Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why I am a postmodernist

During my PhD oral exams, I was asked what the difference was between "postmodernism" and "postmodernity." I answered that the former was an aesthetic category; the latter was a historical moment.

One of my exam areas was postmodern theory (the others were Reception Studies, Critical Race Studies, and Disney Studies). All, of course, perfect preparation for a dissertation on a reception history of Song of the South, even though I wasn't really talking about the film in my answers--nor did I want to. It was important to me to prove to myself and to the committee that I had a breadth of knowledge in each area that extended beyond just the narrow focus of my dissertation topic.

Postmodernity has been very important to me for a long time. But aside from publishing a couple of articles on Ghost World and American Splendor, I've never really been formally reaffirmed that I actually knew what the hell I was writing about. Postmodernity has been something of a hobby.

So, there was a certain satisfaction in passing the postmodern theory question. And it was a doozy about the role of history and the simulacrum. I ended up talking about Baudrillard, Harvey, Massey and Deleuze. I now really feel like a postmodernist expert.

Of course, the catch with that is that nobody gives a damn about the postmodern anymore. After the exam, I met with my advisor in her office and she very politely tried to suggest what I had long ago figured out--that postmodernism has no currency in the marketplace of ideas that is academia.

Partly why postmodernism/-ity is still important to me, even for the dissertation, is because the Disney theme parks will be one of the central areas of focus--"Splash Mountain" being one of the most visible lingering reminders of Song of the South that has been officially authorized by the corporation. And scholarship on the theme park remains the only place where the lingering ideas of the postmodern still sometimes matter.

On the other hand, I have long ago accepted--even embraced--the idea that my dissertation would be a reception history, more about Song of the South than Splash Mountain. And indeed the history of Song of the South (which I have only begun to explore in the last year) is of course far more interesting, or at least more far-reaching.

I had originally thought that a reception history of the film could be posited as an intervention into postmodern thought--that the history of the film offers a challenge to ahistorical notions of the simulacrum.

But my advisor--even while understanding the logic of my tentative ideas--is adamant that ultimately the two methodologies are irreconcilable (or at the very least the two will be too much work to balance across the entire project).

Of course, I'm too stubborn to out-right give up the specter of Baudrillard, even while we both agree that a reception history works better for so many reasons.

So, I suggested to her that perhaps the postmodern be thought tentatively as one historical discourse--postmodernity--in which the film operates. Postmodernity here would then be not methodology or aesthetic category (would that be "postmodernism"?) but as a body of scholarship which could potentially act as a material site for interrogating historical discourse.

The difference is huge, of course. Its partly why the committee member asked me the question he did.

* * *

Why am I a postmodernist? Its a question I asked myself again this morning. I think its because that is literally the historical milieu in which I grew up.

My earliest memories of childhood (the 80s) were not of a warm fireplace or of bucolic countrysides--they were of malls and theme parks. When I was four, my parents drove to Florida to be at the grand opening of EPCOT Center--yes, I was there, and, yes, I have a distinct memory of riding Spaceship Earth then.

I still remember my first trip to Disneyland in 1986 (and again in 1989).

And when I think of growing up in and around Madison, Wisconsin, I think of the capitol building and of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. But mostly I think of malls.

And seeing movies at theatres located in mall parking lots.

Like the Hilldale Mall, which I probably last re-visited around 2003 or 2004. (By the way, "Malls of America" is the coolest blog ever. There is a whole online culture of mall aficionados, in which I am destined to be embedded sooner or later).

The picture at the top is something I actually took in Hawaii last summer because I stumbled upon an un-remodeled portion of this one mall that looked just like something I would have experienced as a child. That is to say, it was taken in 2007, but could pass for 1977.

My whole life emerged from a radically hyperreal sense of space. So, its hard for me not to see that as "real"--as a real culture in which people lived and experienced life. And that this resolutely postmodern sense of space has some lingering effect on how we perceive time, commodities and culture.

But as I get older I am better seeing it as a particular moment in the evolution of American culture--the decimation of the downtowns, the emergence of highway life. But that moment did happen, even while we are somewhere different now.

(Of course we are still a mall culture--but the historical moment and cultural exigencies, everything around this moment, is now slightly different).

Certainly, its also easy for the reader to see how and why nostalgia would have been my fifth exam area.



dave_mcavoy said...

I'm never quite sure where to position myself into postmodern(ity?) as a critical category either. It's also weird since I have my own lingering doubts about the category of early modernity (16th and 17th century, roughly) that stands at the gateway of my own project. Because I have that arbitrary beginning point in hand, it would be so easy for me to carve out a critical narrative of rise and fall that ends in the postmodern, but I just don't buy it myself.

I think that I believe that we're still pretty rooted in the modern itself. I totally see where you're coming from in terms of the hyperreal spaces of malls, but I also feel like the infrastructural problems you associate with them in the larger social structure is characteristic of the kinds of anxieties about the masses that we saw at the beginning of modernity as well.

I should stop, because this is a question that's been nagging at me since I writing the proposal for the CMCL exams a couple months ago. I'll probably have an answer figured out by the time I'm about to retire, at about the time when we're approaching the materialist backlash against post-post-postmodernity.

Sarah said...

My question is: in what critical category are we living now? I thought that we were still in a postmodern/post-structural world. Hmmm. Well, perhaps your advisor is trying to stear you in a new critical direction to avoid the usual cultural argument. That doesn't mean that you have to rethink your entire project.

TD said...

I'm interested in this very question, too... "what critical category are we living in now?" From what I've heard and read, theory is now “dead” and so we've moved into -- or back into -- a critical period that focuses on historical studies and intellectual history more precisely.

I'm not sure how I feel about this... in some ways it seems that we've turned away from the intellectual rigor high theory offered in favor of something more basic and old-school, but I suppose this turn offers something that, at least on the surface, appears more concrete and pragmatic.

So I’m not sure we really know what critical category we’re living in now. However, it does seem that post-modernism and post-structuralism have lost currency... at least in the academy.

Scott Balcerzak said...

“So I’m not sure we really know what critical category we’re living in now. However, it does seem that post-modernism and post-structuralism have lost currency... at least in the academy.”

Everything loses currency eventually. The real question is what loses relevancy.
Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, Barthes, many others, etc …. their ideas independently or in combinations are inescapable, to me, even in historical and intellectual studies. Even if the original study forgoes using such thinkers in approach or as being, I guess, “pure theory,” the work eventually calls out for such an eventual relationship to post-structuralism. The connections will eventually call out to be made. In essence, you’ll never disregard the most significant turn in philosophical thought to occur in the 20th Century. It might lose currency as a pure school onto itself, but its effects on all approaches cannot be undone.

TD said...

Hey, Scott -- how goes it?

Yeah, I agree with you: post-modernism and post-structuralism will always be relevant approaches for me. Like Jason, I was really introduced to the academic world via post-structuralism and post-modernism, so the theorists you mention will always be essential figures for my own study and reflection.

But still, there does seem to be this trend -- and I'm really outside the loop these days, so I could be generalizing here -- where the "big" schools are turning away from theory. I'm seeing more and more classes and dissertation topics focusing on histroical and cognitive studies. So might this shift -- if we can really call it a shift -- signal something about the current critical climate?

So back to Sarah's question: "In what critical category are we living now?"