Fragmentations in the Postmodern

A. Fuat Firat, Arizona State University West
ABSTRACT - This paper (deliberately not fragmented by headings) investigates the different kinds of fragmentations present in contemporary life and their influences upon the consumer, and questions whether, contrary to the postmodernist position that all metanarratives are at an end, we are witnessing the appearance of a new kind of metanarrative.
[ to cite ]:
A. Fuat Firat (1992) ,"Fragmentations in the Postmodern", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 203-206.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 203-206


A. Fuat Firat, Arizona State University West


This paper (deliberately not fragmented by headings) investigates the different kinds of fragmentations present in contemporary life and their influences upon the consumer, and questions whether, contrary to the postmodernist position that all metanarratives are at an end, we are witnessing the appearance of a new kind of metanarrative.

Postmodernists have alerted us to fragmentations that seem to be all around us. These fragmentations pervade many experiences and take different forms. Philosophically, the more important form of fragmentation involves the discursive formations (Foucault 1972; Jay 1986; Lyotard 1984). This pertains to the inability, or in the case of the postmodernist, the unnecessity, the undesirability, of referring to any unified, consistent, centered field, idea system, or narrative. Thus, the postmodernist call to noncommitment to, or "incredulity with," metanarratives. Postmodernists see, in this fragmentation of and from metanarratives an end to such grand narratives, and some a liberation of discourse, experience, and self from imposed requirements of the unified centered idea system and culture (Lyotard 1986; Wilson 1989) or "regime of truth" (Foucault 1979). It is possible to argue, on the other hand, that the omnipresence of fragmentation in discourse, experience, and self constitutes, in itself, a new metanarrative; a postmodern one, one that is difficult to identify through modern(ist) categories and concepts.

Fragmentations in everyday experience abound. They persist in the media, the most important and dominanting mode of exposure to our universe in contemporary society. Fragmentation is in advertisements on television, for example, where we have the thirty-second spots, each further fragmented into many fleeting moments of spectacular visuals which rarely link (as in the case of the Disney or Headline News commercials) with each other. The purpose of these fleeting scenes and visuals that are exciting to the senses is not to connect to (re)present a centered, unified meaning; thus, the necessity for continuity or complementarity is transcended, allowing the free play of visual images which are only meant to leave the audience with a hightened sense of excitement about the product marketed, an image which is attractive to the emotional existence of the targeted individual. While television is the major medium in contemporary society, it is by no means the only medium of fragmentation. Spoken or printed blurbs on the radio or in newspapers and magazines, highlighted brand names that flash by on billboards constitute primary experiences along with television.

Furthermore, advertising is not the only form which presents fragmentation in the media. News programs on radio and television, news items in magazines and newspapers, situtation comedies, soap operas and other programs on television, all exhibit similar fragmentation. One form of this fragmentation is the partition of the programs, etc., into short, disconnected moments and items, presenting each with great sophistication in technique and style, as a spectacle, to keep the interest, attention, and excitement levels high in the audience, but, then, having to "move along," with pace, onto other spectacles, since the disconnectedness among fragmented moments and items disallow the keeping of attention on the basis of a uniting content. Even the news programs attain the intensity of the commercial ones, playing the spectacle and the spectacular in each item of news, moving from one item to the next, each a spectacle. This is not different from the form of a situation comedy, for example, which moves from one scene to another, one "incident" to another. The trick in all programming for the mass audience seems to be one of allowing the audience to come in or leave the "scene" without feeling awkward, disoriented, or as if something is missing. Each moment, each item, each spectacle has to stand on its own, not necessarily begin and conclude, but (re)present an exciting, spectacular presence.

This requirement and, at the same time, strength of the spectacle is related to the second form of fragmentation. The moments, items, and scenes disconnected to each other are also fragmented from and disjointed to any context. As Gitlin (1989) articulates, each moment, each spectacle is decontextualized. No longer do things belong within a context or a historical process. "Anything can be juxtaposed to anything else. Everything takes place in the present, "here," that is, nowhere in particular" (Gitlin 1989; p. 350). It becomes possible, even preferable, to represent historical events on an even surface, without depth or a sense of the historical process, as a bricollage (Newman 1986; p. 45), in a way which maximizes the spectacle, the excitement, the emotional high. In news programs on television, news items in magazines and other print media, on the radio, and elsewhere, events, scenes, and personalities are often superimposed and juxtaposed onto each other from completely independent and disconnected contexts. In the postmodern, this is not absurd or improper journalism. Rather, the visual sensation of the bricollage is greatly enjoyed.

There is, as a corollary of this continual fragmentation from contexts in our media surrounding and informing us, a fragmentation of our thoughts, desires, and behaviors from our own contexts. Especially the postmodern generation, our youth, sever themselves from the worldly events around them. To the modern(ist) mind this is a state of being uninformed or ignorance. To the postmodern(ist) mentality this is an alternative form of being; one that liberates from the conformities or impositions of a single "regime of truth."

Such postmodern existence is reinforced by another set of fragmentations; that of the signifier from the signified, the object from the function, and the product from the need. That all signifiers are only arbitrarily linked to the signified (and the referrent) has been well recognized by semioticians at least since Saussure (Eco and Sebeok 1983; Santambrogio and Violi 1988). The link is only pragmatic, that is, culturally, linguistically imposed. In the postmodern, the modernist assumption of a natural link is ended and the freedom of the signifier is both declared and celebrated. As in the case of marketing campaigns, the "free-floating" signifiers are playfully and gainfully employed in (re)signification. They are constantly imbued with novel or nostalgic or reinforced meanings to represent a multiplicity of ideas, things, and positions.

As in the case of the fissure between the signifier and the signified, so is there one between the object and its function. All objects, including those specifically produced for a particular function, are, nevertheless, only arbitrarily connected to that function. At the moment of the object's origination is its independence from its culturally signified function. Imagine, for example, the number of different uses a child or even an adult not acculturated to a Western kitchen could find for a mixer. It would be very unlikely that they could correctly guess the use of a mixer in Western civilization. This liberation of the object from its intended use (freedom of objects from their functions) was well recognized by surrealist and other artists, such as Duchamp, Raushcenberg, and Warhol, who turned utilitarian objects (toilet seats, meat grinders, Coca Cola bottles) into icons and art pieces in their own right (Varnedoe and Gopnik 1990).

Finally, the product acquired in the market is independent of the need(s) for which the consumer initially sought it and the producer provided it. This, of course, is just an extension of the separation of the object from its original function. In effect, the consumer acquires the product for the image that it represents, and this image is only partially, if at all, constructed on the basis of the need perceived by the consumer. Furthermore, a single product is capable of representing multiple images, as signified by culture and by the marketing effort. Consequently, the disconnectedness of images and products from each other, from their original contents and from their contexts is complete.

The market and marketing practices further emphasize fragmentation of the product. In market exchange and in marketing there is a necessary concentration on the singular product or product group given the competitive conditions. Both in earlier representations of products by artists in catalogues and in more contemporary forms of advertising, the focus is the product which has to be singled out from a crowded background to concentrate attention on it. Such isolation of the product from its context, as in the case of "Just do it" Nike advertisements, reinforces the fragmentation that the consumer experiences in consuming the products. Such decontextualization seems to also promote the marketability of an item by making it a spectacle. An example is the sand painting, which originally was part of a medicinal ceremony and was destroyed at the end of that ceremony. As a commodity, it becomes merely an object of desire, an art object, to be viewed and admired, and bought and sold. This decontextualization is, by no means, original to marketing, however, as evidenced in the sacralization of products through attributing of values and meanings to them independent of their original function or status (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989).

All such fragmentation certainly reflects upon the everyday life and being of the consumer. Growing influence and part of the market in human life, in terms of an increasing, almost complete, domination of life by the products bought in the market, the consumer's life experiences become also fragmented. In consuming each product, as the consumer eats a frozen dinner, watches television, feeds the cat, washes dirty clothes in the clothes washer, the consumer is involved in an independent, separate task which is only connected in the culture's imaginary, in narratives of purpose regarding a healthy life, a long life, an enjoyable life, etc. But these are indeed narratives that seem to seek a central, unified meaning and purpose for a life that is increasingly fragmented into moments dominated by tasks required by products consumed. In effect, these are modernist narratives, products of the modernist imaginary.

On the other hand, the consumers of postmodernity seem to be transcending these narratives, no longer seeking centered, unified characters, but increasingly seeking to "feel good" in separate, different moments by acquiring self images that make them marketable, likable, and/or desirable in each moment. There is, indeed, a growing disillusionment with committting oneself to long-term consistent goals or characters since there is the feeling that such commitment never delivers the promises of the narrative that required it. As a result, one finds a growing playfulness with the game of simulating and switching images to make the best of each situation the consumer finds oneself in.

Thus occurs the fragmentation of the self. In postmodern culture, the self is not consistent, authentic, or centered. Postmodernists will argue that it never was, in its core, or in tendency, but that in modernity the illusion of such a self was sanctified and, therefore, sought. The postmodern generation has transcended this quest and neither seeks it nor feels a guilt in not seeking it. On the contrary, this ability to switch images and represent different selves, by switching products that represent the images, allowing oneself to lay claim to powerful, successful images is considered as a liberation; freedom from monotony, boredom, and the necessity to conform.

In this fragmenting of self into self-images is also the partitioning of the body into body parts. The media, advertisements, music videos, artistic representations abound with such fragmentation. This reinforces the objectification and commodification of self through signification of self-images to be marketable in different situations. By considering each body part, the lips, the hips, the legs, the chest, etc., separately, each as a means of enhancing a required or desired image, and by (re)shaping or (re)dressing each body part with one's marketability in mind in each situation, there is both a decontextualization of body parts and their perception as distanced from one's own being. In effect, the distancing is one of one's gaze from one's body. There is, in this process of perceiving each body part as a marketable item (as in the case of models whose hands or feet only are "bought" to be used in advertisements) a standing away from one's body and looking on as the other, testing and scrutinizing oneself from the vantage point of a distanced gaze, the gaze of the other. While this may recall the Cartesian separation of the mind and the body, it is, in fact, quite different. That which is distanced from one's own body is not the mind but the gaze. Specifically, this is not one's own and independent gaze (as the Cartesian mind is) but the gaze of the other. The scrutiny is done from the perspective of the expectations and requirements of the culture to which the body (representing the self-image) will be marketed, for which one's image must be marketable.

In partitioning the body and perceiving each part as an object to be dressed or customized (Moyers 1989) for marketability, the consumer turns to the market, to the products s/he can acquire in the market that represent the same images s/he wants or needs to represent. Not only are products that can be attached to the body purchased in the market but also the customized body parts in terms of plastic surgery, implants, etc. While the general perception is that women get such surgical customization of body parts, the number of men who acquire biceps, calves, etc., is also growing very fast. The separation of categories of gender (feminine-masculine) from categories of sex (female-male), in tune with fragmentations in the signifier-signified relationships, has allowed increasing possibilities for males to express themselves as consumers (Firat 1990 and 1991). These possibilities and the break in the traditional (modern) connections between sex and gender are increasingly represented in advertisements such as those for Charlie, the perfume, where women are represented in traditionally masculine roles and men are represented in traditionally feminine roles.

Some students of postmodernity have chosen to call the fragmentations in self representations and the switching of self images the schizophrenic self (Deleuze and Guattari 1983; Jameson 1983). There is a difference, however, in this fragmentation of the self, from the modernist definitions of schizophrenia in terms of an estrangement from oneself and from society (Laing 1969). While there is an estrangement from a self in the postmodern fragmentation of self-images, one cannot really talk of an estrangement from society. The multiple self-images are results of the reading of the society's, the culture's expectations from one. In a culture that does require multiple self-images, not being schizophrenic, in the sense discussed, may come to be categorized as pathological!

In a market exchange economy, all these self-images are, indeed, represented through the products acquired in the market, and, thus, the market becomes the locus of realizing the fragmented self, the fragmented moments of "feeling good." The market is, itself, fragmented, since it appears to have no central, unified agenda, is construed of many consumers and products, and all relationships in the market are truly momentary; each transaction requiring no deep commitment on the part of the consumer. Indeed, the consumer can do a trial purchase, as long as the buying power is present, and drop the product, or use it momentarily as required in representing an image in one situation, then move to another, with other products. While, thereby, the moments of involvement in the market are fragmented, the consumer's self-images are to be marketable, that is, for the benefit of the market, and these marketable self-images are represented through acquisition of products in the market. In this sense, the market and its fragmentation become the center of all activity and the medium through which all is signified and represented without the appearance of any unified purpose, ideology, or narrative. This may indicate, contrary to the claims of the postmodernists for an end of metanarratives, the existence, at this juncture of the postmodern, of a new metanarrative that is not recognizable with the modernist categories and constructs which historically enabled the perception of existence of a metanarrative. Fragmentation, itself, and its medium, the market, constitute, in fact, this new metanarrative.


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