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May 26, 2003

Artchat Survival Guide -- "Postmodernism"

Friedrich --

Disagreements in the arts can be a source of humor and enlightenment. Misunderstandings generate little but wasted energy and busted friendships. If you're talking about art in the anthropological sense and your bud is talking about art in the high-art sense, and you never manage to uncross those signals, one of you is likely to wind up sore and furious. And the fun of gabbing about the arts won't have been had.

The victim of innumerable artchat broken noses and skinned knees myself, I find that these days -- older and cannier, or maybe just numb and exhausted -- I can make it through most art conversations unscathed, and occasionally even get a little something out of them. Immensely pleased with myself, I occasionally put on my humanitarian hat -- or my pompous one, I can never be sure -- and try to pass along a few of the rules of thumb that help me get by. In previous postings (paid attention to by no one, but which I had a good time composing), I've presented my Artchat Survival Guide to the word "art" (here), and to the idea of "greatness" (here). Today: Postmodernism.

First, a preemptive admission. This isn't an attempt at aesthetic philosophy, or at contributing to a for-the-ages dictionary. It's simply a presentation of one broken-down old coot's ideas, observations and definitions -- what I hope is a workable, rule-of-thumb-y guide to the various uses of the word "postmodernism." A partychat guide. A cafechat guide. You find some of this useful? Great! You don't? Well, why not pass along a few tips of your own?

Why is it that the word "postmodernism" can be so damn annoying? Overuse, mostly. But I suspect it's also because it's often used at cross purposes with itself. For starters, I'm going to suggest viewing "postmodernism" as having four primary meanings. It goes without saying that it's always a good idea to ask yourself which one is being used.

*Postmodernism as a condition. This is postmodernism as a fact of life -- a label to put to the kinds of lives many people lead these days. Globalization, increased migration, and new developments in technology mean that many of us are regularly dealing with different cultures, different times zones, different media. We're juggling different realities. An example: You might be eating some Chinese food while surfing a porn website devoted to interracial sex (and made in who knows which country) while talking on your cell phone to a friend who's on a sailboat off Australia. Things seem to overlap, collapse, interpenetrate, and dissolve. Your own focus seems to flit around and through things at the speed of light.

*Postmodernism as an attitude. On the one hand, David Letterman, hosting a talk show while putting quote marks around what he's doing at the same time: "I'm a smart guy doing a dumb thing, and I know it, and don't you forget it." (Not a generous interpretation of his show, but then again I don't enjoy Letterman.) On the other hand, think breezy, glancing, bit-of-this/bit-of-that -- the way many kids seem to surf this multidimensional new culture. Life is a ragbag. Why not make from its contents an outfit that suits you? And then why not revise it?

*Postmodernism as an artistic style. A deliberate rejection of High Modernism, an embrace of elements drawn from the populist and traditional, often in an ironic and self-consciously "playful" spirit. In art music: "Nixon in China." In pop music: Madonna in her "let's change identities" period. In architecture: Michael Graves' Portland Public Services Building. In painting: David Salle. In movies: Brian DePalma's Hitchcock pastiches. In food: fusion cooking.

Postmodernism by Graves, Salle, DePalma

*Postmodernism as an agenda. Yep, sorry to say, there's a bunch of intellectuals, most of them French, who put together a postmodern liberation program. Watch out here for such names as Deleuze, Baudrillard, Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault. The tricky thing about what they peddle is that they -- attractively -- claim to be anti-utopian, even while what they're really doing is transforming that anti-utopian stance into its own kind of utopianism. (David Hume they ain't.) How are they to read? Brainy, often perceptive, and next to incomprehensible. They do that bizarro French "philosophizing" that to our eyes looks less like philosophy and more like a combination of Euro-preening, tenure-grubbing, show-offing, and rhapsodizing.

Taking postmodernism seriously as a course of study? No thank you, although I recognize that doing so can have its fascinations. It can be like studying the Kabbalah -- self-torturing fun if you're drawn to that kind of thing, silly if you aren't. Endless haggling over such things as "double-coding," the exploded ego and the decentered subject. (There are a multitude of reasons why many ads these days have their visual subjects placed off-center, and one of them is postmodern theory.) As Tim Hulsey explains in his postings here, the "Matrix" movies are deliberately designed as postmodern artifacts -- I remember reading somewhere that the Wachowski Brothers gave Keanu some Derrida to read to prepare for the original movie. The S&M, cyberleather style is one look that po-mo paranoid fantasy often winds up generating.

Where do I stand on all this? I divide the whole idea of postmodernism in two. On the one hand, informal postmodernism, postmodernism used mostly as a descriptive term. This strikes me as inoffensive and potentially very useful. The jumbled-up, electronic-media life it describes certainly exists, and many of us wrestle with it regularly. Might as well give it a name, might as well discuss what it's like, and might as well discuss how to manage it.

A pause here. If I were forced to make a choice between the postmodern stance and the high modernist stance, I'd choose the postmodern, and I'd do so very quickly. Why? Because there's much about the postmodern stance I find useful. It can be a way of keeping your poise in the midst of media chaos, and a way of opening up to the various sets of terms these realities present too. It reminds us to take things for what they are -- to identify the category a work belongs to before judging it rather than measuring all works against a single standard. A few examples of how this works. There isn't one Architecture, there are many kinds: midwestern barn architecture, New England small town architecture, YMCA architecture, art deco skyscraper architecture. There isn't one Literature, there are many: folktales, thrillers, country and western lyrics, 19th century long prose narratives, sci-fi, slim little volumes of Iowa Workshop short stories ... Why not take (and, possibly, enjoy) them for what they are?

The informal postmodernist attitude: Cool California/Spanish movie theater; Classic Carvel; One heckuva Victorian mansion -- and it's all architecture

Postmodernism seems to go hand-in-hand with the digitization of the world. Both seem to have a leveling effect; both seem to turn everything they touch into interlinked databases. Personally, I find much of this a great relief -- like being able to use a word processor instead of a typewriter, or being able to throw my thoughts up on a blog rather than have to go through the traditional publishing process.

Is this kind of attitude worrying in politics? Sure: relativism, etc. Is it worrying in the arts? Sure, but less so, especially when crossed with some common sense. Especially in dealing with the American arts, I find it can be very helpful. In this country, we have multiple cultures -- many different vernaculars (German, Cajun, Tex-Mex, etc) -- and multiple modes. We just do: Mexican folk art, Windy City painting, Santa Fe furniture, soul food, gospel, quilts, the blues, surfboard art, roadside architecture. We'd be much the poorer, and much less American, without these traditions and genres. We of course also have a high culture, and it's there to be enjoyed too. But it doesn't seem to define us in the way that high culture helps define the older Euro cultures. In the States, our high culture is simply part of the panorama.

Is the postmodern way of approaching the arts a grand, one-shot solution to all thinking-about-the-arts problems? Certainly not. It's easy to see the difficult questions that this attitude opens up. For example: how far do you go in breaking down and opening up categories before passing judgment? Literary short stories, sure. Political thrillers, sure. But should something like "wrong-handed surf-music guitar solos" be considered a legit category? That might be a little much. You can slice and dice things up so far that no judgment ever gets made, and aesthetic judgments do need to be made. (Misused, postmodernism can be little more than a way of avoiding judgment entirely.) I seem to be more prone than some people to viewing the "aesthetic judgment" discussion as something that takes on its own shape over time, and then changes anyway. Because of this, I take a relaxed attitude towards the inevitable is-it-any-good-or-not conversations. They're there to be enjoyed, lord knows it can be fun to compare notes, and thank god one or two people seem to find my opinion of interest. But nothing definitive is going to be settled here and now, so why not keep the process in perspective?

Another conundrum: if there really is no hierarchy of art value, how will the higher arts ever survive? Over and over, arts people find that when you put the high arts on the same plane as the popular, folk and commercial arts -- when you strip the high arts of their mystique -- they wind up seeming remote and bizarre. Can the fine arts even survive once taken off their pedestal? (As a fan of fine art, I worry about this myself.) These are all questions that strike me as much worth worrying about. They also strike me as far more interesting and enjoyable than the is-it-great/is-it-not-great questions that seem to accompany the high-modernist way of thinking about art.

As for art in the postmodernist style? I enjoy some of it a lot, though I find that too much of it suffers from an excess of distance and irony; it's unappealing when artists don't put a little something on the line. And the "playfulness" often strikes me as self-conscious, narcissistic and unconvincing -- a leaden whimsicality. Looking at a postmodern work of art is all too often like watching a depressive try to entertain a child. (Postmodernism is also, to its immense discredit, to blame for the way criticism and "theory" have become more important than literature in some college literature programs.) Still: sure, why not?

But postmodernism as an agenda -- prescriptive postmodernism as opposed to descriptive postmodernism? Well, no fuckin' way. Like official feminism and official multiculturalism, it's yet another Euro-intellectual, Marxist-derived ideology that tries to get you to assent to something harmless in order to then railroad you into signing up for a huge and dubious program. I suspect that not many people have all that much trouble with the inane, superficial side of these movements. A little respect for other cultures? Sure, why not? Should women be legally denied opportunities simply because they're women? Hell no: fair's fair.

But then, then -- you're struggling against an inferno of never-ending reform and overambitious, intrusive intiatives: bilingual education, Title IX, the remaking of basic education, bizarre no-flirting-on-the-job rules, sensitivity training, partial-birth abortions, affirmative action -- a whole, never-to-be-completed set of laws and controls obviously meant to finally extend into the deepest recesses of the individual mind. Thought-police crap, in other words. Sigh: Euro-intellectuals, and would-be Euro-intellectuals ... They're never content just to help you notice things and sort life out a bit better. Nope, they've always got their bullying political agenda. The old structures aren't just coming apart -- no, they need to be taken further apart. Why? So they can be taken down. Why? Well, for the sake of liberation, of course. It's the '60's all over again, in other words. And it was in fact from the 1960s, from the Paris student riots of 1968 especially, that much prescriptive postmodernism got its impetus.

The prescriptive postmodernist agenda: You must build in this way -- because this and this alone is what real architecture is these days

Prescriptive postmodernism is yet another rationale for the dictatorship of the intellectual class, in other words. You must (ie., you have no choice but to) live/think/work this way because this is the spirit of the age and because after all we yearn for liberation, don't we? And that's what art is about, isn't it?

For what it's worth, I have a hunch about truly intellectual people -- by which I mean not people who have a few extra smarts so much as people who live primarily in their heads. It's this: many of them spend their lives loving their intellectuality yet feeling painfully trapped by it too. How to get out of this bind? Being intellectuals, they try to theorize their way out of it, thereby tightening the ropes. (It's no coincidence that po-mo and S&M seem so intertwined.) Then they become convinced that they've discovered something essential about life, and announce that a revolution is needed. All they're really doing, of course, is acting out the drama of those who are trapped in their intellects -- a dilemma not of great concern to the rest of us.

But back to prescriptive postmodernism. The Derridas and Lyotards argue (rightly, as far as I'm concerned) that modernism was a liberation theology that turned into a trap. But their proposed remedy -- the postmodern approach -- is transparently its own kind of liberation theology, even if what it's designed to do is liberate us from the trap of modernism. There's a Slinky-like, telescoping thing going on here -- the thinking moves from one intellectually-driven liberation theology to the next. But it's all the same Slinky. This helps explain why many people who aren't themselves trapped inside these arguments find that prescriptive postmodernism isn't so much a reaction against (let alone a rejection of) modernism as a continuation of it. No matter that the style it calls for is a different one; po-mo, like modernism, is still an intellectually driven liberation theology. And who needs more of those?

So, my conclusion: Joining the Postmodern Party? Thanks but I'll pass. But superficial, put-it-on/take-it-off postmodernism? Postmodernism as a handy descriptive term, or a possible artistic style? Why not, at least now and then? Eat some Thai food while watching "Friends" -- couldn't be more postmodern than that. Layer and smoosh a bunch of things together in Photoshop -- kinda fun! And, hey, the web is the ultimate postmodern medium, and I'm not about to give that up.

Sorting it out this way minimizes the pointless fights, at least for me. Very curious to hear about what you're making of the word "postmodernism" these days.



posted by Michael at May 26, 2003



Fascinating. It would never have occurred to me to use the word "post-modern" in your looser, descriptive sense; I don't believe I've ever heard it used that way until now. Perhaps it's because I've been involved with things digital all my adult life, but the "post-modern world" as you describe it strikes me simply as the way things are; I've no real need to label it.

To the extent that anyone I know ever uses the world post-modern (and it comes up perhaps once a month or so), they mean it in the Foucault/Derrida sense, and usually pejoratively.

'Course, I spend my days surrounded by engineers, for whom the idea that mathematics or engineering is socially constructed is ludicrous on the face of it. You can't lie to the law of gravity.

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 26, 2003 08:30 PM

Something in a similar vein from computer language guru Larry Wall can be found here.

In this talk, "Perl, the first postmodern computer language," Wall stigmatizes several characteristics of classic modernism, to coin a phrase. He calls them The Cult of Spareness, the Cult of Originality, the Cult of Seriousness and the Cult of Objectivity adding that "I also despise the quasi-postmodern Cult of Subjectivity."
It's an interesting read, though, um, discursive or maybe that's just me being modern.

Posted by: Allan Connery on May 26, 2003 09:40 PM

Hey Will, It's the water we all (at least those of us lucky enough to have a little dough and a computer) swim in these days, isn't it. I'd love to get you and some of your engineer friends on a panel with academic po-mo theorists. I know which side I'd be cheering.

Hey Allan, Many thanks for the link. I'm printing the piece out now and looking forward to it. Sounds very sensible. I think we arty people have a lot to learn these days from scientists and computer people. Another reason why the we're-so-edgy narcissism of so much of the arts crowd looks so silly these days...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 01:42 AM

I remember, some years ago, a conversation with a French academic who was asked (not by me, alas) if French culture was on the road to becoming a multi-national, multi-ethnic jumble of everything in Europe. "No," he said. "We will not be like America."

Which set me to thinking: It seems to me that the US is a "postmodern" nation, and was "post-modern" long before we even thought to invent the modern. This is a nation, after all, where Chinatowns sit chock-a-block with Little Italies, where German-speaking Amish drive their buggies for Japanese tourists, where East meets West meets North meets South and everything in the middle gets thrown in, too.

Since its very inception America has been part of the postmodern aesthetic, if by that you mean "Everything you've ever seen before, only all mixed up and twisted a bit." To that end, come down to Charlottesville, VA, and see Thomas Jefferson's Lawn (at UVA) for the best example of architectural postmodernism you'll see outside of the late twentieth century.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 27, 2003 09:55 AM

Hey Tim, Hear hear to that. The Euros seem to have to invent theories to explain it, while we go on living it, much as we always have.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 11:05 AM

I find your descriptive vs. prescriptive divide very useful. It is indeed that latter that I often rail against, as my honey would no doubt testify!

Posted by: David Mercer on May 27, 2003 03:20 PM


Here's a timely article on socially constructed

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 27, 2003 06:32 PM

Hey Allan, Just finished reading the piece you linked to. Well worth a wrestle, even if it is more than a bit Dave Eggers-ish, or as you say, "um, discursive." Thanks for pointing it out to me.

Hi David -- What, you, an anti-postmodernist hothead? Who'd have guessed? My wife gives me these "oh, god, he's off on a rant again" looks. Does yours?

Hi Will, thanks for the link, looking forward to reading it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 10:48 PM

Hey Allan, Just finished reading the piece you linked to. Well worth a wrestle, even if it is more than a bit Dave Eggers-ish, or as you say, "um, discursive." Thanks for pointing it out to me.

Hi David -- What, you, an anti-postmodernist hothead? Who'd have guessed? My wife gives me these "oh, god, he's off on a rant again" looks. Does yours?

Hi Will, thanks for the link, looking forward to reading it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 10:48 PM

Heh, my fiancee has started going off on them on occasion too. I must be a bad influence :-)

It was the prescriptive, moral-relativism advocating type of post-modernist political thought that really set her off.

But I really must thank you again for the vocabulary enhancement, as I don't have any problem at all with many things that fall under your heading of descriptive postmodernism; it really is the prescriptive politics, philosophy and "theory" that put me off.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 28, 2003 12:42 AM

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