Saturday, October 10, 2009


The funny thing about postmodernism is that everyone uses the term and nobody really knows what it means. That's not the funny part, though. The funny part is that the fact that nobody knows what it means is sort of built into the whole idea of postmodernism, since there are people who claim that the term itself, as well as the underlying theory, are more or less undefinable.

Literally, it means "after modernism" and we can understand this to mean a reaction against modernism, but that only tells us what postmodernism isn't -- it doesn't tell us what it is.

Part of the problem is that postmodernism means different things within different disciplines. For example, it has a completely different meaning in literature than it does in architecture and design.

In architecture and design, it's sort of easy to figure out, because you can actually see it expressed in buildings and furniture and graphic design. It's a reaction to the strict formalism of modernism, so it's more of an "anything goes" kind of philosophy. (Have you ever noticed that a lot of contemporary building design is a perverse attempt to combine the old and new, even though the old an new mix about as well as oil and vinegar? Have you ever walked into a furniture store and wondered why all the supposedly "modern" furniture looks like it was designed in the 19th century? Have you noticed that a lot of new cars looked like they were designed in the '40s? Do you remember all the aggressively ugly "read me if you can" graphics on T-shirts, trendy magazine covers, and just about everywhere else in the '90s?)

In literature, it's harder to define, so I won't even try. I think it might have something to do with decontextualization and subjectivity, but I'm not sure. In any event it turns out that a lot of the books I read in my younger days were written by postmodern writers, such as Pynchon, Barthelme, Borges, DeLillo, Burroughs, and even Auster, who I still consider one of my favorite writers.

It doesn't surprise me that I'm such a fan of postmodern literature despite the fact that I absolutely detest postmodern architecture and design, because the term seems to be applied without much discretion. I think the term gets applied a lot when people can't figure out how else to label something. For example, I've heard the magical duo of Penn & Teller described as postmodern magicians, which is a term that probably makes no sense at all. If anything, I'd say they were deconstructivist magicians.

Anyway, if you remember, last week I told you that each post to this blog would be written in verse, and I'm not going to break with that young tradition today. The brief introduction above turned out to be a little longer than I expected, but today's poem is forthcoming. But first, I wanted to include some brief quotes from two documentaries I've seen in the last few months.

"Postmodernism is to architecture the way a female impersonator is to femininity."
- Architectural historian Reyner Banham (as quoted by Julius Shulman in the documentary film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman)

"...and also in the '80s, with their minds completely confused by that disease that was called postmodernism, people were just going around like chickens without their heads, by using all kinds of typefaces that could come around that could say 'not modern'..."
- Massimo Vignelli (from the documentary film Helvetica)

Okay, now for today's bad poem.

Postmodernism is a term broadly applied to literature:
I can't think of any two writers more different than
William S. Burroughs and and Don DeLillo, for example.
(Or maybe I can, but that isn't the point.)
Still, there are great postmodern writers, such as Paul Auster.
Postmodern architecture, on the other hand,
is one of the worst inventions to ever plague mankind.
And postmodern design isn't any better.

I realize that probably didn't sound a lot like a poem. It may qualify as some sort of free verse, but I'm not sure. Maybe it doesn't fit neatly into a genre. For that matter, it may not even be a poem. Maybe it's just a few lines of italicized text. But assuming that it actually is some kind of poem, it sort of looks like a reaction to more structured forms of poetry, so let's just call it a postmodernist poem and leave it at that.

I also realize that this wasn't a very interesting post. The poem is unimaginative and the prose is humorless and pedantic. Not only that, but you probably don't care about postmodernism in the first place. To be honest, neither do I. As a matter of fact, the only reason I wrote this little essay is so I could sneak in the quotes by Banham and Vignelli.