I recently gave a lecture to a group of young artists: 20-somethings, living in Berlin, born elsewhere. Among the languages I could identify, I heard French, Portuguese and Swedish. Despite the linguistic diversity, my lecture went smoothly – until I made a joke about Postmodernism. No one laughed because no one knew what Postmodernism was.
I would expect such a historical lacuna from young engineers. But young artists? It is impossible to read anything about culture from the 1980s and ’90s without coming across the term ‘Postmodernism’. Popularized by Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), the concept spread like wildfire through the humanities, hit political movements like feminism and spread from academic journals to fashion magazines. However theoretical, the term designated creative practises and products: music, design and then-contemporary art. Madonna – a magnet for Postmodernism – lasted much longer.
Of course, these young artists came of age after the millennium and are attuned to globalization and its offshoots, from gps to global warming. Yet they embody the historical eclecticism of Postmodernism: brand new retro trainers, Fonzie-style rolled-up trousers, fringe-heavy haircuts à la The Cure and smart phones that ring like ancient telephones. Jean-François Lyotard’s much-quoted take on Postmodern life from 1982 – ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears a Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong’ – reflects their eclectic styles and global nomadism. Living in Berlin but born elsewhere, these artists are doing research at various points across the planet, only to exhibit the resulting art works at yet other destinations.
My shocked reaction bruised some egos. After my lecture, a few participants asked for PoMo references. In addition to classic authors – Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Kathy Acker, Angela Carter, bell hooks – I cited Lars Nittve’s nifty history of the term from 1870 to 1970 for the 1988 exhibition ‘Implosion’ at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and Homi K. Bhabha’s introduction to the 1987 Institute of Contemporary Arts in London’s Documents issue on identity. ‘We may not know everything,’ one student retorted, ‘but when we discover something new, we share it with our friends.’ My suggestion – get together and start a reading group – shocked them. They have hundreds of friends, the world over; it would be impossible to meet in person, but they might post my references on Facebook.
The problem here was not a generational gap – that ‘Postmodernism’ was replaced by ‘globalization’ – but a shift in the way a common culture becomes, well, common. Our problem was not what we shared but how. Before the Internet, Postmodernism linked different people by designating different cultural phenomena. Once dubbed ‘Postmodern’, a novel could suddenly be compared with a sculpture, a pop song or a dress because they, too, had been called ‘Postmodern’. An author could talk with an artist, musician, designer and others, although their talks took place in conferences and in print instead of online. They did not always agree, but they had a common culture in the word Postmodernism.
These artists didn’t need a culture – let alone a neologism – to bring them together. Their Postmodernism is Facebook: not a catch-all phrase but a catch-everyone technology. The common comes automatically; the culture can always change. In light of social networks, the ubiquity of Postmodernism appears as its most revolutionary trait. The term likely disappeared so quickly because its force was not its multifaceted meaning but rather its capacity to link once-disparate cultural phenomena and once-distant people. Postmodernism may be the first word to become obsolete because it was replaced, not by another word like globalization, but by a technology that did the same job more effectively.
Trying to define Postmodernism is like trying to sum up Facebook, if not the Internet. While Lyotard linked Postmodern life to ‘the degree-zero of culture’, the Internet reduces all content – cultural and more – to the degree-zero of the screen. Where Postmodernism commercialized culture, the Internet customizes it, often for free. If Postmodernism aimed for a conciliatory hybridity – where old rivals like high culture and subculture could mix – the Internet normalizes a super-hybridity that makes such hierarchical divisions irrelevant. Dick Hebdige’s wonderful Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) – with Teddy Boys, Hipsters, Beats, Mods and Rudies – resonates today more with fashion than with the original politics of these disenfranchized groups.
The last bastion of subculture is not a particular style, let alone a super-hybrid version of Goths channelling Bad Brains, but an outdated technology, which resists online sharing. Writing in The Guardian in March, Dorian Lynskey noted how underground music labels like Scotch Tapes are reviving the near-defunct audio cassette – not just for nostalgia. ‘It keeps (the music) from becoming mainstream,’ said one fan. In short, a subculture may rely on format, not content, to maintain its status and politics. Imagine telling a Rastafarian that vintage hairdryers, eight-track tape recorders and wooden long-stem pipes are more potent than dreadlocks, reggae and weed. But in our era of super-hybridity, the medium is truly the message.
First published in Issue 133