Postmodernism and the Media
by Andreas Saugstad
The media are dominating our culture. We live in the information age, not only because of the internet, but because of TV channels, radio-channels, newspapers, magazines and books. As the CNN ad says: “you are what you know” – information is essential to our times. In my country of Norway, Reality TV is now dominating, shows with random people placed in a bar together, or some Norwegians placed in a house in Greece, or some other setting where very normal people (nothing bad in being normal) are filmed in every thinkable (and unthinkable) situation.
As I am writing, Ricky Lake is on my TV screen in Oslo, Norway – this show has found its way to Scandinavia and many other places, I think. As one of my friends said: “We live in a time where fame without content is dominating.” People are getting famous because of nothing, and instead of making educational and cultural programs, TV stations make trash TV, because of the commercial value.
The period in which we now live is called postmodernism. Jean-Francois Lyotard has said that in postmodernism one has given up the idea of a grand narrative. Belief in universal criteria, like those in the Enlightenment, has been replaced by the postmodern relativism and pluralism. The idea now is to accept a number of different perspectives, and not exclude any expression or perspective from the culture or information stream. Postmodernism is the philosophical equivalent to New York City: Embracing pluralism, combination and diversity. As Lyotard claims, a unified culture has now been replaced by a culture full of many small stories, many different criteria – a polyphony of voices.
Pluralism and the Media
Let me now make some reflections on the postmodern media. How do we evaluate the media in the postmodern world? Should Ricky Lake be banned from TV because the show obviously has no intellectual or aesthetic value? Should the intellectuals revolt against the emptiness of the postmodern media?
Postmodernism has influenced many. In Norway, my home country, the editor of Morgenbladet, the leading intellectual newspaper, defends pluralism. Many of the French intellectuals do too, and even though postmodernism is regarded as quasi-intellectualism by many Americans, some of the basic ideas are important. The Americans have always believed in freedom of expression, at least in theory.
But the problem with pluralism is that it often seems to lead to a related point of view, namely relativism, i.e. the view that anything goes, that nothing is more true or more right or wrong than anything else. Therefore, we should distinguish between two kinds of pluralism. First we have normative pluralism, an idea which also may be called relativism or nihilism: The acceptance of all narratives, expressions and norms, claiming that no one is better than all the others. Secondly, there is a kind of postmodernism which is pluralist in the sense that it accepts different views, without denying that something is better than other things.
In this latter case of pluralism or postmodernism, we are faced with the old idea of defending other people’s right to say whatever they wish, without accepting their points of view. And this is the kind of postmodernism I find the most interesting: embracing a diversity of human expressions and interests, without lapsing into relativism. The idea of diversity, without relativism, is my starting point for suggesting an approach to the information age and media today.
So I find the non-relativist acceptance of diversity the most interesting. An ethical relativism ends up in logical contradictions and is thus self-defeating. I believe that de facto there are intellectual, ethical and social values, and that it is possible to fight for these, without denying other people to pursue their interests, likes and dislikes, even though they may to some extent oppose my own values. Of course we cannot accept any kind of fascist, racist or inhuman expression, but within reasonable limits, we should accept many different voices and cultural expressions. When the inhuman ideas are ruled out, we must allow people to express their opinions and let the media have a plurality of expressions.
Real News vs. Tabloid TV
But some things are better than others, and this is important to notice when discussing the media. Ricky Lake is trash, Walker Texas Rangers is obviously a very pro-American propaganda TV series and the British tabloids are bad, both in a moral and intellectual sense. On the other hand, Lingua Franca is a good magazine and CNNs journalism is better than that of the British and other tabloids. As I see it, it must be possible to do a normative evaluation of the media, while still accepting that others follow another line of thought. We do not lead an intellectualist and elitist revolt against Ricky Lake, rather intellectuals and those with serious human concerns should try to promote their own media expressions at the same time as Ricky is doing her stuff.
This gives us a key to handle and understand the modern media world, and a hint as to how we should relate to it. As I said, Reality TV is the big thing in my country these days. Reality TV doesn’t seem to be dangerous at all, doesn’t inspire to violent acts like other shows may do. Thus I accept that many people like it. But I still don’t think most Reality shows are any good. It is from an intellectual point of view very primitive, and it does not stimulate citizens or heighten the level of sophisticated discourse. Sadly, the Reality TV people, or Ricky Lake or the Spice Girls or Madonna get more media covering than philosophers or thinkers like for instance Martha Nussbaum, Don Cupitt or Edward Said. People are more interested in the virginity of Britney Spears than information about Noam Chomsky – or they have been made more interested in this.
The media dominate our lives, and although celebrity news can be fascinating, the media overplays this kind of news. They could have contributed to enlightenment, reflection and discourse and broadening our horizons, but too seldom they do. Actually, I would find some information about Noam Chomsky’s personal life interesting, but what I am given (at least here) is the the latest news about Britney and her tour in Europe. People get famous for being pretty, singing cover songs, or just being on TV, while intellectuals and peace-workers are often unknown to the general public. Once upon a time, before the age of television, there was a queue on the main street of Oslo when Henrik Ibsen released his newest play. Today, scientists and writers are often presented in papers, but sports and pop stars and celebrities get much more attention.
The solution to all this is probably not found in elitism. In USA, Jedediah Purdy the 25 year old writer, has been accused of being an elitist. In his analysis of irony in the United States, he has criticized Seinfeld. One might accuse Purdy of being elitist, and not accepting the joys and highlights in ordinary people’s lives.
One reader remarked that this Ivy educated young writer shouldn’t challenge the Seinfeld show when this is what so many Americans really enjoy. I do not know exactly how Purdy relates to this, but we must not underestimate the value of good entertainment, and that reading about pop stars sometimes is something many of us find fascinating from time to time. As Loyotard says there are many minor narratives today, and we receive a number of different kinds of information about the world.
Celebrity news, the tabloids and entertainment may perhaps at its best tell us one kind of story that we from time to time find fascinating. Different kinds of media expressions meet different needs in human life. After a hard day working, for instance on a thesis, book or as a lawyer or teacher, you may not want to go strait to reading Plato, but perhaps relax with something entertaining. Then a Reality TV show may give you something different, so you can reload the batteries. Wittgenstein, for instance, loved to read Street and Smart detective magazines, and of course sometimes such stories may be fun to read.
But this does not mean we shouldn’t fight for our ideals. I think a very large portion of what we find in the media today gives us very little emotional or intellectual inspiration. Thus the media situation must change. When a TV channel sends soccer games four hours in a row, something is wrong. Some of the soaps on daytime TV, could be replaced by some really good educational programs, or travel programs. We could learn more about history, science, different cultures, present-day academic life, through TV and the media.
To heighten the level of civilized discourse, we need even more historically based analyses, critical articles, philosophical discussions and ethical reflection. As the postmodernist Don Cupitt seems to have noticed, it is important to avoid a cultural situation, where entertainment fills our lives all the time. Or let me put it this way: The kind of entertainment we often see now, is sometimes so shallow that it should be challenged and perhaps replaced. (Seinfeld and Dawson’s Creek are good counter-examples). Even though Cupitt is a radical postmodernist, he seems to have seen the dangers of a shallow culture, and he tries to increase the level of reflection by producing a book a year and giving talks and writing small articles.
The key is not to end up in media elitism. I do see the value of entertainment and will not force my views on everyone. Still, I think intellectuals, academics, artists, peace workers and others should work to change the media in the Western world. In the third world, many journalists see as their tasks to enlighten the people, why is this not on the agenda of Western journalists, TV producers and others in the media world?
Critical reflection, discussions of values, philosophy and culture should be an important part of the modern information world. Such critical, ethical and cultural reflection should be given a large part of the attention in this conglomerate – the postmodern media world Even though many different interests and kinds of shows do exist and I accept the right to have a different opinion, I will try to fight for my values. Within certain limits, we must accept a plurality of media expressions, but I (together with all those sharing my vision) will fight for my part of the cake. This is pluralism without relativism as an approach to the media.