Network Culture and Periodization, or, What Era Do We Live In?
In thinking about this phenomenon of network culture, I am struck by our inability to historicize what it means, to attach a period to the time we are living in. Now periodization was largely unknown until modernism (by this I am speaking broadly: periodization increased in fervor from the Enlightenment into the twentieth century), an era so confident in its essential rupture from the past yet so dependent on it for a narrative of legitimation. Modernism’s obsession with its place in history was inverted by postmodernism, which as Fredric Jameson points out in his seminal essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” was marked by a waning of historicity, a general historical amnesia.
But if postmodernism undid its ties to history to an even greater extent than modernism, it still grounded itself in history, both in name””?referring to its historical succession of the prior movement””?and in its strategy of poaching from both the pre-modern past and the more historically distant periods of modernism itself (e.g. the Art Nouveau, Russian revolutionary art, expressionism, dada, and so on). In his essay, Jameson takes as the departure point for his interrogation of postmodernism an observation that a rift had opened in the historical continuum, a rupture that permanently cut off his time from the modernist period. If history had come to an end, that end was recent.
In terms of paternity, the relationship between network culture and postmodernism is fundamentally different from that between postmodernism and modernism and that difference underscores the depleted condition of historicity today.
The last lingering traces of the great longue durée of the pre-modern past have vanished. Ancient city cores from Europe to Asia have been converted into playgrounds and workplaces for the rulers of the network economy. But our memory of the modern, too, is no longer fresh, the ghost of that entity barely able to haunt our world. As T. J. Clark describes it in Farewell to an Idea, modernism is our antiquity, the unintelligible ruins of a vanished civilization. For Clark, as for Jameson, modernism is rendered anachronistic once the process of modernization is complete. But writing over a decade after Jameson, Clark’s lament for modernism is more nostalgic, even archaeological. If at times postmodernism lamented the loss of the pre-modern, it also Oedipally celebrated the death of the modern, being so close to that moment that its influence was still keenly felt.
Network culture is different altogether in that it eschews rupture. Indeed, many readers will probably find the idea that I would claim status for network culture as a historical period preposterous at first glance. Fatigued by a century of avant-garde movements and futurists, by overblown millenarianism, by the failed proclamations of the Dot.com boom and end of history arguments alike, this generation is more circumspect about discussing the uniqueness of our era than any other in memory. Although modernism and postmodernism relentlessly defined themselves, we just are. Even this decade remains nameless””?is it the 2000s? the ‘00s? Or as the BBC suggested, the “noughties”? Perhaps an American version might be the zeros or the ooze? Regardless of our efforts, nothing sticks. We no longer have a way of framing our time. In that we are both the first true moderns (and the first true postmoderns) and fundamentally different from our cultural forefathers.