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Postmodernism Era: Body and Popular Culture Essay

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Updated: Nov 20th, 2020


According to the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1984), social transition and cultural shift towards postmodernism have started since the late 50s of the 20th century. While, during the time of industrial development, the mode of human life was primarily based on material production, the way of life in contemporary society substantially relies on information technologies. At this new phase of technologic evolution, humanity encounters the problems of social and ethical character related to congestion with information, mind manipulation by mass media, and immersion of individuals into virtual realities that lead to disruption of familiar social processes and physical environments. This new and final stage in the development of the western culture is commonly called an era of postmodernism in which the space of individual self is often regarded in close connection with anxiety, irrationalism, and helplessness.

The factor of corporeality plays one of the decisive roles in the postmodern culture. During the process of individual self-cognition in the 20th century, the world is viewed as an image and likeliness of human body, constructed through forms of desire, including sexuality and language (Foucault 1978). The idea of unconditional superiority of spirituality lost its relevance and was replaced by effect and sensual desires. In this way, body-centrism has achieved the peak of its manifestation in postmodernism.

To understand how the body is constructed and deconstructed in modern western society, it is important to analyze the significance of the corporeal factor in the culture of postmodernism. Based on this, the given paper aims to evaluate the instrumental orientation of the human body, the peculiarity of its semiotic translation, as well as the simulative nature of these processes. Additionally, we will review the influence of technological factors and loss of identity on the corporeality in postmodern society.

Postmodern Perceptions of the Human Body

There are many definitions of postmodernism, and each of them reflects particular sides of this new reality. According to Bauman (1990), it is a unique state of mentality that can be distinguished from the social attitudes that existed in the modernist epoch. The major features of postmodernism include cultural pluralism extending to all spheres, traditions, and forms of life; the continual process of change; the absence of any powerful universals; domination of mass media and their products; the rule of symbolism; and the lack of the fundamental, objective reality (Bauman 1990). Particularly ambiguous and controversial nature of postmodern normativity can be observed in the concept of corporeality.

Corporeality can be regarded as the state of the body provoked by the socio-cultural determinants (Balsamo 1995). It is the characteristic that emerges at the junction of one’s a natural body and the socio-cultural body that, at the same time, combines the material and non-material symbols associated with the different forms of the human body.

Nowadays, the ability to use corporeality in its semiotic context has become very topical in various spheres of social life. For example, image-making is especially popular today. It implies the intentional construction of corporal signs: the selection of the style of clothes that can signify particular qualities such as masculinity or femininity; or choice of color which develops an impression of the presence of specific features of a character in an individual (e.g., red symbolizes aggression, deep blue denotes businesslike efficiency, etc.). However, the semiosis of corporeality in the postmodern culture differs from other epochs. It is associated with greater openness, pluralism of meanings, and it has a more simulative nature (Balsamo 1995).

The development of a simulative space of corporeality started from the mass production of goods, including those items that are included in the creation of human appearances (Lyotard 1984). This environment evolved during the period of rapid computerization when human corporeality has become subject to the universal rules of the world wide net. The body may now be associated with a computer. The postmodern body may even exceed the space and go beyond any dimensional boundaries. A virtual image of the human body or a program imitating human qualities obtained through scanning of real individuals like in the movies S1m0ne (2002) or Her (2013) can serve as a good example of this statement.

The films address the issue of the value of the interactions between humans and artificial beings. In Her, the main character, Theodor, builds relationships with Samantha, artificial intelligence, a program that suffers from the sense of own deficiency and questions the realness of his own feelings. Simone is the digital simulation made to replace an actual actress who refused to participate in the creation of a film. Both pictures perfectly demonstrate how the bodies without organs, the virtual corporeal images that simulate particular human qualities, become part of the reality and influence it through the processes of human communication. The movies show that the distinction between matter and ideas can be ambiguous and vague in the postmodernist culture.

The world of virtual imagery implies the deprivation of natural corporeality, sublimation into ethereal forms and textuality, pure consciousness, and informational singularity (Balsamo 1995). Without connectedness to a particular territory, bodies without organs may travel across the screens and become postmodern nomads. Postmodern nomadism is the consequence of deterritorialization, and it can be regarded as the lack of rootedness in being that characterizes the contemporary society and individuals who lost the sense of relatedness to nature and, therefore, hover about in the space that may be vague in its boundaries (Kaluweit [no date]) as described, for example, in such movies as eXistenZ (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Inception (2010).

Along with the increasing ambiguity of meanings, in postmodernism, the dependence of corporeal individuals on society grows together with their social suppression, control over their decisions and actions. Jean Baudrillard (1993) described this issue as the problem of the disappearance of the real and strangulation of everything natural. The natural body, as it is, no longer exists in postmodern; it has become a derivative from the economy, politics, science, sports, etc. The body is an agonizing and disappearing phenomenon (Baudrillard 1993). The instrumental orientation of personal corporeality is also emphasized by philosophers. The body becomes a mechanism for gaining benefits, the achievement of personal or career goals (Lyotard 1984). It explains the universal need for image-making in modern society.

As stated by one of the characters in American Beauty (1999), Buddy Kane, the King of real estate, “in order to be successful, one must project the image of success at all times.” This statement represents the attitude of a postmodern individual towards corporeality. The body is regarded as a capital, and such a consumer approach towards the personal image provokes a greater division of the natural body from other aspects of individual life and performance.

The fixed idea of corporeal productivity negates the living body; it suppresses the sensitivity of the body and its natural expressivity (Baudrillard 1993). At the same time, the focused attention on qualitative characteristics of the body results in the elimination of its freedom, emotional joy, and communicative expression. In this way, the creation of new artificial images and body modification may be related to the deconstruction of the natural body, identity crisis, and detachment from reality. Like Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty who gets obsessed with an image of success and strives to project it in even the smallest details (either in the house presentation to a potential buyer or in the selection of pieces of the interior in her hall), and seems to be concerned with symbols and style more than with life itself, a postmodern individual who takes on a new artificial image belittles the life of the natural corporeality allotting an auxiliary role to it. In this situation, the body becomes a servant of the constructed image and an instrument of the will, while the image becomes real more real and merges with feelings and senses.

Decentralization and Bodycentrism

From the traditional, ontological point of view, corporeality is the major prerequisite of a sense of existence, and many philosophers regard the body as the center of the world as a whole. The feeling of identification with the environment is the result of being in contact with their own body. To know him/herself, a person needs to comprehend what his/her body senses. Thus, it is possible to say that body experiences contribute to the formation of self-identity. Fragmentation and loss of center or identity for a human being is a catastrophe that destroys all meanings of human corporeality (Derrida 1990). In this situation, corporeality becomes artificial and dead.

Centrism is a necessary condition of representation of things as complex systems; by its very nature, centralization of any kind refers to systematic and structural methodology, subordinated organization (Derrida 1990). However, the modern space characterized by ambiguity, computerization, hypersexuality, etc. creates the world without hierarchies, clear denotations, vertical relationships. It creates the network logics associated with continual changes and dynamic relationships. This postmodern space has no center and does not abide by the rules of classical logic; it discredits centrism at all levels of human existence. At the same time, the position of body-centrism in postmodern culture determines the place of individual in the world of larger energies. Bodycentric attitude makes postmodernism a sensory-material culture similar to the ancient cultures in which the corporeal factor takes a central place, but contrary to the view on corporeality in Antiquity, the perception of the body lacks the relatedness to spiritual aspects of being (Rymarczyk [no date]). Thus, the postmodern definition of corporeality does not elevate a human being but make him/her dependent on such forces as body instincts (desires) and pursue of pleasures and emotional fulfilment.

As mentioned by Foucault (1978), the notion of corporeality in postmodernism is developed as a result of antithesis to the idea of spirituality. Through this category, postmodern individual moves beyond the boundaries of transcendental subjectivity to the space of sensuality, sexuality, and libido energy (Foucault 1978). The sexual aspect of corporeality in postmodernism is meant to replace the spirituality in terms of classical philosophy and religion. It is regarded as the essential component of human being and consciousness, as the major trigger of the intellectual and sensory activities, the primary intermediary between a person and the external environment (Foucault 1978). Additionally, Foucault (1978) observes that body becomes a site for the operation of modern forms of power and serves as the object of normalisation and discipline. Modern individuals strive to shape and modify their bodies in a way that they suit particular expectations and views of social and power roles.

As it was mentioned previously in the paper, the postmodern body is the instrument for self-realization and achievement of different goals. For example, Lester Burnham (American Beauty) attempts to improve his physical shape through regular exercises to seem more attractive to the 16-years-old Angela Hayes. In this way, he normalises his body according to particular social expectations. This modification also helps him to form a certain psychological body-related identity that facilitates the performance of the desired role.

Overall, it is possible to say that corporeality in the postmodernist era not just loses the principle of unity, harmony, measure, proportion, and consistency, but also indicates the problem of identity crisis and self-integrity. Thus, the human, in the traditional sense, is replaced by a posthuman, and all forms of social and human practices that were formed during previous historical periods, become disintegrated and recombined into new models of behaviour.


In the postmodern culture, the profound unity of body and spirit that previously characterised personality becomes disintegrated. The influence of technology on individual consciousness results in the detachment of the human body from time and territorial constraints and raises the issue of human identity. Postmodernism is associated with nonconformity of virtuality and physical/natural environment, the vague distinctions between them, as well as the discrepancy between virtual images and the physical ones. The artificial environments accept merely the informational aspects of human beings but plunge them into the state of identity crisis. Based on this, corporeality obtains a significant value and becomes central to the formation of postmodern individuals. Increased attention towards own body is the initial stage in the development of personality. Therefore, for a contemporary person, the actualization of self-identification at the individual level becomes problematic while, at the same time, the factor of corporeality remains the major and only method for the construction of personal identity.

Reference List

Balsamo, A 1995, “Forms of technological embodiment”, in M Featherstone & R Burrows (eds), Cyberspace, cyberbodies, cyberpunk, Sage Publications, London, pp. 215-237.

Baudrillard, J, 1993, Symbolic exchange and death, Sage Publications, London.

Bauman, Z 1990, ‘Philosophical affinities of postmodern sociology’, The Sociological Review, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 411–444.

Derrida, J 1990, Writing and difference, Routledge, London.

Foucault, M 1978, The history of sexuality, Pantheon Books, New York.

Kaluweit, R [no date], ‘Postmodern nomadism and the beginnings of a Global Village’, Flusser Studies, vol. 7, pp. 1-18.

Lyotard, J F 1984, The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Rymarczyk, P [no date], ”Bodycentrism’ of mass culture and patterns of masculinity: an analysis of Polish lifestyle magazines’, University of Physical Education in Warsaw, pp. 1-148.

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