In the beginning there were the Beats. Who gave rise to the hippies, who went forth and multiplied and became the yuppies, who ushered in the Me Generation and the dot-com boom/bust. A simplistic view of cultural history, yes, but whatever. It doesn’t really matter because now we are beyond all that.
Now we live in a world where millionaires shill for Target and fashionistas argue for “the power bikini”; where the latest pop cult bad boy is Ali G, a white Brit in black hip-hop drag, and Disney has given us Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack, a pirate more Eddie Izzard than Robert Louis Stevenson.
Everywhere we look, the boundaries are blurring -- the concept of racial, ethnic, sexual or even gender identity, the strict political ideologies and movements of yesteryear, identifiable trends in art, music, drama and thought, the line between low- and highbrow culture. Been there, done that, voted it off the island.
Enter the brave new post-everything world in which we mark our rejection of past cultural movements, and our refusal to commit to new ones, with one little word: “post.”
In the past few years, Americans have been told by people who claim to know that society is becoming post-black, post-ethnic, post-gay, post-ironic, post-feminist, post-political, even, gasp, post-cool. Some of this can be chalked up to the media’s predilection for cover-headline-speak, but mostly, the post- labels are self-administered by the usual standard bearers -- activists, artists, scholars and the youth cultural elite.
In the early ‘90s, Camille Paglia ushered in the newly minted “post-feminists,” with Naomi Wolf and Ann Roiphe following close behind like so many ducklings. UC Berkeley professor David Hollinger wrote about “Post-Ethnic America” in 1995; James Collard, then editor of Out magazine, began using “post-gay” in interviews a year or so later. In 2001, “Freestyle,” a much-discussed show curated by the Studio Museum in Harlem was touted as “post-black.”
A recent show at the Ben Maltz Gallery of the Otis College of Art and Design was, according to its title, “L.A. Post-Cool.” This means, according to curator Michael Duncan’s exhibition essay, that many young artists are rejecting the “heavy-handed sarcasm of ... nearly every aspect of mass media culture” and creating works that are, to borrow a few of his descriptors: “overheated, awkward, fantastical, romantic, earnest” and of course, “genuine.”
The latest hobby among culture mavens is post- ing people -- the political complexities of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell are neatly tucked into the “post-black” paradigm, straight men with good grooming habits have recently been given the post-gender/post-gay “metrosexual” label, and those teens with the raspberry Mohawks and bicycle-chain belts may look like punks, but they’re really “post-punks” which apparently is very, very different.
Art and theater that refuse to be categorized by racial identity or even diversity are “post-multiculturist.” Our digitalized nation, in which advertisements and mega-retailers seem to have more influence than ideology or even legislation, is increasingly referred to as being “post-political,” a concept vividly illustrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s choice to announce his gubernatorial candidacy on “The Tonight Show."Strangely enough, the whole point of the original “post” -- postmodernism -- was its refusal to appoint, or even offer, an alternative to the movement it rejected. Postmodernism was supposed to be a loose collective of sensibilities that would naturally give way to whatever happened next, movements so ephemeral they might not even have a chance to be named. Instead it became a shorthand for overly geometric architecture, chairs that look like overly geometric architecture and the work of architect Michael Graves who now designs for, post-ironically enough, Target.
Now post- has become one of those terms that rely a lot on context and inflection -- part rejection, part recognition and part-too-cool-to-decide, post- means both hello and goodbye. Sort of like “aloha,” if we weren’t all very post-kitsch.
Which would be kind of cute if post- weren’t attached to some pretty large and significant concepts. The danger of the post-er generation is that rhetoric will replace reality -- the success of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” may make society seem very post-gay, but as the recent split in the Episcopal Church over the appointment of its first openly gay bishop proves, all is not what it seems.
Like the original postmodernists, many of the current post-ers began with specific, and honorable, intent. When David Hollinger, professor of history at UC Berkeley, coined the term “post-ethnic,” he did it with much thought, because, he said, the alternative terms seemed too purposefully vague and he did not want to be misconstrued as anti-ethnic. Using the term “post” to connote a specific group, he said, is often an attempt to move past a specific experience, which often includes oppression, without jettisoning the cohesion of the group.
“You use the word ‘black’ and that is a very real thing, a description of a collective experience,” he said. “So the concept of post-black takes that into account.”
“People don’t want to descend into some sort of ridiculous universality. They want to retain a sense of solidarity with people who share a historical destiny, but they don’t want individuals to be confined by it.”
People prefer a self-ascribed label to a culturally assigned term, he said. There is, too, a hopefulness to “post-" anything, an almost wistful belief that if people act as if the certain barriers have been broken down, well, then they have.
Statistics regarding cross-cultural marriages and mixed heritage children show that “post-ethnic” is a fairly accurate description of trends in America. Conversations about race certainly acknowledge diversity within racial groups in a way they never did during the 1960s or ‘70s, while Proposition 54 on California’s fall ballot is aimed at making ethnic descriptions virtually illegal. But, Hollinger said, this doesn’t mean that we are post-discrimination or post-confusion.
“Every once in a while, someone will be stupid enough to say ‘it’s actually happened,’ ” Hollinger said. “Which is why we have to bend over backward to prove we’re not saps. We know we’re not there yet.”
In some cases, however, it seems as if we’ve been there and back again.
“I consider myself a post-post-feminist,” said Anne Clark Bartlett, associate professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago. “Post-feminism is predicated on forgetting feminism -- let’s just forget the past and come together with all new conceptions. But you can’t ignore what tore apart previous coalitions; without a knowledge of history, you’re doomed.”
Bartlett, who recently wrote a paper for the Midwest Modern Language Assn. called “Post-feminism as an Ideology of Cool,” believes that the whole post- thing is an attitude more than an ideology. Post-feminism, she said, is essentially a rejection of victimhood -- sexually independent Power Grrrrl vs. Betty Friedan’s trapped and doped-up suburban housewife.
“It’s uncool to be part of the old guard,” Bartlett said. “But you also don’t want to be considered ‘pre-.’ Post- allows you to refuse assigned identity."Bartlett said she sees this too-cool-to-join-up attitude among her students but finds it an empty ideology. “As I have gotten older I’ve learned that you have to accept that there is no pure position,” she said. “You have to be flexible -- you have to make alliances and you have to know where you come from.”
An ideology in its own right
Lately, however, the post- mentality seems a little less politically pointed, a bit more of an extension of a pop culture that idles high and relies on weekly lists to inform participants what’s in, what’s out and what’s soooo five minutes ago. At its worst, post- is the aesthetic of a generation waiting for the next really good Super Bowl commercial. At its best, it sends a clear message that certain attitudes and sets of behavior -- sexism, racism, homophobia, imperialism -- are no longer socially acceptable.
Simon Dumenco writes a media column for Folio, a magazine about the magazine industry, and is an editor at large for New York magazine. He also owns a T-shirt that simply says “Post,” which he believes has become an ideology in its own right.
“Everyone’s done nostalgia and the postmodern thing,” he said. “No one’s pushed beyond the existing paradigms, but we’re all so over them. We just haven’t invented the next big thing in terms of theory.”
Most people, Dumenco said, feel so disenfranchised from our political system -- “post-political” -- that they simply refuse to participate. Or, in the case of California’s gubernatorial-recall race, they refuse to participate in a traditional ways. The 135 candidates, who range from porn actress to lieutenant governor, could be considered just another incarnation of the direct-dial culture that has taken hold in the past few years.
Reality TV, “American Idol” and individual iPod programming with absolutely no snob boundaries has turned popular culture truly populist -- everyone gets to vote like so many emperors at the Colosseum and attitudes change overnight. How lowbrow can we go? Well, any society in which “Blind Date” receives any ratings at all seems pretty much post-low.
“There’s a real breaking down of definitions in general,” Dumenco said. “There’s an increasing tendency in the media to just throw stuff against the wall to see if it will stick, and everything’s just sort of blending together. Look at Eminem. Look at who’s listening to Eminem -- middle-aged white guys.”
If this sounds messy, well, Darwin never gave evolutionary points for neatness. In youth culture, especially, the highbrow/lowbrow divide increasing has no meaning at all, the black/white division is dissolving, the urban/suburban division is dissolving and, as for the gay/straight dichotomy, forget it.
In terms of the cultural conversation, the Supreme Court’s recent dismissal of sodomy laws was more final punctuation than preamble. In the last year, homoerotic male models, waxed glossy and stripped to their skivvies, once more made the rounds in Abercrombie & Fitch at Christmastide; “single mom” Rosie O’Donnell finally publicly acknowledged her partner, now mother of O’Donnell’s fourth child; and Bert Archer, author of the newly published “The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality)”, declared us not just post-gay, but post-straight as well."You’ve got 16-year-olds in Ohio getting their chests waxed and pumping steroids,” Dumenco said. “You’ve got straight guys who are gayer than the gay guys.”
All of which he believes is a Very Good Thing. “We’re looking for movements,” he added. “But there may not be any movements because now it’s all about the mixing. There are no more definitions. That’s the definition.”
Is the term accurate?
Yet while post- makes good cultural conversation, some people worry that terms like “post-gay” or “post-black” are not only inaccurate -- how can someone actually be post-black? -- but dangerous. Many of these political identities were claimed as the first step in overthrowing oppression, of destroying social, economic and legal disparities. To say that society is “post-gay” when most people’s health plans certainly are not hints at a cultural shell game -- look at our magazine ads, not our adoption laws or hate-crime records.
“In reality, we’re not post-feminism or post-gay,” DePaul’s Bartlett said. “At this university, for example, there are no spousal benefits for domestic partners. We’re working on it, but this is a Catholic university. Maybe we’re post strict identity politics, but I wonder how much identity politics goes on under another term.”
Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York, has researched and written extensively on issues related to gender and race, and he is unconvinced that we are post-anything.
“There may be a growing black middle class,” said Hacker, author of “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal” and “Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men,” “but most of those people don’t work for private business. Most need two incomes just to get to the suburbs -- and those new black suburbs do not, for the most part, have the kind of elite high school that is the gold measure of a good suburb.
Neither do we have equality for women, who still pay what Hacker calls “the marriage penalty.” “Women who make $100,000 or more are by and large divorced or single -- because you still cannot be married and have a family and succeed in business.”
What Americans do have, Hacker said, is a collective identity crisis. “You look at the suburbs of Denver or Seattle and there’s a post- for you. Post-ethnic neighborhood. In the past, people knew who they were -- they were Irish or from Alabama. Now we figure out who we are by shopping. And people can shop for ideas as well.”
Post- is an interesting concept, he said, but the power elite is much as it ever was, straight male-dominated and very Anglo. It’s the media, he said, that have changed. In the past year, “soft” issues like the New Virginity, Wives Who Out-Earn Their Husbands, the Cult of Harry Potter and the Truth About Diets have been on the cover of national news magazines.
“The media now covers less hard news and more cultural stuff,” he said. “The cover of Time or Newsweek used to be the secretary of treasury. Now, who even knows who that is? It’s all about lifestyle. So the media needs new trends, always new trends.”
But the media have ever reflected the social psyche, and we are now far too media-savvy, too self-surveying and informed to leave analysis to future historians. We will declare our own Renaissance, our own Reformation, thank you, and do it in Real Time. And as technology outstrips philosophy and morality at every turn, who can blame us? It’s a natural impulse to want to control whatever we can, even if it is just a momentary self-definition.
In a way, the “post"-ing of America is simply a nationwide example of how difficult it is to describe certain patterns of human thought, creativity and action -- as with art, we know what we like when we see it, but it’s awfully hard to put into words sometimes. The next big thing may not quite have taken shape yet, but there is a preferred point on the horizon.
“Post"-ing, Hollinger said, “is not so much a matter of ‘moving past’ something, but rather of defining just where one wants to go next.”
Without quite letting go of the last recognizable signpost.