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After Postmodernism: 2. The End of an Era

"Aftermath," Cesar Santos

Postmodernism dominated cultural and intellectual production during the 70s and 80s. In the 1990s, its energy began to dissipate; the wave had crested. Some influential writers of the time were now critiquing core Postmodern strategies from within. The most notable of these, in my view, was author David Foster Wallace, who, despite having been associated with the paradigm himself, increasingly came to voice concerns about the role of cynical irony in Postmodern culture. Co-opted by consumer capitalists and elite institutions, Wallace argued, irony had lost its power as an effective tool of critique. An irony-saturated culture is one sapped of genuine, emancipatory energy; it is enervated, feckless, and thus ultimately complacent to, even complicit in, matters cynical irony used to critique. Wallace therefore looked forward to a post-cynical, post-Postmodern ethos that eschewed irony in favor of earnest engagement.

Ironically, dispensing with irony in a fully ironised culture could only but be subversive, and the prospect of a new, non-institutionalised avant-garde—one of (of all things) sincerity and credulity—thus opened up as a novel and important possibility. As Wallace concluded in a 1990 essay:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. (pp. 81-82)

Wallace’s ideas would indeed prove prophetic (as we shall see), and he stands as a fascinating bridge-figure between Postmodernism and the period that has come after.

At the same time Wallace and others were posing their critiques, many cultural critics were increasingly coming to the conclusion that whatever had animated the “Postmodern moment” was now a largely spent force. Less and less ink was being spilt on the topic, and more and more cultural products seemed less amenable to analysis using the old Postmodern rubric. In 2002, concluding the second edition of her influential book The Politics of Postmodernism, theorist Linda Hutcheon drove the nail into the coffin:

Let’s just say: it’s over. …The postmodern moment has passed, even if its discursive strategies and its ideological critique continue to live on – as do those of modernism – in our contemporary twenty-first century world. Literary historical categories like modernism and postmodernism are, after all, only heuristic labels that we create in our attempts to chart cultural changes and continuities. Post-postmodernism needs a new label of its own, and I conclude, therefore, with this challenge to readers to find it – and name it for the twenty-first century. (p. 181)

It should be clear immediately why a “post-Postmodern” period demands a new label.[1] And, to be sure, a number have been proposed by a new generation of cultural theorists that has subsequently arisen, who have taken up the challenge of periodising post-Postmodernism with its own label. Among them, remodernism, performatism, and metamodernism have all been proposed, and I would like to investigate each—both for what they have to say on their own terms, but also to see what points of commonality can be found between them, to help us triangulate, as it were, an even larger sense of the period based on these diverse descriptions and analyses. Plotting these three interpretive paradigms, which have been proposed as labels for the post-Postmodern moment, I hope to reveal some trends and trajectories common to all which shed light on where we are now, in 2019.



I wish to deal up front with the clumsiness and even pretentious-ness of such labels, since I believe these aspects pose a serious obstacle to their otherwise worthwhile consideration.[2] I acknowledge the reticence with which we have become conditioned (especially as good Postmoderns) to approach -isms, particularly academic neologisms, with our ingrained “hermeneutics of suspicion”. I will admit that I cannot argue against this using any canonical Postmodern strategies, other than to point out simply that such strategies have indeed become “canonical,” a tradition unto themselves. Any subversive move, then, will have to forgo what it is subverting: Postmodern cynics must decide where their allegiances lie, in the strategy of cynicism itself, or in the principles for which such strategies were originally adopted (namely, emancipation, difference, the perennial struggle of the weird and marginal against the dominating demands of capital and the normalizing impositions of paternalistic institutions). I might worry of growing too tangential here, even hyper-reflexive, except that this very invitation to consider post-Postmodern paradigms (the subject at hand) is itself caught up in the ethos of such paradigms. If one is too cynical, one can never become open enough to even consider getting past Postmodern cynicism.

To get at what I mean by this, I would like to look at the ideas of a second important bridge figure, the influential Postmodern literary critic Ihab Hassan. In his 2003 essay “Beyond Postmodernism: Toward an Aesthetic of Trust,”[3] Hassan reflects on the legacy of Postmodernism (in part something he helped to establish) and how it relates, or rather fails to relate, to the urgent demands of a world increasingly given over to incessant factionalism, balkanization, and group conflict.[4] Lyotard’s “fragmentation into countless micro-narratives” mentioned earlier plays a big role here of course, for, shorn of any unifying “grand narrative”, Postmodernism invites, even demands such fissuring of Enlightenment “mankind” into distinct “identities,” each with their own incommensurable language games. This generates a very real problem, however: how does one establish/maintain these identities, on what grounds and at whose expense?

The answers offered from recent global history have been largely steeped in violence. “[T]he horrendous facts of Postmodernity invade our lives continually: diasporas, migrations, refugees, the killing fields, a crisis of personal and cultural values seemingly without parallel in history. Therefore, we may be forgiven to conclude: a specter is haunting Europe and the world – the specter of Identity” (p. 19). Unfortunately (though, perhaps, expectedly), the philosophical context for this crisis provides no means for its resolution. Cynicism, a skeptical interrogation of the other’s attempts at domination, or apathy—these are essentially the Postmodern’s toolkit for approaching other identities within a matrix of power.

A different, more productive answer to this antagonistic impasse, Hassan concludes, will need to lie in “words that we have forgotten in academe, words that need, more than refurbishing, reinvention. I mean words like truth, trust, spirit, all uncapitalized.” The “all uncapitalized” seems absolutely crucial here, I believe, since the reason such words were banished from academe to begin with was their supposedly inextricable link to metaphysical Absolutes, and the historical imperialism that such metaphysics helped rationalise (in every sense of the word).[5] But Hassan isn’t arguing for metaphysics. His “truth” is rather a common human truth of “soft universals, not Platonic but empirical.” Realizing the common humanity behind your desire for place and purpose and my desire for place and purpose can only be mutually beneficial, a hedge against dehumanizing violence. If the threat Postmoderns were countering was that of an all-subsuming iron cage of Western rationalism, they largely succeeded; today, however, the threat is different: it is the threat of tribalism, group-think, partisanship, even civil war. More of the same medicine will only make the patient sicker.

But, Hassan asks, “What would spirit mean in our intellectual culture of disbelief?” He immediately offers some negative parameters: “Certainly it would not mean atavism, fundamentalism, or occultism; it may not mean adherence to orthodox religions – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam – though it would not exclude them.” As it turns out, Hassan does not offer much positive insight into what it could be. This is not an accident, however; Hassan is considering “spirit” more within the tradition of via negativa, or “way of negation,” a mystical contemplation of spirit that approaches spirit by saying what it is not. In this sense, it is kenotic, emptying, a sense of radical simplification and continuous reduction toward—Nothing. This association of spirit with nothingness is fruitful for Hassan, opening a bridge from Postmodern nihilism to a new kind of spiritual transcendence. “Trust, I have claimed, is a spiritual value, inward with self-dispossession, and in its Postmodern form, familiar with the void. For only through nihilism is nihilism overcome.” In some sense, since “truth,” “trust,” and “spirit” (all uncapitalised, we might say, and even put in Postmodern “scare quotes”) have their basis not in some metaphysical absolutes, but actually in nothing, one can find a way from the Postmodern aporia of incommensurable language games to a different aporia, that which one experiences when confronted by the transcendently-nullified (and nullified transcendence) of spirit. Ironically, this shared basis in nothing actually demands of us a realism in art, not anti-realism. For such a “fiduciary realism” connects us rather than separates. As he puts it, “I have no space here to elaborate this concept of unknowing, of cognitive undoing or nescience, a kind of intellectual via negativa. I need only repeat that fiduciary realism – a Postmodern realism, if any – demands faith and empathy and trust precisely because it rests on Nothingness, the nothingness within all our representations, the final authority of the Void.” One might (oversimplistically) interpret Hassan’s movement this way: as Modernists, we were aesthetic realists out of naive metaphysical suppositions. As Postmodernists, we lost that naivete and abandoned metaphysics, accepting an anti-realist stance. But, simply because we are without metaphysics does not mean we must abandon realism; in fact, just the opposite: the non-metaphysical is what is real. And so, moving beyond Postmodernism, one picks up realism again—not naively, but in an open display of trust, for your reality and my reality, for your identity and mine. Through nihilism nihilism is overcome, with spirit on the other side.

The adamant negation that, whatever this post-Postmodern spirit might be, it will not be “atavism, fundamentalism,” etc. would seem to underscore an important point for Hassan: namely, that this return to “spirit” must not be reactionary, a conservative reflex to the status quo ante. Indeed, Hassan frames his concept of spirit as being arrived at through nihilism, not by means of a retreat from it. His aim is “beyond Postmodernism,” not merely “after” or “instead of” it. This is an important point, to be considered more deeply below.

I begin with Hassan for two reasons. The most immediate is to present the issue of a “hermeneutics of trust” up front, for while it is a characteristic of the post-Postmodern paradigms I would like to discuss, it is also a precondition for their consideration. The second reason for starting with Hassan is because I believe his later work offers a bridge, a useful entry point into the various proposed post-Postmodernisms. We see already in his essay a number of sentiments and concerns that will continue to show up in more systematic analyses of post-Postmodern cultural trends. Ideas like “truth”, “trust”, “spirit”, and the specter of “identity” will recur like leitmotifs in the consideration of these below. But before I turn to these paradigms, I would like to explain first why I believe this is the case, that is, why this particular configuration of ideas should re-emerge as culturally significant after a period of their being, shall we say, out of vogue. To do this, let’s pick up an earlier issue I had left unresolved until this point in our discussion...


[1] “Post-modern” was already a bit silly-sounding in itself, even etymological paradoxical. But while “post-Postmodern” might be technically correct, the compound absurdity and pretense simply make it untenable. Besides that, defining something entirely in relation/opposition to something else fails to offer anything positive about the thing itself, and it seems more appropriate that periods be associated with their own characteristics than strictly as a response to another’s. [2] One element of the Postmodern “ideological critique” that continues to “live on” is the cynicism with which we still approach “-isms” of all stripes. We (rightly, I may say) eye askance so many academics with their glossy neologisms, who seem more interested in upping their number of citations by fellow academics than any earnest contribution to our general understanding of cultural and intellectual history. In fact, we see this cynicism already in reactions to the coining of the word “Postmodernism”, and by one of its chief popularizers no less: Fredric Jameson:

The success story of the word postmodernism demands to be written, no doubt in best-seller format; such lexical neoevents, in which the coinage of a neologism has all the reality impact of a corporate merger, are among the novelties of media society which require not merely study but the establishment of a whole new media-lexicological subdiscipline. (p. xiii)

It is not my desire to attempt any sort of prolegomenon (let alone contribution) to such a subdiscipline, only to point out that I am aware of the critique of such “lexicological neoevents,” and of their being uniquely symptomatic of hyper-media(ted) societies. Today we might add to Jameson’s “corporate merger” riff a comparison to the insipid, jingly brand names emerging these days out of Silicon Valley; one half-expects to see a Trademarked symbol dangling off the end of this or that post-Postmodern “-ism.” (Cynicism is about as much “-ism” as many can stomach these days, and this is not entirely unwarranted.) That being said, there is also a point at which such cynicism, in essence a defensive strategy, can prove too limiting. To critique the “reality impact” of the naming of a new cultural period out of hand as simply a constructed fiction masquerading as a real event seems, to me, misguided. For one thing, we have already been up-front about the constructedness of periodisation, and have no illusions that Postmodernism, or any other period for that matter, has descended as some Platonic idea from the heavens. The more interesting (and damning) argument, then, would seem to present it merely as a suspicious “feedback loop”, one in which reflection does more to generate reality than merely reflect upon it: that is, the term, once named, influences its own cultural production, reifying itself out of the power of suggestion. Jameson was aware of this issue with Postmodernism, and wryly observed:

It thus turns out that it is not only in love, cratylism, and botany that the supreme act of nomination wields a material impact and, like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses itself unlikely materials into a gleaming lump or lava surface. The appeal to experience…now recovers a certain authority as what, in retrospect, the new name allowed you to think you felt, because you now have something to call it that other people seem to acknowledge by themselves using the word. (p. xiii)

Such a critique would lay the blame at the feet of the interference cultural theorising itself might have on cultural production. One has put the cart before the horse; one has been prescriptive instead of merely descriptive, and this seems to run afoul of the whole theoretical enterprise. Where cultural theory bleeds into cultural production, this it must own up to, as it were, for “full disclosure.”[2] [3] Ihab Hassan, “Beyond Postmodernism: Toward an Aesthetic of Trust”, reprinted in Supplanting The Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, edited by David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (Bloomsbury, 2015), 13-29. [4] At the moment, one thinks of white vs. black, straight vs. gay, Christian vs. secular, urban Northerners vs. rural Southerners, progressives vs. the alt-right, “toxic masculinity” vs. “feminazis”, America vs. the Middle East, the civilized world vs. America… The list goes on. [5] See Harvey, above. We will have much more to say about this as well below.

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