Checking the Post: Music, Postmodernism or Post-Postmodernism

By Bennett, David | New Formations, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Checking the Post: Music, Postmodernism or Post-Postmodernism


Bennett, David, New Formations


Introducing the twentieth anniversary issue of new formations in Autumn 2007, David Glover and Scott McCracken agreed with the journal's founding editor, James Donald, that the days when the prefix 'post' seemed to capture the Zeitgeist were severely numbered. If the prefix (or, as Glover and McCracken's Freudian slip had it, 'the suffix "post"') had signalled a pervasive sense of an ending when it came into vogue during the 1980s, we were finally, the editors thought, glimpsing light at the end of the postmodern tunnel: 'It has been a long time coming, but now, at last, "pre" does seem more appropriate than "post"'. (1) How long, after all, can a sense of ending last (the proverbial example of Beethoven's symphonic endings notwithstanding) before it becomes a steady state? A feeling that it had been going on just a bit too long seemed the main rationale for Linda Hutcheon's call for a re-minting of the term 'postmodernism' in her epigraph to the second edition of her popular book, The Politics of Postmodernism, in 2002. Having built a distinguished academic career largely on writing about postmodernism in literature, photography and critical theory, Hutcheon reported her feeling that the term had reached its use-by date, suggesting that 'our concepts of both textuality and worldiness' might now be changing significantly under the influence of 'electronic technology and globalisation'two factors which, as Hutcheon admits, were nonetheless fundamental to other writers' analyses of postmodernity from the outset. Sensing that 'the postmodern moment has passed, even if its discursive strategies and its ideological critique continue to live on', Hutcheon signed off her epigraph with the invitation: 'Postmodernism needs a new label of its own, and I conclude, therefore, with this challenge to readers to find it--and name it for the twenty-first century'. (2)

In short, the question needs to be addressed: why 'return' to that cornerstone or kingpin of 1980s posts, postmodernism, in this special issue on music? Might there be grounds for distrusting the numerous obituaries for both the term and the phenomenon (variously defined) that have been appearing in recent years?

Several commentators in the higher-brow US press have been a good deal bolder than Glover, McCracken or Hutcheon in announcing the advent of post-postmodernism, and they have dated postmodernism's death with even greater precision than Virginia Woolf famously dated the birth of British modernism by declaring that 'in or about December, 1910, human character changed'. (3) Among those who date their death-certificates for postmodernism on September 11, 2001 is the press columnist and Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism, Todd Gitlin, whose 2006 book The Intellectuals and the Flag undertook 'to resurrect a liberal ideal of patriotism in the awful aftermath of September 11, 2001'. (4) Diagnosing what he termed 'the Postmodern Mood' as a now-obsolete habit of theory-addled scepticism and oppositionality, Gitlin assured his readers that 'the Marxism and postmodernism of the left are exhausted' and declared that the time had come to discard the cynical playfulness and 'oppositional anarchism' identified with postmodernism and to embrace a positive conception of power and its potential affinity with truth. In a nation 'besieged by murderous enemies', the now-old New Left had to abandon its fatal attraction to 'negation' ('resistance is the more glamorous word') and recover the Old Left's capacity to think positively about power, progress and knowledge. Gitlin's call for a new, post-postmodern kind of left political theory, then, turned out to be a call for a prepostmodern kind, a return to the tradition of thought of 1950s American public intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, David Reisman and Irving Howe. (5)

To suggest, as many have done, that irony and cultural relativism became unpatriotic in post-9/11 America is to suggest that the postmodernist mindset has been out- manoeuvred by brute historical fact. …

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