Today, I’m commenting on Alison Gibbons’ article in the Times Literary Supplement, “Postmodernism is dead. What comes next?” (12 June 2017, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/postmodernism-dead-comes-next/?CMP=Sprkr-_-Editorial-_-TimesLiterarySupplement-_-ArtsandCulture-_-JustTextandlink-_-Statement-_-Unspecified-_-FBPAGE). There are many important questions about Postmodernism which nobody seems to agree on: 1) when did it begin: was it 1960s, 1980s, later even?; 2) is it already dead?; 3) when did Postmodernism die, if it is dead at all?: 1989, 2001, 2008?; 4) if it is dead, what label should we use for the culture of our own time? Post-postmodernism? Other labels being circulated, Gibbons informs us, are, brace yourselves: altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism…
First, allow me to clarify that Gibbons, a lecturer in Stylistics at Hallam University, is concerned specifically with creative or literary fiction, whereas I have always understood Postmodernism as a whole cultural movement better exemplified by certain landmark buildings (Frank Gheary’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum) or styles of gourmet cooking (Ferran Adrià) than by Literature. This difference, however, might be moot because the point she is raising is also valid for the wider cultural view of Postmodernism.
What is at stake here connects with my previous post about the current obsession with labels. If you allow me, Gibbons’ piece and the many comments it has generated seem to be hinting at a critical failure we don’t know how to solve; she seems to be begging for somebody, please, to offer us a workable label, even if it is parodic (Romanticism was originally intended to mock the poets of this school). I don’t have a solution for this problem (see below…) but if anything astounds me at all about this period of so-called human civilization is its intense narcissism, banality and… disinterest in Literature. Current literary authors are also guilty of the same narcissism and, sorry, banality. Perhaps not even they are interested in Literature.
Let’s assume for the sake of argumentation that Postmodernism began in the 1960s with works such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). In this clever novel the author eventually intrudes to a) teach us History lessons about the Victorians, b) claim he has no idea how his characters will behave, which is why readers are offered three possible endings. There is a more or less widespread consensus that Postmodernism in Literature is, above all, playful in diverse degrees of seriousness: its authors question the convention that reality can be represented at all; they introduce many linguistic and textual games which repeatedly break sacred boundaries between high and low culture; they also reject all the grand narratives shaping Humanism, and, perhaps above all, hold the view that History is a slippery matter, or, as historian Hayden White sentenced in 1973, just “an agreed upon fiction”. Gibbons claims that Postmodernist writers show “cool detachment”, thus suggesting that what used to be, precisely, a cool value is now a suspect declaration of emotional frigidity.
So, what is new in Literature? Gibbons argues that “in today’s cultural climate there appears to be a renewed engagement with history and a revival of mythic meaning-making that the arch-postmodernists would have abhorred”. To begin with, mixing history with myth is what Postmodernism often did: just think of Salman Rushdie, author of the seminal Postmodern novel Midnight Children (1985) and the ill-fated, or ill-fatwaed…, Satanic Verses (1987). If Gibbons means that more and more novels are set in the recent or remote past, she is right although I often get the impression that instead of real commitment they exemplify a (narcissitic) desire to show off on the writers’ side. They claim to have done tons of research and want to be admired for it, as if they were academics (see the current debate between the Oxbridge historians and Hillary Mantel). Then, frequently, the novels deal with times or areas remote from the author’s own, which actually shows a lack of engagement with the history happening on their doorsteps. Let me rephrase this: writing about historical episodes, past or present, can be done with or without an earnest political attitude and this is what I mean by lack of commitment: novels are apolitical today, or blandly liberal, not militant. Why write, in Spain, about 2010s corruption if you can write about the Civil War?
Next, Gibbons notes that when today’s writers obey the impulse to “blur the lines between fiction and reality” and appear in their own texts, as Fowles once did, “their presence is intended to signal realism, rather than to foreground the artifice of the text (…)”. Realism, Gibbons concludes, “is once again a popular mode”. Well, Postmodernism has made readers more sophisticated and they have got tired of literary games that, in time, have gone stale: fiction is fiction and, as such, artificial, and this is a lesson that we all know well by now.
On the other hand, realism has never gone out of fashion despite the early efforts of Modernism and, later, of Postmodernism to undermine it; these, as I see it, almost resulted in the total abandonment by readers of highbrow fiction for its middlebrow little sister (something realistic and about History? Ken Follett will do). “Emotions”, Gibbons writes, “are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality”–but, then, what is Literature without emotion, as Wordsworth asked 220 years ago? Nothing but an empty shell. I believe that Gibbons means ‘empathy’, for emotions have always been around in Literature, though they may have been negative, as it is often the case in Postmodernist fiction. She mentions, by the way, “autofiction, a genre that integrates the autobiographical into fiction, and that has blossomed alongside the so-called memoir boom”. Autofiction is, as I’m arguing here, an example of the narcissism that dominates literary creation today; readers are dominated, rather, by gossip, which explains the memoir boom. And the interest in (exasperatingly boring) autofiction.
The end of Gibbons’ article expresses what’s behind her exercise in pattern recognition: her wish, shared with many others, that new literature can “examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes”, as implicitly, Postmodernism did (or still does?). In our times, when we see globalization as the capitalist lie it always was and when ‘post-truth’ defines public discourse, there is, however, “little sign of a radical literary avantgarde sweeping away the old to make way for the new”. And that is the crucial problem: quickly burnt out by the demands of the market and by academia’s self-interested search for novelty, the rising generation lacks the mental energy to truly think and offer a “literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems”, beyond the petty problems of privileged individuals in the West which fill autofiction.
The prediction by Postmodernist guru Francis Fukuyama that History was reaching an end, made in 1989, and that capitalist utopia was here to stay, whether we wanted it or not, was proven wrong by 9/11. The terrorist outrage jump-started History and now we see that it could never be over because until the Sun goes supernova, or patriarchy manages to wipe all human beings out, events will succeed each other. History can hardly reach an end, then, and we’ll see a succession of more or less apt labels for each forthcoming period. I wonder whether we can say the same for Literature and in particular its most creative or artistic branch.
Like the universe in the Big Bang Theory, which first expanded and is now seemingly contracting towards the ultimate black hole it came from, Literature seems to have started with the bang of the classic period and is now contracting with a whimper. I can see why Gibbons and others are concerned to spot the trends that define the Literature of our times, for we are curious to know which label will win the contest and make us memorable for the future. My impression, nevertheless, is that this is the equivalent of marvelling at the discovery of a new tree species when the whole wood is on fire.
If someone can define a catchy equivalent of the phrase ‘wilfully illiterate’ then this exactly what describes current culture, at least in the decadent West. As a Catalan I’ve had to accept the label ‘Decadence’ for the early modern period of our Literature (more or less overlapping the ‘Siglo de Oro’ in Spain), no matter how disputed this label is today. And perhaps it is now time to acknowledge that this is what we’re facing today in Western Literature. Not perhaps a lack of talent, but an inability to make this talent truly matter socially beyond sales figures. This is what decadence means in culture.
Perhaps the problem with Gibbons’ approach and that of many others struggling to find a label for our current Literature is that they’re putting the cart before the horse, that is, trying to write the History of today’s Literature before it is even happening. One thing is chronicling the present and quite another is understanding the main trends of the past. The Victorian Age did not emerge until it was over and it is possibly not for us but for the future to choose a label for what writers are collectively producing today. If we need the label for academic reasons–a course, a book… –then Contemporary will do. Use that, or call up a competition to ask writers how they want to be known.
And if someone in the future uses the labels ‘Narcissist Period’ or ‘Western Decadence’ I’ll be happy enough to have contributed a little grain of sand to Literary History.
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