note: I’ve long been annoyed by those who criticize postmodernism, without really knowing much about it. So here are some rudimentary thoughts meant to refute those naive critics. I intend to submit it to a promising new media platform called Unherd, which explains the reference in the last paragraph below.
Historical periodisation is a notoriously difficult problem. Eric Hobsbaum famously wrote of the long 19th century, which in his view, came to end only in 1918 at the close of World War I. That would of course leave us with a short 20th century of only 82 years. Based on Hobsbaum’s reasoning for his periodisation, things become even more complicated. For a Marxist, historical periods are determined by the means of production that give rise to them, and determine the economic form of the period. So a change in the form of the economy requires historians to give an account of a new periodisation. ‘Postmodernism’ is the name used by some to describe the economic shift from the industrial-military complex to the industrial-information-military complex. Most historians and economic historians are in agreement that the latter has produced a form of digital economy that is radically different than that of industrial capital. The digitization of capital is what has made globalisation possible. In other words, information-based capital has led directly to a transnational economy in which corporations are no longer tied, completely, to nation states and their forms of governance, whether they are representational democracies or totalitarian regimes like Saudia Arabia. Global economics, in other words, has transcended most forms of governance meant to regulate it.
This state of economic affairs is what many economists refer to as ‘postmodernity’, a period of history that is no longer determined by the means of production that regulated ‘modernity’, but has been set on a new course of historical development determined by globalised, digital economics. While many scholars in many different fields are not in agreement about the terminology, they are generally agreed with the description I’ve just recounted. That said, there is no consensus for what the term postmodernism means, and it has been used in widely divergent fields of enquiry. The earliest use of the term was by the architectural historian Charles Jencks in 1972. His term was largely used aesthetically, to describe forms of architecture that mixed styles from different historical periods, or turned away from the rationalized, machinic, modernist style of form-follows-function toward ornamentation and figuration. A second landmark use of the term was in the title of Jean-François Lyotard’s book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, published in 1979. From there, the term was quickly picked up in the writings of American, UK, and French philosophers, literary theorists, critical theorists, and cultural studies proponents as it originally emerged in its British Marxist form at University of Birmingham through the work in particular of Stuart Hall. Fredrick Jameson and David Harvey were two of the most prominent scholars of postmodernism in the US.
The history and genealogy of the term is complex and cannot be sufficiently accounted for here. But it’s important to note that it wrongly became allied in particular with the difficult writings of a group of French philosophers that came to be collectively called, poststructuralism, that included Jacque Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze and many others associated with the Tel Quel group. Meanwhile, postmodernism became, from the 1980 through the mid-2000s, a prominent category in the art world. By the mid-2000s, a backlash against postmodernism, poststructuralism, and cultural studies emerged within universities which succeeded in discrediting these highly important and generative schools of thought.
My point here is that ‘postmodernism’ is not a monolithic term, but has many different meanings which are often not synonymous and often contradictory. The term must be understood, to oversimplify, as used differently in three different primary contexts – art theory, philosophy, and economics. The opponents of postmodernism have been highly vocal from the term’s inception. In large part, its critics have been ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ academics opposed to the leftist, often ‘Marxist’ agenda of the ‘postmodernists’ to provide a rigorous critique of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, power, western dominance, colonialism, and the like. The postmodernists, for example, are those most aligned with multiculturalism, feminism, gender differentiation, interdisciplinary and intersectional research, anti-colonialism, civil rights, social, environmental, and economic justice. It’s fair to say that they have been the most rigorous defenders of these social movements, and the most rigorous theorists and historians of them. Postmodernists have been great champions of cultural diversity and difference for aesthetic, philosophic, economic, political, and ethical reasons.
Now, I’ve been a big fan of Giles Fraser ever since his committed resignation from St. Paul’s over the Occupy Movement’s occupation of that august church’s square. I’m also a big fan of David Foster Wallace. (I consider Infinite Jest one of the great postmodern novels of the postmodern period.) And while I do agree that a small current of postmodernism is fairly described as bereft of moral seriousness, is cynical, and employs a bankrupt irony; I must protest both of their over-generalisations of postmodernism’s faults. Fraser’s comment that
David Foster Wallace was himself a student during the high point of critical theory and post-modern philosophy, a cultural moment that emphasised the need for irony and a kind of self-referential knowingness that looked with suspicion, derision even, at all attempts at moral seriousness.
wrongly conflates postmodernism with philosophy and critical theory. Postmodernism is not a philosophy or a theory. It is a historiographical category meant to periodise and give an account of the social, political, economic, aesthetic, and cultural transformations of global human life on planet Earth since… well, and therein lies the rub. Some would argue since 1968; some since 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall; some since 1991 with the twin occurrences of the fall of the Soviet Union and the invention of the first graphical user interface which allowed the world’s populations access to the World Wide Web. In any of these ‘postmodern’ scenarios, Hobsbaum’s short 20th century would be cut very short indeed. The 21st century would have to be understood as beginning in 1968, 1989, or 1991, when the era of postmodernity began. When, in Marxist language, social relations were put on a radically different footing than those of modernity.
Thus, even if Fraser were correct that postmodernism killed America’s morality, one would have to conclude that it killed morality in the UK, the EU, and the world generally. That seems a bit of a stretch. Why single out America? Particularly if postmodernism had it’s origins in Paris and Birmingham, as well as New York? I doubt that postmodernism, as theorized, had much to do with the terrible state of morality anywhere. But as a general human condition, if my arguments are accepted, then it’s all or nothing. It certainly cannot be limited to a single nationality.
While the term ‘postmodernity’ may legitimately be viewed as a very unsatisfying and even dodgy one; the seriousness, rigor, ethical and political commitments of those willingly or unwillingly subsumed by it, should not be questioned. Not that there isn’t plenty of room for criticism of the thought deemed postmodern. ‘Postmodernists’ are in fact a feisty lot and vigorously argue amongst themselves, as in any other historical era. But what should not be overlooked is their extraordinary influence or the profound contributions they have made to comprehending who we are as a diverse and motley aggregation of human animals.
One last observation. The very title of this new media platform owes it’s possibility to postmodernism. The ‘unherd’ is a perfect example of a deconstructive pun. And the allusion to the ‘herd’ is, knowingly or not, a direct reference to the ‘father’ of postmodernism, Frederick Nietzsche.