He wants to identify as a modernist, but modernism never invented things out of whole cloth – it took what existed and bent, folded and mutilated it. That’s the very nature of human consciousness, as the structure of language demonstrates – bricolage and juxtaposition. As the great modernist poet Wallace Stevens put it, “In the sum of the parts/ There are only the parts.”
What was new in postmodernism was to demystify that process – in a way to remove the remnant bits of 19th-century Romanticism that modernism carried. It’s surprising how little of the critical theory discussing that turn shows up in this book.
retromania: a roundtable with ann powers, carl wilson, and daphne carr - bookforum.com / miscellany
This is a must-read for anyone still processing Retromania (yeah, I know). Daphne Carr comes up with perhaps the best overall response in “I think the argument is too messy and contradictory [to frame future conversations or create a large turn in understanding the zeitgeist], which is, in some ways, why it has served as a perfect launchpad for a many different kinds of think pieces in the book’s press cycle.”
But what (internally inconsistent) mini-arguments they are!
In the quote up top, Carl Wilson nails one of the things that drove me nuts throughout—the fact that Reynolds, despite having gone through periods in which he was regularly citing Barthes, Lyotard, Baudrillard, etc. (check out Blissed Out and the earlier essays in Totally Wired), leans so exclusively on Fredric Jameson when it comes to what “modern” and “postmodern” mean.
He’s uncharacteristically quick to dismiss a lot of acts in this book on the grounds that their reuse of ideas is entirely hollow (Jameson’s notion of “pastiche”), which rings a little false to me for a few reasons. Here are three:
#1 is the point that Wilson makes: all art comes from old art—we’re just struggling with reconciling this concept to an attractive leftover from the Romantic era (and maintained somewhat in the modernist era), the author genius.
#2 is that, in developing this postmodern awareness of the borrowed nature of ideas, it doesn’t follow that artists will simply give up and imitate. When debates were regularly being had in the humanities over postmodernism (somewhat passe now, for whatever reason), Linda Hutcheon articulated a more positive view of postmodern reuse, basically, that truly postmodern use has a sense of historicity and critiques itself (and the reused elements) as it borrows. Naturally, determining which art is historically self-aware is a subjective act and, even from an individual standpoint, probably couldn’t be applied across the board. For instance, I detect self-aware humor in Will Sheff’s decision to make Okkervil River’s “Singer-Songwriter” an early Dylan soundalike (and arguably some in Dan Bejar’s recent turn to Avalon-era Roxy Music); I don’t hear the same level of irony in Interpol sounding an awful lot like Joy Division (I’d use a more recent example, but this one’s more concrete than, say, Toro Y Moi or Washed Out sounding like A Random 80s Synth Band). But…
#3 There’s also something to be said for developing one’s skills and expressive abilities as a musician working within a genre. There’s safety in genres, it seems. That is, we allow that many acoustic folky singer-songwriters work within fairly strict, self-imposed parameters under the assumption that they’re working in a tradition (interesting note—the great, but not particularly innovative, singer-songwriter John Darnielle gets a thanks in Retromania). Who’s to say that Joy Division-inspired post-punk isn’t a genre unto itself worth treating as a tradition? The self-imposed rules within these sorts of micro-genres are hypothetically no more restrictive than those governing acoustic folkies, who largely escape scrutiny when it comes to sonic innovation.