After Postmodernism

Today The Straight Torquer presents a guest post from friend and fellow blogger A.J. Aronstein of Theoretically So.  He has some cogent thoughts about Architecture’s role in divining a way forward through the floating debris of post-modern critique.  I am encouraged by the optimism that aethsetitians could play a role in guiding the creation of political and social philosophy.  What do you think of his assertion that art and architecture can show us a future of harmony in a globalized world?  What would such a future look like?


Guest Post follows:


It might be jumping the gun to consider the twentieth anniversary of Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But for members of any field of aesthetics—architecture, visual arts, music, literature—a reconsideration of Jameson’s seminal work may prove helpful to orienting ourselves to the evolving political and ethical concerns of our contemporary moment. I intend this commentary to be an opening up of Jameson’s chief concerns, and am especially interested in the proliferation of cross-disciplinary responses to several questions: Is postmodernism over? What are the stakes of establishing a new set of aesthetic practices that adequately addresses the concerns of postmodernism? And of course: Who cares?

Working within Jameson’s theoretical framework provides some possible answers, while presenting a new set of problems for our generation of professionals in fields of aesthetics.

Jameson describes postmodernism not as a set of aesthetic practices, but as a cultural product of history. It is the aesthetic mode appropriate to late capitalism. In a moment of unconstrained accumulation, financial capital replaces industrial capital: Credit Default Swaps and Toxic Assets replace Ford Model-T’s.  Here, it seems important to emphasize that Jameson sees himself as an heir to Theodor Adorno, operating within a Marxist framework that grapples with the implications of alienated labor for the human subject. The industrial capital of modernity introduced the working class to the idea of the fetishized commodity. Late capitalism takes another leap, further removing the human laborer from the product of one’s labor, which for Jameson leads to further disorienting of the subject.

For the visual arts, this produces an emphasis on the reproducibility of images for consumption in global markets rather than singularity or particularity of high art (in his essay, Warhol versus Van Gogh; or in a more exaggerated register Damien Hirst versus Picasso).  For literature, it means an evolution of forms of linguistic wordplay, improbable plots, and impossible coincidences that aim at aesthetic euphoria—rather than the moralizing or ethical lessons of “properly historical” novels in the realist tradition. The viewer or reader experiences a kind of ecstasy in this sensory overload. In the absence of calls to a responsibility to find deep meaning, we can luxuriate in the depthlessness of images that have no final significance.

In the case of architecture, Jameson turns to the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles, applying his abstract idea of free-floating signifiers to physical experience in a built environment. The Bonaventure, he argues, rejects the urban fabric. The glass surfaces of the building push away (by reflecting) the surrounding environment, offering the promise of a self-contained city of shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and offices. The problem with the space is its disorientation of visitors. Within the cavernous lobby, it becomes impossible to find bearings—to create what Jameson refers to as a cognitive map of the space, by which individuals could establish a sense of where they fit into the context of the building. The Bonaventure mimics the experience of living in the postmodern moment, in which we cannot find ourselves within a context of cultural signifiers. Rather than lament the loss of our grounding in principles of morality or ethics, we revel in a kind of amniotic fluid—blissfully unable to conceive of ourselves as situated in a single position.

But is this still the case? Are we still reproducing a sense of placelessness in our art, literature, and buildings?

We live in a moment of hyper-capitalism, but the historical and economic context of Jameson’s book seems long gone. In this sense, we might already be post-postmodern (as unsatisfying as this term may be, let’s keep it for now). The structures of financial capital have been shaken to the core in the past three years. In a phrase borrowed from Slavoj Zizek (by way of The Matrix), the financial meltdown forced us to witness the “Desert of the Real.” Economic collapse aside, we inhabit the continually unfolding reality of the War on Terror, which has overturned our conceptions of everyday life in urban environments, altering the way we travel as individuals and exchange ideas, ideologies and capital as nations. At the time of Jameson’s writing (the fall of the Berlin Wall), the post-Cold War world seemed headed for unfettered globalization—where markets could indefinitely measure out steady growth.

We can’t afford the euphoria of placelessness anymore. There are underwear bombers and polar bears on drifting glaciers.

In response to a new contemporary moment, architectural praxis has found ethical roots in a combination of environmentalism and a reconsideration of the urban environment. In this way, architecture leads the way in the positive formulation of an aesthetic for the period after postmodernism.

In literary and visual art studies, contemporary critics focus on the human body and its relation to a hyper-technologized society. Professors asking, “What is posthumanism?” circulate the halls of humanities departments. But what if the moment after postmodernism offers a chance to engage in aesthetic practice that grows out of codes that depend on some sort of individual ethical and political responsibility? Or, some kind of accountability to create lived environments and aesthetic works that re-engage with the question of what it means to be a human subject in the first place?

The stakes? Postmodernity is often caricatured as a moment of moral relativism, quotation, citation, doublespeak, triple speak, nonsensicalness. If academics, practitioners of aesthetics, and professionals in architecture can push the ball forward, it will be through a revision of humanist principles based on the lessons of globalization and projects of identity politics. Art won’t save the world any time soon, but aesthetic practice can shape a politics of individuality grounded in the social world, and in work that attends to interactions in a globalized sociality.

Brilliant People Who Have Interesting Things To Say:

Giorgio Agamben. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? Palo Alto: Stanford, 2009.

Marc Auge. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition. London: Verso, 2008.

Patrick Hayden and Chamsy El-Ojeili, ed. Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays. London: Palgrave, 2009.

Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke, 1991.

Charles Jencks. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going? London: Wiley, 2007.

10 Responses to “After Postmodernism”

  1. rs Says:

    The answer lies in technology. The post-moderns got it all wrong in eliminating the ideals of the moderns. We must return to a culture that strives for quantifiable progress. Architecture is more than an art, it is a tool that humanity can use to accomplish our goals with more effectiveness and efficiency. A good building is one that works towards an objective and does so sustainably. Therein one will find true beauty.

  2. Marie Says:

    I like the way you’ve focused in on how architecture–unlike so many other artistic discplines–seems to have a groudedness about it (with its attention to environmentalism and the urban environment) that make it a model for other art forms for pulling themselves out and away from the postmodern and into the post-postmodern age.

    But I have to wonder if architecture ever existed without this groundedness (the bonaventure is still, after all, a place). Unlike the empty pastiche found in so many other art forms–and, whether this is a blissful and euphoric state is, I think, arguable–even postmodern architecture seems to be functional, whether it’s paying attention to its inhabitants or the broader concerns of a globalizing world.

    It’s not so much its transition into post-modernity, but the qualities that separate it from other art forms that make it interesting to me. Can other art forms address these issues in the same way? Or is it the inherent functionality of architecture that makes it unique here?

    Of course, I think other art forms can take on globalization and identity politics in their own way. But it seems to me that architecture remains uniquely able, as it influences change (in its attention to substantive, global issues and its persuasion of other disciplines to do the same), while also making a tangible difference–even perhaps measurable–just by virtue of its existence. Not to mention that this is what it seems to have been doing all along.

  3. aj Says:

    Always suspicious of narratives of “progress” and faith in technology, so RS I’d want to hear more….because if you’re talking about some kind of reinvigoration of the notion of “forward” I think we’d all have to think about what we mean by “effectiveness” and “efficiency” as goals. There are horrible echoes for me in those words when it comes to societal ethics and they all have to do with Dachau. I’m totally with you that we talk about some kind of new technological progress that somehow accounts for human integration, I’m just saying that we’d have to be very careful because we’ve been down this road before. Or maybe I’m totally off-base here, or just being too provocative.

    And Marie, it pains me every day as a student of literature to have to agree with you that the “groundedness” of architecture is what makes it so much easier to have a real-world application and importance. I don’t mean to say that other art-forms can’t adopt some form of concrete application and politics and ethics….but I think in this particular cultural moment, we need something in our environments to kickstart the process. We can’t just read Tao Lin all day…..haha.

  4. The Straight Torquer Says:

    In the early part of the 20th century, modernist aesthetics in architecture swept aside the ideologically entrenched symbols of classicism for an era of quantifiable performance, geometric minimalism and transparency in construction technique. This movement reigned supreme until the 1970s, when complaints arose that modern architecture was too cold, stark and ‘inhuman’ for the public to enjoy. People began to wonder why buildings had to be so bleak and remote. The post-modern architect’s answer, as was paralleled by movements in literature and other forms of art, was to begin to reintroduce iconographic imagery into the work and even historical reference (elements that were entirely eschewed by the moderns). An earnest drive toward genuine innovation gave way to the playful reappropriation of existing cultural symbols. It became more important to navigate symbolic elements of historicism than to create new syntaxes of meaning from a blank slate.

    While literature probably benefited from an infusion of distrust for enlightenment ideals of universalism, architecture was not so lucky. As architecture began to reference itself in a recursive loop of meta re-production, it utterly lost its way in a floating sea of detached signifiers. I find post-modern architecture, with its celebration of myth and its irony of iconic pastiche, to be terribly displeasing. Hence we are left to ponder: what is the alternative? A simple return to the modernist principles of truth-seeking?

    Lamentably perhaps, that corridor is clearly not open to us. To try would brand one either tragically naive, or worse: a raging egoist. Relativism has exposed us. Our innocence is lost. Once you go Post, you can never go back.

    AJ points out that the “green” movement seems to offer inspiration. Many are drawn to a moral imperative that it seems to answer with its quantifiable performance-based resource management. But is this enough to drive a theoretical or aesthetic movement? Clearly, the work must be environmentally sustainable. But is that really all that is at the core of the work of art?

  5. The Straight Torquer Says:

    The revitalization of the American city certainly has relevance as a motivating and inspiring force in architecture and urbanism, but it too is not without its problems, such as economic eviction of the established community.

  6. The Straight Torquer Says:

    For another discussion of postmodern irony inspired by a passage by that pomo magnate David Forster Wallace, see this Reddit thread:

  7. John Says:

    The underlying tone of the conversation seems to assert that post modernism is some sort of disruption in the evolution of the pure ideas of modernism. Thus AJ asks the question, “Is postmodernism over? What are the stakes of establishing a new set of aesthetic practices that adequately addresses the concerns of postmodernism?” In other words, have we gotten over it and how can we distance ourselves from it as far as humanly possible. The conversation plays with fatality- will we be stuck with postmodernism, even if they are only its trace elements?

    This is troubling, because I think that we do not perceive ourselves enough as being in a historical continuum. The initial creepings of post modernism into our modern establishment and eventually its most punctuated “excesses” seem like a natural reaction to the straightjacket inflexibility that modernism had evolved into by 50’s and 60’s. We speak of purity, but human thought is fundamentally unpure, and we speak of architectural honesty, but the art and science of putting a building together is and always has been fundamentally about illusion. How many additional structural supports do we have to embed in a building in order to cantilever a portion of it to get it to “float” and appear weightless? Hiding one aspect of a building in order to celebrate another is a hallmark of every building, whether its the Pantheon or the Seagram building.

    To me, its an ironic twist that RS seems to fault po-mos for stifling technological innovation. For whatever “they” might be guilty of, I feel that technology ain’t one of them. New exotic postmodern materials and an increased use of stone and granite cladding would require new structural back-up systems and delivery processes. To make a steel frame building “look” like a stone one takes a great deal of technological creativity and innovation to execute successfully.

    I don’t have much of an attachment to many buildings of postmodernism’s heyday, but I think that they are an important part of the architectural fabric in this country and perhaps oddly, I feel that they are still part of the ongoing “truth seeking” process that I feel is one of the core tenets of modernism. The “truth” of course, is relative. As for historic iconography and the “detached signifiers” as Kash puts it, I think that its sustained reintroduction was and will continue to be inevitable. Over time, I think that we will reknit these detached pieces, make them “our own” as we see fit- how we use historical references will always tell us more about our contemporary society than we realize. To that effect, I think that the underlying processes reintroduced by postmodernism
    was not so much a wrongful but rather an awkward one. And the awkward teenager always grows up.

  8. sp-p Says:

    I’ve followed this thread to the point where I want to contribute, and thanks Kash, for hosting this.

    In my view one of the two most destructive legacies of Modernism was not its alienating forms or abstract details but its environmental arrogance. Post-Modernism never bothered to correct that and only aped historic stylistic flourishes in a misguided attempt to restore “meaning” to architecture. Polysemy is the fundamental condition of architecture and to pretend that “a” meaning can be pre-loaded onto an architectural element was really remarkably naive.

    From the environmental perspective–which I define as the irreducible relationship of building to situation, both natural and cultural–Modernism and Post-Modernism are indistinguishable. Both assume that we can build anything anywhere, facing any orientation, and simply add technology to suit. Put a pediment on it if that’s the fashion, but it changes nothing about the building.

    In the end, architecture derives all of its meaning from place…that’s not an “-ism”, nor is it a movement. It’s just the way it is. One day soon we will stop defining ourselves reactionarily, post and post-post, still suffering our Modernist hangover.

    Oh, and wondering what the other most destructive legacy of Modernism is? Architecture’s view of itself as art. But, that will have to wait for another time…

  9. Thayer0-D Says:

    Wow, I’ve never read such a literal regurgitation of modernist propaganda since, well since architecture school. For example:

    “In the early part of the 20th century, modernist aesthetics in architecture swept aside the ideologically entrenched symbols of classicism for an era of quantifiable performance, geometric minimalism and transparency in construction technique.”

    One of modernisms primary faults repeated here is the over-simplified characterization of the prevailing architectural establishment as being nothing more than “ideologically entrenched symbols of classicism”. Then “an era of quantifiable performance” is one of those empty marketing terms better suited to a government consultant aiming to soak up more work. “Geometric minimalism” would leave out several early modernists such as Reitveld. “Transparency in construction technique” leaves out Corbu.

    This hall of mirrors intellectualism where by one has to agree to so many premisis to even begin a discussion does exactly what the early modernists strove to do. Divorce the architect from any responsability towards the public by speaking over their heads.

    “detached signifiers”??? Designing a building for one’s parents would help in understanding what architecture is actually about because they (presumably) wouldn’t put up with all this blather as an excuse for designing. Architectural schools should turn towards a trade school model to actually ground the building process in things that actually matter. If you are not an architect, all my points have been a misunderstanding, and please accept my applologies.

  10. John Says:

    “The smackdown was laid thusly.”

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