Like a lot of people, I'm convinced that post-modernism is dead. However, I can't say why it died or what killed it. It didn't simply pass out of fashion. Nor can I definitively point to what has taken its place. The best term I've found so far is "Internet culture," but I can't say what this means beyond a lot of cat videos and teenagers' Facebook status updates.
At any rate, this building, I think, illustrates why post-modernism is dead. It's a newly constructed building, albeit with a 10-year-old design. It's the first structure in the Community in a Cube project (CIAC). Located in Middlesborough, England, the building was designed by the British architecture firm FAT.
The point isn't that the building is ugly, which it is--dreadfully so. What's instructive is why it's so jarringly ugly. In 1989 this building would have seemed self-evidently cool. In 2013 it demands an explanation, like creating an AOL email account.
FAT director Sean Griffiths tells Dezeen, "The idea was that it was like a little urban village. It was about assembling disparate elements you would think of as incongruous into a collage that has an expression of community." He explains,
You have a thing that looks like a Swiss chalet on the ground floor, which was going to be the the local community pub. Then you have housing on the roof that taps into local culture. They're not exactly ordinary houses, more of an aesthetic expression you'd be more likely to find in New England or Kent, but they become very odd because they sit on top on an apartment building.
While he doesn't use the term post-modernism, all the trademarks are there: juxtaposition of disparate elements, playful historicism, contextualization--in short, all the elements missing from modernist architecture.
But none of these propositions square with the current state of mechanical reproduction. Essentially the CIAC building is a bricolage of images from the history of architecture. In the post-modernist era (say 1960 to 2000), the image repository from which FAT drew was scattered in books, monographs, existing and imaged buildings. These images still bore traces of their historical contexts, hence the power of post-modernist historicism. One of the remaining powers of the decentered post-modernist subject was his or her ability to create something new out of the shards of a fragmented culture.
Now that images have been digitized, they are much more readily accessible than they were in analogue form. In the 1960s Roland Barthes spoke of the image store, by which he meant something like a visual version of the langue. Since then images have been digitized and indexed and thus ready to be summoned in search results. The image store has become something actual, if not tangible. Furthermore, images in digital space have taken on a life of their own, forever recombining themselves into new combinations. Images no longer wait to be seen. They are integrated into algorithms that determines their fate. The post-modernist bricoleur is too slow, too partial. Images aren't special anymore. Every search result is a slightly strange collage of words and images. Decoding a collage, once the height of modernist sensibility, has become a mundane task necessary for making sense of the lived world.
I can't say how the subject appears in the algorithm, but I can say that we're looking at a different subjectivity than the post-modernist bricoleur playing with found images. The post-post-modernist subject would shrug off incongruous juxtapositions as a Google oddity. Unlike her post-modernist predecessor, she would be more interested in seeking traces of the subjective than traces of the historical.
As for community, nowadays architects don't try to symbolize a community. In 2013 architects try to involve communities in design decisions. Instead of playful inversions of the functionalist idea of the bench, an architect working now is more likely to poll people on where, in a perfect world, they would want a bench to rest because gas is $4.50 a gallon so it's too expensive to drive to the grocery store. For a community staggering out of a post-war era apartment block, the vision of a chalet unexpectedly appearing underneath an apartment block might be unexpectedly welcoming. But a rational community in the post-real estate boom would never choose to place a drop an apartment block on top of a chalet. Incongruity is something that can be cleared up with a Google search, not something offering a glimpse into a new social formation.
Post-modernism was carnivalesque, toppling the rigid high culture/low culture polarities of modernism. The world we live in now is grappling with a far more powerful polarity of the offline and the online. The FAT team wanted an oblique, and characteristically post-modernist, reference to Kentish vernacular architecture for people who live in Middlesborough, which is in North Yorkshire, quite far from Kent. But for the people who move into CAIC, North Yorkshire can vanish with a click of a mouse, yet remain stubbornly real when they go to work.
The way images are reproduced changes the way we see the real world. Theorists of the post-modern learned this lesson from Walter Benjamin very well. But images change when they're digitized and reproducible on demand in the palm of your hand while you're eating lunch in a North Yorkshire McDonalds, and the world looks different as well.
Last night, after I finished George Sanders' Tenth of December, I thought to myself, very nice, but this isn't the best book I've read all year, and it's only February. I haven't had a chance to write up my notes yet, but Daniel Green has already pointed to one source of disappointment in Saunders' collection. Green points out that despite the surface weirdnesses of Saunders' fiction--the source of much of his appeal--Saunders is fundamentally a realist.
Even Saunders’s more radically surrealist stories do not really depart from the requisites of conventional storytelling, and in this his fiction is consistent with (probably one of the inspirations for) most of the neo-surrealist fiction that has become quite a noticeable development in recent American writing, for example in the work of Aimee Bender and Stacy Levine. If anything, this fiction observes the dictums of plot development even more scrupulously than traditional realism, as the freakish or oddball characters and absurdist events are chronicled in a strictly linear way, comprising appropriately rising actions and clear resolutions and generally satisfying any reader’s need for narrative. At the same time, claims are often made that this mode of fiction is nevertheless audacious and unconventional, claims based entirely on its defiance of the surface logic of ordinary reality. Thus the alternative posed to “realism” is a diametrical anti-realism that informs as story’s content but not its form. Saunders is himself probably the most accomplished of these new surrealists, but his stories only illustrate most prominently that such fiction derives its appeal from conjuring fanciful flights from reality related through familiar narrative strategies. That Saunders employs his vision of an altered reality at the satirical level to achieve the traditional goals of realism — to depict the way things are — could lead us to the conclusion that Saunders’s ambitions aren’t that far removed from those associated with the realist tradition — they might be seen as two sides of the same literary coin.
I agree with Green that Saunders isn't a cutting-edge writer. I don't think he's particularly imaginative, which compromises his effectiveness as a political writer. Also, it never occurred to me to classify him as a surrealist, but that label makes sense, even though he's not in the same league as Andre Breton or any of the other surrealists of high modernism. Still, it's good to know there are such things as literary surrealists working now.
On Berfois Christopher Beckwith provides a history of the emergence of the scientific method in medieval Europe. He argues that Europe inherited the method from "Classical Arabic civilization," who received it from Central Asian Buddhism.
So far so good. He filled in some holes for me.
Then he jumps forward to the twentieth century.
He asserts that European "scientific culture" has largely disappeared. This is a debatable conclusion, but what struck me was Beckworth's claim that modernism led to the disappearance of scientfic culture.
Scholars today seem to have trouble with [‘scientific’ attitude], but that is because in the twentieth century the movement called “Modernism” [. . .] destroyed the European ‘high’ art tradition, along with much else. The destruction of Modernism continues down to the present day, but it remains more or less completely unnoticed by historians. I must ask, what is their problem? Has not enough been destroyed yet, or what?
As a result of Modernism and its offspring (including the equally uncritically-examined hypermodernist dogma known as ‘Postmodernism’), philosophers of science nowadays can no more define science than artists or aestheticians can define art, musicians or musicologists can define music, and so on. This suggests that to some extent, at least, they do not know what it is that they are supposedly doing. It should be no surprise to learn that most do not know why they are doing it either, or what it means, or much of anything else about it. It seems not to have occurred to anyone to explain how and why this has happened, what is wrong with it, and what (if anything) can be done to fix it. Is this a “Duh…” moment in history? An “Oh, well…” moment? Or a “Gosh!” moment?
There's lots to take issue with here, starting with his characterization of postmodernism as a "hypermodernist dogma"? Where did he get the idea that postmodernism was "uncritically-examined"? Where has Beckworth been for the past 20 years? My entire post-graduate education could be summarized as "critically examining postmodernism." His assertion that philosophers can't define art would be news to the entire discipline of aesthetics, roughly two hundred years old and counting. Just because philosophers and artists can't agree on the definition of art doesn't mean no one has one. In fact, if there's one advantage art has over science is that art must constantly justify itself, while science's value is (generally speaking) understood to be self-evident, at least among scientists.
Finally, Beckworth's claim that modernism "destroyed the European ‘high’ art tradition, along with much else" is simply wrong. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, to take the first two modernists who come to mind, were vigorous defenders of European high art in its proper historical moment. They claimed that art moved forward, just like science. Mozart was great, but to compose symphonies like Mozart in 1930 is wrong. The twentieth-century European avant-garde, a subset of modernism, attacked art institutions, which isn't the same thing as high art. In any case, the avant-garde wasn't motivated by any anti-science animous.
Seventeenth-century European scientific culture burned witches because it made sense. Clearly scientific culture had issues to work out before the Dadaists set to work.
For this edition of Fun Friday, a novel about drug addicts in India, an exhibit on digital fabrication, a digital Shakespeare, a chance to revisit the work of a major American architect, and Martha Stewart.
Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times asks, "Can art still shock today?" The answer: yes, if you count a sub-artistic video on YouTube that provoked murderous rampages throughout the Middle East.
In 1913, the answer was also yes, but in a very different way. That year saw two huge public controversies over art: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and the New York Armory show, which featured Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
Ninety-nine years later, it's easy enough to get a mob stirred up in Cairo, but it's a lot harder to scandalize the Western bourgeoisie. Nudity and coarse language appear on cable TV. Controversies over obscene art last appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 exhibit and Karen Finley's publicly-funded provocations. Modernism long ago wiped out the differences between high and low art. Now the sadomasochism of 50 Shades of Gray is gobbled up by housewives.
Schuessler suggests the theater may be the last refuge of shock because of their immediacy. Thomas Bradshaw's Mary, about a white Southern couple who keep a slave, was widely criticized when it debuted last year. Playwright Adam Rapp says the "dangerous moments" he puts on stage are meant to shock audiences into seeing reality more clearly. Drama is perfect for dispelling illusions because "it can be incredibly powerful to see something real, to have things feel like they are really happening."
The belief that the theater becomes political by calling attention to its immediate presence in the real is straight out of Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungeffekt. Walter Benjamin referred to Brecht's theater of defamiliarization as epic theater, which, according to Benjamin, "is less concerned with filling the public with feelings, even seditious ones, than with alienating it in an enduring manner, through thinking, from the conditions in which it lives."
There's no such thing as an epic theater in Benjamin's sense any more. It's not simply that audiences have become familiar with Brechtian defamiliarization techniques or that they've grown inured to nudity and foul language. Rather, in contemporary culture shock can be easily commodified by turning it into something an audience wants to hear, however uncomfortable it may be for a few moments. The Goodman Theater audience for Mary may have squirmed at the sight of a slave on stage, but the owners were white Southerners, not Chicagoans. White Southerners may be racists, the thinking goes, but not Chicagoans who voted for Obama.
Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, on the other hand, made no political statements. It identified no social problems. Yet it continues to reverberate through Western culture because it completely confounded its audiences' expectations about what it wanted to hear. There was no safe place from which one could consume a work of high art. And once it was out in the public sphere, the ballet was impossible to ignore. Similarly, Nude Descending a Staircase demanded to be looked at because of the visual experience locked up within it and not because of the nudity in the painting, which isn't really discernable. Even though Rite and Nude were far away from real life and the political issues of their times, they were more shocking because they couldn't be deflected or ignored.
Art can still shock audiences today, but only if it resists easy commodification and consumption--in other words, only if it subbornly remains an art object and nothing more or less.
Mention the Latin American novel and most likely someone will picture some form of regional exotica. While magic realism can be great in the proper hands (Gabriel García Márquez), it can also be trite and formulaic in the wrong ones (Isabel Allende).
But there's another type of Latin American novel that starts with Jorge Luis Borges and continues through Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño. This strain of fiction derives from the European modernism of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Günter Grass, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sometimes, as in Bolaño's work, the setting is Europe, usually involving Latin Americans in temporary exile there.
In the end, and despite (or because of) its European obsessions,Traveller of the Century belongs in the quintessentially Latin American genre of the "total novel": the all-encompassing narrative bent on exploring every theme, every social milieu, every emotional possibility. I stress this because it would be both easy and wrong to look at Neuman's book in the context of "globalised fiction" – novels desperate for acceptance by everyone that end up talking about no one. No: Neuman's novel is solidly inscribed in the Argentinian tradition, advocated by Borges in a famous essay, of not being recognisably Argentinian.
Neuman's novel is an example of an international style in Latin American fiction. This style isn't about a uniquely Latin American reality, as in magic realism, but about Latin Americans in world space.
"This is the Year of Gatsby," the Chicago Tribune's Julia Keller announces, but not because Fitzgerald's novel makes any political statements or critiques capitalism, she insists. Keller complains The Great Gatsby has been "hijacked by the likes of Krugman, who, in his blog, cites the work of fellow economist Alan Krueger and the latter's "Gatsby curve" that illustrates the gap between haves and have-nots."
Okay, so this is the Year of Gatsby, but we can't talk about the issue of wealth in America, the most important issue of the 2012 U.S. election. So what is The Great Gatsby about, according to Keller? "It's about the American dream — which is celebrated, not undermined, in the novel. There. Simple as that. Any other reading is a coarse distortion of Fitzgerald's work."
Putting aside for a moment Keller's utterly fatuous claim that any novel, let alone one as rich as Fitzgerald's, can only be interpreted one way, let's take a look at the proposition that the novel is a celebration of the American dream.
In his reflections on the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald pinpointed 1922, the year in which Gatsby takes place, as the last moment when the American dream still retained its Edenic (Puritan, to be precise) form. He called 1922 "the peak of the younger generation." After that, traditional values were dissolved, history forgotten, and "with a whoop the orgy began."
Fitzgerald dramatizes the collapse of the certitudes that supported the American dream most vividly in Nick's debates about consciousness and will, which spin off into questions about eros, faith, and the ultimate powerlessness of the self against the forces of history.
The novel is obsessed about the passage of time--see, for example, Nick's elegiac description of a winter train ride through Wisconsin. The characters are keenly aware that they are confronting an entirely new reality. At a time when best-selling American novels were often set in small town America ( for example, Sinclair Lewis's Main Street  and Babbitt ), Fitzgerald set his novel in New York City and its affluent environs. Fitzgerald writes about ads, photographs, automobiles, magazines, and Broadway musicals. He juxtaposes images of post-war New York with the stultifying social mores that doom Jay and Daisy. In The Great Gatsby new ways of experiencing and feeling emerge, but they can't be reconciled with the social structure, which remains inert despite its surface changes.
It's often been claimed that The Great Gatsby is a rewriting of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly (1920). Both novels are about a hero's dream of a better future seen from an ironic time perspective, namely, after the dream has been dashed. In Conrad as in Fitzgerald point of view is everything, which is why Jay Gatsby doesn't tell his own story. Fitzgerald's great theme was recapturing a vanished past. The tragedy of his heroes is the great problem of the American dream in late capitalism: You can't know when the dream has finally arrived until it's gone, for desire keeps propelling you blindly toward an uncertain future.
Whatever happened to Surrealism? Does anyone create Surrealist artworks anymore? The heyday of European Surrealism--Surrealism with a capital S--was brief and a long time ago. If you want some arbitrary dates, how about 1929, when Max Ernst conjured up The Master's Bedroom, to 1931, when Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dali, and André Breton published the last Surrealist manifestos in the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Even past its peak, however, Surrealism remained an important tool for critique. Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York, for example, was a Surrealist study of Manhattan's collective unconscious expressed in the realities of the grid.
The digitization of culture, for all its benefits we currenlyt enjoy, has robbed us of the mystery and depth, the magical qualities of an unconscious that speaks through the object world. The relentless digitization of contemporary culture renders America's damaged and broken industrial culture as a kind of analogue undead, not worthy of interest or meaning. As Walter Benjamin put it in his 1929 essay, "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia," the Surrealists were "the first to perceive the revolutionary energies in the 'outmoded.'" The outmoded now gets recycled and re-fetishized as a deliberately anti-digital platform. Or it is ignored altogether. In neither case is the forgetten ever invested with transformative enegry.
One sign that Surrealism really is dead is the Francesca Woodman exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. Woodman came out of the Rhode Island School of Design, but she might as well have stepped out of a Louis Aragon novel. Already an artist with a developed aesthetic at 18, she found her material during a visit to Rome in 1977. By age 22, in 1981, she committed suicide.
Her slender body of work includes a book entitled Some Disordered Interior Geometries. Woodman overwrite a brief introduction to Euclidian geometry with handwritten notes and her own enigmatic photographs featuring fragments of her own naked body. Woodman invokes Surrealist photography's oscillation between fragmentary parts and festishistic wholes, in which the female body appears simultaneously castrated and castrative. The juxtaposition between the rational and the bodily is crude, as Surrealism can sometimes be, but Adam Harrison Levy reports the book has its own fascination.
The lure might come from the fact that the notebook is featured in the final room of the museum exhibition where Woodman is starting to explore new forms. Or perhaps it’s because the pages look frail and seem to demand special attention. But my suspicion is that people are drawn to Disordered Interior Geometries because of its form: they are drawn to it because it is notebook.
Peering so closely at the notebook of a woman barely out of college evinces a will to dreamwork, a conscious effort to re-enact dreams' sudden collapse of distance. In her fragile book Woodman dramatizes, in the Surrealist manner, a changing relation to the object world. An insignificant thing from our our history, a geography textbook, suddenly emerges from the thicket of memory, then vanishes again under the weight of unresolved desire. Woodman offers a jolt of recognition of a familiar experience that has disappeared too soon, before we are ready to let it go. This is the work of Surrealism.
Today, these vanished experiences have no resistance. They can be summonded instantly from the data pool by Google, although in a form devoid of life.
The term "regional architecture" was first coined in 1981 by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, but it was given its most famous elaboration in Kenneth Frampton's canonical essay on "Critical Regionalism" (1983). Americans discovered a taste for regional architecture at the same time they developed a taste for regional cooking. Both were concerned with protecting aesthetic instincts from instant and inescapable commodification--the Big Mac and the ubiquitous late 1970s McDonalds restaurant, only now being updated. Regional architecture was threaten by the forces of suburbanization: the housing development, the standalone office tower and the interstate highway system. By the early 1980s post-war suburbanization had given way to postmodernism, Frampton's main enemy. Postmodernism was at once an acknowledgment of historicism (one of regionalism's critical elements) and its sublation, elevating junk into a something rarefied and cool, like the $10 hamburger in a Manhattan restaurant.
Initially, however, regionalist architecture resembled late modernism with its expensive materials and tactile pleasures, a last resistance to the transition from precious metals to credit cards. As Frampton put it, "Critical Regionalism depends upon maintaining a high level of critical self-consciousness. It may find its governing inspiration in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic derived from a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given site.” Frampton lavishly praised the sensuous brick of Alvar Aalto and sleek wood and stone designs of Luis Barragán (at left).
Frampton's embrace of modernism was the result of a desire to return to a universal civilization somehow embedded into the Aalto's organic materials. As Frampton himself admitted, critical regionalism was more of a state of mind than a particular cultural practice. This attitude prompts questions about the geographical specificity of regional architecture. Is the American South a region? Are the bungalows of Chicago's South Side a region? What about the historicist mansions of New York in the 1920s?
In any case, now regionalism has become Modernism in Unexpected Places. And like all construction in the 2010s, it requires a commitment to sustainability, even when the local populace couldn't care less. Take, for example, the work of Marlon Blackwell, an architect based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His Porchdog House (above), designed for a post-Katrina Gulf Coast, is aesthetically lean in a Supersize Me culture. The design juxtaposes slit windows with floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass, neither of which is indigenous to the Gulf Coast. The Porchdog House (there's no porch, by the way) neatly invokes a solution from a pre-industrial period in which nature was still predictable to a situation in which weather has become monstrously unpredictable--in a place in which the politics of global warming are hotly contested. Even more important, the Porchdog House can be recycled, should the occasion ever arise, into something else. A shipping container, for example. Or an Orthodox church.
Reconsidering regionalism in 2012, as David D'Arcy urges us to do, can't help but be fraught with anxieties, prompted by the Republican Party primaries, that regionalism has devolved into sectarianism. Regional architecture, like regional literature, refers to those spaces left behind by the global economy. Regionalism as a genre may exist primarily in the eyes of the beholder. It has a formal purity totally distinct from the lived experience of a particular locale. It can be reassuring, maybe even nostalgic, to allude to old-fashioned architectural forms in the United States when we're confronted with strange, hybrid social formations such as the communist Chinese robber baron. Regional architecture reminds us that there once was such a thing as a region rather than a marketing demographic or a political special-interest group.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."