What the devil is postmodernism (or pomo?)* And why should you care, anyway? Isn’t it one of those pretentious terms, like existentialism, that people bandy about a lot but don’t really understand? If someone put a gun to your head and said define pomo right now, or you’ll be shot in 10 seconds, wouldn’t you be, like, dead?
You may not be able to define pomo, but it defines you. And me. And the rest of Western culture and civilization.
Examples? OK, here’s a few.
You know when you see all these gorgeous girls who actually spend big bucks on those ugly fifties-style retro wing-tip glasses – the kind that were once considered so hideous that people would rather walk into walls than wear them in public? Back then, that’s the only style they had. Now, you can choose any style you like. Some choose the ugly retro look. That’s pomo.
You know when you turn on Nick at Nite/TV Land and they have reruns of all the shows you loved as a kid (or maybe ones from before you were born, even?) Wow, look at Father Knows Best. How corny can you get? And who knew then that Robert Young, the quintessential TV family man, was really a stone cold alkie? That’s pomo.
You know when a car commercial takes an old rock song that you thought was so groundbreaking and original when you were passing around the bong back in the day, and manages in 30 seconds to morph a classic icon of boho rebellion into a feeding frenzy for capitalistic, bourgeois greed? That’s pomo.
Remember Dylan’s Mr. Tamborine Man? Very simple arrangements; humble, unadorned. Then the Byrds did their version of the same song, but it sounded totally different. All those cool harmonies; swirly, psychedelic guitar chords; delightfully varied beats and counterpoints. Wow! Totally derivative, but in a completely original way! And then for good measure, old William Shatner, Captian Kirk from Star Trek (and erstwhile Priceline.com whore, along with Spock/Leonard Nimoy), got a piece of the action when he came out with a version of T-Man where he just, like, recited the song in the same halting yet dramatically authoritative way he addressed the Klingons or seduced one of those hot extraterrestrial green chicks. That’s pomo.
There is simply no such thing as modernism any more. Sure, you can say something’s modern as in up-to-date, but I’m talking 21st-century culture here. Modernism was a huge, albeit chiefly 20th-century phenom, when there was a lot of rad stuff out there being invented that no one had ever seen the likes of before. TV. Electricity. Talking pictures. Women’s right to vote. Civil rights. The A bomb. World War I (aka The War to End All Wars). Impressionism, cubism , abstract expressionism. The automobile. The airplane. Men on the moon. Little things like that – nothing special.
Sure, there were original inventions before this, like the wheel and figuring out how to start fires and declaring that the world was round on penalty of death and all that cool stuff. But in the 20th century, you were nobody unless you came up with the next big, totally new thing. You think Rembrandt is the bomb? Well here’s impressionism for you. Take that, you philistines! Oh, how shocking! How ugly! How deviant! How…hey wait a minute, this stuff isn’t so bad…
OK, enough of that impressionism nonsense. Here’s surrealism and dada. Wowie zowie! How outrageous! Are you shocked yet? OK, That’s old hat now? How about a little cubism? Hell, that doesn’t look like anything real at all! What’s the deal with that? Well, come to think of it, they could have something there. …Then along comes Pollock, dripping his paints all over huge canvases like a kindergarten kid on speed. Hey, is that art? Looks like I could do that, and better too. Wait, I think I see what the old boy was getting at…
OK, Pollock getting too last-decade for you? How about a little thing called pop art? Oh, man…don’t get me started, ok? Brillo boxes? Oh, come on now! Gee, how much talent does it take for Warhol to silkscreen the same huge image endlessly in different colors and then go off to Studio 54? But hey, it is kinda fun looking….
Alright, now Warhol is a household word. Here’s another one for you… minimalism. Take that! Jesus, this painting is just a huge canvas done in one color! And this one over here – it’s, like totally blank! But hey, wait a sec, that is kinda clever. Willing to accept that as art, now? Well, here’s another good one…conceptual art! You don’t even have to have an art object for that!
OK, so what does this all mean? It means that when the 20th century “originality fetish” hubbub wound down and the smoke finally cleared, we were left with nothing much new going on. (Except, maybe, for the internet – aka the pomo to end all pomos.)
In the old-guard modern art universe, you had to have the high priests of the critical world pronounce from on high in very pretentious rhetoric what was New and Important. Now, no one listens to these guys. What the hell is new out there anyway? Derivative, derivative, derivative! Let’s do some head games on those Dead White Guys and have ourselves a little fun! What do you say? And screw the critics. You and I–the almighty Consumers – are the real critics now. Now we talk with our wallets and our websites, and the world – including big business – listens.
We pomos are jaded and media-saturated. There are a hundred cable stations out there. A zillion magazines. More books coming out daily than we could ever read in twelve lifetimes. Squillions of websites. The world is literally at our fingertips – and you just can’t fool us any more. Cynicism and irony drip from our every pore.
Now that we’re online, all the information of the world is there at the click of a button. You want to be an instant expert and tell all those old gurus to shove it? Just pick a topic and surf the web. Those with the most toys, and the most info crammed into their brains and their hard drives, win. Info is the ultimate commodity of the pomo world. And we can all open our big fat mouths and be part of the world wide dialogue.
In the pomo world, nothing and no one is invulnerable. All the info we need is out there, and we know too much to be fooled any more by anyone. There are no sacred cows any more. We approach everything with a jaded eye and a knowing, cynical wink. Any Joe Schmo with a computer can start a website or blog that decimates the powers that be – picking apart the media, the president, the medical industry, or any other industry. And no one and nothing can stop him – or her.
In short, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There are no new, modern movements. There’s just us folks picking apart old icons and authority figures and commenting and lambasting anything and everything from Bill Clinton to Dubya to Michael Jackson to Tom Cruise. (Is he gay or not? And what’s with the Scientology thing? ) And anything or anyone else you can think of. Name your poison and get after it.
Sometimes it’s almost not fun to know so damn much. For instance, folks in the forties didn’t know that FDR had polio and was in a wheelchair. The media always showed him from the waist up. They didn’t know anything about the dalliances of presidents (and sometimes even their wives). But now we know all, thanks to the ever-vigilant media – both the offficial media and you and I. There is nothing new or sacred left – it’s all info overload and cynical commentary.
We know things about modern inventions that the inventors of the time could never have imagined. For instance, in the fifties – before color TV, before cable, before cell phones, before personal computers – people had a choice of a handful of channels in black and white. Everyone loved to watch Leave it to Beaver or I Love Lucy, partly because there was nothing else on anyway. But watching the Beav or Lucy back then was a totally different experience than watching it now on TV Land/Nick at Night.
Today, we watch these quaint shows through jaded, 21st-century, postmodern eyes. We are no longer innocent -we know things now that the viewer of the 50s did not. They didn’t know then that Desi Arnaz’s marriage to that loveable wacky redhead Lucille Ball would disintegrate in 1960 due to his substance abuse and womanizing. They hadn’t a clue when they saw Rock Hudson romancing Doris Day that he was gay (what’s gay?) and would eventually succumb to a horrible disease that didn’t yet exist. We think it’s way retro-cute when Wally from The Beav meets up with a “fast” girl who tries to make him hang out at some juke joint, gives her a dime to play some scary-ass jazz, smoke a cig, have a brewsky, and go make out in his car afterwards (he resists all temptation). Viewing this now, after the advent of crack, HIV, rampant teen pregnancy, Ecstasy rave parties and death/thrash metal, is beyond bizarre, not to mention loads of pomo fun.
Today, in pomo America, originality is very…unoriginal. Instead, we like to recycle old, but still cherished cultural detritus and put a new, ironic spin on it.
In the brave new pomo world, there’s no turning back the clock. We just can’t see Elvis movies or the Beatles at Shea Stadium on TV and ever recreate that transcendent, once in a lifetime, virgin experience people had back then. Some of us were not even born when it happened, but we now know more than those who were there. We know that Elvis died bloated and drug-addled. We know that the Beatles stopped touring and broke up and that John Lennon was assasinated and George Harrison died of cancer and Paul McCartney started that wimpy group Wings and then his wife Linda died and his new wife has an artificial leg and he’s almost 64 and on and on. In short, we have lost our innocence about the modern era and its shocking and once-thrilling innovations forever. That’s pomo.
So I say blog on and e-mail on and become an expert on a zillion different topics. Explore the dirty little secrets of past presidents, religious icons, and uber-celebs. It’s all out there-an endless smorgasbourd for our pomo consumption. Tuck in and enjoy.
Modernism is dead! Long live pomo!
*NOTE: The term “pomo” is not something I invented. I first saw it used in the New York Press. I thought, at the time, that everyone in New York was hip to the term, so I submitted one of my music reviews to my local paper describing someone’s style as pomo. Unfortunately, the editors apparently hadn’t run across this nickname, and printed the word as “porno,” which totally ruined my analogy and made me look like a perv to boot. Not cool.
FOR DUMMIES® is a registered trademark of Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Excerpted from Shithouse rat.