Sunday, January 15, 2012

Alan Kirby - The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond


From the current issue of Philosophy Now - Alan Kirby thinks that postmodernism has been pronounced dead and laid to rest. Strange, though, that much of the Western world (not to mention the other 3/4 of the planet) have not even reached a postmodern awareness. But this paper is looking at cultural manifestations (literature, music, and so on) more than a full developmental stage.
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.
And this  . . .
Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and an ironic 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.
For the most part, postmodernism never got far outside the academy with the exception of some poets (Ann Lauterbach, Leslie Scalapino, John Ashbery, Charles Olson, and others), novelists (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Kathy Acker, Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, and others), and especially in painting (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jannis Kounellis, Jeff Koons, Emma Amos, and others), and performance art (Carolee Schneemann, to name only one). But postmodernism means nothing to most people in the U.S., except maybe as some kind of boogeyman in the culture wars.

Anyway . . . . .

Here is one section of the longer paper, The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond.

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 Lighthouse wrote 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 of Lord 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.
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