Goodbye and Don’t Come Back


I’m really tired of the word postmodern. For 40 years it has been the pet plaything of critics who see a “postmodern sensibility” in every new cultural work. Its moment is long over, but I don’t remember anyone telling it to go away. I hereby make that suggestion.

I doubt if I’m the only person who never quite understood what postmodern means, or how long post is supposed to last; the word floats in a vast sea of postness. Seeking a definition, I looked it up in Wikipedia. It says:

Postmodernism is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problematization of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative.

That doesn’t do it for me. Problematizationally, I have issues with it.

Next I asked some of my friends who are composers and artists. They helpfully took me back to the prior movement called “modernism,” which, they reminded me, wasn’t just a catchy label. It’s an academic term, firmly lodged in textbooks, specifying a period (1907-1970) of revolutionary change that overthrew long-held Enlightenment beliefs about rational and orderly thought.

The rebels came from many directions. “Modern” writers (James Joyce, Gertrude Stein) broke the English language into seemingly capricious pieces. “Modern” composers (Stravinsky, Schönberg, Bartok) rejected the traditional principles of Western harmony and tonality. “Modern” artists (Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse) and the movements they sired (cubism, surrealism, Dada, abstraction) disavowed the literal representation of form and figure. “Modern” architects (Gropius, Le Corbusier) re-imagined what houses and office buildings could look like and what materials they would be made of. Meanwhile, Freud notified the “modern” artists that much of their inspiration came from an “unconscious” region that hadn’t been known to exist.

By the mid-1930s those radical modes of expression were canonized in museums, art galleries, theaters, and performance halls throughout the Western world; New York got a new museum called the Museum of Modern Art. The age of reason was dead. “Modernism” was here to stay.

Except that it wasn’t. In 1970 the historians who had named “modernism” decided that it was no longer modern and officially closed the door. So “postmodernism” was born. The new torch-bearers turned out to be an owlish lot. Unlike the giants of “modernism” who took the world as they found it and worked solely from a personal vision, however freakish it might appear (Pollock, Cage), the “postmodern” tribe looked around and saw a world of fallible people, ripe for judgment. They adopted an attitude of superior insight (“We know how things really are”), better known as irony. Everything got an ironic spin. Everything had “edge.”

The bitter musicals of Stephen Sondheim mocked the homely domestic verities of Oscar Hammerstein II. The filmmakers Joel an Ethan Coen gazed upon the American dream and found it hilariously “dark.” Even the cartoons in The New Yorker took a sour turn, mean-spirited in their derision of well-meant hopes and intentions. I mostly stopped looking at them; cynical I can do without.

At heart, I think, “postmodern” was unkind. But nobody really cared because everyone was so clever. Everyone who mattered knew everything. Then came 9/11 and nobody knew anything. “Postmodern” ended on that September morning. There was nothing ironic about 9/11. Or about the never-ending wars it ignited in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or about the torture of political prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. It was a new planet and a new age. Post-ironic.

But look! Kindness is making a comeback. Sincerity has again become permissible. The Coen Brothers’ latest movie, True Grit, a sincere version of the old John Wayne heart-tugger, is their biggest box-office success. The television hit Glee, in which no edge had been detected, runs on one of the most sentimental formulas in showbiz (“Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”), its optimistic songs high on the charts. One of those songs says, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

So I won’t.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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