Postmodern man has a difficult time believing in absolutes. Much of this has to do with the interconnectivity of the postmodern world and the obvious futility of universal consensus: if no one can agree on what is right, and divergent approaches seem to work for different people, then perhaps an objective truth isn’t possible (or necessary). The old parable of the blind men and the elephant prevails.
In such an environment, marginal ideas become as important (sometimes even more important) than received conventional ones. As Gene Veith points out in Postmodern Times:
Contemporary scholars seek to dismantle the paradigms of the past and “to bring the marginal into the center” (rewriting history in favor of those who have been excluded from power—women, homosexuals, blacks, Native Americans, and other victims of oppression). Scholars attack received ideas with withering skepticism, while constructing new models as alternatives. . . . These new models tend to be adopted without the demands for rigorous evidence required by traditional scholarship. . . . Truth is not the issue. The issue is power.
This holds in the scholarly environment, but it also applies in the realm of art. The rise of the “indie” artist is just one result of the centralized margin. What was once fringe must become mainstream. And as it becomes mainstream, it must again be rejected. Because what is important is not truth, beauty, and goodness. Rather, it is power, popularity, and novelty.
It is hard to say whether a relativist culture has created a demand for “fringe” media, or whether the fringes have gained a larger voice because of a technological revolution that has decentralized cultural influence. This change has probably been reciprocal—the culture and the art have influenced each other.
In a postmodern society, whatever is mainstream today will be replaced tomorrow with the new. And that new thing will itself become old and be replaced. As that which once was marginal gains power, it becomes subject itself to subversion. It becomes illegitimate. It becomes part of the machine it once purported to fight. It “sells out.” So the center is constantly vacating. This is the vanity of all contrarian movements, and even the vanity of deconstructionism. In the words of C. S. Lewis, deconstructionism “destroy[s] its own credentials.”
One of the best books I have read on this topic is Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. Its argument is that as soon as a counterculture (the brainchild of postmodern contrarianism) starts to have any influence on or popularity in the “main” culture, it is neutralized and appropriated. Ironically, the only way for a counterculture to stay true to itself is for it to have no influence at all. At which point, it ceases to be a counterculture and becomes an isolated, irrelevant sub-culture. If it succeeds in opposing traditional culture (orthoculture), it will eventually become part of the machine it hates. Everything from the hippie and punk movements, to surfer culture, to indie music has been appropriated in this way. They started to “Fight the System” and “Stick it to the Man.” They ended up as mainstream accouterments to a superficially eclectic postmodern style.
Many indie musicians and hipsters seem to understand this cycle. For this reason, Bob Dylan regularly purged his fan base and periodically reinvented himself. Hipsters latch on to the unlikeable, and are surprised to find that popular culture really has no standards: It doesn’t matter how ugly your flannel, how high-water your tight-fitting jeans, how untenable your mustache… pop culture will appropriate anything if enough people jump on board. In many ways, contemporary contrarians keep indie music and arthouse movies to themselves in order to protect their “you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-it” from dying in the mainstream. Mainstream popularity—the dream of the artist of yesterday—is the bane of the modern indie artist.
What is the solution to this? What is the upshot? Should we resist the deconstructive drive to centralize the margins? Are we doomed to repeat the dough-kneading vanity of the Hegelian dialectic? As long as our view of art and scholarship is humanistic, we are doomed to the “vanity of vanities.”
There is an alternative, however. It is accessing a cultural mindset that is neither orthocultural or countercultural. Rather, it is supracultural—it draws its standards from beyond human competition and convention. Sometimes it will agree with the status quo. Sometimes it will disagree. It is free and timeless. But supraculture requires a standard—even an absolute one. Paradoxically, postmodernism cannot recover its liberties from human vanity without recovering fixed and unchanging laws.Notes:
- Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 57. [↩]
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