Postmodernism, history, and simulation

I recently bought a second-hand book which discusses the impact of post-modernism on history, which it sees as a denial of the validity of past experience, and hence of hope for the future. This started me wondering about the role of simulation in a post-modernist (or post-post-modernist?) age.

The book is Our Shadowed Present by Jonathan Clark. The strands of argument which stood out for me are (roughly summarised)
1. post-modernism seeks to deny the validity of history. “inviting the uncritical and unskilled to exercise critical skills is rather to give students the impression that the historical record as presented in their books is false or partial. Empathy presupposes the possibility of immediate access to the real meaning of the past, without wrestling with the arcane, biased, constructed, invented apparatus of historical writing. (Im often struck by the tendency of TV history presenters to use the present tense; Alfred is hit in the eye with an arrow and falls to the ground… and by the frequency with which my childrens history homework exhorts them to write a newspaper account of historical events which took place long before newspapers, or indeed public literacy. I was also reading George Steiners essay, “The Uncommon Reader”, about the act of reading, which brings home, as so much of Steiners work does, the enormous cultural and intellectual changes that have taken place over the centuries, even in the simple act of reading.)
2. indeed it denies any validity in modernist ideas of truth and objectivity, replacing what it sees as a set of grand narratives claiming objective authority with a diverse pattern of localized narratives and fluid identities.” …a performance of King Lear contains within it a narrative, but it is a narrative isolated from history…. it is of little importance when any particular performance of Lear takes place. If Lear were a real person, it would matter greatly whether we place him in the ninth century or the nineteenth; but this significance is what post-modernism denies to chronology…”
3. postmodernists “assume that the grand errors of the past were oppressive because they were unifying, and they offer a pluralized alternative. The key terms in their vocabulary are identity, self-fashioning, construction, invention, and performance… the covert objective of pluralism is to invoke those other cultures to diminish the authority of the host culture… by locating it as merely one among many alternatives…. the area of unfettered choice has extended to sexuality itself… heterosexual conduct has been made emblematic of the arbitrary oppression of tradition…. this is the age of the plastic surgeon, who allows pop stars apparently to change race, and the unhappy and confused apparently to change sex.”
4. History becomes a synonym for vexatious or irrelevant: “The British government chose to mark the millennium by building an exhibition hall, the Millennium Dome; instructions were given that the Dome contain no reference to the national past, or to the person whose anniversary was commemorated. The Dome accurately captured a moment.” (and, one might add, was a complete failure. Blair claimed the Dome would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. At a cost of £789 million, it attracted 6.5 million visitors, and a lot of criticism. Its contents were heavily sponsored, eg the section on work was sponsored by Tesco. As a gesture to history, a special edition of Blackadder was written to be performed there, a series described by its creators as “an irreverent trek through British history – a time travel adventure story consisting entirely of people who are either rude or stupid.” . )
5. Despite its denial of objectivity, beneath this image is concealed a far-reaching programme for political and social change… observers have remarked on an air of menace in postmodern politics. It is not merely that opponents are to be combated or unreliable elements with a party to be disciplined, but the very premises on which political arguments are built are denied, indeed made unmentionable.” (Im reminded of the debates about a href=””>astroturfing.)
6. it also claims to embody a refusal to privilege any one perspective on the past: all narratives are equal. Yet… in its essence it heavily emphasises certain perspectives and disparages others…the ordinary, the normal and mainstream are displaced, and the peculiar, the aberrant and the exceptional are prioritized.”
My first thought on reading the book was that I agreed with a lot of what the author says, but perhaps not so much as he does. The book has a tendency towards ranting, against enemies like presentism that are easier to caricature than to describe. However, it shares this tendency with a great many important books that changed the times they came from, and had to be strident in order to be heard.
I was heartened by the reviews it received from professional historians. review in the Guardian said: “it will annoy and at times infuriate, but it will do what all good history should – it will make you think.” and the Independent said “has the merit of insisting that these seemingly arcane debates matter a great deal – not just for historians. In that moral urgency lies the greatest strength of his otherwise deeply disappointing book. Its detailed encounters with aspects of British and American history will engage – and infuriate – specialists. The sweeping remarks about the state of the world may entertain (or again infuriate) a wider readership.”
It really got up the nose of something called the Social Affairs Unit, who sound as though they need to be upset from time to time: they said: “As used by Clark, postmodernism is a reification used to besmirch certain thinkers and tendencies in modern thought for which he has no liking. It is also the wrapper placed around a miscellany of historical essays in the hope of giving them a broader appeal. This latter hope is touchingly misjudged….reads like Clarks attempt to transform his notoriety within the world of academic history into a larger kind of celebrity.” (Notice the personalised nature of the attack. The Social Affairs Unit describes itself as “forward-looking. It does not favour the historic over the modern, nor the well-established over the innovative, nor the enduring over the fashionable, nor the traditional over the progressive.”)
So it looks as if Prof Hall has judged it about right. However, he is not alone. Some people think post-modernism is already over. Theres an interesting essay in EBR on “What was post-modernism” by Brian McHale, which traces cultural critics articles about the ending of the post modern period, eg John Frows “What was post-modernism” in 1997.
He cites as an example the Piazza dItalia in New Orleans: “The Piazza dItalia …was designed to be the focal point of the redevelopment of a downtown New Orleans neighborhood that had a historical connection with the Italian community. It is obviously a fake Roman ruin, souped up with neon lighting and modern materials. If anything is double-coded in Jencks sense, its the Piazza dItalia: on the one hand, a kind of goofy Disneyworld experience for popular consumption; on the other hand, an in-joke for architects and others in the know….Im sure you have already picked up on the terrible irony that would overtake Moores Piazza dItalia. Built in the late Seventies, it is a fake ruin in a city that would be reduced to real ruin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Actually, the ironies of the Piazza dItalia are even worse than that: for, years before the reality-check of Katrina, the city fathers of New Orleans abandoned the urban redevelopment scheme of which the Piazza dItalia was supposed to be the centerpiece, and shifted the citys redevelopment energies to the Riverwalk along the Mississippi, so that the Piazza was allowed to slip into neglect, becoming a haunt for the citys homeless. Reduced to a real ruin, it was eventually demolished. And only then came Katrina.”
(It has since been revamped by a hotel chain. To my mind one of the most sinister things about post-modernism is how it meshes so happily with corporatism – political or commercial. Yes, I know Picasso and Dali became commercial frauds in their old age, but at least the spirit or modernism continued to throw up a few people like Debord, who was genuinely innovative.)
McHale refers to Pynchons latest novel, “Against the day”, published in 2006, but set in the years before the great catasatophe of the First Wolrd War, “….Throughout the entire second half of the twentieth century, we have been living in the ruins of our own civilization, if only in our imaginations. Is this another version of postmodernism? Im not sure; perhaps its a foretaste of what comes after postmodernism. Maybe on 9/11 history finally caught up with our postmodern imagination of disaster, and we are now living in the aftermath of postmodernism, in what Raymond Federman calls (maybe jokingly) the New Post-Future…..We need to bear in mind that Pynchon himself has been a resident of New York City for a number of years, and that on September 11, 2001 he was presumably in Manhattan, at home. I take Against the Day to be a sort of coded representation of the experience of 9/11, displaced onto the Great War of 1914-18. Or, if thats too limited and simplistic a reading, then Pynchon is at least trying to capture what it means, what it feels like, to “change tenses,” as Raymond Federman puts it – for instance, to change tenses from “What Is Postmodernism?” to “What Was Postmodernism?””
What has this got to do with simulation? Well, quite a lot. Simulation is the ultimate post-modernist technology. It allows you to replay events over and over again, using social science simulations to try out different combinations of factors. People regularly re-fight historical battles, for example, and the danger lies in forgetting who actually did win at Waterloo. Theres a sense in which process is seen as more important than results. Maybe we should not have won the Battle of Britain, because of various official errors; it was a narrow margin, a damn close run thing – but the fact is that these events did go those ways, and it makes a huge difference to the way we live now.
Simulation is also very vulnerable to hidden assumptions, as I never tire of saying in this blog. I may play Sturmovik and assume that this is what it was really like on the Russian Front. But of course it isnt. Im not cold. Im not facing the high probability of actual death.
Does this mean that simulation contributes to a post-modernist death of intelligent sensibility or cultural awareness? Well, yes, I suppose in one sense it does. My Google Alerts produced yet another example of US schools doing simulations of issues – eg a poverty simulation (“Staff of Lyon County Human Services and Healthy Communities Coalition had the opportunity to experience first-hand what it might be like to live in poverty.”), or that perennial favourite the United Nations simulation. (“One of the largest and most prestigious high school Model UN conferences in the country, the University’s four-day event, which began today, showcases thousands of high school students portraying United Nations representatives”). This is surely what Prof Clark excoriates as applying critical skills, with all that it implies of superficial understanding.
And simulation certainly works closely with corporatism, eg in the military and intelligence communities. Baudrillard would see the Piazza dItalia and view it as a simulacrum: ” Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. … the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials – worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, which are a more ductile material than meaning….It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes….”
Ive speculated before about the psychological implications of simulation and prediction: the ability they seem to offer not only to model but also to control the future. The fear of an uncertain future that Pynchon evokes in “Against the day” may well demand such reassurance. Se the recent criticism by the House of Lords of the ” gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state” in the UK surveillance society. Fear is a great motivator.
So: gloomy about my trade and craft? Well, always gloomy about the uses it is put to, but misuse applies to fire, the wheel, and most other human inventions. Otherwise, all this just makes me realise how important it is to get things right, to be honest and accurate in modelling, in researching. And above all to be intelligent in what you use simulation for. If its not to be a simulacrum, simulation has to assume an underlying reality. The argument about post-modernism is that it cuts out subsets of reality and claims that they can exist independently of anything else. The argument about simulacra is that they too become free-floating chunks of experience cut off from reality.
On the other hand, simulation can be a way of coming closer to reality, and far from denying reality it is an affirmation that reality is out there somewhere – a sort of re-affirmation of empiricism in a world that is increasingly solipsistic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *