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After Postmodernism: 1. What (Really) Was Postmodernism?

"Birds of Paradise," Carl Dobsky

We find ourselves in strange times. World historical forces are currently at work which (it seems safe to say) no one saw coming, and which (one feels less safe saying) are completely out of control. The climate grows unstable, institutions are failing, coalitions are shifting, and the whole geopolitical order, long held together by “American influence,” is collapsing.

Welcome to 2019.

Since the early 2000s, the groundwork for a new cultural paradigm was being laid. The paradigm which held sway since the end of World War II had been transitioning to something altogether different, something we now, in 2019, find ourselves smack in the middle of (and not quite comfortably so). From a politics of centrist neoliberal globalism we have come to witness the rise of ethnocentric autocrats, their foot-soldiers clashing in the streets with progressive social justice warriors of The Resistance; from free-market global consumer capitalism: increased protectionism and localism; from mass media to online subgroups and digital countercultures; and from an art once obsessed with sardonic play and cynical irony we are now seeing a revival of earnestness, idealism, even spirituality. It is almost as though the world has contracted somewhat, soberly snapping out of some fin de millénaire splurge, or else recoiling from the specter of a rootless, generic, world-wide cosmopolitanism (whose consummation had already been baked into next quarter’s profit report by the smug suits at Davos). All signal a rupture from a familiar past and the advent of a new and very different present.



Now, one may wonder, understandably, why we should even talk about different ‘periods of history’ at all. Obviously, history doesn’t unfold in discrete blocks or easily demarcated units. Medieval Europeans did not wake up one day and find themselves in “The Renaissance.” Nor did people look around on an afternoon in 1880 and suddenly realise they were no longer Romantics but “Modernists”. In fact, even with the clarity of hundreds of years of hindsight, it is admittedly futile to ask precisely when one cultural period ended and another began.

Nevertheless, historians still make such distinctions. They do so only because they are useful. Periodisation provides us with heuristic labels which help us make sense of history. Through them we can appreciate larger patterns and trends in cultural production, get closer to the driving concerns of the age, even feel the dominant logic of the time more intimately. The change of seasons is always gradual and organic, but this doesn’t mean that distinctions like “summer” and “winter” aren’t helpful, even necessary. In the same way, cultural historians distinguish different phases and periods of time. And while of course one can always poke holes in them (there are warm days in winter, cold days in summer), they still remain helpful tools for reflecting on where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

One might think of such periods a bit like a map. As anyone who has crossed any territorial border knows, such distinctions are (sometimes laughably) artificial. You move one foot and now it’s 7 PM instead of 6! It’s a French-speaking country, not a German one, etc. And yet, a little further inland and you feel the differences. France is different than Germany, etc. So might we say about the Classical period and the Medieval, the Medieval and the Renaissance, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, etc. Knowing where we are on the map is useful, and orients us in what might otherwise seem a bewildering and uncertain landscape.

Another interesting thing about maps: they’re relative. Are you looking to navigate New York? Fine—is your map a globe? or do you need a guide through the back roads of Potsdam? What you need from your map will determine what kind of map you use, and thus the information it presents. Locations can always be further detailed and subdivided, focused and complexified; the same is true with time periods. Are we talking about modernity? Fine—are we comparing it to the premodern world, or do we need a guide through the mid-1820s? The vantage we’re trying to achieve will determine how minute our map will be in its detail.

For present purposes, let’s take a very broad look at the history of Western cultural production. Here’s one schema that might help us:

This is one way to chart a history of Western cultural production (at least for our present purposes). And while there’s much here that could be said, much apologising to be made for over-simplification, I wish to draw attention to only a few points.

First, one sees a primary bifurcation into modern and premodern eras. The advent of modernity had a profound influence on cultural production, specifically as it relates to the rise of secular and mechanistic ways of engaging the physical universe. The mythic mind that had earlier predominated—populated by spirits and forces, rituals and cycles, an inherent social and moral order, etc.—was, as we all know, gradually supplanted by a materialistic framework. Recourse to any metaphysical notions became increasingly unnecessary, as the understanding of purely physical phenomena was thought sufficient for explaining more and more about reality.

The other thing worth mentioning about this chart is the accelerating speed at which periods emerge and evolve: cultural periods come and go more frequently as time progresses. Such an acceleration makes sense, I suppose, considering how culture spreads and develops in concert with technology. The result, however, does not appear to be some utopian cultural “singularity” (perhaps as the globalists envisioned) but rather general confusion, alienation, and psychic fragmentation (about which I want to say more momentarily).

The last period to be distinguished and studied by cultural critics is called the Postmodern period, and it is on this period that I would like to dwell for a moment. I myself read Postmodern literature at university, and wrote my thesis on particular trends in Postmodern poetry. Despite achieving ubiquity in the academy, though, considerable confusion has surrounded the term “Postmodernism” since its inception. This has owed to many factors (not least of which being the Postmodern tendency to deliberately avoid the neat closure of definitions and to critique the over-simplistic sense of clarity such constructions offer). Largely because of the term’s rapid and wide-ranging profusion, it has become difficult to get a hold on it, to assess precisely what unites, say, Postmodern architecture and Postmodern dance, or to see why we should call phenomena as disparate as Pop Art and the Linguistic Turn “Postmodern.” The term has become so commonplace a designation for cultural developments in the post-war period that its particular qualities can seem obscured. In fact, some now argue that the term is essentially so broad as to be meaningless.

I disagree. I find that the notion of “Postmodernism” still does meaningful, even necessary work in conversations about periodisation. It is clear, for instance, that the heuristic label of “modernism” is not useful for discussing dominant trends in late 20th century culture. Having a general term to refer to such cultural production, then, is valuable in and of itself. Moreover, despite the admitted diffusion of the word’s meaning, it still retains meaningful power as a descriptive term. For example, no one would walk into a Catholic cathedral today and say to themselves, “How Postmodern!” Nor would they offer such a pronouncement on anything considered very old or traditional, or even something new but serious or lofty. In colloquial usage, then, “Postmodern” retains a particular character and quality (say, of subversiveness, incomprehensibility, irreverence, irony and cynicism) which mark it off from other labels as a discreet modifier.

More importantly than this is the fact that, though Postmodernism as a period is essentially over, it remains quite culturally significant, even—or perhaps, especially—in its less precise, more expansive sense. While less of interest to academics these days, Postmodernism is increasingly being interrogated and scrutinised in other venues and with big impact. Beyond the Bible-thumping railings of backwoods culture warriors, the philosophical legacy of Postmodernism has more recently attracted responses from some contemporary intellectuals occupying diverse corners of the political spectrum.[2] Such intellectual reactions against Postmodernism, and the wide audience they are finding, are a crucial component of the new period now arising (as I shall argue further below), and should be taken as a serious sign that Postmodernism, at least as a meaningful label, is alive and well.

If this is true, then, what can we say about it? Are broad, impressionistic associations of styles and attitudes the best we can do? Or is it possible to say something more specific? What really is/was Postmodernism?


First, the historical matrix of the period itself. For dominant structural elements (say, from 1950 to 2000), one might include:

  • in economics: hyper-commodification, mass production, and the dominance of laissez-fare, global consumer capitalism;

  • in politics: the sovereignty of the bureaucratic nation state, the spread of Western neoliberal democracy predicated on the “Pax Americana”, and a political center based on these

  • in philosophy: the triumph of post-structuralism, anti-foundationalism, and pragmatism; the critique/decline of metaphysics; the linguistic turn, and the sharp divide between analytic philosophy and so-called continental philosophy/critical theory…

  • in critical theory: deconstruction, relativism, emphasis on and exegesis of traditional power dynamics, critiques of the premodern/early modern traditions from the perspectives of historically marginalised and oppressed identities;

  • in architecture/public space: eclecticism, and a preference for irregular, playful flare over the rigidity of Modernist design; increased sub/urbanisation and the infrastructural dominance of the automobile

  • in art: the ubiquitous proliferation of Pop art and the aesthetics of consumer culture; the official institutionalization of the avant garde by the elite; a decline of formalism and the profusion of “experimental” forms;

  • in letters: metafiction and hyper-reflexivity, ironic self-awareness, nonlinearity, and extensive allusiveness.

In general, the cultural production that has arisen from this historical matrix can be said to bear a sort of family resemblance, by dint of the fact that it arose out of similar conditions and in response to similar social circumstances. Of course, not all cultural production expressed the dominant features of the period; some artists and writers continued residual aesthetic practices from prior periods (to varying degrees of aesthetic and professional success), while others foreshadowed still-emerging elements that have only recently become culturally dominant. In spite of this diversity, general, defining trends can be identified in Postmodernism, up to and including a prevailing ethos or zeitgeist.

What does that ethos look like? Cynical, say many theorists; relentlessly ironic, self-referential, self-conscious. Exhausted by multiplicity. Taking few things (if any) very seriously. Glib, irreverent, world-weary. Resigned to (if not cheekily celebrating) the commercialization of every facet of life. Disillusioned with lofty ideals. Seeing all action as expressions of power through a singular ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Dealing in surfaces, images, simulations. A reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction. Boredom, interrupted only by the exhilaration of some novel chaos. Such attitudes can be seen, for instance, glorified in the cheeky superficiality of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst; celebrated in Robert Venturi’s encomia to architectures of the vulgus, and sublimed in the warped, shiny curves of Frank Gehry’s; lamented in the cynicism of Radiohead and Grunge music; circumambulated in the literature of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Eggers; theorised by Baudrillard; mythologised in films like The Matrix, and satirised on television by The Simpsons. Like all cultural periods, Postmodernism was complex and variegated to be sure, but general observations about its Weltanschauung—such as its pessimism, skepticism, hyper-reflection and hyper-capitalism—can, I believe, be fairly pointed out as representative of the time.

Of course, cultural theorists don’t aim simply to describe the period, but to analyze it, to ask how and why it came about and what lies at the root of its development. In this regard, certain thinkers have been particularly influential for their explanatory models of Postmodernism—their readings, I believe, standing the test of time. I would like to focus on three of them for just a moment: 1) Jean-François Lyotard, 2) David Harvey, and 3) Fredric Jameson.

1) In Lyotard’s highly influential formulation, Postmodern culture arose out of what he called “an incredulity toward metanarratives”, or a loss of belief in big stories. Such stories once served to orient society and provide the grounding for knowledge, but have since lost their purchase with the population. As a result, notions of “absolute truth,” or virtually any claim to “universality,” become inherently suspect. Postmodernism is a culture that eschews any and all such master narratives, any grand Truth or Meaning that would claim to give an orienting purpose to the world. Because of this, Postmodern society winds up being characterised instead by a fragmentation into countless “micronarratives,” a motley array of different localised realities all playing incommensurable language games. Truth thus radically relativised, technocratic elites seek just what knowledge is useful for gaining wealth and power, asking only “Is it saleable?”

2) David Harvey’s interpretation gives a slightly different reading of it all. For him, what Postmoderns lost wasn’t so much a “grand narrative,” but a commitment to any sense of “eternal and immutable” elements in modern life. Modernists since Baudelaire (d. 1867), taking stock of the fact that their brave new world of industrialization and scientific “Progress” marked a real break from traditional modes of existence, noted that the hallmarks of this new thing ‘Modernity’ were “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” While premodern lifestyles were based on enduring practices and beliefs rooted in the ancient past, modern life was just the opposite, with ever-changing technologies, ideologies, and increasingly novel goods. Because of this growing sense of change and ephemerality, Modernists sought (while staying true to this modern reality of flux and contingency) nevertheless to give voice to whatever was still enduringly timeless and unchanging therein. After the First World War (the first truly “modern” war) left the old world on its last legs, there arose a particular new urgency for articulating such a stable Truth. High or “heroic” Modernists desperately sought to create an orienting mythology fit for the modern age. “The myth,” writes Harvey, “either had to redeem us from ‘the formless universe of contingency’ or, more programmatically, to provide the impetus for a new project for human endeavor” (p. 31). Tragically, as it turned out, the “new project” that arose only wound up devolving into base nationalist domination and racist genocide. By the time the Second World War (which these myths had only enflamed) ended, the modern quest for some transcendent vision or mythic goal seemed horrifically discredited. In the post-Modernist world that took shape afterward, a life defined by the transient, the fleeting, the contingent was simply accepted as the way things are. Resigned to this, says Harvey, the Postmodernist “does not try to transcend it, counteract it, or even to define the ‘eternal and immutable’ elements that might lie within it. Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is” (p. 44). The hope for some eternal and unchanging truth, goal, or myth is given up on; all you can do is hurl yourself into flux, discontinuity, and transience.

3) Finally, what Fredric Jameson argued Postmodernism to be is, in part anyway, actually the loss of the entire “hermeneutic model” or interpretive approach to experience. That’s simply to say that, in the past, people tended to look at things and seek a deeper meaning to them: a work of art had a symbolic significance beyond the specific figures it depicted; a person’s actions might be seen as authentic or inauthentic to some true, inner core, or perhaps only as only an outward manifestation of some deeper, latent neurosis; a sign only gestured toward something signified; and appearance was often in tension with reality. With the Postmodern turn, however, this is no longer the case. The whole notion of a deeper meaning or truth is abandoned; “depth is replaced by surface.” As a consequence, any attempt to seek for something “beyond” or “beneath” our immediate, mundane, superficial experience of life (we are told) is futile. All we have is the appearance, the sign, the show—no more. Life is simply the glimmering play of shimmering surfaces—a perspective which (it not coincidently turns out) feeds directly into the narrative of consumer capitalism. In fact, Jameson says, what we call Postmodernism is really just the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” in which we are presented with saleable trend after saleable trend, flashy new gadget after flashy new gadget, in an endless stream of superficial “moments.” Without depth, without history or goal, life is simply a series of purchases (no deeper meaning needed).

Now, reading these three thinkers synoptically, some fascinating similarities emerge, I think. It is certainly noteworthy, for instance, that all three define Postmodernism negatively, as signaling the loss of something. For Lyotard, this was the grand narrative; for Harvey, the eternal and unchanging; for Jameson, the deeper meaning. This structural overlap, of Postmodernism as the resulting difference of some subtraction, would seem to invite comparison, even synthesis. One wonders if these thinkers aren’t a bit like the three blind men in the parable, groping about at the tail, the legs, the trunk, all the while missing the elephant that unites them all. If so, what is the elephant in the room here…?

I will return to this below, as it is crucial to the argument I would like to make about our new, emerging period and its relationship to the present work. For now, though, let’s continue on our period map until it comes to its to boundary margins.

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