Random Thoughts on Postmodernism

by Cole Matson

The reason why much postmodern theatre has such contempt of the audience is that it believes that communication is impossible and truth is relative. It doesn’t like to use ways of framing the narrative that allow the audience to understand the narrative. It doesn’t even like to use narrative. Unfortunately, since framed narrative is how humans understand meaning, theatrical performances that reject frames and narrative appear like meaningless gobbledygook to the audience. They use images and moments that would be laden with meaning if they occurred within a narrative framework, but outside it they’re stripped of their power to communicate anything. It all becomes gibberish.

If postmodernists don’t believe that there is any form of objective truth, then to them it stands to reason that there is no form of objective morality (since statements like “It is wrong to be cruel” have no inherent truth, and therefore it’s not necessary wrong to be cruel at moments). If we can’t be sure about the morality of cruelty, or any other behaviour, then what standard have we to go on to choose our behaviour? If there’s nothing external we can count on, the standard must be internal and subjective – myself. Therefore my own thoughts, feelings, and will become the standard of my behaviour. Therefore again, if I have a desire to do something, there is nothing external to stop me from doing it. If I want to express myself through cruelty, or through wild bursts of emotive sound and movement, I may do so.

Again, if there is nothing objective outside myself which I can consider true, nothing sturdy which I can understand, it follows that even other human beings (since they’re outside of myself) can’t even be understood. We understand truths as communication and through patterns, and through reason. Reason even works through truths that we assume (such as that A = A). If we can’t even trust that a thing is itself, we can’t trust reason or thought at all. Therefore any means of understanding the world falls apart.

We experience other people’s personalities as momentary experiences linked together by a pattern of experiences in our history with that person. That’s how we know when someone is “not acting like himself” – we have a sense of who that person is, what their personality is, so we know when someone is different, is extraordinarily different from that pattern. If we can’t trust patterns, then we can’t experience personality, and therefore we can’t truly know other people. We’re forever sundered, not only from our own environment, but from our fellow human beings.

You can see, then, why many postmodern theatre artists see no need to show respect for their audiences. They can’t even trust that their audiences exist as steady, integrated entities, much less that communication is possible to them. Yet they still feel the need to express themselves, even if it is into a void. If all they feel they can know is themselves, then why try to communicate to anyone else?

Thoughts?

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