living underground in the real world

postmodernist primer

Let’s talk about postmodernism. It’s a fun thing to learn about in college if you have that kind of money to burn. But if you’ve committed yourself to a real, handmade life and might not be going to college, as I so emphatically recommend you do not, it’s up to you to educate yourself about cool concepts like postmodernism, deconstructionism, and other bizarro -isms to ponder as your mind wanders.

What, really, is the nature of language, and how far can the concept be stretched? Is language meaningless because words can never actually be what they signify (the word “book” will never be an actual book), and if so what are the implications for literature? And, for that matter, social movements? What were/are the effects of the postmodern project on modern literary fiction? Did postmodernism create, kill, or have no effect on the concept of irony? Fun ideas to mull over while driving or soaking in the tub, for serious.

Knocking around concepts like this is primarily what I use my very expensive education (which I will be paying off until 2023—sadly, I am not exaggerating) for most days. I conjugate French verbs to myself while driving home from work, I have the awesome advantage of being able to say to the many religious zealots I get in fights with that yes, as a matter of fact, I have read the Bible, I’ve read the whole fuckin’ thing: I took a whole class on it in college and got an A—it’s a fascinating work of fiction, utterly terrifying. When I can’t sleep I read untranslated Rimbaud poésies out loud to the cats, and take some pleasure in my quite passable accent (je est une autre, mofos!). And I think about postmodernism. That’s about it.

In the spirit of anarchistic skill sharing and celebration of the life of the mind without the need of uptight universities, I’d like to chat a bit about postmodernism.

Happily, Louis Menand has provided a supremely compact disquisition on the topic in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker, in the form of a review of a new biography of the pomo surrealist writer Donald Barthelme. Pieces like these are why I so so so heart TNYer—mad skills on display in full flower without snottiness, an intellectual workout without obfuscation. Here’s all you need to know about the pomo world, in five easy pages. Actually, here’s really all you need to know in one paragraph, suitable for clipping and keeping in a back pocket in case a last-minute cocktail party chatter topic is needed:

pomoBoom. Roasted.

Louie Louie doesn’t tell you which one he thinks is “right,” he’s just giving you the facts. He tells you that the bio of Barthleme thinks he was “emphatically a postmodernist in the first sense,” that is, he believed that he learned from and worked within a tradition established by modernists like Joyce. “Modernism was formally difficult and intellectually challenging,” Menand writes. It was high art at its most high. In contrast, postmodernists in the second sense, as epitomized by Warhol, didn’t seek to be high art or lowbrow art—they sought to erase the distinction between the two:

pomo2Boom. Roasted. Really, that’s the only talking point you need to know about Warhol’s soup cans—they sought to point out that art is a capitalist product just like anything else. Warhol didn’t particularly care about this, in fact I think he rather liked it, which is one reason that I am not particularly concerned and am, actually, rather heartened by the fact that Valerie Solanas shot him.

There are loads of other goodies in here, even for someone like me who’s never read much Barthelme (I think I’ve only ever read one short story, but I liked it a lot.). Barthelme’s whole thing is adding in weird nonsensical passages to his fiction. It sounds like it would be maddening to read a short story that suddenly includes a few sentences ripped from a manual on how to repair a carburetor or something, but I like Menand’s justification for them (enough with the screen shots, I’ll just copy it out):

He tried to create a certain amount of noise in them [his short stories], on the theory that the distraction helped the reader. “The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude,” he explained. “As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.”

Yes yes yes! Also:

The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals with only one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, was to treat sentences as though they were found objects.

We rarely experience sentences this way, because we’re trying to look through them to the things they represent, just as, in traditional easel painting, we look through the canvas, as though it were a window, onto the world it represents. That’s the kind of looking and reading that modernism was committed to disrupting.

Fascinating, no?

It seems to me that blogging and so much of Internet culture in general is a terribly pomo practice. Most people I know use internet-speak like “omg!” ironically, in order to call attention to the hilariousness and weirdness of the Internet universe. Blogs (which, hilariously, is not in WordPress’s spellchecker) like mine that aren’t focused around just one topic and are written for fun (as opposed to profit) are postmodern in that they are little collages, grabbing bits of news, poetry, photos, commentary, and presenting them in a format that can’t help but call attention to the author of the blog and the meta process of blogging itself. The ability for anyone to comment on a post destabilizes the authority of the authorial voice even further, thus creating a more democratic exchange of information. This deconstruction and fragmentation of the process of information dissemination is a sign, maybe, that the lefty postmodernists, who fought so hard to erase all hierarchies by claiming that they were meaningless, are having the last laugh.

It is also, almost certainly, why newspapers everywhere are failing. It means that we need to work harder to find “experts” (to the extent that we believe in that word) to listen to, and that the people (largly white and male) who previously had an easy and possibly unearned ride as “experts” are feeling their positions of power being snatched from them.

Sigh. I miss writing term papers.

Lest anyone call me a hypocrite because I have previously railed against pomo feminism and the “pole dancing is political” viewpoint (I sense a Brittany comment is coming…) that it hath wrought in the name of feminism (what Twisty calls “funfeminists“)….um, well, I don’t think postmodernism would be happy if those who liked some aspects of it didn’t have problems with other aspects!

Its middle name is “problematizing,” after all.

(This post is dedicated to Veronica, my favorite non-college kid!)

6 Responses to “postmodernist primer”

  1. Dustin Rhodes

    I don’t regret my ridiculously expensive college education (that I, too, am still paying for), and I don’t think it’s a bad choice for others across the board, even if you have to go in debt. I say that even though I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I was interested in or how the education, as it were, would even benefit me—or, if it actually would benefit me at all.

    I went to a very small, private, liberal arts college (that has a work program and community service requirement), and it was worth every penny to spend 4.5 years pondering various ideas and exploring my mind and interests. But the experience that can’t be replicated, at least not so easily, if one chooses not to go to college is simply being amongst a really awesome community of people doing exactly the same thing. When liberal arts colleges do their jobs well, you learn how to learn, and methinks that’s priceless. You also learn how to live in community, and that’s a skill that can’t be underestimated or overemphasized.

    College is not for everyone, obviously, but I wish it were accessible for everyone, and I wish more people got to experience what college can be at its very best.

    But I digress. You were talking about postmodernism …

    Reply
  2. lagusta

    Yeah, super good points.

    When I said that “I so emphatically recommend you do not” go to college….I should have made it clear that what I really meant was: I so emphatically recommend you do not BLINDLY go to college. Oh that damn nuance, I’m so bad with it! I so love the sweeping generalization!

    I actually loved college and don’t regret it at all. But I do think our society has been done a disservice by the blind belief that you must go to college in order to be a real, thinking person. Obviously either way can work, and the important thing is that whatever path you take you’re thinking about your choices critically.

    Reply
  3. Sally

    *Language* loves the sweeping generalization.

    I think about that aspect of postmodernism a lot, because what with “the signifier =/= the signified,” I often find it very difficult to express the exactness of what I mean without generalizing.

    To pronounce is to pronounce. :-P

    As I take in language, I try to filter out generalizations as a “do unto others” kind of thing, because I know if I were saying it, I probably wouldn’t mean it as an always/never absolute.

    Reply
  4. veronica

    This post is so great! I keep coming back to read it.

    The boom. roasted. link says that the video has been removed by the user… (but is that Steve Carell I see when my mouse hovers over the link?)

    Reply
  5. lagusta

    1) sorry for calling you a kid, Veronica!
    2) The link is now fixed….until NBC gets wise again!

    Reply
  6. Katy

    Is language meaningless? Ah – I fear I have become too much of a pragmatist. Spend a few minutes with someone without language and the argument couldn’t be more foolish.

    Of course, I’d have a lovely time arguing the point (and forcefully too). Overall marvelous post dear.

    Reply

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