Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Just as digital comes to different media at different times (CD and sampling made music digital in the mid-80s, but television won't be fully digital until about 2004), so the curators who mediate the arts to us all have different agendas and timetables when it comes to the culture which goes hand in hand with digital technology: Postmodernism.
As I never tire of repeating (as if we could escape anyway), Postmodern media products are characterised by stuff like recontextualisation, bricolage, pastiche, irony, reflexivity, recycling, kitsch, time machines, museums, curating, random access, exhaustion...
I know trendy people were talking about Postmodernism in the early '80s. But, like techno music, The Postmodern is an aesthetic which just gets more inescapably universal as each year goes by. The word even appeared in The Sun a couple of weeks ago, in a discussion of Englebert Humperdink's new dance record. I thought that marked an important cultural turning point: the moment from which everyone is supposed to know what Postmodernism means.
I think the Postmodern (and I wish we could give it a different name) has been given a new lease of life by the continuing popularisation of digital technology and the nostalgic appeal of Retro. At a time when people are a little nervous about the future, they would rather dwell on the reassuring past, albeit in a souped up new digital format.
If you still aren't convinced, buy a copy of this week's Time Out (London). You will find reminders of the characteristic traits of Postmodernism on every single page. I actually did it, and print my findings here. I got to page 74 out of 195 before flaking out, appropriately enough, exhausted.
One interesting thing is the way the various subsections, from Art through Comedy and Clubs to Rock and Theatre, all have slightly different stances on the Postmodern, even while they all, whatever their nuances of approval or disapproval, reflect it.
The Sell Out section, this week about Free and Cheap London, is pretty positive, seeing the playful recontextualisations of thrift and Retro shopping as a fun and creative way to 'think about how ripped-off you could be, how brainwashed by hype, advertising lies and fake lifestyles you are'.
By the way, I think this analysis, a Humanist take on the Postmodern, is wrong. It's like Mitch Kapor saying the internet won't change us, just make us more democratic. In fact, in clothes as in electronics, people's identities are restructured by the new ways we use to present ourselves. Are we really freed from 'brainwashing' when we dress like Starsky and Hutch, or simply revelling in our last remaining freedom, the freedom to express humourously (and cheaply!) our alienation from the culture that has shaped us, while simultaneously embracing our conditioning completely? Like the use of filters in the Cassius single, which make the stereotypical girl vocals sound extraterrestrial, retro dressing is honest because it emphasises the alienated strangeness of commercial forms, without suggesting for a moment that it's desireable or even possible to escape this alienation and take refuge in neutral spaces labelled things like 'Nature' and 'Authenticity'.
You see the more conformist side of those ironic '70s flares you bought at Cenci when you turn to the Clubs section and find that many of London's '70s and '80s-obsessed dance clubs won't even let you in if you're wearing clothes manufactured this decade.
The most eloquent advocate of PoMo is actor Joseph Fiennes, who, talking about Tom Stoppard's 'Shakespeare In Love', draws an interesting parallel between Shakespeare's pre-copyright plagiarisms and the post-copyright pillaging that goes on now. Fiennes sees parallels between Shakespeare's Elizabethan era and our own: rampant capitalism, teamwork, extreme referentiality, cosmopolitanism, a celebration of artifice, a spirit of play. For Shakespeare, as for us, it is clear that intellectual property is theft.
The Books and Art and Television sections seem a bit yawny about Postmodern recontextualisations: Larry Sanders is described as 'a snake eating its own tail' and a pastiche of Lolita prompts the question 'Can satire be satirised?' Meanwhile Sarah Kent in the Art section seems to yearn for a return (however unlikely and ahistorical) to more Humanist values, and reserves her most lavish praise for Monet. These people have been savvy for decades, and are getting a little sick of the Postmodernist stuff that arrives on their desks day in, day out. But what can they do? Appeal to artists to revive the Renaissance? Whoops, still Postmodernist.
There are a few straggling reminders of Time Out's hippy activist origins in the News section, where Trevor Philips is to be found bemoaning the political apathy of students in the '90s, and the Body And Mind section, where yoga, Jung and Theosophy keep hippy ideas alive in the New Age.
But the sections most overtly hostile to the Postmodern are Comedy and Rock. Although the arts dealt with here probably recontextualise more than any others, their critics and curators are somewhat cowed and hampered by two things which prevent its discussion: a suburban mistrust of 'pretension' and an ideology which still invokes concepts like 'authenticity', especially when dealing with black performers.
'Vitally,' says Laura Lee Davies of David McAlmont, 'at the core of David's songs there remains an unstinting faith in romance, passion and, in some of the most intimate lyrics you'll hear, a willingness to take all the bad things that come with them'. In song, it seems, Romantic Humanism still reigns triumphant.
Back in the world of real dating, however, it's Postmodern business as usual. In Lonely Hearts 'Real Man, James Bond type...' is about to meet 'Ingrid Bergman, prefers Paris to Casablanca'. I wonder if McAlmont will be playing in the background as these one-dimensional lovers tear off their retro references... sorry, clothes?
Life, it would appear, is more Postmodern than rock reviews.
Person Of The Month
Aged 18, Liane Balaban has just played the lead in New Waterford Girls, a film directed by Allan Moyle (best-known for 'Pump Up The Volume'). This film, shot on Cape Breton, will be premiered at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival. Liane is sure to become the 21st century's answer to Audrey Hepburn and Winona Ryder. I'm a bit reluctant to share her with you, actually, but here she is. Because, as Devoto once put it, 'I desire you for ever... and everyone'.