#345      33 min 45 sec
Postmodernism: What is it good for?

Literary theorist Prof Brian McHale explains the origins and trajectory of postmodernism, muses on its role in our cultural expression, and speculates on its demise. Presented by Lynne Haultain.

"One of the hallmarks of that mid-1960s postmodern moment is when 'rock and roll' becomes self-conscious and becomes 'rock'." -- Prof Brian McHale




Prof Brian McHale
Prof Brian McHale

Brian McHale is the Distinguished Humanities Professor in English at Ohio State University. He was a Rhodes Scholar (Rhode Island 1972), has a D Phil from Merton College, Oxford, and BA from Brown University.

He has taught at a number of institutions including Tel Aviv University, West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Freiburg (Germany), the University of Canterbury (New Zealand), and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

He was for many years associate editor, and later co-editor, of the journal Poetics Today. He is co-founder of Project Narrative at Ohio State, and co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (A.S.A.P.). 

He is the author of Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Constructing Postmodernism (1992), and The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole (2004), as well as articles on free indirect discourse, mise en abyme, narrativity, modernist and postmodernist poetics, narrative poetry and science fiction. He co-edited, with Randall Stevenson, The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English (2006); with David Herman and James Phelan, Teaching Narrative Theory (2010); with Luc Herman and Inger Dalsgaard, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (2012); and with Joe Bray and Alison Gibbon, The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature (2012).

His Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism is forthcoming in 2015, and he is co-editing with Len Platt The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature.

Brian McHale is the Distinguished Humanities Professor in English at Ohio State University.

He was a Rhodes Scholar (Rhode Island 1972), has a D Phil from Merton College, Oxford, and BA from Brown University.



He has taught at a number of institutions including Tel Aviv University, West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Freiburg (Germany), the University of Canterbury (New Zealand), and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.



He was for many years associate editor, and later co-editor, of the journal Poetics Today.  He is co-founder of Project Narrative at Ohio State, and co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (A.S.A.P.).  



He is the author of Postmodernist Fiction (1987), Constructing Postmodernism (1992), and The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole (2004), as well as articles on free indirect discourse, mise en abyme, narrativity, modernist and postmodernist poetics, narrative poetry and science fiction.

He co-edited, with Randall Stevenson, The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English (2006); with David Herman and James Phelan, Teaching Narrative Theory (2010); with Luc Herman and Inger Dalsgaard, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (2012); and with Joe Bray and Alison Gibbon, The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature (2012).

Credits

Host: Lynne Haultain
Producer: Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Louise Bennet
Series Creators: Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Hi, I'm Lynne Haultain. Welcome to Up Close. We're told we live in a postmodern world, but what does that mean? If in the modern era science became the primary generator of knowledge and interpreter of reality, what or who takes on those roles in the era of postmodernity? How has this shift been reflected in our cultural expression, through literature, architecture, music and so on? What comes after postmodernism and are we there yet?
 
To help us define the parameters of postmodernism we are joined by Brian McHale, a renowned literary theorist and Distinguished Humanities Professor of English at Ohio State University. He has written extensively on postmodernism, particularly in prose fiction, for more than 25 years and he is in Australia to speak on defining the period. He has kindly joined us today to talk about postmodernism, its characteristics and legacy.
Good afternoon, Brian.

BRIAN MCHALE
Good afternoon.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Brian, postmodernism, what is it good for? [Laughs] We'll come back to that at the end of our conversation, but let's talk about how it's defined because it is one of those terms that's thrown around a great deal, but I'm wondering if everybody knows exactly what they're talking about when they use the term. It is one of those periods that is defined by what came immediately before it.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
It is postmodernism, so do we need to start with what modernism is?

BRIAN MCHALE
It's certainly one of the places to start. The reason why modernism felt obsolescent in let's say the 1960s and '70s, has a lot to do with the changes in reality but also something to do with the internal dynamics of the forms of cultural expression. There was in the early part of the 20th century for instance a very clear sense of what modern architecture would be, would become a kind of program for modernising architecture.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So we're right in the sort of '20s in the immediate post war…

BRIAN MCHALE
Even from before the First World War through to the Interwar Years, the roots of an international style which becomes truly international in the years after the Second World War. Because there is such a clear cut sense of what modernism in architecture is, then it creates the possibility of resistance and reaction, a postmodernism. It's no coincidence that the term postmodernism first becomes widely used in the context of architecture. The architects needed that idea in a certain way because there was this very strong sense of what modern architecture was and the same argument could be made for instance about dance. A very clear sense of what modern dance is and therefore the generation who begin practicing dance in the 1960s and early '70s and want to take some distance from the modern dance of say the Martha Graham era have use for a concept of postmodernism.

So in my sense of things, postmodernism is variable across cultural fields depending upon how badly it was needed, right? It's a strategic concept. It's a way of distancing yourself from what comes before and where what comes before has a very strong profile, then there's a good reason to put the post in front of modernism and use that as leverage against the modernist orthodoxy.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
But there are those people who would say that modernism was all about change and dynamism and innovation and therefore creating newness and obsolescence of what had come before. If you take that line through modernism, isn't postmodernism just another step along the road of modernism?

BRIAN MCHALE
There is a good case to be made that postmodernism is really just more modernism and that it's just a question of the cycles of novelty and obsolescence. That's certainly worth entertaining, but from where I stand, I think there's a better case to be made for carving out a period style for the second half of the 20th century and using the term, which is after all only a kind of marker that we put down. Using the term allows us to think about difference and continuity in ways that just using the word modernism doesn't allow us.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
You take a very moderate approach to this, a very pragmatic approach to postmodernism. There are others though in the field who take a much harder line, those that insist that it is just another iteration of modernism and still others who say no, it has very strict definitions - Charles Jencks I'm thinking of here - that it began at a very particular time and this text and that movie are in or out depending on their definition.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So there are some who are much more determined about what's in the tent of postmodernism and what's not.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right. Jencks in particular likes to excommunicate architects from the postmodern and to label some merely late modernists. That may have something to do with the history of architecture…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Which is the discipline that he comes from.

BRIAN MCHALE
Which is the discipline that he comes from, but there are also moments where you wonder whether he's not being a bit tongue in cheek about this. He is after all the one who dated the onset of postmodernism to a particular day in July of 1972 at a particular hour, 3:32 in the afternoon I think, when a modernist style housing development outside of St Louis was demolished because it failed. As it turns out, he made up the time of day. The date was accurate but 3:30 in the afternoon, he had no reason to think that actually happened then. So the fact that he was tongue in cheek in that instance allows you to think that maybe he is elsewhere too.

Yeah, I think your word pragmatic is correct. I think period terms and periodising altogether is a pragmatic issue, right? It's useful or not and it's useful in particular ways for particular purposes on particular occasions or not.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
We'll explore that in more detail in a moment, but you raise the point of when it started and that Jencks has a very, very precise moment. There is a bit of debate in the academy around when postmodernism started. Even at this point looking retrospectively, which varies anywhere between what is called the sort of late '50s right through until the early '70s that Jencks nails. You put it at '66.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right and that's kind of a thought experiment. I'm not going to police the date in the way that Jencks apparently polices his date in '72. What's interesting about this, it's apparently just a game but what's at stake in the game is that each time you fix an onset date, you're at the same time implying a definition. So the postmodernism that begins in the late '50s would be for instance more oriented towards the avant-garde of that era, the Beats and the Abstract Expressionists and the Neo-Dadaist avant-gardists of that moment.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
And the music of that era.

BRIAN MCHALE
And the music of that moment, John Cage for instance or the dance of that moment, Merce Cunningham. That would be a different kind of postmodernism than one that was placed in the mid-'60s which is where I prefer to place it which would have more to do with the relationship between the avant-gardes and popular culture where the crossover begins between avant-garde and popular culture versus the much later date of '72 or '73 which Jencks likes and which Fredric Jameson, David Harvey likes. Which in the case of Jameson and Harvey pegs it more to developments in economics and in modes of production.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Yes, I'd like to pick that up because it triangulates it…

BRIAN MCHALE
Yeah.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
…I suppose with that sort of external geopolitical environment, the avant-garde expression in various forms of the arts together with the cultural theory expression. So with that later date, you can see very clearly around the early '70s what's going on there. We have major political and economic shocks. We've got the first tranche of the oil shock…

BRIAN MCHALE
Right.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
…out of the Middle East, Yom Kippur War and various other events. If you're trying to put postmodernism in a context of people's lived experience in the world, which seems to me to be a really key characteristic of postmodernism, that a lot of people are very keen to put or to match up the cultural expression with the geopolitical experience. Is that different to the way other periods are seen, do you think?

BRIAN MCHALE
No I don't think - I mean there is always an appeal in trying to find the economic roots of cultural change. My own feeling is that it is sometimes the case that cultural change occurs at a different rate than changes in other spheres and that in fact change in different forms of cultural expression occur at different rates.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Unevenly.

BRIAN MCHALE
Unevenly and though that 1972, '73 date is appealing because so many things seem to converge and that's why Jameson and Harvey and the others identify it as the onset point, they also say things like - I'm paraphrasing David Harvey here - postmodernism becomes the cultural expression of neoliberalism - which he dates from 1973, though he says it's been waiting in the wings all along for neoliberalism to arise. That suggests that in fact the cultural form of postmodernism had already been in place. If it's waiting in the wings [laughs] then it's been there and I think in fact, the cultural emergence of postmodernism is earlier and is a little bit out of sync with the geopolitical changes, at least in the thought experiment that's worth entertaining.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
There are others who would say neoliberalism doesn't really arrive as a broadly understood concept until the late '70s…

BRIAN MCHALE
Right.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
…with the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right. Harvey likes 1973 because of the overthrow of the Allende Government in Chile and the introduction of a neoliberal regime there. Harvey says an experiment in the periphery, a bloody experiment in the periphery, becomes a model for practice at the centre by the end of the '70s.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
In amongst all of this we've got women who are becoming much more educated, much more profiled in the workplace, are agitating. There is, you know, the mass women's movements of various stripes around the world. We've got a number of civil rights activities around the world including black Americans. So there are a number of these other movements through the '60s and '70s. Do they feed into this sense of postmodernism as well?

BRIAN MCHALE
So the question would be are they running parallel to these cultural developments and postmodernism? Do they feed into them? I would say that they do feed into them and that one of the features of postmodernism is at minimum its coexistence with the women's movement and with the various national liberation movements and ethnic movements and that the tendencies exchange ideas and material and energies right throughout the period. There is a consensus in some quarters that postmodernism is apolitical and I think that's not strictly true. There are more and less political versions of postmodernism throughout the whole period.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Literary theorist Professor Brian McHale from Ohio State University is with us today on Up Close, looking at postmodernism. What is it and what does it offer us as a way of looking at the world? Brian, we've talked about the difficulty in defining how evenly or otherwise postmodernism is embraced and the challenge in dating it. What is it? How do we define it?

BRIAN MCHALE
Well, okay. We began in the right place, right? It is in some sense a reaction against modernism and the most important feature of that reaction I think across cultural fields is the embrace of popular culture. Modernism, though it had a very complicated relationship to mass culture of its era, on the whole did its best to prevent contamination by popular culture, to police its bounds and to keep the two spheres of culture, popular culture and high culture, as distinct as possible.
In the post-Second World War era, in the postmodern era, that anxiety about policing the bounds between high and low began to break down. There's an argument to be made that the creativity of postmodernism actually comes from the cross-fertilisation between a high art avant-garde and popular mass culture, which is why the '60s is, I think, really the matrix of it, when that cross-pollination takes place.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So you've called this double coding. A number of theorists have described that. For example, the Disney animations were the first very broadly understood encapsulation of this and now we see it endlessly in various TV and film experience as well, where you've got one experience for the kids and one experience for the adults. We are all watching the same film but we're getting different things out of it. Is that what this means, the collapsing of high and low?

BRIAN MCHALE
Right. Again, this is Charles Jencks's notion, that what makes postmodern architecture postmodern is its double coded appeal. It appeals on the one hand to architects and patrons of architecture who recognise the use of the materials, the…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
The references.

BRIAN MCHALE
…but - exactly but then at a second level, it's popular and populist architecture. It's meant to be pleasurable, it's meant to be legible, it uses symbolism, right? So the architects that he's thinking about like Michael Graves, like Charles Moore are appealing simultaneously to two different constituencies, two different kinds of audiences. If we take that concept from architecture and extend it outward into other cultural fields, we see how postmodernism can be understood as double coded.
The surprise success of novels like in 1980, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. A very sophisticated scholarly historical novel about the Middle Ages which is also a crime thriller and gets made into a very popular film with Sean Connery. That's kind of a classic instance of the double coded strategy and we can trace that right on through, I think, at least many of the forms of postmodernism.

The other term that's been coined for this practice is, Larry McCaffery calls it avant-pop, right? Simultaneously avant-garde and pop culture in the same package.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Does that make postmodernism democratic?

BRIAN MCHALE
It aspires to be democratic and that's certainly the claims that its propagandists have made for it and the fact that it became a fashionable term and that it travelled as far as it did through the length and breadth of culture suggests that there is something to it of democratisation.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Picking up on the comment you made earlier about the difficulty in seeing any kind of even uptake, if you like, of postmodernism, it also seems to me that it's characterised by a fragmentation that's part of its DNA, if you like. That it is about pastiche and reference and populism and appealing to the cognoscenti but also to the person in the street, and that that by its nature creates a fragmented style, that we don't have a single fashion. That everything is kind of as it is as we find it. Does that resonate with you at all?

BRIAN MCHALE
Well the problem with using fragmentation as an indicator of postmodernism is that it after all is already an indicator of modernism. In a way you could say that fragmentation is what the postmodernists inherited from the modernists, but where the modernists value the difficulty of fragmentation, the postmodernists aspire to a kind of legibility. So a legible form of fragmentation. That's maybe in a nutshell the avant-pop experience. That on the one hand difficulty but on the other hand legibility.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
What about its self-consciousness? Given that people were describing themselves as postmodern or looking at works and thinking ha, that's postmodern within the period [laughs] seems to me to be somewhat different to the way we've periodised various eras in the past, where you've only described it as modern or modernist after the fact.

BRIAN MCHALE
Yeah I think that's absolutely true. The belated canonisation of the term modernist in the 1950s and '60s tells us that the self-consciousness had to wait until some decades after the high watermark of modernism, whereas the postmodernists seem to be aware of themselves as postmodernists as different from modernism almost immediately, almost from the get-go. Certainly from the early '70s when the term begins to be used and to spread from architecture to other fields. So there's a first stage of recognising that there was such a thing as modernism and then postmodernism becomes available as a next move.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Brian, let's talk a little more about the way in which it's manifest because despite the avant-pop idea that this is legible and accessible, there were some fairly complex ideas being expressed and discussed through this period. A phrase that I've read in one of your works, a world of strange loops emerges, especially in the visual arts and in literature as well where we see some really intricate and I think the Umberto Eco example is one. There are a number of others where this becomes really quite dizzying.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right. Among the features of postmodernism and especially literature is the paradoxes of their worlds, worlds that are included in themselves, so that's the strange loop, or worlds arrayed on multiple levels where you shift from world to world or worlds that are self-cancelling and self-erasing. All of those are part of the repertoire of especially postmodernist literature that you can find traces of it elsewhere including in popular music of the postmodernist era. That's one of the hallmarks of that mid-60s moment when rock and roll becomes self-conscious and becomes rock. That self-consciousness is played out in formal ways throughout this period, in imagery and in the strategies of novels.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Think of a novel for us and I know that your particular focus has been Thomas Pynchon who is an American novelist of great big tomes and sometimes very challenging works, but you look to Gravity's Rainbow for example and Lot 49 as exemplars of postmodern writing.

BRIAN MCHALE
Right. The Crying of Lot 49 which dates from 1966 is often pointed to as a typical postmodern work. I think of it really as a transitional postmodern work. It's the onset of postmodernism and paradoxical and convoluted in exactly the ways we were just talking about. It features for instance the description of a painting in the first chapter by a Spanish painter called Remedios Varo in which there's a strange loop paradox. A tower full of girls who are embroidering a tapestry and the tapestry becomes the world spilling out of the windows of their tower, the world in which the tower is located, so a very strange loop.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
It's sort of Escheresque.

BRIAN MCHALE
And very Escheresque. Remedios Varo was an associate of the surrealists in Europe before she came to Mexico and existed, in fact, unlike all the other artworks in The Crying of Lot 49 were invented by Thomas Pynchon, but not this painting. He had evidently seen it and the description of it is quite accurate. The fact that he adopts this image and presents his heroine with it right at the beginning of the book is a kind of signal to us about what kind of book it's going to be and what kind of paradoxes we should expect.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
If we were to bring that down a notch or two in the sort of literary stakes, we have science fiction of that period also spinning off into some very esoteric and challenging territory with worlds within worlds and minds within minds.

BRIAN MCHALE
My sense is that science fiction is really the sort of partner of literary postmodernism throughout this era. It's always a good indicator of the state of play in postmodernism and this is maybe the first moment, when science fiction rises to a level of literary interest for the first time. By the beginning of the '80s there's a bid to treat cyberpunk science fiction of that era as really literary writing.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
We're talking J. G. Ballard…

BRIAN MCHALE
Ballard already from the '60s…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Yes.

BRIAN MCHALE
…but then William Gibson and…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Yes, Ursula Le Guin.

BRIAN MCHALE
…Bruce Sterling and Le Guin, Octavia Butler. These are all serious writers and the sorts of things that they could make literal through science fiction apparatus is being played out in other ways in non-science fiction postmodernism of the same era.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Brian, we can't sort of sweep through postmodernism without briefly talking about the French, who pre-date, I suppose, a lot of this thinking. Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, a number of theorists who were sort of the head of steam, as far as I can see it. Ahead of the Anglophonal western uptake of postmodernism. Is that the way you see it?

BRIAN MCHALE
My own sense is that theory, which is what you're describing - Derrida and Foucault and the others - theory is not a cause of postmodernism and not an engine of postmodernism. Some people think of it that way, as though postmodern practice was the practice for which theory was the theory, right. I don't see it that way and I don't think for instance Fredric Jameson sees it that way. Rather, I see theory as itself a symptom of postmodernism. It's one of the forms of self-consciousness that arises in the postmodern era and the timing actually supports that. That is the practitioners were already practicing before theory in that French variety was available to them. The translations of Derrida and Foucault arrive really at the end of the '60s and those practices were already in place by then.
So in a way, these were parallel developments which converge at a certain point in the '70s and are taken up differently in different Anglophone points of the world.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
I'm Lynne Haultain and you're listening to Up Close. Today we're discussing the history of postmodernism and its contribution to culture and thinking with literary theorist Brian McHale and we're talking about the internationalism, I suppose, or the globalisation of postmodernism. It is a moment where we really mean globalisation, not just the extension of the American way, aren't we?

BRIAN MCHALE
By now, yes. At the outset, I think postmodernism is an Atlantic phenomenon, North American and European phenomenon and maybe the heartland is the United States. There's an aspect of it which is simply an American export to other parts of the world but by now, by the 21st century, there are national postmodernisms around the world and we begin to recognise it as a genuinely global phenomenon and not just a form of Americanisation. Chinese postmodernism and Russian postmodernism don't look much like the Atlantic postmodernism of the '60s and '70s and '80s and have different functions.
I'm assured by sinologists and Russianists that the purpose of postmodernism is different in those countries and of course the adoption comes relatively later, but driven less by the desire to ape American styles than a need in their own context for a break from a kind of official modernity.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Does it also carry with it that sort of double coding parallel?

BRIAN MCHALE
I suspect so. We can identify it easily enough - the double coding - in some aspects, for instance of Chinese visual art postmodernism. There's a sort of pop art moment in China in the late '80s, early '90s, but I'm not sure that it necessarily travels to all those other situations where postmodernism is still alive today.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So if the '70s were its heyday, has it ended?

BRIAN MCHALE
I would say '70s and '80s, let's say. I suppose if it hasn't ended, it's ending about now. There was a tendency to view '90s culture as already post-postmodern…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
[Laughs]

BRIAN MCHALE
…but I think that was premature and there was more desire than there was actual accomplishment at that moment. The fact that people were impatient with postmodernism isn't necessarily a sign that they got beyond it and may be a sign that they're still trapped in it. By now, I think the changes have accumulated to the point where it feels as though the postmodern moment is over. That it's become attenuated and that we have to expect new and other things.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Once again to sort of go back to our discussion around the geopolitical dimension to this, people have pointed at 1989 which of course was an extraordinary moment in time. The Wall came down, the USSR started to break up, apartheid's days were numbered and Fukuyama even describes it as the end of history. We were all quite discombobulated. We didn't quite know how to deal with this new world. We didn't have our us and them that had sustained us for so many decades and then angels became a thing.

BRIAN MCHALE
[Laughs] Yes.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Tell me about angels, Brian.

BRIAN MCHALE
Well the analysis of what happens after 1989 is that the reorientation after 1989 - it's a very appealing analysis and there's much truth in it, but my sense of the '90s is that they still remain postmodern and one symptom of that is the fashion of the angels. There was postmodern interest in angels all along, from the '60s on and important postmodern writers took it on board. Pynchon for one in Gravity's Rainbow, James Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover, Salman Rushdie in…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Yes, in The Satanic Verses.

BRIAN MCHALE
In The Satanic Verses.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Laurie Anderson wrote Gravity's Angel.

BRIAN MCHALE
Exactly and Wim Wenders made Wings of Desire. So this was all '70s and '80s. What happened in the '90s is that that interest in angels became democratised, to use a word that you used earlier. It became general throughout popular culture, certainly in the Atlantic world but much further afield than that. Interestingly, secular angels, which sounds like a paradox but this was not the angels of religious practice and not even necessarily of spirituality but something like a popular culture motif or…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Cute.

BRIAN MCHALE
Cute angels, reassuring angels, angels that could be marketed in all kinds of forms on all kinds of consumer items, a proliferation of coffee table books, television shows…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
Mugs, t-shirts, jewellery, candles…

BRIAN MCHALE
Absolutely everything, right.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
[Laughs] Endless.

BRIAN MCHALE
Then in the early years of the 21st century, it stopped or it waned anyway and we were done with them.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So what was postmodern about angels?

BRIAN MCHALE
My feeling is that the angels were a kind of almost perfect symbol of the postmodern experience of cultural lightness, of being lighter than air. In an era when culture was going online, when many forms of culture were generating sort of alternate lite forms…

LYNNE HAULTAIN
L-I-T-E forms.

BRIAN MCHALE
L-I-T-E forms and the angel is a symbol of anti-gravity. A symbol of lightness. It's also a symbol of those alternate worlds that postmodernism had been interested in all along. The angels come from someplace else, a world not ours. Their presence here is a kind of indication of the existence of those other worlds and brings the postmodern multiplicity of worlds into everyday consumer reality.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
They were a weird phenomenon and as you say, they have now seemed to have passed. Did 9/11 really kill of (a) the angels and (b) postmodernism?

BRIAN MCHALE
It would be too much to say that it killed either of those things off, but it certainly marks a kind of historical threshold. In and around that date, postmodernism was waning and so it's as convenient a date as any for identifying an endgame of postmodernism. You would this, actually, that 9/11 should have generated or regenerated the interest in the angels but that doesn't seem to have happened, right. So there were enough changes cumulatively around those years - a change in geopolitics that goes without saying - but with echoes throughout the culture that postmodernism became less and less relevant in the 21st century.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So Brian, at this very early point in retrospectivity around postmodernism, what is its legacy, do you think? What value has it offered us? I mean you said early that it's strategic, it's an opportunity to look at things in a particular way. How has that enriched us, do you think?

BRIAN MCHALE
There are obviously both negative and positive consequences of postmodernism. There have been complaints that it is a generator of ungrounded irony, that it makes it difficult to express sincerity.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
That is hollows things out.

BRIAN MCHALE
That it evacuates reality and there is truth in all of that, but conversely it does have that democratising effect that we were talking about before. It does bring legibility back into the art world. It does at least dilute the elitism of high art. Those I think are positive consequences. It does make us - and some people would think this was negative - relativist about values and reality. That seems to me as likely to be a positive thing as a negative one.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
In terms of the academy, it's had an interesting effect in that are there any more English departments left on the planet? Aren't we all now in cultural studies?

BRIAN MCHALE
That is one of its consequences I think, right? Cultural studies arises in the postmodern era, is a response to postmodern conditions and is I think probably one of the positive consequences of postmodernism, a positive legacy.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
To contextualise and once again democratise that theory and discussion? Is that…

BRIAN MCHALE
Right and value legibility and to be suspicious of elite taste.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So is it all about context?

BRIAN MCHALE
It's all about history. As we re-contextualise things in new historical moments, we see them differently.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
So on balance you'd see it as positive and not too indulgent and clever by half?

BRIAN MCHALE
I'd see it as both. I think we have to read all historical developments in both senses. Dialectically, it's the worst thing that happened and the best thing that happened.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
A very balanced view. Brian McHale, thank you very much indeed for your time.

BRIAN MCHALE
Thank you.

LYNNE HAULTAIN
We've been talking about postmodernism - what makes it and why it's important - with Brian McHale, Distinguished Humanities Professor of English at the University of Ohio. He is the author of very many articles and books on the subject including Postmodernist Fiction, Constructing Postmodernism and the beautifully titled The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole. You'll find details of some of his publications on the Up Close website together with a full transcript of this and all our other programs.

Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia, created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. This episode was recorded on 15 June 2015 and was produced by Eric van Bemmel with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. I'm Lynne Haultain. Thanks for listening and I hope you can join us again soon.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. For more information, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook. Copyright 2015, the University of Melbourne.


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