Join our newsletter

Volume 4: On Postmodernism

by Aria Dean

This volume takes a stab at grasping the recurrence and rhythm of a theme that consistently emerged across the ten foundational interviews we conducted with artists, writers, and historians. We’ve sensed that there is something to investigate about the relationship between the present and the dyad of the 1980s and ’90s, a configuration that might be accessible via the chimeric name postmodernism. So, here we trace semi-discrete threads within the history of postmodernity, including appropriation, semiotics, site-specificity, anti-Cartesian and tactile-oriented logics, and HIV/AIDS, as well as revisit some pivotal moments and projects in the development of its spirit—for example: in an “extended” interview with Hal Foster about the landmark first book that he edited, The Anti-Aesthetic, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year; an artist roundtable on the James Meyer-curated American Fine Arts 1993 group exhibition “Whatever Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” which is also enjoying its 30th anniversary year. Together, this collection attends to the aftermath of "postmodern" theory, and to the various historical, political, cultural, and aesthetic off-shoots through which postmodernity has been metabolized. So, as author Ottessa Moshfegh says in her upcoming interview in the volume: “What is postmodernism, even?”

In the volume’s roundtable, artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz explicitly points out that there were always multiple postmodernisms. The word collects a set of ideas, some forms of culture, maybe a politic—not all of them cohesive with one another—and was never necessarily meant to mark a period (Fredric Jameson’s “postmodernity” does that work). We’re operating under the assumption that postmodernism remains a confusing term even today. But perhaps this is not because of its sheer multiplicity. We wager that it might be because postmodernism’s situation is changing as we barrel toward the century’s midpoint—somehow we are almost closer to 2050 than to 2000. After everything that’s transpired, it is now worth asking: are we still postmodern, if we ever were? And if we are, do we have to continue to be?

The world hardly resembles the world of 1993, yet the conceptual tools we use to confront it remain largely the same. Of course, a sturdy concept such as modernism or postmodernism is the best thing one can hope for, an evergreen frame, a delight—but contemporary discourse asks historically contingent terms like “identity politics” and “institutional critique” to mean the same things they once did, or at least to have progressively developed out of their forebears. In this volume’s roundtable, the participants discuss the “calcification of identity” at the hands of ’90s multiculturalism (represented by the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which Meyer’s show directly responded to) with ideas of flux and nomadism, concepts that are today as much associated with radical artistic practices of that period as they are with financialization and globalized capital. “Nomadism” is not just an once-sexy logistical paradigm for the artist working between New York and Berlin; it’s what big companies want us to call the wanderings of an economically precarious poverty jetset. “Flux” is now less Deleuzian and more related to a permanent crisis and the suspicion that everything could crash down even further next week. Today, such ideas play for the same team as market imperatives like “identity politics,” which they previously antagonized—all part of a highly-evolved regulatory schema and network of dispossessive forces. It is clear to many, and should be clear to all, that none of the above terms fit our present problems; at best, their continued use causes confusion. At worst, they are being used to instrumentalize us for the sake of finance capital’s self-propagation. This is all to say that in the roundtable and elsewhere in the volume, there is a pervasive sense that once-radical concepts might flip on us; they also might just as well look more anodyne in hindsight. At some point, we might be forced to break with old frames whose comfort we’ve sought in such troubled times as our own.

Curiously, the philosophical and art-theoretical paradigms introduced since postmodernism’s heyday—speculative realism, accelerationism, afropessimism, necropolitics, relational aesthetics, net art, post-internet art, to name just a few—are fragile, their use subject to the ebb and flow of intellectual trends or ghettoized due to apparent specificity. These are not necessarily holistic paradigms through which one can venture to make sense of the “world-system”—to borrow a recurring term from our upcoming interview with architect and thinker Reinhold Martin—at the scale attempted by postmodernism, and before it modernism, but the fact that they can be picked up, donned, and put down with great ease gives us pause. Many of these concepts have emerged organically out of postmodernist, poststructuralist efforts, but they no longer resemble them. Can we begin to name new paradigms for our time? (Do we need to?) Shouldn’t there be new, robust ways of thinking on the menu? Shouldn’t there at least be an appetite for programs for thought that work? Postmodernism might be the ground for these new ways or it might be their antithesis, but in order to make anything of the present, it must be parsed thoroughly.

The question of whether or not we are postmodern may seem like it’s dredging up old squabbles. “We’re obviously …” Obviously what? “It’s done, it’s over.” It has been said that nothing happens until it happens twice. If postmodernism happened once as a program with both “resistant” and “reactionary” wings to it, to follow Foster, it has happened or is happening again, this time as an unthought and dominant mode of cultural engagement. The qualities that mark the best examples of postmodernism or postmodern culture mark the general conditions and expectations of contemporary culture as we find it now. Postmodernism’s dominance, if we need proof, is evidenced in contemporary aesthetics and politics alike. It’s painfully obvious to invoke, but in politics one need look no further than asinine invocations of the “culture war” and the post-truth, paranoid mindset that invaded the mainstream pretty thoroughly as early as 2016, evidence that “the characteristics of the postmodern condition offered by Lyotard and others, where grand narratives come under suspicion and are replaced by localized subjective ones, has given way to a more grotesque scenario where these localized narratives have stiffened into totalizing, grand narratives themselves.” This breakdown of grand narratives that Lyotard called hallmark of the postmodern condition is no longer solely of interest in academic and artistic circles, but the conversation fodder of Boomers and Gen X-ers across the political spectrum (largely center and liberal preoccupation though). It’s the same for the the younger and more supposedly “cutting-edge,” just trade hand-wringing about Trump (“the first postmodern President”) for hand-wringing about seeming liberal and lame; bulletproof vacuous political figures traded for bulletproof vacuous micro-influencers and niche-interest communities whose greatest sin is dressing up their clout-mill as an aesthetic or intellectual project and pretending to have fun as they traipse off to the mines.

On the side of aesthetics, some of that same conceptual fuel, used in the 1980s and ’90s was used to make arguments against various forms of essentialism, and to broaden possible POVs from which to narrate the new world, has solidified as the dominant mode of engagement. Every day in the art world and the culture industry at large, we’re intubated with a healthy serving of “decoding,” “deconstructing,“ “unearthing,” most of these rehearsing poor applications of the critiques of representation and power leveled by thinkers like Craig Owens, and the artists who were his friends and the subject of his writing. There is a whole other essay to be written about this—maybe in On Postmodernism Part II someday. In the process of working on this issue I re-read Beyond Recognition, most of which still applies without much alteration (“The Problem of Puerilism” should be especially entertaining for anyone even the least bit sick of New York City’s scene). But to quote Owens briefly: “Postmodernists demonstrate that [the referential status of visual imagery’s claim to represent] reality . . . is a fiction, produced and sustained only by its cultural representation” and “expose images as instruments of power.” 1 And maybe this lies at the bottom of it all: it may be of little use to us presently to expose the mechanisms and structures of power, time and time again. Recent history shows that power, by and large,  could care less if you see it operating broadly behind the curtain. In a world where the line between fiction and reality is well-known to be blurry, what good is it to spend your time harping over the difference?

In Volume 0, Hal Foster noted in our initial conversation that, “In the 1980s the debate about two postmodernisms—reactionary versus resistant—didn’t allow for a third—accelerationist—option.” I didn’t totally know what Foster exactly meant by an “accelerationist postmodernism,”—but he later clarified that he was referring to a combination of Baudrillard’s doom and gloom position on postmodernism and a position associated with Deleuze, the deterritorializing capital angle, which later commingle in the form of “accelerationism.” Whatever its actual shape, it’s a compelling phrase to keep in mind as we approach postmodernism head on here. Maybe I’m just using it as a placeholder—since accelerationism seems to elicit diminishing returns these days—for a way of thinking something beyond postmodernism, a belatedly-arrived “third option” that avoids rejecting postmodernism simply to return to modernism. We are wary of becoming accidental modernists or accidental reactionaries. There are already those among us who insist on parbaked neo-Greenbergian approaches to contemporary art and we need not help them drag this mode further onto the field. There are already plenty who happily mistake ignorance for mysticism, paranoia for curiosity, and pain for rigor. Whatever the “third option,” these new frames are is yet-unnamed and still shapeless, but all of the contributions in this volume are included in the name of this pursuit. This work is done in different ways—at times it is custodial, as with Theodore (ted) Kerr’s tending to the legacies of the AIDS crisis, and in Bruce Hainley’s attempt to recover a lost Pictures Generation project; at times it is historical, as in the numerous interviews with practitioners of the postmodern; at times it is polemical as in Michael Shorris’ essay, which looks toward untethering fiction from the suffocating exhaust of ’90s ivy league deconstruction and textualism. This work is never complete—as with any historically grounded project, it is subject to the limits of faulty memories and complicated personal histories, as evidenced in Kruger, Lawler, and Levine’s shared reticence about revisiting the early stages of their respective careers and Kerr’s struggles with working through inconsistent—or even nonexistent—HIV/AIDS archives. The point, however, is not about putting the conversation to bed once and for all, but rather about apprehending the impossibility of ever reaching a satisfying conclusion and yet insisting upon finding one nonetheless.

The question then is: “What, if anything, from the many postmodernisms would we like to carry forward?” This issue details some of the ideas at our disposal, maybe not providing so many new directions yet, but examining them to suggest that they require reconsideration. What we agree on here at November is that whether there were postmodernisms or no postmodernism at all, there is now a postmodernism cobbled together from these that hangs over contemporary culture, composed of convenient bits scooped from the complex body of work that defines postmodernism as a program and as a period. If at the time of Foster’s writing in Anti-Aesthetic, it seemed that modernism had “won,” it now seems that postmodernism is the reigning champion—where its qualities are “absorbed” into mass culture and its tendencies reified wholly. Like modernism in 1983, “dominant but dead.” 2

Where to now?



Craig Owens, “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” in Beyond Recognition, 111


Juergen Habermas, quoted by Hal Foster in “Postmodernism: A Preface,” ix in Anti-Aesthetic

Next from this Volume

Flue-ed Times

Correspondence with Bruce Hainley, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine, and November Correspondence with Bruce Hainley, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine, and November

“These terms—‘What do we own?’; ‘What is the same?’—were among the modes of address floating around at the time and seemed to fit.”