In 1950, the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning was headed toward international acclaim. Indeed, only a few years later a leading art historian would characterize de Kooning, perhaps hyperbolically, as “the most influential artist at work in the world.” In 1953, a struggling American painter called Robert Rauschenberg sought out de Kooning and asked for a favor. Rauschenberg already had two of de Kooning’s works, which he treated as prized treasures. But on this occasion, Rauschenberg was less interested in collecting than collaborating. He asked de Kooning for one of his sketches, and the older painter complied, but what Rauschenberg did with the work was to erase the almost priceless original until all that remained was a nearly blank canvas bearing only ethereal traces of its original image.
Critics have seen Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing as an exploration of the limits of abstract expressionism or as the epitome of postmodernism. But I would like to use the work as a stepping off point for something else. I have been asked by the good folks at The Immanent Frame to reflect on the prompt: “What epoch is this we are entering or have entered? What is this time? What time is it?” To answer, I want to proceed in a manner Rauschenberg would appreciate—in essence I want to characterize our epoch in terms of erasure. I want to talk about what our epoch is not.
We are not living in modernity. Readers of this blog will likely be able to rehearse a whole list of postmodern jeremiads about the end of modernity—the supposed end of metanarratives, the collapse of confidence in reason, the entrance of the post-secular, the end of theology, the end of history, and so on. This is not what I mean.
The term modernity is itself vague. There can be value in vagueness, but “modernity” rests on an extraordinarily elastic temporality that is elaborated in disparate and value-laden ways to different regions and periods. It also picks out different processes such as urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, globalization, capitalism, or various particular artistic, scientific, philosophical, or technological movements. To speak of “modernity” or “modernization” is always to select from within these and to bundle them together as symptoms of a larger master process. It often makes an actor out of the very thing that needs to be explained. Hence, enunciations of modernity are not just vague; they are doing a lot of covert work, and “modernity’s” main feature is its capacity to signal a rupture or breach, which it marks as the expression of a single horizon of temporality. Put differently, modernity is used paradoxically to indicate equally: a diversity of historical ruptures, contradictory processes, and to describe a continuous now-time used for different “nows” from the fourteenth century to the present.1
As I have argued at some length elsewhere, we are not living in a disenchanted world. Magic never vanished. The majority of Americans believe in miracles, angels, ghosts, or some form of the paranormal. We are not living through the end of myth, instead we are awash in myths. The funeral for God also seems to have been premature. Likewise, we are not fully imprisoned in the mechanized world-picture. A surprising number of philosophers and scientists have made room for occult forces or vibrant nature. Multiple ontologies have always been on offer. The tyranny of instrumental reason never occurred. Progress has not meant the end of “superstition.” Indeed, many postmodernists continue to bemoan the dominion of a positivism that has long been overthrown. Restated, most of the celebrations and condemnations of the modern age turn out to be either hopelessly vague or flat-out wrong. Hence, I think we need to erase modernity as a shorthand for our epoch.
We are not living in postmodernity. If “modernity” has lost its cachet in certain circles, postmodernity has made a surprising comeback in the United States with the 2016 presidential election. If many contemporary pundits are to be believed, it is as if America was pulled abruptly from a “post-racial” (remember that naïveté?) to a “post-truth” age overnight. Hence, the terms “postmodern” and “postmodernism” have returned with a vengeance in articles such as “America’s First Postmodern President,” “How America Lost Its Mind” and “HOW FRENCH ‘INTELLECTUALS’ RUINED THE WEST: POSTMODERNISM AND ITS IMPACT, EXPLAINED.” [All caps in the original.] The picture presented here is dire: some describe a global crisis but other accounts suggest that America has become detached from reality or hijacked by foreign thought and alien types of skepticism. These diatribes often call for a return to some kind of positivism and universal facts.
This narrative is not completely wrong. I too share a sense that various conflicting skepticisms have flourished in both popular and academic spheres. I would also agree that skepticism is the root of some important contemporary philosophical and political problems. Indeed, it must have been shocking for theorists praising the liberating powers of criticism to discover that skepticism alone is not necessarily progressive.
But the claim that we live in a postmodern era is further complicated by any serious consideration of American history. As noted above, believers in magic, angels, spirits, or “metaphysical religion” can be found throughout the nation’s history and are not the result of some new epistemic crisis brought on by the 1960s.
More significantly, American anti-intellectualism did not start with French philosophers or our current president. Richard Hofstadter’s classic work on the subject, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, was published in 1963. It came out before most critics think postmodernism was supposed to have even come into existence in Europe, much less transmitted to the United States.2 Hofstadter traced American anti-intellectualism back into the nineteenth century. Furthermore, there is an equally long history of “fake news” and other forms of political propaganda. Alt-right sources do not deny the existence of “facts” so much as provide their own conspiratorial theories and counter-narratives; and they often claim to reveal (odious) hidden truths or to uncover hidden facts. It is hard to pretend that either the truth is being rejected as such or that being suspicious of scientists and other intellectuals is new to American politics.
Above all, however, characterizations of the current epoch as postmodern are misguided because the concept of “postmodernity” contains a kind of core misrecognition. Postmodernism has never worked as a periodization. The term “postmodernism” has been with us a surprisingly long time. It is at least one hundred years old. Indeed, the term’s appearance is roughly co-temporal with characteristically “modernist” art movements like cubism and Dadaism. Postmodernism is often seen as a counter-reaction to modernism, but the two movements largely coincided. Indeed, even in their early usages postmodernism and modernism would seem to have the same meaning insofar as they both aimed to transcend the current moment, often by looking forward. Attempts to escape modernity seem to be as old as “modernity.” Later, postmodernism came to be presented as a second rupture after the initial “modern” rupture. In this respect, both periodizations rest on the idea of a fundamental rupture from the past, which, while inflected differently, often presumes the very notion of modernity which I have tried to dispel above.
But there is another way in which we are not living in postmodernity. Almost no matter how you consider it, the central theoretical commitments we associate with postmodernism have collapsed. The most influential texts of postmodernism—which include not just Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne (1979), but the decades-old work by Gianni Vattimo, La fine della modernità (1985), David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism (1991)—were the product of a very different historical period. It is also worth emphasizing that the key thinkers associated with postmodernism, such as Foucault (born 1926) and Derrida (born 1930), were basically of the generation of James Dean (born 1931) and Elvis Presley (born 1935). There are cultural reasons Derrida rocked a pompadour for most of his adult life.
Classical studies of “postmodernism” necessarily focused on novels, architecture, painting, poetry, and intellectual trends that have largely fallen out of vogue in the intervening years. For example, the work of self-consciously “postmodern” authors (like Alain Robbe-Grillet) seems passé today and the same could be said about everything from postmodern architecture to philosophy. It seems surprising that postmodernism continues to maintain a hold as a periodization. Meanwhile, anyone attentive to the philosophical currents at work in the academy will note that poststructuralism, postmodern skepticism, and deconstruction have largely been eclipsed; and new “anti-postmodern” philosophies are appearing on the conceptual horizon, including feminist New Materialism, various types of realisms, actor-network theory, and so on. Their importance and value are open to question, but they are hard to assimilate to postmodernism. Hence, whatever “postmodernity” may have been, we seem to have moved beyond it.
To recap, I have been aiming to take up modernity and postmodernity together and exit both. “Modernity” is a vague and contradictory periodization which has generally been used to signal different ruptures that never occurred. “Postmodernity” is a secondary period notionally parasitic on modernity and therefore transporting all the conceptual errors associated with it. Moreover, “postmodernism” has been theorized almost exclusively in reference to philosophical and artistic movements we have long since left in the dust.
For all these reasons, I think it is high time to pull a Rauschenberg and commence a kind of philosophical or methodological erasure of both grand epochs. Neither “modernity” nor “postmodernity” is doing us much good as a conceptual lens; and if anything, they seem to be masking serious theoretical disagreements under a superficially shared terminology. Expunging both terms from our stock of academic shorthand would encourage finer-grained periodizations (both spatial and temporal), alternate grand ways of conceptualizing history, and a reckoning with uneven or nonlinear historical trajectories (returns, hauntings, prefigurations). Erasing “modernity” and “postmodernity” could also leave behind generative fragments such as secular-religions, anti-imperial empires, unmoored-universalized languages, industrialized de-industrialization, late stage capitalism, the iron cages of precarious labor, settler colonialism, various incarnations of world systems, and the like; whose interrelations and contradictions could then be further specified.
So, if we are not living in modernity or postmodernity, how should we characterize our current epoch? I have space here only for a final hint or ghostly trace. If you understand temporality in terms of technological, aesthetic, political, cultural, or philosophical constellations, then I think we can best capture the present with a phrase often attributed to William Gibson—“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”
Much of the critique of modernity here is adapted from Jason Ā Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Read an introduction to that book here on TIF.↩
In many respects, Hofstadter was reacting to the explicit anti-intellectualism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. There have been a number of follow ups on both sides of the political spectrum, e.g., Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987); Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987); and Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008).↩