Monday, 28 August 2017

Postmodernist or Postmodernisn't?

A post I wrote a few years ago for the website of an artistic collective to which my brother belongs, but which is no longer up there, so am rehousing it here. Having casually thrown into family conversations the idea that postmodernism doesn't exist, I was asked to explain why, and this was the result...

Mike Gane (interviewing Jean Baudrillard in 1991): Many people think of you as the high priest of postmodernism. What do you think of this?
Jean Baudrillard: The first thing to say is that before one can talk about anyone being a high priest, one should ask whether postmodernism, the postmodern, has a meaning. It doesn’t as far as I am concerned. It’s an expression, a word which people use but which explains nothing. It’s not even a concept. It’s nothing at all.[1]

Are you confused about postmodernism? Are you wondering why this word, after looming over cultural discussions for several decades, still obstinately refuses to make sense? Well, you are not alone! No less a luminary of late twentieth-century French philosophy than Jean Baudrillard shares your frustration. But hang on... Wasn’t he supposed to be one of these “postmodernists” – in fact, as his interviewer suggested, their veritable “high priest”? You check Wikipedia: section 3, “Influential postmodernist philosophers”. Look! there he is – no. 6 on the list, three places below Michel Foucault. You decide to double-check with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (they get real academics to write their entries, after all). Both of them are in there too.

Rewind back to 1983. Another interviewer, Gérard Raulet, is asking Foucault about his position relative to various key terms of contemporary intellectual debate. “Postmodernity” gets dropped into the conversation – a “hold-all concept...which quite a few people refer to and which also plays a role in Germany”. But Foucault is confused. He interrupts: “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date”. What! Does he not know what it is either?!

The philosophers are not inspiring confidence; so let’s start our search for the “postmodern” over again somewhere else: with the arts. Enter Leslie Fiedler, charismatic American literary and cultural critic, proclaiming “The Death of Avant-Garde Literature” (in 1964) and the subsequent need to “Cross the Border – Close the Gap” separating high culture from popular culture (in 1970). If the avant-garde was Modernist, its successor would of course be Post-Modernist: “we are living...through the death throes of Modernism and the birth pangs of Post-Modernism”.[2] Modernism was based on the idea of art making progress – furthermore, a kind of progress that only a certain elite class of the population would really be able to appreciate. It reinforced the border and increased the gap between highbrow and lowbrow. 

But in Fiedler’s view, the avant-garde had no way of “progressing” left that could still divide the sheep from the goats: not opposition to fashion, not innovations in technique, not even shock, insult or offensive subject-matter. All these had long since been driven to the point of banality, with “new frontiers” of literary progress now settled by middlebrow “imitators and vulgarizers”.[3] By the end of the 1960s it seemed that a new, more populist and less paralysingly self-conscious spirit was in the air: “apocalyptic, antirational, blatantly romantic and sentimental”.[4]
What was needed at this moment was literature employing genres “at the furthest possible remove from art and avant-garde...notably, the Western, Science Fiction, and Pornography”.[5] These were “the basic images of Pop”.[6] Odd choice of genres, you might say, but the principle is familiar. In visual art if not in literature, we know exactly what Pop means: art based on commercial imagery, on strip cartoons, on kitsch. Take Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, one of the first artworks discussed in Fredric Jameson’s famous critique of postmodern aesthetics, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) – their superficial, pastel-grounded glitter contrasted with the profundity and humble significance of Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s boots. 

Image result for warhol diamond dust shoes

But look closer and it becomes obvious why this sort of Pop Art is not a realization of Fiedler’s “Post-Modernism” at all. As Warhol himself claimed, there is no “depth” to his art: all one needs to know about the work is already there “on the surface”.[7] Warhol’s art is not about meaning, or message: it’s entirely deadpan, ironic without trying. That was not what Fiedler was after in turning to Pop genres. If you used them in an ironic way, he pointed out, it would just be another way of showing your sophistication – how you could be cooler than the next guy.

Instead, Fiedler thought Pop imagery genuinely embodied quite profound cultural meanings – political, mythological, even religious meanings. The Western could embody a kind of “mythological innocence” by siding with the Red Indian against “the act of genocide with which our nation began”; sci-fi in the hands of Burroughs, Vonnegut or Kubrick could tackle big themes such as “the Present Future and the End of Man”; above all, Fiedler was attracted by Pop Music, with its protests, fantastical innocence and folksy love of myth reminiscent of “the beginnings of Romanticism”. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and John Lennon had decided not to pour their musical and lyrical talents into the old genres of the avant-garde (though Cohen had started out as a modernist poet, and Zappa as a classical composer), but instead into songs for the masses. They would “close the gap” – and in doing so create “a permanent religious revolution, whose function is precisely to transform the secular crowd into a sacred community”.[8]

Now that is a set of meanings for “postmodernism” that we have completely lost sight of. To you it doubtless sounds more Romantic or hippy than postmodern or “pop”. The reason why it seems that way now, I suggest, is connected partly with philosophy, and partly with politics – the emancipatory politics of the Sixties that culminated in the student revolts of 1968. The student revolutionaries of the Sixties seriously wanted to change the world, and the ideas and music to which they committed themselves reflected that. They had a message, and no art of mere irony was going to be adequate to it. But what Fiedler and the German New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse called “mythology” would help, certainly: how could one imagine a different world, or imagine the coming struggle that would lead to it, without resonant images to inspire, affirm, unite? And if some of those images had forerunners in commercial traditions, or if the songs they sang made some money for their writers – so what?

Over the last decades, there have been few comparable prospects of changing the global political order in the way that the visionaries of the Sixties imagined. And so “high” culture has opted for a different version of “postmodernism” – a version in many respects indistinguishable from the modernism that Fiedler attacked. That has come to include the philosophers mentioned at the start of this post, together with their Parisian contemporaries (Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze) – thinkers who violently denigrated “mass” or “petit bourgeois” culture and proclaimed their undying allegiance to the modernist avant-garde. Their semiotic theories of the “death of the author”, intertextuality, and the instability of meaning have spread throughout art departments and literary seminars worldwide, borrowing the radical aura of the term “postmodernism” while re-establishing all those obstacles to broad artistic communication that Fiedler wanted to tear down. 

And it is the prestige-laden theories of these Parisian modernists that continue to trap the arts, criticism and aesthetics in political limbo – a little elite corner, where the appreciation of “postmodern” art is filtered through an institutionalized theoretical jargon, one whose main effect is to stop artists aspiring to any kind of positive expression of social and political ideals. At a moment when political change is once again on the horizon, perhaps we can persuade artists to contribute to it once more – by reinstating Post-Modernism’s original demands. A new mythology – to close the Gap!

[1] Jean Baudrillard, ed. Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (Routledge: London & New York, 1993), chap. 1, “I Don’t Belong to the Club, to the Seraglio”, 1991 interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud, 19-25 (p. 21).
[2] The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 461.
[3] Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 455-6, 459.
[4] Essays of Leslie Fiedler, II, 462-3.
[5] Ibid., 469.
[6] Ibid., 480.
[8] Ibid., 485.

Friday, 18 August 2017

"Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen..."

Another translation of a Rilke poem, from the Sonnets to Orpheus, part II (29). Apart from the first tercet, which with its injunction to sensuous experience seems to be the centre of the poem, I enjoy the gradually unfolding ambiguity of address here, taking us from the bell as "friend of far distances" through its symbolization of human suffering and experience to free images that seem only to relate to humanity. Or perhaps music is the other addressee at the poem's end: the sound of the bell, that as sound must flow and die away, but in its immovable place and function marks the present moment, the nunc stans...

Still friend of far distances, the hour
Lets you breathe now, that vast space restoring
Beyond the dark and narrow-beamed bell-tower
Where you toll. That power which is drawing

On you: know it draws its strength thereby.
Move in and out, with change your course align;
When the bitter cup's before you, why
Then touch it? Rather turn yourself to wine.

Tonight the dark is uncontained, it lets you
Be at the crossing of your senses, know
The strange and binding power in their hand.

And if every worldly form forgets you,
Whisper to the silent earth: I flow,
To the water's swiftness: here I stand.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Ballad of Outward Life

My attempt at translating one of the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal's most famous lyrics, "Ballade des äußeren Lebens", in terza rima (the metre used by Dante but rarely by anyone else):

"Ballad of Outward Life"

And children grow up with their eyes so deep,
Yet knowing nothing - they grow up and die,
And all men go their ways, as if asleep.

And bitter fruits shall turn sweet, by and by
And shall, like dead birds, drop upon the ground,
And there a few days festering they'll lie.

And the wind blows still. We hear the sound
Of so many words, and our words leave few traces,
And we feel our bodies by sweet weariness bound.

And roads run through the grass, to places
Torchlit, that with trees and pools exhale,
Or threaten with their deathly, withered faces.

Why were they constructed? And if they'll
All differ, will each bear a different name?
In turn must we then weep, laugh, and grow pale?

What use all this to us, what use this game
To us, grown men that we are, lonely still,
Who, wandering, long ago forgot our aim?

Was it to see these things that we left home?
Yet speak out loud, now, this one word -
"Evening"; from it deep and sad thoughts spill

Like thick, dark honey from the hollow comb.