I am lucky that my time studying for a degree was before the internet became the place where everybody, and everything, lives. Researching for essays between 2001 and 2004, I had to physically go and look for information, in bookshops and libraries, making copious notes and photocopies, and thinking about what it all means – I am in my thirties, making myself sound old.
It is not enough knowing where you can go, it’s making sense of what you find. I am still doing that with the world now, let alone all those years ago, and that is how it should be – anyone who thinks they have it all worked out should be checked to see if they are already dead.
What stuck with me since is how the world was interpreted, in the latter half of the last century, as a time of “postmodernity.” Many thinkers, most of them French - Jean-François Lyotard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Beaudrillard, Walter Truett Anderson, and so on - made their own observations, that have coalesced into a theory, borne out by movements in art and architecture at the time.
I can only be brief when describing what it all means here, because the subject is that big, and my decade-plus-old notes are that numerous. If the following makes you want to look further into the subject, my job is done.
As I understand it, postmodernity reacts against the notion of modernity, which embodied constant change, in the pursuit of progress. However, if everything is constantly changing, there is no need for the idea of progress – we are already there. We will still have new ideas, and new developments, but instead of existing to replace and overcome what came before, they now join the old ideas, bumping the out-there with the outdated, high culture and low culture, in a giant smorgasbord of, well, everything.
Everything bubbles to the surface, and what a surface to pick from. Let’s make a building that looks like a grandfather clock, like the AT&T Building in New York, now owned by Sony. Instead of straight lines and blank walls, let’s add old-style adornments, but make our own versions of them, like the eggcups on top of the former TV-am building in London, made for a breakfast TV company. Let’s collide a dystopian city landscape with 1940s film noir, as in the film “Blade Runner”. Let’s contort the human body, playing with conventions of gender, as Grace Jones, Klaus Nomi and David Bowie did. Let’s paint the Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty vase, making it more worthy, and worth more, as Ai Weiwei did.
In this small number of examples, there is a deliberate, ironic mixing of styles – everybody knew what they were doing, and were not just mashing things up in the hope of a nice effect. To achieve this ability of feeling that there are no rules, there is an inherent scepticism, or mistrust, of the existing through lines of history that explain all about everything to everyone, referred to as “grand narratives.” Like looking up quotations for an essay, you have to think about who came up with these narratives, why they did, and the choices they made about what to talk about, and what to leave out.
Critics of postmodernism often take this to mean there is no such thing as the truth, only interpretations, and neither does it mean you are incapable of finding the truth: if it was, you could either say whatever you liked, or nothing at all. If you can put aside the usual attempts to find a rational, objective, absolute truth, and think about how truth and knowledge are constructed out of all the discussions and interpretations that led to it, then you will understand it more than just having it handed to you on a plate.
It is generally agreed that postmodernism was no longer the prevailing view of the world by the time I learned of it, and this is at the expense of progress – when technology starts becoming indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C Clarke already saw in his lifetime, we are looking at how the world can become better than it already is. Perhaps, this is out of a need to destroy what makes it bad, whether it be a never-ending war against terrorism in all its forms, or mindlessly-written death threats on Twitter from people that can operate a computer, but don’t know how to boil an egg, even if they know where to look it up.
I will continue looking at postmodernism, seeing what more I can understand from it, but If everyone needs to look up right now, I am quite happy to continue looking across, making sense of where we stand.