Postmodernism has ruled nearly all contemporary cultural discussion for decades. However, its reign is being challenged by emerging trends in the arts, politics, and beyond. Rather than create works in search of truth, new artists and society in general is embracing grand narratives with the knowledge that they do not fully capture reality. Instead of denouncing myth, people are believing it.
Fantasy constructs reality — people experience the world in their own unique contexts. Whether those fantasies are large-scale national ideals or individual persecution complexes, they create our unique experiences and therefore, our distinct personal worlds.
However, discussion around the behavior of society, culture, nations and individuals normally depends on the assumption of a shared reality; societies of all levels are made up by shared values. People cooperatively develop this reality through their shared experiences and in the opportunities provided to them by an increasingly complex world.
Contemporarily, the development of our shared and individual perceptions of reality, as well as the discussions are them, depend on postmodern infrastructure.
While postmodernism can be tricky to describe, it is rooted in the pursuit of truth, after grand narratives which claimed to hold such a thing literally blew up during a few World Wars. It should be fair to say postmodernism is at its core, skeptical. By rejecting other grand narratives while embracing a mistrust of anything but itself, postmodernism has managed to become and incredibly influential means of analyzing the world, reflected by the popularity of nihilistic shows like Rick and Morty or philosophers like Žižek. Postmodern thought seeks truth while rejecting any paths towards it.
However, emerging trends in modern popular culture and art seem to reject the postmodern lens. Marked by a disregard for reality, a solemn acceptance of violence as an integral part of the social world and fading formal human figures as a result of those two factors: new trends are challenging postmodernism’s reign as the sole ‘truth without truth,’ in favor of a newer ‘fantasy as reality’ context for people unfortunate enough to live in the twenty-first century to understand their world with.
Postmodernism originated from modernism’s attempts to rationalize World War One, culminating in the rejection of traditional institutions like the church or family. Confronted with the atrocities which then-new industrialized warfare was capable of committing, 1920s society sought to reconcile traditional and religious beliefs with a newfound violent reality.
World War One simply shattered what was then the truth, and modernists sought to put it back together in a way that would work, given their new reality filled with mustard gas and movies.
Postmodern thought is an extension of those ideals, characterized by a mistrust in all grand narratives and attempts to rationalize our reality. The postmodernist mantra is that everything has been done before, and nothing worked — having removed its rose-colored glasses, society can no longer see. Despite its skepticism towards anything claiming to be truth, postmodernism does share a reverence for it; postmodernism still falls under a modernist umbrella in that postmodern thought is concerned with truth, despite its uncertainty that truth can ever be realized.
Disregard for Reality
Emergent cultural trends are surrendering that search, willingly treating fantasies as truth. Whereas postmodernists fumble around blindly, moving from one philosophy to the next while refusing to don rose-colored glasses — people are putting the glasses back on. They are recognizing fantasies as such, but they are allowing shared fantasies to operate as reality regardless.
While the rise of misinformation campaigns and general ‘Fake News’ may seem like perfect examples of this, the trend stretches further back into days of Internet yore, when trolling was a pastime instead of a career. It was once a kind of roleplay unusually insistent on being taken as real life for the purpose of upsetting other people. It was a game.
Now, the line between playfulness and seriousness has blurred into reality as misinformation campaigns continue to wreck real consequences. A troll could be a ten-years-old miscreant just as much as they could be a Russian operative or anyone in between, either can still fuel the Rohingya genocide or devastate democratic institutions across the world.
In a similar vein, ‘fake news’ is now being substituted for arguments where ideology fails. It straddles the line between reality and fantasy in support of specific, and real, interests. Hillary Clinton and the democrats were not accused of being involved in an underground child sex trafficking operation because evidence pointed to it ; they were accused because the story was more impactful than arguments against their policies. If she were involved in such a heinous thing, then the people against her would be more justified in being so.
People are motivated to believe nonsense in the interest of self-preservation, so that they’re unique fantasies-as-realities may not be shattered. It is a powerful motivator, and the rise of American fake news is the only logical thing to come out of a new administration treating political office in the way he has his entire life — as a reality show. People do not watch reality shows to glimpse into the lives of others, but to revel in their own. It’s why the genre is so bad, so that people feel better about themselves.
Political institutions similarly do not share the same reverence for truth that postmodernism does, and real policies are drafted around only the best fantasies. Truth is just what someone can argue best for to political figures and contemporary society — what is true is simply the best fantasy.
This disintegration between reality and fantasy has also leaked into the offline world as extremist groups rise in the U.S. Far-right and far-left groups, claiming to be fascists and anarchists respectfully, have popped up in college-towns and large cities, both hubs of cultural trends. However, despite openly claiming to be extremists, neither group behaves as such. They wear extremist colors and chant extremist slogans, but they do not behave extremely. Anarchists have not brought Molotov cocktails to a protest in a while, and fascists are still relying on state support for their speeches.
Not just liars, these groups are blameless hypocrites. They are merely mimicking the political reality of our time.
Normalization of violence
Hypocrisy is seemingly ingrained into the basic foundation of any modern democratic system. Politicians lie like people breathe — and while that has been the basic assumption of any modern political system, the weight of lies from the powerful is beginning to take its toll.
Politicians are meant to do more than represent communities in legislative arenas; they are expected to protect their communities through social and political movements, drafting policies meant to serve people. However, as lobbyists and interest groups fill the halls of Capital Hill, communities are being nudged out of political discourse.
The human rights sector, arguably one of the more community-oriented groupings of interest groups, gave around $3.6 million to Congress. Interest groups for lawyers, a niche type of interest groups that is in itself removed from typical communities gave $41.6 million, and leadership PACs, used to advance political careers which most people cannot relate to, gave $23.1 million.
It is impossible for towns, cities, or even regions to outspend larger interests when it comes to earning representatives’ ears, and money speaks louder than any speech. So, politicians serve interest groups more than communities — they are the servants of ideology, force-feeding doctrines to the groups they hold power over.
Without proper representation, communities are drowning in a wild, ideological sea. Driven by interest groups who demand zealotry from those they represent and the politicians they control — communities have become little more than battlegrounds between differing ideologies. They now only seem to exist to build zealot armies.
Lacking political representation to protect them, individuals have decided to protect themselves through this political turmoil, and that drive for self-preservation has manifested in incidents of catastrophic violence.
Granted, there are a myriad of reasons a person may commit heinous crimes, including mental illness or the sheer availability of guns, but more pressing is the issue that no progress is being made on solving any of these factors.
Beyond gun violence, there has also been a distinct lack of progress towards solving issues such as climate change or inequality; many of society’s issues now seem insurmountable, eternal. Out of the impossibility to solve contemporary issues comes a new problem — a lack of progress. The greatest problem of our time is the inability to solve problems.
Where there is no progress towards solving issues on a policy or social level, violence becomes a viable solution. To people who commit tragedy, violence is an expression of a loss of faith that someone, somewhere is working to help them. It is the admission that things will not get better.
The hypocrisy of politicians claiming to represent communities while serving ideology guarantees that they will abandon their communities and make no progress towards helping their constituents — that abandonment and hypocrisy convinces violent people that there is no future for them.
Worse, hypocrisy is so deeply engrained in all contemporary political systems so that persecuting it would dismantle the system itself. Firing all the hypocritical politicians would mean getting rid of all politicians. Engrained hypocrisy is intrinsic to society as a whole, and contemporary art and pop culture is not shy to it.
Without political representation to turn to, people are turning to artistic representations of their lives for reprieve from an increasingly violent society. Through memes, movies with thinly veiled political connotations, and art pieces with similar politically charged ideals, it is as if people are screaming into the void for help, since people aren’t heard by anyone else anyway.
Donald Glover’s This is America (don’t worry, this is just an example. I am not writing yet another think-piece on the music video) embraces the violence embedded within society through its rapid switching between its gospel-music rhythms and imagery of smiling communities like the nine choir singers, and the heavy, bullet-laden beat the song is now known for. Glover does not seem to draw a line between the two styles, embracing the fact that the separation between peaceful and violent society has blurred to nothing in the face of rampant, ideological hypocrisy. The music video and the song are nothing without the violence they share with images of community and the representation they portray of America as a whole.
Helena, the art installation by Marco Evarisitti in 2000, was just goldfish swimming in plugged-in, fully-functioning blenders. Audience members were given the opportunity to turn the blenders on and make fish smoothies, which they inevitably did. The exhibit did more than illustrate the fragile illusion of non-violence, claiming that communities and people as individuals are trapped in inherently violent worlds, but also illustrated the ease at which powerful people and ideologies can trigger violence in communities.
Moreover, the exhibit also depicted how entangled opportunity and violence is — the audience were only given the opportunity to commit violence, and while acting on it would have provided a deeper experience of the exhibit, it also committed an animal rights tragedy. There is an argument to be made that Helena claimed that the opportunities supposed to be afforded by political systems have been inherently tainted, since people who take them ultimately engage in an intrinsically violent society, sacrificing their community to continued ideological torture.
Finally, Night in the Woods, a video game about furries in a town which blatantly represents middle-America, features similar thematic elements on violence. At one point, Mae, the protagonist, and her friends stumble across a random arm as they leave a diner. They poke it with a stick before a police officer demand they go home and try to stay safe, noting that strange things are afoot (or a-hand. Heh, get it? Because of the arm…). However, the arm quickly loses relevancy with the rest of the plot until the end, when another person loses their arm in a brief run-in with a violent group of ex-coal miners who sacrifice people to the false memory of what the town used to be, before it fell victim to the twenty-first century.
The sheer disregard Mae and her friends have towards finding an arm in the road is alarming. The same is true of the agreement at the end of the game between the group not to discuss the mysterious group they managed to kill in a mine collapse. These grand instances of violence are shrugged off like the shifts at work they all complain about throughout the narrative.
In This is America, Helena, and Night in the Woods, violence is accepted as intrinsic to existence in the world. Especially in the latter example, the memory of a world not governed by hypocrisy haunts contemporary society, leading to the solemn acceptance of violence not only as the sole, effective recourse for the absence of progress towards solving problems, but also as an inherent part of modern life.
Fading Human Forms
The latter example also demonstrates the final aspect of post-postmodern trends in contemporary culture — a fading human form. A Night in the Woods is a furry game, combining themes of mental illness with cute anthropomorphic animals pretending to be people in what seems like a grand homage to furries everywhere (the fact that I enjoyed playing it is making me question things, but that’s a post for another time).
It does not matter that Mae, the protagonist, is a cat. She is still remarkably human as she struggles to comprehend a tumultuous, starved world in the most human of activities — to organize reality into something meaningful. Through her dreams involving deeply metaphorical and symbolic characterizations as well as her sudden ‘loss of meaning’ in the game’s final sequences, the developers illustrate an impressively human trait: meaning-making.
In the same stroke, her attempts and failures to construct an internal representation of a world that just recently lost its meaning demonstrates the consequences of losing the ability to make meaning out of things. She drops out of college and assaults someone with a baseball bat for seemingly no reason. Basically, she’s schizophrenic in a Hollywood sense of the diagnosis, and through that pseudo-diagnosis the game creators dance between the lines of humanity and inhumanity — of cat and person.
The developers’ decision to abandon physical humanity for an anthropomorphic cat in an attempt to more effectively portray the intangible aspects of humanity is parallel to countless, more literal interpretations of the phrase ‘fading human form.’ Scattered throughout Reddit’s art community are pieces like these, portraits featuring subjects whose physical form seems to be fragmented in some way or another, and yet still maintain their humanity.
While these pieces can evoke discussion around whether these subjects are more or less human due to their physical deformity, there is more to discuss in a socio-political and psychological lens.
It can be assumed that as communities are torn apart by the contemporary ideological climate, people as individuals can lose some of their ability to relate to others.
Since ye ol’ days of Freud, it was understood that individuality is developed only through relationships with others — first with caretakers, then with communities. His psychosexual stages of development depend on children’s relationships with others — initially dyadic with a caretaker before moving into a triadic, communal, relationship structure. Research after Freud may have rejected his theories, but still maintained the important role of interpersonal relationships in development.
These fading human forms may be considered attempts to portray the consequences of being unable to relate to others in a meaningful way. Losing relationships with others entails losing a part of one’s self; when people begin to lose a sense of who they are, they can no longer aspire to develop since there is no identity to tend to. Basically, if people lose their individuality, then they are little more than tamed animals, and individuation begins with how one relates to the world and to their community.
Since communities form the foundation of individual’s identities, the loss of a community leads to a radical form of expression without self-concept which challenges civility; expression without the self is animalistic. It is no coincidence that the best example for fading human forms without literal disfigurement comes from one of the most persecuted communities in America — black people.
(inb4 I’m racist because I’m talking about persecution as a privileged white guy. I’m not talking about persecution per se, but the effects of losing a sense of community on individuals and their identities, in a general sense. This is not just about black communities but all communities facing some form of pressure against their existence — which is a lot. Black communities are just the most salient examples due to … well … systemic racism and a few centuries of white guys systematically trying to strip black people of their heritage and ethnic identities. Sorry about that, by the way.)
This is America features Donald Glover moving in an unsettling sort of choreography that borders on intimidation. He struts and flexes in the way an animal might before it attacks. He faces the audience through the camera, letting his body speak for him to threaten them before pulling a trigger, fulfilling his unspoken promise.
His movements challenge the slick choreography typical of music videos. It is unpredictable and menacing, designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable. He stares at the camera as if challenging them, and the execution in the beginning is just one more way to warn the audience that he is ready for a fight.
Glover’s music video does less to demonstrate a fading human figure, but rather the form of movement associated with it. It is not fluid, civil or nonthreatening as expected of people and entertainers in general, but rather intimidates in an attempt to reclaim a sense of control over the chaotic world around him.
To Glover, civility can be a form of obedience, and lacking an acceptable community to be civil towards, it is better to be uncivil and uniquely control his own body, since he and the rest of the black community, and communities like them, can no longer claim to be able to control their modicum of the world.
Glover’s video demonstrates a less literal version of a fading human form in a sense of fading behavioral and representational normalcies rather than a literal form.
As people lose their sense of community and therefore pieces of themselves, they realize their own powerlessness in the world. Fading human forms in post-postmodern culture serves a twofold purpose: to demonstrate the loss of individual identity due to an inability to relate to others, and to demonstrate the realization of one’s own irrelevance in the world at large.
The memory of a time when people could impact their communities and influence change and progress generally still haunts contemporary times. Social and financial inequality have demonstrated that people as individuals are unable to impact the world. Socially, voting has been shown to be ineffective for motivating change, as seen in the 2016 election, and so-called democratic elections abroad such as in Russia and Turkey. Financially, stagnant wages in the face of the exorbitant dragon hoards of the rich alongside the decision that spending money is a form of speech have convinced people their speech is quantitatively less valuable than that of the wealthy.
None of this is new, however. Protests in the 1960s were slightly motivated by these realizations. However, to compensate for this intrinsic inequality people could organize on a communal level to influence change for social good; the harmony of shared voices could overcome the outbursts of loud individual voices. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and others demonstrated the power of people when they acted as one.
That socio-political organization depended on shared realities — shared problems to be solved. Now, it is impossible to tell the difference between playfulness and seriousness, between lies and truth. Contemporary reality is now that truth is merely that which can be best argued for, and with social media and various other platforms designed to allow as many people to speak as possible, arguing has become all anyone can do in an ideologically hostile media environment. There is no communally accepted truth, no reality, as long as people can argue on the scale at which they do now.
Reality and fantasy are inextricably intertwined after years of ideological assault on a necessarily digital battlefield.
While the Internet has provided people opportunities to connect with others on a massive, previously impossible scale — it has also inherently doomed organized efforts created to confront and solve issues. To make an impact, movements must be sustainable in the long-term. However, modern social and political movements are figuratively and literally virtual — blinking in and out of existence without making a lasting impact on anything.
Whereas efforts to solve issues were once organized at the community level, benefiting from the literal stability those communities provided, new virtual efforts have a short lifespan and quickly fall victim to ideological storms and people’s attention spans. There either is not enough time to ground movements in shared realities before people move onto the next problem, solving nothing, or the shared reality being developed is killed in the cradle by the same ideological zeitgeist threatening virtual and physical communities.
Without shared reality, and thus without agreement on what problems must be solved, people are unable to organize as they once could to compensate for individual irrelevance, leading to a general sense of powerlessness and thus, hopelessness.
Fading human forms are not only depictions of a loss of identity, but also depict people fading into the background of the world; worse than being unable to spur change, people are becoming the things being changed by those who can afford to do so.
It is difficult to characterize these three contemporary traits of contemporary culture as post-modern since they are not concerned with truth as other post-modern pieces are. They do not share the modernist urgency to seek something real. It seems plain that, to the creators of contemporary art and cultural goods, truth will not ‘save’ anyone. For them, truth is just that which can be argued for the best, and that is what all people can do now — argue. So, to succeed in the post-post-modern age, one must embrace fantasy for the purpose of refining it rather than defeat it.
The dragons of this contemporary movement in culture and beyond are not meant to be defeated; they drive it. Politicians do not lie because it serves them, but they now must lie to be politicians. People believe lies not because they are fools, but to survive.
It is not appropriate to label This is America, A Night in the Woods, or other renditions of contemporary trends as post-modern because they are not trying to reveal something and thereby defeat the dragons of falsehood and hypocrisy, but rather argue for themselves, becoming that which previous movements struggled against.
However, at the same time, truth is a central component in many of these new creations. Its purpose is just turned on its head; truth has become fantasy, and fantasy has become truth.
These contemporary trends are the opposite of modernism in the sense that they are negative versions of post-modern and modern dialectics. Strangely, modernist ideals are being turned on their heads while being preserved as ideals.
All this aside, post-modernism is still a loose concept difficult to define. There are arguments that these examples are extremely post-modern and are evidence of the term finally finding definition — that the fantasy of post-modernism is becoming a reality, however horrifying that may be. The truth of the matter is uncertain.