Ask Mr. Andoscia

Don’t you hate it when you are thinking about Mr. Andoscia’s class while at home, and you come up with a good question or an astute observation and decide, ‘Hey, I’ll run this by Mr. Andoscia tomorrow.’ Then tomorrow comes and you’ve forgotten the question or the astute observation. Or maybe you have a question that you would rather not ask in class. Or maybe you didn’t have a question in class, but then, in another class, or on your way home, you think of a question or a point you wish you had brought up in class. Well, with the wonders of the modern world, that’s no longer a problem. If you have a question or an observation or a point you would like to make, just fill out this form. You question will come to my e-mail. Maybe we’ll have an “Ask Mr. A Anything” day and we can compile these and I’ll go through them. Could be an interesting YouTube thing. Who knows? I’m winging it!

Questions and Answers

Postmodernism? Help!

Hi Mr. Andoscia, I’m having trouble on the postmodernism slides. I know they’re late but if i’m being honest with you, i’ve been trying to avoid it because I know nothing on it (it has nothing to do with you as a teacher, I just tend to dread things that i find difficult). The videos kind of confuse me as well, and I don’t think I exactly know what Postmodernism truly means. I will watch the videos again, and see what I can grasp from them. Could you maybe explain to me what it is and how i could apply it?

                                    I apologize for this inconvenience, 

Don’t worry. You are not the only one. Postmodernism is really weird and confusing to most students. Even most academics only vaguely understand postmodernism and even postmodernists themselves debate it. So you are not alone.

So here’s what I think is the best way to understand Postmodernism.

Postmodernists begin with the assumption that society is, in essence, a collective story that those in a given society tell themselves about the society. The nature of this story has changed over time. So in pre-modern societies, the story was mostly a religious one. Members of a given society pretty much held to the same religious beliefs and the church shaped the story (postmodernists refer to this story as a “discourse” or a “narrative”).

Then this religious story started to break down. We had a few reasons for this. The Black Plague shed doubt on the value of faith. The Protestant Reformation challenged the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. Enlightenment and humanism encouraged scientific thinking. The Renaissance brought back the works of pre-Christian, Classical thinkers. Explorers were discovering and writing about new and diverse cultures who had different ways of seeing the world, the concept of the Noble Savage. All of these things started to change the discourse from one of faith and religion to one of science and reason.

This leads us into the modern world. The dominant story was of human progress through reason and technology. Of course, the faith stories and spiritual stories didn’t go away, but mostly western societies accepted the theme of human progress and science through the modern age. Individualism, political rights, freedom, capitalism, humanism dominated the stories of the modern age and things seemed to be improving.

Then some more changes and calamities came about. World War I made us doubt the assumption of human progress and science. The Great Depression destroyed our illusions of capitalism. The rise of Fascism and Totalitarianism made us realize how fragile freedom and rights were and just how dedicated people were to these principles. Movements arose to demand tolerance for numerous identities within a single society. Mass media became a dominant institution, but not one we had much faith in. Individuals started to turn away from institutions shaping their stories and started to create their own personal stories. These personal stories are defined by consumerism, multi-culturalism, globalism and influenced by a media that has become more interactive than passive.

So postmodernism is about how unifying stories in society, what we can call meta-narratives, are breaking down and giving way to personal narratives.

But we still need to construct these personal narratives and present these personal narratives to others. So institutions like religion and the state are becoming less influential. Institutions like media and tech are becoming more influential. And institutions like family are starting to fragment.

So try to understand postmodernism as a claim that we are no longer living in a modern world bound together by industrial capitalism, reason and a unifying story of human progress. We are living in a Postmodern world of consumer capitalism and a fragmented and atomized story of personal identity.

I hope this helps.  

Here’s a pretty good video explanation

A question just because…

What is your opinion of the Kitchen Debate of 1959 from a sociological point of view?

Okay, so just a few thoughts.

When Nikita Khrushchev took power in the Soviet Union he had a mission to really reform the violent excesses of Stalin. He even took the drastic step of denouncing Stalin for straying from the Leninist principles of the revolution. He implemented policies to loosen (which is not to be mistaken as “getting rid of”) the more censorious and authoritarian elements of the Stalinist police state. This was somewhat controversial as a great deal of the power structure in the Soviet Union was being challenged by such reforms.

That being said, Khrushchev didn’t stray from anti-American rhetoric–a good way to whip up his base and maintain his popularity. It also looks like Khrushchev was a true believer in the ultimate victory of communism over capitalism, but he was also a political realist. He was willing to reach out across the divide.

While Khrushchev was trying to disassemble the Stalinist Cult of Personality and create a more reasonable state, Richard Nixon was making his name in much the opposite direction. He was instrumental in whipping up the “Red Scare” of the late forties and fifties and an active participant in McCarthyism. He was responsible for ruining many people’s lives with his investigations. He was put on the Eisenhower ticket to show a more hard line direction against communism than Ike was famous for.

So a meeting between two stalwarts of opposing political ideas is interesting. Both were fairly adept at using the new visual mass media to effect their goals. This became a powerful symbolic moment and both played the expected roles. We have to remember that in the fifties and sixties it was not clear which system would win out. (as an aside it’s less clear why that was important. Why does one side have to ‘win out’ over the other—we face a similar zero sum discourse on China right now). Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were rapidly expanding their economies with the Soviet Union, a rising industrial power, growing economically a bit faster than the already established industrial United States (a pretty common thing–newly industrializing markets almost always grow faster than established industrial markets).

It’s also interesting that both sides were presenting their cases to the world by emphasizing the consumer goods and trinkets they could make available. Nixon delighted over washing machines and color tvs that capitalism can produce. Khrushchev countered that the USSR also had these trinkets or would have them in the near future. So right off we see the insinuation that freedom means buying cheap consumables.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (left) and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in a kitchen exhibit at the U.S. National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow

Nixon was especially pleased with color television. Khrushchev was not quite so impressed. Nixon presented the television as a marvel of communication through which one could communicate instantly with the world (even though he was told that his conversation with Khrushchev was actually being taped). Khrushchev saw television as a means to manipulate messaging and made Nixon promise that his words would not be misinterpreted to U.S. audiences (which, I would point out, Nixon was hesitant to do).

Turns out that freedom based on consumables is pretty fleeting. After going over a transcript, Richard Nixon was very proud of the fact that an average steelworker could afford a home like those demonstrated at the fair. That is no longer the case in the United States. If freedom is predicated on the ability to buy consumables, then freedom is dependent on cost of living and wage growth. That’s a pretty leaky vessel to put much faith in it turns out.

Absent from the presentation was, of course, the Soviet gulags and Secret Police. Absent from the presentation was the Black Lists and Jim Crow. Nobody talked about the KGB or the CIA.  A real discussion of human liberation was not on the table. Only a discourse on competition between empires based on productive output. Marx would point out that productive output is more often the result of exploitation and the denial of freedom and human potential rather than the opposite.

It did, however, show the world that two people from opposing camps can share a stage and talk and debate and hash out their differences. This will be crucial when it comes to Khrushchev and Kennedy just a couple years later and will be a big part of Nixon’s foreign policy successes a little more than ten years later. Two guys can meet in a kitchen…meh, not a real kitchen, a simulation of a kitchen (for my postmodernists out there) and have a civil conversation and build a relationship despite very different outlooks.

Also, People on both sides had the opportunity to see that the “enemy” wasn’t really evil. That they just had a different point of view. Whenever we can humanize each other, that’s a positive thing.

Video of the Kitchen Debate