Postmodernism has evolved into much more than just a school of Western literary theory. Today, three full generations after its birth in the 1940s, post-modern thinking has permeated every anglophone academy and every corner of the media (social media included). It’s uniquely degraded democratisation of creative ambition has redefined the tastes of “respectable” society and culture.
Postmodernism has subordinated originality and culture to consumer-capitalism in an insidious marriage of entrenched power and disempowered enablers that's built itself into the socioeconomic roots of Anglo-American individualism. It's a recipe for future obsolescence.
The various precepts of post-modernism influence every aspect of our lives in subtle but myriad ways. It has extended far beyond its origins as an art-literary movement. Understanding post-modernism’s roots and its early development (mostly within universities and literary social circles) is important. It’s the only way to see the wood for the trees, today, as we’re bombarded by the full arsenal of popular culture, mass and social media, hypernormalisation, divide and rule atomisation, advanced propaganda and - defining the front-line of our relationship with the world - consumer stick-and-carrot designed to fill every moment of every day of our lives.
Here’s a bullet point summary of today’s post-modernist reality in Western culture (Anglo-American all along its cutting edge).
- disdain for expertise (by reducing it to abusive power dynamic).
- democratise excellence (make it defined by consensus, not individual discernment).
- obsession with idiosyncrasy of form (to sideline the complex fundamental truth of substance).
- fixation with best mobilised common denominators (subordinating merit to subjective contemporary reaction).
- disinterest in an artist’s individual aims and context (no need to reach out beyond the echo chamber).
- reject respect for incremental standards of expertise and developing understanding (everything gets judged in perpetual reboot, perpetual infantilism).
- populism rules the rights and wrongs of reality (facts no longer transcend prejudice, but pop culture sweeps all before it).
As the post-modernist agenda became writ large across the national conversation, it spread an anti-intellectual subjectivity like a disease. Honed rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s in sympathy with human social instinct, post-modernism serves both the worst instincts of a lazy consumer population and the best interests of immortal corporations, wealthy authoritarians and entrenched political cabals. This alliance of profit and authority ensured post-modern thinking found a welcome in the power dynamics of society, allowing it to accelerate into and subsequently defend conquered territory as a ready-made orthodoxy. It has proven an effective divide and rule formula.
In the post-modern world, the objective reality of another’s truth is less important than personal faith and consensus feeling. It might sound an innocuous distinction but played out as a dominant culture across three generations, it’s been more corrosive to individual creative autonomy than any comparable sociological movement, social media included.
The widespread adoption of post-modern doctrine reaches a kind of inverted herd immunity - a herd susceptibility - once a critical mass of adults, trained in the post-modern paradigm, becomes the guiding institutional force teaching, managing, and governing a nation. It’s navigating by dumb luck inertia. Ultimately, this puts the country on a collision course with cultural bankruptcy, the best and the brightest locked out of the public conversation.
Innovation, scientific progress, sociocultural understanding, institutional foresight, global influence for the greater good: these key components of a dynamic, evolving society have been eroded, year on year, by the post-modernist sickness. Also, there’s no sign of effective push-back. If anything, the pace of anti-expert populism - springboard for cult of the personality demagoguery - is speeding up.
This societal bankruptcy ends only one way: our permanent obsolescence. The torch of human progress will pass to China, India, Japan, Russia, and the ambitious Asian tiger nations. The increasingly isolationist West, absorbed in self-cannibalisation, may not even notice the inevitable transition. The post-modernist fait accompli is an ugly fate; locked in a banal and protracted descent into permanent irrelevance.
“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
The seeds of what’s become the global post-modernist juggernaut were unusual for such a significant cultural movement. Most movements arise spontaneously. New skills, transformative inventions, original techniques driven by particularly fecund communities of creative energy that converge organically - a sum greater than its parts - to create societywide phenomena.
Post-modernism is a different beast altogether. It originated as a calculated iconoclasm, a dogma ready-made by critics as opposed to creators. It’s the defining cultural force of the long peace after the Second World War yet, unlike prior movements, post-modernism offers no displacing alternative.
Post-modernism began humbly enough in English-speaking and certain European university Arts and Humanities departments as a self-serving reaction to the perceived death of objective truth; an over-correction response after Einstein’s new general relativity world-view, only half understood, shattered the confidence of academic empiricism. Tenured academics asked themselves the same question: If everything’s relative, what’s the point of being in thrall to wilo-the-wisps like artistic standards, why bother struggling to understand the challenging creations of other human minds?
Within a few years, the energy of this collective tantrum had legitimised itself to the world with terms like Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existential nihilism” and found common cause with an army of bourgeois academics (e.g. Midwestern college professors of the “New Criticism” school) whose long-standing antipathy towards individual genius fit post-modernist critic over creator agenda. The world had just been liberated from totalitarian fascism, now the academy could be freed from the oppressive literary canon.
Antipathy toward individual genius existed, simmering below the surface, for centuries. Familiarity breeds contempt. Post-modernism created a cover story that elevated the academic (critic) and demoted the individual artist. It spread throughout the academic world in the late 1940s and by the 50s and 60s had made significant progress in the wider community.
It’s natural to envy talent possessed by others and must have been galling to be duty-bound to teach the works of greater artists. The ignoble instinct can turn envy into hatred, if there’s no escape, day after day, from the challenge implicit in great art and literature.
Can’t write like Virginia Woolf? Can’t live like James Joyce? Won’t risk the dangers of foreign countries trying to understand people other than your own? Threatened by the self-sufficiency of angry poets (Kerouac) and combative complex novelists (Mailer)? Simple solution: kill the author, deride the genius, misuse concepts like Einstein’s relativity and Sartre’s existential nihilism to twist the axiom of ‘everyone is equal’ into the post-modernist ‘everything creative is of equal value’.
It’s a blueprint for terminal cultural mediocrity and a license for generations of esoteric academic flimflam. Today, the degraded world of modern art owes its dubious existence - i.e. subordinated to market forces, transformed from artistry to mere adornment - to the cultural dominance of post-modernist doctrine. It's a good fit with a world dominated by the forces of consumer capitalism.