Monday, August 17, 2009

The Death of “Pseudo-Modernism” and Beyond; A Return From “Critical Realism.”

(I spent some time tossing around ideas about which of the numerous potential angles I should approach this from… and eventually threw up my hands and started writing, deciding to just run at it bull-in-china-shop style. So, if you’re interested in this debate, please bear with the length of this post, my occasional use of literary/ theory jargon, the possible failures of my attempt to keep this from devolving into a rant at times… etc. If any of this inspires a rebuttal, or ideas of any sort continuing the dialogue, I would LOVE to post them here. So, if you have something to say on this topic, be in touch .)

Ihab Hassan ended his 1987 essay “Toward the Concept of Postmodernism” by saying “One may wonder: Is some decisive historical mutation- involving art and science, high and low culture, the male and female principles, parts and wholes, involving the One and the Many- as pre-Socratics used to say- active in our midst? Or does the dismemberment of Orpheus prove no more than the mind’s need to make but one more construction of life’s mutabilities and human morality? And what construction lies beyond, behind, within, that construction?”

Contrasting these thoughts (which were presented as part of an attempt to define present and future parameters for the term “postmodernism”) with those suggested by Dr. Alan Kirby’s 2006 essay “The Death of Postemodernism and Beyond” that I linked in my last entry, suggests a rather troubling disconnect.

Frankly, the problem becomes that, as much as his cynical observations are often apt, the conclusions that Dr. Kirby draws from these conflict vastly with the prior works of Hassan and his critical peers that defined and refined the genre/ movement that Kirby so bombastically attempts to declare the death of.

The problem is, none of the observations that Kirby makes sit outside, as the changing cultural forces that he insists that they are, of the general parameters of the movement that he’s using them as validation for the disavowal and decease of.

Most solid theories of “postmodern thought” that I have read (including several of those that Kirby cites, in parts that he understandably yet problematically overlooks) leave plenty of room (and even often foresee) the cultural changes that Kirby asserts have rung its death-knoll.

As Hassan says, “Postmodernism implies a movement toward pervasive procedures, ubiquitous interactions, immanent codes, media, languages.” Oddly, if boiled into essential categories, these are all of the things that Kirby asserts as proof that contemporary culture is NOT a postmodern one.

Sure, I understand that there’s a bit of a time-period disconnect here as well. Kirby seems to be extremely willing to admit that our contemporary culture morphs astoundingly quickly, and unfortunately, this quickness proves the larger-scale undoing of his own points. The article that I’m referring to, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” was published in 2006, and by his own standards, a lot has changed culturally in the three years since then.

Perhaps the most telling demonstration of the changes that those three years have made (particularly in terms of making his own conclusions seem cynical, short-sighted, self-defeating, and, in general, off-putting) comes from his own references to ‘living in a post-9/11 world’ (“pseudo-modernism was not born on 11 September 2001, but postmodernism was interred in it’s rubble,” etc).

In 2006, it was FAR more acceptable (although barely… I’m pretty sure this was pretty close to the final throws of this cultural excuse) to write-off paranoia, surface-level-thinking, abhorrence of abstraction of any sort, over-moralizing, and ‘buckle-down-and-focus-on-“reality”’ sort of thought than it is to admit these sort of sentiments in civilized print (I.e. PhilosophyNow magazine, where the article initially ran) in mid-2009. I’m pretty sure it’s not taboo to think anymore… It’s acceptable again to not sit paranoid that any ideas that seem on the surface-level to lack relevance to day-to-day ethical/ easily perceived trivialities (I.e. the shortsighted assumption that the pop-culture dictates and guides thought, as Kirby is asserting, which is almost entirely negated by observations of any other past philosophical/ critical/ artistic movement… though that’s a whole different can of critical worms) might somehow appear disrespectful to those directly effected by the events of 2001 and the wars that followed, or that the “market economics” that Kirby correctly observes to have become such a cultural and intellectual focal point have dictated that any philosophical or ideological discussion about the relevance, value, or true possibility of “capitalist democracy” is somehow a betrayal to those who have fallen under the tires of the system and are struggling to make ends meet (Did you catch that, too? There’s an odd double-speak that reads between the lines of Kirby’s cynicism… his overall thesis seems laden with this cumbersome implication that it’s doing some grand disrespect to those that have been beat down and silenced by the system to speak out against it or attempt to step outside of it… he’s telling us to sit down and shut up, because that’s what our cultural-moment warrants. This strikes me as typical “post-9/11 world”-style fear-mongering… which of course makes all Kirby’s references to “Big Brother” (the TV show) deeply ironic due to the title of that program’s source-text.)

(Of course, the biggest irony in these claims is that, if the conclusions about our contemporary thought-processes that Kirby’s drawing were true, why would anyone have bothered to read his article?)

In fact, it seems that Kirby’s conclusions present, ironically, a death of this “post-9/11 world” mentality to a greater extent than a “death of postmodernism”… mostly because so shortly after, these ideas seem extremely dated by the various paranoia’s of that (thankfully) short epoch of slammed-shutter thought that litter the text.

I’m not doubting for a moment that there was a brief several-year time-period post 9/11 when we put on the intellectual brakes to focus on the “real”… and Kirby’s article strikes me as a final spasm of that method of thinking. But I feel that that era is over, and artists and critics have seemed to resume progressive/ abstract thinking where the word “real” once again REQUIRES those quotation-marks (as I was attempting to demonstrate with my post on Lady GaGa that inspired this analysis), once again WITHIN the postmodern mindset, rather than in opposition to it, utilizing and toying with the observations that Kirby makes, rather than allowing themselves to be trampled by them into cultural submission.

To be fair, Kirby himself leaves space in his text for the possibility of this transition. “Although we may grow so used to the new terms that we can adopt them for meaningful artistic expression (and then the pejorative label I have given pseudo-modernism may no longer be appropriate), for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value.” Most present-tense observers tapped into any sort of network of creative thinkers would, I feel, be able to assert in mid-2009 that the “for now” that he refers to here was merely a nasty bout of societal growing-pains which are finally starting to pass. So then would have to be passing the “pseudo-modern” era that Kirby refers to, by his own admission that the term would in this case nullify itself by its own definition. Kirby’s “pseudo-modernism” was intended as a full-stop in the present-tense progress of ideas, but he left open the possibility for it to merge into something more like a semi-colon… with a bit of time, even that device of pause has softened into a set of brackets containing an independent clause, after which we must return to the sentence, the advancement of critical thought, already in progress before this anecdotal interruption.

Each movement is noted by its counterpoint to its predecessor, right? Then Postmodernism (as an always-admittedly loosely-defined and ambiguous phenomenon, as most “movements” are, most particularly in the present-tense) is most easily defined and grappled with in reference to Modernism. Many attribute-lists and sets of comparative points have been critically assembled… to return to Hassan, for instance, and swipe a few examples off of his diagram of this sort, Modernism is represented by “Form (conjunctive, closed)” as Postmodernism by “Antiform (disjunctive, open),” M. by “Purpose” to P.M.’s “Play,” M. by “Design” to P.M.’s “Chance,” “Art Object/ Finished Work” to “Process/ Performance/ Happening,” “Interpretation/ Reading” to “Against Interpretation/ Misreading,” “Genital/ Phallic” to “Polymorphous/ Androgynous,” “God the Father” to “The Holy Ghost,” Modernism’s “Metaphysics” to PostMod’s “Irony,” and, of course, the ever-confusing yet oft-quoted standby, “Signified” vs. “Signifier.”

Contrasting these counterpoints, and then re-observing Kirby’s observations and assertions, it seems to me that nearly all of Hassan’s characteristic examples on the Postmodern side of the chart sound an AWFUL lot like most of the very characteristics that Kirby is citing as the reasons that Postmod is dead and buried. By Hassan’s definitions, therefore, it seems that what Kirby calls the “pseudo-modern” is merely a facet and development of postmodernism, merely one that Kirby (and perhaps much of the culture at the time of his writing) hadn’t quite figured out how to constructively adjust to yet.

Maybe it’s because my vantage-point sits too close to the line Kirby draws in the sand as a “generation gap” (1980). Maybe my age-bracket, those of us right on the cusp of this transition, whose outlooks feature bits and pieces of BOTH generations and can often rationalize aspects of BOTH of the philosophies that he lays out (without contradicting ourselves any more than his own essay does), that I have a hard time viewing his assessments of the way that our contemporary culture has developed as the philosophy-shattering end-game that Kirby sees it as. Who knows. But whether or not Kirby’s stance was pertinent in 2006 or not, between the far more “contemporary” pivotal post-modern texts that he conveniently overlooked in his claim that these are the thoughts of our parents’ generation, his “good-old-days” lamenting about how short “the kids’” attention-span is these days, his assumptions that if corporate pop-media isn’t producing viable thought-products than neither is anyone else, etc, in 2009 I definitely don’t buy it.

“You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author;’ there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.”

These last lines of Kirby’s article strike me as humorously RIFE with exactly the sort of post-modern “elusiveness of meaning and knowledge,” “ironic self-awareness,” and “disbelief in grand narratives” that are the same phenomena he’s attempting to say that we no longer participate in.

Maybe Kirby’s text ITSELF is intended as an ironic post-modern meta-text, a game of subversive idea-play INTENDED to undo itself? If so, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” would have made Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov EXTREMELY proud.

(Whew. Ok… I would like to thank IMMENSELY any of you that made it all the way through that one. If you did, you deserve a cookie. By “cookie,” I mean a brand new Swords We Swallow video. Thanks for reading… Enjoy.)

Swords We Swallow- A Broken Note