What is/was Post-Modern: Irony, Urgency (and So On)
In 1977, in his ‘Language of Post-Modern Architecture’ Jencks declared the death of modern architecture. For many decades to come, in seven subsequent editions of this seminal book, he kept refining, mapping and diagramming his theory of Post-Modern. To revisit Jencks’ definitions of Post-Modern and debate their relevance to today’s architectural and broader culture, we have invited a number of authors – scholars, architects, curators, and writers – to respond to the question ‘What is/was Post-Modern?’ Steven Connor declares the Post-Modern condition endemic and contemplates the role of irony – and the recent lack thereof – in today’s culture.
Not only does Post-Modernism seem deceased, even the news imparted of its passing is by now a matter of venerable antiquity. More than fifteen years ago, when I gave an essay the title ‘Postmodernism Grown Old’1 it had already become commonplace to declare the demise of Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism may have the singular distinction of having entered a condition of as it were ongoing demise, given how routinely its passing continues to be noted, albeit usually without conspicuous gloom. Perhaps, then, rather than being straightforwardly deceased, or, to use the rather elegant term employed in eighteenth-century epitaphs, denatus (‘disborn’), Post-Modernism would be better described as deciduous. Alternatively, employing a metaphorical register that has become hard to resist in the early 2020s, one might say that, rather than having simply gone extinct, Post-Modernism has become endemic. For far from simply going away, Post-Modernism might be said to have undergone the odd kind of disappearance that comes with ubiquity. Almost two generations of Post-Modern natives have by now appeared, and begun themselves to grow old, in conditions that from the late 1960s onwards, seemed to be distinctly and dramatically new, but which have become so familiar, and so much part of the seemingly sempiternal order of things, that there seems to be no purchase in reflecting on the kind of cleavage from earlier conditions they might represent.
Before around the year 2000, which marks the beginning of the dramatic decline in its appearances, the term Post-Modernism tended to oscillate between the naming of a particular style – most visibly and definitionally in architecture, but also for a while in music, literature, dance and the other areas of artistic and cultural practice I tried to document in my Postmodernist Culture in 1989 – and a set of worldly conditions, social, cultural, economic or philosophical. As for the first, there is little that could reasonably or interestingly qualify as Post-Modernist style nowadays, when the clashing or commingling of styles has become entirely routine at all levels of culture. Following the appearance in 1987 of Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, it seemed obvious to many that Post-Modernism meant the flooding of high or elite forms of culture with popular culture. But the antagonsim between high and low, which seemed to be a matter of such energising moment in the last three decades of the millennium, has been pestled into a tepid porridge.
As for the Post-Modern condition, it too seems to have become universal, irreversible and metastable, embodied above all in the massive increase in digitally mediated information technologies. Though these technologies of media and communication seem to have come into being as a kind of uncanny twin to Post-Modernism from the end of the Second World War onwards, the salience of digital technology was in fact rarely recognised within the theory that was so busily describing the world that digital culture was making literal. Even in 1996, the index to the second edition of my Postmodernist Culture had only one reference to ‘internet’ and none at all to ‘information’. I may well simply have been unobservant, but I do not think I was unique in being so. I remember being in the audience at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London when Jean Baudrillard was visiting, probably some time in the later 1990s (maybe even in 1999, the year in which The Matrixappeared), and hearing him reply to a question about the importance of email and electronic communication: ‘What is email?’
There is one aspect of contemporary conditions that seems to me to represent a dramatic and decisive shift. This is the extraordinary saturation of the space of social communication by different kinds of electronic media and information technology. These are typified by what have come to be known as ‘social media’, but really go far beyond it in a migration into electronically mediated form of all forms of communications, far in excess of what Baudrillard termed the ‘ecstasy of communication’ (1988).2 It is a shift, neither of style exactly, or of material conditions, but rather of mood or sensibility. It is just the opposite of the ‘waning of affect’ that Fredric Jameson encouraged people to see, or say they saw, in Post-Modernism.3 It may be summarised as the giving way of irony to urgency.
To the proponents of Post-Modernism, of whom Charles Jencks was the most prominent, versatile and sustained, Post-Modernism was a cognitive-affective challenge and opportunity, at once a new way of thinking and new way of being. For Jencks, to live in (‘under’ would seem an entirely unacceptable preposition here) Post-Modernism meant learning how to tolerate and flourish in a world of plural, and even, as it sometimes seemed, incommensurable opinions and modes of life. Post-Modernism meant no longer being restricted to living only one life, and in fact no longer being allowed the illusion that such a thing was even possible. Jencks’s was an optimistic, cosmopolitan, even essentially comic pluralism, which encouraged movement between frameworks of understanding and the polite declining or deferral of final solutions of every kind or candidature. Jacques Derrida once remarked that language is a ‘machine for undoing urgency’, 4and the ironically tolerant sensibility that Jencks embodied and encouraged was similarly allergic to the all-or-nothing violence that seemed always to follow from the unswerving faith in absolutes. One might say that, as a result, Post-Modernism for Jencks was a phenomenon of amicable emergence, rather than adversary emergency.
Among those who were taking note of the development of new technologies (the development of theories of hypertext in the 1990s, for example) it seemed obvious the internet would be a playground of these variant identities and coexistences, that would be enabled by the speed and porosity of new forms of communication to propagate beneath, around and through existing structures of power. Three decades on, it seems that, far from being the fulfilment of dreams of complex, ironic inter-ness, the internet and its many outworks have become a machinery for multiplying monolithic forms of thought and belief. The mass society that Post-Modernism had declared dead returned with a (sometimes) literal vengeance in the irresistible colonisation of everyday life by social media. By the time the pandemic of 2020 arrived it seemed to have become functionally impossible to separate epidemic and epistemic forms of infestation. During the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan had seen in the rapid expansion of modern media, especially real-time media of transmission like telephone, radio and TV, a global return of the immediacy and intimacy of oral cultures that had been swept away by the abstract forms of text-based media. He might have noted, as the contemporary theorist and celebrant of orality Walter Ong did not fail to, that the hotly impulsive immediacy of oral cultures could often make them violent as well as tenderly intuitive.
In 1989, Richard Rorty characterised irony as a sensibility that is ‘unable to get along without a final vocabulary while aware that no vocabulary can remain final’.5 This kind of irony is necessary for one who must live as if absolute values might exist, while suspecting strongly that there is nothing to guarantee them. The as-yet unchristened era constituted by early decades of the twenty-first century has seen a drastic shrinkage in the capacity and appetite for irony and ambivalence and a return of absolute forms of belief, along with the desire for unqualified commitment. We might perhaps do worse than to see these years as the era of indignation, or thymos, the Platonic term glossed by Peter Sloterdijk as the ‘ability to be infuriated’.6 Post-Modernism had proved hospitable to forms of religious belief, recalling the early applications of the word tolerance in seventeenth-century English, even if only in noninstitutional forms like popular spirituality. The new decades saw a simultaneous appropriation of religious impulse and evacuation of religious doctrine to produce intense outbreaks of faith-operation, that, despite being credence without credenda,7 enjoined absolute adherence and intolerance of adversaries and apostates. Zealotry, admonition and righteous rage were amplified and applauded. Intensity trumped complexity on all sides. Everywhere one saw the violent allergy to the number two,8 producing a bizarrely schismatic totalitarianism. All of this free-floating will-to-conviction focused on different kinds of unnegotiable principle, whether in relation to gender, or race, stripped in programmatic antiracism of the ironic quotation marks by which the word was often epauletted in the 1980s, and providing those previously ashamed of the obsessively racialised nature of their thinking with the opportunity to indulge it openly. In the 1990s, the claim that race was a kind of illusion, with no rational basis in biology was an academic commonplace: from the 2000s onwards, the undeniable existence of race, albeit as a social rather than a genetic category, had become once again as much an article of faith as it had been for Victorian anthropologists. Climate change, at once a real challenge and a vehicle of cultic devotion, provided an unsurpassable opportunity for eschatological lamentation over Last Things. Where Post-Modernism maintained a sense, at once melancholy and playful, that bad things and good things are likely always to be commingled, the opening decades of the twentieth century have been characterised by a violent intolerance of contradiction and disagreement. The most extraordinary feature of this apparently reactionary absolutism is that it appeared in the form of a heightening and hardening of many of the forms of liberalism that had been characteristic of the politics of Post-Modernism into a paradoxical kind of authoritarian liberalism that often appeared indistinguishable from anti-liberal authoritarianism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the humanities departments of the universities of Britain and USA, which had appalled conservatives in the 1980s by their embrace of what was condemned as empty and frivolous relativism, but which has hardened into a mob-morality that openly sought to suppress alternative opinions of all kinds.
Post-Modern theory was raided and recycled, but shorn of all its irritatingly elaborate armature of ifs and buts. What had been in Post-Modernism the most ravelled theoretical category of all, that of identity, was transformed from humming conundrum into incontestable conviction. In a world in which everyone knew that they must know for sure who they, and other people, really were and had always been, decades, going on centuries, of puzzling over the nature of identity were dismissed at a stroke. The bien pensant, jogalong duo of equality and diversity were needled into uneasy rivalry. Where equality had optimistically been thought to be the precondition for the spontaneous flourishing of diversity – a central value of Post-Modernism – in the decades of indignation, it was determined that diversity, in the oxymoronic form of regulated, reparative quotas, must come first, with equality simply its abstract afterthought. Contingency and irony were similarly crowbarred aside by solidarity. Everywhere, in short, as though working systematically through some catechism, every question ever asked by Post-Modern theory, or ambivalence entertained, was declared to be resolved once and for all.
Of course, such reductive and absolutist ways as this of characterising whole historical moments and movements may themselves be the effects of selective over-amplification, or attention surfeit disorder. Or so they may come to seem to later, more ironically, less moronically attentive eyes. Perhaps, if irony may be characterised as the proleptic tremor of time felt in space, with the ironic sense being a premonition of how time ‘breaks the threaded dances/And the diver’s brilliant bow’,9 the temporary paralysis of irony is a sign of a wish to barricade oneself from time’s inevitable palpitations. If so, it may be that History is not, as thrillingly and influentially affirmed by Fredric Jameson, ‘what hurts’,10 but rather, what smirks, urgency giving way to irony. There are assuredly always, as now, utterly unironic urgencies and emergencies. It is just that they may turn out not to be the ones that monopolise our attention.
Steven Connor, ‘Postmodernism Grown Old’, in Maria K. Popova and Vladimir V. Strukov eds. Cul’tura Post: At The Crossroads of Cultures and Civilisations (Voronezh: Voronezh State University Press,2005), pp. 55–72.
Jean Baudrillard, trans. Bernard Schütze and Caroline Schütze, The Ecstasy of Communication (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988).
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 10.
Jacques Derrida, ‘Ja, or the Faux-Bond II, ’ in Elisabeth Weber ed. Points . . . Interviews 1974–1994 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 34.
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 113.
Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 23.
Steven Connor, ‘Religion Beyond Belief.’ (Online at stevenconnor.com, 2020).
Peter Sloterdijk, God's Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (Cambridge and Malden MA: Polity, 2009), p. 96.
W.H. Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 134.
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 120.