Thursday, 9 July 2009

The plinth, Twitter, and similar

Charlotte Higgins at the Guardian has blogged about the installations at the plinth in Trafalgar Square, which strike me as pure digimodernism in action:

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Got to be ending something

The death and memorial service for Michael Jackson brings to an end something besides the life of a man. I drafted a post on this last week, put it to one side while I was writing a paper for a conference I'm going to this Friday (on Literary London, if you must know), then found that Momus had said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say in the mean time: that Jackson was the last of his type, a relic from another age... and Momus had been quoted around the world for it:

In particular he notes:

Michael Jackson is not just the King of Pop, but the Last King of Pop. Three major factors will prevent there ever being another one: digital culture and its fragmentation of the big "we are the world"-type audience into a million tiny, targeted audiences; the demographic decline of the "pigs in the pipe" (the Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, who made pop music's four-decade-long pre-eminence possible); and the decline of the influence of the United States....
Jerry Del Colliano, a professor of the music industry at the University of Southern California... thinks that stars will emerge from social networking software.
[I], however, believe that social networking may have the opposite effect... the world may be headed back to what celebrated sociologist Pierre Bourdieu found in 1960s France -- white-collar workers preferred high-brow classical music, while manual laborers listened to cheap pop. A few decades later, postmodern consumer culture had leveled that, at least superficially: now, people with college degrees spoke about Michael Jackson 'intelligently,' people from lower class backgrounds spoke about him 'passionately.' But everybody spoke about him... But social networking is now limiting interaction among groups with different tastes... I think we'll see different classes embracing different cultures again. Things will settle back into the kind of cultural landscape Bourdieu described.
Socio-cultural prediction is a mug's game, and my instincts tell me that wherever we are going it is not forward into the past. Indeed, the clinging to Bourdieu may itself by a consoling retreat to the familiar even as the end of an era is announced. But the incommensurability of digital forums such as social networking with the old postmodern landscape is accurately perceived, I feel.
In truth, as an entertainer Jackson was already a ghost from a vanished world when he died. He left us the same day as Farrah Fawcett, another pop culture superstar from the late 1970s/early 1980s. After the end of the 80s Jackson remained in the public eye through ever-more grotesque and sordid personal behaviour, not through his work; his songs and videos - which once defined MTV and the whole early 80s Fredric Jameson aesthetic of pastiche, the waning of affect et al - became void of style or content outside of their deluded messianism (clips of him bestowing hope on thousands of the downtrodden, etc.) The website set up for Jackson's funeral invites us to choose Jackson's best song - "Thriller", "Billie Jean" or "Bad" - and doesn't notice that the most recent of these is considerably older than the average pop music fan.
So, Jackson's passing encompasses four kinds of death, beginning with the immediately physical. Textually this was yesterday's superstar too, like Fawcett; creatively he was already a burned out force. The nature and scale of his superstardom is doubtless a thing of the past too, as Momus notes. Finally, in the wake of a Glastonbury dominated by Blur, a band who peaked commercially 15 years ago and split up 6 years ago, Jackson's death highlights the contemporary status of pop and rock as something superannuated, living on its memories, fading slowly into the cultural night.

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.

Friday, 3 July 2009

What postmodernism isn't, or wasn't: part one

Part one of an occasional series.

For several reasons my book doesn't spend much time defining what postmodernism is, or, increasingly, was. Plenty of existing books by writers like Hans Bertens, Steven Connor and Simon Malpas already do a perfectly good job of this. Consequently, Digimodernism pretty much assumes that we all know well enough what postmodernism means.

However, looking at recent uses of the term on the Internet makes this assumption rather awkward. There are an awful lot of misconceptions out there. This matters to a degree because an understanding of digimodernism and its status as a contemporary cultural dominant depends on a correct apprehension of the nature of what it succeeded. Roughly half of new references to postmodernism that I find on the Internet seem to be from Christians, especially American Christians. This confirms a pattern I found when, in 2008, I ran a search through books published in the last 6-7 years held in Oxford's university library (which receives by law a copy of every book published in the UK) for the word "postmodernism" or its cognates. About 80% of contemporary usages of the term, on the Internet and in the publishing world, came either from students of college modules or their professors (giving the term the same status as "Romanticism") or from Christians.

The danger with the term was always that it would become a kind of intellectual black hole, sucking into itself concepts and practices that had no need to be labelled or understood in that manner. "Postmodernism" must mean, to a strong extent, something periodized, a historical era, it must be temporal or it must mean nothing at all. Both the body of the word and its prefix emphasize a moment in time, with a beginning and, therefore, an end. This moment will certainly have its precursors, but "postmodernism" cannot be an eternally available option. It is not, as one contributor to an Internet forum opined, a "state of mind" with exemplars among the ancient Romans. States of mind have their own descriptors - see a dictionary for details. Writers who explicitly discuss postmodernism, such as Lyotard, Harvey and Jameson, agree that there was once a time when it simply did not exist. The confusion arises when postmodernism is taken to mean writers, notably Derrida and Foucault, who never treated the subject, though their work clearly bears some family resemblance to it. Derrida's work aims at eternal validity, as philosophy does; it is not, therefore, strictly postmodern.

Consequently, postmodernism is NOT, as so many online Christians seem to think, merely relativism or subjectivism regarding truth or ultra-scepticism regarding knowledge and objectivity or a belief in pluralism. These ideas are age-old, familiar to the ancient Greeks, and have floated around whenever people sat down to think seriously about thinking. Nor is postmodernism identical with some kind of questioning of the bases of knowledge - that's philosophy (duh).

The most common error made by Christians here is to construct postmodernism as the mirror image of themselves. Evangelicals, by their very nature, are keenly interested in the intellectual and philosophical and moral state of the world they are trying to evangelize, in the same way that footballers are very interested in the teams and players they come up against. The question they ask is, then, eternally this one: Why isn't the world Christian? What is it with the world, that makes it not believe? I was an evangelical Christian myself in the early 1980s (while Lyotard, Baudrillard and Jameson were defining postmodernism as the expression of our time), and I was informed by church leaders who had been at university in the late 1960s that the world was fundamentally... humanist. This prevailing humanism was said to lie at the root of abortion on demand, tolerance for homosexuality, amoral politicians, and all other social evils.
25 years later, evangelicals are asking the same question, and this time their leaders, who had been at university in the late 1980s and early 1990s, answer that the world is fundamentally... postmodernist. This prevailing postmodernism is said to lie at the root of abortion on demand, tolerance for homosexuality, amoral politicians, and all other social evils. Exactly like humanism. Never mind that postmodernism is anti- or post-humanist. And never mind that postmodernism in 2009 is as hip and now as humanism was in 1983-84.
I'm all for trying to understand the world we live in systematically and historically. It's just ignorance and arrogance to suppose that one is the sole and supreme source of what one does and thinks. But the Christian take on postmodernism is unreal. It imagines that "the postmodernists" are an organized body, a recognizable set of people with a raft of shared beliefs and ideas. It imagines that these people sit around sharing their common views on truth and reality and knowledge and belief - that they hold to an agreed value system about the meaning of the real and the true. But this is a description of evangelical Christians, not of postmodernists. All such references to "the postmodernists" are incapable for this reason of supplying names.
There are people these days who espouse an ultra-subjectivist or relativist view of truth ("you're right from your side/and I'm right from mine", in Dylan's words). But this is much less the effect of "postmodernism" than of consumerism, which sees all choices in the market place as equally valid. American Christians are obsessed with postmodernism because they are socially conditioned never to question the economic system they inhabit, and this is nothing new (I noticed it in about 1982, and it wasn't new then either). The US is dominated by a certain economic system and its driving ideology, and American Christianity is deeply infected, as all non-Christians know, by nationalism: in the early 1980s the US was said to be under attack from humanism and Marxism, and now it is said to be threatened by postmodernism, but in all cases and all times it is said to be menaced by something foreign and alien and coming from abroad. Its problems can never be home-grown.
So version one of what postmodernism isn't or wasn't: it's not an ultra-sceptical or relativist creed about reality and truth which threatens the free world. More on this later.