Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What postmodernism isn't (or wasn't): part two

My phrase about "postmodernism" becoming some kind of intellectual black hole which sucks into itself all of the thinking and culture of the last forty years, like an insatiable and monstrous thought-mouth, reminds me of a joke (not a funny one really) that people used to make in the 1980s. It took this kind of form:

Person 1: "Ow!"

Person 2: "What is it?"

Person 1: "I've stubbed my toe!"

Person 2: "... That's so postmodern."

- Because everything was postmodern. Or, rather, everything that happened in the very recent past and present was postmodern. Or, rather, everything that happened in the very recent past and present to interesting, cool and hip types like ourselves was postmodern. Postmodernism, such an evil empire to a certain kind of evangelical Christian , was such a badge of cultural superiority to a certain kind of hipster.

Wikipedia's entry on postmodernism reads in part:

"The movement of Postmodernism began with architecture, as a reactionary movement against the perceived blandness and hostility present in the Modern movement."

The black hole beckons. If we are speaking of a "movement against", why not use the term "antimodernism"? If we agree that something called modernism exists, like America and clockwise movement, then surely antimodernism can exist along with anti-Americanism and anticlockwise movement? And I would certainly call a range of writers like Auden, Larkin, Orwell and Greene antimodernist - they were reacting against the experimentation and difficulty of Eliot, Joyce et al with a shift toward simplicity and tradition. And after them came writers (in Britain) like B.S. Johnson or Christine Brooke-Rose who went in another direction again, a postmodernist one.

Postmodernism has this drive toward an intellectual black hole because it operates on certain levels and in certain quarters - and very ironically - as a sort of grand narrative, a totalizing and complete description and explanation of the world. This is a fairly low, even trashy level of postmodernist discourse, but it palpably exists. Terry Eagleton's The Illusions of Postmodernism is aimed at it. When functioning in this manner it has a tendency, as grand narratives do, to see the world in binary terms as a battle of good and evil, with itself taking up the role of good.

Such a worldview is again beyond irony, for postmodernism emerged simultaneously with (but not quite coterminously with) deconstruction, which argued (in part) that language is composed of binaries but that we privilege one or other term (white over black, male over female) in a way which destabilizes the flow of meaning. It's unarguable that postmodernism frequently defines itself over and against modernism. Ihab Hassan (above) produced a pair of columns setting modernist and postmodernist characteristics against one another: "metaphor" against "metonymy", "transcendence" against "immanence" etc. Fredric Jameson begins his magnum opus with a comparison of a Van Gogh and a Munch against a Warhol. Binaries, pairs.
The assumption is then made, and the message is then transmitted, that:

(1) Postmodernism is the immediate successor to modernism. Nothing happened between them; we went straight from Woolf to Doctorow. (Dubious in the extreme.)

(2) Postmodernism is the equal of modernism: every Ulysses, Battleship Potemkin, Demoiselles d'Avignon or Waste Land has an equal postmodernist achievement in the field of the novel, film, art and poetry. (Arguable, but tenuous in the extreme.)

(3) Modernism is the only alternative to postmodernism. If the latter is the way we are now, the former is the alternative to it. Binaries imply a totality: if you do not fight for God, you fight for the devil, necessarily and with no other options; if you are not pomo, then you are modernist. (Nonsense for published postmodern theorists, but a pit into which students who are unversed in history and culture prior to 1890 all too often fall.)

(4) Postmodernism is better than modernism as a spiritual and/or moral and/or political and/or philosophical condition. As in deconstruction, we privilege one of the terms of the binary. This position is suggested by The Postmodern Condition and it is extremely attractive again to hipsters (if we can use the word) or anyone who wants to feel good about themselves. We are not a culture which is interested in the idea of being inferior to another time, as mass media texts from Pleasantville to Life on Mars unflaggingly repeat. Our temporal superiority complex is redoubtable. And so postmodernism gets identified with freedom and justice while modernism or modernity, we are told, are all about oppressive universals. I won't belabour this: on the Internet where the under-30s discuss postmodernism it is obvious that they consider it the equal of, the alternative to, and the clear superior of, modernism. Hence the hostility of some of them to the notion that it may be over.

My sense is that postmodernism had much that was good about it. It represented a redrawing of the cultural and political landscape to include many who had once been excluded or denigrated, with empowering and enriching effects. But it had serious drawbacks too. And in any case, it's a mistake to see postmodernism as a camp in a Manichean struggle against previous oppression. We are (or were) thrown into postmodernism; we are/were born and find ourselves floundering within it. It must be stressed that you will not find such assumptions in the writings of most postmodernist theorists. But those writings are disappearing into the past now (it's the 25th anniversary this year of "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Consequences of Late Capitalism", which is as far away from us as The Smiths' first album or the Soviet boycott of the Olympics). And what remains today is something of lower quality, more exposed and untenable. The great days of postmodern theory are long gone, and we are stuck in their dog days. Hopefully Digimodernism can be a ladder by which people can start to climb out.

More on this to come: metafiction; the blurring of high and low culture; and lots more besides.

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing! While I am still confused to a great extent, a lot has been clarified for me in a world where so much was blurred. Thank you.