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  • The Afterlife of Modernism
  • Michael North (bio)


For some time now, anxiety has been building around the fact that we live in a period without a name. It seems that the passing of the postmodern into history has left a vacuum, at least in nomenclature, that nothing is able to fill.1 Since, by most accounts, the postmodern has been gone for almost thirty years, this crisis in periodization has lasted as long as some periods.2 It has lasted so long in part because there are substantive disagreements about what has displaced the postmodern, whether it is the internet, the cell phone, global warming, or neoliberal capitalism that has so transfigured our time as to require a new term. But the persistence of this crisis may also be due to something inherent in the pathology of periodization. The succession of postmodernism cemented in place the implication of modernism itself, that each present is distinct enough to require a name of its own. Without some relatively identifiable cultural dominant, Fredric Jameson insisted in his book on the postmodern that we are left with "sheer heterogeneity, random difference."3 But postmodernism's shelf life was so short it has left behind some skepticism about the very practice of finding a new cultural dominant every thirty years or so. Jacques Rancière is not the only one to suggest that "there is no postmodern rupture."4 Thus the double bind imposed on the present by the example of the postmodern: its demise leaves behind the expectation of a successor term while simultaneously undermining our faith in the very habit of defining and naming successive periods.

Given this situation, it is not odd that most of the candidate names for our new period follow the example of postmodernism. Most of the terms prominently on offer follow the same format: remodernism, hypermodernism, automodernism, altermodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism.5 However, although they mimic postmodernism in form, these terms generally abandon the implication of opposition and difference that was contained in postmodernism's prefix, replacing it with some more modest modification of the fundamental root. [End Page 91] In other words, the proponents of these terms see them as variations of some kind on the basic fact of modernism. Remodernism in particular "regards modernism as something ongoing, a work-in-progress whose development has been stymied by attaching the spurious prefix 'post' to it."6 Gilles Lipovetsky in his Hypermodern Times also announces "a modernity of a new kind … taking shape, not any surpassing of modernity."7

The return to modernism, in other words, is not merely semantic. It represents a revival of the sense that the overarching cultural dominant of our time is still the one that came to fame about a hundred years ago. "The discourses of modernity and modernism," to quote Andreas Huyssen, "have staged a remarkable comeback" with "much talk these days of modernity at large, second modernity, liquid modernity, alternate modernity, countermodernity, and whatnot."8 One obvious sign of this resurgence is Jameson's bitter and ironic admission that modernity is "back in business all over the world," along with his apparently grudging return to the study of modernism.9 Another such sign is a recent anthology of essays entitled The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture, which is meant to explore the growing sense that "the contemporary moment" is still "a modernist moment."10 As evidence, the editors cite a number of recent academic studies in literature and the arts, as well as the persistent influence of modernist style in various areas of popular culture. If this account is to be believed, we are now, almost a hundred years after the miracle year of 1922, in what might be called the afterlife of modernism.

At the same time, even as it extends its reach, modernism seems to have lost much of its original character and become a more and more arbitrary designation. Thus one recent academic study of the topic blandly admits that "there is no such thing as modernism—no singular definition capable of bringing order to the diverse multitude of creators, manifestos, practices, and politics that have been variously constellated around this enigmatic term."11 Jameson has...


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