Postmodern Irritation 25 April 2006Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
When I was an undergrad, I was completely taken with postmodernism, both its theories and its aesthetics. Now I find myself merely furrowing my brow and hrrmphing whenever I encounter it. Because I've been teaching Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 in my American cultural history course, I've been revisiting both what I used to love and what I now despise about postmodernism. Sometime after I completed my master's thesis, I realized that I no longer found postmodern theories to be of much help in conducting research or making sense of the world I lived in (with perhaps the notable exception of Michel Foucault, but I also run out of patience with the old french leather queen, too).
For my doctoral exams, I read David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change and found myself understanding better the relationship between the social and economic transformations of the post-war era and why that would lead philosophers and artists down the postmodern path. Harvey's casting of postmodernism as an aesthetic reaction to real-world contexts resonnated with what I'd been feeling and studying at the time and especially with my own meta-theory of culture.
Harvey sees postmodernism as a "structure of feeling" arising out of the post-Fordist, post-Holocaust, atomic bomb world, a new and transformed way of dealing with the alienation and uncertainty of modernity. Modernity is usually defined by social scientists as the period marked by the rise of industrial capitalism and all the social transformations that took place to accommodate the new mode of production and distribution of goods, including bureacratization of daily life, world-wide migration and imperialism, consumerism and advertising, etc. We know historically that the social and cultural effects of this transformation were massive and swift. Postmodernity, for Harvey, is a continuation and modification of the processes of modernity begun in the mid-19th century, with the loss of the labor movement, exportation of manufacturing, hyper-surveillance in every aspect of life, widening bureaucratization, etc., punctuated by the horrors of the holocaust and the atomic bomb. Postmodernity compared to modernity, then, is a difference of scale and scope, but not a difference of kind.
The difference between modernism (the aesthetics arising out of modernity) and postmodernism (the aesthetics arising out of postmodernity) is that postmodernism embraces the alienation, uncertainty, and fragmentation caused by the upheavals of modernity, often even celebrating it with irony and winking asides; whereas modernism struggled against the alienation, seeking to find meaning and reshape values from within the transformed and destabilized social and cultural environment. The postmodernists rejected the modernist search for 'truth' or 'reality' or more importantly for 'justice' and 'authenticity,' seeing such a search as a useless pursuit without an end.
The general attitude that there is nothing to do with alientation but revel in it has emerged as a lasting effect of postmodernity (the social conditions). My students find alienation to be "normal" and the only real question they ask is about their ability to consumer and/or their access to goods. They get really agitated when I ask them to make value judgments and argue moral positions, because they begin with the assumption that all values are merely fragments of meaning arising out of particular and highly individual experiences. Meaning is so localized that there is no meaning. Postmodernism has taken the lessons of modernism (that truths are socially constructed) and jumped into the abyss, misunderstanding the actual embodied social processes that 'construct' the truths they eschew.
Because postmodernisms rejects all rules as being "foundationless foundations", in the arts and humanities, artists produce art where form (the mixing of forms, the process of producing the art itself) takes precedence over the meaning. Indeed, form becomes an end in itself in postmodern art, rather than a means to an end (the consumatory experience of art). The consumatory experience of postmodern art lies in understanding its form, or more precisely, in "getting it." Getting it is so key that if you don't like it or if you want to argue with its premises, you are usually rebuffed with the phrase, "You just don't get it." Much like a religious movement, it is hard to convince a postmodernist that you do in fact get it but just think it's bullshit.
On the other hand, postmodern art has and sometimes still does thrill me. There is something exciting about "getting it", being in the know, catching all the winking in-jokes. The form of postmodern art is mostly about the pastiche of other forms and images, so getting it can sometimes take some work. Re-reading the Pynchon this past weekend has reminded me what I like about postmodern art: it's playfulness and cleverness and its deep irony. Despite myself, I have laughed deep guffawing belly laughs all the way through the short novel. But as I finished it last night, I came up feeling empty, because like most postmodern works, its falls back in on itself. Its only meaning is its own cleverness and its eshewal of all meaning. And so after a few laughs, I find myself wondering why I bothered. Pynchon is a virtuoso of language and cultural signs, but the work ultimately amounts to nothing more than a light confection, a cotton candy that was so much work to eat, it wasn't worth the miniscule and tasteless sweetness left in your mouth once you got it in there. As with Oakland, there is no there there.