Megan Fox and Saab both go postmodern: What is postmodern, anyway?


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Chris Daley noticed that ‘postmodern’ has been popping up a lot lately in popular culture. She wanted to know how widely the term “postmodern” was being used -- or abused. Daley, who pays hundreds of dollars a month in student loans for a degree that certifies she has studied postmodernism extensively, teaches writing, writes book reviews for the LA Times and blogs at Escapegrace. She conducted a highly unscientific study analyzing the use of ‘postmodern’ in recent items in Google News.

Before we consult the findings, let’s establish what “postmodern” meant before all and sundry began using it to sell their Saabs and Klezmer music and circus acts (in the past few weeks no less).


It was first used as early as the 1870s, but theorists Jean-François Lyotard and Frederic Jameson are generally credited with making the term “postmodern” popular. Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searles Giroux provide a conveniently succinct explanation of postmodernism in their book ‘The Theory Toolbox.’ When used in an academic setting, “postmodern” usually refers to a sense of style featuring “disjunction or deliberate confusion, irony, playfulness, reflexivity, a kind of cool detachment, a deliberate foregrounding of constructedness, a suspicion concerning neat or easy conclusions” (126). Nealon and Searles Giroux point out that postmodernism is more concerned with process than product. This can be seen in the meta “[blank] about [blank]” construction that often identifies the “postmodern”: art about art, writing about writing, architecture about architecture, etc.

Flash forward to early June 2009. When the term “postmodern” is used in major international publications, does it bear any relation to its theoretical roots, or has it been hijacked as yet another hot, empty signifier, like ‘iconic’ or ‘staycation’? Let’s take a look.

Postmodern as Two Normally Contradictory Ideas Existing in the Same Space

When Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg bought Saab last week, the company’s head honcho Christian von Koenigsegg described the Saab as “a bit of postmodern comfort, sporty, but with environmental thinking.” Sexy and green? So pomo. In Brooklyn over the weekend, a collection of prestigious designers gathered to sell their wares in a “rough-edged” raw space, or as the New York Times would have it, a “postmodern, high-end yard sale.” An article in the Washington Post praises Judd Apatow’s “postmodern alchemy,” crediting him for the ability to “plumb the shallow depths of manhood” and actually discover something interesting.

Postmodern as Root of All Evil

Apparently, the postmodern can be blamed for the collapse of the Christian church and the economy. The site RenewAmerica claims that the “emergent church” is really “a postmodern cult disguised as a church” and that “[two] earmarks of the present postmodern church are hostility to truth of any kind, and the acid bath of skepticism.” This is otherwise known as the Postmodern as Acid Bath school of thought.


Historian Harold James blames the economic crisis on “general cultural developments [that] are sometimes termed post-modernism, which involves the replacement of reason by intuition, feeling, and allusion.” And then the banks fail.

Postmodern as nonsense, an out for people who take themselves too seriously, for all music genres and for insta-intellect after the jump.

Postmodern as the One Word That Can Be Used for All Music Genres

In the past week or so, the word postmodern has been used to describe Thai rockers Dog Modern (“modern, postmodern and more”), Klezmer band Beyond the Pale (“a postmodern conglomeration of things”), Hank Williams III (“postmodern, post-apocalyptic Country Rock”), Polka King Jimmy Sturr (pushed out of the mainstream “for a postmodern audience”) and Pearl Jam’s decision to release its next album without a label (“post-modern marketing”).

Postmodern as What to Call Something When You Don’t Know What to Call It

One must admire analyst Brad Shimmin, who cuts most frankly to the chase, in his description of the “postmodern IT world”: “It’s almost like the art scene at the turn of the century. They really didn’t know what the hell to call what people were making. So, they just said, ‘Oh, it’s postmodern.’ ” It’s OK if the dates are a little off. It’s the honesty that counts.

Postmodern as Nonsense

If we return to Nealon and Searles Giroux’s description of postmodernism above, I think we can agree that postmodernism is neither “the global cry of women to each other” nor an effective modifier for the word “goodness,” as in ‘Infinite Jest’ is “postmodern goodness.”

Postmodern as a Way for Academics and Other Folks Who Take Themselves too Seriously to Just Write About Popular Culture

There were two instances of this phenomenon in the past week or so. In a review of ‘Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend,’ author Joshua Blu Buhs is lauded for his “postmodern attempt to pin down Bigfoot, [focusing] on the hunters, rather than the hunted.” Postmodern sounds good in that sentence ... but what does it mean? Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee pines for the days when folks argued “postmodern irony is [the] organizing principle of The Sopranos’ -- it’s pomo as cred required to go pop slumming.

Postmodern as Celebrity Access to Momentary Intellect

In a pinch, postmodern can always be thrown in as a way to make people believe you’ve read more than you have. Insta-smart. Just ask Megan Fox. She’ll soon be appearing in Diablo Cody’s film ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ which the actress describes as “really dark” because Cody’s “like a postmodern feminist or whatever.”

-- Chris Daley