The cleverest definition one might give of the postmodern is that it is the period that permits its thinkers the maximum of cleverness in defining it. Since the postmodern is the era of our own ever-changing present, that it resists definition reflects not so much its recalcitrance as our own impatience.
Instead of seeking to determine from within what postmodernity is, a paradoxical activity akin to starting a sentence with “This sentence is about…,” I think it preferable to define it by the form of thought most suited to it: (you guessed it) Generative Anthropology. This suitability reflects more than the mere fact that GA, unlike earlier forms of anthropological thought (philosophy, religion, social science, and their reflection/anticipation in art), is a product of this very era. GA alone is able to theorize the paradoxical mechanism of transcendence that permits “history” to go on even in the era of the “end of history.”
We’ve heard enough about the “end of history” recently, following on the Nietzschean “death of God” that Jean-François Lyotard rewrites as “the end of master narratives.” All these expressions, to which one might add “the end of (high) culture,” incorporate the healthy notion of human culture’s self-(re)generation within the ungenerative framework of subject-object metaphysics, with the result that, instead of celebrating the creativity of human interaction, they turn it on its head into a destructive force, like Marx’s–nonetheless admiring–vision of “capitalism” in the Communist Manifesto.
In contrast, GA understands culture as the continuous generation of transcendence. It exposes the eschatological idea that culture tends toward a utopian (or, what amounts to the same thing, a dystopian) end as a fallacy based on the fetishistic substitution of the product of generation for its process, which alone is permanent. The postmodern era has discovered this fallacy; the end of modernism is the age of generative–of minimal–thinking.
Postmodernism refers to an ethical attitude not superior–for then we would find an altogether new name–but merely posterior to that of Modernism. Modernism in turn must be distinguished from its predecessor, Romanticism. Both are internal reactions to the market system that more or less naively present themselves as external reactions–the first, relatively benign, the second, quite inhuman. Both have profound political implications; both generate “post-market” utopias that can be classified under the rubric of “Socialism.” But Romanticism had its roots in the past; its name refers to the romances of the Middle Ages, to Mme de Staël’s Northern-Germanic-Romantic as opposed to Southern-Latin-Classical cultures. Within living memory of the Old Regime, the Romantics thought post-Revolutionary bourgeois society an aberration, a historical hiatus that could be healed by a Restoration–either of the monarchy or of the Revolution itself. A century later, Modernists could have no such illusion; they could envisage the end of the market system only as the apocalyptic inauguration of socialist utopia. Distilled to its purest form, the resentment of the market and its institutions–a resentment generated by these very institutions–generates the political movements responsible for the greatest mass murders in history.
Market society is “modern” in that it constantly renews itself. This is not merely an observed social fact, although culture often affects this elegiac view; market society renews itself because it constantly recirculates our own desire. Mature market society is consumer society, driven by the need to generate demand for new products and the “messages” they bear. But at the horizon of the commercially available objects of “mass reproduction” lies the unique artwork that bears not a message but a revelation, that speaks in an ostensive (pointing-to) rather than a declarative(talking-about) language. The modern artist’s disdain for the market betrays, far more acutely than that of the Romantic, his need to deny not merely an implicit harmony of aims with the market but a homology of practice. Where the Romantic dandy’s “narcissism” raises his value on the labor market, the modern artist’s refusal to imitate is his means of assuring his mimetic uniqueness.
Consumer goods, whatever messages we may consider them as bearing, generally fill some practical function. We make a statement with the car we drive, but whatever model we choose, we expect it to run. Since the artwork is unencumbered by function, it is the supreme consumer good, the most “modern” because its value is most subject to the pure pressure for newness (“originality”). But for that very reason, it can be made to incarnate the supreme condemnation of the bourgeois exchange system, whose goods–“commodities”–can never attain to its pure originality. Insofar as he demands of the new that it save him from the common desires of the market system, the modern artist is a Modernist, an espouser of the cause of the modern.
It is this “ism” of Modernism, not its modernity, that is fatal. The modern, the new, is the unexpected, the undiscountable, that which one cannot espouse because one cannot know what it is. To espouse the new is in effect to express impatience with the old that precedes and to condemn the mechanisms of market society for their incapacity to absorb the newness created by the artist, which is precisely what gives his work value in this very society.
Why do we pay such attention, after all, to the Self of the artist? Because it is in effect a model for the Self of the bourgeois. If the Romantic is the bourgeois youth who “makes himself interesting” (se rend intéressant) before undertaking a bourgeois career, the Modernist is the ultrabourgeois, the absolute bourgeois, the innovator whose innovations, because they can never be recuperated by the exchange system, are destined to enjoy a special prestige and the attending surplus value within that exchange system. Which is to say that the artist is the archetype of the successful entrepreneur.
But this exemplary role is only efficacious to the extent that it is invisible; and its invisibility is catastrophic because it is the hiddenness to bourgeois society of its own reality. The “ism” in Modernism is the sign of this disastrous failure of self-consciousness, which is expressed in the political realm by the other ism, Socialism. In either case, the utopian horizon of market society is fetishized, conceived as an achievable reality when it is and can never be more than a horizon. In art, this can have no terrible consequences; not so in politics.
In the perspective just suggested, Postmodernism is not the “ism” of the postmodern but the “post” of Modernism–of “ism” as such, of which the ism of the new is the reductio ad absurdum. But it would be naive to found an ontology on such a distinction. It suffices to have learned the modernist lesson of the freedom of the signifier to predict that once we are posterior to Modernism, we will invent a postmodern of which we will attempt to espouse the ism, if only out of simple curiosity.
And why not? We need sacrifice no anthropological lucidity in espousing the cause of the postmodern. We are postmoderns and even Postmodernists so long as our movements toward the horizon do not incarnate belief in the reality of the horizon. The postmodern is the era without causes that accepts the paradox of affirming the cause of having no more causes. Only the unironic refusal of causes would be a cause with which it could not identify. This paradox is a mystery for metaphysics, and for religion as well–which prizes mystery more than metaphysics. It is clear only to the anthropology that begins from the paradoxical emergence of the vertical from the horizontal, the world of meaning from the world of things, desire from appetite, signs from mere realities. GA alone of all thought-systems it has no fear of paradox.
The great fear of modernity is that, to put it in Heideggerian terms, it will reduce Being to (market) value. This is the context of the tiresomely repeated Nietzscheism that God is dead and that all is henceforth nihilism, decadence, subjectivism, etc. Our fear of the decadence of ritual forms is fear of expanded competition from the other Selves liberated by this decadence; conversely, the myth that we need some or any specific set of forms to protect us from the war of all against all is a vestigial ritual belief.
GA’s minimalism assures us that the “subjective” ethical principles of the modern age and the divinely revealed ones of earlier times are all products of the same generative schema. Once we do away with the utopian fetishism of the horizon, we are free to realize that the Being revealed / generated by the human use of the sign protects humanity, whatever the state of its ritual system, from falling out of transcendent verticality into the brutish state of horizontal immanence.
The “forgetting of Being” is only its rememoration under ever-new forms. The ism of Postmodernism is its faith in the transhistorical truth of this rememoration. But it must be sustained by a generative theory that permits us to rid ourselves of our traditional fear of the decadence of human institutions and opens our minds to humanity’s admirable ability to transform itself.