What We Have

David Bromwich

  • The Origins of Postmodernity by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 143 pp, £11.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85984 222 4
  • The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-98 by Frederic Jameson
    Verso, 206 pp, £11.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85984 182 1

Post-Modernism entered the public mind as a fast-value currency in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in the field of architecture, where its association with gimmicky tropes of visual play (the logo-in-the-sky of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the phonejack-in-the-sky of the AT–T Building in New York) gave plausibility to the promotional prose. AT–T was the work of Philip Johnson, the friend of Andy Warhol, and so the publicity came with a background story ready to hand. The Post-Modern would be the art-historical movement that went beyond art by stopping short of art. Where Modernism was enchanted by affinities with the art of the past, and offered itself as a climactic annunciation, Post-Modernism would be ‘traditionalesque’: a little of this tradition, a little of that, whatever pleases the eye (but not too demandingly), or diverts the mind (but not into thought).

Broader traits were added as opinion-makers in the lesser arts fell into step. The Post-Modern is a matter of façade, they said, without any promise of depth. It soaks up and squeezes out but does not judge the commercial culture it is compelled to treat as a second nature. This claim, too, had been made first in architecture, by Robert Venturi: ‘The main justification of the honky-tonk elements in the architectural order is their very existence. They are what we have.’ Eventually, Post-Modernism itself would be given a honky-tonk logo and shorthand promo: around 1992, its friends and enemies alike began to call it Pomo.

Academic journals of theory – where the omission of the adjective ‘critical’ often counts as a Pomo gesture – agree that mass culture has become what we have. What exactly is meant by this? The honky-tonk elements were part of the juice in every Modernist art apart from architecture: ‘Under the bam/Under the boo/Under the bamboo tree’, lines that T.S. Eliot copied with deadpan dryness into ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, could be heard a few years later as the refrain for Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien’s dance number in Meet Me in St Louis, not because Vincente Minnelli stole the idea from Eliot but because both were freely borrowing from the same source. Given the absence of novelty in Pomo’s fondness for popular culture, the new insistence on what-we-have could only be taken as an affirmative gesture. An embrace of the high-tech lifestyle of the very rich was another of the things affirmed, as Perry Anderson suggests when summarising an argument by Charles Jencks:

In a society where information now mattered more than production, ‘there is no longer an artistic avant-garde’ since ‘there is no enemy to conquer’ in the global electronic network. In the emancipated conditions of today’s art, ‘rather there are countless individuals in Tokyo, New York, Berlin, London, Milan and other world cities communicating and competing with each other, just as they are in the banking world’. Out of their kaleidoscopic creations, it was to be hoped, might emerge ‘a shared symbolic order of the kind that a religion provides’ – the ultimate agenda of postmodernism.

This desublimation of the aesthetic – long the dream of ad-men and curators, on whom it confers a much-needed quantum of hipness – also pointed a larger moral. After a century and a half of Romanticism and Modernism, with their perpetual avant-garde, a final reconciliation was being prepared between art and commerce.

Post-Modernism has sometimes seemed to fascinate Marxists like Anderson and Fredric Jameson because it offers a bottomless pool of examples to prove the decadence of late capitalism. Its specimens on this view are important to sample because they instruct us in the ‘logic’ of current events, in which a new culture, engendered by bourgeois society itself, is hollowing out and destroying the bourgeois life-form and making way for something different. We cannot, says Jameson, assume that the next thing will be better, we can only begin to guess what it will be, but the destruction is interesting. Thus his writing is prey to alternate tremors of horror and eschatological dread. At some point, the dread tips over into ‘euphoria’, a word Jameson uses in a special sense, with overtones of hysteria, monotony, and the ecstasy of the risen consciousness. Then again, his interest in the décor of Pomo has sometimes wrapped itself in the buoyant nonchalance of a practised flâneur. It seems on balance more a Hegelian than a Marxist stance, in which sheer wonder predominates, wonder that the most arid and stifling of present-day tendencies are working nevertheless to furnish a future for someone.

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