POSTMODERNISM: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism.
Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.’”
The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes.
Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear.
Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself.
The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust.
After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium.
The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.
The French Connection
What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology.
That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month.
The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68″ played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.”
According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t
…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…
Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement,
We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:
- we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
- this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
- we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
- it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
- consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
- in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
- any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.
Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America.
The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”
In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated,
Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,
Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.
In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.
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