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By TODD GITLIN; Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of ''The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage'' and editor of ''Watching Television,'' a collection of essays Published: November 06, 1988
Journals, conferences, galleries and coffeehouses are spilling over with talk about post-modernism. What is this thing, where does it come from, and what is at stake? If it is nothing more than chat to keep the cocktail parties humming, why the volume, why the heat? True, in literature as in art, fashion, architecture, etc., style always attracts interest. On matters of style careers turn and cease to turn; commentators and consumers alike ''position'' themselves to be a la mode. But what is striking in recent years is that elements of a post-modern style have attracted attention (and dismay) in field after field, genre after genre - so that it is reasonable to surmise that a general sensibility is among us. Clearly it cannot be explained by the esthetic problems and history of any particular art form. Postmodernism in the arts corresponds to post-modernism in life, as sketched by the French theorist JeanFrancois Lyotard: ''One litens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and 'retro' clothes in Hong Kong.'' To argue about post-modernism, therefore, is to argue about more than post-modernism. Post-modernism is more than a buzzword or even an esthetic; it is a way of seeing, a view of the human spirit and an attitude toward political as well as cultural possibilities. It has precedents, but in its reach it is the creature of our recent social and political moment. In style, more than style is at stake. To get beyond vague talk and knowing genuflection, it is never a bad idea to start by deciding what we are talking about. We can get a rough fix on post-modernism by contrasting it to its main predecessors, realism and modernism. In the realism that rode high in the 19th century, the work of art was supposed to express unity and continuity. Realism mirrored reality, criticized it and consoled. The individuals portrayed were clearly placed in society and history. High culture was just that - higher, more valuable, than popular culture. In modernism, voices, perspectives and materials were multiple. The unity of the work was assembled from fragments and juxtapositions. Art set out to remake life. Audacious individual style threw off the dead hand of the past. Continuity was disrupted, the individual subject dislocated. High culture quoted from popular culture. Post-modernism, by contrast, is indifferent to consistency and continuity altogether. It selfconsciously splices genres, attitudes, styles. It relishes the blurring or juxtaposition of forms (fictionnonfiction), stances (straight-ironic), moods (violent-comic), cultural levels (high-low). It disdains originality and fancies copies, repetition, the recombination of hand-me-down scraps. It neither embraces nor criticizes, but beholds the world blankly, with a knowingness that dissolves feeling and commitment into irony. It pulls the rug out from under itself, displaying an acute self-consciousness about the work's constructed nature. It takes pleasure in the play of surfaces and derides the search for depth as mere nostalgia for an unmoved mover. It regards ''the individual'' as a sentimental
Laurie Anderson.'' Spalding Gray. television morning shows. and hundreds of more or less skillful derivatives. Still. for all the fanfare. It is too modest (or is that only a ploy?) to pretend to be more than a sequel . But whether disassembling or dissembling. Consider also Australia's Circus Oz. Jacques Lacan. Warhol's multiple-image paintings. ''Characters'' can step out of character. ''The individual'' has decomposed. ''The White Hotel. John Ashbery. for better and for worse: Michael Graves's Portland Building.'' ''language games. One post-modernist trope is the list. Don DeLillo. Doctorow's ''Book of Daniel. so it is appropriate to evoke post-modernism by offering a list of examples. George Coates. True enough. Japanese martial arts. High culture speaks the same language as popular culture. MTV.'' only to live again. ''Miami Vice.attachment. David Hockney (''Surface is illusion. of course. whose jugglers comment on their juggling and crack political jokes in a program infused by (their list) ''Aboriginal influences. nothing lives but ''discourses. known by the company it follows. ''Star Wars. even blurs into it. Donald Barthelme. Las Vegas. Chinese acrobatics. So what's new? It has been argued that post-modernism is nothing more . .'' etc. Robert Rauschenberg's silk screens. Tom Wolfe. Philip Glass. post-modernism is. Max Headroom.than the current phase of a modernist tradition (nice oxymoron!) already nearly a century old. Kathy Acker ransacks and trashes it. Disneyland.'' Consider the student who walks into my office dressed in green jersey. Monty Python. they can die. Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. Middle Eastern tunes. Paul Auster. photo-realism. mirror-glass office building facades.or less .'' ''simulations'' referring to other ''discourses'' ''texts.which may be nothing more than an aftermath or a hiatus. the Kronos Quartet. Philip Johnson's AT&T. Larry Rivers's erasures and pseudo-pageantry. suburban strips. modern dance.'' Kathy Acker. the French theorists Michel Foucault. the Hyatt Regency. shopping malls. but so is depth''). video. Twyla Tharp (choreographing Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra songs). Donald Barthelme is wistful about the dignity of the premodernist tradition (''In the Tolstoy Museum''). L. Frederick Barthelme. the epilogue to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's ''Berlin Alexanderplatz.'' E. ''The Gospel at Colonus. William Burroughs. post-modernism peels away from its predecessor in several respects: its blase tone. as in Philip Roth's novel ''The Counterlife.'' Robert Wilson.'' ''Less Than Zero. the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Philip Roth's ''Counterlife'' (but not ''Portnoy's Complaint'').'' the ''language poets''. Italo Calvino. B-grade detective movies. Isuzu ''He's lying'' commercials. David Byrne. a fiction to be enclosed within quotation marks.'' ''images. Anselm Kiefer. orange skirt and black tights. Indonesian instruments and rhythms. vaudeville. we. the Pompidou Center. and the ubiquitous present of corporate marketing. There are important differences. as ''reality'' has dissolved. as if culture were a garage sale. remote-control-equipped viewers ''grazing'' around the television dial.'' ''texts. news commentary cluing us in to the imagemaking and ''positioning'' strategies of candidates. post-modernists know that they. Irish jigs. are living hip-deep in debris.'' David Letterman. by definition. fireman's balances. Sherrie Levine's photographs of ''classic'' photographs.
They are not incompatible. consumers are pried away from traditions. impressive argument. Voila. * The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson. none is sufficient. this sweeping. is too sweeping. post-modernism expresses the spiritless spirit of a global class linked via borderless mass media with mass culture. The post-modernist style makes sense to the new consumer. whether brand new or a ''new improved'' modernism. then why are their artistic consequences showing up only now? * Perhaps. among others. in the French mode. The question remains.'' How else to represent this new world than through post-modernist flatness? The post-modernist motto is: You can't beat trash culture. whose slapdash style. Their experience denies the continuity of history. and to speak of intrinsic value is mere sentimentality. In the global shopping center (as Richard Barnet and Ronald Muller have called it). once carved out from beneath the murk. Quantum theory and microphysics have undermined certainty and continuity. Moreover. it has been argued. only time.'' Something like this has been argued by the theorist Lyotard (''The Postmodern Condition''). Even ''life styles'' become commodities to be marketed. which enshrines the discontinuous and ''reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. so join it. In order to adapt. an emphasis on packaging and reproducibility: post-modernist art echoes the truth that the arts have become auxiliary to sales. has argued that post-modernism is an ideology well suited to express and further the global economic system that capitalism has become. it glides over actual artists and the relation between specific experience and artistic choices. because the uniqueness of real places is actually waning. scientific reason is the corrosive force that has eroded the authority of narrative style and especially of the grand ''metanarratives'' (the Enlightenment. the economic changes have been at work for 50 or 75 years. It makes much of brand names (even ironically) because they have become the furnishings of our cultural ''home. their selves become ''decentered. postmodernism. I detect six theories.its sense of exhaustion. Each contributes to an explanation. they live in a perpetual present garnished by nostalgia binges. is to insist rather than to argue. etc. The trouble is. but their emphases are different. But the . In effect. its self-conscious bemusement with surfaces. In the recent debates. Highconsumption capitalism requires a ceaseless transformation in style. capitalism. omnivorous consumption and easy travel. just what does post-modernism express (and repress) at this historical moment? Why should this spirit have surfaced recently and why is it so anxiously debated? A phenomenon this sweeping cannot be traced to a single cause.) that purported to justify not only philosophical but artistic claims to have rendered things as they are. Aiming to explain so much. Post-modernist literature cultivates place names in the same way consumers flock to the latest cuisine: in the spirit of the collector. Space is not real. local traditions have been swamped by the workings of the market. a connoisseurship of surface. anything can be bought. Marxism.'' and a well-formed interior life becomes an obsolete encumbrance.
Tichi's observation is acute. if you don't like it. * It is also irresistible to observe that post-modernism extrapolates the long-established eclectic logic of American culture. the critic Cecelia Tichi argues that post-modern fiction . For the cult of the least common denominator is also an American tradition. among others . these writers produce ''short scenes juxtaposed almost at random. History was ruptured. no subject is intrinsically superior to any other. heroes have died and been replaced by celebrities. which underlay the classical faith in linear order and moral clarity. if I understand it.'' Their characters live inconclusively. less melting pot than grab bag. in the middle. * Post-modernism is above all post-1960's. noisy. so does the bland side. post-New Left. They write in the present tense because that is television's only tense: everything is always happening right now. Tichi's speculation that post-modernism echoes (or produces) the Couch Potato phenomenon. Self-regarding irony and blankness are a way of staving off anxieties. Bret Easton Ellis.at least the work of Ann Beattie.'' the essayist Randolph Bourne wrote in 1916. It is post-Vietnam. jostling version of cultural democracy (or. Vulgarized pluralism is the cultural logic of laissez-faire ''anything goes'' is the motto of an elbows-out. ''There is no distinctively American culture. * More concretely and modestly. leveling). its keynote is cultural helplessness. terrors and hungers that have been kicked up but cannot find resolution. the essence of American culture is the variety show. Growing up on fragmented television. rages. Old verities crumbled. finding a place for everyone . we keep cultural peace by forcing everyone to sheathe swords. disrespectful side of post-modernism has a root here. The raucous. I would add to Ms. What could be more American than humbling the highbrow? In this sense. but television cannot explain all of postmodernism. ''forever poised for action rather than engaged in it. taking it for granted.is ''video fiction.post-modernism's prototype. Bobbie Ann Mason and Tama Janowitz. The 1960's exploded our belief in progress. the shimmer of the evanescent. Paul Fussell has made the point that irony became standard in English writing after World War I as a way . passions have been expended. ''It is apparently our lot rather to be a federation of cultures. but new ones have not settled in. But if fiction simply transcribes an impoverished experience. post-Watergate. is it not impoverished fiction? Ms. belief has become difficult. yet the post-modernist style is no more than two decades old. is clumsy: the impact of science has been accelerating for centuries. there are no beginnings or ends. post-hippie. which renders ironic the slug-a-bed passivity that literary moralists deplore: you can mainline your television and mock it.'' Anesthetized writing recreates the experience of watching television to the saturation point. amazing diversity striving for recognition. Post-modernism was born in the United States because juxtaposition was always the essence of a polyethnic culture. Unfortunately.'' because that is what television-watching feels like. to which they gave their fragmented attention.argument. a new generation of fictionists writes in televisionese. the tall tale meant to be simultaneously disbelieved and appreciated.'' One side of American culture since Alexis de Tocqueville's description 150 years ago is the marketplace jamboree. Attention span shriveled. No style.
shopping malls. mannerism and mood music. Therefore culture is a process of recycling. a compendium of antimoralism that shrieks moralistically. but to tell the untellable to those for whom . sense and sensibility. Post-modernism. It's as if the Bomb has already fallen. The fear is that what's underneath hurts too much. Look at me! and Who cares? When writing is imprisoned within previous writing. marooned ''characters'' stare and gesture in its direction. everything is juxtaposable to everything else because nothing matters.) The culture they favor is a passive adaptation to feeling historically stranded . post-mod is. So be cool.and the immigrant diversity of New York. Los Angeles and San Francisco. it would appear the tendency will be with us for some time. recombination.to navigate around the unspeakable.after the 1960's but before what? Perhaps the Bomb. threatening to pulverize everything of value. privatization. better repress it. what hasn't yet been imagined. the larger world. In this light.'' (Perhaps the ultimate post-modern experience is to shift information bits and computer bytes around the world at will and high speed.'' in which a stylized third world stands as a shaky backdrop for opaque intrigues. the void hanging over the horizon. weightlessness.'' which uses the form of a comic book (!) with talking animals (!!) to tell a story about a survivor telling a story about the Holocaust to his son . What. Numb. and not to trash narrative form as such. recreational (not religious or transcendent) drugs and the towering abstraction of money. Post-modernism. This generation is disabused of authority. whether banal or exotic. At its worst. a yuppie outlook. Neither person nor place quite exists. Such a variety of forces have funneled together to nourish post-modernism. which hints at emotion beyond the junkyards of alluringly empty. in other words. the authority of money. But pastiche writing tends to become a scrapbook. Bret Easton Ellis's jejune ''Less Than Zero'' is an easy target. The blank. Nor can it be a criticism of life. it can't attend to what hasn't been written. turns out to be all too embedded in (guess what) history. From this angle. I've-seen-it-all post-modernist tone. only portents. By contrast. but I am more discouraged by the evasions of such novels as Joan Didion's ''Democracy'' and Denis Johnson's ''Stars at Noon. everything has apparently been done. it veers toward tourism. It reflects an experience that takes for granted not only television but suburbs. except. post-modernism is anticipatory shell shock. a refusal to feel (except for punkish rage. is blank. ''THE ONE WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS. To grow up post-1960's is an experience of aftermath. then. is its impact on our literature? Pastiche lives off borrowed energies. In the visual and performing arts. mass-produced signs. * To which I would add a generational corollary. there is a trenchant side to the post-modernist phenomenon. is self-imposed cultural anesthesia. has a demandas well as a supply-side. perhaps. Consider Art Spiegelman's brilliant ''Maus.not for evasion's sake. recombinant fiction therefore fails to bring the real news of subsurface feeling. in which only one thing can be felt: loathing). which fancies itself ever so disdainful of history. In this fiction. Post-modern currents run especially strong among readers and audiences born in the 1950's and 1960's. in this light. let's face it. this can wonderfully represent the oneness of the world . The post-modern mode is compilation. Consider Donald Barthelme's fiction. theirs is the bumper sticker.
then post-modernism is not going to fade easily. a series of declarations of faith . But for the most part.Constructivism's future. which was. to be published in January by Routledge. everyday banality . whatever its subversions. Eliot's unsurpassable past. Writers will have to do something else. has the resources for continuing self-renewal. living off borrowed materials. purists would deny they are post-modernist at all.is trying to break through. shocked. These works are exceptions. That is perhaps its defining break from modernism. it says. surfaces.'' Consider Don DeLillo's ''White Noise. Exhaustion is finally exhausting. They will have to cease being stenographers of the surface. They will have to decide not to coast down the currents of least resistance.'' which goes beyond postmodernist blankness by suggesting (mockingly) that something is being evaded. Joyce's present. Mr. DeLillo's fragments of TV speech are chilling. Make the most of stagnation. What is not clear is whether post-modernism. real toxic chemicals. . disrupted. there are real children. The white noise of TV/death is disturbing because something out there . Television intrudes into something which is not television. give up gracefully. But if it is true that deep social forces have been at work for a long time to produce the present cultural anesthesia. Adapted from an essay by Todd Gitlin in ''Cultural Politics in Contemporary America'' edited by Ian Angus and Sut Jhally. post-modernist writing confesses (or celebrates!) helplessness. shocking because out there in the wings is a baseline life capable of being chilled.beneath images. real death.the Holocaust has become ''a story. disruptive. A car with a dead battery can run off its generator only so long.
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