Successor states to an empire in free fall

Theories with wonderful names are emerging to describe our post-postmodern culture and society. Alan Kirby is fascinated by the 'cultural dominant's' shadow

May 27, 2010

Postmodernism is dead. Wail and rend your clothes. Postmodernism is dead. The tyrant is vanquished!

Can the rumours be true? Can postmodernism, the darling of the humanities for a quarter of a century, really have departed this world?

Who says postmodernism is dead? Jean-Michel Rabaté, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, for one. For him, the term is "now almost completely discarded".

Scholars who a generation or so ago built their careers on explaining the meaning of postmodernism now tell us the game is over. Linda Hutcheon, the Canadian literary critic, whose 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction became a standard text, now calls it "a twentieth-century phenomenon, that is, a thing of the past ... Let's just say: it's over." The Egyptian-born critic Ihab Hassan, who pioneered the study of postmodern culture in the 1970s, explored similar territory in a recent paper, "Beyond postmodernism: toward an aesthetic of trust". And the American architectural theorist Charles Jencks, whose 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture helped popularise the term, now believes that postmodernism came to an end around the turn of the millennium. In fact, as the American literary critic Andrew Hoberek says, "declarations of postmodernism's demise have become a critical commonplace". They are everywhere ... but are they true?

Last month saw the publication of the Canadian literary critic Josh Toth's book The Passing of Postmodernism: A Spectroanalysis of the Contemporary, described as an examination of "the increasingly prevalent assumption that postmodernism is over". But haven't there always been people who assumed this?

An interdisciplinary conference took place last year in Stuttgart, titled "Writing History after Postmodernism", which aimed, in its organisers' words, "to suggest methods for overcoming the uncertainties of the post-postmodernist academic environment". But Nottingham Trent University sociologist Mike Featherstone quotes a newspaper announcing in August 1977 that "postmodernism is dead" and that "post-postmodernism is now the thing". August 1977! Two years before Jean-François Lyotard said that he took postmodern to mean an "incredulity toward metanarratives" and gave Generation X its cogito ergo sum; four years before Jean Baudrillard unveiled the "precession of simulacra" and lent Keanu Reeves somewhere to hide his computer disks; and seven years before Fredric Jameson crowned postmodernism the "cultural dominant" of our time, the emperor of our arts, thought, politics, society and ethics. In fact, postmodernism has been declared dead for as long as it has been alive.

There's something else, too. Postmodernism has always attracted sceptics, a noisy alliance including Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, Noam Chomsky, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, for whom it was merely a shallow and meaningless fraud. Did postmodernism never really happen? Was it all just a fad that, like so much from the 1980s, has fallen out of fashion? Was postmodernism the academy's answer to shoulder pads and big hair?

Whatever the merits of such views, I believe that something different really is happening in today's cultural jungle. Something is stirring that hasn't been seen for 30 years. New theories are emerging with strange and wonderful names that aim to describe in detail a culture and society they say are found on the far side of postmodernism.

The theories speak of paradigm shifts and new cultural dominants, and suggest that our world now runs in different patterns and according to another logic. For them, postmodernism is buried, and a new world has replaced it. They don't just declare its death and wonder what happens next. They accept the historical reality of the postmodern moment, but believe it is over. And, most intriguingly, they think they know the name of its successor.

These theories aren't intended primarily to tell the academy how to go about its business differently. "Post-postmodern" scholarly approaches, from critical realism to the new aestheticism, have certainly been put forward in recent years. But the theories I'm interested in relate less to the habits of scholars than to the wider world they live in. And while that world has also seen people arguing that it is time to go beyond postmodernism, from the Stuckist artists to the "New Puritan" writers, these theories don't say the world should be post-postmodern. They say it already is, whether we like it or not. Whatever their validity, they are a different category of argument.

As the author of one of these theories, I admit that although "the death of postmodernism" makes a great headline, it isn't strictly true. These days, postmodern assumptions fuel the platforms of Web 2.0; postmodern characteristics thrive in the best-selling novels of Jasper Fforde and the juvenile comedy of Family Guy. But postmodernism's heyday is over; its reign has ended. Muted and mutating, its traces and echoes linger on in the culture. Its shadow falls over us from behind. But it is no longer the best place to go to get a handle on the world that we live in.

The main theories of culture and society in the aftermath of postmodernism are: Nicolas Bourriaud's "altermodern"; Gilles Lipovetsky's "hypermodernity"; Raoul Eshelman's "performatism"; Robert Samuels' "automodernity"; and my own "digimodernism". Between them they range across art and architecture, information technology and the internet, sociology, film, television and literature. They discuss recent developments in America, Britain, Germany, France and Poland. All but one has been introduced in a book published in the past two years: they are new paradigms for new times. Taken together, they offer the first glimpses of an embryonic and fascinating world.

Digimodernism identifies as the critical event in contemporary culture the profound and shattering encounter between computerisation and the text. Its most recognisable form is a new kind of digitised textuality - onward, haphazard and evanescent - that disrupts traditional ideas about authorship and reading, and is found on Web 2.0, a range of applications and in the video game. It connects this to shifts in "old" media, such as the digitally driven restructuring of cinema's reality system, visible as much in auteur films like Lars von Trier's The Boss of it All (2006) as in blockbusters like last year's Avatar.

In television, the traits of the digimodernist text are reproduced through reality and interactive programming. They are also found both in digital art and in work such as Antony Gormley's One & Other installation, held in London's Trafalgar Square last year.

Tracing the violent and irrevocable impact that digitisation has had on all forms of the text, on one hand digimodernism studies structural upheavals such as the supersession of the music album by the downloaded track, the revolutions in print publishing and the enhancements in access that have brought about what has been called a second golden age of radio. On the other, it sees across the media landscape a shift towards textual infantilisation, the apparently real, earnestness and narrative endlessness.

Bourriaud, the Gulbenkian curator of contemporary art at Tate Britain, unveiled his conception of the altermodern at the Tate Triennial exhibition in 2009. Unambiguously declaring the death of postmodernism, he defines the altermodern as a culture shaped by the forces of economic globalisation. In a contemporary world buffeted by multiculturalism, travel and a condition of near-universal exile, Bourriaud sees the artist as a "cultural nomad".

For him, "contemporary art gives the impression of being uplifted by an immense wave of displacements, voyages, translations, migrations of objects and beings ... artistic styles and formats must henceforth be regarded from the viewpoint of diaspora, migration and exodus".

Eshelman, a German-American Slavist based at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat in Munich, sees contemporary culture through the lens of performatism, a theory rooted in Eric Gans' generative anthropology and the philosophy of monism. Like digimodernism, performatism is an interdisciplinary paradigm, although Eshelman focuses more on "old" media.

For him, performatist texts such as Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, Sam Mendes' film American Beauty (1999) and the architecture of post-reunification Berlin frame their reader so that s/he accepts for their duration a set of values and practices that postmodernism treated with notorious suspicion, such as identity, transcendence, love, belief and sacrifice. They "bring back beauty, good, wholeness and a whole slew of other metaphysical propositions, but only under very special, singular conditions that a text forces us to accept on its own terms". Tempered by postmodernism's scepticism, performatism steps beyond it into a distinctively new artistic era.

Lipovetsky, a French philosopher working at the University of Grenoble, describes hypermodernity in more sociological terms as the successor to Lyotard's postmodernity: "The 'post' of postmodern still directed people's attentions to a past that was assumed to be dead; it suggested that something had disappeared without specifying what was becoming of us as a result ... The climate of epilogue is being followed by the awareness of a headlong rush forwards, of unbridled modernization." The epoch of postmodernity "is now ended". Hypermodernity, our contemporary state, begins when modernity's promises of limitless individualism and freedom from social obligations and structuring conventions are finally fulfilled. Lipovetsky believes that, happily or unhappily, the maximisation of modernity is today being experienced across a society dominated by hyperconsumption.

For me, hypermodernity is compatible with digimodernism, while automodernity - a theory articulated by Samuels, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles - which sees a new world formed by the encounter between digital automation and personal autonomy, seems to stand somewhere between the two.

Increasingly, these theories feel less like ambitious rivals hoping to inherit postmodernism's estate before the body is even cold than pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whose final picture is still unclear.

So - as Woody Allen once asked - what have we learned? That something that could be called the "death of postmodernism" seems to have happened, although it would take a long and distinguished scholarly article to pick all the nuances out of that statement. And that something - probably in reaction against it, possibly connected to globalisation, maybe linked to the digital revolution - has replaced it. But for me, the confusion and uncertainty just add to the fascination. l

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.