Beyond postmodernism: Is it time to bury this horse?

It’s becoming more and more difficult to muster one’s rational forces for yet another attack on one of my favourite targets, postmodernism, now that everyone agrees that it’s a horse that’s not merely dead, it’s really most sincerely dead.

Everyone, save most tenured humanities professors, that is, but they don’t count any more now then they did a generation ago when postmodernism was still breathing.

Several recent online articles have announced the death of postmodernism, and good riddance, too, they all say.

Rebecca Goldstein started the rush at Prospect Magazine, with her May 25, 2011, article titled “Sell Descartes, Buy Spinoza.”  And Prospect wasn’t through, recently publishing Edward Docx’s  article titled “Postmodernism Is Dead” (July 20, 2011).

Many rationalists of one stripe or another have taken on the self-contradictory, and self-congratulatory, tenets of postmodernism, including Terry Eagleton, a frequent subject here, whose The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) applied his post-Catholic and post-USSR Marxism to the cults of relativism, insignificance, and unbridled consumption.

There’s too much in Eagleton’s book  for this space, so one typically damning passage will have to suffice. Think what you will about Eagleton’s ideas, you can’t fault the man’s enthusiastic clarity in expressing them:

For all its vaunted openness to the Other, postmodernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. One may, by and large, speak of human culture but not human nature, gender but not class, the body but not biology, jouissance but not justice, post-colonialism but not the petty bourgeoisie. It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeymen and straw targets to stay in business. … It knows that knowledge is precarious and self-undoing, that authority is repressive, and monological, with all the certainty of a Euclidean geometer and all the authority of an archbishop. It is animated by the critical spirit, and rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions.

And five years ago, Alan Kirby produced a seminal article, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” available online at Philosophy Now.

Kirby challenged postmodernism for being neither post-enough nor modern-enough, for being passé and not even noticing:

Just look out into the cultural market-place: buy novels published in the last five years, watch a twenty-first century film, listen to the latest music – above all just sit and watch television for a week – and you will hardly catch a glimpse of postmodernism.

Kirby described the post-postmodern world as a kind of “pseudo-modernism” — a return to the appearances of modernity, but without the quality. Kirby’s critique is, on one level, just one more snob’s dismissal of the content of the current culture:

In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads. There is a generation gap here, roughly separating people born before and after 1980.  … Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless ….

The more recent death notices differ from Eagleton’s ideological retrenchment and Kirby’s pessimism: they all revel to one degree or another in the revival of meaning and reason.

Goldstein’s short article praises Spinoza’s insight into the unity of body and mind, and she finishes with this relevant comment about our current subject:

The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.

Docx, like Eagleton and others, is quick to give postmodernism its due in the creative arts, its natural home, and in its attack on the inequalities inherent in the notions of an official narrative or a dominant culture. As he writes:

The epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable.

But, speaking of his own area, the novel, Docx points out what he terms “the postmodern paradox”:

… A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. … In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too.

So while postmodernism tore down the barriers to both social inclusion and free expression, by going to the extreme of “deprivileging” all standards, all truth, all taste, and all value it abandons us to the lowest common denominator arbiter of mass consumption. Postmodernism as the philosophical bedfellow of late capitalism, indeed.

While Docx uses the upcoming Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective on postmodernism in art and design as the visible sign of the idea’s passing, there are also signs that the pendulum is swinging in the liberal arts.

There is a recent trend in literary criticism, for example, to introduce conceptual approaches (dare we say “paradigms”?) which merge new versions of a more traditional, “modernist” literary criticism with the methods of science.

In these pages, I have written recently about two of those critics.

The first was Stanford’s Franco Moretti, who has applied statistical analysis to works like Hamlet. Then there was Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar who argued for the application of insights from contemporary brain science to literary studies.

Also very interesting is Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, a book-length argument that talks as much about mirror neurons as it does about story arcs. Zunshine’s book is worth a closer look, so keep your eyes open for a review here in the weeks to come.

And, better late than never, look for a review of a thoroughly postmodern novel, the sparsely fascinating Vanishing Point, by the late David Markson, best known for the paradigmatic anthem, This Is Not a Novel.

But what will I do after that, if postmodernism is dead? After all, postmodernism has been one of my favourite targets on this blog. If it’s irrelevant, it seems pointless to continue to attack it, doesn’t it?

If the critics are right, then, I’ll have to go back to one of my other favourites.

Perhaps Bible-driven know-nothings? Or right-wing politicians? But I repeat myself.

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One thought on “Beyond postmodernism: Is it time to bury this horse?

  1. A very interesting article……I would also recommend Digimodernism by Alan Kirby, 2009, Continuum and one of his other articles in the Times Higher Education, avalaible online.

    Thank you,

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