This is the way Postmodernism arrived. Not with a bang but a whimper. I stepped into a taxi several months ago, my first cab ride after moving back to New York City following a five-year absence. I was shocked to discover that many taxis had installed monitors in the back-seat partition during the interim. This particular one offered me a news report from one of the local network affiliates.
The top story? A pending taxi strike, of course, spurred by conflicts between cabbies and City Hall over the installation of screens in the cars. I didn’t dare ask the driver for his opinion on the matter. My mind couldn’t take so many levels of meaning, irony and coincidence at the same time.
Postmodernism, that nebulous intellectual burden of all scholars, is nothing new. Indeed, it’s grown so old that one wonders why it hasn’t died a quiet, dignified death yet. But getting smacked by it in the back seat of a New York cab was just too much.
The Hearst Tower in Manhattan
This wasn’t the first time Postmodernism intersected with something so intrinsically New York. For architectural examples, take a walk by Norman Foster’s new Hearst Tower for a view of a skyscraper rigorously deformed from the all-too-common rigid lines and boxy contours of blah modernism. And then there is Philip Johnson’s Sony Building (nee AT&T Building), that snarky, self-referential strike at the glass box by one of its greatest formulators and practitioners. Architectural tempers have rarely been so inflamed as they were by the ridiculously superfluous pediment Johnson plopped atop his design. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all rotund and curvilinear, is an obvious marker of a new style.
Literary New York, meanwhile, was almost perfectly depicted in the works of Brooklyn native Paul Auster. Beginning with “The New York Trilogy” and continuing through many of his subsequent novels, the city became a playground for intertextuality, for finding the hidden underneath the ordinary surface of life and for extended wanderings through shifting ideas of identity and mystery.
But Postmodernism appeared in my life long before Auster, Johnson or that absurd taxicab experience. It showed up rather randomly at the beginning of sophomore year at the elitist New York private school I attended.
“And once we get through all that, we’ll even talk a little about Postmodernism,” my teacher intoned after describing the course of study for her yearlong history class.
A sharp taskmaster with a passion for discussing the French Revolution and a talent for inspiring dread in slackers, she had listed off a catalogue of subjects from the Enlightenment to the Marshall Plan, generating little but ennui from the student body. But when Postmodernism was announced, it drew forth oohs and aahs from the assembled pupils.
Postmodernism (and it seems so momentous and ostentatious a word that it requires constant capitalization if not perhaps the insertion of some foreign diacritical marks for added prestige) was one of those nebulous terms of the intelligentsia that us academic neophytes had heard but never truly understood. It somehow seemed too advanced for high school students – like Ulysses or the French New Wave – something that our parents would tell us not to pursue until our intellects had caught up with our curiosity in a few years. So Postmodernism’s inclusion in the syllabus gave us all a sense of maturity, far more than the average 15-year-old kid probably had.
Postmodernism seemed an appropriate conclusion for our two-year whirlwind tour through the history of the world (or rather, the history of Western civilization, though no one would admit it). The year before, I had a gangly, effete teacher with a mid-Atlantic accent a bit more American than Cary Grant’s. His constant, needling question, also spoken with the gravest of tones: “At what price modernity?” I never truly uncovered the answer.
Ultimately, we didn’t get as far as Postmodernism during sophomore year. Hampered by length discussions of modern art and “The Communist Manifesto,” our class was stuck on the Cold War when it wrapped up in June. But when I graduated from college six years later, I had as firm a grip as anybody on what Postmodernism meant – namely, everything.
I was delivered harsh doses of Postmodernism in college. The subject hardly seemed to matter; history, political science, art history, English, film – all ceaselessly elicited the P-word, most often from professors but increasingly from students as well.
The only class I am sure did not include Postmodernism was inferential calculus. Differential calculus, on the other hand, was taught by a chain-smoking native of Tblisi prone to exclaiming in a thick Georgian accent, “Now look at this super-duper equation.” It was almost a constant exercise in meta-mathematics.
Meta, of course, became the preferred prefix in those days, and its attachment before many words seemed to stir furrowed brows and more abstract discussion than anything else. And why not? Survey courses in history, which became my major, were invariably dragged down by the details. Discussing the study of history rather than history itself was far more intellectually rewarding, so I have no complaints about my education. The only enduring disappointment was never coming across the term meta-Postmodernism in any text. But there it still time.
There was much to enjoy about Postmodernism But to the poorly informed and the pseudo-intellectuals, Postmodernism became an academic crutch. It could explain anything if used vaguely enough, as was often the case. And when people employed the word, they were most often simply describing literary or artistic references as crass as the ones that begin and end this article.
The final word (and perhaps the most intelligent one) on Postmodernism belonged, of course, to “The Simpsons,” that singularly thorough satirical chronicler or American life.
The plot of “Homer the Moe,” an episode in the 13th season of the TV series, depicted Moe Szyslak’s attempts to refurbish his eponymous tavern into a swanky nightclub. The perpetually perspiring schlub soon reopens his bar as “m” and quickly attracts a clientele consisting of the hipster elite. When Homer Simpson and the rest of the gang from the old Moe’s Tavern arrive, they are disappointed to find the television broadcasting a large image of a blinking eye. The décor, a regular explains, is Postmodern, or just Po-mo for short. When Homer tries to turn the TV to a football game, he is greeted with widespread hostility, though one clubgoer says watching football is OK if it’s done with irony.
Well, Po-mo did to Postmodernism what D-Wade, J-Kidd and K-Mart did to basketball nicknames. The Poetry-in-Motion folks probably weren’t too happy, but the hyphenated conflation of Postmodernism rendered it a merely overused byword for the world’s youth and pop culture consumers.
No endless college classroom discussions on the methods of history could outdo this. And so, for several years, I thought that Homer Simpson, large blinking eyes and the worst fictional bar in the world had taught me all I needed to know about Po-mo. And then I stepped into the back of a cab on the Upper West Side.
Ah, Postmodernism! Ah, humanity!
–written by Adam Bloch