So, post-modernism is dead. Its terminal illness began near the start of a new century, on September 11th, 2001. Postmodernism is hard to define but one knows it when one sees it. The Oxford defines it as a “distrust of theories and ideologies,” whereas Webster says that when it comes to literature it is “ironic self-reference and absurdity.”
Now, a healthy distrust in ideologies might seem like sensible option after having seen both communism and capitalism followed through to their ironic and absurd extremes. The problem, however, is that when it comes down to it, we all need something to believe in, some sort of world view to give this whole mess meaning. The need for a world view is almost as fundamental as the need to eat or fuck, and is what defines us a species. Without it, disaster follows.
In the 1920s and 30s, distrust of ideologies was rife in Weimar Germany. After the country’s collapse in World War I, no one believed in anything anymore. Apart from a certain ex-soldier, who blamed it all on the Jews. When no thoughtful alternatives are offered, angry nonsense takes over. In the past decades, we have seen a bit of history repeating. Ever since Vietnam or thereabouts, a defeat for Western military and ideological supremacy as thorough in the long run as Germany’s collapse in World War I, people started turning to religion again in a big way. It was the easy solution. The educated classes turned to a more complex, but equally nonsensical, solution.
The War on Thought
In Post-Modernism, everything was open to doubt, and to interpretation. There was no way to be sure of anything anymore, even language itself was distrusted. Into this intellectual power vacuum, a new ideology moved in. This was the free market, and its ideologues seemed so sure of what they were saying that people couldn’t help but go along. Small wonder then that in the age of Post-modernism, a character such as George W. Bush, free of intellectual doubt, ruled the world.
Not everyone fell for it. Feminists never really cared much for post-modernism. They were dealing with real problems and real solutions. The same was true of other “minorities” the world over who did not have the luxury of believing that nothing really mattered. But in the big picture, free market missionaries easily rode roughshod over self-doubting intellectuals, who offered little resistance.
Much like Hitler did with Germany, Bush tried to revive American (and by association Western) military might. He failed just as miserably, but the question future generations will ask themselves is this: Why was he allowed to try?
Whatever vestiges there remained of Post-modernism surely disappeared with last year’s economic collapse. 9/11 might have reminded us that there was an outside world, but on October 6th, we really felt it. The economic collapse was noticed by everyone. Art could no longer afford to lose itself in itself when the outside world intruded so violently.
During the boom, art had its own niche. Artists were given grants by the banks. The consensus was that the grants would not influence the artists’ works. Nor did anyone assume that artists, working on behalf of the banks, would influence how the banks were perceived.
The artists’ job was simply to deal with art itself, and leave the rest of society be. Others protested, but why worry about what artists have to say when their job is simply to be decorative, or, as the phrase had it, “cute.”
Artists, like most Icelanders, like nothing more than to be left alone to plough their own garden. Of course, according to the tenants of Post-modernism, everything was self-referential and there was no way to explain the outside world anyway, so what did it all matter?
I’m Not Here
But there is nowhere to run to. The film I’m Not There, based on the life of Bob Dylan, illustrates this point beautifully. The character, tired of conflict, abandons political anthems and leaves the world to become a country singer up in the mountains. But his rural bliss is intruded upon when the big corporations start building dams in the highlands, and he must battle with them again. If you don’t fight them now, you will only have to fight them later, and on worse terms.
My own such moment came when, trying to leave the rampant marketplace of the city, I went to visit Halldór Laxness’ museum at Gljúfrasteinn in the summer of 2008. They handed me an iPod with the logo of a bank on it and I realised that either the banks would collapse, or Icelandic culture would.
The banks, and the whole manic boom, took control of many artists, who sold their image and credibility to advertisers, and thus enabled companies to reach people who might never have fallen for pure salesmanship, but who believed in the arts. With the help of constant advertising and success stories from abroad, Iceland became a nation of cheerleaders who spurned the banks on to ever greater excess.
To understand anything, you must understand everything. This, of course, is very hard to achieve. Nevertheless, it is the only intellectual goal really worth achieving.
(to be continued…)