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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2002 / 27 Teves, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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The Last Post -- WE used to know what modernism was. Or at least when it was. It had to do with Picasso, and Stravinsky, and Mies van der Rohe, and Virginia Woolf. But at some point since then they started to roll the period backwards. People began saying that modernism started seventy years earlier with Flaubert and Bentham; or they put it back with Diderot and Condorcet in the eighteenth century, which by the way has itself been redefined so that now it begins around 1660. Or earlier still. A couple of years ago people stopped talking about the Rennaissance and started calling it the early modern period. It's hard to tell where it's all going to end, or I suppose I should say, where it will all begin. I asked a medievalist friend: "Okay, so who's the last premodern, Chaucer?" "Chaucer," she said, "Oh, no -- a remarkably modern figure." "All right," I said, "well how about William the Conqueror?" "Well yeah, I guess,"  she said; "at least before he crossed the Channel."

I suspect that one reason for this period creep is that longer the modern age is, the greater the crash it makes when it goes down. Depending on where they're coming from, critics and philosophers locate the symbolic end of the modernist period at different moments -- the appearance of Philip Johnson's ATT Building in New York; the publication of Roland Barthes S/Z; the first Steve Martin album, the one where he's wearing an arrow on his head. There was an article in the New Yorker recently that said that modernism ended with the Tawana Brawley case. Whatever the date, though, everybody seems certain that modernity is a thing of the past, along with all its cultural fellow travelers: The narrative is unravelled, the author is dead, the Enlightenment project is toast, and history is history.

Of course I suppose people in every age like to think of themselves as living a millennial moment. "We stand on the high peak between the ages," is what Marinetti said seventy-five years ago, and you can find people who proclaimed more or less the same thing in every period going back to Hesiod. Still, it isn't every generation that gets to live at the brink of an honest-to-god millennium. And I don't know that any other age has thought of the Zeitgeist in such an exclusively retrospective way. People don't say from now on, only never again. Hence the passion for that suffix post-. We are postmodern, posthumanist, postindustrial, postliberal, post-Christian, poststructuralist, postfeminist, postcolonial. A writer in the American Scholar not long ago announced that we had entered the age of postculturalism, and Iím sure there are plenty of other posts hovering just over the lintel. I have this image of everybody shuffling backwards toward the millennium under a banner that bears the device, "Been there, done that."

All these names that begin with post- and neo-; itís as if we ran out of language all of a sudden, so there's nothing for it but to recycle the old words with prefixes tacked on to them. But that's the mark of the postmodern. As Frederick Jameson pointed out; it's all pastiche, old signs in new bottles -- Portman hotel lobbies, the Plymouth Prowler, neodisco, Blue Velvet, Combustible Edison. It can be a subtle business even trying to figure out what time it is. As Wired magazine explained the difference, "A modernist always wore a tie with a jacket; a postmodernist throws a well-tailored jacket over a T-shirt." It was the 'well-tailored' that struck me there. That's the great paradox of the postmodern: here is this epochal shift in the basic condition of being, and you have to have an eye for a lapel even to recognize that itís taken place.

Or maybe it's just a linguistic problem; maybe people have just gotten a little confused about prefixes. You have the feeling that post- doesn't really mean "after" any more, the way it does in postwar, postmortem, post-deb. Now it means something closer to, "once more without feeling." Actually when you come to think of it, we don't use the prefix 'pre-' the way we used to either -- pre-owned cars, pre-approved loans. They announce pre-boarding and there are already people getting on the plane. It's as if all times are present at once -- the effect that theorists like to describe as the "always already there." Someone described Beck as the post-Neil Young, and I suppose you could say that Cindy Lauper is the pre-Madonna. But then a certain confusion about time has always been a fin-de-siecle condition. In the words of that eminent protopostmodernist Charles Jenks, "It's the end of the century, and things are getting complicated."

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


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12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg