The kids always come up to me and say, “Josh, what is Postmodernism and why are you so keen on it?” And I say sit down, because it”s a long answer.
So sit down. It”s time for a bit of retro insanity, baby!
First of all, Postmodernism is a moniker for the historic moment we live in. Yet, despite your first impulse to label the “post” a prefix for “Modernism,” Postmodernism does not come after Modernism at all. Mostly, the problem was that theorists thought the new multicentered modes of thought associated with this way of perceiving would replace Modern dominance quicker than it did. No such luck. We”re still stuck playing monkey games, as Modernism”s cocaine snorting, Jesus worshipping dynasties lay modern, hierarchical ways of thinking over the newer distributed power structures (like the Internet) which by their very nature dissolve boundaries and present the possibility for collective uplift into a higher domain of being.
Crap, I”m tired.
This means the current historical moment is just as much Modern as it is Postmodern. The sequential ordering of everyday events in our chaotic world has been only partially displaced by the connectivity of electric media. Postmodern enthusiasts want that displacement to go all the way.
So the postmodern esthete blurs cause and effect. Instead of thinking about sequence, the postmodernist sees simultaneity. Instead of the active, we have the reactive. Our information comes in droves. And all of these have been more or less known since the early days of media theorist Marshal McLuhan, Andy Warhol”s soup cans and the beehive hairdo. “The past as prologue is dead,” wrote Joan Didion in the tumult of the “60s. The mechanical meathead mentality has been driven underground and organic technologies ride high in the cerebral cortex, which we”ve begun to appreciate once again as our center of being. Despite the loss of effect that most of us feel living in the Modern or Postmodern historical moment, the self is supreme. Centuries of individualism, driven by phonetic alphabets, omnipresent egos and the fact that we can never be certain that another person is having the same experience we are having, have landed us here. We used to be tribal, and now we travel.
In order to understand Postmodernism”s coexistence with Modernism, we must grasp some definition of Modernity to proceed. Sociologist Anthony Giddens describes Modernity as the “modes of social life or organization which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence.” Christianity, conquest, science and the pursuit of external truths have been the hallmarks of Modernity. Postmodernism deconstructs them.
Observe this Postmodern pedagogy:
n The Romantic period: Here comes the bus.
n The Modern period: Look, it”sa bus!
n The Postmodern period: “There” “goes” “the” “bus” “.”
We”ve become bored, knowledgeable of the fact that as soon as something, in the words of A. N. Whitehead, takes on “the formality of actually becoming,” it is almost instantaneously out of our control. Things even more quickly become tarnished, changed, disintegrated. Whether it”s an idea, the latest weapon, or the newest fashion, repetition is vogue. Beck had it right, you know. We live in “some dead world that looks so new.” Quite bogue, if you ask me. I”d almost rather run naked, but it is cold outside.
The second mistake people make with Postmodernism is to say that it is some kind of philosophy. That”s like saying consumerism, your job, your television, or your body is a philosophy. These are not constructs to help us come to an understanding of the world. They are givens in this space and time. Postmodernism is about observable effects. It is a sensibility. You either are or you ain”t. You”re either happy with power structures and being left out of the story, or you make your own identity.
That”s not to say you believe in your own identity, nor do you believe in the identity that others have lain upon you. Cognizant of the fact that our political leaders (student government prez and vice included) go through “political makeover” sessions and Hillary Clinton credits her political success with pantsuits, it”s easy to become cynical. We”re asked to believe a lot of bologna. That”s why public relations people are employed. Postmodernism asks you to deconstruct these narratives to get at the meat. Trust me. You”ll thank me and your therapist will thank me!
Postmodernism in the academy can be used by almost any discipline to describe a variety of phenomena. My first contact with it came when I was doing an archaeology field school at a 2,000 year-old American Indian site. At our lunch breaks, “postmodern archaeologists” (as if they exist) would always get a chiding from my professor and the field assistants. “Postmodern archaeologists don”t care about cataloguing anything. It makes no difference to them if the fire-cracked rock is found two meters or two centimeters below the surface. The historical narrative is dead, they say.”
What my professor didn”t understand is that the death of a narrative does not mean the death of history. Postmodern simply realizes that what is here and now is all that we really know. To the extent that we can legitimate our own feelings, we can get beyond the schlock served up by college graduates who have nothing better than to make things like Billy Bass, the singing mounted fish. To the extent that we can put ourselves forward in the face of uncertainty and fear, perhaps we”ll break from the cycles of late capitalist pastiche that have come to dominate our lives.
But I am, as I can only assume you are, exhausted. We”re running out of configurable material space. Form? Function? What”s the difference any more? If you”re exhausted like me, try to imagine something beyond a postmodern time and space. Then you”ll know what postmodernism is and why we must press its agenda to the limit, exhausting whether in our own minds, or in our physical realities all that this sensibility has to offer. Maybe then we can move on.
Josh Wickerham can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.