This Is What “Ex-Postmodernism” Looks Like

From “Postmodernism is dead,” in Prospect Magazine:

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

The whole article is worth a slow and careful reading (which I know is asking a lot for internet surfers these days, but I have to keep hope alive!) — but the excerpt above in particular put me in mind of the trendy “ex-postmodernism” talk that’s been floating around the Pagan online community for the past several months. Anyone else see parallels here? For instance, a parallel with arguments that the word “Pagan” is no longer helpful because it doesn’t attract enough positive attention, while serious explorations of the many diverse archetypes that nurture the Pagan community are shut down and simplified into the single accusation of “fluffy bunny Wicca” (itself assumed to be shallow precisely because it is so popular). Or the eerily eager insistence that social media networking can replace authentic in-person relationship and worship, and that customized spiritual journeys for the individual take precedence over the difficult work of nurturing community and building social infrastructure.

This is what “ex-postmodernism” looks like: it’s just postmodernism after all, but postmodernism taken to its extreme, itself turned into the very meta-narrative it originally sought to challenge and overturn, married to consumer capitalism in a way that replaces all conceptions of value, all narratives of meaning, with the overarching meta-narrative of the world as one big popularity contest. Where postmodernism engaged playfully and authentically with irony as a form of resistance and revolution, “ex-postmodernism” reduces irony to mere cynicism, and then claims to do away with cynicism once and for all by replacing it with feel-good, pseudo-optimistic pep talk in a grab for “broader audience appeal.” This kind of cynical, calculated marketing strategy in the name of “doing away with postmodern cynicism” is perhaps the deepest irony of all.

Postmodernism may be dead after all. Certainly “ex-postmodernism” is to postmodernism what the single-minded, uncreative zombified living dead are to the beloved dead, those Ancestors whom we carry with us in blood and bone and breath into the waiting future. As Docx points out, a healthy postmodernism in its prime taught us two deeply important and revolutionary things:

First, that postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable. You would have to be from the depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought not to believe, for example, that the politics of gender, race and sexuality have been immeasurably affected for the better by the assertion of their separate discourses. The transformation from an endemically and casually sexist, racist and homophobic society to one that legislates for and promotes equality is a resonantly good thing. No question.

The second point is deeper still. Postmodernism aimed further than merely calling for a re-evaluation of power structures: it said that we are all in our very selves nothing more than the breathing aggregate of those structures. It contends that we cannot stand apart from the demands and identities that these structures and discourses confer upon us. Adios the Enlightenment. See you later Romanticism. Instead, it holds that we move through a series of co-ordinates on various maps—class, gender, religious, sexual, ethnic, situational—and that those co-ordinates are actually our only identity. We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else. And this, in an over-simplified nutshell, is the main challenge that postmodernism brought to the great banquet of human ideas because it changed the game from one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am.

That we are truly equal, and that we are mutually self-created and self-creating. These two lessons persist, and they have only a little to do with cynicism or consumerism. Already, Docx is seeing a turn in our society towards authenticity as the new guiding spirit of our age. Creative skill expressed in deeply personal and masterful ways that renew our sense of meaningful community with one another — these are what come to be valued as postmodernism takes its place alongside the many other philosophies of history as just one narrative among many, contributing to the depth and complexity of the world…. just as it had always intended to do.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.