Postmodernism is dead! Long live postmodernism!

Posted: 23 August 2011 in Uncategorized
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Edward Docx has declared postmodernism to be dead. And not to be dead.

The death certificate is because the Victoria and Albert Museum will soon be opening a new exhibit, “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” That’s his sign that postmodernism is officially over.

But it’s not really dead:

It is not that postmodernism’s impact is diminished or disappearing. Not at all; we can’t unlearn a great idea.

Along the way, Docx doesn’t do a half-bad job summarizing some key postmodern ideas, at least in the areas of art, architecture, philosophy, and literature (but, alas, not economics).

in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

But then Docx falls into the usual trap, arguing that in the wake of postmodernism’s critique all that is left is the market. And, in his view, we are left with a yearning for “off-line authenticity.”

Certainly, the internet is the most postmodern thing on the planet. The immediate consequence in the west seems to have been to breed a generation more interested in social networking than social revolution. But, if we look behind that, we find a secondary reverse effect—a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word “legend” as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. (The elevation of real life to myth!) We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. A culture of care is advertised and celebrated and cherished. Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And all of these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.

My own view is that the interest in craft and how things are produced has nothing to do with the end of postmodernism. It’s precisely an opening that was created by the postmodern deconstruction of “the market” as a singular entity that required obedience. The critics of postmodernism have, all along, called for some kind of authenticity, be it the unified human subject or a set of universal values or the like. After postmodernism, no such position is possible.

Instead, after postmodernism, we can imagine and construct alternative economies, which, instead of claiming the mantle of authenticity of consumer values, locate and challenge the limits of bourgeois expertise and ethics—and begin to move beyond them.

  1. […] I just found David Ruccio’s analysis of the same article by Docx. I respect David Ruccio a lot but I kind of think my critique of the […]

  2. Scott says:

    “Instead, after postmodernism, we can imagine and construct alternative economies, which, instead of claiming the mantle of authenticity of consumer values, locate and challenge the limits of bourgeois expertise and ethics—and begin to move beyond them.”

    Where will David Ruccio go? Everything on this site smacks of consumer values, bourgeois expertise and ethics and that’s the thing. Postmodernism as a force is meaningless consumption personified for it is only with “values”, which are the antithesis of postmodernism by the way, that meaningful consumption can be had. Like it or not, David Ruccio, needs to step back so he can move forward.

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