From Po-Mo to So-So

Article excerpt

Postmodernism first meant knowing architectural jokes; two decades later it just means jokes

In the putative Taxonomy of Taxonomies, the essay on postmodernism will trace this compound's shift over half a century. The OED's earliest citation is J Hudnut's usage in Architecture and the Spirit of Man, from 1949. Things hotted up in the fifties; there were two sightings, but I suspect that neither Arnold Toynbee nor the sociologist C Wright Mills will be claimed as precursors by today's toilers in the labelling industry. They were thinking in centuries, not in terms of playful pediments or narrative ellipses.

Arithmetical progression demands three examples from the sixties, and that's precisely what the lex-wallahs provide. Now, however, there is a spluttering flame. Leslie Fiedler and Frank Kermode use it to describe the new literature of that decade - specifically, no doubt, the work of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and, maybe, John Hawkes. And Nicholas Pevsner regards Churchill College, Cambridge (or, more likely, its plans), as postmodern. Today that building is more probably regarded as late modern.

The chronal vantage point is vital. We can perceive a continuum where the contemporary scrutineer could not - all Pevsner saw was a centrifugal weakening of the international modern ideal of the twenties and thirties, an ideal whose most dogged proselytiser he was. He believed in progressive architecture but not in architectural progress. Once architecture had progressed beyond the institutionalised idiom of orthogonal whiteness into brutalism and hyperbolic paraboloids he became a sort of nostalgic.

Still, his presence in the OED is of moment, for more than anyone else in this century he sought to apply the taxonomical procedures of natural science (mycology, say, or lepidoptery) to the classification of buildings. There is some sense in this: architecture is more pervious to consensual norms than any other area of human endeavour - which is why it is much easier to date a building than a page of prose. And architecture (mostly) represents nothing: it is made from a kit of perhaps a couple of hundred gestures and is thus reducible to coded shorthand. The same goes for chefs, rock'n'rollers, clothes designers and cabinet makers. Craft is conditional upon repetition and is thus susceptible to handles being applied to it: nouvelle cuisine, neo-classicism with a Workers for Freedom twist, quilted Bauhaus. Art is not so susceptible. And it is demeaned by labels such as post-modern, labels such as . . . For the past 15 years there has been no label to match this one, and for the ten years previous to those it was around if you knew where to look.

I know precisely where to look. Twenty-five years ago, in the December 1971 issue of Books and Bookmen, in an essay on Borges, a child called Jonathan Meades noted that it is "difficult to find any major postmodernist writer who has not been compared with [sic] the Czech". The Czech is, evidently, Kafka. And the "major postmodernist" writers will have been Borges himself, Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet - supreme pattern-makers, inventors of devices, creators of autonomous and hallucinatorily precise worlds, fellow travellers of art for art's sake. Those were attributes that, I suppose, defined postmodernism in those days. These writers are inconceivable without the example of Kafka, of Joyce; yet, in the case of Borges and Nabokov, they are story-tellers, informed by an almost Edwardian limpidity. Borges is famously indebted to Chesterton and Stevenson; Nabokov owed much to the Wells of Mr Polly and Tono-Bungay.

They looked back, if you like, through modern eyes to premodernism. The appeal of these high artificers was partially occasioned by the sheer dullness of English writing at the time - with the exceptions of Burgess, Ballard, and B S Johnson it was unfailingly provincial, doggedly naturalistic, tiresomely prosaic; it wasn't so much post-modern as anti-modern, the fictive analogue of neo-Georgian buildings. …