What Happens After Post-Modernism?

I think Post-Modernism is over.

I’ll give my basic understanding of post-modernism as:

Modernist culture was aware that it was being created as a unique artistic statement, and art that was aware that it was art was free to make a bold analysis and critique of traditional artistic assumptions.

Post-Modernist culture was aware that it was being created as a product, and art that was aware that it was a product of a cultural and economic hegemony was free to make a bold analysis of the power assumptions that resulted in its own creation.

Compare Picasso and Warhol.

But I think that thanks to the internet and shifts in the economics of culture, we’re reaching a new set of revelations, and we’re breaking away from post-WWII intellectual ideas, and these revelations lead to new kinds of art and new modes of criticism that come down to:

Post-Post-Modernist culture is aware that it is created by and exists within and fundamentally depends upon a diverse participatory community, and perhaps that the value of art and ideas lies within the communities they create.  In Post-Post-Modernist culture, everything is a scene, and the author is ultimately just another fan.

But please, let’s go with something other than “Post-Post-Modernism.”  The early 20th century labeling itself as “Modernist” was tritely short-sighted, and the term became a little silly once that era was in the rear-view mirror.  ”Post-Modernist” is even worse.  It means “After now” which… what?  It’s a nonsense term that conveys to the public standing outside the dialogue an image of a naked emperor.  Let’s not claim to once again be at the end of History.

The Emporor-Has-No-Clothes impression that people get from Post-Modernism is ironic, because real Post-Modernism concerns itself with the inherent power relations that lie behind the assumptions in cultural production.  (Post-Marxism might have been a better name) It really should have been more inclusive and accessible.  It critiques the class and gender and race biases of capitalist cultural production, but it does so from the elevated position of the ivory tower in a specialist language that is only accessible to an elite.  For something so critical of assumed authority, Post-Modernism can be profoundly anti-democratic.  I’m not the first to make this criticism.

And so the general public is confused as to what the hell “Post-Modernist” even means.  Decades into the movement, it has failed to communicate itself clearly to the public.  (Which isn’t to say that in more invisible ways that it hasn’t permeated our culture.  The fact that a responsible artist now must reflexively consider how their work is going to be received by members of cultural identity groups other than their own is a triumph.)

We get Modernism.  While it meant different things in literature, music, art, and so on, it comes back to the freeing of the artist from convention to forge ahead and create new forms, to engage in abstraction, to simultaneously reject and expand tradition and express truths about life in a technological society in ways for which more traditional art would have been inadequate.  And I think that at this point, even a well-read high school senior gets that.  Consider Ulysses, Joyce rejects the traditional construction of the novel while engaging an entire world of existing art and reference from within the work all to show the totality and resonance of experience that lies in two men simply wandering around a city with songs and books stuck in their heads.

But “Post-Modernist” is an extremely vague term, even to the average culturally literate person.  To most it is a stand in for “meta” or “ironic” or just “weird for weird’s sake.”  And this is the fault of the Post-Modernists themselves.  The movement was really a movement of critics and scholars more so than it was a movement of artists, and those critics and scholars have chosen a language and vocabulary which utterly alienates people who live outside of a particular rarified and exclusive academic culture.

The next cultural paradigm rejects that.

And like Modernism and Post-Modernism, it is both a comment on and a result of the state of the world that surrounds it.  Old cultural institutions are fading in importance.  The ivory tower reveals itself to be built on sand.  Fewer and fewer people study the humanities in college.  The traditional media bastions of erudite criticism and commentary are collapsing under changing economic conditions.  Attempts to move the conversations of the educated elite into the public sphere fail to find real traction.  Radical movements that followed rigorously defined intellectual theories are being replaced by horizontalism and participatory democracy.  How many Occupiers could tell you the difference between Trotskyism and Maoism?  And even if they could, why would they have cared?

In the place of these old constructs are the islands of self-identifying communities that surround cultural products.

Think of how many people might see more of their cultural identity wrapped up in being a Star Wars fan than in being a member of the alienated working class.  For frustrated revolutionaries, this is a big problem, but if you sit back and just take in the cultural change it’s thrilling and new.

We are shifting from authority to community in our cultural lives.  How many people get their news from Facebook?  How many people turn to discussion boards and comment sections for movie recommendations rather than to professional critics?  How easy is it to consult Twitter to find out what the mass opinion on a news item or cultural event is?  A hundred friends have more to say to us than an individual cultural authority.

And I’m not denying that Post-Modern criticism hasn’t developed a language that can discuss all of this, any more than I’d say that Post-Modernism was really empowering artists to do anything that fell out of the purview of Modernist artistic license.  What I’m saying that the Post-Modernist’s language and their criticism and all the authority it conveys is increasingly irrelevant.  I think a lot more of today’s important artists are totally willing to ignore what the old elite has to say about them in favor of direct discussion with their communities.

The new theory will be expressed in accessible language, and it will be shaped and reformed by a legion of readers who are every bit as active a part of the process as the authors on soap boxes.  Academics will have their input, but that input will be vetted by a democratic process, and they will have to check their $30,000-a-semester words at the door.  And to people who have spent their life accumulating authority from the institutions of rarified criticism and elite cultural production, this is an absolute threat, just as the development of a critical theory that challenged the assumptions of traditional Western cultural authority were a threat to a previous generation of elites.

“Post-Post-Modernist” art will be shaped by community financing, community input during its developmental and unfinished state, and will be judged based on the way the art constructs community interaction.  The artist who tells his audience to take what he gives them and leave his process alone will be an increasingly rare bird, especially among the younger generation.  This is already happening.  Especially in geek culture.  No work of Post-Post-Modernist art is ever finished, Star Wars is still being written by its fan community, and one cannot draw clear lines as to where production ends and the audience begins.

The author may be dead, but the audience is very much alive.  Consider Chris Rock’s famous Black People vs. Niggaz bit.  The traditionalist way of evaluating it would be to try to work out what Rock’s intent was.  The post-modernist approach to analyzing it would be to go in with a microscope and analyze the contents of the text of the bit as a text, with disregard to what we may or may not know about Rock.  The Post-Post-Modernist critique is that whatever the intent was, and whatever the actual dynamics of the text were, the practical effect was that the bit attracted an audience and inspired a community of racists, and the opinions of those audience members matter in practice more than the opinions of either the artist or the scholar, and so regardless of authorial intent, or of textual content, the work was racist in practice.  And Rock acknowledged this and retired the bit.  It’s an exceedingly practical philosophy.

And those of us who are participating in this new paradigm have responsibilities.  Untended, these new critical and creative communities can degenerate into the comment rolls on Youtube.  The creation of and tending to these communities is an active project, and maintaining an elevated-but-democratic discussion will take constant vigilance.  The old institutions could vet their contributors by their degrees and their mastery of academic language and theory.  When we throw open the gates, these old signifiers become meaningless.  This won’t be easy.

But please, someone come up with something better than “Post-Post-Modernist.” My suggestion is “Participist,” but that doesn’t really feel right.  Let’s actually come up with a term that signifies our ideas in a way that will be meaningful after the next next big change comes.

  • http://www.culturecrisis.com/ Carter

    A day later, I’m warming up to “Participism.”

  • EH

    I find your analysis of “what post-modernism claims” to be muddled. I think you (and I, at this point) are operating at such a remove from the academic and theoretical discourse that is currently being employed amongst people who spend their professional life working with it that it’s a little irresponsible/irrelevant for us to claim accuracy in our conception or presentation of it. I do see a couple of things here that I want to pick at, however: for example, I think you are making a strong assertion for the need of “accessibility” of theory that, in my mind, should be delinked from the question of “post-modernity.” Must all theory be accessible by all? Maybe. Maybe having specialized discourse to engage in specialized topics is useful, the same way physicists and engineers have specialize discourse. These are complicated and nuanced topics, and maybe complicated and nuanced language is ok for that. Doesn’t mean there isn’t also a role for popularization and communication with the masses, but I think you are asserting that there is no value in “jargon,” without backing up that claim.

    I think the debate about the usefulness of theory at all is certainly a worthy one, but you aren’t inventing the wheel here. Theory, and the authority of institutions, are constantly questioned by lots of people.

    And just to needle you, especially because I feel like you are probably getting this from conversations you had with me ;) : “The post-modernist approach to analyzing it would be to go in with a microscope and analyze the contents of the text of the bit as a text, with disregard to what we may or may not know about Rock.”

    No, I think the deconstructionist literary approach would be to analyze it as a text, while acknowledging that “what we may or may not know about Rock” merely comes from OTHER texts: interviews, autobiographies, secondary texts written by people other than Rock— that “intent” can only be something we construct out of texts. The other thing my literary training would tell me is that whatever Rock says ABOUT his intent may or may not be relevant because the audience may or may not know anything else contextually other than the original bit and its context, ie the show that the bit was presented in.

    Anyways, I don’t think building a “new movement” really gets you past post-Modernism, because post-Modernism is all about acknowledging the multiplicity of narratives and the impossibility of ever having again a single, unified story about anything. The critique of modernism is that the modernists assumed they were part of the inevitable progress of art.