So postmodernism has an exhibition dedicated to it, which probably means that it’s dead. Hari Kunzru (in The Guardian) and Edward Docx (in Prospect) would both agree, although they differ over the precise cause: the former says it was 9/11 and the internet, while the latter thinks we all just got bored and decided to read Jonathan Franzen novels instead. They are unanimous, however, that: a) postmodernism as a movement was characterised by a desire to break away from pre-ordained notions of taste, morality, even reality, but aside from that it’s quite tricky; and b) the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense was very postmodern indeed, thank you. The problem is, though, that as soon as they agree on b), the validity of a) gets a bit of kicking; if postmodernism was tearing up the canon, it’s entirely inappropriate that it can only easily be defined with reference to a canon of its own. (Although in a truly postmodern universe, the concept of “inappropriate” also ceases to have any meaning.)
The same problem applies to such pieces of chinstrokery as Stuart Jeffries’ 10 key moments in postmodernism (also in The Guardian) and a slightly older 61 postmodern reads (from the LA Times). In this instance, if you *are* on the list, surely you can’t come in. Part of the problem is that postmodernism remains all but ineffable, and so rather than formulate a coherent definition of what it is, we find it far easier to point to individual fragments of cultural jetsam and say, yeah, that’s postmodern, so if you see something else like that, it probably is as well.
Which leaves me with two thoughts. First, if authenticity and sincerity and Franzenicity are the concepts that have replaced postmodernism in our collective affections, then how do we deal with the likes of Jade Goody or William Hung, who have commodified “realness” into a sort of hyperauthenticity, bewitching the media with their finely spun un-spun-ness?
The other notion is that to be truly postmodern is to be self-aware, to go through life flanked by metaphorical quotation masks. And yet if you point too hard and too long, it rather spoils the joke. Which is why the defining artefact of postmodernism should not be a Talking Heads movie nor a Philip Johnson building nor even a pair of Tracey Emin’s pants, but Ernie Wise’s wig, which became a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, despite the minor inconvenience of its non-existence. In fact, it took the notion of the simulacrum into places that even poor, dear Baudrillard couldn’t have conceived: you could see it as an original (Wise’s hair) pretending to be a copy (Wise’s wig) of something that purported not to exist any more (the hair again); or indeed as a reality that wasn’t real, masking – literally and figuratively – something that had never existed (Wise’s baldness).
Now, get out of that.