Postmodernism: We Don’t Have to Dance.

I wrote most of this in Prague and, if anything, it can serve as a textbook example of mixed metaphors. The reference to dancing comes from the title of an exhibition by the Czech artist Joska Skalnik. 


I was standing in a museum today when I realized that we don’t have to dance.

No, we don’t have to dance with postmodernism.

That may seem strange because 20 years ago, postmodernism wouldn’t have been caught dead on a dance floor. Dancing was stupid. Dancing was for squares, for people who did things because other people were doing them.

But things have changed.

Postmodernism’s now the first person on the dance floor--dancing badly, dancing ironically, dancing to make it clear to everyone that it totally does not care at all about anything.

A lot of people throw around “postmodernism” without a firm grasp of what it means. I’m obviously one of them. But I’m going to try.


Postmodernism is just that: that which comes after modernism. We tend to use modern as a synonym for new or current, but it really describes a period which began about 300 years ago and may (or may not) have died about 50 years ago.

Modernity is the period that emerged when we decided to apply the scientific method to the task of improving the material conditions of our lives. The scientific method is essentially the idea that our default state should be skepticism, that research should follow an open and replicable path that builds on existing and testable knowledge, and if the results conflict with a previously-”proven” idea, we have to figure out who’s wrong before proceeding.

We’d already been applying the scientific method for some time, but always in the shadow of kings and gods. Scientists--meaning both “hard” scientists (chemists, physicists, etc.) and everyone else (philosophers, sociologists, etc.)--were expected to defer to the Crown or the Pope when their findings differed from the Word of God, the pliable system for organizing society until that time. We didn’t transcend this conflict, but we eased the tension considerably.

And then we vaulted into the future.

It’s impossible to overstate this leap. There are periods of thousands of years when our greatest accomplishment was the development of a new plow.

Suddenly: internal combustion engines, locomotives, the Bill of Rights, electric motors, airplanes, antibiotics, vaccines, radio, refrigeration, computers, space travel, skyscrapers, the internet, and more.

No, these things still aren’t equitably distributed. Yes, we’re playing fast and loose with a climate that could (and perhaps will) kill us for our vanity. But we’ve made the average person’s life a bit better along the way.

And in the end, that’s modernism: the idea of progress.

But the pursuit of progress leaves some people out. It harms people. You tell yourself that you’re going to deal with this or that injustice just as soon as you get where you’re going.

Enter postmodernism.


Postmodernism starts asking questions about 70 years ago, right when the progress machine has just churned out its greatest product to date: nuclear weapons. From the back of the conference room, postmodernism clears its throat. A sea of starched shirts turns to face it.

“Perhaps we’ve overshot the runway.”

Silence.  

“Perhaps this new atomic bomb shows us that we’ve been running so fast that we’ve stopped looking where we’re going.”

Murmurs.

Postmodernism strolls around the room pointing out flaws, asking questions, scratching away at the thin veneer of modernism.

Modernism’s exasperated. It’s caught up in this endless cycle of trying to justify itself, of defending against one insipid “why” after another. It never thinks to ask postmodernism what it offers in return.

That’s just fine, though, because postmodernism doesn’t offer anything. Park the word in front of art or architecture or philosophy or literature and you’re left with the same basic thing: a rejection that there’s anywhere to go or that any of this matters. It relies on irony to distract from its own vapidity.

It is Arrested Development--a permanent loop of ridiculous conflicts that, while funny, eventually begs you to accept that you’ll never outmaneuver your own futility.

It is a Frank Gehry building--a fanciful exterior which, while oddly gorgeous, seems most interested in maintaining the illusion that it was designed by typing “whateverrrrr” into the command prompt of some drafting program.

It is an eye-rolling teenager who, upon being pressed by their parents to attend prom, says

“FINE, I’ll go and I’ll dance like a fool and I’ll make sure to get it all on video.”

See, you can’t beat postmodernism because postmodernism refuses to play the fucking game. Postmodernism says the game is stupid, and that you’re stupid for playing it.

The thing is, though: that’s utter bullshit. Postmodernism is just terrible at playing. It holds no redeeming qualities. It offers no alternative hypothesis. It does absolutely nothing but criticize and nitpick and tell you “don’t bother.”

And when you shove it up against a wall and demand that it give you a reason to live--or even just a reason to die--it shrugs its shoulders.

But just before you let it go, you see the terror flickering in its eyes. You see the deep-seated fear that it got everything wrong, that it really would’ve enjoyed playing the game--even if it lost--rather than hiding its frail body behind the unassailable claim that it’s all irrelevant.

That’s all postmodernism is: fear. It’s the fear to take anything too seriously, because if you take it too seriously, you might get hurt, you might get embarrassed, you might get left on a street corner in Prague with watery eyes as a blue sedan merges into traffic. And how uncool is that?

David Foster Wallace can tell you precisely how uncool that is: “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human [...] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

So be pathetic. Be sentimental. Be vulnerable. Don’t feign disinterest because it’s fashionable. Admit that you like something. And if you don’t, keep looking until you find something you do.

And if you want to dance, dance. But you don’t have to dance just because postmodernism’s out there making an ass of itself.