Just a short introduction to a wonderful idea. I had asked my friend and fellow artist Greg Edmondson if it was cool to approach Minsoo Kang and Phil Robinson (curators of the Post-Ironic Lull) regarding the installation of some of my work. Greg shrugged his shoulders in an approving gesture and I was off to go nuts with very little time....I love trying to make work for a show that has a considerable roster of talent cuppled with an immence concept and not having a clue what to do 3 weeks before the opening...it's literally nutty time. Minsoo's essay below sparked the exhibit.
© Copyright 2005 Minsoo Kang (email@example.com)
THE DEATH OF THE POSTMODERN
THE POST-IRONIC LULL
The cultural moment that was identified as the postmodern is over.
A convincing case can be made that postmodernism was already at a moribund stage in the late 1980s and died a series of deaths in the first years of the following decade. If this is the case, the questions we are faced with are what has come in the wake of postmodernisms death?; what new ideas and conceptions of humanity and society have been introduced into the culture since the demise?; and, how are we to describe the cultural moment of our own time?
We are in a period of the post-ironic lull.
I felt compelled to meditate on contemporary culture while putting together the syllabus for an introductory course on Western intellectual history I am teaching at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. The class was designed to give my students a sweeping view of the most significant ideas and movements that shaped the Western mind from the time of the ancient Greeks, with a significant space at the end for the latest developments in the intellectual world. As I was considering reading materials for the last part of the course, however, I noticed that the works I was looking at, including Michel Foucaults History of Sexuality (1976; US publication 1978), Jean Baudrillards Simulacra and Simulations (1981; US pub.1983), Donna Haraways A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), and Judith Butlers Gender Trouble (1990), were all at least a decade and a half old. Moreover, I realized that in the last fifteen years there has not been a single work published that created the kind of impact on the general intellectual scene as did Jacques Derridas Of Grammatology (1967; US 1974), Thomas Kuhns The Structures of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Clifford Geertzs The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Hayden Whites Metahistory (1973), Edward Saids Orientalism (1974), and Foucaults Discipline and Punish (1975; US 1977). When I consulted my colleagues in the history, English, and anthropology departments, they confirmed that with the exception of some original works in specific subfields (e.g. postcolonialism, identity politics, gender studies) and compelling but hardly revolutionary works by such contemporary thinkers as Slajov éiûek and Bernard-Henri LÈvy, the intellectual world has been in the doldrums for the last decade or so. This was reflected in the rather torpid mood of recent academic conferences, in contrast to the meetings of the 1980s and early 1990s when poststructuralists and their opponents (both classical positivists and traditional leftists) clashed in often spectacular duels of ideas.
In my own experience as well, when I first began graduate school in European history at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1988, I was informed early on that poststructuralism was already in decline in France (Foucault died in 1984) as the younger generation of French intellectuals were more interested in pursuing specific issues in the political arena rather than engaging in abstract criticism of systems of knowledge. Nevertheless, UCLA was one of the major institutions in the US where vigorous and sometimes bitter debates about critical theory and postmodernism continued into the 1990s. Then in 1994, I had to return to my native country of the Republic of Korea to fulfill my mandatory military service.
After a twenty-six-month stint in the army, at a base near the Demilitarized Zone, and taking some time after my discharge to come to terms with the experience by writing about it, I finally came back to UCLA in 2000 to finish my studies. Upon my return, I discovered that while many of the people involved in the debates of the early 1990s were still there, the issues were no longer so contentious. In what is a sure sign of an intellectual movements decline, many poststructuralist ideas and postmodern attitudes had been assimilated into the general academic discourse without altering its agenda in any fundamental way. So I often encountered scholars who would never describe themselves as a poststructuralist or even a theorist but who found some aspects of Lacans or Foucaults works useful enough to utilize them in a moderate fashion in their own writings.
As I finished my degree and began my career as a history professor, I began to think seriously about the intellectual lull in contemporary culture, an issue of special interest to me since my field is in intellectual history. At least since the sixteenth century in the West, the period in which the dominant intellectual movement was in decline was also the period in which the next leading movement was in ascendance, with a few decades of overlap when the two were in conflict. For instance, the founding works of the Scientific Revolution, Copernicuss On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), Keplers The Secrets of the Universe (1596), and Galileos The Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), made their initial impact in the intellectual world not in the wake of the old Aristotelian worldviews demise but while it was still very much in force, as evidenced by the churchs persecution of Galileo in the 1630s. It is only with Isaac Newtons Principia Mathematica (1687) that one can speak of the final triumph of the new paradigm.
There is always an element of the arbitrary in pointing to a moment as the end of a historical period or of a cultural movement, but the date that for me marks the death knell of postmodernism in the US is June 18, 1993, when the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero premiered. A thoroughly postmodern work employing the standard devices of self-reference, ironic satire, and playing with multiple levels of reality, this action-movie-about-action-movies became, despite its enormous budget, state of the art special effects and a superstar and a director with proven track records of success, the most famous box office disaster for years. In fact, its status as a postmodern artifact is heightened by the very fact that its fame rests on its failure rather than its content (signifier rather than the signified). And in the US, theres no surer sign of an intellectual ideas final demise than its total appropriation by mass culture. The actress and comedienne Aisha Tyler subtitled her recently published book on her musings, Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl. This, despite the fact that already in 1989 David Foster Wallace, in his novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, presented the highly embarrassing situation of a woman who has the gall to actually call herself a postmodernist (No matter where you are, you Dont Do This. By convention its seen as pompous and dumb.).
So what are we make of this lull in the intellectual scene of the last decade and a half? Where is the new cultural paradigm that should have already been in ascendance in the late 1980s? Is it possible that the direst and the most hysterical warnings of traditional humanists-rationalists-positivists came true that postmodernism and poststructuralist ideas made such a thorough assault on all notions of objectivity, rationality and reality, exposing the hidden agendas and power structures behind every ideology, conceptual system, and linguistic structure, that they made it impossible for contemporary thinkers to posit any new system of knowledge? As the postmodern died, did it drag all of Western thought with it to the grave, leaving its minor caretakers only the task of mopping up the remnants of defunct orders?
A few weeks ago, I was discussing these questions with a colleague at the fine arts department who is also a professional artist, when I suddenly realized that the new paradigm and the cultural moment after postmodernism was not only right before my eyes but the very subject of our conversation. Martin Heidegger, in his 1929 essay What is Metaphysics, pointed out that science claims to study what is and what exists, and beyond that nothing, but then asks, What about this nothing? The nothing is rejected precisely by science, given up as a nullity. But when we give up the nothing in such a way dont we just concede it? In a similar way, I thought, After the demise of postmodernism, there is this lull in the intellectual scene. But what about this lull? Is this lull a pure negative state of affairs where nothing is happening? Or is the lull precisely the thing what is happening in the contemporary period?
This led me to postulate that we are in a cultural moment that could be called the post-ironic lull, and that this was the new paradigm that was in ascendance in the late 1980s and came truly to the fore in the second half of the 1990s. Scholars in forward-looking fields have been mulling over the lull and waiting for its end with the arrival of a new system or methodology of knowledge, not realizing that this mulling and waiting are what defines our age, our intellectual scene. So far, it has been an unproductive mulling and waiting since those activities or inactivities have not been recognized as the very modes of discourse in the post-ironic lull. Now that the moment has been identified and named, however, some strategies can be worked out to produce lullist thought and art.
The lull is post-ironic not in the sense that it rejects irony (one of the more obtuse questions that was asked in the wake 9/11 was whether the event marked the end of irony), but that it comes after postmodernism whose primary mode of discourse was irony. The lull employs irony, but with the full awareness that it was something handed down to it and so carries a whiff of the uncanny, like the clothes of an older sibling who met an untimely death. The lull also inherited the postmoderns critical and experimental spirit as well as its ingrained skepticism toward any totalizing ideology (contemporary thinkers, including éiûek and LÈvy, tend to avoid having their ideas solidify into rigid systems by opting to write in a concise, meditative format or by repeatedly changing positions on key issues). What differentiates them is that while the postmodernist attitude is predominantly ironic, critical, and experimental, the lullist attitude is suspenseful, tentative, and anticipatory - or, to be more accurate, ironic, critical and experimental in the larger context of the suspenseful, tentative, and anticipatory mood of the lull. Anxiety of influence notwithstanding, the post-ironic lull both continues and dissociates itself from the postmodern, in the same way that postructuralism came out of and rejected structuralism.
A key aspect of the post-ironic lull is that while the lullist is waiting for the lull to end, for the next system of knowledge or cultural movement to take us out of this liminal or interstitial period (there is a group of artists and writers who are associated with an Interstitial Art Foundation), she secretly dreads that very end, for the fear of what may come after, what may already be slouching toward Bethlehem. When the lull is over, we might be faced with some monstrosity of totalizing surety, perhaps a new-fangled version of retrograde nationalism or religious fundamentalism. So even as a lullist waits and tries to come to terms with the discomfort and uncertainty of waiting, she tries constantly to delay the lulls end. For those on the traditional left, this may mark the post-ironic lull as an essentially conservative moment, in the same way as contemporary Marxists scholars such as Frederic Jameson and Perry Anderson have characterized the postmodern as a late capitalist reaction, since it seeks to postpone revolution indefinitely. For the lullist, however, delaying is a defensive act against the myriad dehumanizing systems that have often been created by triumphant revolutionaries and reactionaries alike. This attitude is the result of the cultural response to the historical events of the last decades which saw the end of the Cold War usher in a period not of increased peace, prosperity, and liberty for the world as a whole, but of the global expansion of corporate imperialism and renewed ethnic and religious fanaticism.
In the lullist version of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are not so naÔve as to think that the arrival of Godot will end their loneliness and uncertainty. They know that Godot did come numerous times in the past, and in many of those occasions he created situations infinitely worse than the one they are in now, including those of war and of totalitarianism. So they learn to appreciate the period of waiting, make the best of it, revel in it, and finally pray that Godot will never come.
The productive as well as liberating aspects of the post-ironic lull begin with this recognition of the lull as a possible space of boundless creativity and experimentation, following the demise of a cultural movement that was replaced by the Heideggerian nothing. One can then begin to write the lullist history, the lullist political theory, the lullist philosophy, the lullist psychology, compose the lullist music, the lullist novel, the lullist play, the lullist poem and create the lullist painting, the lullist sculpture, the lullist architecture, the lullist film. Such works would see the contemporary moment as an in-between state, filled with anticipation and hope as well as suspense and dread, and celebrate the temporary suspension of rules in the moment by creating multiple sets of rules that sometime contradict one another.
One such rule would be that the language of lullism should be as comprehensible as possible, though with intimation of multiple layers of meanings. This would be in direct reaction to the obscure and overly technical language of postmodernism a necessary act for that movement since poststructuralist thinkers had to create an entire language for themselves in order to critically examine the nature of language itself. The post-ironic lull, however, would express itself as much as possible in everyday language, but under the condition that its statements should be open to many different readings and many dimensions of significance. For instance, in lieu of a work by Derrida, the lullist may utter the old Zen koan: When someone points at the moon, only a fool looks at the finger. This could suggest different attitudes toward and interpretation of deconstruction (e.g. is the fool truly a fool, or a kind of wise fool who sees something nobody noticed before?). The ultimate point would be the indefinite suspension of definitive meaning, or the moment definite meaning is finally imposed.
I imagine an allegory of the post-ironic lull from an early episode of the Trojan War. Ships from all over Greece gather at the port city of Aulis to launch the invasion of Troy. Unfortunately, their leader Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis in some way and she causes the winds to die down, immobilizing the fleet. Agamemnon finds out that to make amends, he must sacrifice his favorite daughter Iphigenia. After some hesitation, he summons her to Aulis, under the false pretext of a marriage to the hero Achilles.
During that period of waiting, a frustrating lull for these brutal warriors, Diomedes, the prince of Argos, is met by Thersites who is identified by some as his cousin. In The Iliad Homer describes the latter as the ugliest man in the entire Greek army, who is beaten by Odysseus for suggesting that they forget about the stupid war and go home, while another source tells the story of how he was murdered by Achilles for ridiculing him on the battlefield. Despite his connection to Diomedes, some scholars consider this contentious figure to be a portrayal of a low-class foot soldier, the only such character in the Homeric epics.
After listening to the noble Diomedes complain about the lull and his impatience to set sail and make war on the Trojans, Thersites characteristically contradicts him.
Foolish son of Tydeus, you are bursting with frustration because you cannot wait to embark on this wholly idiotic war and claim your glory and booty in the foreign land. Dont you know that this moment, this lull we are in now, is the best time you can possibly hope for in this entire enterprise? If you had any sense, you would realize that what you will face in Troy cannot possibly live up to the fantasies of excitement and victory in your savage mind. From the moment you land on those shores, the reality of war, death, and barbaric cruelty will set in and shatter your naÔve expectations.
But here, as we wait for our chief thug to murder his innocent daughter so we can get on our way here you can tell yourself all kinds of fanciful stories of glories to come and destinies to be fulfilled. You think this lull to be a curse of the gods, I say it is a gift. An all too precious one that will taken away soon enough with the scream of a young girl destroyed.
I myself wish that this lull would never end, so I can dream away without hurting anyone. This is the best time of this story, and it will all be downhill from the moment the winds move again. Your eyes are firmly fixed on a ridiculous and impossible future, Prince of Argos, while mine are set on the present. This present so exquisite in its stillness, its suspense, its freedom.
It is at this time and on this place of Aulis that I will sing my song, dance my dance, and offer my prayer to the god of delay, if such a deity should exist. The past is a graveyard and the future a dark cave, so I will dally in the garden in between as long as possible and love the lull as I love life itself.
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