Postmodernity and Social Theory
Sc. 583.01    Fall 1997
Stephen Pfohl
Boston College

"Postmodernism ... indicate[s] a specific moment in history. It is a moment in which in-depth transformations of the system of economic production are also altering traditional social and symbolic structures. In the West, the shift away from manufacturing toward a service and information-based structures entails a global redistribution of labor, with the rest of the world and especially the developing countries providing most of the underpaid, offshore production. This shift entails the decline of traditional sociosymbolic systems ... [as] postmodernity corresponds to reorganization of capital accumulation in a transnational mobile manner. Given this new historical trend toward 'trans-national mobility, it is imperative for critical theorists and cultural critics to rethink their situation and their practices within this scheme."— Rosi Braidotti

"Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the 'real' country, all of the 'real' America which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety; in its banal omnipresence which is carceral)."— Jean Baudrillard.
 
 

Course Description



This course concerns the construction and critical deconstruction of ultramodern cultural rituals. Technological rituals. Telecommunicative rituals. Sacrificial rituals. Rituals that transform fields of power and knowledge— bodily and in the imaginary realm. Rituals of economic positioning and rituals of race, sex and gender. Military rituals. Rituals of modeling, simulation, and telematic feedback. Rituals of pleasure; rituals of pain. The sociological story of such rituals suggests a HIStory of the present— a story of the male-governed and racist inFORMational rituals of CAPITAL gone ultramodern and trans-global. This is also a story of those sentenced to circulate at the imperial peripheries of vast new social-technologies of power. Long excluded from reciprocal participation in the dominant rituals of modernity, women, peoples of color, the sexually marginalized, and the economically impoverished may today be doubly exiled by a dense and high velocity transfer of fascinating media icons and flexible cybernetic control processes. Beware: this may not be a pleasing story to tell together.

By connecting questions about postmodernity to gendered, racialized and economic aspects rituals of contemporary social power, this course invites a reflexive exploration of the psychic and bodily invasion of everyday life by premodeled flows of CAPITAL-intensive inFORMation. This is CAPITAL to such an intense degree that it becomes a war-like motion picture environment— a fragmentary televisionary collage of memories and forgettings, an oscillating social network of panicky fears and fascinations, each operating under the seductive sign-work of aestheticization, commodification and excess. Beware: this may not be a pleasing story to tell together.

Sociological questions concerning postmodernity are of significance for the theorization of contemporary society and for activism aimed at countering far-reaching forms of social domination. As such, this seminar attempts a critical reading of postmodernity as an atmospheric dimension of struggles for justice within and against the telecommunicative lures of metropolitan first-world culture.
 

Course Requirements

This is an advanced reading and writing seminar. Participants taking the course for credit will be asked to read and discuss assigned course materials, serve as periodic leaders of seminar discussion, and to complete the following assignments. Auditors are welcome.

(1) Each participant is expected to produce five short 3 page written responses to particular sets of assigned readings and seminar discussions.

(2) Each participant is expected to produce one 15 page paper involving an ethnographic investigation of a particular scene or event within postmodern society. A working draft of this text is to be presented as part of the collective work of the seminar. Use of mixed media and experimental formats are encouraged in the development of this essay.
 



Week 1:
Introduction:
Death at the Parasite Cafe



"I am burning with desire to tell a story of the postmodern, of the society in which I find myself (k)notted in a complex network of inFORMationally mediated relations to others. This is a story to counter-memorize or countermand what I take to be an emerging terroristic formation in HIStory—the postmodern—a new American Empire of the Senseless. Although this story passes through my body breathless, it is not mine alone. Nor am I entirely by myself in the re(w)ritings that become this text. No parasite is. Repeatedly."

"Come on, then." She took his hand. We'll get you a coffee and something to eat. Take you home. Its good to see you,  man." She squeezed his hand.
He smiled,
Something cracked.
Something at the core of things. The arcade froze, vibrated—
She was gone. The weight of memory came down, an entire body of knowledge was driven into his head like a microsoft into a socket. Gone. He smelled burning meat."
— Stephen Pfohl, Death and the Parasite Cafe and William Gibson, Neuromancer.
 
 

Week 2:
Setting the Stage in History

"In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searched through documents, tormented arithmetic.  Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval.  The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not at all had been authenticated and confirmed. A deranged person was escorted from the bank by two armed guards. The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.'—Don DeLillo, White Noise.
 

Readings

  1. Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 1-39.
  2. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Introduction: After Organized Capitalism," in Economies of Signs and Space, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1994, pp. 1-11.
  3. Stephen Pfohl, "When Words Become Flesh and Flesh Becomes Words," and "Questions of Access and Excess," in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 2-39.
  4. Mark Poster, ed., "Introduction," in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 1-9.
  5. Susan Willis, "Unwrapping Use Value," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 1-21.


supplementary reading
 


Week 3
Moving Objects:
Flowing Systems of
Commodified Power

"The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image."—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

"Postmodernism...is not just another word for the description of a particular style. It is also a periodicizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life of a new economic order—what is euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial, or consumer society, the society of the media or spectacle, or multinational capital."—Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society"
 

Readings

  1. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Mobile Objects," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 12-30.
  2. Stephen Pfohl, "Stupid Fresh Jack Double Density," "My First Confession," and "Unsingular Beginnings," in Death at the Parasite Cafe, 41-55.
  3. Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. London: Routledge, 1992, pp. 1-37.
  4. Jean Baudrillard, "The System of Objects," in Selected Writings, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 10-28.
  5. Susan Willis, "Gender as Commodity," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 23-40.


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 4
From Modern (Gendered)
Subjects to Postmodern Cyborgs



"Our cyborg worlds extend from the military... to video games, to advertising, to home appliances, to the work-place, to 'defense' debates. In all those realms, the military information society not only defines the ruling order but also sets the terms for what counts as an effective opposition."—Les Levidow and Kevin Robins, Cyborg Worlds
 

Readings

  1. Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.
  2. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Reflexive Subjects," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 31-59.
  3. Rosi Braidotti, "Organs Without Bodies," in Nomadic Subjects, pp. 41-56.
  4. Jackie Orr, "Panic Diary: Reconstructing a Partial Politics and Poetics of Disease," in Gale Miller and James Holstein, eds., Reconsidering Social Constructionism. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993, pp. 441-482.
  5. Marshall McLuhan, "Cybernation and Culture," in Charles R. Dechert, ed. The Social Impact of Cybernetics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966, pp. 95-108.*


supplementary reading

Week 5
Eating the Racialized
Other of Modernity

"The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.... The 'real fun' is to be had by bringing to the surface all those 'nasty' unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (and not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy."— bell hooks
 

Readings

  1. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 1-40.
  2. Susan Willis, "I Want the Black One," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 108-132.
  3. bell hooks, "Introduction" and "Eating the Other," in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992, pp. 1-7; 21-39.*
  4. Cornel West, "Black Culture and Postmodernism," in Barbara Kruger and Phil Marini, eds., Remaking History, Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1990, pp. 87- 96.*
  5. Stephen Pfohl, "Twilight of the Parasites: Ultramodern Capital and the New World Order," Social Problems, Vol. 40, No. 2, (May 1993), pp. 129-151.*


supplementary reading
 

Week 6
From the Haunts of
Production to the
Ecstasies of Consumption

"The logic of representation—of the duplication of its object—haunts all rational discursiveness. Every critical theory is haunted by this surreptitious religion, this desire bound up with the object, this negativity subtly haunted by the very form it negates."— Jean Baudrillard.
 

Readings

  1. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Reflexive Accumulation: Information Structures and Production Systems," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 60-110 and "Accumulating Signs: The Cultural Industries," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 111-144.
  2. Stephen Pfohl, "A Story of the Eye/I"" in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, 59-103.
  3. Jean Baudrillard, "Mirror of Production," in Selected Writings, pp. 98-118.
  4. Susan Willis, "Work(ing) Out," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 62-85.
  5. Michael Taussig, "Tactility and Distraction," in The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 141-148.*


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 7
From Doubled Consciousness
to Cybernetic Feedback

"P]ostmodernism enjoins us in the necessity for engaging in a cultural politics... It is not surprising that the most interesting theoretical works and reflections on the state of contemporary culture have come out of art and literary [engagements]... and have come from women... who have attempted to grapple with the... issue of representation of women. They do not necessarily offer positive images of women, but they do question the notion of "Woman" as a natural construct. They do not offer solutions, but instead force the readers of their works to develop skills in interpreting and reading. It is important to transit skills that will allow consumers of capitalism to understand the power of images in general and to question the notion of immutability of that which we take to be real. It is at this conjuncture that aesthetic judgment and politics meet."—Kim Sawchuk, "A Tale of Inscription/Fashion Statements."
 

Readings

  1. Sadie Plant, "... a world of pleasures to win and nothing to lose but boredom," in The Most Radical Gesture, pp. 39-74.
  2. Paul Gilroy, "Masters, Mistresses, Slaves and the Antinomies of Modernity," in The Black Atlantic, pp. 41-71.
  3. Stephen Pfohl, "The Double or No-Thing," and "Elementary Forms of Ultramodern Social Life," in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 135-153.
  4. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Ungovernable Spaces: The Underclass and the Impacted Ghettoes," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 145-170.
  5. Susan Willis, "Learning from the Banana," A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 41-61.


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 8
Flexible Reconfigurations of
Power and Catastrophe

"Who can now speak with confidence of the future of a postmodern scene when what is truly fascinating is the thrill of catastrophe, and where what drives onward economy, politics, culture, sex, and even eating is not the will to accumulation or the search  for lost coherencies, but just the opposite—the ecstatic implosion of modern culture  into excess, waste, and disaccumulation. When technology of quantum order produces human beings who are part-metal  and part-flesh, when  robo-beings constitute the growing majority of a western culture which fulfills then exceeds, Weber's grim prophecy of the coming of an age of "specialists without spirit', and when chip technology finally makes possible the fateful fusion of molecular biology and technique: then ours is genuinely a postmodern condition marked by the deepest and most pathological symptoms of nihilism."—Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene
 

Readings

  1. Arthur Kroker, "Technological Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan," in Technology and the Canadian Mind, Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1986, pp. 52-86.
  2. Rosi Braidotti, "Mothers, Monsters and Machines," in Nomadic Subjects, pp. 76-93.
  3. Stephen Pfohl, "Totems and Taboo" in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 155-207.
  4. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Mobile Subjects: Migration in Comparative Perspective," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 171-192.
  5. Jean Baudrillard, "Symbolic Exchange and Death," in Selected Writings, pp. 118-148.


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 9
The Fate of Whose
Bodies in Ultramodernity?

"They see death everywhere.... They think solely of the fact that they live surrounded by vipers, tigers and cannibals. Their imaginations are constantly struck by the idea of death as figured by these images of the wild and the only way they could live in such a world...was by themselves inspiring terror."—Michael Taussig
 

Readings

  1. Sadie Plant, "Victory will be for those who create disorder without loving it," in The Most Radical Gesture, pp. 111-149.
  2. Rosi Braidotti, "Body Images and the Pornography of Representation" in  Nomadic Subjects, pp. 57-74.
  3. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Post-Industrial Spaces," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 193-222.
  4. Jean Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Simulations," in Selected Writings, pp. 166-184.
  5. Susan Willis, "Sweet Dreams," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 133-157.


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 10
Reconfiguring Power and
Resistance in the Postmodern

"Jean Baudrillard is the theorist of nihilism as the fate of postmodernity.... a theorist of the cynical commodity. What makes Baudrillard so dangerous, allowing him to put Nietzsche into play as the doppelganger of Marx's Capital, is that he writes from that point where the commodity-form, abandoning its historical association with the simulacra of concrete labor, reveals itself for what it always was: a transparent sign-system that traces out in the curved space of political economy (and of consumer culture) the implosive, disaccumulative, and seductive cycle of postmodern power."— Arthur Kroker, "Baudrillard's Marx."
 

Readings

  1. Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein, Data Trash: the Theory of the Virtual Class, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 1-26.*
  2. Rosi Braidotti, "Re-figuring the Subject," in Nomadic Subjects, pp. 95-110.
  3. Stephen Pfohl, "Infantile Recurrence and Overdevelopment," in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 209-235.
  4. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Time and Memory," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 223-251.
  5. Jean Baudrillard, "On Seduction," in Selected Writings, pp. 149-165.


supplementary reading
 


 

Week 11
Resituating Postmodern
Knowledges

"['Our' problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own 'semiotic technologies' for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faith accounts of a 'real' world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness."— Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges."
 

Readings

  1. Jackie Orr, "Re/sounding Race, Re/signifying Ethnography: Sampling Oaktown Rap," in Gabriel Byrne and Mark Driscoll, eds., Prosthetic Territories: Politics and Hypertechnologies, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 168-203.
  2. Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," Simians, Cyborgs and Women, pp. 183-201.
  3. Stephen Pfohl, "Yuppies from Mars," in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 239-247.
  4. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Mobility, Modernity and Place," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 252-278.
  5. Zygmunt Bauman, "A Sociological Theory of Postmodernity," in Intimations of Postmodernity, New York Routledge, 1992, pp. 187-204.*


Supplementary Reading
 


 

Week 12
Countering the Cold
Passions of the Commodity Form

"Developing a style nobody can deal with—a style that cannot be easily understood or erased, a style that has the reflexivity to create counterdominant narratives against a mobile and shifting enemy—may be one of the most effective ways to fortify communities of resistance and simultaneously receive the right to communal pleasure."— Tricia Rose, Black Noise.
 

Readings

  1. Sadie Plant, "Flee, but while fleeing, pick up a weapon," in The Most Radical Gesture, pp. 150-187.
  2. Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe, Passionate Sociology. London: SAGE, 1996, pp. 1-5; 43-86.
  3. Tricia Rose, "Voices from the Margins," and "'All Aboard the Night Train': Flow, Layering and Rupture in Postindustrial New York," in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Hanover, CT: Weslyean University Press, 1994, pp. 1-61.*
  4. Paul Gilroy, "'Jewels from Bondage': Black Music and the Politics of Authenticity," in The Black Atlantic, pp. 70-110.
  5. Jean Baudrillard, "Fatal Strategies," in Selected Writings, pp. 185-219.


Supplementary Reading
 


Week 13
Embodying the Challenge
of Postmodern Formations
of Power

"But what if the postmodern double is itself reflexively redoubled, such that its site of parasitic violence is partially disclosed? Not dis-covered but disclosed, or noticeably closed differently. What will our eyes/"i"s behold, then, but the remasked sight of our own bodily complicities, fears, refusals and desires— falling, like the capitalized pages of some ill begotten whitemen's history, into the broken mirrored freshness of other material imaginings and yearnings for more loving ritual sign-work? What a laugh!" —B. Madonna Durkheim, Second Helpings and Mutual Aid.
 

Readings

  1. Cynthia Kaufman, "Postmodernism and Praxis: Weaving Radical Theory from Threads of Desire and Discourse," Socialist Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1994), pp. 57-80.*
  2. Stephen Pfohl, "The Orphans' Revenge," in Death at the Parasite Cafe: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 263-289.
  3. Scott Lash and John Urry, "Conclusion," in Economies of Signs and Space, pp. 314-326.
  4. Susan Willis, "Earthquake Kits" and "Afterward," in A Primer for Daily Life, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 158-181.
  5. Paul Gilroy, "Living Memory and the Slave Sublime," in The Black Atlantic, pp. 187-223


Supplementary Reading