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On Postmodernism: A Pomo Primer

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Doubtless there are many folks who either don’t know what postmodernism (aka pomo) is, and/or frankly don’t care. And some may disagree with me when I assert without reservation that we are in the midst of the full flowering of pomo, just as the turn of the last century saw some of the finest examples of primo modernism in all its “shock ‘n’ awe,” experimental glory.

Furthermore, the modernist era is as “over” as the Renaissance or Romanticism before it, though their influence echoes through the centuries that survive them. It’s hardly coincidence, for example, that Jesus is still typically envisioned as blond haired and blue eyed—for that one can thank the Renaissance masters who made him over in their ideal artistic image centuries before we were born.

Just as the great modernists looked back to the era before for anti-inspiration so they would know what to rebel against (for instance, the art Academy, in the case of the major painters of the 20th century), so pomo could not have taken root and thrived without its precursor, modernism – which arguably existed in its purest form from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. The great clarion call of modernism was, first and foremost, to be shockingly “original”—discarding and rejecting all that had gone before in a mad frenzied dash to come up with the next new, pure creation.

Thus, the impressionists were soon “trumped” by the Dadaists and surrealists; who were in turn “supplanted” by the cubists and Abstract Expressionists; who were done one better by the Pop artists; from which sprung the artists who took advantage of the new “anything goes” climate by becoming minimalists; and finally outdone altogether by the conceptual artists (with a nod to the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp), for whom a work of art could be anything from a roll of toilet paper mounted on a gallery wall to a pair of “artistes” in a rocky rowboat serving one lump or two/cream or lemon to their audience on the Hudson riverbank as part of a New York art world “tea party” to a dog turd wrapped in a silk blanket.

By the end, “art for art’s sake” made it more and more difficult to define where art stopped and the mundane and commonplace began, and even who could be deemed an “artist” to begin with. Perhaps this is one reason why reality television and blogging are such popular genres now; as our media becomes more and more accessible and democratic to all, everyone has the potential to become a star.

By the time the 1960s and ’70s hit, some of the selfsame modernists had rendered themselves so avant garde that they actually became harbingers of the pomo era to come. One of the great pomo ironies is that these masters of modernism sowed the seeds of their own “destruction” (or more precisely, deconstruction), by way of their own modernist prescience. Thus, Warhol’s famous saying that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” was not only amazingly accurate, but would further reinforce the anti-elitist, tongue in cheek concept of “high” modern art which both gained Warhol untold fortune and fame and paved the way for the pomo age to come.

But what is pomo anyway? To me, the recipe for pomo has a few essential historical/cultural ingredients:

Immersion in the ways and means of modernism – even if one was born after it

Unless one is Amish or perhaps a “fundamentalist” anything, exposure to television, movies, and other mass/popular media makes it well-nigh inevitable that one will have seen a film such as Casablanca or A Streetcar Named Desire; perhaps read the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Yeats or works by (or at least a review or cliff notes or wiki article about) F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf; viewed an old episode or I Love Lucy or Leave it to Beaver on Nick at Nite or TV Land, or heard a cover song by the Beatles or a composition by Gershwin (even if by way of a soundtrack snippet in a car commercial). The millions of bits and pieces, flotsam and jetsam, and other ephemera of the modern era gone by are already hard wired into our collective unconscious in an unavoidable way.

Making the old “new” again

If one indulges, even for argument’s sake, my assertion that modernism is dead, how then can one be original in the pomo era? Simply put, by taking elements from the treasure trove of the modern age gone by, rearranging them, digesting them, and “regurgitating” them into something that is as “original” in form as it is “derivative” in ingredients. There are only so many foodstuffs available to the contemporary chef, but s/he can concoct countless “new” culinary delights from the same selfsame ingredients which the classic French or Italian chef had at their disposal. Thus, the pomo chef can asssemble a new creation by paying due homage to his or her predecessors, but with the benefit of technologies that make it easier to refine and recreate the classic regional cuisines with a pomo presentational twist.

New technologies and media

Art, politics, and culture have been with us almost as long as death and taxes, but it is the media which determines the “means of production” and dictates, in large part, what it will be possible to create. There were actors before the advent of film and television; musicians before the recording studio; classical “realist” portrait painters before photography; and writers before the computer or even the humble typewriter. But a cave artist had a more limited toolbox than a Renaissance master with a rich palette of paints and canvas did, or a pop artist like Warhol who used silkscreen technologies to more striking effect than the mere wielding of a brush.

A medieval scribe would have a more rarefied and elitist readership than the modern novelist or screenwriter, and his creations would take much more time to produce or reproduce for a “mass” audience to boot.

“The (mass) media is the message”

One of the hallmarks of modernism was the freedom the artist had to explore and even help invent the rapidly emerging mass media, along with the fact that our media, in turn, became more and more of a “mass” and democratic one. The classical university education of centuries past included a knowledge of Latin topped off with a post-grad European grand tour, but this was available to only a select, privileged few. A modern university education became available to thousands, and then millions more; Latin now exists mostly as a curiosity save for the words that derived from its ancient roots into our modern lexicon; and modern air travel makes the European tour accessible to those of even modest means and frequent flyer miles.

Modern art of the century past was nevertheless relatively elitist, particularly in its earlier years, as “high” art was often not yet marketable to the “average,” untutored and “uncultured” citizen of the day. The poetry of Ezra Pound, with its arcane references to classical mythology and Latin phraseology; the stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf; the subtle intricacies in instrumentation and composition of Mahler; and the first ventures into cubism by Picasso were much more the product of an artistic elite class, and “needed” interpretation by critics who could decipher its intricacies “properly.”

But as new technologies developed, media became more available to those of all classes, and thus popular culture took full flower with the advent of radio, film, and television. Some classicists and high modernists might have looked askance at the “low,” more democratic art forms of television and popular film, but technology soon rendered it an unstoppable force, and the public rapidly evolved into the most powerful “critics” in the lucrative new mass media “marketplace,” where millions could now readily “consume,” interpret, and evaluate a new or old cultural “product” with the click of a remote. No university degree or mastery of foreign languages or knowledge of art history was necessary; one need only have eyes and ears (and later, only a p.c. and a modicum of manual dexterity) to access and “thumbs up/down” the attractively packaged, heavily advertised offerings of the brave new cultural world in one’s own individual way.

The digital revolution and the Internet

By the same token, modern-day, “high” pomo is largely a by-product of the digital age of the latter part of the 20th century which followed fast on the heels of the modern, electronic age of the first half. By this time, even the poorest modern family had a television and a stereo system. The remote control, cable TV, CDs and DVDs, TiVo, the iPod, and last but not least the personal computer gave the consumer more and more personal control over what portions of the cultural marketplace he or she chose to “consume,” as well as in what order or permutation, and mass marketing technologies gave one an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

From the 1940s to the ’60s and beyond, “high” art took a back seat to “low”/popular culture, and the critic’s voice was often drowned out when a box office hit could survive even the most scathing of critics. The Beatles, Andy Warhol, graffiti art, rap poetry, tacky Japanese horror flicks, and romance novels thrived due to overwhelming popular, if not always critical, demand. And our pomo culture is an omnivorous beast—just as we have an unlimited choice of cuisines from haute French to McDonalds, each individual can devour both low culture and high alike in one sitting—perhaps an appetizer of Godilla vs. Mothra followed by a main entrée of The 400 Blows – depending on individual appetites and media availability.

The latter, in turn, is now limited only by the vagaries of technological glitches and personal preference—one’s computer crashes, there’s “nothing” on TV, the video store didn’t have the movie one coveted, one wants to stay home and veg out on Saturday night. But as the technology continues to refine itself, these obstacles become more and more infrequent. Computer technology is now much more bug-proof, and one can always put on a DVD if nothing’s on cable or have a movie and dinner delivered courtesy of Netflix and the local pizzeria’s website without leaving one’s couch.

In fact, we have become so “at one” with our technologies that we are dependent on them in the same measure as we now take their presence for granted. A blackout can induce near-psychosis due to “sensory deprivation;” lost files can mean one has to start one’s novel over from scratch; and any interruption or slowdown of internet accessibility can paralyze a corporation or an individual in a flash.

The “death” of the “Artist”

One lit crit movement of the modern elite/intelligensia did portend pomo’s imminent reign. The French structuralists and deconstructionists of the ’70s (when modernism was on the wane) working chiefly in the realm of lit crit, began to separate the art from the artist, and the text from the writer in a dispassionate, sometimes irreverent fashion. A text might be picked apart or dissected to examine its internal contradictions or self-referents – in a kind of literary psychoanalysis of the art text itself, divorced in some part from its creator. The writer lost “ownership” of his or her work as soon as this mostly French critical coterie got a hold of it, for they could interpret a text beyond the purview of what an author had, at least consciously, intended to say.

A personal example might be relevant here. I had a very tough time “getting” structuralism and deconstruction in grad school, until I began to discover the joys of metacriticism. Not that I labeled it as such at the time, but I became fascinated with the way in which writers might refer to the act of writing itself, or unwittingly lay bare some deeply personal obsession via their novels. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of pomo, as I finally realized, was the transparency of the means of production.

Rather than being a creative mystery known only to the artist, the dawn of the pomo era allowed us to, despite what the Wizard said, “pay attention to the man behind the curtain.” and what s/he was producing and how. The magician was stripped of his trade secrets, especially in the latter decades of the last century. The artist became less of a revered “genius” and more “just us folks” with the advent of the paparazzi and reality TV shows such as the Osbournes.

Our ruthless mass media will voraciously unveil the foibles and dirty laundry of anyone in its path, from the president down to the most humbly hapless prole on Jerry Springer. And all of us in the pomo era can and do deconstruct our culture on an everyday basis with a jaundiced, ironic, dispassionate, irreverent eye. Thus even those who missed Beatlemania can now compare and contrast an early Beatles demo with the finished marketed product, just as a foodie can see exactly how their favorite chef creates their culinary masterpieces via the Food Network or the ways in which they may sink or swim via reality programs such as Bravo’s Top Chef.

Pomo “time travel”

One other crucial element of pomo is this: one could no longer see or hear the modern works of the past through the virgin eyes and ears of those who had seen or heard it for the first time decades before. Those “youngsters” who did not live through Beatlemania cannot know what it was really like to hear “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for the very first time, and unlike those culturally naive, wide eyed yokels who first saw Picasso’s Guernica a half century or more after its creation we pomo folk are far too jaded and media saturated to be “shocked” and astounded in the same way this work messed with the synaptic pathways at the time it was first revealed to the public.

Like cultural time travelers, we can watch Leave it to Beaver and recognize its erstwhile tackiness from the vantage point of our own pomo era and the historical context of the fifties. One cannot fully know the historical impact one’s era will have as one is living through it; it is only in retrospect that one can more dispassionately evaluate it within the larger, more omniscient context of all that came after.

The “beauty part” of pomo

And finally, pomo has helped bridge the generation gap which plagued parent and child alike during the baby boomer era. I have more in common with contemporaries who are young enough to be my children (if I had had any) than my older relatives did and do with me. There are some things that just don’t translate from my aunt’s cultural lexicon to mine. I didn’t live through the Depression, and they can’t even turn on a computer. They didn’t attend college during the era of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and I never experienced what it was like to gather around the radio during WW II to listen to FDR’s fireside chats. But my “spirtual” sons and daughters grew up, as I did, with television; are well steeped in the culture of pop music, recreational drugs, and a liberal college education (in many cases); and now embrace the internet as avidly as I do.

Moreover, the Internet also brings together the world as a global community, and makes research and access to local and international cultures and artifacts of the past and present almost instantaneous. Letter writing and memoranda in the form of email is back with a vengeance; academic research involves a few keystrokes or mouse clicks rather than hours perusing the card catalog and the dusty tomes in a library reference room or threading spools to project grainy images onto a dirty screen in the microfilm vaults; and one can converse in real time with others from across the globe and have access, along with millions of others, to the latest scandal du jour video clip from YouTube.

If one is unfamiliar with the cultural significance or poetry of Ezra Pound, for example, instant enlightenment is a mere hyperlink or Wikipedia article away. By contrast, those who are not plugged into cyberspace have been rendered culturally illiterate. My eighty-something aunts are as cut off from the emerging digi-pomo culture as someone without a TV would have been from the pop culture phenom of the past century – not to mention their now limited access to the burgeoning online marketplace, in a culture where virtually every product has an accompanying website.

Likewise, a Luddite professor, doctor, lawyer, or real estate broker will be hobbled professionally as long as they continue to cling to their outmoded, albeit “modern,” ways of doing business. With the help of the internet, a student may in some senses surpass his or her teacher; a doctor may know less about a new medication or medical development than his patient/health care “consumer;” and a layman may discover more about legal specialties or the state of the housing market than his or her own attorney or broker.

But once this tool for mass literacy is mutually adopted, the potential for meaningful, informed debate, collaboration, cooperation, and conversation is instantly brought into play. The age of elitism, non-disclosure, and professional “mystery” in letters, medicine, and most other professions is coming to a close. There are no sacred cows in politics, business, or the arts anymore—at least in the pre-pomo sense.

Everyone can be a “critic,” an instant “expert,” or a forewarned, forearmed consumer. Of course, it does not follow that sufficient talent, temperament, and training, both formal and informal, are not still necessary in order to truly master any professional or artistic field of endeavor, but the prior chasms between generations, professions, classes, races, and nationalities have been duly narrowed thanks to this wondrous new tool.

Triumph and Tragedy in Cyberspace

In short, the true defining mark of pomo — the great technology of our era, our version of the steam engine and the light bulb and the television set — is the internet. Cultural democracy has come to its most logical, or even illogical, conclusion as I write this. Whereas modernism sometimes blurred the line between art and everyday life, artwork and artifact, high and low culture, and even artist and non-artist, now every cultural consumer can become an instant “artist” as well.

Anyone with a computer and the proper software can be a published author, a homespun “record producer,” or a citizen journalist or filmmaker. Via the internet, we can share the same means of production as the most gifted artist does. Many erstwhile “professions” have thus been rendered endangered, or even obsolete—from the printing press to the movie or recording studio to the publishing house. Our fin de siecle, pomo-drenched era represents the greatest example to date of a true cultural democracy, for better and worse.

With this one amazing tool, one has all the components to make an infinite number of new recipes from the trash bins and treasure troves of the modern era just past. All these and more are literally at one’s fingertips.

But it goes without saying that, as with virtually any phenomenon, there is a dark side to all this wondrous technology. Just as the modern era produced nuclear fission and the specter of nuclear annihilation, so our new digital technologies have helped globalize warfare and made terrorism into a sometimes remotely controlled endeavor. Our pomo enemies often wear no uniforms and eschew the now-quaint code of traditional warfare; one leader’s word from a remote hideout in the desert can be spread to billions of followers; propaganda and The Big Lie (e.g. the Holocaust never happened) can be disseminated like a virus instantaneously throughout the globe via the blogosphere; one cartoon can incite millions to riot; and political pundits can make or break a candidate overnight with one cleverly ferreted-out secret or snarky meta-analysis.

One other facet of pomo which is both beautiful and sometimes devastatingly ugly is that it creates the potential for anyone to be an instant “expert” and cultural evaluator — or pundit and critic, if you will — and every voice has the potential to be heard by many others far and wide. There are an infinite amount of modern and premodern ingredients at our disposal to create an unlimited amount of derivatively original pomo recipes based on unoriginal ingredients.

Bob Dylan endures as one of the most audaciously innovative songwriters of the sixties, but his work has been arguably improved and refined by the minions of fellow artists who have covered him—most with benefit of superior production technologies and better singing voices. Thus, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a very different song as performed by Dylan, unaccompanied save for his trademark acoustic guitar and harmonica, than the same composition created anew by the Byrds, with its heavenly vocal harmonies and innovative guitar riffs. Hearing Johnny Cash’s rendition of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” or Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” is the kind of musical revelation that can make even the most jaded pomo pop afficianado sit up and take notice.

In any event, there’s a lot that to be said about pomo, and I fully intend to do so in this series, “On Postmodernism.” Unlike eras past, our pomo sensibilities and digital technologies allow us to more coolly evaluate the modern era just past juxtaposed with the pomo era as it unfolds before our eyes. In any case, a much more irreverent, breezy, tongue in cheek—in other words, pomo—introduction to pomo can be found in part 1 of this series, “Pomo for Dummies,” but future posts will go into much more detail than the limitations of space or attention span merits here.

In essence, the way I see it, the pomo era makes it possible for all of us to switch back and forth with ease between the dialectic of audience and performer, cultural producer and consumer, public blogger and commenter/critic—or simultaneously a bit of both–all in the same breath or keystroke.

And for that, I for one am eternally grateful.

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About Elvira Black