As Was the Style at the Time
“It seemed bizarre that events so serious would be linked causally with a rarified form of academic talk,” Stanley Fish wrote after receiving a call from a reporter asking if September 11 meant the end of postmodernist relativism. “But in the days that followed, a growing number of commentators played serious variations on the same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country’s resolve.” — Joan Didion
Sure, kid, I remember postmodernism. Take a knee, and I’ll tell you what I know.
Fact is, I purt near invented the stuff. Well, be fair, me and the boys down at the Cafe Hebron. The Cafe Ivrogne, we used to call it, haw haw. It was me, Ronnie Barthes, Paul Virilio — Paulie the Rock, we called him, because he had rocks in his head. That’s what you used to say when a guy was stupid, that he had rocks in his head. We didn’t mean it literally. We used to do stuff like that. Anyway, the three of us, plus Georgie Bataille, Jack Dorito and his girlfriend Julia Kristeva, Gil Deleuze, and that weedhead from the Institute, Johnny Leotard. But your old grandpa, he was a real mover and shaker. People like to say that it was Dorito who came up with post-structuralism, but it was really me. I don’t know, it seemed like a good idea at the time. How were we to realize? Anyway, I don’t really remember what it was, but I’m positive it was me that thunk it up.
Oh, we’d have a grand old time down at the the Ivrogne. We’d get three sheets to the wind on cheap Shiraz, pick apart a Donald Bartheleme novel — this was back when there was still paper novels, you understand — and then bust the place up. When someone would get on our case about it we’d just say we were shaped by societal imperatives or were reacting against the strictures of an arbitrary behavioral construction or some such. It was all a load of crap, of course, but we kept it up as long as we could get away with it, which turned out to be longer than we thought. We were young and raising hell. Next thing you know we were spouting a bunch of crazy nonsense like all cultures being of equal value, or how words didn’t really mean the same thing all the time, or how what was true for one person wasn’t necessarily true for everybody else. It didn’t seem like treason. You get enough of the grape in you, you’ll say anything.
By the 1990s — sure, kid, I remember the 1990s, do you know how old I am? Anyway, by the 1990s, we were riding high. We were sitting on top of the world, figuratively speaking, of course. From Paris to Sin City, structuralism and deconstructionism ruled the roost. Our values were everybody’s values. Why, back then, if there was a kid your age who couldn’t quote Capitalism and Schizophrenia cover to cover, I never met him. Nothin’ got said or done from coast to coast without we gave the okay. It was a good time to be a postmodernist.
Then, of course, came September 11th.
It seems like a million years ago, even though I see from the calendar it was only 57. I wouldn’t even remember the date if it weren’t for all the banners, and how we all get to march in the parade each year. That’s when Saddam bin-Laden’s men flew them planes into the Empire State Building. We put him right soon enough, it’s true, but in the meantime, you just can’t imagine how devastating it all was. It completely wiped out the irony industry — at the time, Lower Manhattan was the world’s leading producer of irony, so you can guess what it did to the economy. I bet you haven’t even seen any irony around these parts for at least 20 years, have you, kid?
No, that’s ironing. Aaah, forget it, it’s too complicated to explain.
Anyway, besides that, and also all the people who died I guess, it pretty much put an end to the glory days of postmodernism. Our stranglehold on American culture came crashing to a halt. We thought it would last forever, you know? I mean, after all, any American citizen worth his salt could talk for hours about themes of alienation in the works of Batatille, and the young folks were so under our sway that Dorito, that Ralph-Lauren-looking so-and-so, was the most in-demand poster boy this side of Lance Bass. But it all ended just as quick as it started. Almost overnight, the country sobered up and remembered that everything had a simple solution and that we were always in the right. So we all of us shook our heads and blinked, like boys on a bender waking up to the harsh morning hangover, and realized all the incredible damage we’d done.
A few of the hardcore guys like Stan Fish and my ex, Sue Sunday, desperately tried to keep up the façade. I can see them now, drunk as lords, yammering away on the Op/Ed page of the New York Times about alternate historical narratives, the importance of understanding divergent social norms, and the inevitably legacy of a schizophrenic foreign policy. It was pathetic. Couple of old drunks, dancing for pennies, trying to bring back the old days.
Hell, I can’t say as I blame ’em. I used to be ’em. Even now, every once in a while, they’ll announce another bombing or another drone strike or another expansion of the security state, and I’ll find myself thinking of a skeptical critique, or remembering that pretty girl Joanie Didion talking about Israel, or poor old Norm Chompsky.
But then the day rolls around, and we all get to march in the parade, and there’s all those magnificent flags. Then I forget.