December 20, 2006

Ubiquitously Unmentionable

Shortly after grad school, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the fall of continental theory and the rise of painting and everything else in the beginning of the dot-com boom, I remember a general reluctance to use the term "post-modern" and the language that configured it--even or especially in a critique of it.

I remember a self annointed grand pooh bah artworld intellectual announce grandly in a ChinaTown bar at the peak of the dot-com boom that " one mentions the word "post-modernism" anymore...".

As recently as last month I managed to collar a reasonably intelligent young curator--newly minted from grad school-- in my effort to understand the thesis of her exhibition, I used the term "post-modern". I was promptly and tersely instructed that that word is no longer used in the artworld anymore.

I guess the folks at the Economist Magazine didn't get the memo:

...The pomos wrote about pretty much everything in society?literature, psychoanalysis, punishment, sociology, architecture?except economics. This was perhaps odd, given that they emerged during the longest economic boom in European history and the birth of the consumer society. The only pomo who tried, far too late, to come to grips with this irony was Foucault. In one of his last lectures, in January 1979, four months before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain, he shocked his students by telling them to read the works of F.A. Hayek if they wanted to know about ?the will not to be governed?. Hayek was the Iron Lady's guru. Surely there was nothing post-modern about her?

But Foucault had belatedly spotted that post-modernism and ?neo-liberal? free-market economics, which had developed entirely independently of each other over the previous half-century, pointed in much the same direction. One talked about sex, art and penal systems, the other about monetary targets. But both sought to ?emancipate? the individual from the control of state power or other authorities?one through thought and the other through economic power. Both put restoring individual choice and power at the hearts of their ?projects?, as the pomos like to describe their work.

Niches and fragments
Liberal economics has probably had a greater role in transforming capitalism than a few French Marxists using long words. But the pomos' ideas have had a certain influence, seeping into common consciousness through the lecture halls and student campuses. Many brands have been developed by people who were brought up on the idealism of the 1960s, post-modernism's heyday. Entrepreneurs such as Virgin's Sir Richard Branson and Body Shop's Anita Roddick bring an emancipatory, anti-corporatist tilt to their business. Modern marketing has consciously co-opted the tools of post-modern ?discourse? to sell more stuff. Brands such as Nike explicitly adopt rebellious attitudes in their advertising campaigns. Thus capitalism employs the critique that was designed to destroy it....


1. If you can't use a word for a phenomena, you can't critique that phenomena.

2. Nice to see Hayeck's name dropped, especially in this context.

3. Bear in mind that the term "liberal economics" in Europe means something in the direction of the free market in the United States, Milton Friedman stuff.

4. I tend to define the post-modern era as that which has reigned since the end of the fifties with the emergence of Pop Art, through the permutations of the isms: Minimal, Conceptual, all dribbling out into this very day.

5. Note #4 hinges on note #1. We won't be able to move on until we critically overhaul that past fifty years of cultural production.

6. We need to move on.

Posted by Dennis at December 20, 2006 7:53 AM

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