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The value of postmodernism. No, really.


Postmodernism is a dirty word. It’s because of postmodernism that we have hipsters sneering askance at the world and declaring that they are the true arbiters of fashion/beer/coffee/cycling. It’s because of postmodernism that we have memes of memes, mash-ups and an inability to enjoy anything without irony. It’s because of postmodernism that we have The Matrix. I know. I’m sorry. (Never has one movement followed by so few caused so much suffering to so many etc etc)


But it isn’t all bad. No, I mean it. And it took watching Synecdoche New York for me to finally realise the value of postmodernism. Postmodernism asks us to question the concept of absolute truth. With that comes political movements that challenge long-held assumptions about why the old white dudes get to run everything, literature that examines the meaning of truth and human experience and promotes post-colonial voices, and art that pushes the boundaries of identity, meaning, gender, protest, truth. It allows us to communicate and (attempt to) process the fundamental pain that is inherent in living and the terror at the inescapable reality of death. It is vital to human existence.



-”Knowing that you don’t know is the first and most essential step to knowing, you know?”

Caden spends the whole film trying to know what he’s doing, why things happen and what the point of life is. He replicates his life in his play, desperately chasing meaning in events that he finds bewildering and traumatic. Caden is us; he is the Self moving through his life with no idea what he’s doing and searching for meaning. His body slowly falls apart, betraying him and humiliating him. He is terrified of dying and his fleshy, rotting body is a constant reminder of his mortality but he is withheld the finality of death until Millicent tells him he can die. He is not even in control of that.


-“Glpef n mesrly”

The speech in the film is often garbled and confusing. To take a post-structuralist approach: words aren’t words they’re just sounds; they are not inherently meaningful but we inscribe them with so much meaning we can’t bear the thought of them being meaningless screams into the wilderness in a desperate attempt to connect with another human being. The constant miscommunication in the film – nonsense words, half heard conversations, mistaken homophones – represents this lack of meaning. All we’re really doing is making noises at each other, trying to communicate love and pain and fear with words that aren’t up to the task but we must believe that they do as they’re all we have. When Caden tries to explain what a plumber is to his daughter all he can do is offer her more words to try to communicate the meaning. She is none the wiser after this encounter, instead becoming terrified at the idea that she is filled with blood.



-”The end is built into the beginning.”

Mortality, death and loss are present throughout the film. Caden’s malfunctioning body, Hazel’s burning house, the death of his daughter, his wife, his father, his mother; relationships end, people leave, life is cruel and unfair. Caden’s inability to accept this painful truth – that death comes to all of us and that it will not be fair – leads him to literally replay his life over and over, until the actors playing ‘real’ people start to steer real life and affect the real events that they are playing out. He’s trying to control that which he doesn’t understand, his pained bafflement causing him to replay the trauma again and again. The warehouses in the film, the repeating stage sets, the constant rehearsals, are all Caden’s attempt to find meaning in his life. He doubles and redoubles his own and other’s identities in an attempt to get to the real meaning of their words and of his feelings for them but all he can do is replicate, replicate, replicate.

(For the theory behind this idea  try Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation The replicated stage sets are chains of signifiers that promise meaning but leave us with nothing.)



-“I like it. I do! I’m – I’m just really concerned about dying in the fire.”

-”It’s a big decision – how one prefers to die.”

Hazel’s burning house is a symbol of our willing blindness to death and loss. We know the fire will get to us eventually but we walk into the house willingly. We know we’re going to die, that we will be abandoned, that we will be hurt, that our actions could kill us, and we still live there. It’s a metaphor for love: we know relationships will end, that people will leave us, that we will be betrayed. But we walk into the house and live there, ignoring the fire until it kills us. We are wonderful hopeful fools. The trauma of the mirror stage – the point at which children see themselves in a mirror and are able to realise they are a separate being from their carers – is the first loss we experience. (The mirror stage is problematic psychologically, I’m using it here as PM theory rather than scientific fact.) We are not connected to our carers forever, we are separate. We are alone. This trauma is replayed every time we are left. Caden experiences it throughout the film: “Where is everybody?” “Mostly died. Some left.”



-”Everyone is disappointing the more you know them.”

The lines between performance and reality are constantly blurred in this film and raise questions about how genuine an emotion or connection can ever be. The actors playing ‘real’ characters, even the actors playing the actors playing the ‘real’ characters, inhabit their roles so fully they seem to live them in a genuine way. They begin to bleed into ‘real’ life, even taking over Caden’s life at the end of the film. When Millicent plays Caden she guides him through the last moments of his life providing him with a narrator, with an identity, with meaning. The characters are projections of his desires; they are actors playing out the stage of his life under his direction. We do this too: we project our desires and system of meaning onto those in our life. But it’s shaky: we learn that they do not fit our projection of them, that they will not work to our scripts.


“I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”


Caden’s many stage sets are an attempt to fit his desires onto those in his life but even the actors playing his projections are unwieldy and they do not do what he wants. When Sammy kills himself Caden reacts with rage: this is not how it should be done.



What postmodernism allows us to explore is the idea that we are all separate and alone and yet the same. Our identities bleed into one another –  we are similar, we are different, we change. We are all leads in our own play but cannot accept others as leads too: we want to be joined together and yet separate. We want to control a chaotic and bewildering universe with our own system of meaning. We’re scared and confused. This is the universal human experience – we are all a synecdoche for the human race. Postmodernism is the method for communicating this existential terror. We all feel scared, alone, confused, we’re all searching for meaning and love and truth – and postmodernism gives us the theoretical framework to explore that. Even if it did give us The Matrix.

P.S There’s a lovely philosophical examination of the film here:

Author: Aegithalos caudatus

Queer. Vegan. Feminist.

3 thoughts on “The value of postmodernism. No, really.

  1. Wonderful piece! I’m quite glad I stumbled upon it via the “ping-back” — and thank you for including my analysis, by the way. I look forward to browsing through the rest of your blog.



  2. Pingback: Exploring Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York”: A Philosophical Analysis | Deathbed Decameron

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