Glee, Seinfeld and a Question about Post-Modernism
September 21, 2009 6:45 PM   Subscribe

I keep thinking about the word, "post-modernism." As I understand it, it began after the crash of 1929, and has since represented a ironic self-evaluation of our relativistic values, ideas, cultural touchstones, etc.

I've probably missed the nuance, but I'm wanting to get a generalized understanding. If it began after 1929, does that mean the tendency for us to criticize our own navel gazing happens when we experience shattering events, like Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008?

And if its marked by irony, is that why there are so many, (some would call) smart, snarky, dark or meaningless comedies beginning with, maybe, Seinfeld, and now including Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, Glee, etc?

Finally, if this post modern ball got rolling around the 1930s, is it destined to keep rolling forever, meaning I wonder, if post-modern itself is doomed to be eternally post-modern; the old irony continually crushed by the new irony. Hasn't this always been the human condition?
posted by CollectiveMind to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The closest thing to a trigger for post-modernism is WWI, which was what sparked the Dada movement, but since p-mo isn't as simple a movement it's a lot more complex to give it a strict definition.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 7:00 PM on September 21, 2009

As the devil tesla says, post-modernism is too complicated and wide a thing to give a strict definition to, but I'd contest your statement that it's about ironic self-evaluation. There's nothing post-modern or post-industrial about irony or self-evaluation.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:05 PM on September 21, 2009

I'm sure that somebody more expert than I will contribute shortly, but...

I think what you are really trying to describe is not post-modernism, but post-modernity.

Periodizing these things is pretty much impossible. You can't say "it began after 1929," really. Some people don't even buy that there is such a thing as post-modernism, much less agree on when it began. (A quick glance at Wikipedia even reveals that the term was thrown about in the 1870s.) It isn't so much a historical moment as it is a description of a variety of things that people observed. Some people see it as a response to modernism. Some people think it is an extension of modernism. Other people describe it as a stage in capitalism. I don't think you can easily say that it is marked by "irony," either. It is more an awareness of the constructedness of things like ideology, history, politics, and so on.
posted by synecdoche at 7:07 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

In case you're not entirely certain on the differences between modernism and post-modernism, here's a chart created by one of my english teachers that might help.
posted by kylej at 7:11 PM on September 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't think the concept of post-modernism has much of anything to do with the stock market crash of 1929, other than perhaps they occurred somewhat near each other in time

one book I remember reading in college that discusses the rise of Modernism is The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. I'd take that as a starting point for learning about post-modernism. ("Great War" in this context mean WWI.)
posted by dfriedman at 7:23 PM on September 21, 2009

Seconding the great chart from kylej's teacher.
posted by rokusan at 7:27 PM on September 21, 2009

Jean-Francois Lyotard defined post-modernism as "an incredulity towards meta narratives." According to wikipedia, a meta narrative is 'an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge.'

A professor of philosophy once told me that examples of meta narratives include Marxism and Freud's psychoanalytic theories.

I am not a philosophy student, and never was, so take all of the above with a pinch of salt.
posted by nihraguk at 7:29 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you're getting two things mixed up - postmodernism itself, and when people started using the term postmodernism to describe a range of things.

Thus, we can call a novel like Tristram Shandy "postmodern" even though it appeared long before the term postmodernism became common parlance.

Imho (and everybody has a ho in this particular arena), it's impossible to think about postmodernism without thinking about modernism; they are inextricably linked.

Modernism is a product of the industrial age, and to some extent a rejection of the certainty (or the belief that certainty was achieveable) of the Enlightenment. I think this is what you're talking about with the 30s' etc, arguably an age when modernism was at its peak, as typified in the works of people like T.S Eliot. It was also a belief in the supremacy of human ability to shape, control, question or meld. Modernism is about disruption, about rejecting appearance or convention, and quite anti-authoritarian.

"But Smoke," you say, "that sounds just like postmodernism!"

Yes and no. Modernism's focus can be thought of as the rejection of tradition, right? Whereas postmodernism is about making tradition explicit. It draws attention to tradition and embraces it - if only to mock it or show its underpinnings. It is emmersive, and it's about re-introducing tradition into art or thought, even if non-seriously (though by no means necessarily un-seriously. It can be quite serious indeed).

I would say your focus on great or catastrophic events is more relevant to modernism as a movement (as typified by the reaction to the first world war), and that mass culture in all its forms was more of a precursor and influence of postmodernism.

Whereas in previous eras you might say that many common cultural tropes were associated with both value and tradition (knowledge itself was valuable, because it was hard to find and keep. Much readily archivable knowlege was both restricted in nature (textbooks, things in latin, etc. etc and very class-limited), a culture of mass communication produces many cultural artefacts perceived to be of limited value and specious tradition (aka, most of television, no one values old tv shows just because they're old). The value is considered far more ambiguous and ripe for investigation, or play.

Of course, this attitude would arguably not have been possible without the skepticism introduced by modernism (hence the "post", even though both frameworks are far from played out).

So by asking if postmodernism is destined to stick around forever, the answer is yes. But the answer is equally yes to modernism, democracy, stoicism, etc. etc. etc. These are just ideas or labels or categories - they have no lifespan.

I hope this helps. It seems a round-about way to answer your question/s. You may very well get a billion people in this thread trying to tell you postmodernism means no value, or is moral relativism, or "everything's meaningless", etc etc. Ignore them. Most people don't know what postmodernism means (not that I blame them, it's rarely defined well).

My definition here, while quite reductionist, is one that most people from most disciplines would agree with I think.
posted by smoke at 7:30 PM on September 21, 2009 [15 favorites]

Read David Harvey's *The Condition of Post-Modernity.*

I'm serious. Read it.

And check out his website, which has an amazing video seminar on reading Marx's *Capital.*
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:35 PM on September 21, 2009

Funny, just yesterday I read Alex Ross' interesting take on this on p. 515 of "The Rest is Noise." Talking about music at the end of the 20th century, he says:

Some have tried to call the era postmodern, but "modernism" is already so equivocal a term that to affix a "post" pushes it over the edge into meaninglessness. In retrospect, modernism, in the sense of a unified vanguard, never existed.

I'm sure you could find people making the same argument in a wide range of fields, from art to literature to philosophy to whatever. I think the criticism could easily be made, for instance, about the chart by kylej's teacher.
posted by mediareport at 7:53 PM on September 21, 2009

Everyone comes at this topic from a different angle. I took a lot of pomo lit classes in college and maintain a fan site for Donald Barthelme who some people call the father of postmodern fiction. He was doing a lot of his popular writing in the 50s and 60s which fits in nicely with what other people are saying as far as the post-war inception of the thing. So it wasn't, to me, about being ironic or obvious, but it was, as smoke put it so well, about being able to show the structure of the thing you were at the same time, doing.

- Penn and Teller do this when they show you how a trick is done but still manage to do a trick
- Donald Barthelme does it when he writes a short story but it's all in numbered sentences and that structure is actually part of the story as well as the arranging element for the story.
- Tom Lehrer said some variety of "awarding of the Noble Peace Prize prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete" (apocryphally, people say he stopped performing because of this)
- people on MeFi makes jokes about the "death of the author" the idea that a work can be seen in its own right [i.e. as completely divorced from its creator] as just a text and analyzed thusly. There was a good thread about great art coming from terrible people and etc.

So, I see postmodernism not as irony but as very self-aware. Ironic detachment, to me, is a different thing altogether. So The Office, maybe? But Seinfeld, not really.

Not to piss on your parade much but I think you may be confusing a few things, only one of which is postmodernism.
posted by jessamyn at 7:54 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

if post-modern itself is doomed to be eternally post-modern; the old irony continually crushed by the new irony. Hasn't this always been the human condition?

Well, this question of yours sort of nails the head of the nail, and introduces what you might call the condition of the post-modern condition.

It is the nature of 'post-modern' discourse to reject definition, especially of the linguo-historical sort smoke offers (thought he has many great and useful insights).

First of all, all you are ever really going to get in the way of an objective definition of the post-modern is a list of what is not post-modern. It's the problem of the hole; it's a bit of nothingness made possible by what's around it (oooh, how profound and esoteric - this is the post-modern). "What is post-modernity" has as many answers as those who question it.

Sure, lots of folks try to attribute a date to the start of post-modernity. 1929? Sure, that could be argued. I've often heard the start of the Holocaust was the beginning of post-modernity (i.e. first there was belief in god (pre-modernity), then there was belief in man (modernity), then man failed himself (WWII) and then there was belief in nothing (post-modernity). Um...YMMV? Post-modernity is an idea, not a time-frame.

I second reading Lyotard. That is an excellent place to start. Post-modernity is really a way of looking at history through the lens of falsity, narrative and absurdity. Smoke makes a good point in making the distinction between the philosophy of post-modernity and when the term came into use.

Look, no answer on ask.mefi - or really anywhere - is going to give you a good definition of post-modern. It's one of those weird esoteric things that avoids definition, by its definition. Perhaps it's more useful to point to examples of post-modernity - Warhol maybe, or Cage or Derrida - or fuck, even Hannah Montana is post-modern in her own right; post-modern is a way of reading history and it just so happens most of the potent examples we can point to which illustrate the point have occurred since 1929-1939 or so - but it does not follow that the post-modern 'age' (there isn't such a thing) began at this time.

Again, your best bet is to go read lots of books (by nature, post-modern philosophy would tell you to start at the beginning, read through the end and then learn how to reject all of it). But from a pragmatic stand-point, Lyotard is a great place to start.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:56 PM on September 21, 2009

- people on MeFi makes jokes about the "death of the author" the idea that a work can be seen in its own right [i.e. as completely divorced from its creator]

Indeed. The zenith of this notion was the Fluxus movement of the 1960's, which aimed to create artworks sans works and sans artists - which is a great place to look for what you might call embodiments of the post-modern.

What Jessamyn says is truth, but be careful. There are an infinite number of things or examples one might point to and say 'that is post-modern.' But that does not bring us any closer to a definition of the post-modern; it is worth considering that, in the spirit of Wittgenstein, the tendency towards exemplification without theoretical definition is a symptom of the pomo condition. It is antithetical to make a reductionist definition of the post-modern, for the post-modern rejects the notion that the reduction is possible at all.

If this all sounds weird, confusing and sort of bull-shitty, it's because pomo philosophy is weird, confusing and sort of bull-shitty (though I still think it's fun to talk about).
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:04 PM on September 21, 2009

Language and meaning are important themes in postmodernism. So irony, if you think of it as playing with what we take for granted, can be used as a way to deconstruct commonly held ideas of power, sex, religion, truth, etc. I don't think current TV shows are living up to that level of deconstruction, but I'd say they are definitely influenced by it.

And with a shift from Truth to truth-as-meaning-in-a-shared context, self-evaluation and awareness of how we live within shared narratives are important.

Hasn't this always been the human condition?
Where to begin with a question like that! I'm seconding Lutoslawski's second last paragraph. You want to create a metanarrative to understand a movement that deconstructs metanarratives?
posted by hala mass at 8:21 PM on September 21, 2009

As someone who's done a fair amount of hardcore graduate-level theory stuff, I will tell you...that everything everyone else has said so far has been really smart. I agree with it all.

Which (a) says something about the problem with the question you're asking, and (b) is really post-modern--WOO-HOO! NO AUTHORITY! NO MASTER NARRATIVES!
posted by neroli at 8:49 PM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, I think both Jameson and Harvey date postmodernism to c. 1973. 1929 is still modernism...
posted by gerryblog at 9:01 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have never once heard that post-modernism began with the Stock Market Crash.

I think the existence of a Post-Modern movement troubles the very notion it appears to create. Specifically, "Modernism" is not a historical/ideological period that one moves past into a state of "Post" Modernism.

Modernism and Post-Modernism presently exist simultaneously. You know this because of those people you once knew that you re-encounter at high school reunions or at particularly irksome jobs. The type of person who asks, "Why do you always say the opposite of what you mean?" when you think you're ironic sense of humor is just great. A person who says "Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!" because she's chipper lives in a Modern world--a world of office culture and "days that have feelings." A person who says "Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays!" because he saw Office Space and he's lampooning the world in which such a comment is acceptable? He lives in a post-modern world.

Modernity is always contemporaneity. Post-modernity is the state of seeing through the superficiality of the present culture. There will always be a modernity--there will always be a "mode" of the moment. There will also always be pomo--there will always be jaded hipsters.

Its not a coincidence that shittiness like stock market crashes can disillusion a person enough to shift him from one paradigm to the other. You need an impetus to see through the world as it has been presented to you.

Very fun are meta-levels of pomo. That is, being disillusioned with disillusionment.

I had a friend who wore a "9/11 NEVER FORGET" button all of 2002...entirely ironically. I still admire his testicular fortitude.
posted by jefficator at 9:42 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for an abbreviated discussion about the different aspects/definitions of post-modernism then check out Segment 2 of this episode from To the Best of Our Knowledge. Amy Elias does about as good a job as any academic at putting the concepts in to layman terms. Downloadable as a podcast.
posted by quadog at 11:38 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: post-mod: the confusion in this thread speaks for itself.
posted by philip-random at 12:50 AM on September 22, 2009

Jessaymyn - people on MeFi makes jokes about the "death of the author" the idea that a work can be seen in its own right [i.e. as completely divorced from its creator] as just a text and analyzed thusly. There was a good thread about great art coming from terrible people and etc.

I'd love to take a gander at that thread, if you've got a link handy...
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:53 AM on September 22, 2009

Cantdosleepy: it was this thread, not totally about that but had some interesting discussion about it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:22 AM on September 22, 2009

It's worth noting that "postmodern" is rarely used by scholars in the field and more often used as an ad hominem attack by people who don't really know what it means, but are generally against what they see as over-thinking a plate of beans. Cf. the wonderful mefi thread where several posters rallied against what they saw as postmodern "relativism"--only to discover (not that they cared) that they were responding to arguments from, say, Spinoza or Bishop Berkeley.) People who use the word "postmodern" in this way often also use words like "deconstructionist" or "relativist," which they seem to use to imply a pretentious and suspicious nihilism. In fact, this type of view is consistent with philip-random's quote (and the fact that it was favorited?).

I'm curious about the history of postmodern theory's reception in the United States. For all its destabilization of conventional norms, postmodernism was used by the right as a way to retrench in the culture wars. For example, the right used a broad brush to characterize a number of things--like theory and multicultural literature--as intellectually dubious and somehow threatening to "our way of life."
posted by johnasdf at 9:40 AM on September 22, 2009

In fact, this type of view is consistent with philip-random's quote (and the fact that it was favorited?).

To clarify: the true villain in all of this is Modernism, because once you declare something capital "M" Modern, then what's next? Does time stop? Is history over? What do you term that which is culturally fresh and relevant yet does not conform to Modern's strictures? I've always read Post-modernism as a sort of stop-gap from the critical set, not unlike an emergency duct-tape repair intended to hold things together for a while ... and then decades later, it's still fucking there, ugly, depleted, misunderstood.

Hence my comment that all discussion of post-modernism that does not limit itself to only those who actually understand what various obscure big words mean (and thanks all for mostly keeping that sophisto-shit out of this thread) inevitably ends in some kind of confusionist meltdown.

And it's fun.
posted by philip-random at 12:59 PM on September 22, 2009

It was also a belief in the supremacy of human ability to shape, control, question or meld. Modernism is about disruption, about rejecting appearance or convention, and quite anti-authoritarian.

When I think about these sentences, I think that they work together because they can thread together the concept of "rationality". We can discard tradition because it is irrational. We can discard flowery architecture and focus on function because form is wasteful and irrational.

When I think about post-modern, I think that it is about the discovery of the limits of rationality. It's about not being able to scientifically prove a single perfect spaghetti sauce, but instead finding that perfect is many sauces. It is about recognizing that the rationality of empirical understanding cannot fully explain things which are mathematically-derived but still practical. It is about the failures of our social science hypotheses in the face of predictable phenomenon. It is about the recognition that we do not see the world as it is, but instead through filters we don't know are present.

I am not sure that I understand smoke's statement that Modernism is a "rejection of certainty". BTW, I accept that I probably misunderstand these concepts (Mo/PoMo) and look forward to corrections.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 10:25 AM on September 24, 2009

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