Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Rebuttal to FILM CRITIC HULK's Essay on Post-Modernism

For those of you who don't know, there's a really great writer out there named FILM CRITIC HULK. Recently, FILM CRITIC HULK wrote an essay on post-modernism and whether or not it even exists. You should go read it

HULK's argument, not to oversimplify a complicated piece of work that obviously took a great amount of time and care to produce, is that everything we call post-modernism is actually just regular old modernism. The moment you make art that deviates from a known artistic norm, you're a modernist. The idea that you can push that deviation even further into another tier of modernism, or even a reversal, somehow, is bullshit.

I'm quoted in the article along with many others. We all have our smart-hats on as we struggle to explain our own idea of what separates post-modernism from modernism. Because our takes deviate wildly, we all end up proving HULK right. Pretty much the only thing uniting us is the vague notion that post modernism is more self-referential and weirder than modernism, and that we all sound like assholes.

HULK is right. Modernism, no matter how weird it gets, really has to be the end-game when it comes to rebelling against norms. If "rebelling against norms" becomes the new norm to brutalize and defy, that's still modernism. 

But I stand by my remarks, even as HULK's attack shakes and cracks the ground beneath my feet.

I'm convinced post-modernism cannot exist as a movement against modernism. There's no post-modern era or post-modern figure to hang the label on. I do think, however, that something I can only call post-modernism occasionally manifests in the latter part of an individual artist's career. Keep in mind, what I'm talking about is very specific and very rare.


It's almost become axiomatic that the Renaissance gave birth to modernism. (HULK's essay has me questioning even that, but perception rather than truth is what's important here.) And Shakespeare is largely seen as the first modernist. If you want a play that pretty much defines modernism, look at Troilus and Cressida's comic decimation of The Illiad's classical heroics.

Accepting the academically sanctioned chronological order of Shakespeare's plays, we have a writer who started of a bit shaky, grew increasingly confident and singular, reached the peak of his ability, and then...kept writing. There are masterpieces every step of the way, but it's the later plays that really intrigue me because they seem written by a guy who achieved everything he wanted and then grew bored. The only way to shake things up was to go against himself.

Shakespeare's Cymbeline cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the plays which came before it. Many elements familiar to Shakespeare are utilized only to be subverted toward something new. Cross-dressing, for instance, a mainstay of early Shakespeare plotting, terminates in a far different result than we expect. Tired dramatic tropes like infidelity garner different reactions than normal. A low-rent Iago and a typical evil Queen cannot get their devious plots off the ground because no one around them buys into their deceptions. 

The characters are wise to old tricks not because they've seen Shakespeare's plays (that'd just be meta) but because Shakespeare wrote those plays, and he wanted to see what would happen if he freed plot from his own barriers. As a result, Cymbeline is drastically unpredictable, taking us down unknown narrative roads that can be silly and shockingly violent with a far greater proximity than ever before.

The point is that Cymbeline is not a stand alone work. It is not solely an inward commentary either because it creates a new and fresh story that, plotwise, cannot be repeated. Only Shakespeare could write the anti-Shakespeare play. His invention is a reaction to himself.

So, let's see. I guess I think post-modernism is when an artist uses his or her career to create a new narrative that could not have existed otherwise. The career itself is not the narrative, but a map where the writer first defines what a right turn looks like, then goes left.

Perhaps I can explain this better by contrast:

Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back is extremely self referential without going all the way meta. It is not a good example, however, because Jay and Silent Bob do everything we expect them to do. If they were instead two characters specifically reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob who repeatedly side-step typical Jay and Silent Bob reactions to typical Kevin Smith plot devices, then it might be a Post-Modern movie.

George R.R. Martin's novel, A Game of Thrones, comes closer to what I'm talking about, but ultimately fails to meet my criteria because Martin finds new narrative paths by subverting typical fantasy tropes, rather than typical George R.R. Martin tropes.

Super 8 is so so so not what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I see this phenomenon as an example where a modernist writer really does exceed the term's limit. And rather than call it more-modern or extra-modern, I choose to call it post-modern because the term, however vague, does seem to have a solid aspect of self-referencing that modernism lacks.

What do you think?


  1. So... post-modern = meta-subversion?

    I can dig that.

    (I do think think that Jay & Silent Bob went all the way Meta, though mostly with regard to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, rather than the film itself. I agree in that they didn't subvert themselves, and if they had, it would have been AWESOME.)

  2. I don't know if you are into videogames. but Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of the greatest pieces of postmodernism ever. It manages to subvert both videogame tropes AND kojima himself, in meta-level so great that only videogames (with their interactions) can manage. Grat article nonetheless, I came here after Hulk linked and even though his was a great read too, I tend to agree most with you. I'm learning a lot from you guys, thak you.

  3. Shakespeare (along with the renaissance) was a modern, not a modernIST. There is a rather big difference, and it's clear that neither you nor Film Critic Hulk know enough about either modernism or post-modernism to be writing essays about it.