Reviewing a new show of architecture at the Victoria & Albert museum, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Guardian writer Hari Kunzru describes a movement that has its roots in the theoretical foundations of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and was epitomized by the iconic Philip Johnson‘s Sony building in New York (AKA The Chippendale building):
This is the essence of postmodernism: the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable. It’s an exhilarating world, but uncanny too…The world of signs is fast, liquid, delirious, disposable. Clever people approach it with scepticism. Sincerity is out. Irony is in. And style. If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.
When approached playfully and from a distance, the complex of postmodern-inspired expressions—architecture, cinema, performance art, written word—could be entertaining. To a point. But if all this was sly and a bit witty, it was also unsettling. “In a friction-free world of signs, what happened to value?”
Tracing the arc, Kunzru points to its denouement:
For many, the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism as an intellectual current. That morning it became clear that “hostility to grand narratives”, as Jean-François Lyotard defined it, was a minority pursuit, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for a tiny western metropolitan elite. It seemed most of the world still had some use for God, truth and the law, terms which they were using without inverted commas. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was widely ridiculed for declaring that the attacks signalled “the end of the age of irony”, but his use of the po-mo buzzword proved prescient. If irony didn’t vanish (though during the crushing literalism and faux-sincerity of the Bush-Blair war years it seemed like a rare and valuable commodity), postmodernism itself suddenly seemed tired and shopworn.
Graydon Carter‘s famous pronouncement has been discussed a great deal over the last decade of post 9/11 living as has the constant reappearance of irony, snarky detachment and “empty calorie” artistic expressions. But I was compelled by where Kunzru takes that line of thinking. In his view postmodernism was a pre-digital age phenom, and its defanging has a lot to do with the internetization of our lives:
In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet. It’s as if the culture was dreaming of the net, and when it arrived, we no longer had any need for those dreams, or rather, they became mundane, part of our everyday life. We have lived through the end of postmodernism and the dawning of postmodernity.
That’s a provocative viewpoint and one that makes sense, particularly for those of us who have watched this cultural trajectory from the distant vantage point as laborers gleaning the field for what is essentially human, “hot” (as opposed to cool) and authentic. While a conspicuous and consumptive culture may have “dreamed” the net, other visions and other imaginings are migrating through at the same time. Less arc and more horizon, those envisionings unfold in a form that is ambient and yet stealthy, personal and yet shared. It is another kind of cultural dreaming, but a dreaming nonetheless.