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After Postmodernism: 7. Summary: A Reconstructionist Period

"Scavenger," Luke Hillstad



As can be deduced from Lyotard, Harvey, and Jameson, Post-modernism in many ways represented a radical culmination of modernity’s disenchantment and secularisation processes, which can now be appreciated as a sort of apogee in that revolution in the Western worldview that began all the way back in the 17th century. This culmination ultimately discovered the limits of those processes, you could say, by coming up against the self-undermining logic that was always latent within them.[1] In this case, what had begun as a critique of particular forms/models of transcendence (e.g., belief in other-worldly spirits/demons, Catholic dogma, Platonism, Idealism, life after death, etc.) became finally, in Postmodernism, a critique of transcendent categories altogether (e.g., Meaning, Truth, Beauty, etc.). Thus, what had begun as an attempt to discredit certain ideas and thoughts became an effort to discredit a certain way of thinking. It was no longer an issue of combating a misguided belief, it was having beliefs that was misguided; it wasn’t an issue of whether you grasped the point of it all correctly, it was that there was no point of it all to grasp. In this way, what had begun as a modern project of critique ultimately turned into a critique of the modern project, of all projects, and even of critique itself. At such an ouroboric impasse, where all ideas undo themselves as soon as they are spoken, irony is indeed the closest you can come to truth, cynicism the closest thing to sincerity, and all of those “old untrendy human concerns” (like trying to have a sense of who you are and to live a life with meaning) are simply deemed misguided from the start, since rooted in terms of those old transcendental categories.

But if this (or something like it) was indeed the “Postmodern condition”, hailed and dissected by so many critics and theorists of the day, it is understandable why it ultimately had to yield to deeper, more entrenched human pressures (those “empirical universals” Hassan spoke of): the enduring need for a sense of human connection, identity, and meaning (to name just a few). Any condition that would deny these impulses would be inherently unstable indeed, and bound to collapse under its own weight.

Writing today, in 2019, it is clear that it has, and the result is a resurgent push in the direction of those old untrendy human concerns—for depth, identity, meaning; for transcendence, long repressed. This is the first core element of the current period: the return of dimensionality.

This push, I believe, is taking two broad forms: one conservative and the other progressive. The former is essentially a reactionary response, seeking the re-enshrinement of the old metaphysical paradigms of Truth, Reason, Progress, Objectivity, God, etc. (all capitalised). To be sure, these currents have been around the whole time, throughout the dominance of Postmodernism, but were mostly marginalised or otherwise compartmentalised during its ascendency. With the passing of the Postmodern period, however, and the associated recrudescence of the transcendent, the old metaphysics seems to have become, once again, a viable and attractive idiom for many.[2]

The other form is a progressive approach—“progressive”, I say, because it seeks not to double-back from Postmodern metaphysical critiques but rather confront them and carry through to some postmetaphysical model of transcendence on the other side. Efforts to do this are resulting in novel and compelling forms of dimensionality, a recurrent feature of which (we have repeatedly seen) is the phenomenological counter of rational skepticism. This is a second core element of post-Postmodernism: a performatism of aesthetically-mediated belief.

Here something like depth returns, felt as “depthiness” (Vermeulen); something like truth returns, arrived at aesthetically (Eshelman); spirit itself, reinvented and uncapitalised (Hassan), and God brought back to art, but not as he [sic] was (Childish and Thompson), etc. In this way, the old, untrendy human concern for transcendentals returns, but qualified. There is a an outbreak of idealism—in a pragmatic spirit ; a sense of naivete—but an informed one (Vermeulen and van den Akker).

This is still a risky move, to be sure; some may not find it at all skeptical enough. But this new sensibility boasts a courageous vulnerability. It is optimistic, in a guarded way. It is hopeful, but not blind. It has a sense that its own vulnerability and earnestness are subversive—indeed, the only thing that can be so any longer in the face of corporate appropriations of irony and cynicism (Wallace). Like the old avant-garde, this new sensibility has momentum, and the confidence that comes from being unscripted, unbought, uncertain. It is a youthful movement, linked to a generation maybe, but not demarcated by it.

The third and final feature crucial to post-Postmodernism that I would like to draw out is the ‘specter of Identity’ that haunts it. Having been keenly deprived of it in Postmodern consumer culture, this new generation seems particularly attracted to the intensity and energy of things that have history, depth, a story, a character. Not quite nostalgia, and no longer pastiche per se—but somewhere straddling these and other sentiments is a longing for value, for richness, for the worth and warmth of some deeper history and heritage.[3]

This desire has opened up a minefield on the cultural landscape, given the complex ways in which it bumps up against an immensely painful and divisive history of Western racial politics and power dynamics.[4] In this guise it is known as “identity politics” (either proudly or pejoratively).

It is crucial to appreciate that the specter of Identity in Postmodernism was experienced by many as emancipatory even as it factionalised. Its critique fueled a new confidence in and celebration of markers historically marginalised and oppressed by systems of power Historically marginalised groups, with recourse to rich heritages of non-consumeristic traditions for personal identity-construction, for the first time saw a rare pocket of institutional/establishment encouragement in the realms of academia, popular media, and the market. With the Postmodern turn, traditions of these groups were increasingly represented in a positive light as being of great value (at least by these influential forces).

However, for a new generation arising out of and reacting against the affluent suburbs and their stale cultural logic, the question of heritage has become increasingly urgent, if deeply fraught. The quasi-ironic conventions of millennial hipster culture give cover and space for this, in the attraction to things old and “retro”—the waxed mustache, the lumberjack beard, the record player, the straight razor, the suspenders, the 60s housedress and thrift-store fashion, new interest in the banjo and folk music, etc. These tendencies can and should be seen as part of the broader thirst for identity among this demographic. If the suburban Postmodern self was expected to jump from surface to surface, without history or depth, this new sensibility is more keen to try and sink in, even if expressions of this falter among the pitfalls of historical ignorance, self-reflexive anxieties around issues of privilege and the controversies over political correctness, and consumerist-mediated appropriations of some prior generation’s technology or aesthetic (among other critiques).

This longing for identity through heritage underlies, I would argue, the reinvigoration of craft in recent cultural production. At the root lies a rejection of Postmodern commodification and easy consumption (which homogenises consumers) in favor of older, more demanding methods of small-scale or DIY production/consumption (which serves, among other things, to individuate). These methods 1) have the aura of history and tradition about them, and 2) require more energy and effort, which serve as a means of establishing the boundaries and status markers of a differentiated community. Both are crucial for the process of social identity-construction.

Many examples of millennial culture could be furnished to put flesh on the bones of these broad claims. One thinks of the rise of the online craft marketplace Etsy, for instance, or the popularity of craft beer and soap-making; co-ops boasting fresh, local produce; the tiny house and modern homesteading movements; the trend of barn weddings; and hipster poets hawking poems from their street typewriters. Against the standardizing and superficial currents of consumer capitalism, a post-Postmodern generation is seeking a sense of identity and place through historicism, sensing there a non-standardised, non-industrialised, and more rigorous craft, as well as connections with some heritage (however fraught).

It is in this broader context, I think, that we should understand the return to older artistic modes and forms mentioned by all the theorists above. Whether that be realism (Hassan), Modernist painting (Remodernism), classical realist painting (Kitsch, Post-Contemporary), Neo-Romanticism (Metamodernism), or some other “revival”, post-Postmodernism is not so entirely dominated by the deconstructionist and conceptual-”textual” forms of its forbear. The contemporary art scene is incredibly diverse, with space for these revivals and re-deployments,[5] methods that aim not simply to subvert and deconstruct but edify and re-construct after Postmodernism. The renaissances occurring in these older, craft-oriented methods and forms are, as Vermuelen and van den Akker note, not typical of either Postmodern pastiche or parody, but are rather earnest attempts at exploration, sincere attempts by artists to understand themselves and the world better—no longer with that naïveté through which they may have originally been deployed, but with an awareness ingrained from Postmodern critique which now informs and recontextualises them.


[1] I had not considered it until penning that last sentence, but it would not be entirely inaccurate to say that what I am arguing now prevails is based on a kind of post-Postmodern deconstruction of Postmodernism itself. [2] Politically, this is true across the Left-Right spectrum. [3] In this sense, the “return of history” (noted by Vermeulen and van den Akker in their formulations of metamodernism) is not necessarily limited to that anxiety-inducing juggernaut of current events, such as those mentioned at the outset of this preface. [4] One of the reasons that Hassan’s ominous “specter” image remains pertinent. [5] They are also aided by post-Postmodern sources of media (the internet, blogs, podcasts, memes, etc.) in their possibilities for networking and community foundation—a point made by post-postmodern representative painter Richard T. Scott.

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