Postmodernism emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning as constructed through narrative continuity. The postmodern era saw the dissembling of many explicitly hegemonic structures. Yet, has it become outdated? The hallmark works of the postmodern era “mostly do not dream even of the possibility of the technology and communications media – mobile phones, email, the internet, computers in every house powerful enough to put a man on the moon – which today’s undergraduates take for granted.” Beyond literature, our cultural landscape has changed significantly since the 1970s and 80s, especially over the last 15 or so years with the advent of the global war on terror, social media, and Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017.
The global war against terror can be viewed as a product of the human tendencies toward narrative. Political justifications for the war against terror “focus on who our enemies are and why they attack us, what sort of effort we must mount in our defence, what type of methods this effort will require, what effects this effort will have on us, and how and under what conditions this effort will end.” Conventional campaigns against terrorism seem like products of modernism, while terrorism itself is sustained by postmodernism: “The complex interaction of discourses created by the vast increase in the flow and access to information challenges the logic of modernity. The role of virtual communities, local narratives, and levels of reality in the creation and re-creation of new identities is at the heart of postmodernism and reflects how war and combat will be perceived.” The intent is on winning the political heart of the people, through controlling the complex layers of local narratives. Without information technology, groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban would be severely limited.
Donald Trump has been described as the first truly postmodern president. The role of the media in the year leading up to his election has been hotly debated, but media’s more lengthy history in postmodernity is worthy of further inspection. The proliferation of mass media and mass news has been fundamental to the relativization of truth and fiction. Trump has been allowed – and now rewarded – for consistent lying and exaggeration. He presents ‘alternate facts’ and often contradicts his own opinions; how simple to pick and choose a few to believe. Despite his contradictions, Trump is still perceived as more authentic than Hillary because he directly challenges the institutions and narratives of the government. Ultimately, his presidency is the result of the postmodernist valuation of authenticity over perceived ‘virtue’. In a world where all truth is local to the individual, the ultimate truth is staying true to oneself, and the ultimate vice is hypocrisy.
So, what comes after postmodernism? Several theories of note have been proposed, starting with the earliest critique of postmodernism that emerged in 1995 in the form of a book. Tom Turner, an urban planner, proposed a post-postmodernism that tempers reason with faith.
Perhaps the most convincing voice that argues that we are in the midst of another cultural shift that upends postmodernism is that of Alan Kirby. He proposes “pseudo-modernism”, or “digi-modernism”.
As Kirby sees it, we have entered an era of pseudo-modernism where the participant/recipient of a text is fetishised instead of the original author; in fact, they become a partial author. The best example would be the internet; an individual clicks their mouse in a uniquely individual navigation and interpretation of context and text. This illusion of autonomy and individual ‘creation’ is amplified by media that requests and even demands user input, from forums like Reddit and Tumblr to web applications like Google Maps.
The era of pseudomodernism has several important implications.
For those interested in the development and advancement of the arts, the advent of pseudomodernism is concerning. Pseudomodern texts such as email and text messages last “an exceptionally brief time”; in fact, pseudomodernism presupposes a culture without cultural memory. This lack of ‘inheritance’ is antithetical to postmodernism and even modernism. Kirby argues that this contextual emptiness creates “cultural products [that] are exceptionally banal”. The dominant change is that of technology; whereas in postmodernism texts were still consumed as literature,, now we click. Consumption, as text was less ephemeral, was standardized to some extent; now it is highly specific and user-centric. Art, and human communication, is increasingly conformist and commodified.
And yet, this pseudomodernism is liberating precisely because it is not intellectually challenging. Whereas postmodernism is composed of layers of action and explanation, pseudomodernism is pure action. My favourite quote from Kirby is: “You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.”
In some ways, Lyotard predicted the advent of pseudomodernism: he argues for a “multiplicity of theoretical standpoints” rather than grand metanarratives. Pseudomodernism raises important questions about the democratization of art and text, for example: to what extent should art be simplified and made ‘accessible’? When is the fetishisation of participation harmful to intrinsic motivation, such as in the case of civic gamification? Is a culture without cultural memory a culture at all?