So lately, I’ve been ruminating endlessly over the enigma of “postmodernism”. What has sparked our culture’s mounting infatuation with the weird, the outlandish and the ironic? When did we begin relishing the ambiguous and the counter-intuitive? At what point did “unconventional” become the new convention?
Pervading such disciplines as fiction, art and philosophy, Postmodernism has become emblematic of the modern human experience , defining most of our cultural tastes and trends. For those who have heard the buzzword countless times but never a definition, the idea of postmodernism is predicated on the conviction that our perceptions of reality are relative, subjective and thus inherently problematic. Essentially there are no stable truisms or conceptions of reality. No way is objectively right or wrong, and no one thing universally agreed upon.
Until recently, I have never quarreled with the idea of postmodern thought, and have actually appreciated its unorthodox approaches. What has sparked my recent turnaround is how radical this movement seems to have become, and how it seems to destroy as much as it contributes to today’s world, leading me to question whether postmodernism is problematic for the very reason that it seeks to find fault with every notion humans have ever construed as reality. Can the impulse to demolish all established sense of right and wrong, real and unreal, be a healthy cultural mindset? Is it a progressive way to think and live, or a degenerative one? I don’t know that I’ve made up my mind.
The evidence of postmodernism that I witness most often (largely because my field of study focuses on art and literature) is this emphasis on the “experimental.” If you have stepped foot in a modern art museum or perused a poem written in the past decade, you know what I speak of. Music, artwork, film, literature, clothing: the more psychedelic, perverse and preposterous, the better. I believe it is safe to say that “traditional” taste has become radically transformed (perhaps mangled beyond all recognition) by our modern world. In the ashes of established decorum, a modern monstrosity has arisen that we have dubbed “post modernism”. Embodying a cacophonous collage of contradiction, a mangling of mind and matter, comprehension of this postmodern conundrum is limited almost solely to the crazies who create it: the artists, intellectuals and other acclaimed luminaries of our modern world who are or maniacal (or egotistical) enough to ascribe any method to its obvious madness.
Meanwhile, the common folk like you and I can only gawk at these exalted displays of absurdity, delighting in the irony that “elevated” art has evolved from Leo Davinci’s subtly-complex rendition of the Mona Lisa, to a Mrs. Potato Head Mona Lisa with her nose on her forehead, her eyes on her chin, and her smile in between. How charmingly unconventional, right? Modernity has made great strides, I’d say. I’d also say that it is for this reason (among others) that I have no hesitation expressing my distaste for modern art, and have now come to question my fondness for the postmodern movement that engenders it. Call me old fashioned, but I will forever consider a pastel painting of a summer sunset more aesthetically pleasing than a statue of a toilet.
Relentlessly unraveling convention, deconstructing human archetypes, dispelling or complicating preconceived notions, subverting expectations, identifying and celebrating the paradoxical nature of the human condition (and the impossibly complex world we inhabit), Postmodernism ultimately serves to remind us that our world is an incorrigible clusterfuck of clashing idealogy, whirling realities, dynamic and constant change, irreconcilable differences, and finally the grandest contradiction of all: that the very endorsement of these ideas as central to human reality is flawed, because humanity is a decentralized entity. There is no inherent truth, thus any theory that claims any degree of certainty is doomed on principle. Our world has become a geographical and ideological space in which no coherency can be found; and those who think they have found it are scorned for their obvious naivety. And we wonder why society is a moral wasteland, a battlefield of belittlement, a train-wreck of destroyed tradition? Ladies and gentleman, have we found our answer?
Now don’t get me wrong, I find many outlandish postmodern ideas as riveting as the next college clod trying fruitlessly to understand them. I suppose what unnerves me is the dawning realization that our modern world is an impossible world to live in. Every thought has been conceived, propagated, popularized, critiqued, abandoned, reclaimed, modernized and finally put to rest once more as outdated and cliche. It is an endless cycle. Every plot and paradigm has been rendered into film, book and art, and then done so again ten times over, each time reducing the original inspiration that had prompted the piece. Every kernel of ingenuity ever imagined has been chewed up and spit out by pop culture. Every groundbreaking idea has been imprinted in one staunch text book or another , force- fed to distracted college kids (like you and I) around the world, scribbled offhandedly into a notebook where it can never be looked at or thought of again.
What concerns me about this trajectory goes back to the idea of legacy. Have you ever thought about what history books 100 years from now are going to say about our generation? I don’t even want to imagine. I suspect that the glossary will be full of words like “house music”, “sarcasm”, “Lady Gaga”, “That’s what she said”. Besides these embarrassing features, I fear that the only legacy the modern world will leave behind is the total annihilation of the one’s that came before it. Instead of creating new meaning, we can only regurgitate or render obsolete what is already known. We cannot honor the advancements pioneered by our grandparents, because we feel detached from them. Living in this world that others created, we feel like imposters, frauds, leeches. Thus, we seek to destroy what we cannot call our own.
The modern dilemma as I see it is this: wisdom belonged to our grandparents, psychology to Freud, math to Einstein, art to Picasso, music to The Beatles: authenticity and originality seem like particles of the past. The only recourse we have left is to mock, ridicule, and “subvert” the precedents that our forefathers worked tirelessly to establish, smug that if we have to torch our assumptions of truth and reality, then the precious, longstanding traditions of yesterday are going up in smoke with it.
What fueled my tirade on this subject is the issue of irony that we have been discussing in one of my classes. Obviously, irony is everywhere in today’s world- social media, film, social interaction, propaganda- our entire society is drenched in the stuff. The conclusion that we drew in class is that satire and irony have undermined any degree of sincerity to be found in anything: a deconstructive postmodern trait. Not simply serving to humor and entertain us, irony systematically destroys the subject it mocks, draining it of any dignity it once possessed. Human commonalities and universalities are now scorned as “cliché”, and paradox and inconstancy are the only constant. What we can be certain of is that we can’t be certain of anything.
So answer me this: once we have had our fun mocking, subverting, dismantling, deconstructing, and decentering every commonly held human ideal or understanding of the world, what will be our next conquest? Is there a legitimate end or fulfillment to be obtained from this post-modern crusade that seeks to destroy all truth and reality that has ever been agreed upon or conceived?
Furthermore, am I guilty myself of partaking in the modern pastime of deriding and scorning most things I encounter in day to day life? Absolutely. Do not think for a second that I consider myself “above” any of what I have just described. I guess delivering this rant is a way for me to think about an important issue in a different light, one that otherwise becomes accepted as “the way things are”, or white noise in our social climate that we cease to question. It forces me to look past the intriguing aspects of this new modern trend to see perhaps how it could be dangerous if not tempered with respect for the past and the human constructs that were once, and maybe still should be, impervious to postmodern destruction. Just some food for thought, of course. However, in the post-modern spirit, please feel free to ridicule and contest everything I have just said! I’m interested in hearing other takes on this issue