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post-postmodernism

Post #141 • October 31, 2003, 5:08 AM

The question of what will follow postmodernism, which is being declared dead with increasing frequency, has been answered two ways in two days in articles appearing on ArtsJournal.

The first nominee is critical realism, which maintains the dialectics of pomo but re-embraces the notion of objective reality. Roger Caldwell for Philosophy Now:

For the last two decades of the twentieth century the dominant cultural paradigm was that of postmodernism.But at the beginning of the new millennium a new paradigm is on offer.Postmodernism is dead.It is to be succeeded by the age of critical realism.That at least is the promise that Jose Lopez and Garry Potter hold out as propagandists of the new movement (they edited a collection of essays called After Postmodernism – An Introduction to Critical Realism, published by Continuum in 2001).True, the two movements have much in common in their sheer scopeoffering an overall view of science, social science and the arts, and all in the interests of an emancipatory politics.

[However…]

The world looked at through the eyes of critical realism is vastly different from that seen through the eyes of postmodernism – for a start, there is a single world again – but there is more to the matter than an irrational leap from one view to the other.For critical realism begins with the awareness that the postmodernist project is fatally flawed.

... Indeed, it is hard to give an overview of the major postmodernist tenets without seeming to fall into parody.All knowledge, scientific knowledge included, is held to be socially constructed through and through.Science is therefore merely one story among others.The world we know is one that is constructed by human discourses, giving us not so much truths as truth-effects which may or may not be pragmatically useful.From this point of view, epistemologically speaking, a scientific text is understood as being on a par with a literary text.Further, given that for Derrida language is a self-referential system, all communication is reduced to the model of an avant-garde poem in which all meaning is indefinitely deferred.

... Critical realism, then, rescues us from the postmodernist nightmare and restores us to reality.We cannot manage without a concept of truth.There is (as most of us thought all along) a pre-existing external reality about which it is the job of science to tell us.True, we must be cautious about claims to objective reality, alert to ideological distortions, and aware that the world is a messier, more complicated place than the accounts of physicists would suggest.This does not mean that such claims cannot plausibly be made.A central plank of critical realism is that science can no longer be considered as just another myth or story.

The second nominee is modernism. Michael Barnes, covering an exhibition called “Make It New” for the Austin American-Statesman:

[Postmodernism] has been undone, as have so many other intellectual movements, by the flesh-and-blood realities of war, this time a 21st-century battle of values and cultures, not only abroad, but at home, in politics, in literature, in art.

No matter which side one takes in these post 9/11 conflicts—which could make the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s look like child’s play—the rantings of late 20th-century postmodern relativists seem as quaint and distant today as the prattlings of Victorian sentimentalists.

The absence of a seductive replacement for postmodernism has left public intellectuals—can we use that word in a daily newspaper these days without smirking?—with a renewed respect and affection for the paramount movement of the 20th century: modernism.

The clean lines and machined utility of modern architecture are all the rage again, leaving behind the pastiche of postmodernist design. Artists are rediscovering abstraction and representation after decades of indulgence in conceptual art—anti-art, really—with its emphasis on textual explanations of mute images.

Somebody should give AJ editor Douglas McLennan a zillion dollars just for existing.

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