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A post postmodern world

The crosscurrents that flow in the world of style are usually at least one remove from the humdrum daily lives of millions of people. Which is why fashion and celebrity have such a grip on the imagination.

So it may appear that current debates in the media, spurred on by Postmodernism – Style and Substance, a major show at London’s Victoria and Albert museum opening this week, have little relevance to the struggle to achieve political and social change.

But the reflections about the meaning of postmodernism are important and relevant. Writer Hari Kunzru – who memorably rejected an award because it was sponsored by the Mail on Sunday – has noted that the era of postmodernism is now superseded because, he says, what it predicted has come to pass.

Postmodernism first arrived in the 1960s in the world of literature, philosophy and style as a rejection of the by now jaded Modernism of the early 20th century. The 1980s saw its rise as an all-pervasive way of interpreting the world around us – from architecture to styles in the arts – and also in politics.

The 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, became the heyday of postmodernist rejection of the notion that human beings can actually achieve social change. It held that perception is everything. It championed the ironic and in art the kitsch. Postmodernism had only contempt for the “naïve” view that things could have an essence, and that there is such a thing as “being”.

As Kunzru writes:

The essence of postmodernism [was] the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable.

Postmodernism’s popularity was due to its accurate description of a world in which the medium did actually become the message, as the Internet and the world of the image seemed all enveloping. In economics, the era of unlimited credit and plastic money fed in to the notion that real value created by human labour in the real economy no longer mattered. All that was solid melted into the air, to borrow from Karl Marx.

As a trend in thought – it was too amorphous and eclectic to be a coherent philosophy – postmodernism was derided by some for being utterly superficial in its championing of style over substance. But many of those who did this – from Tory conservatives on the right to Old Labour and Marxists on the left – failed to grasp that this wriggly, slippery, cynical, chameleon-like turn of thought itself reflected a deeper reality.

The years of corporate-driven globalisation were changing the world and people’s thinking much faster than those who thought the old truths were adequate.

Styles, which however superficial they may appear, are the foam on the surface of the ocean that is human society and thus can presage deeper movements to come. As the French writer de Buffon said: “The style is the man himself”.

That world was shattered by 9/11 in terms of the impregnability of the United States as a world power. In British politics the postmodern ethos was associated with the rise of New Labour with its focus on spin doctors and media image mongering – which ran rings around its opponents. But with the financial crash of 2008, that world also came to a definitive end.

A new epoch has opened up where deep, contradictory economic and political processes are asserting themselves and, in turn, shaping a new post postmodern consciousness. The challenge is to develop an understanding of the new period we are in and strategies for transforming it to our advantage.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
20 September 2011

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