Postmodernism: A catch-22


Postmodernism: A Catch-22
The Ambiguity of a Movement’s Existence.

“There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal.”i (Levi Strauss, C, 1969)

To begin an essay with such a vast quote is quite a strident move, however, to begin an essay with a self-reference to one’s attitude towards what is being read is perhaps, excessively postmodern. The first quote by Claude Levi-Strauss in reference to bricolage, using what one has at their disposal to create, this quote not only reflects why postmodernism cannot be, but it also reflects the efforts of this text in terms of its own postmodern efforts.

“Hell hath no fury like a coolly received postmodernist.”1 (Foster Wallace, D, 1989)

The mundane, the everyday and the quietly trendy, a few words one could throw into the realm of describing the postmodern, at least within the arts. Ever since modernism drew its last supposedly smoke free breaths in the late 80’s, the contemporary art and literary scenes have become gratuitously ambiguous. Art and writing have become quiet and grey, where the two worlds used to throw punches, there remains a soggy-eyed puppy willingly accepting his fate of self-congratulatory beatings.

“The Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.”2(Hitchens, C, s2002)

Now you, that is, the reader, may call me a hypocrite. As I shall take on-board some postmodern style and refer directly to this essay, within this essay (I will add, this newly-found self-awareness is often falsely erudite). The two quotes, the first a quip from the American novelist David Foster Wallace. The second, a concise criticism from the English-born journalist Christopher Hitchens. The irony here taking on itself, so much so that you might even call this essay postmodern. But I believe the two quotes articulate the unnecessary post-modern struggle rather well. Foster Wallace, some would say, was a postmodernist, his magnum-opus Infinite Jest is often cited in Top 10 Post-Modern Novels etc.345. With this knowledge one can create a neat overview of the postmodern artist as work, several levels of self-awareness that amount to sincerity through irony. Hitchens, on the other hand, I would personally state was a romantic militant, preaching Wodehouse over Pynchon, Otto Dix over Jackson Pollock and Johnny Walker Black Label over a chai-latte. The battle between Hitchens and Foster Wallace for me is the battle between pre & postmodernity.

What does it mean to be a postmodernist? It means a lack of totality, deconstruction and directing one’s attention to the crowd in front of the Mona Lisa, rather than at the object (spectacle) itself. Postmodern architecture is the dismissal of the utopia, the acceptance of reality, avant-garde-realists that are disgusted by anything ornamental. In postmodern literature irony is the king, or the pale king. The ability to say something and mean something entirely different. This can be achieved in either as many words as possible (maximalism) or, as few words as possible (minimalism). The inclusion of humor, especially black, dark or gallows humour is favoured. References within references, self-awareness and breaking the fourth wall are all aspects of postmodern literature. In film, key figures such as David Lynch or Spike Jonze dictate the viewer’s concentration through askew sound production, or experimental camera angles. The focus turns to objects, scenes and characters rather than to a narrative of ‘beginning-middle-end’. Finally, we move to the flippant area of postmodern art. Contemporary art has become a little whorish where postmodernity is concerned, borrowing from each and every medium. Using irony and self-awareness, inclusion of the audience as the art, de-construction, black humour, lack of narrative and the questioning of everything-that-ever-was-ever. I present these characteristics to you neither as a good, nor bad light, they simply are. I for one believe the ‘postmodernists’ have created some respectable and interesting works, which constantly push boundaries and ideas to their utmost limits. From the above one could create a good idea of what postmodernism is. But what it is, is a lot of things, there’s no manifesto, nor is there any general consensus of what post-modernism can or cannot be. This is where my argument lies, in whether or not postmodernism actually ever was. And if it…was, is it dead?

So where did all this conjecture, ambiguity and beating-around-the-bush come from? Postmodernism’s roots are firmly attached to the act of rebellion. Rebellion against archaic and dated ideals, postmodernists attempted to free themselves from the shackles of those who believed in totality and utopia, e.g. the modernists. There is however no doubt that postmodernism was born in the west, born from the ashes of failed ideologies and movement’s. Ideologies that were finally starting to show cracks after years of ‘booms’ and ‘rushes’, especially capitalism, which, to their dismay, Modernists will never be able to shrug off. The ideology that found its way alongside modernism was 20th century western capitalism, and what came with it was an unquestioned masculinity and arrogance, never before were things looking in to, only looked at. Things were only constructed and created, never de-constructed, not even psychologically. For at least 50 years, the only time one could see was that of the future, we never looked back, not until we absolutely had to. Until, finally, democracy stood, at least in part, true to itself, allowing us to, or so we think, genuinely question the foundations of what is. Through this examination, we found that we are living within regime whose birth parents are capitalism and totalitarianism, but as all children do, the regime went on its own for a while, then eventually, also as all children do, became a physically different reproduction of its parents. For artists, creatives and intellectuals this became a dilemma. For to create works as they were previously, masculine, with a clear accepted narrative and buying into the idea of the grandeur-gesture, would be to buy back into modernism, which if one is to look around oneself, one can see has failed. However, to create works pre-modernism, would only be to either fuel a new form of modernism, or to simply buy into another failed ideology.

So, postmodernism is ideological, artistic and intellectual purgatory, where one cannot create without questioning the what, why, where and when of why they are creating. Leading to a mass of complicated, arrogantly erudite, rhetorically correct information, whose roots could neither live in the desert where no trees can grow, nor could they live next to trees without themselves becoming one. This, however isn’t the only reason post-modernism, as a whole, is a catch-22 (A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.). In this case the rules which are stopping postmodernism from coming into its own, are those abided by modernists. Narrative, structure, illusion of a reality that isn’t, escapism without reference to the escape, totality, the ‘epic’, ordered structure, chronology and ideology all have to be voided for postmodernism to be pure. However, it cannot be pure, because pure is an idea set forth in modernity, in relation to utopia’s and perfection, which to the postmodernists do not exist.

I am going to argue that postmodernism cannot exist. Before I argue this, I have to clarify my stance on modernism. I understand where modernism derives from, that it is not an enemy of post-modernism, nor is it a friend; it is something that did not want to be aligned with, alongside something for it to react against. Though, arguably, to react against something is to include that thing as a ‘born-from’, e.g. without modernism post-modernism wouldn’t be. In arguing that post-modernism does not exist, I am not arguing that modernism is the only other alternative. I shall, join my ‘post-modernist’ friends in being self-ware just one second, I am from a capitalist [so-called]democracy. A regime in which I am comfortable and extremely content with the freedoms and safety that I have. I have yet to decide personally whether or not I would, or would not change it. Many would argue that capitalism has given me a false comfort of economy over emotion, this I would in part agree with. Capitalism, where art is concerned at least, has the arrogance of a casino’s architecture, its efforts go towards convincing you there is no other way, and there is no outside….”So why not just stay, have a few games and enjoy yourself?” it’s all rather hucksterish.

My argument against postmodernism is postmodernism as it is. Postmodernists cannot have a totality, a system, a hierarchy, a structure. A narrative, a common voice which explains the over & underlying efforts of the group. This absence of totality leaves only one thing to hold together post-modernism, the name…post-modernism. What does this name mean exactly? Post, as in, post-game, post-McCarthy or post-impressionism. Post as-in after. After the game, after the McCarthy era or after impressionism. Postmodernism, is what came after modernism. Scepticism & reluctance to join an actual ‘ism’ or movement, due to the sudden realisation of repetitive failures. And so, art came into its own again. But since within a capitalist system everything needs to be, or to have a name, or structured or engineered or categorized, postmodernism became the name of a movement that never intended to be. The problem with the movement’s name is its vagueness, postmodernism is literally everything that’s come after modernism that hasn’t assigned itself another current movement (yellowism, meta-modernism etc.) It’s inescapable as it’s a period in time that the artist finds themselves within. So when someone asks you “What’s postmodernism?” reply, “You mean, after-modernism, or after modernism.”

Postmodernism is a movement, or non-movement to have sympathy for. It’s a movement that’s been left out in the rain and instead of plucking the courage to knock on a door, simply makes art about feeling sorry for itself. But who can blame it? It’s stuck between not being able to make concise work that buys into a specfic failed framework, yet still wants to make a point. And so, has to make the viewer aware of all of this, whilst simultaneously creating something that holds attention. The problem being, most post-modern art falls flat by this point. Either there’s a certain skill & talent involved which coincides with modernism’s grandeur statements. Or, all is conceptual and to be second-guessed, irony over flavour. Not being able to Create, with a capital C because to do that would mean to ‘sell-out’ to the system that created the whole notion of ‘selling-out’. Yet, to create to simply let people know you are creating is to whisper the words “I am whispering.”

Postmodernism is caught between ideology and non-existence.

And so you see for postmodernism to exist it has to use, borrow and take from its utopian predecessor Modernism. For this essay to work is has to borrow from the thing it is attempting to question and disprove, much like postmodernism cannot be without its semantic latter Modernism. An essay arguing postmodernism’s ambiguity will/was/is its downfall, or evidence of its absence, cannot work without didactic, ironic usage of postmodernism’s own devices. A postmodern bricolage.