One inquiry I cannot escape is "What is Postmodernism?" and indeed my own ambivalence toward the question extends back to an aesthetics seminar in which I was somehow volunteered to explain postmodernism to the class, without preparation, and rendered somewhat embarrassed by my immediate reaction: stating that there was no such thing. In the meantime, I have taken to using the term, in this column and elsewhere, in a particular way, and am naturally asked what it is. I want to begin by suggesting that, if it is anything, it is the convoluted introversion illustrated by the thought processes underpinning the constructions of the sentences in this paragraph. If I am to be truly postmodern here, I would hardly wish to suggest that there is a thing, or anything behind the discourse itself which implicates postmodernism structurally, other than that other words simply surround it. In short, one does not describe postmodernism, one circumscribes it, because it has no existence on its own. It is context only, and context without reference to anything more concrete than more context. The philosophical implication is that this is how our world, or at least art, is perceived and that any extrapolation to underlying structure is not more meaningful but rather less meaningful due to being at least once removed from the phenomenon itself.
While it might seem depressing and absurd, the suggestion of discourse as the basic stuff of reality is a reaction to solipsism and actually an outlet which reinvests "reality" as a shared construction, if only superficially. Postmodernism is about text and that point cannot be stressed strongly enough. The implications of postmodern philosophy on the creation of history have been enormous. Fundamentally, the ideas of "composer's intent" as an actor and the manuscript as a "text" with an individual identity are derived from it. This is a case of an aesthetic philosophy on literary criticism conditioning an unprecedented historicism which in turn conditions later public reaction to historical art, but (and this is the thing) subverted once by the distraction of the historical reference. By way of mathematical analogy, the idea of text as actor is projected through history to a surviving source, rotated back to us by way of interpretation (on another "sheet" of a complex plane, so to speak), and then collapsed onto the original notion so as to be seen as the modernist definitive performance. So... restating again, it is a text as context, stripped of history, then recreated or rather projected through a nonexistent time, and finally perceived as progress toward an ideal.
In postmodernism, history no longer exists, let us make no mistake of that. The end of history is generally the dominant idea of our times, expressed by writer Francis Fukuyama as a political notion that "liberal democracy" had prevailed as a world system, thus removing the underlying dynamic which drove historical change. It is such a naïve idea that it contrasts nicely with the above paragraph, but notice that at one level it says the same thing. If we further descend the chain of stupefication, we find the idea that television has made history and events (and, in short, anything beyond overstimulation) meaningless to people. Here is society's reaction to this: even stupider television with a message. A "message" is very unpostmodernist, but it projects the same despair. Has history really ended? Nonsense, I say. This whole modernist-postmodernist thing is a restatement of the same human dynamic expressed by the old saw of Classical-Romantic aesthetics. What can come after modernism (whose rallying cries are "progress" and "evolution")? Well, postmodernism, of course. You see, it is a modernist-constructed name, and that's part of the joke. We are so enlightened that we have no more need for enlightenment.
Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and consequently "postmodernism" as a notion deconstructs just as does "authenticity" as a notion. This is what validates deconstruction, frankly. So now the modernists caution us about HIP, as a way of reaffirming progress (you know the Russian whom I will not name). It is all very cute, but if there is either no more history or only a better history, then there are surely no medieval and no Renaissance relevancies. If denying progress makes one a postmodernist, are we to believe that a medievalist is a postmodernist or even that the medieval era was postmodern? This is ultimately the modernist perspective. For me, what postmodernism does do is place aesthetics at the vanguard of philosophy, and this is certainly my own conceit. I do not believe in progress and I prioritize aesthetics among philosophies, so in some circles that makes me a postmodernist. When I use the word casually, I mean it as a sort of convoluted textual denial, and especially pejoratively as an egocentric vanity of pseudo-progress. Maybe this applies to me as well, but I hope not.
Within the context of postmodernism, postmodernism certainly has no future. But I don't want to stay there. It seems to me that postmodernism is actually tied quite closely to multiculturalism. It may have started as a Leftist trend, but it is difference in "narrative" and "perspective" which fuel it, and that is only one of many differences. Global connections have setup a much richer mix of variation than twists on the old winner-loser duality, but it takes a real dynamic and particularly an infusion of new narratives to make the whole thing go. If the individual elements stop being disagreeable to each other, and if they stop being able to experience their own roots in isolation, then we simply have a mixture rather than a charged multiculturalism. (Of course, if they destroy each other, we have neither.) For all of its talk of finality and arrival, the "post" of postmodernism is still about going & opposition, and without that it melts away. This brings to mind some of my thoughts on collage, and while one could certainly place collage within a postmodern context, it is no longer discourse as such. It would be a redefinition of material, meaning a new emphasis on material.
So while politically I see the redefinition of boundaries rather than the elimination of boundaries, I see the same with respect to postmodernism and basic artistic material. Not many people want to go through such convoluted streams of thought, and the end result is that they will simply believe the same things in different ways (ironically, Derrida's "substitution of contents"). There is a big call to streamline many things heading into the next few decades, and art will be one of them. I believe it can be streamlined with substance, and not only by slavishly following one particular style. The emphasis on text in postmodernism actually signifies a new insignificance to writing, and I likewise expect literacy rates to fall steadily even among professionals. This could be a boon to the abstract arts, and it will certainly unravel postmodernism itself. The postmodern era will be seen as a complex transition time and the musical trends will be reclassified accordingly, at which point postmodernism will have vanished without ever having been a dominant philosophy.
Administrivia: Next column in three weeks, and then things should be regular for some time.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb