Monday, July 27, 2015



"Postmodernism" is one of those words like "hipster," used by frustrated people to displace anger at something they don't like or understand. Don't like this art? Must be postmodern. Don't like that guy over there? Don't like his glasses? Don't like that he's younger than you? Probably a hipster.

Somewhere in adolescence, we begin to formulate, assess, process, absorb, reject, and self-actualize about what "cool" is and what it means to "be cool." Even if we don't call it such, that's what we do. Being "cool" or rejecting prevailing notions of "cool" is an ongoing exercise in aesthetic formation that begins to calcify by our early 20s. After age 30 or so, further developments of cool, contemporary ideas of cool, start to look foreign and backward to most of us. You know, that moment of horror-cum-relief when you realize that you might be turning into your parents, and well, you're more or less ok with that. You are no longer cool. That which *is* cool is now worthy of ridicule.

(I get this. I do this all the time. I don't understand most pop music these days. I also understand that I haven't *tried* to understand it; I feel I have better things to do. Note that I don't run around screaming about how today's music sucks. I just don't happen to be in a position or desire to be in a position to consider it thoughtfully and critically.)

Wrestling with this anxiety (which we often express through dismissal) is difficult, and we find it easier to simply label this or that thing we don't like as "hipster." This is just one example, using a term which still seems to have a bit of cultural currency--there are dozens of others and this is hardly a new phenomenon. Argh! Everything is changing and I'm staying the same! This must be what dying feels like. It *is* what dying feels like, and well, that's the way it should be.


I don't particularly like the term "postmodern" for the same reason I dislike the term "hipster"--it's often applied haphazardly to that which we don't like. Neither of these terms has a particularly stable meaning. Both make it easy to generalize.

Of course the test for this is simple--next time somebody decries "postmodernism" or "hipsterism" ask them to define clearly and concisely what they mean.

This is not to say there are not legitimate uses of "postmodern" (I'm less sure about legitimate uses of "hipster") but most use it badly, which is to say with hazy intent.

Hulk Smash! --Hulk
"This Earth concept of 'wuv' confuses and enrages me!" --Lrrr, Ruler of Omicron Persei 8


Detractors of postmodernism often think that supporters of postmodernism (the distinction between these camps is made by whoever is making the accusation) imagine themselves as "cooler" than the non-postmodern types.


The other laughable charge against "postmodernists" is that they are literary nihilists, that they believe in nothing, that nothing means anything to these guys! Well, I suppose that depends on which "these guys" you're talking about. I'd argue that the average alleged postmodernist believes the contrary--everything is meaning! It's all over the place! It's too much, maybe! You don't have to be post-modern to appreciate the surfeit of meaning in language. You could be Gertrude Stein. You could be Don Draper. You could be anyone you imagine.


What the detractors really mean is "I feel threatened in some way." The irony here is that these detractors always have held the firm ground, the higher ground, higher not in a moral sense, but in a warfare sense. To use a musical analogy here, Americans haven't suddenly turned away from Toby Keith and Maroon 5 and toward Brian Eno or Yoko Ono. Just ain't happenin', kid.

I'm pretty damn sure that Philip Levine and Billy Collins sell more books than Charles Bernstein. If we remove a primarily academic audience from the equation, the gulf widens considerably.


It's a kind of benign bullying, this thing we do to each other.


The hipster is, most likely, going through a phase. The "postmodernist" is lying. Or I imagine that's the thinking.


The defender of literary tradition, the whistle-blower, the bulwark against postmodernism, is deeply reactionary and deeply wedded to old notions of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" art. He is a mannered fellow who would have us believe that he's a populist. He's no hipster. He's no THEORIST. He's just a regular guy.


"Why are you doing that thing?"
"Because I'm making something."
"Stop making that!"

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