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.