midnight love letter to postmodernism

Journalism, in practice, is praised for its adherence to objectivity, its use of facts and detached observations to relay an accurate representation of life, of reality, of truth. In this light, postmodernism seems taboo. Traditional journalism, or rather journalism rooted in the 1830s (Oren, 2009), leaves little room for the individual, the subjective, or multiple realities. While I may be blinded by the lore of postmodernism, the rite of the individual and the abstract spectacle, I continue to return to the values of postmodernism in discussions of communication, technology, and journalism. I see it in everything. Recently, I saw it in this:

Rob Schmitz Does it matter if these things that you’ve said in this play are untrue?
Mike Daisey Yeah. I think the truth always matters. I think the truth is tremendously important. I don’t live in a subjective universe, where everything is up for grabs. I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.
Rob Schmitz Then, in parts of this, why didn’t you tell the truth? (Glass, 2012)

When This American Life ran a retraction episode in March after investigative reports led Glass and others to believe that a story Mike Daisey had told on the air were misrepresentations, a story Daisey himself advocated as fact, the program interviewed Daisey to determine why he had lied. Daisey denied a “subjective universe” and believed “stories should be subordinate to the truth,” but ultimately contradicted himself in admitting his own story was fabricated. While the retraction episode was not concerned with formal postmodernism, it demonstrates that postmodernism bleeds into modern conversations on the nature of truth and what truth means today.

The metatheoretical assumptions of postmodernism can be summarized as follows: humans are affected by their internal nature (ontology); knowledge is subjective, individual, and unique (epistemology); and information is dependent on the values of the researcher (axiology). These principles rest at the core of postmodernism and can be applied to many subjects. Unlike most of the other theories covered this semester*, it has a broader application than media alone. It is a system of thought, a logic of sorts. While postmodernism has recently emerged in an array of media discussions surround the change of the industry and the rise of digital technology, postmodernism is a product of twentieth century thinkers. As Gade (2011) evidences, however, digital journalism has helped facilitate, economize, and validate postmodernist values.

Well’s (2010) articulation of affordance is a useful complement to the discussion surrounding postmodernism. Wells borrows the term “affordance” from psychology, defining it as the relationship between an environment and an animal: “the affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes either for good or ill” (151). Here’s the classic example: if a man is shot to death, was he killed by the human or the gun? Was the death afforded by the gun (technology), or was it the result of the human’s intent? In journalism, the obvious parallel is the Internet. Is society more connected because of the Internet, or is our connectedness a result of our own needs and desires? 

Ong (1986) applies this principle to writing, categorizing it as a practice valued in literacy. Ong’s early thoughts on the transition from orality to literacy still echo today, paralleling shift from literacy into postmodernism (or post-literacy, digitality, electracy). Ong writes, “New technologies of the word always reinforce earlier conditions of utterances but at the same time transform them” (27). Ong’s deconstruction of writing as a technology alongside Wells explanation of affordance help contextualize postmodernism. Rather than modeling postmodernism as opposite to traditional journalism (e.g. fact vs. fiction, objective vs. subjective), an abstract understanding of technology contextualizes postmodernism as a shift, a transition into an emerging era of communication. Postmodernism is a stranger to traditional media, but only as the computer was to literacy, or as the written word was to orality. 

In media discipline, postmodernism is entertained until it diminishes the value of objectivity, journalism’s lauded tenet. Oren (2009) notes that objectivity (denoted by “I-It”) reflects the lasting influence of the Enlightenment, while dialogue (denoted by “I-Thou”) undermines this position. Oren relates the dominance of objectivity to the telegraph’s reliance on brevity and clarity, as well as the rise of the Associated Press as a standard source. Further, as media evolved to include the penny press, Oren argues that this convention encouraged the practice of generalization, as the penny press was dependent on a wide circulation of readers. In objectivity, reporters use their position as detached observers (“I-It”) to preclude the voice of others as well as their own voice. Objectivity assumes that all readers receive the same message. 

Postmodernism, in contrast, views texts as part of a larger dialogue. Messages are the product of social collaboration, and have multiple layers of meaning. Without dialogue (“I-Thou”), mere observation is worthless as it provides no viewpoint with which to encounter the subjective (Oren, 2011). This perspective stresses a model of knowledge as process, not a starting point. 

McNair (2003) illuminates postmodernism in a paradigm between control and chaos. While traditional journalism employs dominant groups to subordinate classes, the dissemination of information from the standpoint of hierarchy, McNair argues that this model is no longer a capable predictor of modern events:

Who could have predicted, for example, that at a time in December 2002 when war with Iraq was looming ever closer, and there was a major industrial dispute in the UK involving the firefighters, the Cherie Blair non-story should have commanded headline news coverage for nearly two weeks? (549-550)

 A trio of influences—technology, the collapse of social regard toward elites, and media’s competition with new technology—has created an environment that fosters fluidity and chaos (in the scientific sense). McNair insists there are no “sensible equations” for human behavior (552). 

Finally, from a cultural and global perspective, Shaw (2009) evaluates the influence of the Anglo-American journalism model on the African press. Tracing the history African journalism, he notes five conventions of American journalism: eyewitness accounts as authoritarian; first-person news reporting; first-hand accounts of events; real-time, chronological storytelling; and numbers as the determinants of an events distinctiveness. Shaw concludes by calling on journalists to consider African cultural values (orality, for example), and overall insists that the model be changed to foster the hearing of subordinate social groups. 

The question concerning postmodernism is not limited to fact or objectivity; that is too simple. Postmodernism assists messengers and audiences to consider an array of influences, perspectives, and sources, rather than relying on limited objectivity. In journalism, postmodern thinking allows for a deeper, more connected understanding of events and individuals. The rise of technology has already demonstrated this, as it has facilitated some modes of postmodern thinking, but its reach is not limited to convergence or the spread of technology. Once routinized, postmodernism enables creative thinking and deeper, more varied understanding. 

*For our seminar on Communication Theory, we studied theories regarding media effects, with the exception of this unit.

Works Cited/Consulted 

Deuze, M. (2007). Liquid life, work, and media. In Media Work (1-44). Cambridge: Polity. 

Gade, P. J. (2011). Postmodernism, uncertainty, and journalism. In W. Lowery & P. J. Gade (Eds.), Changing the news: The forces shaping journalism in uncertain times (63-82). New York: Routledge. 

Glass, I. (Producer). (2012, March 16). 460: Retraction. From This American Life. Retrieved from: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

Jones, J. P. (2009). Believable fictions: Redactional culture and the will to truthiness. In B. Zelizer (Ed.), The changing faces of journalism: Tabloidization, technology and truthiness (127-143). London: Routledge.  

McNair, B. (2003). From control to chaos: Towards a new sociology of journalism. In Media, Culture, & Society 25(4), 547-555. 

Ong, W. J. (1986). Writing is a technology that restructures thought. In G. Baumann (Ed.) The written word (23-50). Oxford: Clarendon Press.  

Shaw, I. S. (2009). Towards an African journalism model: A critical historical perspective.  In International Communication Gazette 71(6), 491-510. 

Shirky, C. (2008). It takes a village to find a phone. In Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations (1-24). New York: Penguin. 

Soffer, O. (2009). The competing ideals of objectivity and dialogue in American journalism. In Journalism 10(4), 473-491. 

Wells, S. (2010). Technology, genre, and gender: The case of power structure research. In S. A. Selber (Ed.), Rhetoric and technologies: New directions in writing and communication (151-172). Columbia: University of South Carolina. 

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