An article in Prospect Magazine (UK) declares “Postmodernism is dead,” and then attempts to discern what cultural trend, or philosophical modes comes after.
This topic is of particular interest to me, the question of what comes next was largely the impetus for starting this blog. It is very clear that postmodernism isn’t dead, just like modernism or classicism aren’t dead either. People will continue to produce postmodern works or take postmodern approaches to understanding culture, just like they continue to do in the mode of modernism or any other -ism.
What is changing is that postmodernism will no longer be the dominant form. The new dominant form is emerging.
But what has happened over the past decade is that postmodernism became, well, obvious. Irony saturated everything, the questioning of all beliefs and narratives became the default posture. We all came to accept that identity is something constructed, and we even embrace new tools like blogs, Facebook, and the internet that allow us not only to construct that identity with great ease efficiency but also to project it to the world in ever more refined iterations.
At some point, however, it stopped working. It stopped being relevant. Or maybe people just got tired of it. At some point the response to the postmodern itself became “Whatever…” Maybe we saw that everyone could do it, or because we felt at some level it was superficial semiotic play. Postmodern works became almost self-deconstructing, and appreciation of culture devolved into nothing more than solving puzzles by following clues left deliberately by authors. Or maybe it was a heightened sense of reality after 9-11, or maybe the Great Recession makes the cultural pastiche central to postmodern culture seem trite. Or maybe it’s simply exhausted.
Postmodernism isn’t dead, but it is no longer the vanguard. Then what is? What comes next? What are it’s characteristics, its defining features? What does it conspicuously lack, and conspicuously have?
The answer is usually a variation of the one in this article. What comes next is something more authentic, more sincere, more earnest, less ironic, less sarcastic. Those are characteristics of it, but to define it as generally as that seems incomplete.
The best way I can describe what I think comes next, in light of postmodernism, is the death of cool. The detachment and aloofness that defined cool are no longer palatable to younger generations. “Whatever,” followed by some glib deconstruction of motives, intent, and meaning, is no longer an acceptable response to an idea or question. Deconstruction is no longer an excuse for inaction or withdrawal.
Now the preferred response seems to be “I know you can’t trust it, I know you can’t be sure, but still…”
Postmodernism began in architecture, or perhaps a better way to say it is that the postmodern attack on modernism began in architecture. From there it spread throughout society until making its way into politics during the Generation X’s political awakening. But the current social condition, namely the recession and the uninspiring future it portends, is felt most acutely by younger generations for whom the well-worn life paths walked by older generations are no longer reliable, or even exist. In light of this, it makes more sense to look to the cultural output they themselves produce, consume or are influenced by.
After giving this some thought, I think whatever comes next is going to start in music. And it is in music that we find a very succinct response to postmodernism:
Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Well, some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
I said some things are pure, and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
So young, so young
So much pain for someone so young
Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
-“Month of May” by Arcade Fire
What matters is not that the lyrics themselves directly question the hipster/GenX detachment, messages like that have been around for decades. But they were presented as alternatives to the postmodern worldview, consequently never very popular (certainly not as popular as the ones from a postmodern point of view). But now that has changed. Messages like those expressed in the lyrics of this Arcade Fire song are becoming much more popular and much more common. And unlike the past, this worldview is not presented as alternative to postmodernism, but as a response to it.
In the new cultural environment, postmodernism with all its detachment and deconstruction, are taken as the default condition to which it responds. “Well, some things are pure and some things are right.” That reads like a rejection of postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives. And the response of the new generation to that default condition is similar to the response their grandfather would give: “How are you going to lift it with your arms folded tight?” You have to lift it, for all values of “you” and “it”, because no one else will. It’s a cliche that the younger generation rejects it’s parents’ generation, but rarely do they reach back to their grandparents or great-grandparents generation for inspiration.
I think this message, of becoming engaged in something requiring effort, patience and skill; of pulling together in hard times; and of making attachments to others rather than affecting a cool detachment from them are all hallmarks of the Next Big “-ism”. It is impossible to say what shape it will take because it is now in flux, but these kinds of messages seem to be the ones that resonate with the public.
Of course, the postmodern response to this song (and this article) would be to deconstruct it, to point out that if I’m listening to it, it’s for me (a member of Generation X). A postmodern response would identify the underlying power structures that made the song’s popularity possible, that a record label of older GenX-ers and even Boomers released Arcade Fire’s album, that it was promoted through large corporations, and media companies for the purpose of turning a profit etc. That the band and the album simply capitalize on the economic fear and uncertainty to deliver a message that will make them feel better, or hopeful. The postmodern response would point out that the band’s identity is no less constructed that any from a generation ago, only it is constructed in the hipster, faux-1930’s through 1950’s style.
And my response would be, that’s true, but still…