Postmodernism to Post-Crash: The New Ads in the New York Review of Books

Article excerpt

Commentators agree that the sensibility of the postmodern age was marked by playfulness, irony, and self-reference; some saw, underneath all this relentless fun, a sort of world-weariness indicating that we lacked issues worth addressing, so we could devote ourselves to historical self-reference and mirror-gazing without any fear of distraction by real problems. And for several decades of economic boom in the last quarter of the twentieth century and for twenty years after the fall of the Wall, when big problems seemed to disappear, this may have seemed a viable attitude. It was especially viable in those protected backwaters of academia and the art world where for many people the proof of the validity of what they did was precisely the fact that people outside weren't doing it. Postmodernism flourished in the cracks. The footsore average viewer in a contemporary art museum still said, "My three-year-old can do better than that!" And academia and museum directors said, "See what we mean? They just don't get it, which means we do." This, after all, was the intellectual world that took pride in arming itself with an arsenal of jargon so impenetrable that no one outside the Modern Language Association understood a word, a world that proudly engaged in "theorizing" or "problematizing" a text rather than, yawn, reading and talking about it.

Now, things are different: we have real problems. In 2010 it's almost a decade after 9/11, the U.S.'s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone sour, and it's two years after the crash that ushered in the Great Recession. In the U.S. as well as in most of the rest of the West, unemployment, bankruptcies of what had seemed gilt-edged institutions, and a ballooning deficit have taken their toll. And then there's global warming--the last apparently a problem for many years before, if not acknowledged as such. And the number of listings in the job market that the Modern Language Association runs has dropped more than 50 percent in the past two years, the largest two-year drop ever. Want to theorize a text? Take a number. Postmodernist irony and self-reference as a reaction to this seems like fiddling while Rome burns, and the endless recycling of other works that was the lifeblood of postmodernism now just seems a sign of the exhaustion we must transcend if we're to have a chance at transcending our woes. Postmodernism is dead.

Like any movement deprived of a reason for being, however, postmodernism will certainly go through at least a decade of zombie existence, apparently alive but in fact a body without a soul--until suddenly one day it just keels over. Postmodernism, after all, provided the vocabulary for a generation, perhaps two. And if that's the vocabulary you're used to, that's the vocabulary you use--until it becomes clear even to you that it's ridiculous. Postmodernism is sometimes shortened for those in the know as "pomo," so let's call it that. And let's call what follows postmodernism the Post-Crash Age, PCA. In the interim, before pomo completely gives way to PCA in expression as well as in fact, look for situations that seem pomo but are actually PCA.

Such, for example, as we see in the sudden efflorescence of ads from print-on-demand (POD) book publishing services such as Xlibris and iUniverse in the pages of the New York Review of Books. These ads showed up in the past few years, and by the beginning of 2010, had become so numerous as to change the look and feel of the whole "book" (as a newspaper is called in journalese). They're numerous (five full pages from Xlibris alone in the December 19, 2009, "Holiday Issue" and the January 14, 2010, issue, too, and intermittent throughout 2010), look different enough from the other ads to be visually striking (they're louder, more garish), they're on the right side of a spread where your eyes gravitate, so you can't avoid them when you turn the page, and their writing style and level is radically different from anything else in any issue they appear in--especially the ads for Ivy-level university presses that are their closest comparables, and certainly different from the articles. …