Revision of The Persistence of History Under Postmodernism from 6 September, 2010 - 11:46

Employing intensity as a model of historical succession allows us to leave behind postmodernism's account of itself as a rupture with modernism to see it instead as a state in which culture is resynchronized with a modernized world. [1] Turning to Jameson's reading of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism, we can understand it as the era after transactions between culture and capital reach a tipping point and culture ceases to be a refuge from economy. In Jameson's model, with everything subject to being quantified and exchangeable for money or other items, there can be no exterior to capital, no place from which to critique or observe it. As a consequence, postmodern culture loses all meaning, any existential ground outside the market. Depth, and with it emotion, vanishes, to be replaced by surface effects and intensities. In this condition, even alienation is no longer possible. The subject becomes schizophrenic, lost in late capital's hyperspace.

Art under postmodernism is not just an industry but an investment market, and artists react by intermingling the high and low. With the art market demanding easy reproducibility and marketing and with authenticity and autonomy bankrupt as viable places of resistance, some artists begin to play with simulation and reproduction. Others, finding themselves unable to reflect directly on the condition of late capital but still wanting to comment on it, turned to allegory, foregrounding the fragmentary and incomplete nature of their work.[2]

With modernization complete, a historical progression towards a telos no longer makes sense. Read in this light, the postmodern attack on periodization and on master narratives changes from a decisive historiographic victory to a symptom of changed conditions. Take Jean-François Lyotard's definition of postmodernism as the product of the exhaustion of metanarratives, those historical arguments that modern forms of knowledge-such as science, philosophy, government, or economics-relied upon to legitimate their authority. Lyotard argues that growing scientific knowledge not only discredits the metaphysical positions these narratives are based on, its highly specialized nature means that knowledge is fragmented into a myriad of heterogeneous and incommensurable discourses. Postmodernism, he concludes, is "an incredulity toward metanarratives." [3]

But for Jameson, postmodernism's loss of historical grounding isn't limited to metanarratives: postmodern culture as a whole is defined by the "waning of historicity."[4] Irretrievably ruptured by modernization's end, history ceases to not only be a source of legitimacy, it ceases to be a lived reality. So if we follow Clark to admit that modernity is postmodernism's antiquity, any lived relationship to a deeper past is lost for good. More than that, Leo Marx observes, under postmodernism, progress is no longer assured. [5] Between 1960 and 1990, relatively slow technological advancement marks everyday life while continued environmental degradation, the end of the postwar boom, and the collapse of industry in much of the developed world hint that progress itself may have come to an end.

Jameson observes that unlike the moderns, postmoderns are more distracted, observing the new, but not making much of it. If postmodernism abandons historical narratives, save for the break with modernism, it still obsessively seeks to understand itself as a historical condition through theoretical means. No matter how damaged, history is fundamental to postmodernism. Unable to embrace progress or accept telos in historical narrative, postmodernist theory turns modernism's screws tighter, exacerbating the contradiction at root of modernism's historical conception of itself. Take the sentence with which Jameson opens up his book Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism: "It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place." [6]

As its architectural manifestation shows, postmodernism's break with the teleological history of modernism manifests itself as nostalgia for the outmoded and with the heroic period of modernism as well as with antiques and thrift store chic. Retro spreads through films such as Chinatown, American Graffiti, Grease, Animal House, the Sting, or Ragtime. Even science fiction appeals to the past by referring to earlier genres, such as the 1930s Flash Gordon serials that George Lucas emulates in Star Wars or the Hollywood noir that Ridley Scott recapitulates in Blade Runner.[7]

With Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new" suspect and new technologies of reproduction emerging, appropriation becomes a key aspect of postmodernism with many artists adopting the role of Roland Barthes's mythographer, taking entire signs (that is, a signifier-signified pair) to reduce them to signifiers as a means of demystifying ideological beliefs. Thus, in reappropriating the Farm Security Administration photographs of rural white farmers in the American south by Walker Evans, Sherri Levine reframes them, challenging both the construction of artistic authenticity and Evans's own reduction of poverty to formal qualities while in her Untitled Film Stills Cindy Sherman points to a complex web of desire, social construction, and filmic genre that underscores the postmodern subject's existence in a thoroughly mediatized condition. [8] The architectural parallel is the mannerist appropriation of the formal language of the heroic modernism of the 1920s by the New York Five as well as by Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, and Zaha Hadid. For all of these architects, the forms and imagery to point to the loss of the Utopian impulse in modernism.

Like modernism, postmodernism is hardly monolithic: a conservative strain promises to suture over the rifts of modernity and return to tradition even as populists seek a rapprochement between architecture and everyday life in the free combination of elements from history and popular culture. Jencks, the foremost proponent of populist postmodernism, describes the latter as double-coded, setting out to communicate with its public even as it addresses an architectural audience through a game of quotation.[9]

Whatever its allegiances, postmodernism operates in the wake of a doubled trauma, both the rupture with the modern and the modernism's break with history. Perhaps a need to reconstruct totality in the wake of trauma forces postmodernism to periodization, but either way Jameson, Lyotard, and the other postmodernists forge a new master narrative around networks of multinational capitalism.[10] Moreover, by embracing theory as a more complete form of demystification than historiography ever could be, postmodernism takes on the mantle of a master narrative, replaying yet again the Enlightenment idea of liberation through rational discourse and demystification.

That networks underlie postmodernism only demonstrates the mechanism of Michelet's dream at work again. The role of networks could only be anticipated in postmodern culture, the Internet still confined to small circles, not yet privatized or significantly colonized by capital and mobile technology was still new.[11] Moreover, the complicated nature of network culture-for example, the growth of open source software, the rise of knowledge workers, the widespread piracy of informational commodities, the importance of bottom-up production, and the rapid decline of traditional informational industries such as newspapers-could not yet be foreseen. In the end, just as postmodernity emerges only when the process of modernization is complete, network society can only come after postmodernity has run its course. Today the fragmentation of the sign, the end of the subject, and the dissolution of any sense of authenticity in media are not traumatic conditions to work through but rather fait accompli. If postmodernism celebrates the shattering of the subject, network culture takes that shattering as a given.

Network culture eschews rupture, its atemporality intensifying attitudes anticipated-but not realized-within modernism and postmodernism. Where postmodernism seeks the Oedipal theater of overturning modernism, network culture just doesn't care. Postmodernism is extinguished, but its disappearance takes place with neither a celebration nor a whimper.

Instead of returning to the heroic avant-garde as the New York Five or their counterparts at the Architectural Association did, network culture turns towards a gentle, domestic modernism. With modernism's utopian claims long forgotten, architecture becomes a pleasant and relaxing way of life, a neutral and neutered style for an oversaturated world populated with high-tech objects. Where the computers of the 1980s and 1990s were beige boxes with rounded corners that seek to hide their technological origins, the industrial designs of the iconic computers of our day are modernist, epitomized by the polished aluminum and black glass surfaces of Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple Computer who unabashedly derives his designs from the work of Dieter Rams at Braun.[12] But neo-modernism under network culture lacks either nostalgia or utopian ambition. It is decorative not symbolic: today neo-modernism, tomorrow mid-twentieth-century hunting lodge or French country style. The postmodernist idea of style as fashion returns, but any sense of positioning within temporality is foreign. The British firm FAT-Fashion Architecture Taste-are the foremost exponents of this turn, deploying figurative and eclectic forms to tweak the remaining boundaries of taste and vulgarity.

Domestic modernism is accompanied by the virtuoso architectural performances of iconic monuments. Where modernist monuments pointed to a fully modernized future, today's iconic buildings point only to their own shape, at most celebrating the technological difficulty of their construction. Far from Bruno Taut's statdtkrone, such structures don't act as a collective focal point for a city or a transformation of the order around them but rather symbolize that the city around them is plugged in globally, its business leaders hip enough to cater to the creative class. Created entirely within computer software, such buildings are a physical realization of the arcologies that William Gibson describes in Neuromancer, erupting into the city as markers of informational wealth.

Still, there is a peculiar connection between network culture and temporality: progress has come back. With the rapid pace of technological changes of the last decades we have ample reason to believe that the future will be different as a result of technology. Our version of the new is denatured, a fascination with fashion and new technologies, not the transformative promise of modernism. Rather than affirming our connection to the modern, neo-modernism only shows our distance from it.




[1] . Nealon, Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications since 1984, 32-48, 57-67.

[2] . Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1-54.

[3] . Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiii-xxiv, 3.

[4] . Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 21

[5] . Leo Marx, "The Idea Of "Technology" And Postmodern Pessimissm," in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

[6] . Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

[7] . Ibid, 19.

[8] . "Cindy Sherman (Untitled)" in Rosalind E. Krauss, Bachelors (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 101-60.

[9] . Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.

[10] . Marx, "The Idea Of "Technology" And Postmodern Pessimissm," 256.

[11] . But see also Mark Wigley, "Network Fever," Grey Room (2001). on the interest in networks during late modernism. Note also that I do not mean to say that network culture is somehow the product of Necessity or telos or that it is the only direction that these periods could have taken.

[12] . Jesus Diaz, "1960s Braun Products Hold the Secrets to Apple's Future," Gizmodo, http://gizmodo.com/343641/1960s-braun-products-hold-the-secrets-to-apple...