Life After Post-Modernism
I KNEW that the term ``Post-Modernism'' had peaked when a New York department store began advertising the Post-Modern blouse. For the cost of a week's worth of groceries, I could be attired in ``Post-Modern Poise,'' complete with a detachable bow. Were I a more avid bargain hunter, I might have contemplated the need for ``Post-Modern Poise'' over a cup of tea brewed in my ``Post-Modern and practical'' tea kettle. Flocks of pots, ``inspired'' by a leading Post-Modern architect, crowded the markdown shelves of trendy shops around the country. By the fall of 1986, the word ``Post-Modern'' was exhausted. Po Mo, as it was fashionably called, had spread far beyond its origins in philosophy, architecture, literature, and the visual arts. A semantic barnacle, it attached itself to almost anything: soap, skis, ice cream, popcorn, Saturday morning children's television, Saturday evening adult television, Mad Max movies, even Mozart. I drew the line at Mozart.
In the late 1980s, lots of people were drawing lines. Po Mo was everywhere - and nowhere. Important art galleries arranged retrospectives that asked, ``Is there life after Post-Modernism?'' Early in 1988, Metropolitan Home, the chic magazine that once promoted Post-Modern interior design, publicly recanted. ``No Mo Po Mo,'' the editors counseled.
If it has been decreed that there will be ``No Mo Po Mo,'' then where are we now? Will the '90s be the post-Post-Modern decade, or, more modestly, the pre-post-Post-Modern era?
I would like to suggest that rumors of Post-Modernism's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Only the word has been used up, consumed by myriad commercial applications and social affectations. What has peaked is not Post-Modern thought but the use of the word ``Post-Modern'' to describe it.
In advertising, Post-Modern meant little more than cool, hip, hep, groovy, and modern used to mean. As a vogue word, Post-Modernism depended on the sense that a new, invigorating movement was abroad in the arts. Through overuse, and the realization that Post-Modern thought was anchored in unattractive despair, the commercial possibilities of Po Mo quickly diminished.
Something similar happened to Post-Modernism as a look and a lifestyle. The Post-Modern blouse was as short-lived as it was expensive. Perennially, Western culture manufactures fads along the margins of serious thought. Remember Existentialism and white lipstick? Usually these trends are brief, commercial, youthful ones, which find people dressing in black and declaring that it feels good to feel bad. The problem is that it doesn't feel good to feel bad for very long.
But this is not to say that Post-Modernism itself is little more than a transient craze built on buzzwords and leisure wear. On the contrary, the dominant art and thought of the late 1970s and the 1980s, which came to be known as Post-Modernism, is the latest instance of a recurring cluster of ideas older than this century.
For more than a hundred years, Post-Modernism has generated a multiplicity of conflicting meanings and art practices, which have erupted at different times, in different places, and in different media. As a result, Post-Modern architecture is not exactly like Post-Modern literature, although they both are eclectic, even frivolous, in their borrowings of older forms. Irritating as it may be, the diffuseness of Post-Modernism is not a measure of its decline, but a measure of its strength and its staying power. The ubiquity of Post-Modernism ensures that it will have its dilettantes and fads.
MUCH the same observation could be made of romanticism in the last century. Romanticism blanketed the thinking of generations, beginning about the time of the French Revolution. Like a fog, romanticism was thick in some places, thin in others, different in the morning than at noon, and frustratingly difficult to circumscribe. But it was there. You couldn't help breathing it in.
Oddly enough, from the 1880s to the 1980s, Post-Modern artists and thinkers have found nihilism a fertile source. A complex and tangled outcome of widely ranging philosophies for the last hundred years, nihilism is difficult to generalize. The historian Arnold Toynbee noticed it, and perceptively used the word ``Post-Modern'' to describe its characteristics.
For Toynbee, the ``Post-Modern Age of Western History,'' which opened in the 1870s and the 1880s, was nothing less than the next long-term cycle of human history. It involved the overturn of the balance of power among Western European states, aswell as the disintegration of what Toynbee called ``an unbroken vista of progress toward an Earthly Paradise.''
Toynbee noted the decline of middle-class culture. Receding with it was the assurance that a ``sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay as a timeless present.'' For Toynbee, Modern Man was replaced by ``an increasingly anxious Post-Modern Man,'' an individual, in Toynbee's phrase and our enduring clich'e, in crisis - a person stuck between anger and elegy for the modern past and its utopian promises.
Toynbee's appraisal was knitted into his grand scheme of global development. Still, it can serve as an accessible summary of a strong 20th-century tendency in science, social science, philosophy, and the arts to assess the human condition as one of diminished expectations. As literary critic Roland Barthes once wrote: to live now is ``to know that which is not possible any more.''
In briefest words, Post-Modernism came into existence when the notion of progress began to subside. It served then, and it serves now, as a counterweight to modernist idealism and technological optimism. A deliberate downscaling of aspiration and vision, Post-Modernism always runs the risk of slipping into cynicism and disjointed ironic detachment.
At the present moment, new geo-political alliances, shifts in economic power, the growing international gap between rich and poor, worldwide budgetary deficits, and the seemingly intractable environmental and social problems that characterized the late 1980s have further eroded the ``vista of progress,'' especially in the United States. As a consequence, some form of nihilism is likely to remain a key feature of contemporary thought in the 1990s.
On the other hand, mass-media critiques, the major form that Post-Modernism took in the 1980s, may find themselves on the half-price shelves along with Post-Modern tea kettles.
For more than a decade, contemporary artists made works that shared a common strategy: to show the inescapable limitations of human personality by language, especially as it is employed in advertising, film, and television. The world pictured by these artists offered no central reality, just a Sargasso sea of signs and representations.
In art, literature, and philosophy, the individual disintegrated, becoming a subject, with all the connotations of passivity and helplessness that the word implies. Personality was seen as shaped mostly by chance and external forces. The mind became a screen; creativity was looked at as a wrongheaded, nostalgic concept. When it came to human nature, there didn't seem to be any there ``there,'' unless it was the Neo-Freudian ``there'' of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, who argued that the influence of culture on individuals was inevitably pathological.
Of course, this position was flawed from the first. In the media-saturated world proposed by the artists and writers, their own distanced perspective was impossible to achieve. Moreover, mass-media critiques that envisioned legions of robotic consumers indiscriminately buying everything from running shoes to gender stereotypes and political propaganda, inadvertently reinforced the perceived power of the media.
RECENT world events delivered the final blow to Neo-Orwellian notions of thought-control via mass media. In Eastern Europe, democracy movements welled up in countries where the ``ministry of truth'' had strictly regulated press and the airways for years. Where ``thoughtcrime'' entailed death or long incarceration, thoughtcrime took place anyway.
Though Post-Modern media critiques may be inadequate, the post-utopian predicament they sought to describe persists. It is only in search of a new name. Many things seem less possible now than they did even 20 years ago. But that is not entirely a detriment.
The latest manifestation of Post-Modernism has left a legacy of worthwhile questions. It challenged the autonomy of individual egos at the end of a century stained crimson by the excesses of purism and cults of personality. By refusing to accept one central reality, Post-Modernism introduced the cultural, environmental, and political modesty necessary to a post-colonial world. By making art out of mass culture, Post-Modernism acknowledged the life experience of the post-World War II generations, who have been more willing to study cultural production in its entirety than to sort it out into the sacramental categories known as high and low art.
Despite, or because of, 1980s Post-Modernism, there are inklings - still faint - of the appearance of a new, quiet kind of idealism. I call it New Mo, New Modernism, for the revised and tempered aspirations it conveys. While no countertrend has asserted itself forcefully, increased public upbraiding of Me-Decade and Greed-Decade hedonism is hopeful. It denotes a desire to transcend the insular self. At the same time, art imagery appropriated from the mass media has waned, signaling, perhaps, the beginnings of a new, temperate exploration of artistic individuality and originality.
I heard what I thought was New Mo voiced at the recent opening of a painting exhibition. Two students, barely off their tricycles when Roland Barthes wrote his last book, emerged from the show obviously disgruntled. He looked at her and said, ``I know why you didn't like it. You want more lyricism.'' ``No,'' she countered, ``I'm just tired of skepticism. I want grit. Something I can believe in - at least for a little while.'' At the beginning of the new decade, we all do. FOR FURTHER READING
WHAT IS POST-MODERNISM? by Charles Jenks New York: St. Martin's Press 1986 POSTMODERNIST FICTION by Brian McHale New York: Methuen 1987 THE ANTI-AESTHETIC: ESSAYS ON POSTMODERN CULTURE edited by Hal Foster Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press 1983 AFTER THE GREAT DIVIDE: MODERNISM, MASS CULTURE, POSTMODERNISM by Andreas Huyssen Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press 1986 POST-MODERNISM: THE NEW CLASSICISM IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE by Charles Jenks New York: Rizzoli 1987