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Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce.

This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had held up before: symbolists defied reality in favour of dreams and hallucinations; dadaists proclaimed “unconscious impulse” to be the only reliable source of truth; surrealists called for “exemption from any moral concern”; Picasso and Apollinaire obliterated laws of aesthetics by stripping art and poetry of beauty; and André Breton took an expressly anti-humanist stance with his appeal to “dash into the street… and fire blindly into the crowd.”

Compared to the lion’s roar of modernism, its iconoclasm, the demonic genius of its key figures, postmodernism was barely a squeak. So, please, let’s not credit it with (or blame it for) undermining modernity. Instead, let’s compare these two movements in more detail and try to understand what, if anything, was postmodernism’s unique legacy.

At this point, I would like to correct a second misconception. It is often said—or, at least, implied—that postmodernism owes its existence to Karl Marx. This too is wrong. Like most—all?—20th century movements, postmodernism owes its existence to Nietzsche. With his proclamation that “God is dead,” Nietzsche didn’t just denounce Christianity—he also denounced the shallow, philistine, instrumentalist values that Christianity encouraged, and the “famished, self-complacent souls” who knew “neither frenzy nor fervour” that walked the Earth as a result. In their place, Nietzsche heralded the arrival of a new kind of man—one that would say a “great Yes to all lofty, beautiful, daring things,” and whose only guide in life would be his own instincts.

Living with “frenzy and fervour” and relying on one’s instincts for happiness sounds grand, and I wish I could do it. Alas, I am more in the “famished, self-complacent souls” camp—those who have their “little pleasures for the day, and little pleasures for the night,” and who, try as they might, will never “give birth to a dancing star.” There are a few of us around, those whose inner world is, well, average, and who need to turn elsewhere for metaphysical consolation. God used to supply this, but God is dead, and with him the direct line to the transcendental. So, in a situation like this, what do non-superhumans do? We lose our metaphysical compass, and we face chaos and absurdity.

Both modernism and postmodernism emerged as a reaction to the chaos of a post-Nietzschean world. Yet each movement dealt with it in its own way. Modernism fought back—despite its apparent nihilism, it was a highly idealistic movement. You might even call it utopian: In the ugliness and absurdity of everyday life, it saw hope for a better future. Postmodernists saw no such thing. They accepted the chaos and they resigned themselves to it. They capitulated fully and unconditionally. And this brings me to the third fallacy that is in need of correction: Postmodernism was not a politicised movement. Yes, some of its theories focused on the role of ideology; yes, the personal politics of most postmodernist figures were strongly left-leaning; and yes, many postmodern concepts were appropriated by the 21st century social justice agitators with regrettable consequences. However, postmodernism’s most significant legacy, the novel, is fundamentally, profoundly apolitical—it offers no social position, no historic context, no ideological stance. It is completely withdrawn from reality. It is a timeless, spaceless abstraction.

The postmodern novel is also an intertextual novel. Postmodernism is widely associated with (and criticised for) its philosophy of relativism. Relativism, of course, is as old as the world, as old as pre-Socratics and Heraclitus’s circle; as old as Ecclesiastes and Hamlet, with his “nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it”; as old as Cervantes and Sterne; and, more recently, as Proust. Postmodernists did not invent relativism, they just took it to the next level. The theory of intertextuality (“intertextualité”), however—first introduced by Julia Kristeva (who based it on the works of the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin), and extensively developed by her mentor Roland Barthes—was postmodernism’s true invention. Its “innovation,” if you wish.

This is how it works. We all like to believe that we use language in a unique way. Regrettably, this is not the case. What we mostly do with language is recycle—we use words, sentences, phrases, syntactic constructions, prosodic rhythms and so on that have all been used many times before. Sometimes we borrow someone else’s language on purpose—most of the time we do it unconsciously, simply by defaulting to what we’ve picked up from books, films, songs, and conversations; a wide range of discourses to which we’ve been exposed during our lives.

This situation has an important consequence: If we write and speak in a way that contains traces of other people’s texts, our own texts will inevitably contain references and associations (connotations) that were not intended by us, but might be picked up by our readers. As a result, a text is not a static body of work the meaning of which is fixed by its author once and for all—instead, it becomes a dynamic, ever-evolving mosaic of meanings, interpretations, and associations—a dialogue between the author and the reader, the author and her cultural background, the author and everything else that has been written and said.

I happen to be in a good position to comment on the merits of intertextuality, because I routinely communicate in two languages that are not my native tongue, and, also, because I have a photographic memory. I learned English at school, and I learned French at university and, in both cases, memorising and repeating chunks of someone else’s text (novels, poetry, periodicals) was part of the learning methodology. I still remember most of these texts, and so am able to trace my use of language to its original source. So, for example, when I attempt to develop a trope, resort to a stylistic device, or use unusual punctuation, an image of the page from which its precursor came would appear in my mind’s eye, complete with typeface and page number, and, right away, I would begin a dialogue with some writer of the past. I may imitate her work, I may plagiarise it, I may laugh it off and parody it, or I may enter a polemic and attempt the exact opposite. But whatever I do, I am no longer the only author of my text. And this is how the process works for everyone, only most people don’t remember where their original linguistic impetus came from.

Postmodernists took intertextuality to grotesque extremes, eventually denouncing the need for an author and an original author’s voice. Nevertheless, it remains a viable theory and, to date, it is routinely used by literary critics to supplement other methods of literary analysis. Postmodernists should have stopped there. Unfortunately, they didn’t—they decided to put theory into practice and started writing intertextual novels. And this is where things went badly wrong.

In his remarkable essay on Joyce, Carl Jung wrote that Ulysses “not only begins and ends with nothingness, it consists of nothing but nothingness.” Perhaps it’s just as well that Jung died before the publication of Philippe Sollers’s 1965 novel Drame—a postmodern “classic” without plot, character, setting, message, or authorial voice. It tells the reader nothing, and that is its intention. Essentially, it’s a linguistic game, an exercise in arranging and rearranging words, an experiment in syntax and morphology. It is a work of utmost absurdity. Compared to Drame, Ulysses is positively Dickensian.

You may argue that modernist literature was full of absurdity as well. Indeed, with Nietzsche breathing down their necks, modernists denied, provoked, and destroyed. Yet, amid the carnage, amid the fragments and the debris, there was a redeeming light, a shadow of belief, a hope against hope that there is truth to be found in the world, and beauty, and kindness, and love. If you don’t believe me, read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, or the scene of Joseph K’s execution at the end of The Trial. Behind the façade of nihilism, the modernist novel had a highly constructive goal: to find meaning in a world without God.

Sollers and his postmodern brethren had no such goal: their work contains no meaning, no wish to find meaning, and no belief that meaning exists. All it has instead is cold, insular, sardonic consciousness playing self-indulgent games with words. In place of modernist burning and raging, there is just indifference; in place of rebellion, resignation; in place of novels “written in blood,” we got novels written in phlegm. (Here I need to make an important qualification: there were, of course, significant postmodernist authors like Eco, Borges, Kundera, Fowles, and Nabokov, and their legacy endures. However, none of these writers wrote in a purely postmodern genre—their work was a hybrid, a synthesis of postmodern intertextuality with traditional genres, such as the historic or psychological novel.)

Compared to the titans of modernism, postmodernists—despite a handful of interesting thinkers like Barthes and Derrida—are no more than garden gnomes. The former dealt with metaphysics, the latter dabbled in semiotics. As a movement, postmodernism was isolated and derivative. Resolutely second-rate. However, it succeeded where modernism had failed: It brought the absurdity of the world without God to its logical conclusion and showed us a still, finished, circular world that was no longer moving forward. And this, its pessimism, its refusal to succumb to the utopia of a better social order, is postmodernism’s true legacy.

When I lived in France, Philippe Sollers was a regular fixture of various talk shows. I watched him with interest. He is a handsome, elegant man who speaks in impeccable French of L’Académie française (not the idle verbiage of his own novels), who seems shrewd and down-to-earth, who laughs a lot, and who enjoys swimming and badminton (or perhaps it’s volleyball, I can’t remember). He is married to a beautiful woman (Kristeva), and he has slept with legions more. A lothario and bon vivant, Philippe Sollers looks like a happy man. He has certainly lived his life to the full. And so, listening to his feisty chatter, I could not help but wonder if all those senseless, solipsistic, sheltered novels that he and his comrades used to pen—their undisguised contempt for the reader, their aesthetic of pessimism and indifference—were not just a massive con.

 

Elena Shalneva writes about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is a lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE.

Image: Philippe Sollers in 1983 (wikicommons)

Comments

  1. Elena Shalneva may well be the most worthwhile cultural commentator on Quillette.

  2. Interesting article and 20 years ago when I left university this was my basic view of postmodernism, as a technique that revealed the fluidity of everything and the uncertainty that lies at the heart of The Truth. Although even then I understood that nihilism in the face of this uncertainty was not the right conclusion to draw, as many did. The Truth may be unknowable with philosophical certainty, but that does not negate the need for society to strive for it. Or do you want to be operated on by a surgeon that finds the truth of human anatomy unnecessary, or fly in planes flown by pilots selected for their hair color. The ideal of the Truth has value, I would argue inescapable value, regardless of its shifting nature.

    What I would like commentators like Ms. Shalneva to explain is how this theory of inherent political neutrality, or perhaps of political meaninglessness, became the essential tool in the corruption of the English language by the New Left, to the point that we are now witnessing a cultural revolution on New Left principles among our elites. Why this sad outcome to a brave theory?

    The other topic I would like to see postmodernists examine is the idea that Nietzsche, as poetic and compelling as he is, was simply wrong. Wrong about human anthropology and psychology. Wrong about human freedom and human slavery. Wrong about Christianity and its unnecessariness in Western vitalism. Wrong about Dionysus vs Apollo and the lack of Dionysian influence in Western Culture. If these books have already been written and a Quilette commentator knows their titles I would be delighted to receive a reference.

  3. The author states: ’ Nietzsche didn’t just denounce Christianity—he also denounced the shallow, philistine, instrumentalist values that Christianity encouraged’

    As a regular defender/promoter of Christianity on QC, I found that assertion a bit ‘shallow’ - which values is she talking about that Nietzsche denounced that are so objectionable?

    The author states: ‘God used to supply this, but God is dead, and with him the direct line to the transcendental. So, in a situation like this, what do non-superhumans do? We lose our metaphysical compass, and we face chaos and absurdity.’

    I bang this drum on QC often. It is why I think it was/is a big mistake to think that pulling the rug out on the Judeo-Christian foundation of the West is a mistake.

    The author states: ‘the modernist novel had a highly constructive goal: to find meaning in a world without God.’

    Some can, but good luck with the masses… At least the modernist was looking for meaning, as opposed to the postmodernist…

    The author states: ‘his postmodern brethren had no such goal: their work contains no meaning, no wish to find meaning, and no belief that meaning exists’

    That sounds like a great way to ponder your day over a cup of coffee… Meaning is important, duh, to being human… Or all hell seems to break loose…

    The author states: ‘It brought the absurdity of the world without God to its logical conclusion and showed us a still, finished, circular world that was no longer moving forward. And this, its pessimism, its refusal to succumb to the utopia of a better social order, is postmodernism’s true legacy.’

    She did a great job teasing out the end game of postmodernism, and how unsatisfying it is existentially and practically. Unless it is a con, which she posits at the end, not unlike the con game of ‘White Fragility’ author DiAngelo and company for the masses to adopt… Alternately, there is Candace Bushnell admitting she had wished she had had kids, and that her ‘Sex and The City’ philosophy wasn’t so great after all, except that she is rich.

    Overall a good treatment and analysis…

  4. “Living with “frenzy and fervour” and relying on one’s instincts for happiness sounds grand, and I wish I could do it. Alas, I am more in the “famished, self-complacent souls” camp—those who have their “little pleasures for the day, and little pleasures for the night,” and who, try as they might, will never “give birth to a dancing star.” There are a few of us around, those whose inner world is, well, average, and who need to turn elsewhere for metaphysical consolation. God used to supply this, but God is dead, and with him the direct line to the transcendental. So, in a situation like this, what do non-superhumans do? We lose our metaphysical compass, and we face chaos and absurdity.”

    I kind of dipped my toes into the waters of “frenzy and fervour.” It was after a betrayal that caused me to become so disillusioned I lost the ground underneath me. I was staring into an abyss and didn’t know what to do. I lost faith in humanity, faith in God, and faith in myself. I became cynical, selfish, and was heading towards self-destruction chasing my happiness. F everything! Nothing matters! I was lucky to have a safety net to get through it all and be okay. Grateful I snapped out of it. Opening your mind so much that your brains fall out can be costly both spiritually and financially!

    This article is a bit over my head. All I can think right now is how post modernism or critical theory or whateve the hell it is has infected our culture and society and many, many people are unaware and lack a deep enough understanding, yet are blindly following, and lecturing and attempting to control others into blindly following as well. Otherwise, there is no seat for you at the “cool kids” table.

    I’ve finally come to believe it’s fine not to be accepted there. The “cool kids” aren’t that cool to me anymore, they look like a bunch of narcissistic idiots that don’t know what they’re doing any more than I do. The problem and the danger from where I sit are too many people BELIEVE THEY HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS! Like LITERALLY. :roll_eyes:

  5. Was it not Twain who said 'Youth is wasted on the young" LOL

  6. …up there for sure I would 'saiah.

  7. This author confuses postmodern art and postmodern philosophy/politics. There may be some connections between the two, but they are largely distinct. Worse, she has little understanding of the relationship between postmodern philosophy and the politics of its progenitors. Derrida admitted that he had always been inspired by Marxism, and the postmodern apologists have to obscure much of his work to deny it. It’s more complicated with Foucault but similar in certain ways. To say that the postmodern philosophers derive from Nietzsche more than Marx is to miss half the story.

  8. A good place to start for understanding the “French Theory” phenomenon is undoubtedly the book of the same name (French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States) by François Cusset.
    In the French/Francophone world, French Theory (or even “postmodernism”) is in fact mostly seen as an “American invention” based on a fragmentary, partial - or maybe even reductive - reading of a corpus that was unrooted from its context.
    Cusset’s book is, in the end, certainly “partial” to what has come to be called “French Theory” but it’s an accurate account of the development of this concept - and how it was then affiliated to the somewhat fuzzy category of “postmodernism”. Ethan Kleinberg, of Wesleyan University, wrote a good review of François Cusset’s book in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review (ndlr.nd.edu).

  9. безродный космополит = rootless cosmopolitan

    “Rootless cosmopolitan” is a phrase of the far left, not the far right, specifically the Stalinist left of 1946 onwards.

    “The rootless cosmopolitan […] falsifies and misrepresents the worldwide historical role of the Russian people in the construction of socialist society and the victory over the enemies of humanity, over German fascism in the Great Patriotic War.”

    Did Baddiel not address that ?

  10. Glad it’s working out for you as far as it goes, but East L.A. ain’t exactly Denmark is it?

    Homogeneous societies might need less glue to hold things together but disparate groups in close quarters might need a bit more motivation.

    From Wikipedia on Nietzsche:

    He cautioned, however, that morality, per se, is not bad; it is good for the masses, and should be left to them. Exceptional people, on the other hand, should follow their own “inner law”.[182] A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: “Become what you are.”

    I’m afraid my inner law is a tad unreliable especially in “stressful” situations! Best to have a few old philosophical chestnuts in the back of my head to fall back on.

  11. Both modernism and postmodernism try to deal with Nietzsche’s death of God. An interesting take indeed.

    Edit: I try make sense of postmodernity in the context of postmodernism here

    I would say that postmodernism (edit: postmodernity) is more of a phenomenon than a movement. The literary critique and radical subjectivity of course developed out of poststructuralism but not all postmodern authors are concerned with this. Although this is where it started. Lyotard said that the one things that unified postmodernists/postmodernity was a skepticism of meta-narratives or grand narratives. They associated those meta-narratives with modernity/the enlightenment. Perhaps this is true. Trying to find the unifying factor between such diverse postmodern authors as Derrida, Baudrillard, Nick Land and Mark Fisher is hard. The focus on meta-narratives may indeed by the unifying mechanism. EDIT: but this is not in contrast to the modernist writers to author described.

    As far as I see postmodernity and its connection to postmodernism is that early poststructuralists like Derrida were directly influenced by their disillusion of the Soviet Union as well as the emergence of Fascism. Both Fascism and Marxism were seen as dogmatic modernity grand narratives and this was problematic. Interestingly, the Frankfurt School with their Critical Theory came with very similar work coming from a very similar place, e.g. they were disillusioned by the horrors of 20th century as well. Of course they never rejected Marx like postmodernists did, instead they tried to psychologize Marx. Nevertheless, there is ample use poststructuralist methods within critical theory today, it seems quite compatible.

    Postmodernists took intertextuality to grotesque extremes, eventually denouncing the need for an author and an original author’s voice.

    EDIT: probably taking a bit a of a leap here, but I think this is where absurdities ultimately come from such as the ‘decolonization’ of hard science. There has been articles about this before on Quillette and of course the Grievance Studies affair touches on this subject as well.

    As a scientist I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about this too and have found that it is precisely the poststructuralist intertextuality overstepping its boundaries which is used as a method to justify things like science skepticism. And of course it’s hard to believe there are no political incentives behind such affords. In fact, I have just finished a video/presentation precisely about this. I’m a bit hesitant to post it since it might be frowned upon and since it’s my first one and I’m not even sure if it makes any sense. However, since it fits so nicely within this topic, I’ll try it anyway for those who are interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yK0NZ83O-k

  12. Yes. If Derrida wasn’t a Marxist, its pretty difficult to explain his demand for a “new international” at a conference called “Whither Marxism?” as late as 1993.

  13. There isn’t one. Broadly speaking, modernism deals with the unraveling of pre-war order and norms in the early 20th century (Victorian England, the American south, etc). Formally, modernism stretches romanticism to new places, but is largely in the frame of what we widely consider to be art.

    Postmodernism is not a follow on to modernism so much as a paradigm shift. This is where all the rules were tossed out the window. Modernist music sounds like two Wagner pieces played on top of each other. Pomo music sounds like a cat is loose inside the piano, or nothing at all, or climbing into the vagina of a whale (seriously). The seminal pomo piece is a urinal.

    There is no consensus among artists on precise boundaries of these movements. You get a feel for them, but they are not suited to the analytically minded.

  14. “With his proclamation that “God is dead”, Nietzsche didn’t just denounce Christianity - he also denounced the shallow, philistine, instrumentalist values that Christianity encourages, and the “famished, self-complacent souls” who knew “neither frenzy nor fervour” that walked the Earth as a result. In their place, Nietzsche heralded the arrivale of a new kind of man - one that would say “great Yes to all lofty, beautiful, daring things”, and whose only guide in life would be his own instincts”

    I am in no way a competent student of philosophy, but this strikes me as the exact opposite of my understanding of Nietzsche’s full quote:

    “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?”

    Nietzsche was not celebrating the death of God, he was terrified of it. The ubermensch was not “heralded” but rather a development required for society to survive after the moral structures of Christianity were pulled out under it.

  15. This reference provides a unique understanding of art and culture as it developed from the late 19th century.
    http://www.artandphysics.com
    The author was a brain surgeon and a teaching professor too. Check out his other book too:
    The Alphabet and the Goddess - The Conflict Between Word and Image.

    Meanwhile the death of the Christian ‘God’-idea was inevitable because, among other things it was based on a half-baked (mis)-understanding of what we are human beings, the nature of the natural world, and of course the Living Divine Reality. In short it is no longer believable and has not been so since Nietzsche and long before his time too.

    At another level the death of the Christian ‘God’- idea took on an unstoppable force at the time of the European Renaissance and the period of the so called “Enlightenment” which actually shut down or eliminated the Divine Radiance and thus the possibility of Divine Life from European culture.

    How many radiantly alive Saints have appeared in European culture since the time of the Renaissance, and especially since the time of Nietzsche? None!
    The Renaissance was the collapse of the ‘God’ civilization that preceded it - the civilization based on mythologized PRESUMPTIONS of what was traditionally conceived to be spatially and temporally behind and above the world.
    The Renaissance destroyed that earlier form of civilization and it cannot be re-created (“resurrected”).
    With the Renaissance, ‘God’-myth-based civilization was replaced with a human-based civilization, or ego-civilization - or the civilization based on the myth of the separate human ego-“I”.
    That intrinsically ‘God’-less ego-civilization came to its essential end in the twentieth century.

    And of course it was not in any sense the result of the philosophical and artistic ruminations of either the modernist or postmodern thinkers and artists who were just describing what they felt and saw about the dominant zeitgeist of their times.

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