The ironic death of postmodernism

by David Alm on October 11, 2012

I am currently teaching a class at Hunter College titled Journalism & Society, which analyzes the impact of journalism on culture and vice versa. We discuss corporate consolidation, the so-called “independent media,” the real import of “fake” news, and the ultimately limited ability of any news organization to tell us everything we need to know. It’s the kind of class that I wish I’d taken when I was studying critical theory in college and graduate school. Noam Chomsky would have been on the syllabus, along with Frederick Jameson, Jacques Derrida, and any number of other thinkers who have written on postmodernism and mass media.

But I was in college almost 20 years ago, when not knowing anything about postmodern thought may not have gotten you laughed out of the classroom (my professors were kind and civilized people), but it certainly would have gotten you shunned from the post-class pow wows that night, where my friends and I would sit around swigging jug wine and speculate on what Marx would say about this, what Jameson would say about that, and generally try to get to the bottom of what the hell postmodernism even “is.” We felt like we were part of a huge conversation that extended beyond our smoke-filled dorm room; this was important.

A big part of that feeling stemmed from our awareness that postmodernism was a contentious term, the very defining of which negated its power. The value of discussing it lay entirely in the discussion, in the effort to define it. And everything seemed fair game for postmodern analysis, especially the media.

But it ain’t the early 90s anymore, and when I asked about 30 students yesterday if anyone had heard of “postmodernism,” only one person raised her hand, and her definition of it could be roughly paraphrased as “the future.”

What happened, I wondered. How did this concept, such a central aspect of thought from the 1970s until I finished my formal schooling in 2003, become peripheral? Or has it? It’s possible, of course, that college students somewhere are still hashing out the terms of a postmodern world, channeling Jean-Francoise Lyotard and Michel Foucault in a debate over Carlo Rossi and hand-rolled cigarettes (of various smokable substances), but I don’t know where they are.

Lest I sound like I’m dissing my students, rest assured, I’m not. I don’t fault anyone for not knowing about a theory any more than I fault them for not having ever eaten sushi or seen a French film from the early 1960s. If you haven’t been exposed to something, you’re unlikely to seek it out on your own. You simply won’t know it’s there.

Still, it makes me feel old, and not just because none of my students had heard of postmodernism. It makes me feel like I’m from a generation that felt it could still participate in a global discussion about ideas, even from a base in southern Minnesota surrounded by cornfields.

Roscoe October 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

David,

What does the rest of the Hunter undergrad curriculum look like? And how far into school are these students?

My experience is that if there is no common core type requirement, then students on pre-professional and science tracks tend to not encounter these ideas.

David Alm October 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm

That’s a good question. I’m not sure what sociology or English courses cover, only what my own department (Film & Media Studies) does. But I would think that something like postmodernism would have come up in any Film & Media Studies curriculum by the time someone gets to my class, which for most of my students is in their third or fourth year of college.

I do not think there is a core curriculum, but I know that even students in F&M who are aspiring filmmakers or journalists need to take both analytic and production courses. The class I’m teaching is analytic, obviously, but it’s not the first one they’ve taken.

Brandon Hopkins October 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I doubt postmodernism ever trickled down as common knowledge at most colleges in the US, and definitely not at community colleges or schools with a more practical focus. Even at my college, which is known for its English program, there were only a couple of people seriously focusing on theory beyond New Criticism.

It would be nice if students had at least heard of postmodernism. But in my experience, even bright young people today have not heard of anything outside their own bubble. I don’t mean that to be condescending, rather I’m suggesting that it’s a serious problem, and one we encourage with YA books and TV channels devoted solely to young people’s supposed interests (that is, everything that is so aggressively marketed to them, which certainly doesn’t include Foucault). Young people today have a whole sub-marketplace encouraging them indulge in juvenilia–even many adult media consumers choose to keep themselves in this childish bubble.

Just be happy you have a student who ventured a guess about postmodernism… When we cover cause and effect in my EN101 class, I frequently have trouble finding examples my class, as a group, can respond to in any depth. Even “What caused WWII?” receives tenuous guesses from over half the students. When it comes to compare and contrast, I’ve suggested they hold the Iraq or Afghanistan war up against an earlier conflict such as Vietnam. But they typically don’t know enough history even to begin drawing a comparison. Last semester a twenty-year-old in my class asked, “Wait, we had wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?” I wanted to tell her: “Yes, for about half of your entire life.” These aren’t inner-city kids either: most of them are from a solidly middle-class background, coming fresh from decently funded Baltimore/DC metro-area suburban high schools. Yet somehow they know next to nothing about the world around them.

The media marketplace has a ton to offer these days. The positive side of this is that we can find just about anything we want. The downside is that we can virtually ignore everything outside our own interests, including anything that challenges our presumptions or teaches us something new. As a society, we seem to encourage young people to stay in that “kid’s place” we’ve built for them (and from which certain companies derive great profit), so they have very little motivation to venture beyond “Hunger Games” and Demi Lovato to adult literature and music, much less postmodernist theory.

David Alm October 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Everything you write here is exactly why I think the death of postmodernism (as a thing to discuss, and a frame for understanding culture) is ironic. It would be hard to find an era more worthy of postmodern analysis than the one we’re living in now, with companies creating “kid’s places” and bubbles in which we’re encouraged to live, in some cases, for our entire lives.

Brandon Hopkins October 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Definitely. Postmodernism offers some of the best, most interesting critiques of consumer culture. Maybe the real reason that your students haven’t heard of it is because… well, the other side’s already so decisively won.

I often think of Jameson’s comment: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” For that matter, it’s easier to imagine the complete collapse of American education than the end of Britney Spears…

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