The two dominant cultural movements of our century-modernism and post-modernism-were marked by the turmoil of two world wars and a cold war. But they remain almost impossible to define, even with hindsight. As "fin de millennium" anxieties start to close in on the artistic consciousness, Malcolm Bradbury asks what comes after post-modernism?by / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Large epochal terms have always been both popular and unpopular with historians: popular because they help define the obvious fact that there are seismic shifts in the processes of history, the structure of culture, the nature of collective consciousness, and the aesthetics, styles and preoccupations of the arts; unpopular because they paste over fundamental differences, and generate endless quarrels about what such terms may really be said to define. The topic of “modernism” is, in this respect, exemplary.
The term is widely deployed, as being of acknowledged usefulness; it’s also an endless matter for dissent. No one is quite sure of the why, the when, the what, the where and the how of modernism: at what point it might be said to have developed; where the epicentre lay; who are the giants and who the pygmies; what the defining characteristics are. Still, it would not be far amiss to suggest that modernism belonged with the great upheavals in the politics, scientific, sociological, sexual and familial orders of the last two decades of the 19th century, predominantly in Europe and the United States. It evidently, too, had much to do with the large technological and scientific transformations that surrounded the turn of the century, and was allied to or possibly some form of revolt against modernisation. It found its cultural manifestations first in the experimental optimism of the belle ?poque years, then in the sense of historical crisis that followed the first world war. Modernism coincided with late Victorian reform, progressive liberalism, the rise of socialism and modern mass society; it co-existed no less with the rise of National Socialism, Fascism and Bolshevism from 1917 on. It displayed the grand and futuristic sense of historical and human transformation that is one aspect of the sensibility of the early 20th century; it also expressed the great European malaise that marked the inter-war years. Its forms explored the radical changes in consciousness of the modern century- as that consciousness became more aware of contradiction and self-doubt, and increasingly saw the price of progress as fragmentation and loss. Much of its impulse was either exhausted or discredited as the century came to its second big crisis in 1939-45, so that when cultural affairs resumed modernism seemed over, and another epoch begun.
the simple truth is that there were many modernisms-and seen in retrospect they will vary greatly in character depending on where we choose to stand, what period we concentrate on, what art, what line of significance we chase. The pre-war was not like the post-war. The 1930s were not like the 1920s. Berlin was not like New York, nor Moscow like Milan. Henry James was not like James Joyce, who was not like Marcel Proust, who was not like DH Lawrence. Nor was Picasso like Marinetti or Bracque like Chagall. The stylists of the new did not agree with each other; the movements of modernism-which almost never called themselves modernist-maintained constant hostilities, espoused different ideologies, served under different flags. But over time the term “modernism” became a handy compendium, a way of pulling discrepancies together, perceiving a direction not always apparent to any given participant. It took on meaning towards the end of the period-and above all after it, when we began to historicise what (since so much of the modern movement perceived itself as “new” and a-historical) was never meant to be historicised. In other words, modernism had to be reconstructed as a tradition. It was what we, the post-war generation, came after. It cast its shadow on our culture and stood in our way. So, despite the patent impossibility (how can we come after the modern?), it helped to bring into currency the term “post-modernism”-which then went on to suffer the same kind of fate.
If there were many modernisms, there have been just as many post-modernisms, as we tried-and still try-to define and interpret the indeterminate, pluralistic, ever more globalised period in culture from 1945 onwards. A 50-year span for post-modernism is no bad run for any “movement”; it suggests some perceived coherence in what we acknowledge to be the chaotic and mobile times of the post-war decades. Part of that coherence has lain in that icy stasis that has marked the whole period, once the cold war map was set across Europe and began to dominate geo-politics. The period began in European crisis and devastation, and developed with the emergence of two superpowers which composed the terms of an ideological divide-liberal welfare capitalism, state communism-which guided the political consciousness of much of the world. If we now acknowledge in the end of the cold war era a great “paradigm shift,” observe the collapse of one of the fundamental 20th century ideologies, Marxist-Leninism, and presume that the world agenda has been fundamentally transformed, we may fairly assume that the consequences for our expressive culture will be no less profound and apocalyptic. The problem that descends on our cultural historians is how to define the phase that follows. What should it be called? Post-post-modernism?
Given the plurality of modernisms, it is hardly surprising that post-modernism has had a similarly eclectic and disputed history. Over my own intellectual lifetime its meaning has virtually reversed from its original usage. It first came into critical use to talk about the period following the fading of the modern movement amid the battlefields of the second world war. The phrase was then a marker of the sense of global anxiety and absurdity that followed the war, when news of the Holocaust pervaded intellectual consciousness, when the nuclear age had begun, when the increasingly totalitarian political and ideological directions of the first part of the century changed into their cold war shape. It sought to express the ideological schizophrenia of the early post-war world. Its literary witnesses were authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, Saul Bellow and G?nther Grass-writers expressing a humanism that felt profoundly threatened, visionaries of a lost authenticity in a period of moral impotence. The philosophical context was existentialism-a thought system which owed as much to the prevailing anxiety about the world situation as to the evolution of the western philosophical tradition. In politics this was, for most western Europeans, a period of uneasy choice between the two ideological systems of the cold war, welfare capitalism and eastern European communism.
One book that sets the artistic developments of this period into place is Christopher Butler’s After the Wake (1980). The “wake” of the title is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the encyclopedic “final novel” which he published in February 1939, just before the entire pre-war avant garde in Paris collapsed. Butler argues that what followed after 1945, when the experimental arts began to revive in the changed climate, was a break in the line. But he also says that there were many lineages leading out of modernism-or rather the many modernisms. Some amounted to extensions of the pre-war avant garde impulse; Beckett, for example, who had been in Paris in the 1930s and worked with Joyce. Others were an attempt to break free of modernism altogether; for instance, the poetry of Philip Larkin, which picks up much from the tradition prior to modernism. So the post-modernism of the years of post-war “reconstruction” is both modernism developed onward into new times, and a transformation of the avant garde which reflected the newly emerging mass consumer society.
During the 1950s, when the term “post-modernism” started to acquire a degree of literary and artistic currency, this is more or less how matters were seen. In an essay called “Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction” (1959), the American critic Irving Howe considers post-modern writing in America as the distinctive, dissenting voice of post-war alienation; it’s the angry, displaced critical writing that is born of “a relatively comfortable, half welfare and half-garrison society in which the population grows passive, indifferent, and atomised”-an affluent, conformist America where the individual seems superfluous, the outsider rages, the dominant culture seems hostile. However, especially in the US, which was making considerable claims to having inherited the modernist tradition from Europe, the term’s meaning was to change rapidly. The early 1960s, after Kennedy’s election, saw a time of energetic experimentalism-among the Beat poets, performance theatre groups, and so on. In painting, movements such as abstract expressionism, op art and pop art flourished, and in a period of free speech campaigns and anti-war protest the avant garde and what was now called the “counter-culture” appeared inseparable. Post-modernism now often meant “spontaneous prose” and poetry. It meant the sexual frankness as well as the experimental textuality of books by Vladimir Nabokov and William Burroughs, whose work had been, according to avant garde tradition, published in Paris and censored in the US, but were now freed by the courts for American publication. It also meant the playful textual writings of authors such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, but also the hippie experimentalism of Richard Brautigan. It incorporated the spirit of the French nouveau roman, the random art of John Cage, Black Mountain poetry, or the theatrical “happening.”
the intellectual and philosophical context was changing too, as existentialism gave way to structuralism, which dispensed with the historical and ethical anxieties of Camus and Sartre, and emphasised the collective codes of cultural discourse. By May 1968 these arguments and the spirit of counter-culture that encouraged them had been right up to the street barricades and back again. The year 1968 signified a number of fundamental changes in cultural attitude, caused not only by the failure of the counter-culture’s revolution of consciousness but also the suppression of the Prague spring and more critical attitudes taken to events in eastern and central Europe. It was in 1968 that a new, more elusive guru, Jacques Derrida, came to the forefront of attention, producing three of his most influential books. By 1970 post-modernism was associated with another significant neo-philosophical and critical tendency: deconstruction, which was concerned with the instability of all discourses, the slippage of all meanings, the fading of the grand narratives. Significantly the philosophy was generated in Paris, but mostly disseminated in the US. It was increasingly the case that, if it took the philosophers of the Sorbonne to explain our condition, or lack of it, it took the intellectuals and artists of America to manifest it expressively. “America is deconstruction,” Derrida enthusiastically said.
One of the essential facts about the cultural movements after modernism was their geographical redistribution. For modernism had been predominantly a European affair, at least until the passage of modernist exiles out of Europe during the Hitler years. Now, in the superpower age, America offered the best hope for its extension; it was assumed, at this period, that the centre of the modern art market and the direction of experiment had moved from Paris to New York, Picasso to Pollock. Not only that; in the US the modern experiment had left bohemia and entered the mainstream. Mies van der Rohe may have started with European workers’ housing but ended with office blocks on the Manhattan skyline. “From Bauhaus to Our House,” the American cultural commentator Tom Wolfe called this process. Under the fascinated, sometimes highly ironic gaze of European philosophical gurus, it was American culture that displayed the spirit of cultural energy after modernism. Post-modernism was no longer Beckett’s mysterious deus absconditus, Pinter’s strange silences. It was Andy Warhol, radical chic, pink modernism, experiment in quotes. It was just America itself: Hollywood, Disneyland, the car and casino culture of Las Vegas, the historyless, non-hierarchical spirit of hi-tech, consumer-oriented, fun-filled American expression, which its own technologies transmitted iconographically across the world.
With much of its post-war ideological and existential anxiety gone, post-modernism became an open definition. The term lost its elite meanings and became more general in application and commonplace in use. It is striking to see how many different phenomena-in writing, painting, architecture, in media, life-style, culture in the most expansive, colour-supplement sense of the term-have been described as post-modern. In the realm of the novel, for instance, it has been used to stand for Beckett’s minimalism and Thomas Pynchon’s glut and excess, for the random methods of William Burroughs and the bitter political irony of Milan Kundera, for the black humour of Joseph Heller and the vital political and cultural satire of Salman Rushdie. In architecture it stands rather grandly to denote James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, or Richard Roger’s Lloyd’s building, but also the laser-lit grotesqueries of casinos such as Treasure Island in Las Vegas.
by the 1980s this view of post-modernism, as an all-inclusive definition of a cultural epoch typified by stylistic glut, pluralism, parody and quotation, the disappearance of traditional cultural hierarchies and the randomisation of cultural production, had become commonplace. What was taken away from the cultural centre was often restored at the cultural fringes: political writing was granted to the repressed cultures of eastern Europe, post-colonial societies, emergent ethnicities, but not to dominant centres. Post-modernism had long since ceased to be a style, an aesthetic or a metaphysic; it had become a fate or condition. A glance across my bookshelves-or better, a glance along the shelves of any good student bookstore-will show how inclusive the term has become. I have books on post-modern fiction, the poetics of post-modernism, and the language of post-modern architecture, but also books on post-modern culture, the post-modern condition, post-modernism and its discontents, as well as Frederic Jameson’s attempt at the definitive text, Post-modernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).
When, some time ago, I first used the term in a book, I was attacked in the Times Literary Supplement by a distinguished academic for compounding an evident absurdity; there could be no such thing as being post the modern. Now, I notice, he is himself as fluent in the phrase as the best. The term now freely embraces architecture, food, fashion, design, movies, media studies, feminism, ethnicity and sexual politics. It does such good business that it has been abbreviated to Po-Mo, and defines the entire world of virtual reality and shopping, of nothing-existence in a style-glutted world. It was, presumably, for this that the Berlin wall was taken down-so the pieces could be sold as art-objects; Christo could at last drape the Reichstag. Thus, over time, the term has co-existed with nearly all the things a post-war cultural life could exist with: existentialism and post-existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-deconstruction, feminism and post-feminism, the new historicism and the post-new historicism. One of its characteristics is the addition of the post-prefix to almost all things. It has meant everything and nothing, presumably roughly miming the condition of the culture, or post-culture, it has meant to describe and define. It has kept company with post-Heideggerian hermeneutics, the Beach Boys and Grunge; it has become virtually synonymous with contemporaneity itself. I take it as axiomatic that anything used this freely is already over, and that youthful successors and usurpers know that they are living and, more importantly, thinking and theorising, in a post-postmodern world. In fact “nostalgia deco” is, according to Jameson, one of the defining features of the post-modern condition. He describes it as a strategic frame, “a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of ‘pastness’ and pseudo-historical depth,” in which a sense of a history of styles replaces “real” history (in his case, Marxist) in a time which has “forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” We have reached the stage when one object of “nostalgia deco” is the long-lived history of post-modernism. Our films are remakes; history starts with Hollywood; what post-modernity quotes from is post-modernity itself.
it has generally been customary, at the end of the modern centuries (let alone millennia), for thought to grow chiliastic, for people anxiously to try to plot the uncertain world ahead and give a history to the world just left behind. Such feelings are bound to increase when it is clear that a fundamental historical change has occurred. They will increase even more when it seems that effective political control of world events and dangers has diminished rather than increased. They will also increase when it becomes evident that significant changes are taking place within the social systems of those nations which have not been suddenly revolutionised by deep political change, internal collapse, or loss or acquisition of nationhood. For the end of the cold war is accompanied by fundamental shifts in the western world in domestic, family and sexual life, in the conditions of manufacture and employment, in the global economy, and in the state of scientific and technological discovery. The end of the 18th century saw a transformation of the social, moral and political order generated by political revolutions-the American and the French-as well as the industrial revolution. The end of the 19th century saw a no less radical transformation caused in part by a revolution in science, technology and social modernisation. At the end of the 20th century, we now see both of these revolutions taking place at once, shaping the final stages of the millennium.
When the cold war came to its sudden and spectacular end, one outcome was that many of those in central and eastern Europe who had represented “culture” and been political dissidents became moral heroes and public figures. The dissenting post-modern playwright Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia-though only to see that relatively new nation soon dissolve into two. Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned from Vermont to Russia as moral hero, crossing the continent from Vladivostock to Moscow to inspect its condition in the age of the free market, the dissolution of the old republics, economic crisis and rising crime. Not all those who emerged on to the stage of the new world order with literary credentials showed the profits of their cultural education and suppressed moral authority. Radovan Karadzic was a highly-regarded Serbian poet before he elevated himself to a leadership role in Bosnian ethnic cleansing. What soon became clear, as the dust of historical transformation settled, was that the triumph of free expression and the elevation of the heroes and heroines of dissent did not produce a new cultural millennium, any more than a political one. Increased freedom of publication did not mean that suppressed cultural and artistic energy flourished at last; it allowed the ever more commercial and global systems of communication to establish themselves in central and eastern Europe.
As the millennium approaches, the whole topography of cultural expression is changing profoundly. In one direction we are seeing the intensification of the sense of region, tribe and ethnicity, as group after group breaks away from the cultural norms of the weakening nation state to assert an independent identity. Thus, as Salman Rushdie has pointed out, many of the most interesting works of literature today being written in English, and in the UK, are “migrants’ tales,” using the universal discourse of the English language but drawing on wider cultural funds. Likewise, in the US the cultural expression of African Americans and native Americans has transformed the tradition and revaluated the once unitary American dream.
In another direction we are experiencing incorporation into the world system of supra-national communications. Television, for example, was once perceived as a pre-eminently “national” medium, a form of mass communication that could be contained within borders and cultures, and managed and regulated by states and governments. The extent to which new forms of information technology have challenged that order was well illustrated by French anxieties over the future of their film industry in the recent Gatt round. The hard facts show the difficulty: US films and television programmes already take 80 per cent of European box office revenues; 40 per cent of television audience ratings. But that is simply one stage in a much bigger world-wide process. New technological systems not only freely cross borders; they leak into each other. The emergence of digital television, the increasing penetration of all private or domestic space by programmed output or systems of interactive contact, mean the new exposure of most individuals in most countries to the information superhighway and the communications melting-pot-which has its technological and commercial centre in the US, now the outright purveyor of post-culture to most of the world. Young people world-wide are already deeply invested in the consciousness and the competences of the new technological age. They are accustomed to surfing the Internet and acquiring their myths and imagery from a fast-speed screen-based world. Their alliance with local culture or national heritage is diminishing, and the power of culture as considered expression, or a form of thought, is replaced by its power as embracing visual image. The new technologies are also fundamentally non-elitist and communitarian; they weaken the power of the independent author (hence “the death of the author” argument), the integrity of the human subject, the print-checked authority of the book.
Probably there never were so many stories told, so many narratives created, so many images and cultural artefacts merchandised and traded, from so many different sources, angles and standpoints. At the same time an essential aspect of contemporary culture is its rapid consumption of style and its evanescence. The traditional artistic icon gives way to the digital transaction, the written word to the fleeting sign, the printed page to the flickering image, the individual creator to the system-made product. This highly accelerated state of culture has, of course, been constantly prophesied. Walter Benjamin warned of the disappearance of the “aura” of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction; Marshall McLuhan prophesied the end of the Gutenberg galaxy of print-based culture in the technical global village. What seems more likely to be true is that the new technological culture simply embraces and digests the old: the artist, or the book, takes its own functioning place as one more mechanism in a world of ever-multiplying communications, in which the transmission of narratives has little to do with the continuity of cultural values, or the preservation of classics or canons, but is simply one more element in the world of competing hyper-realities. Even when “classic” works survive, they survive within these new formats, adapted to new media, new technologies, new audiences and new uses. The book is now regularly cloned with other technologies: many more “readers” listen to books on tape, or watch film or television adaptation, than read the printed original.
The obvious technological acceleration of the final decade of the 20th century can be considered as one more aspect of “post-modernism,” though the arguments about its styles, culture and condition long predate many of the most significant recent developments. Much of the intellectual and cultural debate around post-modernism was born of cold war issues, fed by cold war philosophies. The great changes of 1989 marked, it was said, “an end of history.” In practice it has also delivered a return to history: it has revived older politics, reconstructed long-lived anxieties and expectations and re-opened conflicts we thought were closed for good. It has also led us-if in a newly history-less way-to reconsider the nature of cultures and institutions, the basis of our gender, family and collective identity, the value of our national icons and monuments, the question of society’s long-term direction and prospects. One hundred years ago, when an older order seemed to be expiring, people turned to expressive culture-serious and popular, avant garde and commercial-to pioneer and prophesy “the shape of things to come.” We too are in the same fin de si?cle, aube de si?cle dilemma; we are not only interested in what we are “post-,” but what we are “pre-.” Like those who lived through the ends of other millennia, we feel caught at the moment of uncertainty; world relations are changing fast around us, but we find it hard to look onward. The dissolution of cultural and moral standards has left us open to the onward march of fashions and to ever-shifting winds of influence.
modernism was always much concerned with the ambiguous nature of personal, social and historical reality. As Virginia Woolf had it, the modern novel could thus do no more than render the fractured and the unfamiliar: “Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure,” she told readers, “Your help is invoked in a good cause.” In the earlier and stronger arts of post-modernism, the fragmentary and random had already turned into irony and emptiness; reality could be rendered only as bleak, chaotic or absurd. Today, dressed in the bright, backlit glow of commercialism, commodification and special effects, fragmentation, absurdity and unreality are just one more pulp fiction. Suffering sells sweaters, emaciation sells designer dresses, violence sells cars. Unfamiliarity is as familiar as the fading of the family itself. In the meantime, our politicians are tentative and unsure, our philosophers deconstructive, our arts inclined to the lure of glossy “nostalgia deco”-history by other means. It feels like fin de si?cle, the final days of a cultural movement. Yet at the same time it is plainer than ever that new and powerful energies, systems and historical processes are beginning to take command. We are certainly not short of styles; we consume them avidly. But we have yet to enter a new age of style: a style that embraces our sensibility, consciousness and philosophical awareness-as over time, and in almost every department of experience, modernism internationally embraced the early 20th century, or certain forms of post-modernism the sensibility of the cold war era. If style is in its larger sense the collective sense of an epoch, we have yet to perceive it, or discover its strong voices. In other words, we are surely post-post-modern; but it will probably take the process of turning the clock of history into another century to make us start seeing what kind of epoch we might be pre-. n
This is an edited version of an article which appears in the current issue of International Affairs (0171 957 5700)