Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Supplanting the Postmodern (notes)

Unrevised journal notes on Rudrum, David, and Stavris, Nicholas, eds., Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century. New York, etc: Bloomsbury, 2015. Details here.

 Supplanting the Postmodern
31st December 2015: I’ve just this morning finished Supplanting the Postmodern, a bewildering anthology of views of what happened after postmodernism ‘died’ (a common supposition of the book). While it disgracefully doesn’t mention poetry, and while some of its contributors (‘Stuckism!’) are plainly silly, the common perception that the classic postmodernist ‘dogmas’ (those that are now absorbed and clarified in the summarising literature) no longer fit contemporary (i.e. 21st Century) art, literature, culture, society and technologies, is persuasive.

Rudrum’s afterword brings into play a quote that haunted my reading of the previous 300 pages: Lyotard’s observation that ‘postmodernism is not modernism at its end, but in a nascent state, and that state is recurrent’ (337), which deals deftly with false chronologies (though September 11th, as in my ‘September 12th’, did mark a break for me [See here]) – and also brings a constant sense of crisis to the contemporary. Rudrun’s use of the same parts of Rancière that I use [in The Meaning of Form, see here], to show the oscillation between possible views of the relationships of ‘art’ and ‘life’, and to pitch that view onto some of the ‘post’-postmodernisms projected, to suggest, in a nod back to [Gerald] Graff, that there is a pendulum swing between views (‘metamodernism’ provides this metaphor: we’re swinging between modernist and pomo paradigms, and not settling). There’s no ‘break’.

Stavris, in his afterword, argues that the ‘anything goes’ of Lyotard (what of [Paul] Feyerabend?) has given way to ‘a contemporary culture of anxiety’ in which ‘artists attempt to overcome the uncertainties of the human condition in the twenty-first century by reaching out for a renewed period of sincerity. Authenticity is the new focus for the present day artist. The assertion that “Anything Goes” is no longer the case, nor is it a commonly felt sentiment: the desire for relaxation has been replaced by the desire to formulate some kind of grip on reality… This development has occurred in response to a culture of fear’ (350), a ‘climate of anxiety’ (351). ‘The result is a strong resurgence in the presentation, or rejuvenation, of self-hood and identity …’ (352). ‘The artist is no longer concerned with postmodern displacement strategies; instead, their primary aim is to convey a transition, a positive desire on the part of the subject to reclaim wholeness and selfhood in a globalized culture that is cloaked in uncertainty … Our occupation of a cultural landscape that strives for freedom and autonomy is met with a realigned focus on truth …’ (353). Realisms and experiment co-exist; religion and spirituality haunt the scene … classic return of the repressed, actually.

Does any of this reverberate? Critically, my formalist bent is a return to artistic autonomy and human agency in reading, but then I have never believed ‘the death of the author’ in its common misreadings. A diarist of such prodigious energy, I can hardly have subscribed to the ‘death of the subject’. The birth of the reading subject has always been important [to me]. Something interesting happened towards the end of Warrant Error – the need to assert human values and to express them more directly, [see below] and in the current 14 liners [the sequence ‘It’s Nothing’, see here] I’m finding that they keep vacillating between their fictive constructedness and the desire to attain (I suppose) a realist epistemology. ‘Metaxis … simultaneously here, there, and nowhere’. (325) Oscillation, betweenness, is another theme [of the book, not my poems] (so is the role of technology in creating the appearance of the real, and engendering a (false) sense of human autonomy, represented by the docusoap and the ‘personalized’ playlist, respectively. Of course, ‘fear’ is the fear of economic downturn, terrorism, and eco-disaster, in the above accounts: September 12th and the Era of Immiseration, as co-existent extremes).

Obviously, this summary is too clenched, my reading too recent, to come to conclusions. (Not that I’m trying to: I’m trying to use the book for poetics.) I see parallels with things I’ve been doing, but it is noticeable that most of the referenced art and literature I’ve not [seen or] read. It perhaps strengthens my resolve about parts of my recent work (the end of Warrant Error, the ‘Poems Against Death’, these ‘domestic’ poems [elsewhere I describe ‘It’s Nothing’, half complete, as ‘about domestic qualia, and above all, a kind of haunted John Jamesian pleasure]) that gesture towards selfhood and transparency – though it will never be the simple default mode of the Movement Orthodoxy, still pervasive, I’d say. [Later I write: ‘They do keep reticulating, in the sense of becoming more self-conscious the more they are conscious of self – that diminished, displaced, but present, “me”. See here.]    

The theorists are often clear that art is striving for an autonomy or a freedom that it will never achieve: it refuses the simpler PoMo gesture of articulating a tired resignation in the face of received ‘impossibilities’: it has never seemed persuasive on that front.

I’m not expecting such a book to really tell me what’s going on. In some ways the example of the fossilization of postmodern ideas speaks against such epochal adventures, but it is interesting to see commonalities, in one’s work, and to generally suggest that postmodernism (a term I haven’t used (much) since 1987, when I defined it quite precisely [see ‘Flashlight Propositions 1987, here]) no longer offers a dominant paradigm, that things have shifted. Yet the alternatives don’t convince: they register a general impulse. It doesn’t answer where conceptual writing might lie, where kinds of inventive translation might lie. [See here and here for those.]

The ‘altermodernist (artist) is a homo viator,’ write Vermeulen and Van den Akker of Bourriaud, ‘liberated from (an obsession with) his/her origins, free to travel and explore, perceiving anew the global landscape and the “terra incognita” of history’, (312) a view which suggests that ‘multiform unfinish’ is a strong position, not an evasive one (which was the fear), ‘enthusiasm as well as irony’, (318), ‘to pursue a horizon that is forever receding’ (325).

Trajectory rather than position. Unfinish. [See here and here.]


24th April 2016: The entry ends there; perhaps I'm trying to pick up a few themes I thought I’d not captured already, particularly ‘enthusiasm’. I interestingly pass over the ‘religious’ aspects (although I remember thinking that humanists and the Brights might have something to fight for and against at last, not least of all in response to killings of secular academics in  Bangladesh and elsewhere). The observation that postmodernism and post-post modernism will co-exist remained undeveloped but is present at a couple of points. They were, are, notes I want to come back to. Here are two poems that seem to have been in the back of my mind, from the end of Warrant Error (see here):

Two poems from ‘Out of Nowhere’ from Warrant Error

You build from song
an architecture of tumbles

a dance of stumbles on a shelf of air.
You name this the space left by the human.
You excavate Babylon or the strata of resting Jews
and the ribbons of tight ink on Pinkas Synagogue wall
with the surnames’ bejewelled rubrication

(Whenever erased they’re re-written
the act of their scrubbing
inscribed anew)

Stones leaning splinter through time
for those with no names
possess no death. You ex-
hume the ex-human in human unfinish


After the Last Word
of the dead text necrophiles come
our next words
which yet survive

as reasons
for living happily out
of nowhere and now

and then on to multitopia bearing
the stories so far

whose passions read as co-
eval becomings
geographies of affect in
capital Isness where
human unfinish is all about

The first also appears in my Selected Poems History or Sleep (unlike the second, which, incidentally, is a collage of quotatioins from everybody from Philip Roth to Doreen Massey). See here for details.