Postmodernism: Postmortem

A revolutionary aesthetic has disappeared. Did anyone care (or even notice)?

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Photo by Matt Hearne on Unsplash

I spent about an hour looking, but try as I might I could only identify a small handful of sessions at the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual convention in Seattle in 2020 that dared to advertise themselves using some variant of the word “postmodernism.”

The MLA describes its annual convention as “the largest scholarly meeting in the humanities,” a conference that brings together “thousands of members to discuss new research, participate in workshops, and build their professional networks.”

This lack of interest in postmodernism did not disappoint me. Far from it.

For years, I‘ve taken great satisfaction in watching scholars announce “the end of postmodernism” or the “death of postmodernism.” To see only those very few references to a concept that was once all the rage at the MLA conference signifies, to me, great forward progress.

Interestingly enough, my search of the MLA 2020 conference program also found dozens of sessions that were focused on the topic of “modernism” — i.e., that movement that supposedly preceded “postmodernism” — revealing that a robust academic dialogue continues around this topic.

Isn’t it curious, one may wonder, why so little interest exists in a recent artistic period when compared with another earlier period? Imagine historians continuing to debate and discuss World War 2 and its precipitating events while ignoring the entire Cold War era that followed it!

The bottom line, I think, is that academics in the humanities have for a long time tried to make postmodernism go away, but nobody could figure out how to disappear it completely or decide what came after it.

I argue that what is needed — and what will not happen, at least not for a long time, because so many PhDs are still invested — is a resounding rejection of postmodernism by the academy, an exposure of all things postmodern as an intellectual dead-end of embarrassing proportions.

Like Alice, academics pursued a small furry animal down the rabbit hole. When will they wake up and realize that, in the end, it was all just a dream?

I Took a Class on Postmodernism and Here’s What I learned

Postmodernism was never really a thing to begin with.

The first red flag is that you will find no single definition for postmodernism, no way that one can take a class on postmodernism — as I did, at the graduate level and with a well-regarded scholar in the field — and yet feel comfortably informed that one has encountered a real phenomenon.

As many authors point out, one must first be careful about whether one is referring to “literary” postmodernism, “architectural” postmodernism, or some other type of postmodernism, since the different arts supposedly exhibit postmodernism in different ways.

Even if one is specifically talking about literary postmodernism, although the period that began in the late 1960s and ended in the 1990s produced thousands of academic discussions and treatises trying to define terms like postmodern, postmodernity, and postmodernism, there was never anything resembling an approximate agreement before it all just went away.

The confusion more or less began in 1967 when American novelist John Barth penned his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which according to Wikipedia is “sometimes considered to be the manifesto of postmodernism.”

In this essay, Barth set the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges on a pedestal while lamenting the “used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities” in much of the contemporary literary world.

The term postmodern came into wider use in the late 1960s and early 1970s in reference to… well, pretty much anything that seemed fresh, new, and experimental. A postmodern canon was developed, and much haggling erupted over who was “in” and who was “out.” Academics, some of them also postmodern authors like Barth, complained about the use of the term postmodernism even then, arguing that it was a bad characterization that by definition could only be understood in relationship to something else (i.e., modernism).

In his experimental 1975 essay “POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography,” literary theorist and writer Ihab Hassan, who for awhile led the postmodern charge, attempted to define postmodernism as a sort of feeling, a fear about the unknown future and a reaction to the potential nuclear obliteration of the Cold War era.

Then, in 1979, French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard posited that postmodernism could be understood as an “incredulity towards metanarratives” such as those used by religions and governments to help maintain control over society.

In the 1980s you had Barth, Umberto Eco, and others describing literary postmodernism as a type of writing that used traditional forms in ironic or displaced ways to critique or play with existing themes.

Charles Jenks elaborated on this approach in a 1985 paper by defining postmodernism as a “paradoxical dualism, or double coding… the continuation of modernism in its ultra-exaggerated form.”

And in the 1990s, scholar Brian McHale came to understand postmodernism as something akin to a critique of reality itself, a recognition of subjectivity and relativism in story-telling that is most concerned with the source or context of knowledge.

Many definitions, many discussions. No agreement.

Though many of these materials are thought-provoking (if you like that sort of thing), I did find something in Lyotard’s work especially that helped clarify the whole mess for me.

In his essay “Answer to the Question: What is Postmodern?” Lyotard describes postmodernism as something like the bleeding edge, the tip of the spear of modernism, suggesting that everything new is postmodern until it becomes old, at which point it becomes just simply modern. This dovetails neatly with the Jenks description of postmodernism as a “continuation of modernism.”

While it is helpful to try connecting the two movements together, modernism and postmodernism, it still brings us back, again, to the central problem that has been recognized for decades: that one needs to understand and agree on a definition for modernism before one can do the same for postmodernism.

And this is when we encounter an even more serious problem: as one can guess from the lively ongoing discussion of modernism at the most recent MLA conference, it quickly becomes apparent that academia still cannot agree on what modernism was.

I Also Took a Class on Modernism

Traditionally, modernism has been described as a period of great artistic experimentation that began around the turn of the century and ended around World War II. Conceptual movements such as Minimalism, Dadaism, Futurism, Expressionism, Impressionism, etc., all fell under the modernist umbrella and broadly sought to create new forms of art and new philosophies.

To understand how revolutionary the modernist aesthetic was, all you have to do is go to an art gallery and peruse the pre-modern wings. You will find pre-modern art almost exclusively aspiring to realism — portraits, landscapes, still-lives, and the perennial images of mythic and biblical scenery. What’s missing is the abstraction, the chaos, the mixed media, that we know of “art” today. Before modernism, you couldn’t look at a painting and say, “well my 5 year old could do that.” The skill and technical proficiency was always evident even if the subject matter was boring. And yet after modernism the skill, the proficiency, was still evident sometimes, but what often mattered more was the concept or feeling behind the artwork.

Like postmodernism, modernism is thought by scholars to have manifested differently in the various artistic disciplines so that one may choose to specify whether one is referring to literary modernism, architectural modernism, or modernism in the visual arts.

While for most of the second half of the 20th century the academy saw literary modernism as inhabiting a relatively fixed period in time from the early 1900s to around 1940, scholars are now furiously revising their interpretation of modernism to encompass a longer period of time stretching back into the 1800s (the so-called “long modern view”) as well as identifying a multiplicity of new themes and defining characteristics.

But all of this rethinking, recontextualizing, and reimagining of modernism has been performed without regard to how our understanding of postmodernism would be affected.

And as pointed out by Susan Stanford Friedman, professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in her experimental 2001 essay “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism,” the academy has been studying modernism in such depth that it has now assigned to modernism not merely different definitions but totally opposite definitions.

To illustrate the paradoxes presented by the various definitions of modernism, Professor Friedman juxtaposes a quote from a 1976 text entitled Modernism, 1890–1930 (“Modernism… is the one art that responds to the scenario of our chaos”) with a quote from the 1994 text Space, Time and Modernity (“Who says modernity says organization”).

Friedman also cites a definition provided in a 1991 text called Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism in which modernist form supposedly exhibits “fragmentation,” “paradox, ambiguity, and uncertainty,” and “the demise of the integrated or unified subject.” This is juxtaposed with a table from Ihab Hassan’s 1992 book The Dismemberment of Orpheus; the table assigns to modernism the complete opposite qualities of “purpose,” “design,” and “totalization/synthesis” and describes postmodernism as having the qualities that Rich and Strange seems to assign to modernism.

In attempting to explain why these contradictions — “definitional dissonance” she calls it — exist, Friedman borrows a made-up word from American poet Amiri Baraka and, in typically modern style (or is it postmodern style?) refers to this problem as a “BangClash.”

But instead of concluding what seems truly obvious, which is that the existence of opposite definitions signifies that the phenomenon does not actually exist (or has been improperly scoped), the best Friedman can offer to untangle this definitional dissonance is to fall back on a kind of code, declaring that the BangClash “must be confronted directly.”

Rather than coming to a resonant conclusion, a summing-up that allows us to look up from the essay and feel that an important synthesis has been performed, this conclusion resembles the classic “I have no idea how to end this story” ending, the fallback onto a weird or mysterious image (or the cliché: “it was all just a dream”).

And I cannot help remark on the passive voice Friedman uses in her admonition to “confront” the BangClash “directly.”

Who, if not Friedman and her colleagues, will confront this BangClash?

The use of passive voice makes it seem as though someone other than a bunch of professors and PhD aspirants really give a damn about the BangClash, and that just isn’t really the case.

Let me go, then, where Professor Friedman could not go.

Let me give you the honest truth.

Confronting the BangClash Directly

All this analysis and writing and thinking and rethinking creates a sort of hypnosis among graduate and undergraduate students. The implication, the subtext of all this activity, is that by learning to perform the correct mental gymnastics with respect to modernism and postmodernism, one can finally make sense of what happened with literature in the 20th century — or at least learn how to talk as if one understands.

But this is a mirage that dissipates the closer one looks at it.

Because while the academy cannot seem to agree on definitions of modernism and postmodernism or even solidify what characteristics distinguish these two supposed movements, what is clear from studying both movements is that while the former was grounded in a real time and space when it was happening, the latter was not.

There was no clearly agreed-upon postmodernist manifesto as there was for many of the modernist waves (e.g., Futurism); postmodernists did not agree on what their work was about or what made it different from the modernists; there was no core postmodernist group in the way that the modernists had Paris, with both writers and visual artists such as Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Matisse intermingling and sharing their experiments and ideas.

Although some writers self-identified as “postmodernists,” many of these writers were also academics like Barth. Other writers were labeled “postmodernist” without ever really caring about what that meant while still others, like David Foster Wallace, explicitly rejected the label.

In reality, postmodernism began artificially in the academy instead of organically out in the world, and the discussion about postmodernism quickly evolved into a way for academics to write about whatever most concerned them, which typically was a fear of the future, a confusion about the direction of literature, a hatred of capitalism, and a frustration with the dominant canon of white men.

When seen in this light, postmodernism appears to be most like a discourse, a space to enter when talking about contemporary literature, rather than a set of characteristics that can actually describe a real phenomenon. It reminds me of the way Kafka’s priest character describes the oppressive, mysterious court in The Trial: “The court doesn’t want anything from you. It accepts you when you come and it lets you go when you leave.”

From quantum physics we learn that the observer affects the observation. That’s fair enough. But I’m struck by the sense that with postmodernism, the academy has decided that the observer is all that matters, and that the phenomenon itself is largely irrelevant.

The simplest explanation, I believe, is the best — that in line with some of the observations made by Jenks and Lyotard, modernism never really ended.

There have been numerous styles and movements during the postwar era, including Maximalism, which can describe the style of celebrated “postmodern” writers such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, but we are still under the sway of all the same forces of technological innovation that began squeezing artists toward modernity in the mid-to-late 1800s and therefore we are, for the foreseeable future, modernists.

What enrages me about my explanation is that I know it’s too simple for the academy.

PhDs and the few tenure-track positions remaining in academia are awarded based on the ability to problematize, to write a paper whose sole conclusion is “more research is needed.”

Rather than just stating the obvious, which is that technological advancements such as the typewriter and the tape deck have combined with greater cultural intermingling thanks to rapid transportation and communication, and that we can basically call this modernity and move on, the humanities has adventured down an endless rabbit hole, creating numerous opportunities for scholars to write and talk about whatever the hell they wanted as long as they suggested they were writing about postmodernity in some way.

Thus, in perhaps one of the only opportunities the humanities has had to develop a common understanding of criteria against which to judge fresh literature and discover how it reflects the human condition as transformed by advancements in technology, the humanities has gotten tripped up and is now running around in circles trying to figure out what comes after something that wasn’t ever really a thing to begin with.

How has this endless research into modernism and postmodernism benefited the humanities and its brightest minds? How has it benefited readers and the general public?

Starting in the mid-1800s, technological progress led to dramatic artistic innovation in literature, and this was the beginning of modernism.

Literary postmodernism is a chimera, something the academy invented to keep itself sustained.

We are modern.

We always were modern.

And if you disagree with me, then consider this: that only a fool would think “modern” means something other than “today”; the academy, the Ivory Tower, is the only place in the world where modern means yesterday.

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

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