Thursday, November 10, 2011

Post-Rant

This uninformed rant was inspired by a recent visit to ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’ at the V&A Museum. What follows is an attempt to articulate my misgivings about Postmodernism, understood by few and used by many, with a brief description of its predecessor Modernism, in the hope that a comparison between the two might sharpen the edges of blurry Postmodernism.

The more I think about it, the more I realise how much I dislike the term Postmodernism. What exactly does it stand for? The manipulative nature of its essentially empty rhetoric irks me, as when the Daily Mail resorts to ‘common sense’ or some luminaire in the Literary Review ponderously declaims that we inhabit a post-ideological world, then relentlessly pushes their own agenda, wrapped in an oratorical blanket of increasingly fatigued and meaningless prefixes. Postmodernism is the most recent movement and so exerts a great influence on our world-view, and yet there have been previous movements, and there will be something post-postmodernism, whatever we decide to name it. If I knew this future buzzword, I would probably not be a rich woman, but I would certainly get misquoted a lot, and you know that the more you are misquoted the more people you have reached. And the fewer have read you.

But I am ignorant as to what the future holds. Frankly, I am not even sure about the state of the present. That there is a retrospective on Postmodernism at the V&A would indicate that it is firmly in the past, further confirmed by the subheading ‘Style and Subversion: 1970-1990’. And yet the term ‘postmodern’ still gets its fair share of airplay in 2011. What I have noticed is that its temporal proximity - whether it has happened or is still unfolding - has led many to lose perspective. There is nothing revolutionary about Postmodernism, no more than there was about the Enlightenment or Romanticism. What makes it special is precisely the same immediacy that has rendered us so short-sighted; We are living it. Nothing has changed in the grand scheme of things, yet everything is different, as it always is and always will be.

Thus we are uncertain if we inhabit Postmodern times, or what this entails, apart from this penchant for sticking arbitrary prefixes on words to increase their emotional resonance and impact.  ‘Neo’ has become the preferred, catch-all, semantically slurred yet emotionally charged prefix for right-wing resurgences - neoliberalism, neocon, neonazism, neoprene. ‘Post’, on the other hand, is the default indicator for the discourse deconstruction and ‘decentredness’ that ‘postmodernism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ celebrate. Whatever that means. We are constantly reminded that there is no ‘truth’ to be found, that everything is subjective and the idea of an objective independent reality is a mere mirage. The era of grand all-encompassing narratives like Christianity or Marxism is over. Yet people keep telling each other stories, only this time with more prefixes. These days, one has to muse about ‘subversion’ and ‘dystopia’, suspiciously close sometimes to the old ‘progress’ and ‘utopia’ but masquerading under less politically charged names, and without the whiff of fascism that ‘progress’ now gives off.

  So what is ‘Postmodernism’? It peppers our academic speech and generously seasons our (my) half-baked remarks about art, music, and society. Even ‘conditions’. What exactly is the postmodern condition?  Postmodernism was always one of those words that was semantically unstable, because it defined itself against the equally porous ‘modern’. The latter is normally applied to the first half of the 20th century - the era of Modernism. It is the term given to different artistic movements that rejected objectivity in favour of subjectivity — no longer was it about what we saw, but how we saw it. This was partly spurred — as are all new cultural expressions — by new technological developments. With (for instance) the increased popularity and availability of the camera, painters no longer needed to strive to perfectly reproduce reality. Instead they started to ponder the exact nature of this reality. They revisited that age old ontological conundrum that had taken Plato to his imaginary caves — what, if anything, is the essence of something? Picasso famously painted a violin from all angles simultaneously, which created a distorted image, but one still recognisable as a violin. In literature, the omniscient narrator and linear narrative were abandoned in favour of stream-of-consciousness and fragmented narrative, traditionally interpreted a reactions to the the totalitarian discourses and blind belief in progress that had led to both world wars.

Unsurprisingly, many people became wary of panoptic narratives with such an unwavering faith in their authority, and which caused so much pain and destruction in Europe. Modernism, then, is about the rejection of this authority. Modernists do not share the teleological views of history popularly associated with their predecessors, the Victorians. The two world wars put a dent in the the idea that humanity is progressing, that it has a final destiny towards which it has been advancing (‘telos’ being ‘end’ or ‘purpose’). Postmodernism is not particularly fond of grandiose statements either and, like Modernism, it is also characterised by fragmentation. The difference lies in how they approach this SHATTERED EXISTENTIAL MIRROR. Modernism traditionally laments the loss of this age of innocence in esoteric elegies about waste lands whilst Postmodernism famously celebrates this fragmentation through ironic pastiches and meta-patchworks of intertextuality set to groovy soundtracks. Basically, Postmodernists like Tarantino films and Tumblr, with its assorted quotations, random fonts, existential Instagrams and amusing gifs. What this definition tells us is that Postmodernism has really good PR. Any undergraduate who has trudged through the compulsory Critical Theory module will tell you that Baudrillard & co are not precisely happy chappies when they postulate the loss of objectivity, fixed meaning, and even reality in magnificently obscure sentences that sometimes undermine the most basic premises of grammar. They fill their intentionally playful and ambiguous prose with an irresistible intertextual insouciance. Apparently. (???)

Modernism, on the other hand, lacks such professional PR, partly because everybody involved is kicking up the daisies in Elliot’s wasteland, and can no longer defend themselves. Also, partly because everybody of my generation had to read Mrs Dalloway at school, a book that contains a disappointingly low number of ninjas and a complete lack of 70s blaxploitation musical references. The classic stereotype of the Modernist woman is of course Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide, and is hailed as part of the literary canon. But Modernists, particularly female, were not all as despondent as this portrayal. Many women were rather excited about the emancipatory possibilities that industrialisation brought. And as devastating as the two armed conflicts were, the absence of men meant that women had to replace them in factories, hospital wards, offices, even in the streets as bus drivers, as well as other public spaces normally reserved to men (they were sent packing back to their domestic spheres after the war, but the seed had been planted).

So things are not as simple as they seem. I want to finish this post with the classic ‘it’s complicated’, which is a rather fittingly postmodern end to this unfocused rant. I will, of course, describe my argument as ‘fluid’. Postmodernism - whatever it is - has claimed a monopoly on ambiguity. And yes, the irony is not lost on me. Ambiguity, together with subversion, seems to be one of its most frequent escorts whenever Postmodernism puts its ironic hat on and goes for a spin round the cultural landscape. Perhaps that is the reason why I have developed a dislike for Postmodernism — because it is so omniscient and at same time nobody can explain exactly what it is. A bit like gravity really. When it comes to gravity, few people gripe about the impossibility of escaping the laws of physics. But can we escape the Postmodern condition? Are we all Postmodern now? This was the question posed at the recent V&A retrospective, as we left the exhibition to the sound of New Order. What a fatuous thing to ask. Is this meant to be food for thought, something to ponder on the way back home? Of course we are all Postmodern now. And post-Renaissance, and post-Enlightenment, and post-Industrial Revolution, and post-Victorian and post-Capitalist and first-past-the-post and any other post you care to think about. It is all part of our cultural DNA.

Postmodernism has just made us hyperaware of the hybrid nature of our culture, that we are all assembled from the different discourses and ideologies that we have inherited and picked up along our trajectory. Just as it is difficult in this post-Freudian era to analyse our actions without resorting to the language of psychoanalysis, Postmodernism has simply given us a new vocabulary with which to articulate our experiences and preoccupations. Some are specific to our time and the moral dilemmas and problematic developments that advancement brings, such as cloning, or the internet. Other are age-old longings revisited, like the yearn for authenticity and distinction, now threatened by new technologies that can easily and cheaply reproduce anything, from an image to an expensive leather bag. All movements and cultural expressions have attempted to conceptualise and give voice to cultural neurosis and anxieties (in a post-Freudian era _everything_ is an anxiety). This is not new to Postmodernism. I’m still not sure if  Postmodernism isn’t just Modernism in drag.

It’s complicated.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to Speak and Write Postmodern

First, you need to remember that plainly expressed language is out of the question. It is too realist, modernist and obvious. Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and indeterminacy as critical techniques to point this out. Often this is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a well-acknowledged substitute. For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us.” This is honest but dull. Take the word “views.” Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices,” or better, “vocalities,” or even better, “multivocalities.” Add an adjective like “intertextual,” and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentrism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).

Finally “affect us” sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like “mediate our identities.” So, the final statement should say, “We should listen to the intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities.” Now you’re talking postmodern!

Stephen Katz, How to Speak and Write Postmodern

Friday, April 2, 2010

Feminism and the Welfare State in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Gothic

The Economist recently featured an article on Scandinavian crime fiction, and true to its penchant for punning, entitled it “Inspector Norse”. Yet Nordic writers have - with the exception of Ian Rankin - far surpassed their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in recent years - and Inspector Rebus is not even English. Murder, it seems, thrives in cold climates. Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and Henning Mankell’s laconic Wallander are its best known archetypes, yet northern writers have been toiling for years with a characteristic Lutheran work ethic to create a veritable smorgarsbord of sublime landscape, murder and decay. Gothic might have had a renaissance with Stephanie Meyer’s vapid and toothless Twilight series, yet Nordic writers show us that Gothic can still be a subversive force - that it, to follow the pun, still has a bite. 

Now, most people will automatically associate the Gothic with vampires, abandoned castles and other legendary monsters. True, these are some of its most widely-recognised tropes, yet Gothic literature has always concerned itself with the the human condition and interior terrors, about the exploration of the monstrous self. Edgar Allan Poe, his macabre tales a staple of Halloween, more or less creates the detective story with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue (although others give the honour to E.T.A Hoffman’s exquisitely Gothic Das Fraülein von Scuderi, published 22 years earlier in 1819). The murder history is thus firmly cemented in the Gothic tradition and has never looked back, constantly reinventing itself, from Sherlock Holmes’ London to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And now Scandinavia. Sweden and Norway, with their epic yet desolate nature, their short days and long nights and their people “brought up to hide their feelings”, according the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, provide the perfect ingredients for a whodunnit. 

Scandinavian crime fiction is no Cluedo - it contains a veritable fjord of social criticism and discontent. True once again to their Gothic roots, these boreal narratives are too drawn to decadence, to the destructive undercurrents lurking underneath civilisation. If fin-de-siècle Victorians were fretting about social unrest and the fissures showing in their vast empire, Nordic writers show us the misfits, the ones the Welfare State left out. Their stories are populated with ostracised characters, sometimes in self-imposed exile, living at the margins of these seemingly harmonious societies. They hold up a mirror and show the cracks in the social experiment. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, protagonist of the Millenium trilogy, with her borderline autism and fiercely individual - and often questionable - ethics, sticks out like a sore thumb in a society that values integration above all. She is the Elephant Man of the Welfare Society. A ferociously intelligent sociopath, Larsson’s heroine is like an updated and twisted version of Sherlock Holmes, more faithful to modern times, and omnisexual rather asexual. 

Lisbeth Salander is (technically) a woman, and she is not the only female protagonist in Nordic thrillers. In fact, women abound in these tales, and its seems that female writers are drawn to this genre too.  Gothic, in its original inception, attracted both female and male authorship.  One of its pioneers was the professional writer Ann Radcliffe, and the genre was known to have a strong female following as parodied in Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen’s satire shows that these tales of gloomth were not placed on the literary pedestal, particularly when produced by women. Often at the margins of the canon, many of these works have since been reevaluated, and I am also pleased that many of their female contemporaries have had their literary efforts recognized. Just as Gothic was in its time, crime fiction remains a second-rate genre to many members of the cultural intelligentsia, the Booker Prize mafia.

In the past, female writers used Gothic motives in their narratives to bypass patriarchal censure and thus express the unexpressable. Not content with with the limited representations offered to them as women, they attempt to go beyond the madonna/harlot dichotomy by subverting the femme-fatale stereotype, narrating events from a seemingly neutral male viewpoint, by reversing roles, making the male protagonist the hysterical figure, or by resorting to Gothic archetype of the Doppelganger to highlight their own fragmented subjectivity. Through vampires and other monsters, they attempted to explore their sexuality and other taboo subjects. In her short story, La mujer fría (The Cold Woman), the 19th century Spanish writer Carmen de Burgos gives us a covert critical response to the passive vestal blonde inevitably falling prey to a satanic lover, a common male trope that resurged in popularity during the Belle Époque. It attacks the seemingly morbid male fascination with beautiful anaemic, almost ghostly, women, when it is revealed that the pearly alluring blonde is actually a living corpse. Camilla Läckberg’s 2003 novel Isprinsessan (The Ice Princess) opens with a blonde woman dead and covered in ice, the narrator clearly fascinated with her arctic beauty and blue-tinged lips.

Although contemporary female writers suffer less censure than their predecessors, and thus have less need to conceal their message, they remind us that inequality and prejudice have not completely vanished - not even in seemingly enlightened Scandinavian societies. Not only must they solve a mystery, these female investigators must also confront chauvinistic colleagues and console partners unable to understand their career choice. Crime fiction is not only a perfect platform for social criticism, but also shows that feminism is very much alive and thriving despite the tiresome buzz surrounding so-called postfeminism. Anyone who declares themselves a postfeminist should be bitch-slapped. Long live Scandinavian crime fiction.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Classics, Revised

J.D. Sallinger passed away last week, and his demise led to the usual flurry of knee-jerk tributes and in memoriams. I too noted his death by posting one of my favourite quotes as my Facebook status, not precisely an obituary and perhaps a tad phony but well-intentioned nevertheless. This led to a brief exchange with a couple of friends, who just didn’t get Catcher in the Rye and failed to see why it was deemed such a classic. I argued my point, of course, Salinger’s novel is the original and only teen angst novel, a book so influential that it spawned thousands of copies, although none contains the dark humour and the pure and unadulterated dialogue that made Catcher so memorable. Just as you can’t blame Radiohead for the miserable maelstrom of Livejournals that their Creep unleashed.

But the literary canon, to which Salinger’s novel belongs, is not set in stone, and neither is it the ultimate word in good taste. The emergence of literary criticism has led to a revision of this previously static list, as Feminism, Post Colonialism, Queer Studies and New Historicism have added formerly censored and often neglected voices to the canon, originally a product of a Eurocentric patriarchal society. This is a positive development. How could it not be? Anything that adds wealth and nuance to the debate should be encouraged. Our cultural landscape should be a veritable polyphony, a cacophony of often contradictory views as befits a healthy democracy. However, a brief glimpse at recent Booker Prize nominees might give the impression that one ideology has supplanted all others. It seems that the cultural intelligentsia has taken postmodernism and distilled it to its worst pretentious essence. Nowadays, novels containing something as conventional as a ‘plot’ are frowned upon. Instead, shortlisted books tend be afflicted by the  Existential malaise. Symptoms include a complete lack of structure that reflects life’s insufferable randomness, perpetual navel gazing caused by life’s insufferable randomness and people breaking sexual boundaries as a reaction to life’s insufferable randomness. Of course, only people belonging to the upper and middle classes are perceptive enough to spot this, and like H.C. Andersen’s princess they can feel life’s insufferable randomness through a hundred mattresses.

This brings me to Samuel Beckett and his insufferably tedious Waiting for Godot, the original existential drag responsible for the godawful smorgasbord of self-misery that has been on offer ever since. Some might point out that Marcel Proust might be the man to blame for this current narrative void, after all his In Search of Lost Time is famous for being rather non-eventful. But like Salinger, I kinda like him. Also, unlike Becket, he actually wrote his novel in French because he was French, and not because he wanted an added Existential dimension to his oeuvre that could not be achieved by chain-smoking Gauloises and staring intensely into the emptiness. Waiting for Godot or whatever its title is in the original language is therefore my top most hated over-hyped ‘classic’ followed closely, and in no particular order, by:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera: This is post-modernism at its worst, what I label as Existential onanism. An orgy of nothingness with obscene amounts of emptiness. A non-existent story on the uneventful lives of three particularly whiny members of the chattering classes, whose shallowness is somehow made meaningful by dropping the Prague Spring in the background. As if they could give a monkey’s.

Adam Bede, by George Eliot: The story, a showcase of staid Victorian morality, is quite bad in itself: flirty milkmaid meets downfall after seduction by country squire (I say, you’re a most becoming wench!) But this is the golden age of the omniscient narrator of course. Consequently, and to castigate the poor reader even further, if that’s possible (and George Elliot shows us it is possible), we are treated every four chapters or so to an interlude in which we are patronised to death by essays on rural topography, rural agriculture, rural infrastructure. Having to read it as part of my degree, I actually skipped all these tiresome digressions and looked them up on wikipedia instead.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens: Yeah, I know, I’m attacking the bearded dude that was on the 10 pound note until he was replaced by Darwin (presumably Darwin was fitter). This is probably sacrilege and they might not let me through immigration next time I visit their little island. Great Expectations is a wonderful book but sometimes Dickens is like that uncle of yours, the born raconteur, who just won’t shut up after too much sherry. This is how The Pickwick Papers often feels; after a couple of amusing stories, it descends into a increasingly indulgent rambling monologue. Anyway, I always preferred Wilkie Collins.

A true classic - mostly written through an opium haze, like most classics should be.