Saturday 16 March 2013

What is coming after post-modernism

We live in simultaneous ages, and sometimes they are only given names when we are dead and gone.  It is peculiar that we should live in a country and never be told its name.

The Renaissance historians named the ‘dark ages’ and ‘middle ages’ that had gone before.  Modern historians have their ‘Victorian Age’ or ‘Age of the Enlightenment’.  Most of us think more in terms of decades.  But there are other ages and in some ways they are more meaningful, because they sum up the prevailing philosophies of life that dominate the moment in time that is ours.

The great cultural movements start with a flicker of interest in the avant garde, reacting against the prevailing abominations.  Then they grow to dominate thinking in politics, the arts, literature, design, marketing and even economics and politics.  Then they are in turn swept away by the next prevailing philosophy, and which answer people’s need for direction, frameworks, attitude and much more.

For those of us with a short attention span, these great philosophical ages might come and go unnoticed every half a century or so, perhaps less.  They are heralded and die, unremarked by the mass of humanity.  But they are potent – and much more potent than you would think for the earnest and obscure debate about them among earnest and obscure academics.

I was born in 1958.  It was the year of Sputnik and CND but it was also the time that modernism had finally emerged from the hothouse of German architecture salons, arts cafés, and intellectual magazines. 

Throughout my childhood, the transformation of modernism from avant garde obscurity into a prevailing philosophy for urban living was emerging, and the sounds of battle were everywhere.  There was Jane Jacobs and her fellow New York mothers challenging city planner Robert Moses and his plan for urban motorways.  There was the poet John Betjeman, defending the doomed Euston Arch, and whose Collected Poems became a bestseller that year. The very word ‘progress’ seemed to have been co-opted by the modernist forces, in unstoppable alliance with the developers and highway planners.

But there came a point when the challenge became overwhelming, and the architectural critic Charles Jencks dated that moment very specifically: “Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts),” he wrote. 

Jencks was the prophet of what he called ‘post-modernism’, but it was architecture he was particularly interested in.  The date he chose for the end of one philosophical age and the start of another was the moment of the planned explosion that demolished the Pruitt-Igoe Flats in Chicago, one of the most egregious examples of modernism as prisons for the poor.  But that was back in 1972.  It was much clearer a decade after the destruction of Pruitt-Igue that some new approach was emerging. 

I first grasped what post-modernism might be when I saw the strange pastiche of ancient Egyptian art that was the new Homebase store in Kensington around 1985.  You could see the same underlying objectives in the pastiche buildings, like Robert Venturi’s Chippendale-style skyscraper.  The modernists regarded this as an outrageous betrayal of their values. 

But here is the question.  If post-modernism is the defining frame for our own age, then what is coming next?  Can we see something emerging already?  My answer is that we can, and exactly what it is – and how it will affect our lives – is in my new ebook The Age to Come: Authenticity, Post-Modernism and How To Survive What Comes Next, published by Endeavour Press, and it follows up the arguments I made ten years ago in Authenticity.

We are deep inside the post-modern age now.  It is hard to imagine a style that is somehow different from the Art Deco pastiches, the Tudor pastiches, the classical pastiches going up in concrete everywhere we look.  Or the novels about sad middle-aged men that take place simultaneously now and in 1848.  Or the bizarre inability of the fine arts world to go beyond épater les bourgeois, when the bourgeois they wanted to shock have long since packed up and left the stage.

The fine arts world gives the game away.  Modernism reached its zenith when the money began to follow it.  It became no longer a brave critique of the status quo, but the status quo itself.  The same thing has happened to post-modernism, now that the Brit Art revolution – with its irony and jokes – has become the establishment.  

It is no longer a brave critique of modernism, an ironic understanding of the social construction of reality, a response to the linguistic philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.  It is where the money is, riding the virtual wave, virtual reality and all the rest.  It sits on the throne and dominates our lives.  So the time cannot be too far away when it becomes a caricature of itself, and – with another great intellectual clash – dissolves into history, leaving behind the seeds of the next age.

What comes next will dominate our children’s lives, and maybe our grandchildren’s lives as well, before it eventually compromises with the prevailing economic orthodoxy as well, and is swept away in its turn.

The next age, the coming age, will try to challenge our contemporary conviction that nothing is true and everything is relative.  It will not reach back hopelessly to previous ages of certainty, though people may accuse it of that: we have lost our innocence about social reality. 

It will not pretend it is somehow possible to work out unambiguously what is true in this world.  It will not turn its back on the understanding and tolerance we have generated with the social construction of knowledge.  But it will not be limited by that any more.

We are moving into an age that will try to satisfy our need for what we have lost, looking around for something we can be sure of – something we can use to measure everything else against – and it is beginning to find it in ourselves and our humanity, and will use that to seek a way out of the paralysis of post-modernism.

How do I know?  Because although the new age is not yet upon us, the critique of post-modernism is beginning to emerge that will bring a new project – and these great ages are, each of them, a project to find directions out of the dead ends thrown up by the project before. 

We can’t know for sure the parameters of the coming age – the new age of humanism – but we can begin to glimpse a few features.  And, as they say, forewarned is forearmed...

The Age to Come is a book of recent essays, and it suggests that the first shoots are emerging of a new age which looks set to sweep post-modernism away, based on depth, authenticity and human relationships, which will change the lives of our children completely.  See what you think and let me know...


Anonymous said...

Oh dear.

Left Lib said...

My first thought - just to bring you down to earth a bit - was to wonder how that would go down in the Dog and Duck?
Which of course is another way of saying I don't really understand what you are saying.
That may well be fair enough. Whether a book is good or not does not depend on whether I understand it.
However I have read the book "Black Mass" by John Gray. This is also a complex book to read but I get a far stronger sense of what modernism is all about because he relates it to what is specifically going on in the world. For example neo-Conservatives believed that US invading forces in Iraq would be "greeted as liberators". It was a sincere belief and if they were right they would have invaded Syria and Iran as well. But they were deluded, as were neo-liberals who believed they abolished boom and bust in the economic lifecycle. The reality was that they just built up a bigger bubble with terrible consequences.
I wonder if the book joins in the debate around the great delusions of the new century? Because for me the key debate today is whether we have learnt from them.

David Boyle said...

Not sure I really mind about the Dog and Duck, but if you don't understand what I'm saying that is a fair criticism - though I am also trying to sell the ebook that explains it a bit more (£1.99!) so didn't want to explain too much. But you've convinced me I should, so I'll have another go tomorrow. I agree with you completely about the great delusions of the century, which is an excellent book title - I'm just trying to avoid the delusions myself!