In the 1990s, many of my peers were using the word postmodern to describe just about anything. I didn’t understand why they did that. Maybe it was a fad, a kind of intellectual posing, which might actually be a very postmodern attitude to have (Baudrillard would say so). Still, I have always wondered what they really meant. Was it a form of praise? an insult? a way of being? a way of understanding the world? A reaction against something?
In general terms, postmodernism is a reaction against modernity and the enlightment. In the modern era, Western society experienced the rise of logical reasoning and science. These would replace religious dogmatism and superstition, and — hopefully — lead human kind into a better society. However, in order to improve society, one must first strive to understand how it works. And the assumption of the enlightment was that you could understand human behavior; you could identify laws, regularities, and principles, which were universally applicable to all human beings, and use those principles to make educated judgments about human nature. Postmodernists, on the other hand, argue that the enlightment is wrong. They argue that there are no universal laws, no essential human nature, no grand-narrative, and no definite models (“Postmodernism”, 2008). Even more troubling, postmodernists like Baudrillard doubt that there reality even exists. For him, simulacra [simulations] have replaced reality.
Reality television is a great example of simulacrum, and Chuck Klosterman does an exemplary job in explaining what happens when a show like The Real World bleeds into ordinary social interactions. Klosterman identifies himself as a huge fan of the show. He seems to have watched every season, and because of this, he is able to identify patterns. People that are “cast” to fit a certain stereotype:
Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of The Real World weren’t sampling the youth of America – they were unintentionally creating it. By now, everyone I know is one of the seven defined strangers, inevitably hoping to represent a predefined demographic and always failing horribly. They Real World is the real world is The Real World is the real world. It’s the same true story, even when it isn’t (Klosterman, 28).
Baudrillard suggests that simulacra have replaced reality to such an extent that society can no longer distinguish between what is real, and what is fantasy. Doesn’t that sound like Klosterman’s description of The Real World? Here are the seven strangers who live in a house, and there is Chuck Klosterman, writing about how he’s “met at least six Pucks in the past five years” (29).
So, is this what happens when people stop being polite? I think Baudrillard would say yes. We’re all immersed in a world of symbols and images. Disneyland, TV verite experiments, commercials… these are all simulacra that shape how something (society, human behavior, natural catastrophes, etc) appears to us. And we use these images to conceptualize the world, to make certain observations, such as what Klosterman does when he says that people “play the Puck Role.”For Baudrillard, the people who play the puck role have detached from reality, choosing appearance instead. The hyperreal has effectively hidden what is real.
Another good example is Brian Lowry’s argument about reality TV stars. “You’re in trouble when Geraldo Rivera starts sounding like the voice of reason” says Lowry. Quoting Rivera, he adds, “These TV traumas are controlled by producers who create artificial cliffhangers. There’s not a moment of true spontaneity.”
Should we be surprised, appalled? I can’t really answer that. What I do, however, find very ironic is that the television industry — essentially quite modern — produces some of the most postmodern fare out there. The television industry is quite modern because it is organized rationally, to churn out products in an efficient manner. Granted, sometimes the decisions that they make seem irrational, but when you think about it from the point of view of economics, the logic is not absent at all. We have franchises like The Real World, voyeuristic train wrecks like Jon & Kate plus 8, and inexplicable fare like I Love New York because, for the time being, they are cheap to produce, they get rating, and they fill schedules.