- Periodizing Postmodernsim
When Fredric Jameson tried his hand at periodizing the sixties some years ago, he was engaging in an exercise millions of Americans have undertaken, in their minds if not on paper. “When did the sixties start?” “When did they end?” Whether one answers “Port Huron and the JFK assassination” to the first question, or “Altamont, Kent State, and the release of Led Zeppelin II” to the second, one will no doubt find oneself coming to terms with the strange dialectics that develop when we halt continuity every ten years or so to take a look at our postmodern condition. Even so, many would agree that during the sixties and seventies we had fundamentally different notions of what it meant to be postmodern. Two recent books, taken in tandem, help us rethink the early days of postmodernity, especially since they work against the prevailing zeitgeist of their respective decades. The Queer Sixties takes a decade remembered primarily for its political imbroglios and concentrates on a sexual revolution percolating at its edges. The Seventies Now takes a decade known for its hedonism and plunges headlong into the equally seamy world of politics. To talk of sex and politics in this way is to highlight a false divide, of course. But there is no question that our increasingly nostalgic news outlets, run by baby boomers who think that showing “Time and Again” several times a week is a good idea, tend to emphasize some parts of the equation more forcefully than they do others. Thankfully, a new generation of scholars has decided it is time for some revision.
The Queer Sixties, a collection of essays edited by Patricia Juliana Smith, includes close readings of queer texts and applications of queer theory. Although Smith’s introduction suggests that much of the volume will be given over to discussions of homosexuality’s role in cold war politics, none of her contributors takes up this theme with any enthusiasm. Instead, we receive a series of articles on icons and iconoclasts, those larger-than-life figures who embodied the pain and joy that gays and lesbians felt during this turbulent decade. The essayists are most serious when they discuss the status of camp, which itself tends to be rather serious about the trivial and trivial about the serious. Pulp fiction and rock music have a place here, as do “serious” fiction (Baldwin, Capote, Vidal), drama (Orton) and film (The Boys in the Band). Some texts are lauded for being outwardly queer and some for being subversively queer. Some artists and writers are “out” and others are more repressed. Overall, Smith does an effective job organizing the essays so as to bring divergent groups closer together.
Especially strong are the paired essays on Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas that are authored by Kelly Cresap and Laura Winkiel. In his art and writings, Warhol has always seemed the perfect avatar of postmodernism. It was he, more than anyone, who replaced late modernist depth and personal gesture with surface and cool façade. But his art only tells part of the story. According to Cresap, Warhol “not only advocated an anti-contemplative, anti-angst position but acted it out on a daily basis” (46). With his “naïf-trickster” persona, this “dumb blonde” lived out a “cartoon idyll of happy solitary play” (to cite Michael Moon), confounding those who would take strict meaning from his actions, misleading those who believed he did not know the score. By “playing dumb about being gay,” Warhol perfected what D.A. Miller has labeled a “homosexuality of no importance.” Curiously, this brand of homosexuality was practiced with such panache as to become tremendously important in an expanding media culture. Warhol did not mug for the camera so much as he stared back blankly, in imitation of the camera eye, effectively reversing the gaze and questioning the desire of all who looked at him. At the same time, his gay persona was so pronounced (so “swish”) that hardly anyone bothered to inquire about his sexual preference(s). An...