Horacio (aka vruz) pointed me to this 2006 essay in Philosophy Now by Alan Kirby on "the death of post-modernism." I read it yesterday evening (on paper taking notes). Yes I am old school when reading anything over a page or two.
I am no expert in art, philosophy, and literature so the terms modernism and post-modernism don’t run deep in my brain. But from a simplistic point of view, I understand that modernism and post-modernism define the 20th century in western culture. Modernism first emerged in the late 19th century and was a reaction against the romanticism that had defined western civilization in the 19th century. Modernism embraced the industrialization of society and the emergence of breakthrough scientific thinking. In art and architecture, modernism brought simplicity and and new artistic forms.
Post-modernism was the post-war (WWII) reaction to modernism. It re-embraced historical contexts but in a modern form. Post-modernism was complex, ironic, and ambiguous.
So with that backdrop, what comes after the "modernist" era (which in my mind includes both modernism and post-modernism)? Kirby suggests a new ethos is emerging that he calls pseudo-modernism. I don’t like that word. But his observations ring true to me.
I believe there is more to this shift than a simple change in cultural fashion. The terms by which
authority, knowledge, selfhood, reality and time are conceived have been altered, suddenly and forever.
There is now a gulf between most lecturers and their students akin to the one which appeared in the late
1960s, but not for the same kind of reason. The shift from modernism to postmodernism did not stem from
any profound reformulation in the conditions of cultural production and reception; all that happened,
to rhetorically exaggerate, was that the kind of people who had once written Ulysses and To
the Lighthouse wrote Pale Fire and The Bloody Chamber instead. But somewhere in
the late 1990s or early 2000s, the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever,
the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them.
culture we have now fetishises the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial
or whole author of it. Optimists may see this as the democratisation of culture; pessimists will point
to the excruciating banality and vacuity of the cultural products thereby generated (at least so far).
Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual
sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the
television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the
individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product.
Kirby is right. We’ve moved into a new phase of society. One that emphasizes participation in culture and society and and technology and politics. If it weren’t such a mouthful, I’d suggest we call it participatism. Kirby makes a bunch of additional observations worth sharing.
pseudo-modern cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes
physically in them. Great Expectations will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not…..Big Brother on the other hand, to take a typical pseudo-modern
cultural text, would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off.
Pseudo-modernism also includes
computer games, which similarly place the individual in a context where they invent the cultural content,
within pre-delineated limits. The content of each individual act of playing the game varies according
to the particular player.
The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is
that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated,
inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This
is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives
the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her
involvement with the cultural product.
In all of this, the ‘viewer’ feels
powerful and is indeed necessary; the ‘author’ as traditionally understood is either relegated
to the status of the one who sets the parameters within which others operate, or becomes simply irrelevant,
unknown, sidelined; and the ‘text’ is characterised both by its hyper-ephemerality and by
Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational
levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all. The pseudo-modern era, at
least so far, is a cultural desert.
There is a generation gap here, roughly separating people
born before and after 1980. Those born later might see their peers as free, autonomous, inventive, expressive,
dynamic, empowered, independent, their voices unique, raised and heard: postmodernism and everything
before it will by contrast seem elitist, dull, a distant and droning monologue which oppresses and occludes
them. Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately
violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless (see
the drivel found, say, on some Wikipedia pages, or the lack of context on Ceefax). To them what came
before pseudo-modernism will increasingly seem a golden age of intelligence, creativity, rebellion and
That was a lot of quoting of someone else’s work. I fear not enough of you will click thru and read the essay so I’ve cut and pasted (is cut and pasting itself a fundamental part of participatism?) the best parts here so we can have a conversation about this essay. I think it’s an important discussion. On to the comments. We embrace participatism here on this blog.