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.