A couple of days ago I finally noticed that I had missed a 2006 article by Alan Kirkby in Philosophy Now on the supposed death of postmodernism. Oh my God, they killed PoMo!!! I thought. Though admittedly, I had heard some fairly cruel rumours.
I Googled Alan Kirkby and went over to the full online text of the article, ‘The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond’ which I begin to read with great interest and here’s what I found…
The first section of Kirkby’s death of postmodernism article argues that postmodernism as taught in English Literature departments in the UK is old-fashioned, in the sense that all the exemplary texts were written before the students who are supposed to read them were even born. This is because for some time now, writers and publishers have stopped writing and publishing novels of high postmodernism, a cultural form these days only to be found in the ironic, knowing playfulness of children’s animated films which depend on keeping the parents entertained too. This is postmodernism as ‘mum and dad’s culture’. I nod with recognition. Kirkby name checks some of the most significant works of my adolescence in the mid 1980s – Fowles, Carter, Calvino, Dick, DeLillo, Borges, Morrison, Swift, Barnes, Pynchon, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Gray, Gibson – with the exception of Don DeLillo I read them all for fun rather than for university credits, thinking myself to be thoroughly up to date, when all the time I was following a cultural script that could have come straight out of Bourdieu’s Distinction (published 1984). Like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, pleased to find he has been speaking in prose for forty years, I feel bathetically proud to have once sunk so deep (Alexander Pope’s phrase) in the postmodern.
In the second part of his essay, Kirkby argues that unlike the shift from modernism to postmodernism, the shift beyond postmodernism was occasioned by a technological change which took place ‘somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s’. As I read I feel I can date this shift precisely, to 1997, and like many other cultural changes (for instance the emergence of the 18th Century Enlightenment) it was actually as much an act of sheer will power as technological change, ‘as though in the midst of its immediate perplexities the mind had attempted, by willpower, by fiat, to lift itself mightily up by its own bootstraps’, as Frederick Jameson writes of the Hegelian dialectic (Jameson, 307).
My date for the death of the postmodern is the ascendency in the UK of Tony Blair’s entirely un-ironic insistence that ‘New’ Labour was the name, and ‘modernisation’ was the game. At political rallies, audiences were supposed to listen to ‘Things can only get Better’ without laughing. And for the most part they didn’t dare. Thus, the death of the postmodern was about a mood, a feeling, and this was facilitated, not initiated, by the internet and mobile communications revolution that was just then gearing up. The new and the modern were justified by continuing technological innovation, not, as Kirkby claims, the other way around. And this irony-free zone persists and grows ever less laughable, ever more credible in the form of Obama’s rhetoric of the new New Deal, the high-water mark of modernist politics revisited.
Kirkby identifies the successor to the postmodern as pseudo-modernity, which ‘makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product’. His supreme exemplar is the TV reality show which only makes sense when the artists formerly known as the viewers are busily phoning in to vote the participants off the screen. ‘Whatever a telephoning Big Brother voter or a telephoning 6-0-6 football fan are doing, they are not simply viewing or listening’.
As I read this I smell a rat. My hermeneutic of suspicion has been working overtime on this phenomenon for years. I Google ‘TV vote fraud’ and read that in May 2008 the British TV company ITV was fined £5.7 million ‘for abusing premium rate phone services in viewer competitions’. Phone-in quiz participants were fraudulently chosen solely on the basis of geographical location, winners were selected on the basis of how dynamic and entertaining they appeared, producers overrode the popular vote and a ‘Peoples’ Choice Award’ was privately reassigned to a comedy duo because pop star Robbie Williams would only appear in the awards ceremony if he could give his friends the trophy.
Then, in July 2008 the BBC was fined for eight TV shows. “In each of these cases the BBC deceived its audience by faking winners of competitions and deliberately conducting competitions unfairly,” according to the official regulator.
Pseudo- it may be, but this is not a new type of cultural production. It’s more of the same. Given the near ubiquity of interactive TV show deception, one would have to be naïve in the extreme to assume the voting process was in some sense ‘real’. ‘the telephoning viewers write the programme themselves’, says Kirkby, to which one can only reply, They wish! Instead we remain trapped in Baudrillard’s emphatically postmodern simulacrum. As he might have put it: audience participation will not take place. ‘What makes Big Brother what it is, is the viewer’s act of phoning in’ says Kirkby. Quite.
Might have put it, indeed. But Baudrillard can’t now interject because he died in 2007. And that, perhaps, is where the death of postmodernism thesis derives its strength. Not that postmodernism is dead, but that the postmodernists are, and that this in practice amounts to the same thing. Without Foucault (d. 1984), Derrida (d. 2004), Lyotard (d. 1998), Rorty (d. 2007), Deleuze (d. 1995) and their ilk, how can an intellectually weighty defence of postmodernism now be mounted? The field belongs to their successors. What they choose to say about postmodernism is what will stick, because it won’t, can’t be refuted.
Kirkby next gives Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations as an example of a fixed point in the literary universe. Unlike Big Brother, which the viewer can supposedly influence, Great Expectations has a materiality that exists whether anyone reads it or not. For Kirkby, ‘Once Dickens had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its ‘material textuality’ – its selection of words – was made and finished, even though its meanings, how people interpret it, would remain largely up for grabs.’
Again, I’m suspicious. This isn’t a description of the Dickens I know – the one who wrote serials that only later became novels, who listened attentively to weekly audience response in order to better tailor his work to his audience’s ongoing reactions, who, in the case of Great Expectations, listened to the constructive criticism of his friend and fellow serial writer, Edward Bulwer Lytton, and changed the draft ending from a sad one to a happier, if ambiguous alternative. ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her, but one.’
“I have no doubt that the story will be more acceptable through the alteration,” wrote Dickens to his friend John Forster (Letters, vol. 9,- 432-3). I turn again to the internet and look up a facsimile copy of the original final chapter of as serialised in All the Year Round during 1860 and 1861:
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of
the ruined place ; and, as the morning mists had
risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the
evening mists mere rising now, and in all the
broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to
me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her.
By first publication, the ending has already changed for a third time! Yet this still isn’t what I remember reading. I turn to the novel in its 1862 and 1868 editions, which ends with a fourth and final alteration:
I saw no shadow of another parting from her.
So when it comes to Dickens, Kirkby is rewriting history. Great Expectations is highly sensitive to audience reaction, certainly no more ‘fixed’ than Big Brother, and given our doubts about telephone voting, may be considerably less so.
Kirkby sees the internet as ‘the pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence’
“now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time”.
Ironically (if that is still allowed) it is precisely the ineradicability of internet traces that is increasingly at stake, with growing numbers of database security breaches, and looming doubts about the very possibility of ever erasing your on-line tracks. Who really knows what details Google, or Facebook store, what they transfer to the custody of security agencies? The algorithms that circumscribe our personal and individual secrets are themselves commercial and state secrets. Contra Kirkby, the internet looks to be the opposite of ephemeral. How unlike its cultural predecessors, such as printed novels. I mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, who followed Great Expectations with his own highly popular serial, A Strange Story. Yet who now has read, or even heard of this or indeed any of his twenty three published novels? And how has their ‘permancence’ in paper and ink facilitated our reading of him? Incidentally, when I visited my local library branch even Dickens was having a hard time. Two of his novels were on the shelves (and not G.E.), right next to six of that postmodern doyen, Philip K Dick.
Kirkby laments the passing of ‘the idea of the album as a coherent work of art, a body of integrated meaning’, with no sense of the album’s very short history, conditioned much more by what would physically fit on the medium of the long playing vynyl record than by strictly artistic considerations.
I’ll look some more at Kirkby’s article on the death of postmodernism in a future post.
Jameson, Frederick 1972
Marxism and Form: Twentieth-century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.