," we have unwittingly sabotaged both.



articles copyright (c) 2002-2004 by
all rights reserved.



H U G O . . L I U ...

program in comparative media studies, mit

the media laboratory, mit
if you like my work, please link to me
hugo at media dot mit dot edu