The post-postmodern dilemma
Postmodernism is no more. It may amuse you to know I am already a laggard with this observation, to know that postmodernism had been pronounced démodé by a handful of cultural critics even as far back as the early nineties. Admittedly those pallbearers may have been ahead of their time, but certainly around the turn of the millennium such pronouncements were assuming the gravitas of truth; by the late 2000s they were reaching a crescendo for those who wished to hear.
It seems clear when thought is devoted to the subject, and the only surprise now is that so many who work in or are concerned with contemporary culture are apparently ignorant of the fact and continue to reference our recently expired era as if it were still the vital force it once was. These are no small matters, so please allow me this indulgence to more forcefully add my voice to what will, over the next few years, surely become a torrent of proclamations: although its legacy is part of our cultural heritage and collective psyche, the postmodern moment has passed and we are now living in a new era, as yet undefined.
As many are unfortunately so wont to do, we cannot carve up time into neat little bundles nor draw lines in history: we cannot proclaim the beginning of this era or the end of that one based on single historical events or moments in space and time. We cannot say, for example, that modernism began in 1863 when Édouard Manet painted his Olympia (or in 1865 when it provoked outrage when exhibited at the Paris Art Salon), or that it began in 1857 with the publication of Charles Baudelaire’s scandal-plagued Les Fleur du Mal or with his 1863 essay “The painter of modern life”, or with the 1850–70 rebuilding of Paris to become what has been hailed as the forerunner of the truly modern city. No, modernism began with all of these and much more, gathering pace and a critical mass as the fin de siècle approached.
A century later, as modernism gradually gave way to the new “postmodern” aesthetic over a period spanning perhaps as many years as twenty, roughly 1960 to 1980, so it was with postmodernism’s demise: there was a gradual waning of its allure and influence through the nineties that became palpable by the end of the twentieth century. And that was among those who accepted its aesthetic and
intellectual currents, its sensibilities and identity, as valid. There are those whose opinions must be respected – Terry Eagleton and Noam Chomsky spring to mind – who say it was, all along, a spectre, a monumental confidence trick, a joke.
Bestowing a symbolic finality on any argument, and perhaps with a dash of trademark postmodernist irony, we then bore witness to the passing of three of the theoretical lions of postmodernism: Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard departed us in 1998, 2004 and 2007 respectively, to sighs of relief and backhanded obituaries as well as outpourings of grief. A few years later, in 2011, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition entitled Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990. That’s right, a retrospective that dated postmodernism more than twenty years in the past. (An aside: whatever profound statement the V&A’s curators were making, the years assigned to the era remain a fine example of the arbitrary delineation of time.)
Surely it now comes as no surprise that a race has begun among philosophers and cultural commentators to follow in the footsteps of the theorists and critics of the seventies; just as Charles Jencks and Lyotard, among others, pressed “postmodern architecture” and “the postmodern condition” into widespread consciousness, we see a growing number of terms competing for the honour by which our contemporary post-postmodern era will be known. There is as yet no consensus. More intriguingly, it’s feasible there will be none, which is perhaps as much a sign of the new era as anything else.
So, a certain confusion prevails. What else might be a sign of our new epoch? If eras cannot be clinically delineated, perhaps then they might be cyclical. Allow me to pursue this for a moment: “cyclical”. If postmodernism represented an era of ironical, even cynical rebellion against modernism’s grand narratives and optimism, if it represented an era of deconstruction and outright demolition, then perhaps the era that has replaced it represents a swinging of the pendulum back to a more optimistic, take-the-bull-by-the-horns (re-)constructive approach to the economic, political, social and cultural malaises in which we find ourselves mired. But a return to modernism’s mood of anything-is-possible euphoria? I doubt it. I for one, prone to melancholy as regular readers might know, am not that optimistic.
What now ensnares us is a spiralling
social and cultural fragmentation and the
commercialisation of that fragmentation.