MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Three: Postmodernism (4/5)

CHAPTER THREE: POSTMODERNISM

“Postmodernism is, claims one American critic, like the air we breathe, everywhere.”

(Mundy, 260)

Postmodernism appears to play a significant role not only in the content of BTS’s works, but in its form also. In addition to examining BTS from a Postmodernist perspective, this chapter will examine BTS’s music videos as potential works of metafiction, and explore whether or not they challenge any metanarratives; if so, then the reasons why BTS adapted Hesse and Le Guin may need to be studied further. Before we begin, we must once again establish the definitions that will be used for the remainder of the discussion. Firstly, what do we mean by ‘Postmodernism’? It is both an extensive and elusive term, though critics such as Linda Hutcheon assert that postmodern texts are inherently political. Their political nature will become more apparent as we progress. Lyotard writes that when “[s]implifying to the extreme, [he defines] postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives” (The Postmodern Condition, xxiv). Metanarratives are those which attempt to envelop and explain the world and universe using one universal grand ‘truth’. An obvious example of a metanarrative would be Christianity, or Marxism. Terry Eagleton aptly explains:

Postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation which are taken to characterise modern thought from the Enlightenment onwards. (200)

The metanarratives that were widely accepted for the last two centuries no longer serve as satisfactory “interpretive frameworks” we can use to make sense of the world around us (Mundy, 260). Postmodernism’s inherent political nature comes from the challenges it poses to these grand narratives. We are forced to question not only the text we are presented with, but the world we ourselves occupy outside of the text. Constructs that we take for granted as ‘natural’, are, in fact, just that: constructs. According to Hutcheon, the postmodern’s initial concern is “to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ […] are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 2). It is because of these very cultural constructs that “no narrative can be a natural ‘master’ narrative: there are no natural hierarchies, there are only those we construct” (emphasis in original, 13).

Finally, we must determine what we mean by ‘metafiction’. Metafiction is a term used to describe fictional writing “which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”, and allows us to explore “the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text” (Waugh, 2). If we are to take John Mundy’s definition of the music video as a form which has a “knowing, self-reflexive direct address to spectators who are deemed to be always there”, then the music video would fall under the category of ‘metafiction’ (259-260). Furthermore, Mundy asserts that with music video “the old distinction between fiction and reality simply dissolves” (260). Fiction and reality in these instances bleed into one another and become almost indistinguishable, because the images we are presented with in the music video appear in our everyday lives.

 As was the instance in previous chapters, the importance of the author comes back into play with Postmodernism. Hutcheon writes that the “postmodern artist is no longer the inarticulate, silent, alienated creator of the romantic/modernist tradition” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 18). A rather literal and famous example of this would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, where, towards the end of the novel, Vonnegut himself explicitly enters the world of the novel and orders a drink. Again, we see the boundaries between reality and fiction blurred, and traditional narrative constructs challenged. BTS play an even more obviously vocal role in their position as artist, as they write, perform, and act in their music videos.

“If there are no overarching explanatory social theories, […] if there are no ‘truths’, ‘absolutes’ or ‘universals’, […] then all we have left is to constantly re-invent ourselves as we respond to fragments of the spectacle […] of the mass media” (Mundy, 261). Constructing an identity in a cultural climate which is constantly shifting and changing is an unstable endeavour. If we are to reject metanarratives, or at the very least approach them with scepticism, and embrace the sign as reality, as Mundy suggests, then individual identity becomes a changing kaleidoscope.

Hutcheon argues that “the postmodern world is utterly mediated through representations” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 29).  In a similar fashion, Mundy asserts that “for postmodernism, the sign has become reality” (emphasis in original, 260). The music video constructs a dreamscape, a series of images or signs that the viewer internalises, and then finds “reproduced and reverberating beyond the world of the TV set” (Mundy, 260). Consequently, the silences and gaps in the representations, the images, the signs that we see, reveal to us our own internalised metanarratives, and the cultural constructs that we simply took as natural. Hence Postmodernism actually “challenges our mimetic assumptions about representation […]: assumptions about its transparency and common-sense naturalness” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 30).  If Postmodernism is focussed on challenging what it is we take for granted as ‘natural’, then we must examine what it is that BTS are asking the spectator to challenge when watching their music videos.

While homosexuality is not outright illegal in South Korea, same-sex marriages are not legally recognised. In 2016, just four months before BTS released the first of their Demian-based music videos, a prominent gay film director filed a lawsuit seeking legal status for his marriage which was rejected by a South-Korean district court. It is noteworthy, then, that the homoerotic, or at the very least homoromantic, undertones in the relationship between Max Demian and Emil Sinclair were not shied away from in BTS’s adaptation. In the final pages of the novel, Sinclair dreams of Demian appearing in his ward, and kissing him. This kiss, it seems reasonable to argue, is reflected in BTS’s music video “Blood Sweat & Tears”, when Kim Seokjin kisses a statue that appears to represent the god Abraxas, an important symbol in both the music videos and Demian itself. Furthermore, it is heavily implied that another member of BTS, Kim Taehyung, embodies Abraxas also; as Seokjin is about to kiss the statue, the shot cuts to reveal Taehyung has two large gashes in his back, where he supposedly once had wings – just as the statue does (04:44 – 05:32). Cutting these two scenes together, rapidly switching back and forth, makes an explicit connection and implies a homosexual theme runs throughout the music videos. The novel Demian puts a heavy emphasis on the good versus evil, purity and light versus contamination and darkness, even sin; it is impossible to ignore the influence of Hesse’s experiences being raised in an intensely Christian household. As mentioned in previous chapters, Hesse was exposed to a type of Christianity that combined “a scrupulous soul-searching inwardness with a sense of sin and unworthiness” (Mueller, 146). Christianity has become an increasingly strong presence in South Korea. Including this homoerotic tension is subversive of the Christian metanarrative which establishes homosexual relationships as sinful and inherently ‘wrong’. Including the romantic undertones of Sinclair’s relationship with Demian is a conscious choice on the part of the adapter, that is, BTS.

The other primary grand narrative that BTS challenge with their work is the nature of ‘high art’. Taking pieces of high literature and adapting them into a ‘lower’ form such as the music video, and placing them against the backdrop of their pop music and rap, complicates our understanding of the source texts. Are Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” still considered high art now that they have been consumed by masses, thanks to a boyband from South Korea? The videos evoke similar or even identical emotions in the spectator through a medium which is accessible to millions of people. Furthermore, it is significant that BTS chose to adapt texts from the Western canon, rather than to select Eastern texts. This further subverts predisposed notions of superiority, originality, and possibly even highlight latent casual racist beliefs of Western intellectual superiority. Without looking carefully, one could simply brush the music videos off as frivolous pop culture, completely oblivious to their own subscriptions to metanarratives presenting them with only half-truths.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. A print from Bernard de Montfaucon‘s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Band 2,2 page 358 ff plaque 144) with different images of Abraxas.

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