Postmodern and Liquid Modern Ambivalence

This section examines a different mode of racism and humour, that appears in what Bauman describes first as ‘postmodern society’, and later, as ‘liquid modern society’ (Bauman 2000a, 2003, 2005). Whichever term is used to describe this social formation, a significant increase in the ‘amount’ or experience of ambivalence can be observed. This is reflected in the humorous products of such social formations, which are labelled postmodern humour.

The amount of ambivalence increases in postmodern humour, and because of this the functional effect of the rhetorical device becomes more ‘strained’ and complex, and the rhetoric more unstable and unpredictable. Multiple meanings are produced around the objects of postmodern humour, and at a generic level at least, this makes the labelling and evaluation of racist humour more complex. A number of semantic layers exist around postmodern humour and this produces a variety of interpretations that need to be negotiated.

Bauman (1992) describes modernity and postmodernity as differentiated, especially in relation to the voracity of social change and a diminishing potential for observation or classification of that change. On postmodernity he states:

It means the speed with which things change and the pace with which moods succeed each other so that they have no time to ossify into things. It means attention drawn in all directions at once so that it cannot stop on anything for long and nothing gets a really close look. (1992: p vii)

A significant characteristic of postmodernity, as described by Bauman, is its different relationship to ambivalence. In distinction to modernity, the onset of postmodernity sees an increase in ‘polyvocality’ (Bauman 1998a: 15, 2001: 84), which Bauman (1987) relates to the changing status of expert authority. The increase in polyvocality in postmodernity leads to an ‘unfinishability’, where ‘the critical job has no limits and could never reach its terminal point’ (Bauman in Bauman and Tester 2001: 75). It is a form of society that cannot escape the negotiation of ambivalence, it ‘is the era of disembedding without re-embedding’ (2001: 89), in which ambivalence is constantly produced and hardly, if ever, resolved.

Bauman describes the postmodern perspective as a tendency that was always present in modernity. From the very start of modernity, postmodernity had represented ‘its indispensable alter ego: that restless, perpetually dissentful voice’ (2001: 75. Original emphasis). Likewise, despite describing society as moving toward liquid modernity, he insists the order-building tendencies of modernity reappear. So for example, ‘[w]e are as modern as ever, obsessively ‘modernising’ everything we can lay our hands on. A quandary, therefore: the same but different, discontinuity in continuity’ (2001: 97). For Bauman, the postmodern, or liquid modern as he likes to describe it now, represents contemporary society (and the postmodern has also been described as the ‘liquid’ stage of modernity, as a phase between modernity and liquid modernity [Bauman in Bauman and Tester 2001: 89]).

A part of Bauman’s move toward the use of ‘liquid modernity’ occurred because of confusions over the use of the term ‘postmodernity’. On this he proposes ‘that because of the semantic confusion sensible discussion of contemporary trends under the rubric of ‘postmodernity’ would be well-nigh impossible’ (Bauman in Bauman and Tester 2001: 97). In defining liquid modernity, Bauman suggests the ‘“Liquid modern” is a society in which the conditions under which its members act change faster than it takes the ways of acting to consolidate into habits and routines’ (Bauman 2005: 1). It is, therefore, a society that has the same relationship to ambivalence as postmodernity. This suggests that no substantive difference exists between Bauman’s postmodernity and liquid modernity, apart from the metaphorical potential of the term ‘liquid’ - which is unquestionably his dominant argumentative technique. Because of this I maintain a use of postmodernity but draw on the notion of liquidity to describe relevant social formations.

In understanding humour, an application of this conceptual framework would suggest that humour trends exhibiting modern tendencies and which work to dispel modern ambivalence, or the ambivalence of embodied racism, are somewhat older, or have a longer etymology, and exist as a part of the remnants of these discourses (however these remnants can be put to various uses in contemporary settings, even if these uses have been downsized). While they may be put to use, their status and acceptability connects to the value that is placed on the serious discourse. It will not develop the polysemicity that postmodern humour does, and the humour of cultural racism will fall somewhere between this (although its age is a contested issue). Despite these differences, all forms of humour can exist in society in the same period.

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