The ism that spawned a momentary glee

October 18, 1996

If universities have changed enormously in the past quarter century, so too have the ideas that are taught in them. Peter Aspden considers academia's flirtation with postmodernism. It was a word that brought dinner parties to an embarrassed halt; an adjective that immediately labelled its users as pretentious frauds in the eyes of its denigrators; a term which nevertheless overcame its limitations to symbolise the spirit of an age: to be postmodern was the essential intellectual fashion pose of the 1970s and 1980s.

Just as surely as drainpipes followed flares, it was inevitable, after the earnest and politically explicit discourses of the 1960s, that some kind of flippant, disengaged counter-reaction would start to spread.

It began in architecture: a new style emerged which freed itself from the strictures of the past, not by progressing into new directions but by playfully mixing different elements into a knowing, ironic whole. Pastiche, parody and eclecticism were the key notes of the new style, with little time for the tortured debates of previous movements.

To be postmodern was to be cool, detached from the struggle of invention, revelling in the superficial joys of mixing and matching. The word caught on in many intellectual spheres: art, literature, music. Why postmodern? To symbolise a new beginning, after coming to what some people felt was the end of a natural cycle of human endeavour.

In the visual arts, for instance, where else was there to go after the brutal minimalism of late abstract expressionism? In music, how could one follow John Cage's experiments with pure silence? Postmodernism presented an opportunity for art to plunder the past self-consciously and start all over again, without the burden of responsibility to be serious.

The cut-and-paste feel of the new art movements was aided by two phenomena: the growth of technology in society, which emphasised speed and accessibility, and the subsequent globalisation of most human activities.

And then there was what was happening to the world itself: the collapse of Eastern Europe's regimes heralded the end of Marxism, an event as traumatic for this century's thought as Nietzsche's denunciation of God was for that of the 19th century. And the American academic Francis Fukuyama went one step further: he announced no less than the "end of history".

Postmodernism helped the world tie up its loose "ends". Its light, allusive tone acted as a balm for what would otherwise have been an era of despair. It defined a new way of thinking, acting as an umbrella term for numerous trends which gave up on the search for truth or a universal morality and celebrated the fragmentation of values: the "deconstruction" of Jacques Derrida, the ironic relativism of Richard Rorty, the quest for a nonrealist theology of Don Cupitt. Any remnant of the grand humanist tradition, the diligent search for eternal truths which fell under the banner of "the Enlightenment project", was ridiculed by the postmodernists. There was no great master-plan, they claimed, no binding narrative to hold together the messy business of human affairs. But by unlikely juxtaposition, healthy iconoclasm and concentration on the hitherto marginal, one could draw more convincing portrayals of life as it really was.

Crucially, postmodernism was fun. It appealed to pop stars, young novelists and entire departments of cultural studies. What it did not do was provide clear answers to the dilemmas of our - and indeed every other - age.

It was all very well feasting on the world's diversity of views, but it did not tell you whether abortion should be outlawed, nor what kind of government to vote for. Postmodernism was a gleeful, irresponsible way of looking at the world, at best a liberation from the too-strict conditions of rational reasoning, at worst a childish refusal to tackle the momentous task of making sense of the world. It could not last.

Now we are used to fragmentation; whether it is the various bodies that used to form British Rail, the many pieces of equipment (and contracts) needed to become a "portfolio worker", the numerous cultures on the high street of any major urban centre.

Now, we look for answers once more: complex answers to seemingly intractable problems; and postmodernism does not look so clever. It was fun while it lasted, but the joke was on us.

Peter Aspden was deputy editor of The THES until 1994. He is now deputy arts and literary editor of The Financial Times.

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