I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.”
Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?
You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.
So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)
Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.
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The title refers to Kuhn's seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Published in 1962, in which he argued that the history of science is not gradual and Cumulative but instead is punctuated by a series of more or less radical "paradigm shifts." The new book reprints 11 essays in which Kuhn defends, develops and, in some cases, modifies the views he put forward in Structure. Trained as a physicist, Kuhn as a young man turned his interest to the history and philosophy of science. He discussed that change in an absorbing three-day interview that he had with three Greek scholars in 1995, the year before he died. "I think I would have been a damn good physicist," he remarked, but increasingly the field seemed to him to be "fairly dull, the work was not interesting." Of Structure, he said: "I wanted it to be an important book; clearly it was being an important book--I didn't like most of the ways in which it was being an important book." And, surprisingly for such an influential writer, he said that he had always found it "very hard to write."
EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.