Postmodernism is a word we tend to knock around fairly easily, when we discuss contemporary problems in understanding cultures and societies; we notice phenomena that strike us as interesting and eventually diagnose the phenomenon somewhere along the line as exemplary of, or intelligible through, postmodern ways of thinking. We get so used to adopting this approach to what is potentially an infinitely complex web of ideas, that we no longer feel the need to look beneath our use of the word, at 'what it really means' - indeed, we might even say that throwing the postmodern word around without dwelling too much on its problematic meaning is precisely a very postmodern thing to do.
Take Baudrillard, whose name has become a cipher for thinking of the world as a hyperreal simulacrum, a concept which has in turn come to stand in for typically postmodern ideas. We can note, for instance that the average Westerner's experience of war is 'indistinguishable' from video games, since either can be switched on or off at the flick of a button, and the emotional engagement we have with both is equivalent - out of mind, out of sight, out of existence. This becomes a way of 'explaining' what we mean when we say that we have moved into 'a world of representation', in which all experience is mediated, all consciousness bouncing in a hall of infinite mirrors.
We tend, at that point, though, to step back from the abyss, and say, you know, we're not really meat patties cocooned in machine-feeding pods, awaiting a saviour to transcend the illusion of reality presented to us; we just say it that way because it forces us to reconsider our attitudes to mediated experiences, and to question whether our easy forgetfulness of 'reality' is not ethically suspect. Surely, the postmodernists don't mean it 'literally'!
Or take the social construction of reality through language. When Heidegger says that 'language speaks man', we can concede that our attitudes to the world around us are shaped by language, since it is difficult even to think our thoughts without language - indeed, if we had no language, would we even think? When he says that 'the essence of technology is by no means anything technological', he means not just to play a language game with us, but to consider whether our common conception of technology can be as separable from our conception of what it is to be human as we think it is. And we can talk about how mediated technologies shape how we percieve the world, but we always think, somewhere in the background, that it is somehow possible that as human beings we might percieve the world in a more 'true' way, a more 'natural', or 'unmediated way', rather than that such technologies might be an extended phenotype that is the signature trace of the human species, as mutually reinforcing of our conceptions of the world as they are the inevitable consequence of our human mental faculty - man is language, technology is language, man is technology.
The point is that in all cases we step back in to a 'common sense' position: the world is not literally a simulation, but perhaps the postmodernists help us to think about the world more deeply by suggesting, metaphorically, that it is; the world is not made of language, but suggesting it might be forces us to think about the consequences of our language. The common sense position tells us we are ontologically certain of the world, and the postmodernists merely present us with metaphorical challenges to our ontological certainty in order to raise our consciousness.
In fact, it is this very ontological certainty that postmodernists deny. Which is to say that the challenge is that the world is, literally, a simulation, since 'literally' as a concept is meaningless. The world is literally made of language, because there is no distinction between 'literally' and 'metaphorically' any more. What is 'literality' itself but an appeal to what can be literated, languaged, made literate? The story of Adam naming the animals is not just a bedtime story, but an old-world myth recognising that before Adam named anything, there was nothing to name. When you die, the world ends. When you close your eyes, you have no reason to be certain it will still be there when you re-open them. The only coherence you are even able to make of your own existence is the residual illusion of coherence that the fortuitous continuity of language permits you. Challenged even to prove you exist, you would be doomed to fail, since you have absolutely no basis even to know you are not a lone consciousness floating in the void, hallucinating your apparent life as a means of whiling away the long eternities of boredom you would otherwise be stuck with.
Consider the possibility that you, in fact, are God, and that, bored of the timeless expanse of the void, and wondering just how omniscient you are, you decide to set yourself the ultimate challenge: make yourself into a nothingness, and see if you can (if you really are omnipotent) somehow make your way back to godness. One big bang later, a period of aimless agglomeration, star formation and planet-based life evolution, some bizarre bipedal moving parts finally at least 'invent' you as a possible thing. It can't be much longer before your quest to become God again is achieved. Okay, so it involved some pretty weird and unlikely things such as quarks, collapsing wave-functions and duck-billed platypuses - but come on, is it really more likely that these odd things should occur spontaneously in a real, actual universe, rather than in the mind of a dreaming Vishnu or malicious demon?
If you think that these propositions sound like wild fantasies, then you essentially think modern philosophy is a collection of wild fantasies. That lone consciousness in the void? It's actually called a windowless monad. The malicious demon? Also known as the Cartesian demon, a straw man set up by Descartes, a demon deliberately deceiving him into thinking the external world exists; and which he failed to refute, ending in his baleful, lone assertion that he thought, therefore he was. Think that causal laws mean the sun will rise tomorrow? You're guilty of Hume's inductive fallacy. That bizarre self-seeking God, the consciousness-seeking world? That's basically Hegel's Spirit. A world of representation? That's Kant's phenomenal world, which is the only world we can hope to discuss. The ordinary, tangible world you're sure you occupy in your ontological certainty? That's actually just the 'noumenal' world, and post-Kantians have dispensed with it altogether. You're sure it's there, anyway? Then you're a 'naive realist'. Think you can prove it's there? There's an army of 'sceptics' ready to reduce all your so-called arguments to absurdity. Do you think you'll be pragmatic and just assume the world is really there, just in case? You've just sided with the pragmatics from William James to Richard Rorty, whose pragmatism is only justified because (shh!) the world doesn't really exist!
Because this, actually, is the heritage of postmodernism. (Of course postmodernism has no heritage, because it is just a discourse we have no reason to believe didn't just pop into our heads yesterday). This is how postmodernism claims that 'science' is only a discourse, because it asserts an ontological certainty for which it has no philosophical basis or justification. The end of grand narratives is not merely a recognition that humanity is not united under a simple set of belief-systems, but an assertion that we all really do, literally, live in different worlds, and actually you're all a bit mad, because you're only figments of my imagination anyway. In fact, I don't even know why I'm writing this, because I'm essentially talking to myself!
But schizophrenia can be fun, so, go on, what do you think?
[This post was inspired by a reading of Quee Nelson's book, The Slightest Philosophy. Also, I don't actually know anything at all about philosophy, (but being postmodern, I don't need to), so any real philosophers out there in my imagination can feel free to correct me. Oh, and if you're wondering what is the relevance of this to interactive media, well, for starters you can congratulate me for inventing the internet in my splendid universe-hallucination.]