Postmodernism’s Abundance

Shrek is the only one who likes postmodernism.

No one, I think it’s safe to say (it has always been safe to say), likes the term postmodern. As Tadd Adcox notes, “It’s a terrible word. It sounds silly, for one thing.” I myself often like silly things, but I agree that postmodern is too silly, and (more problematically) too uninformative; the term simply means too many things, including:

  1. a loose grouping of formal literary devices, a la Brian McHale’s (excellently useful) Postmodernist Fiction;
  2. an architecture movement, a la Eric Owen Moss‘s monstrosities;
  3. a dance movement, a la Yvonne Rainer;
  4. a branch of philosophy, a la Jean Baudrillard, often conflated with post-structuralism and deconstruction;
  5. a cultural logic or global economic condition, a la Frederick Jameson).

…among much else as well, no doubt. And while these things share certain similarities, they are not the same things—and yet I rarely see people taking the time to distinguish between them. The tendency is toward conflation. And so you get stuff like:

Shrek 4 is so postmodern.”

“Really? How so? Aesthetically? Economically? In terms of its identity politics? All three? Just one?”

“Uh…Well, it’s, like, so glib.”

Postmodern has long been a default word that no longer means much of anything.

Here’s another problem with postmodernism. I’ll try listing all of the major fiction, poetry, film, comics, visual art, theater, and music movements I can at the moment think of, from 1930 to the present. No doubt I’ll miss a lot (and reveal my biases), but consider this a start then—I’m not trying to create any kind of definitive list:

1931–1935 Objectivist Poetry (William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker)

1933–1964 Classic Hollywood Cinema (Howard Hawks, George Cukor)

1938–1948 Golden Age of Comics (Bob Kane, Carl Barks, Will Eisner)

Art by Will Eisner1938–1960 Existentialism II (Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus)

I’d define “Existentialism I” as Husserl/Kierkegaard/Nietzsche.

1941–1949 Bebop (Chet Baker, Art Blakey)

1941–1959 Film Noir (Jacques Tourneur, Anthony Mann)

1942–1957 Lettrism (Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître)

Isidore Isou, "Portrait" (1952)

1946–1960 Abstract Expressionism (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock)

Helen Frankenthaler, "Mountains and Sea" (1952)

1947–1960 San Francisco Renaissance (Kenneth Rexroth, Paul Duncan, Jack Spicer)

1947–1964 Theater of the Absurd (Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet)

(This is a much later adaptation of a Genet novel, not a play—but I love this film so much I wanted to include it.)

1948–1958 Beat poetry (Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs)

1949–1957 Black Mountain College (Ed Dorn, Charles Olson)

1950s New York School (poetry) (John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch)

1950–1959 Cool Jazz (Miles Davis)

1951–1961 Method Realism (Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan)

1951–1965 Angry Young Men/Kitchen Sink Realism (John Osborne, Harold Pinter)

1954—1965 Camp Art (Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith)

1954–1967 Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein)

Richard Hamilton, "Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?" (1956)

1955–1962 1950s Melodramas (Douglas Sirk)

1955–1980 Mail Art (Mark Bloch, On Kawara)

1955–1985 Magic Realism (Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie)

1956–1964 Nouveau Roman (Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute)

1956–1970 Silver Age of comics (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko)

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko (1963)

1956–present Systems Novel (William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, David Foster Wallace)

1957–1966 The Black Comedy (Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, Nichols and May, Philip Roth)

1957–1968 Happenings (Allan Kaprow)

1957–1968/1972 Situationist International (Guy Debord)

1959–1965 Confessional Poetry (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton)

1960s Conceptual Art (Henry Flynt, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Piero Manzoni)

1960s Free Jazz (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra)

1960–1962 Nouveau réalisme (Pierre Restany, Yves Klein)

1960–1967 French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda)

1960–2009 The OuLiPo (Harry Mathews, François Le Lionnais, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud)

1961–1970 Op Art (Josef Albers, John McHale, Bridget Riley)

Bridget Riley, Cataract 3 (1967)

1961–1971 Motown (The Temptations, Jackson 5)

1962–1965 Folk Revival (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan)

1963–1967 The British Invasion (Beatles, Stones)

1963–1978 FLUXUS (George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles)

1966–1971 Concrete Poetry (Emmett Williams, John Furnival)

John Furnival, manhattan series (1971) (detail)

1966–1978 Metafiction (William H. Gass, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut)

1968–1972 Tropicália (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso)

1967–1975 Prog Rock (King Crimson, Pink Floyd)

1967–1976 Minimalist music (Philip Glass, Steve Reich)

1967–1978 Jazz Fusion (Miles Davis, Chick Corea)

1967–1979 Funk (James Brown, Parliament)

1967–1979 Electric Folk (Fairport Convention, The Byrds)

1967–1980 Heavy Metal I (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath)

1967–1980 New Hollywood (Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman)

1967–present Walking Art (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy, Francis Alÿs)

Richard Long, "A Line Made by Walking" (1967)

1968–1973 Land Art (Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta Clark, Ana Mendieta)

1968–1974 Krautrock (Can, Kraftwerk)

1970s Performance Art (Carolee Schneemann, Joseph Beuys)

1970–1986 Bronze Age of Comics (Neal Adams, Chris Claremont)

Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano (1971)

1972–1975 Glam Rock (Bowie, Roxy Music)

1974–1978 Punk (The Ramones, Patti Smith)

1975 Surfiction (Raymond Federman)

1975–1980 Disco (Donna Summer, The Bee Gees)

1976–1987 New Wave (Television, Talking Heads, Blondie)

1978–1984 Post-Punk (The Fall, Joy Division)

1978–1979 No Wave (Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, The Contortions)

1977–1983 New Narrative (Kathy Acker, Gail Scott)

1978–present Hip Hop (Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash)

Hip hop of course splits off into a million different sub-genres…

1978–1983 Oi! (Angelic Upstarts, The Business)

1978–1998 Language poetry (Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman)

1980s Avant-Jazz (John Zorn, Lounge Lizards)

1980–1986 Hardcore (Black Flag, Bad Brains)

1980–1990 Noise Rock (Lydia Lunch, Swans, Boredoms)

1980–1991 Alternative Rock (R.E.M., Pixies)

1982–1988 Second British Invasion (Culture Club, Duran Duran, U2)

1982–1995 Tweepop (Television Personalities, beat happening, Magnetic Fields)

1985–1994 Gothic Rock (Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure)

1985–1995 New Formalism (poetry) (Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell)

1986–1990 Gangsta Rap (Schoolly D, Ice T, N.W.A.)

1986–1990 Hair Metal (Van Halen, Poison, Twisted Sister)

1986–1992 Modern Age of Comics (Gritty Realism) (Frank Miller, Alan Moore)

Art by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley (1986)

1988–1994 New New Hollywood (Spike Lee, Wayne Wang, Leslie Harris)

1991–1996 Grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam)

1993–2000 The Bristol Sound (Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky)

1992–1996 Image Age of Comics (Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane)

Art by Todd McFarlane (1992)

1992–1999 Riot-Grrl (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Miranda July)

1994–1997 Britpop (Blur, Pulp)

1996–2003 Alt-Country (Wilco, Son Volt)

1996–present Chamber Pop (Belle & Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Los Campesinos!)

1998–2007 Post-Language (Juliana Spahr, Lisa Jarnot)

1998–2009 Elliptical Poetry (C. D. Wright)

1999–2008 Metafiction Revival (Dave Eggers)

2000–2007 Garage Band Revival (The Strokes, The Killers, Interpol)

2001–2008 Conceptual Poetics (Kenny G)

2009 The New Thing (poetry)

This last one is too new for me to even know what it is.

Maybe it's this?

…Well, no doubt I’ve missed several things (music’s especially impossible to categorize in this way); note too that I fudged some of the dates (because it’s impossible, really, to date these kinds of things).

But my point is this: At one point or another, I’ve seen everything on this list (with the exception of maybe the first couple of things, and that last thing) described as postmodern.

What an amazing little term to mean so much!


30 thoughts on “Postmodernism’s Abundance

  1. “I’ll try listing all of the major fiction, poetry, film, comics, visual art, theater, and music movements I can at the moment think of, from 1930 to the present,” is like classic A D Jameson.

    I friggin love that Fassbinder Querelle film, warts and all. Each man kills the thing he loves.

    Gal Costa, Os Mutantes and Tom Ze are sad you didn’t include them in your tropicalia parentheses.

    Same for Dennis Cooper, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck and Sam D’Allesandro re: new narrative.

        • I figured as much, but I felt I should have put up that disclaimer.

          You can see where I was feeling clever above, because I picked different YouTube examples than the “representative” names that I mentioned.

          And Fassbinder’s Querelle is one of the greatest films ever made. I sometimes can’t believe that it exists—or that so few people know about it. You watch that film and you wonder why the world isn’t different.

          Btw, Tim, my friend Aurora and I have been talking about organizing a Berlin Alexanderplatz viewing club. Two parts/week, seven weeks. Interested?

  2. so is modernism a useless term too?

    when a term grows so large that it encompasses a plethora of entities, why does it become useless? why can’t there be a hierarchy of conceptual dimension in the manner of biological classification? species -> genus -> family -> order etc.? in which case, romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, etc. would be as much indicative of historicity and era as it would of ideological and conceptual trends and norms.

    if we take a gross cross-section of the last 60 years and look at the dominant trends (for which i’m indebted to your posts for introducing me to the idea) which nonetheless have a lineage but are in no way transtemporal (our understanding of the word ‘nature’ in the 21st century is hardly commensurable to the same word used in the 19th century with relation to romanticism), then why can’t we give it a name as a way to communicate a sense of age, a quality of milieu?

    i was looking out my window the other day where in my neighbor’s driveway, just a few feet from my backdoor, the kids were blasting deathmetal on a boombox, while the youngest kid, a five year-old girl, was skipping around to the music with flowers in her hand and a bright smile on her face, and i thought goddamn, if this isn’t an everyday embodiment of the postmodern age we live in, then i don’t know what is; and more than ever i felt i was living not just in the ceaseless flux of time but in the palpable atmosphere of a sense-tangible era.

  3. I’m tempted to agree with Keith, that maybe “postmodern” is a workable term for the grand tendencies of the age, and the various postmodernisms have a species-genus relationship to it.

    That still leaves us, over at Artifice, with the issue of what to call the specific aesthetic we’re interested in (ie, “non-realist, interested in the materiality of the text, paying attention to the possibilities of form without being necessarily or strictly formalist”). We’re certainly not aiming for all of the postmodernisms above.

    Great post, btw, AD. Like Darby, I honestly don’t understand how you have time to do all of this.

    • Keith, Tadd,

      If postmodern is currently useless as a term, I’d argue that 1) it has become useless (meaning it may have once been more useful), and 2) it’s useless due to the overgeneralized way in which people tend to use it. If people use it more carefully, it may still have some use. But it’s become trendy—it has long been trendy—to call things postmodern, to the point where everything is postmodern, and so nothing is.

      The only postmodernism that still makes any sense to me, really, is Frederick Jameson’s conception: all of these things were made in a time and place of late capitalism, in a fairly similar infrastructure and general culture—and so they may share a similar Zeitgeist influence (or Spirit, if one wants to get Hegelian). (This is what I see you arguing, Keith.) And that’s an interesting, and maybe useful, way to think. Although I also think it’s kinda wishy-washy. What is one ultimately trying to argue?

      I mean, just look at the 1980s alone. I just watched St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) again, and in some ways it’s very indicative of “the 1980s” as many people remember it: big hair, skinny ties, cocaine. But was that really the 1980s? That decade also saw hip hop, oi!, Language poetry, avant-jazz, hardcore punk, noise rock, alternative rock, the second British Invasion, twee-pop, Gothic rock, the New Formalism, gangsta rap, hair metal, the Silver and Modern Ages of comics, and much more. There’s overlap here and there, but do they all share the same features? And, by the way, Samuel Beckett was still alive then, and still writing. As was Donald Barthelme. And here are some other movies that also came out in 1985 (I’m listing the ones I’ve seen):

      A Zed and Two Naughts
      After Hours
      Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend
      Back to the Future
      Bez konca (No End)
      Day of the Dead
      Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime)
      Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
      My Beautiful Laundrette
      National Lampoon’s European Vacation
      Pale Rider
      Rocky IV
      Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond)
      Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird
      Seven Minutes in Heaven
      Spies Like Us
      Teen Wolf
      The Black Cauldron
      The Care Bears Movie
      The Goonies
      The Journey of Natty Gann
      The Purple Rose of Cairo
      Young Lady Chatterley II

      Clue and Brazil came out in the same year! Alongside
      Cocoon and My Beautiful Laundrette. And Pale Rider and Young Lady Chatterley II. Tell me what those films all share in common, and I’ll buy you a ham sandwich.

      What’s more, the more I look at particular trends and movements, the more I see not overall similarities, but rather individual traditions that pass through those dominant times. I think it’s easy to demonstrate/see that punk rock is its own lineage that exists largely in opposition to the prog-rock/glam/psychadelic tradition. And that hip hop is another simultaneous tradition or lineage. Sometimes they intersect, but for the most part they’re ships in the night. There’s less of this kind of thing than one thinks.

      Just think about today. We’re all experimental fiction enthusiasts, right? So we spend all our time hanging out with all the other writers out there, correct? Meaning we’re always exchanging ideas with lyric poets and mainstream realists and fantasy authors and children writers, etc. Because we’re all of the same moment, right? …No, I think that’s obviously false. Small-press experimental fiction writers have their own canon and body of influences and values—their own dominants that carry cultural currency—and many of those things come from before now. Pynchon and Gaddis and Barthelme and Maso and Acker don’t carry the same weight in the fantasy tradition, or lyric poetry tradition, as they do among us folk. Who meanwhile probably don’t care all that much what Maxine Kumin writes. Has anyone here ever written an experimental short story influenced by Maxine Kumin? And yet for a certain crowd, she’s Queen Dominant.

      Another for instance: I used to hang out with a crowd of ballroom dance enthusiasts. And they wear a lot of 50s fashions, and on Friday nights they dance the Lindy Hop and the Charleston to live big bands. They’re living in a different world, in many ways, than a kid on Chicago’s South Side who idolizes Jay-Z and loves Transformers. Those ballroom dancers feel more connection, perhaps, to a past time and place than they do to their current moment. The 1970s punks felt similarly out of time and place, and reached back to the 1950s and 60s, rejecting what was dominant in their cultural moment.

      Similarly, the more I study Romanticism, the more I see how a lot of Postmodernism’s supposedly defining features pre-existed Postmodernism. I’m not saying that different times and places aren’t different—they certainly are—but I’ve grown very wary of the sweeping generalizations of the Eras (especially ones that folks can’t think outside of—you can say I’ve lost my faith in Grand Narratives. It’s only fair to turn Postmodern thought back on itself.).

      So I do think that there could be a hierarchy of concepts, the same way that one could say “the 1980s was a time of big hair and skinny ties and cocaine”—but I think that this kind of approach can obscure as much as it reveals. And I rarely see people talking about that; instead, I tend to see people nodding and agreeing that the times, they are Postmodern.

      In other words: I think there’s validity in taking the opposite approach, and denying the legitimacy of concepts like postmodernism, modernism, romanticism. And yet I see very few people (other than the longue durée school, or Steven Moore) doing that. (Indeed, doesn’t the whole idea seem something like blasphemy?) I think this exposes a critical shortcoming in contemporary writing and lit studies.


      • …I feel like “postmodern” also has some utility (I guess this is the philosophical perspective? Maybe also some of the Jameson?) in describing the way sort-of master theories of society/culture/political economy, like Enlightenment principles or doctrinaire Marxism, are no longer considered viable. And so that power may still be linked w/ inequality and hierarchy and hegemonies, but it also cannot be clearly located, it is dispersed, and so individuals’ complicity and self-regulation is understood as playing a critical role in maintaining the dominant whatever. …Maybe some of that is poststructuralism, though.

        And re: lit and cultural products, I’ve understood the distinction btwn modernism and postmodernism to be fracture/digression/collage/disconnect, etc that resolves into some unifying sense-making moment (modernism) vs. fracture/digression/disconnect, etc that never resolves (postmodernism).

        • I think one can make that first argument, Tim, but then one has at least two problems:
          1.) The Romantics rejected Enlightenment principles much more fiercely than we have today (well, they rejected some of those principles—like mastering nature)—so what were they? And how did those principles “come back”? (Thank God we didn’t try to master nature in the Gulf of Mexico! Coulda been a disaster!)
          2.) Enlightenment principles are still very much considered viable. Which is in some ways a good thing: I think the Texas Board of Education should be hauled out back and…taught evolution. Or at least not allowed to dictate the contents of textbooks. …But those EP’s can also be bad things, to be sure. (See Curt White for a very useful distinction between “Good” and “Bad” Enlightenment.)

          Well, it’s a good thing that Enlightenment principles no longer hold sway, and the US never invaded Iraq or Afghanistan! (And certainly not on the premise that democracy is the greatest form of government, to the extent that it should be imposed on other people—and through techno-military force.) Or that the “master (economic) theory” of global capitalism hasn’t conquered the entire fucking earth!

          If anything, from this point of view, Romanticism and Postmodernism were resistance strategies thrown up against “Bad Enlightenment”…that then failed.

          As for the differences between Modernism and Postmodernism that you cite, to my knowledge the source for that line of thinking is Helmut Lethen’s 1986 essay “Modernism Cut in Half: The Exclusion of Avant-Garde and the Debate on Postmodernism.” McHale quotes Lethen’s very influential binary in Constructing Postmodernism:

          Construction of a world-model
          Ontological certainty

          Deconstruction of a world-model
          Ontological uncertainty

          Note, though, that McHale then goes on to raise a fair number of objections to those lists; the way I read him, he prefers to view Modernism and Postmodernism as critical modes that readers employ to call those features forward—make them dominant—in texts. So one can read, say, The Making of Americans looking for examples of either hierarchy or anarchy, either presence or absence, and so on. That makes more sense to me than most other views.

          As for the lit and cultural products themselves: as Gass has noted many times, they really just sit there, wanting only to be loved.

  4. Adam,

    I’d agree entirely that there are different traditions that tend to develop through time more or less distinctly (though I’d argue there’s a bit more give-and-take between traditions than you seem to allow for here. Barth & Barthelme were both reading Carver–and I can’t help but see the Carver aesthetic of realist authenticity coloring the work of the otherwise very Barthelme-influenced Saunders).

    The idea of different traditions, however, leads me back to my original question: what do we call the tradition of Barthelme, Barth, Coover, et al–the tradition that tends to be referred to by lit folks, unfortunately, as “postmodernism”?

    • Oh, certainly there’s crossover. And some figures go in different directions: Carver clearly influenced both the realists and the anti-realists. (I went to be very happy one day after learning that David Foster Wallace shared my view that Carver was an experimental writer.) One sees the same problem with John Cheever: the realists claimed him for a while, but he was always much more than that. (So what was he? Why, a misanthropic fabulist!)

      Of all the terms we could be calling “small-press experimental fiction,” I think “postmodern” is one of the worst. I don’t consider myself a postmodernist at all (if anything, I’m more a late or neo-Romantic—I think), although I’ve definitely learned a few tricks from what Brian McHale calls Postmodernist Fiction. But in all honesty, I don’t sit around worrying about this kind of thing. I like what I like, without apology, regardless of Movement (and that includes D. H. Lawrence, Philip K. Dick, Patricia Highsmith, Ann Beattie, and J.K. Rowling—so go figure).

      Regarding “what we do,” I don’t think there’s anything really all that wrong with the term “experimental”—I vastly prefer it to “innovative” or “avant-garde,” which are both terrible, though for different reasons. Though of course no one need agree with me on this or on anything else.

      Overall, though, I have to wonder why so many are so very concerned with such labels; I think it’s a very late capitalist activity—or better put, pro-bureaucracy. “Where should we file the Fassbinder films? In the German New Wave section, or the Queer Cinema section?” (Personally, I’d put them in the “Awesome As All Fuck” section.) Queue the creaky old debates over whether Gertrude Stein was a Modernist or a Postmodernist, a fiction-writer or a poet, a Cubist or a Dadaist, etc. … It can all be so boring (not to mention an excuse to do anything but read her).

  5. i agree that orders of magnification can ‘obscure as much as they reveal’, and depending on the direction you go (zoom in or zoom out) will determine whether you see similarities or differences; and i definitely admire the desire to ‘deny the legitimacy of concepts’ that might have obfuscating effects, but just generating a list of differences doesn’t strike me as an effective approach, except maybe as an introduction to a longer discussion (which perhaps is what is happening in this comment thread). granted, i honestly don’t know shit about postmodernism, but two possible things come to mind. as you pointed out, postmodernism has a variety of uses and definitions and so maybe should be analyzed and treated as a homonym, the same word with multiple definitions depending on the context. although, i don’t know if such an approach would be trivial or not. and the other is that i just read mchale’s part 1 of ‘constructing postmodernism’ (or the parts i could access on google’s book search) and it seems like an instrumentalist account of the scientific method: there are competing theories attempting to offer explanations (which consequentially are considered nothing more than narratives) of a particular phenomenon, and whichever one satisfies the most criteria for usefulness is the one considered true (not in the stong ontological sense, but in the weak pragmatic sense). except, in the case of postmodernism, each theory has the same name as the phenomenon they’re attempting to describe. the postmodern condition seems to be the phenomenon, but depending on the theorist, that condition (or phenomenon) has different properties, i.e. there’s no objective measurable quantities (or in this case qualities) that each theorist can point to and agree on as fundamental data (which ironically seems to be one of the very features of postmodernism). and there also seem to be (referring back to orders of classification) varying scopes concerning the breadth of the theories, from lit theory (which seems to be mchale’s concern) to societal and economic structures (which i’m assuming is jameson’s late capitalist concern) to philosophy (i suppose lyotard?). it resembles einstein’s special and general theory of relativity, in which different features of the theory dominate under different circumstances and scope of consideration, as well as the fact that previous theories, like newton’s, can be subsumed under relativity as limiting cases, true up until a point. or something like that.

    in order to prevent the obscuring tendency of post-useful ideas, it does seem like there needs to be some extensive house-cleaning done on postmodernism.

    • Hi Keith,

      I have no desire to just “generate lists of differences.” I like synthesis a lot; I tend to be a synthetic thinker. But synthesis has its limits, and lumping anything and everything together as “the postmodern” is, I think, asking for trouble.

      I believe this instead: There are a lot of different communities out there, operating in different traditions. Sometimes there is overlap between those traditions. Sometimes they are far apart from one another. Those traditions have their own dominant influences and canons, their own celebrities and whipping boys. They are also at the same time affected by outside contemporary events (although the way different communities react to those events can be quite different).

      I think it’s very easy to see examples of this. So, for instance, in music, in late-19th century Europe, some people became dissatisfied with tonal harmony (and some people did not). Far East stuff was very much in vogue in Paris at the time, and Claude Debussy and some others were inspired after hearing gamelan music to work more in equal temperment. That led gradually to atonalism, then to Schönberg’s twelve-tone method, then serialism. You can chart a pretty steady progression—it’s not 1-to-1 linear, and it involves lots of different people with different ideas and attitudes, but there’s a pretty clear tradition. By the 1960s, many (if not most) US/Europe music academies are exclusively teaching serialist composition.

      But not everyone was making serial music! Far from it; serlialism had little impact outside the academies. Mainstream concert halls kept playing mostly 19th-century Romantic music. (Ask an average person to name a classical composer, and they’ll name Mozart or Beethoven.) John Williams is the most popular American composer of the 70s and 80s. The Beatles became enamored with Indian composition in the mid-1960s, but they found this approach due to a resurgence of interest in Eastern spirituality (and drugs), not because Pierre Boulez stopped by and suggested they explore alternatives to Bach’s keyboard tunings.

      And there are other traditions. John Cage split with Schönberg, went off and studied something totally (and tonally) different. He amassed his own following. Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Terry Riley came along, didn’t like either serialism or Cage; inspired largely by La Monte Young, they went and founded Minimalism. (And Glass took very different inspiration from Indian music than George Harrison did.) And meanwhile, people were still listening to Gershwin! And Miles Davis was doing his own thing in jazz, exploring concerns more exclusive to that field. But at the same time, people were still playing bebop, even as Davis was progressing from cool jazz to free jazz to jazz fusion. And people still play bebop today! (Most jazz radio stations ignore jazz music 1960 through today, the same way most classical music radio stations ignore most classical music 1900 through today.) … Woodie Allen plays Dixieland jazz every Monday night in Manhattan, probably only a few blocks from where John Zorn plays! It’s like they’re speaking different languages than one another. (Zorn can probably understand some of Allen’s language, while Allen probably can’t speak a word of Zorn’s.)

      So you have all these different communities, with their own values and approaches and concerns. Like I said, it’s so easy to find examples of this. In high school and college I was a goth; I had my goth fashions and goth heroes. Which were different from the kids who smoked pot and listened to Rusted Root and Phish. And different yet from the fratboys who drank cheap beer and listened to…well, I don’t know what they listened to. Ace of Bass? Bon Jovi? Boys II Men?

      What becomes interesting here is how these different groups are different, and how they came to be the way they are—the individual traditions they’re following. How does a person end up in one movement or group or school and not some other? Well, how does someone become a Muslim instead of a Roman Catholic? … They grow up in a Muslim area! They learn values and a tradition from their culture. In the same way, if you attend Columbia and study with Ben Marcus, there’s a decent chance you’re going to write more like Ben Marcus. If you go instead to Trinity College in Dublin, and study with Richard Ford—or go to Utah and study with Lance Olsen—you’ll be exposed to different influences, a different tradition.

      Writers don’t like to hear this, because of course we’re all geniuses doing our own things. And, of course, a Muslim can convert to Roman Catholicism, and vice-versa. When I was a kid, my grandmother bought me some Transformers and G.I. Joe comics, and I ended up falling in love with Marvel comics. I was like six at the time. I read X-Men and Incredible Hulk religiously; I also liked Nintendo games and ninjas. And a little later on, my mom bought be some Lloyd Alexander novels, and I ended up falling in love with fantasy fiction; I gobbled down J.R.R. Tolkien but also (and I say this with shame) Dragonlance novels. Yes.

      Those things didn’t have to happen. I could have been given western novels, in which case maybe I’d be a huge Cormac McCarthy fan today? Or I could have been not reading at all. Coulda become a biosurgeon.

      When I got to college, I was told that comics and fantasy novels were stupid, and that I should want to write like Ann Beattie instead. So for a while I wrote stories that were imitative of Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Margaret Atwood. You should have seen what a little minimalist darling I was!

      Then I “discovered” Donald Barthelme (a teacher made me read “Brain Damage”), and realized I had other options—or at least one other option. I wanted to write more like Donald Barthelme! This is the first story I ever published; look at what pure Barthelme imitation it is! I’m so ashamed of it now, I had to change my name.

      Later on I went to ISU, where David Foster Wallace was teaching, and…most of my classmates there wanted to write like DFW! Quel surprise. I was more interested in writing like David Markson, so I went and worked at Dalkey for a while. Before that, I worked a bit for FC2. You can say I “converted” to postmodernist fiction. (Although since then I’ve become more of a lapsed postmodernist.)

      Anyway. Take a raver to a coffeehouse to hear some Celtic folk music, or a coffeehouse singer-songwriter to a rave. Observe what happens. …It’s easy to see these different traditions in music.


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  7. This is a profound breakdown of significant cultural achievements, however generalized or incomplete. Funny thing, to me, though, is how the list itself *is* postmodern.

    I’m far from a theorist, Adam, but my conception of postmodernism (in a very small yet workable nut, I think) is just what your list and some blogs (like this one, often) and YouTube and Pandora and mashups and contemporary “new music” and a whole lotta 21st-century (and latter-day 20th century) creative efforts achieve (or strive for): namely, art objects or ideas or discussions that utilize (due to unprecedented access to information and multimedia documents) the “knowledge” of multiple cultures, disciplines and historical time periods — simultaneously — in the service of a new/now creation.

    Sure, this kind of definition would apply to jazz in its infancy, let’s say, and many other genres of art-/idea-making — almost nothing ever exists in a vacuum (even Henry Darger’s closeted work, which appropriated kiddie-book images to tell personal-mythic tales that showed he had an unusually limited understanding of human anatomy and real-life interaction) — but the degree to which, in 2010, everything exists in the *now* was unimaginable just a generation ago. So it seems to me that whenever we encounter such a fevered kind of coexistence in a creative act, well… that’s postmodernism writ large.

    (Not that the label needs to be applied to anything, really, or even matters to anyone other than scholars.)

    • I do agree that we live in a different time. Having access to all this information, and all these video clips, is certainly something new. I couldn’t have written this post five years ago, before YouTube. There were no blogs ten years ago. Thirty years ago, there was no internet for us to do this kind of thing with. So this is definitely something new (and, again, if postmodernism makes any sense to me, it makes sense to me a la F. Jameson’s Marxist conception: a reconfiguration of the societal superstructure proceeding from a reconfiguration of the economic base. Global capitalism, and current technology, has changed the way people operate socially, including the kind of art they make; there’s truth in that).

      …Although is it really so new? I mean, libraries used to exist. (They still might.) And people historically have long had knowledge from all over the place—they just had it differently. Look at Art Nouveau (1895–1905), in particular the “Chinoiserie” aspects of it. Or the impact West African art had on the Cubists.

      This kind of thing has been going on for longer than people think. They say, for instance, that Milton had read “everything worth reading” before he wrote Paradise Lost, which is an attempt to synthesize all human knowledge (all Western knowledge) up to that point. And: Is Southern Italian cuisine postmodern, taking as it does its noodles from China, its tomatoes and peppers from South America?

      I’m not trying to say there’s nothing new about the present. But these days I’m less interested in perceiving the present as a break with the past (“post-anything”), and more as a continuation of trends that have been going on for a long time—which is something that chopping time up into eras and movements obscures.

      People always want to pretend they’ve invented something new. They rarely have.

    • I also should add: I agree there’s something new about the present—there always is—but is postmodern the best way to describe that newness?

      Look, for instance, at how Brian McHale describes postmodernist fiction: he claims that such work foregrounds ontological concerns, as opposed to epistemological concerns (which are more central to Modernism). So, in his estimation, the detective novel is Modernist (being about the hunt to uncover what has been concealed), while the science fiction novel is postmodern (being as it so often is about the collision of two worlds). …Well, I suppose that makes sense (although of course it gets a lot messier the closer you look). Let’s accept it for now.

      Proceeding from this definition, then this post would be pretty postmodern: I’ve juxtaposed dozens of different artworks from different places and times, different (sub-)cultures. I’d say that’s more ontologically disruptive than epistemological.

      But can we proceed from there to say that all of these artworks are postmodern? It gets a lot harder to say so definitively (and I’d claim the answer is in fact no). McHale himself realized that, which is why he retreated from this binary in Constructing Postmodernism, putting the question of whether an artwork “is” Modernist or Postmodernist more in the hands of the critic who’s asking the question.

      Because what does it mean for an artwork to “foreground” anything? Well, one answer there is to say: what elements are dominant? That’s an answerable question. But then the question becomes: are those elements more concerned with ontology or epistemology? Ah, that gets a lot more subjective! Stein, inspired by Cubism, breaks language down in Making of Americans. But why? To what effect? Ontological or epistemological? Different critics will read it differently (and it’s nice to have both readings).

      Meanwhile, McHale’s distinction doesn’t make as much sense when applied to the world at large. Is the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico Modernist or Postmodernist? (Does it foreground ontological or epistemological issues?) … What do questions like that even mean?

      Let’s look at it a different way. The technology to drill oil offshore was invented in the 1890s, and has been being refined ever since. The US grew steadily dependent on oil, first domestic, then foreign, starting in the 1870s. Dwight D. Eisenhower, returning from Europe enamored with the Autobahn and Le Cobusier’s boulevards, decreed that the US should have an interstate highway system, and then turned a blind eye to the dismantling of the US rail system. Cars proliferated. … There’s a long and complex history here. I don’t see what’s gained, really, by claiming the current situation is Postmodern, divorced from what came before. Indeed, I think that understanding the history is essential to knowing how we came to be in this current mess.

  8. I’m with you, Adam, re: what do questions like that even mean?

    I know libraries still exist. That’s where I get my DVDs.

    I agree with you that there’s never really a break or divorce from what came before. What I believe comes “*after* ‘modernism'” is the mashup, the car crash, multicultural collision, aka splooge.

    I feel like we’re deep into this period now. Can we call it universalism? It probably started post-Civil War in the States as the Industrial Revolution started to zoom, and then once the Jazz Age hit, there was no turning back.

    Maybe in this way we’re one step closer to authentic humanism, which someone more theoretically inclined than myself might argue is de facto a kind of post-humanism. Then again, one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, dip, baby, dip… as the world turns…

    • The problem is, not everyone’s on the same page. As I was saying to someone last week (a young revolutionary at a Marxist-Leninist conference): ask a random Thai person what’s wrong with the world right now, and he’ll tell you it’s the Red Shirts contesting the legitimacy of Abhisit’s government. Ask a Gulf fisherman, and she’ll tell you it’s the oil spill. Ask a Greek economist, and he’ll tell you it’s the sovereign debt crisis… Not everyone’s sitting in their apartment, embedding YouTube videos. Not everyone has an iPhone.

      The United States has enjoyed a period of relative prosperity for the past 60 years, and academics are a particularly sheltered bunch. From that vantage point, it’s easy to project theories like “postmodernism” out onto the whole world. But most of the world has no idea what we’re talking about.

      (I’ve been receiving emails from a friend who’s in India,

      As for trying to apply postmodernist ideas to the Gulf disaster: Well, pomo philosophical theory (Lyotard, Baudrillard) teaches us that our access to the real world is mediated by language, and therefore what we think of as “the real” is rather a linguistic construction. This is a useful observation in many ways. Who’s controlling the narrative down in the Gulf? (BP appears to be.) Can environmentalists use this opportunity as a point of resistance, fabricating a new thought in the social imagination, a vision of a future in which we stop burning oil for power? Possibly. (While at the gym a couple days ago I saw an ad for wind power that was directly in response to the Gulf disaster.) … What is “the Gulf”? The maps I see of it on TV don’t even display Mexico, just the southern United States. Hey! Maybe Mexico has some interest in what’s happening down there! Why have they (literally) been written out of the picture?

      But I would maintain that this view of the world is not a new one. It is an old one. The Greeks understood this; they created ontological philosophy (or at least developed it to the point where we today can recognize it). And a lot of what pomo teaches us isn’t anything new—indeed, that was a constant criticism leveled against Derrida (that he wasn’t ever saying anything new).

      So what was pomo? Well, it was these ideas, which have long existed, becoming dominant again. The world changed—or at least it changed in the States, and in Europe—parts of the US and Europe—and this kind of ontological criticism became fashionable again.

      …That’s what I’d argue. Again, I think these things make much more sense when reconnected to their historical traditions and contexts than when separated.

      • (I’ve been receiving emails from a friend who’s in India,

        That was just too much to go into, I decided. BUT—

        —notice that even when one ERASES something—

        —there remains a TRACE!

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