What Comes after Postmodernism?
An Evolving Culture
By: Gary D. Robinson|Published: May 27, 2010 2:42 PM
I remember seeing The Incredibles with my son when the film came out. I sighed afterwards, commenting to Alexander, "I'm tired of irony."
Little did I realize that, even in 2004, irony was not only on its way out, it was being carried out in a casket.
Irony was one of the chief pop-cultural facets of postmodernism. In a recent article by Dr. Alan Kirby, he pronounces the death of postmodernism. Writing for the British journal Philosophy Now, Kirby says, “Postmodern philosophy emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and an ironic self-awareness.”
Of course, he really means it was often expressed. By the time The Incredibles and the TV series Heroes came along, the self-awareness that fueled both had become passé:
Having thus dismissed post-modernism, Kirby goes on to state a vital tenet of that movement. With regard to “texts” of various kinds (e.g. novels, screen/stage writing), the author was “fetishized, “ i.e., supreme importance was placed on him. The postmodern author tore at the confines of his art, playfully inviting (or angrily forcing) those engaged with his work to look beyond it to himself—not unlike an inverted version of the fraudulent Wizard of Oz, crying, “Pay attention to the man behind the curtain!” Nevertheless, despite its pretensions, postmodernism did share similarities to modernism and romanticism before it, in that attention was meant to be fixed on something outside the viewer or reader.
Along came the Internet, and “reality television,” and various other forms of electronic interaction with the text. Now, instead of sitting passively before the show, the reader/viewer is invited to insert himself. As Kirby puts it,
“Pseudo-modernism” might also be defined in the words of a comic from a bygone era, Jimmy Durante: “Everybody wants to get into the act!”
The new pseudo-modern cultural product can’t exist without us being in on the act. It demands the individual’s active participation. Without that participation, it cannot exist. A novel like Moby Dick exists on its own. It was here a hundred years ago. Presumably, it will still be available hundred years from now. But the pseudo-modern text is invariably discarded after use. Kirby mentions the “reality” series Big Brother which can’t be re-run like, say, an episode of Fawlty Towers. That’s because what enables the show is the participation of its viewers who phone in, essentially writing the program themselves.
As Kirby amusingly observes, “If it were not possible for viewers to write sections of Big Brother, it would then uncannily resemble an Andy Warhol film: neurotic, youthful exhibitionists [...] talking aimlessly in rooms for hour after hour.” Indeed, where would American Idol be without its millions of phone-in voters? (Anybody ever heard of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour?)
Of course, the sine qua non of pseudo-modernism is the Internet. Here, the individual clicks his or her way through cultural products that never were before and never will be again. As Kirby says, it’s a far more intense engagement than anything literature can offer, giving the illusion of controlling, managing, running the show.
In all cases, it is intrinsic to the Internet that I can easily make up pages myself (e.g., blogs). More of us have websites than ever before. Yet what we create there is of little significance. As my son patiently explained to me when he helped me set up my own website, the reader must be able to engage the text via “comments” or some other type of interaction. The majority of these sites require the individual to either make them work, like Mapquest, or to add to them, like Wikipedia.
Continuing his survey of pseudo-modern cultural changes, Dr. Kirby mentions how movies look more and more like video games:
(For me, such movies seem less a game and more a test of endurance. Watching Iron Man 2, I had the feeling of being bludgeoned by men with digital clubs.)
And on through the cultural landscape, not to say wasteland, Kirby proceeds. Along the way, he indicts pseudo-modernism for its banality (cf. vapid texting, your average Facebook message, etc.), the ephemeral nature of its product, and its narcissism. He opines that those born before 1980 will view pseudo-modern texts as violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless, and brainless. To them, he says, what came before will seem intelligent, rebellious, creative, and authentic. In sharp contrast, those born after 1980 will tend to view themselves as free, autonomous, inventive, expressive, dynamic, empowered, and independent, their voices unique, raised, and heard.
Unquestionably, the voice of this new generation has been heard. Some have called Barack Obama a great communicator, and they’re correct in that assessment. But he also was able to use the Internet to its greatest effect to date—putting a man in the most powerful position in the world. By this reckoning, pseudo-modernism has left its forebears choking on its dust, if not lying down in and returning to the dust.
If postmodernism critiqued reality, some would say pseudo-modernism creates it. The handheld camera-style movie/TV series (Cloverfield, The Office) puts the viewer in the picture as it were. Yet it must be remembered that the “reality” created is an illusion, as much as any film or series before it. What’s real—i.e., really happening—is that the watching, clicking, commenting self grows in its own self-importance. He or she sinks down into what Dr. Kirby calls “silent autism.” Far from creating anything new in the world, pseudo-modernism takes the world away. He concludes by saying:
As a preacher, I’m always interested in, not to say worried over, new trends in communication—how they affect the soul’s ability to hear the Word of God. Personally, I’m at a loss to see how I can contemporize my preaching to accommodate the chronic web-reader or texter. Should I stream a band across the video feed in the nursery, asking for a phone-in vote on the sermon? Equip the pews with buzzers to signal boredom? I doubt it. (They might use them!)
This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t ask for input from members of my congregation, for sermon ideas, even for critique. But that’s old news in homiletics—good old advice. What excites me about preaching in this milieu in that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to touch minds and hearts. He “clicks” on the conscience, the conscience “comments” via the will. One man is standing in one spot talking about one thing. Yet, by the power of God, a sort of chat-room has been created!
In any event, in all her ministries, the church’s task is not to feed the gluttonous self but to turn it to Jesus Christ. The self has ever been our worst enemy. My sinful self, my only shame.
It was as necessary for soul-curers to see the self for the bloated monstrosity it is in the post-modern, modern, and romantic eras as it is today. “There is nothing new under the sun”—especially the need to preach the Word.
Gary Robinson is a freelance writer and author of Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.