Friday, May 9, 2008

A Serious Question about Our Historical Situation

Okay, I really want to know what people think, or, hopefully, know about this.

Are we still postmodern or are we post-postmodern. What's the deal, y'all? I've gotten the impression from some people that postmodernism has already eaten itself. But then I've read that this self-consumption is also a mode of postmodernism. Or is this the global age? If so, what does that mean in terms of art/literature?

I know we're moving through a moment in history when we are obsessed with trying to name our own situation, which is easy enough, but most likely fifty or one hundred years from now we will have been named/labeled/categorized as something else. We seem to be aiming for a kind of cultural filing process that can turn and historically analyze what happened five minutes ago. I'm not sure what to think about this. Pros and cons, I guess.

In terms of art, we're still doing things the postmoderns and many before them did: heavy experimentation (which probably has never really stopped since humans began making art), collage (which is not new), hyper self-consciousness, struggling with the meaning of form and the impotence/richness of language (again, nothing groundbreaking).

The thing that seems to set this moment apart is available technology and the increasingly wide variety of media, the mixture of different mediums. We are becoming proficient at mimicking past modes of artistic expression. We can move from surrealism to collage to stream of consciousness, and we can blend them to produce a new mode of expression. [disclaimer: use of the term 'we' is acknowledged to be a sweeping generalization]

Is our moment the art of mimicry? Have we gone from the Age of Production and Consumption to the Age of Regurgitation and Defecation? I'm not suggesting as much as asking.

I'm sure I haven't read enough about art history and the concept of modernism/postmodernism, though. So any suggested reading will be appreciated. Obviously, Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition and maybe Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Also, is postmodernism a concept developed almost entirely by Marxists/Post-Marxists?

See, these are the kinds of things on my mind all the time. When some people are thinking about their favorite TV shows tonight, or drinkin beer, or watching the game, I spend my time wondering What is our historical situation and what cultural trajectory are we on? I'm not saying this to feel superior or self-righteous, because if I had good cable I would have all kinds of favorite TV shows; I'm just saying that my mental gears often make it tough to relate to the outside world in an unawkward way.

I've tried to just not think about things so much, and I've succeeded, but then I just felt empty and miserable. Boo hoo. I know.

So, any input is appreciated.


ryan call said...

i dont know what postmodernism is - i used to know

then i took classes from this guy named alan cheuse here at mason

and he says postmodernism is just modernism; he sees no difference between the two as far as art/lit, for many of the reasons you listed

it is something i try not to think about - because i usually make myself very confused.

so this is not a very helpful response, i suppose

Matt Bell said...

I have the Jameson book, but have never read it. It looks, you know, hard.

I'm with ryan on this one-- I have a pretty good grasp of modernist/postmodern techniques, and I recognize them when I see them, and of course I use a lot of them in my own writing. But that doesn't mean I understand the great social/political/artistic/philosophical context, and honestly, I don't really need to, I don't think.

Mostly, for me, all of those things are storytelling devices. Good stories first, good theories by accident!

As proof that I'm not smart enough to talk about this stuff, I misspelled the word "accident" three times in the paragraph above before I got it right.

Keep digging at this stuff if it interests you though, Josh-- You're a guy who loves the theory end of life, so there's no reason you shouldn't keep exploring.

Josh Maday said...

ryan, your comments are indeed helpful. i have a vague idea of what some people call postmodernism, but i'm still blurry on what sets it apart from modernism. if joyce's ulysses is the pinnacle of modernism, then it doesn't look like postmodernism is really much different.

matt, i'm with both of you fellas: i have a good idea of the literary devices and how to use them, and i do enjoy it quite a bit. i haven't read the jameson book yet, either. i'll probably start with Lyotard (much shorter). yes, i do enjoy the theoretical/philosophical side of life a lot, but more and more i'm engaging it as another form of fiction. it's all word games and trying to weave something watertight with linguistics, which of course is not going to happen. yes, story first, and if one is so inclined, ideas and theory can be extrapolated from the text itself.

thanks for the helpful and honest comments, guys.

ryan call said...

exactly, i suppose that joyce book is what im thinking of...i do though, get a sense that it differs from say other newer postmodern texts. joyce's seemed, um, earnest in his exp?

what is a new postmodernism text, book of fiction, i mean? you have an example?

i can't think of any right now to make my point

Josh Maday said...

yes, joyce seemed very earnest in his experimentation. to have an ounce of his conviction and belief in what he was doing while spending a decade of his life writing a novel he knew would not be widely understood for a long time and even caused him legal trouble...

i think some pretty staple pomo texts would be work by David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), Robert Coover (Pricksongs & Descants; Origin of the Brunists), John Barth (Lost in the Funhouse), Don Delillo (White Noise, Mao II). i don't know of a single text like ulysses that is called the pinnacle of postmodern fiction. even saying postmodern 'fiction' is probably questionable. again, i'm mostly speaking from half-ignorance here. i am shamefully unread in this area and am itching to get after some of it, though i've read coover's pricksongs and delillo's mao ii and liked them both, probably coover better though.

also, i'm not sure if i'm confusing experimental writing with postmodern. there's obviously a high degree of experimentation in postmodern writing, but there's been literary experimentation going on for centuries. there's a norton anthology of postmodern fiction and a lot of the work experiments with new forms and reinventing old ones. roy kesey's collection All Over makes fine use of the postmodern bag of tricks. maybe the blurring of lines is what, ironically, helps define postmodern writing. i think i'm rambling now.


i want to say something but there is too much to say and nothing to say.

whoops, i defined postmodernism.

at first i really meant that in earnest.

Josh Maday said...

yep, i think you pretty much nailed it, blake. good work.

Matt Bell said...

Jonathan Safran Foer comes to mind as an opposing example: A guy who uses every postmodern trick in the book (like lists, fake documents, arranged text, etc., etc.) but uses them to tell fairly traditional stories.

CM said...

Josh, I've been thinking about this as well. I think a major dynamic in play now, is that anything you say or do, is potentially a front to the WWW and legions of interlocked websites and information. All of this relatively easily accessible 24/7 from most "industrialized" locations on the globe. So we no longer just read or interact with each other and the work, but we have tons of data at our fingertips to spiral off and discover all the interconnections. So I see we are entering into a sort of a metadata age, where we don't have to do anything any particular way, and all information is potentially interesting and important. Potentially. Artists and creators still have to work at their craft and come up with concepts and do the conceptual effort in making. Attention spans are decreasing, images proliferating...but I think this "burst" mentality is something new and will continue to change. I find the prospects in connecting the dots (and seeing/ experiencing the interconnected aspect of the universe) very exciting.

Now, post-modernism was a load of crap. It was moder ism with greco-roman statues on a glass skyscraper. I'm so happy we're done with that shit.

Josh Maday said...

good call, matt.

cm, yes, i am by no leap in logic 'in tune' with what's going on in art and culture right now, but what you're saying makes sense: about the seemingly infinite data/information at one's fingertips and seeing the interconnectedness of the universe. i did some of this in the new piece i'll have in the fall issue of phoebe. having all of the modernist tools is maybe, rather than regurgitation, a liberating place to be, where, as you say, we don't have to do anything any particular way. interesting.

thanks again, everyone, for indulging my sweet tooth for unanswerable and possibly overthought questions.

Jeff Vande Zande said...

Post-modernism is what happens when story tellers forget that they are story tellers. When you begin to ask the question "what is a story, really?" and then try to write stories that answer that question -- well, you end up in a weird-ass place.

Look what happened in art. They asked the question, "what is art?" and then they abstracted their way into nothingness. Sure, there was some beauty in it. The earnest ones (Joyce, Pollock) always make something Truthful with their experiment, but they spawn hundreds of talentless, wisdomless copy cats. (yes, I'm speaking in hyperbole for effect).

But, what did modern/post-modern art do? Is it really so ground-breaking, revolutionary, or rebellious? Walk into a bank or a corporate office. What will you find hanging on the wall? Modern art. Why, because it has no message. It can't offend. It's pretty colors and shapes. It's really the opposite of art because it evokes nothing -- which is probably just what banks and corporate offices want. Why not put a Goya or even a Brueghal up? Why, because the images that actually depict something might offend someone or might make someone think or feel. If it's up in a bank or a corporate office, don't trust it.

Plain and simple: tell stories. Stories tell us who we are. We need the stories to repeat us and to make sense of the world for us. It's the reason why story tellers were revered in out pre-written word days. It's the reason why people gathered around the fire to hear them. It's what we want and need. It's hard-wire into us. All the other stuff -- the experimentation, etc -- that's just writers writing for writers and intellectuals "deconstructing" the forms.

There's a reason kids get glued to Where the Wild Things Are -- it tells a story, it has mystery, and it has symbol and metaphor. The story works on the surface and yet means more than its surface.

Whoa -- talk about a rant from me.

CM said...

Jeff -- good points -- I'm feeling along the same lines. Especially when it comes to the power of narration. When we tell stories, when we narrate, we illuminate who we are, and the people listening also can identify with the narration as to how they are. Then the listeners in turn narrate, and we find out where they are coming from, and we discover more about ourselves through the narrative exchange. We're built for this kind of activity -- we emphatically desire it, because it has been happening for thousands and thousands of years. And this form of communication and potent self expression/ discovery will be happening thousand and thousands of years from now -- if we're still around. My diatribe.

Jeff Vande Zande said...

I think of any work by Thomas Pynchon as postmodern. When I was in grad school, a bunch of my fellow grad students were reading V for a class. It sounded miserable.

All of my ranting doesn't mean that I'm opposed to anything that's "out there." I just think you need to know why you're making your story "out there." How does the "out there" complement your message?

Kafka knew exactly why he was turning Gregor Samsa into a bug. It was magical realism with a point. (the beauty is that Kafka probably didn't label his story magical realism. He just went with this twisted idea because of its way of holding up a fun house mirror to the world and exposing the bug-like qualities in all of us)

I'm not sure that all contemporary experimenters really know why they're doing what they're doing. They just have these fat ladies floating in the sky like clouds, but they don't know why. It's just cool, I guess. It's akin to a four-year old flailing his arms around ridiculously and saying, "look what I can do!"

Something doesn't seem right about labeling yourself as "experimental". It's like you're too aware of your own process, which often makes for insincere writing.

Maybe we're slowly working our way back to the idea of a story as a story.

Yes, straight-up stories are hard to write; I think that's why experimenting has become so popular.

Make the mundane magical . . . it's a helluva trick.

Adam R. said...

If modernism is defined by power, starting around Descartes' First Philosophy that knowledge is perfect but will is weak, and Francis Bacon's proclamation that knowledge is power -- then postmodernism ought to be characterized as the time during modernism when that principle was brought into question. I think postmodernism recognizes itself as part of modernity, and at the same time, by virtue of that recognition, defines itself outside of it. This is like Kierkegaard's response to the speculative individual: one can't possibly stand away from existence and question one's own existence.

The movement toward metanarrative comes out of postmodernism because, as in CM's helpful WWW analogy, artists realized the interconnectivity of things. In that, subjectivity becomes paramount; what is most relevant now is conveying personal observation and perspective to create a historical dialectic. Metanarrative tries to encompass all stories. In wtiting, it's easier to do that with a sentence like "Courage syrup skronked the beeble" than "I feel sad" (cf Butler).

But in the postmodern ideal, everyone contributes their perspective and, at the end of history, we will be able to describe what reality was. This is in contrast to the modernist Continental model which suggests that by knowing what reality is now, one can use it to act. In postmodernism, it looks a little bit like the only objective is to describe the multiplicity of phenomena, and that's an easy experiment to mock.

What makes it worse is what Jeff points out -- that people are being disingenuous when they try to bend the story telling genre. Or, in terms of my comment, when they convey a perspective that isn't based on their experience or observation. But this requires a judgment call that we aren't ever in a position to make except on ourselves, so we respond by only attending to art that seems genuine. Likewise, we prioritize philosophical inquiry by its relevance, and ignore questions that don't seem urgent like, "What is the name of our current philosophical epoch?"

The question about the era being one of regurgitation seems a little harsh, but I guess it isn't if you mean that nowadays mimesis has shifted from replicating reality in art to replicating art in art, as if that is what matters now above reality. This is a common criticism. My friend hates McSweeney's because he reads them as bombast while there are serious ethical problems that art ought to address. I don't think they ("they" bein' whatever famous post-practitioners) are delinquent on these issues, though, as much as they are aware of the dialogue that already exists.

You've probably read this already, but I think Derrida's essay, "Differance," is really helpful.

That is a fun question for me to think about.

Jeff Vande Zande said...


Excellent post. You know much more about this stuff than I do -- that's for certain.

I do like the point you bring up . . . or your friend's point. There are serious issues that writers (especially fiction writers) could be dealing with. But, on the whole, we don't deal with them. Who deals with them? Well, mainly non-fiction writers. Interestingly, it's harder to get an agent who will represent fiction. Many agents have gone to "non-fiction only" status.

I wonder if many readers are turning away from fiction because they don't find there what they are seeking. Maybe they want to understand their world better -- feel they know something in a world that changes so quickly that it's hard to truly know anything.

Perhaps they find only confusion and emptiness in what passes for serious contemporary fiction.

I don't know . . . but I sure liked what you had to say about all of this.

chris said...

Hey, Josh,

I'll throw in my two cents - or, rather, the two cents of one of my professors here at OSU, Brian McHale, who wrote a couple of interesting books on the subject Postmodernist Fiction (1987); Constructing Postmodernism (1992). He argues that the difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is dominated by epistemological issues whereas postmodernism is dominated by ontological issues.

You can find his essay on this subject, along with a good amount of other pertinent stuff, in a collection called Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel, edited by Bran Nicol.

For my part, I wouldn't conflate postmodernism and experimentalism. To me the former has more to do with a particular historical movement (which might be why you're noticing an abundance of Marxist theory associated with it?) whereas the latter is ever-present and depends entirely on the positioning of the accepted modality of convention at the given time in which it is deployed: what was "experimental" in 1759, when Tristram Shandy was first published, would be different than what we would consider "experimental" today, in something like David Markson's Reader's Bock, for example, but both would still be considered "experimental" relative to the norms of their period.

At any rate, great post and great comments. This is the kind of conversation I enjoy being a part of - thanks for hosting it!

Adam R. said...

Good point, Chris. It's distracting when experimental literature is chalked up to Our Postmodern Era, as if it could not exist without superstructuralism.

Josh Maday said...

thanks for the excellent observations, everyone. my head is spinning with all of these things to consider. valid points all around.

adam, yeah, when i said the age of regurgitation, i meant more along the lines of art eating itself, how art is increasingly the subject of art. i think that makes it a closed world, a place where one almost has to go through initiation rites in order to participate. But like you said, it's people participating in a dialogue that already exists. and that can't be expected to stop and start over whenever someone wants to join in. Giorgio Agamben explores the movement of modern art in his book The Man Without Content. Thanks for pointing toward the Derrida essay, too.

chris, i think you're correct to emphasize the distinction between experimentation and postmodernism. they are not one in the same. thanks for the reading recommendations, too.

maybe i'm wrong, but whatever and however one writes, being genuine is something that can't be faked or crafted. experiencing something genuine feels nourishing or healing or energizing.

Jeff Vande Zande said...

For what it's worth . . . here's my point. I don't know how good it is to try to be an "experimenter." I mean, experiment if it comes natural to you, but I'm not sure if writers should be aware that they're experimenting. Experimenting should just come naturally. Did Kafka say, "I'm an experimental fiction writer," when he wrote "The Metamorphosis"? Did Marquez say, "wow, look at me experiment" when he wrote, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"? I think they wrote those stories the only way it felt natural to write them. They wrote them the way they had to be written. They didn't feel pressured, I don't think, by a writing community that seems to think being experimental is the only way to be cutting edge.

Maybe it's just the word "experimental" that I get hung up on. It's odd how many magazines want "experimental" fiction. It's even odder how many writers consider themselves "experimental" writers.

Why not just be a writer who tells stories the way he/she needs to tell the story. Don't try so hard to be "experimental". If the story comes out odd . . . so be it.

Maybe I'm off, but I feel a movement toward being experimental, as though it's more important than telling a story that gets at the Truth.

I'm considering going back and retyping this post backwards.

Truth the at gets that story a telling than important more it's though as . . .

Sorry, just trying to be experimental.

Matt Bell said...

A couple late thoughts, not necessarily connected to each other:

I dig a lot of the postmodern techniques. I like new forms and new ways of telling stories. I'm happy to discover them myself, and I'm happy when other people find them for me. Jeff and Josh already know this about me.

I don't think that makes me a postmodern. I don't think of myself as any kind of writer. That's probably a good thing.

I have never read DeLillo or Pynchon, so I don't have any reaction to them at all. Neither of them sound like something I would like. I do like David Foster Wallace's short stories, but I've never read any of his novels. I'm not very well read in the landmarks of postmodern fiction. I have a feeling most of us talking about this aren't.

Saying that people shouldn't try to be experimental in art is sort of like saying that scientists should only do science they already know. Inventors are too self-conscious of themselves!

One of the reasons for new forms is that all of our old ways of talking about things have been co-opted by advertising. The colors that mean I love you, the objects with which I show that love, the words "I love you" themselves... By the time a person gets old enough to have a man or woman tell them these things they have already heard them in 10,000 ads. So new ways to say new things is not only good but necessary for us to communicate our deepest feelings. We NEED new forms, and the sooner the better.

That way when someone says "I love you" or "I missed you" or "You're my best friend" I won't think they're trying to sell me a car.

Obviously, innovation inspires mimicry and often hackery (not a word, I know). iPods are awesome, chinese knockoffs not so much. Same difference between Pollock and all the people dribbling paint on canvases on their garage floors. Just because people will make shitty Pollock knockoffs doesn't mean I don't want someone to come along and be the next Pollock.

I think Jeff is wrong to despair that experimental writers don't want to be genuine or truthful in their writing. Some writers, obviously, have less to say than others, but I think everyone believes they are capable of changing people with their writing, or else they wouldn't try so hard.

I don't know anyone who writes who just wants to thought of as interesting or different and doesn't care about his own content. That seems ridiculous.

That said, I know I've written things to try something new, to test my limits as a writer, or to learn by imitating something I've seen another writer do that I think is cool. Nothing wrong with that, in my book. That's how I learn. I think of it as a guitar player trying out someone else's riff, or a craftsman asking to be shown how to use a new tool he's just seen for the first time. How else would I learn how to do something except by experimenting with it?

This post is a lot longer than I meant it to be. Sorry about that.

Jeff Vande Zande said...

Well, as always, we'll agree to disagree. What's true is probably somewhere in the middle of what we're saying.

I do wonder, though, if we really need new forms in all cases. For the woman or man waiting to hear them, the words "I love you" are still pretty powerful -- despite their time-worn nature or how often they've been co-opted.

Some forms are just powerful, no matter how long they've been around.

New for new's sake is not always good. Clinging to old ways isn't alway good.

Knowing a little more about both would probably be good for everyone.

I apologize, too, because I didn't mean to imply that NO experimenters are being genuine.

But, I still think experimentation and style get more press than message or philosophy. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Matt Bell said...

I agree with you more than I don't, I'm sure. These kind of things tend to turn into everyone exposing their biases more than us actually getting anywhere. Still, interesting to think about.

I would argue the opposite though of the idea that experimental writing gets more press than traditional writing. It may feel that way sometimes, but it's just not true, if by "press" you mean things people actually read. Check the review sections of any newspaper (including the biggest ones, like the NY Times or LA Times)... Hell, good luck finding much fiction at all most weeks in the NYTBR. Check out the best seller list for fiction and tell me how many of those writers are experimental-- None of them that I recognize are (Diaz uses footnotes in his work, so that's "postmodern").

I think there is plenty of room for traditional stories and themes done well. There are so many books being published and lit mags and online journals these days, there has to be a place for pretty much everybody's style and subject. And why not?

I will say, this stuff's fun to talk about, but at least for me it has next to nothing to do with the actual writing. I'm mostly interested in telling a good story when I sit down to write. Exploring characters I'm curious about, or situations I think could do something. I couldn't imagine thinking about audiences and press and literary movements and theory when I'm actually writing. This is bar night stuff, and fun for what it's worth. So it's fun to talk about, but I guess I don't worry about it much on a day to day basis.

Jeff Vande Zande said...

Post-modernism? Experimentation?

I love them both. I love everything!

My kid got a hit in his Little League game last night! He got on base for the first time, then stole second, and then was driven in for a run.

People shouted his name. The coach looked me in the eye (ME!) and said, "That was a good hit." By default, I became an athlete.

The world is a beautiful place. Baseball makes the world make sense.

Ryan, Josh, Matt, Blake, CM, Adam, Chris . . . I love you all!

Life is beautiful!!!!!