The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond

Alan Kirby says postmodernism is dead and buried. In its place comes a new paradigm of authority and knowledge formed under the pressure of new technologies and contemporary social forces.

Originally Published in Philosophy Now


I have in front of me a module description downloaded from a British university English department’s website. It includes details of assignments and a week-by-week reading list for the optional module ‘Postmodern Fictions’, and if the university is to remain nameless here it’s not because the module is in any way shameful but that it handily represents modules or module parts which will be taught in virtually every English department in the land this coming academic year. It assumes that postmodernism is alive, thriving and kicking: it says it will introduce “the general topics of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’ by examining their relationship to the contemporary writing of fiction”. This might suggest that postmodernism is contemporary, but the comparison actually shows that it is dead and buried.

Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and anironic self-awareness. And the argument that postmodernism is over has already been made philosophically. There are people who have essentially asserted that for a while we believed in postmodern ideas, but not any more, and from now on we’re going to believe in critical realism. The weakness in this analysis is that it centres on the academy, on the practices and suppositions of philosophers who may or may not be shifting ground or about to shift – and many academics will simply decide that, finally, they prefer to stay with Foucault [arch postmodernist] than go over to anything else. However, a far more compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead by looking outside the academy at current cultural production.

Most of the undergraduates who will take ‘Postmodern Fictions’ this year will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the module’s primary texts were written before their lifetime. Far from being ‘contemporary’, these texts were published in another world, before the students were born: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nights at the Circus, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner), White Noise: this is Mum and Dad’s culture. Some of the texts (‘The Library of Babel’) were written even before theirparents were born. Replace this cache with other postmodern stalwarts – Beloved,Flaubert’s Parrot, Waterland, The Crying of Lot 49, Pale Fire, Slaughterhouse 5,Lanark, Neuromancer, anything by B.S. Johnson – and the same applies. It’s all about as contemporary as The Smiths, as hip as shoulder pads, as happening as Betamax video recorders. These are texts which are just coming to grips with the existence of rock music and television; they mostly do not dream even of the possibility of the technology and communications media – mobile phones, email, the internet, computers in every house powerful enough to put a man on the moon – which today’s undergraduates take for granted.

The reason why the primary reading on British postmodernism fictions modules is so old, in relative terms, is that it has not been rejuvenated. 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. Similarly, one can go to literary conferences (as I did in July) and sit through a dozen papers which make no mention of Theory, of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard. The sense of superannuation, of the impotence and the irrelevance of so much Theory among academics, also bears testimony to the passing of postmodernism. The people who produce the cultural material which academics and non-academics read, watch and listen to, have simply given up on postmodernism. The occasional metafictional or self-conscious text will appear, to widespread indifference – like Bret Easton Ellis’Lunar Park – but then modernist novels, now long forgotten, were still being written into the 1950s and 60s. The only place where the postmodern is extant is in children’s cartoons like Shrek and The Incredibles, as a sop to parents obliged to sit through them with their toddlers. This is the level to which postmodernism has sunk; a source of marginal gags in pop culture aimed at the under-eights.

What’s Post Postmodernism?

I believe there is more to this shift than a simple change in cultural fashion. The terms by which authority, knowledge, selfhood, reality and time are conceived have been altered, suddenly and forever. There is now a gulf between most lecturers and their students akin to the one which appeared in the late 1960s, but not for the same kind of reason. The shift from modernism to postmodernism did not stem from any profound reformulation in the conditions of cultural production and reception; all that happened, to rhetorically exaggerate, was that the kind of people who had once written Ulysses and To the Lighthousewrote Pale Fire and The Bloody Chamber instead. But somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever, the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them.

Postmodernism, like modernism and romanticism before it, fetishised [ie placed supreme importance on] the author, even when the author chose to indict or pretended to abolish him or herself. But the culture we have now fetishises the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it. Optimists may see this as the democratisation of culture; pessimists will point to the excruciating banality and vacuity of the cultural products thereby generated (at least so far).

Let me explain. Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product. Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener (although these latter terms, with their passivity and emphasis on reception, are obsolete: whatever a telephoning Big Brother voter or a telephoning 6-0-6 football fan are doing, they are not simply viewing or listening).

By definition, pseudo-modern cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them. Great Expectations will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not. Once Dickens had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its ‘material textuality’ – its selection of words – was made and finished, even though its meanings, how people interpret it, would remain largely up for grabs. Its material production and its constitution were decided by its suppliers, that is, its author, publisher, serialiser etc alone – only the meaning was the domain of the reader. Big Brother on the other hand, to take a typical pseudo-modern cultural text, would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the programme – the telephoning viewers write the programme themselves. If it were not possible for viewers to write sections of Big Brother, it would then uncannily resemble an Andy Warhol film: neurotic, youthful exhibitionists inertly bitching and talking aimlessly in rooms for hour after hour. This is to say, what makes Big Brother what it is, is the viewer’s act of phoning in.

Pseudo-modernism also encompasses contemporary news programmes, whose content increasingly consists of emails or text messages sent in commenting on the news items. The terminology of ‘interactivity’ is equally inappropriate here, since there is no exchange: instead, the viewer or listener enters – writes a segment of the programme – then departs, returning to a passive role. Pseudo-modernism also includes computer games, which similarly place the individual in a context where they invent the cultural content, within pre-delineated limits. The content of each individual act of playing the game varies according to the particular player.

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages are not ‘authored’ in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work, like Streetmap or Route Planner, or permit him/her to add to them, like Wikipedia, or through feedback on, for instance, media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to the internet that you can easily make up pages yourself (eg blogs).

If the internet and its use define and dominate pseudo-modernism, the new era has also seen the revamping of older forms along its lines. Cinema in the pseudo-modern age looks more and more like a computer game. Its images, which once came from the ‘real’ world – framed, lit, soundtracked and edited together by ingenious directors to guide the viewer’s thoughts or emotions – are now increasingly created through a computer. And they look it. Where once special effects were supposed to make the impossible appear credible, CGI frequently [inadvertently] works to make the possible look artificial, as in much ofLord of the Rings or Gladiator. Battles involving thousands of individuals have really happened; pseudo-modern cinema makes them look as if they have only ever happened in cyberspace. And so cinema has given cultural ground not merely to the computer as a generator of its images, but to the computer game as the model of its relationship with the viewer.

Similarly, television in the pseudo-modern age favours not only reality TV (yet another unapt term), but also shopping channels, and quizzes in which the viewer calls to guess the answer to riddles in the hope of winning money. It also favours phenomena like Ceefax and Teletext. But rather than bemoan the new situation, it is more useful to find ways of making these new conditions conduits for cultural achievements instead of the vacuity currently evident. It is important here to see that whereas the form may change (Big Brother may wither on the vine), the terms by which individuals relate to their television screen and consequently what broadcasters show have incontrovertibly changed. The purely ‘spectacular’ function of television, as with all the arts, has become a marginal one: what is central now is the busy, active, forging work of the individual who would once have been called its recipient. In all of this, the ‘viewer’ feels powerful and is indeed necessary; the ‘author’ as traditionally understood is either relegated to the status of the one who sets the parameters within which others operate, or becomes simply irrelevant, unknown, sidelined; and the ‘text’ is characterised both by its hyper-ephemerality and by its instability. It is made up by the ‘viewer’, if not in its content then in its sequence – you wouldn’t read Middlemarch by going from page 118 to 316 to 401 to 501, but you might well, and justifiably, read Ceefax that way.

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. Unlike, say, Fawlty Towers, reality TV programmes cannot be repeated in their original form, since the phone-ins cannot be reproduced, and without the possibility of phoning-in they become a different and far less attractive entity. Ceefax text dies after a few hours. If scholars give the date they referenced an internet page, it is because the pages disappear or get radically re-cast so quickly. Text messages and emails are extremely difficult to keep in their original form; printing out emails does convert them into something more stable, like a letter, but only by destroying their essential, electronic state. Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future.

The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all. The pseudo-modern era, at least so far, is a cultural desert. Although we may grow so used to the new terms that we can adapt them for meaningful artistic expression (and then the pejorative label I have given pseudo-modernism may no longer be appropriate), for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time.

The roots of pseudo-modernism can be traced back through the years dominated by postmodernism. Dance music and industrial pornography, for instance, products of the late 70s and 80s, tend to the ephemeral, to the vacuous on the level of signification, and to the unauthored (dance much more so than pop or rock). They also foreground the activity of their ‘reception’: dance music is to be danced to, porn is not to be read or watched but used, in a way which generates the pseudo-modern illusion of participation. In music, the pseudo-modern supersedingof the artist-dominated album as monolithic text by the downloading and mix-and-matching of individual tracks on to an iPod, selected by the listener, was certainly prefigured by the music fan’s creation of compilation tapes a generation ago. But a shift has occurred, in that what was a marginal pastime of the fan has become the dominant and definitive way of consuming music, rendering the idea of the album as a coherent work of art, a body of integrated meaning, obsolete.

To a degree, pseudo-modernism is no more than a technologically motivated shift to the cultural centre of something which has always existed (similarly, metafiction has always existed, but was never so fetishised as it was by postmodernism). Television has always used audience participation, just as theatre and other performing arts did before it; but as an option, not as a necessity: pseudo-modern TV programmes have participation built into them. There have long been very ‘active’ cultural forms, too, from carnival to pantomime. But none of these implied a written or otherwise material text, and so they dwelt in the margins of a culture which fetishised such texts – whereas the pseudo-modern text, with all its peculiarities, stands as the central, dominant, paradigmatic form of cultural product today, although culture, in its margins, still knows other kinds. Nor should these other kinds be stigmatised as ‘passive’ against pseudo-modernity’s ‘activity’. Reading, listening, watching always had their kinds of activity; but there is a physicality to the actions of the pseudo-modern text-maker, and a necessity to his or her actions as regards the composition of the text, as well as a domination which has changed the cultural balance of power (note how cinema and TV, yesterday’s giants, have bowed before it). It forms the twenty-first century’s social-historical-cultural hegemony. Moreover, the activity of pseudo-modernism has its own specificity: it is electronic, and textual, but ephemeral.

Clicking In The Changes

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 later might see their peers as free, autonomous, inventive, expressive, dynamic, empowered, independent, their voices unique, raised and heard: postmodernism and everything before it will by contrast seem elitist, dull, a distant and droning monologue which oppresses and occludes them. 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 (see the drivel found, say, on some Wikipedia pages, or the lack of context on Ceefax). To them what came before pseudo-modernism will increasingly seem a golden age of intelligence, creativity, rebellion and authenticity. Hence the name ‘pseudo-modernism’ also connotes the tension between the sophistication of the technological means, and the vapidity or ignorance of the content conveyed by it – a cultural moment summed up by the fatuity of the mobile phone user’s “I’m on the bus”.

Whereas postmodernism called ‘reality’ into question, pseudo-modernism defines the real implicitly as myself, now, ‘interacting’ with its texts. Thus, pseudo-modernism suggests that whatever it does or makes is what is reality, and a pseudo-modern text may flourish the apparently real in an uncomplicated form: the docu-soap with its hand-held cameras (which, by displaying individuals aware of being regarded, give the viewer the illusion of participation); The Office and The Blair Witch Project, interactive pornography and reality TV; the essayistic cinema of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

Along with this new view of reality, it is clear that the dominant intellectual framework has changed. While postmodernism’s cultural products have been consigned to the same historicised status as modernism and romanticism, its intellectual tendencies (feminism, postcolonialism etc) find themselves isolated in the new philosophical environment. The academy, perhaps especially in Britain, is today so swamped by the assumptions and practices of market economics that it is deeply implausible for academics to tell their students they inhabit a postmodern world where a multiplicity of ideologies, world-views and voices can be heard. Their every step hounded by market economics, academics cannot preach multiplicity when their lives are dominated by what amounts in practice to consumer fanaticism. The world has narrowed intellectually, not broadened, in the last ten years. Where Lyotard saw the eclipse of Grand Narratives, pseudo-modernism sees the ideology of globalised market economics raised to the level of the sole and over-powering regulator of all social activity – monopolistic, all-engulfing, all-explaining, all-structuring, as every academic must disagreeably recognise. Pseudo-modernism is of course consumerist and conformist, a matter of moving around the world as it is given or sold.

Secondly, whereas postmodernism favoured the ironic, the knowing and the playful, with their allusions to knowledge, history and ambivalence, pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety: Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Le Pen and their like on one side, and the more numerous but less powerful masses on the other. Pseudo-modernism belongs to a world pervaded by the encounter between a religiously fanatical segment of the United States, a largely secular but definitionally hyper-religious Israel, and a fanatical sub-section of Muslims scattered across the planet: pseudo-modernism was not born on 11 September 2001, but postmodernism was interred in its rubble. In this context pseudo-modernism lashes fantastically sophisticated technology to the pursuit of medieval barbarism – as in the uploading of videos of beheadings onto the internet, or the use of mobile phones to film torture in prisons. Beyond this, the destiny of everyone else is to suffer the anxiety of getting hit in the cross-fire. But this fatalistic anxiety extends far beyond geopolitics, into every aspect of contemporary life; from a general fear of social breakdown and identity loss, to a deep unease about diet and health; from anguish about the destructiveness of climate change, to the effects of a new personal ineptitude and helplessness, which yield TV programmes about how to clean your house, bring up your children or remain solvent. This technologised cluelessness is utterly contemporary: the pseudo-modernist communicates constantly with the other side of the planet, yet needs to be told to eat vegetables to be healthy, a fact self-evident in the Bronze Age. He or she can direct the course of national television programmes, but does not know how to make him or herself something to eat – a characteristic fusion of the childish and the advanced, the powerful and the helpless. For varying reasons, these are people incapable of the “disbelief of Grand Narratives” which Lyotard argued typified postmodernists.

This pseudo-modern world, so frightening and seemingly uncontrollable, inevitably feeds a desire to return to the infantile playing with toys which also characterises the pseudo-modern cultural world. Here, the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance – the state of being swallowed up by your activity. In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved’, engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.

© Dr Alan Kirby 2006

Alan Kirby holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter. He currently lives in Oxford.

Source: Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas, Issue 58

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