Obituary of worldviews

Culture | Death of postmodernism & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Charity begins at home," May 16, 1998

Jean-Francois Lyotard, who helped build the postmodernist movement out of the Paris Riots of 1968, died last month. This French philosopher wrote the book on postmodernism-literally. La Condition Postmoderne (The Postmodern Condition), published in 1979, broke the news that the modern world was finished. No single story, whether told by Moses, Marx, or MTV, could explain human society. All that remains are language games that are manipulated by elites. Once upon a time, Mr. Lyotard said, the Enlightenment promised us that science would liberate us from our mythologies. All human knowledge would be unified in one big grand theory. But as science grew, it divided into disciplines that soon could no longer understand each other. That broke up the union. Throw in art, religion, politics, and the humanities with their own competing paradigms. Then add the countless differences between cultures and, hoo boy, truth is in trouble. "Let us wage a war on totality," wrote Mr. Lyotard, who had almost become a Dominican monk before heading for the Sorbonne. Kiss those metanarratives goodbye. Mr. Lyotard said that truth may be dead, but knowledge is still big business. As computers get smaller and multinational corporations get bigger, facts and figures become the new currency of the postmodern world. That means power moves toward those who control information: experts, managers, and administrators. These pointy-headed bosses stare at a computer screen, make a decision, and call it reality. We've all heard this before, but in 1979 this was hot stuff. Soon postmodernism itself became a metanarrative. Endless subcultures and pressure groups-from AIDS activists to sci-fi fans-stood up to be counted. Forget the old stories they said, we must tell our own tales. Nobody has a lock on the truth, right? Now that everybody has become so busy writing their own noble fictions, ideas like Mr. Lyotard's have become clichés. Besides, all that pomo verbiage gets tedious fast. It's much easier to live postmodernism than to read postmodernist books. Still postmodern after all these years
The rise of postmodernism hit movies like an oncoming freight train. A few missed the fall. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone celebrated hoodlums, violence, and pop culture in a series of movies that littered the '90s. The pair celebrated low-budget schlock movies by making big-budget schlock movies and calling them art. They never realized that all that Pulp Fiction was merely a fad. The blood, guts, and way-cool references simply couldn't be topped anymore. So thoughtful filmmakers moved toward more existential subjects in movies like The Ice Storm, Ponette, and Good Will Hunting. But nobody told Oliver Stone. Last fall he churned out U-Turn (rated R for strong violence, sexuality, and language), a movie so hip, so cynical, so unwatchable that even his fans turned against him. Now his studio is trying to salvage the picture on home video and the midnight movie circuit. Yet before U-Turn's release, the men behind it thought so highly of their dead-end movie they published the screenplay in book form. The story is about a gambler (Sean Penn) whose cheery red convertible breaks down in a backwater town. Like the rest of small-town America to the Hollywood mind, Superior, Ariz., is backward and full of loonies. All the people there are half-witted, coarse, and bitter. Every restaurant has a jukebox that plays old Patsy Cline records 24 hours a day. They don't even have Wal-Mart. A messed-up woman (Jennifer Lopez) and her rotten husband (Nick Nolte) are trying to kill each other. Add a bumbling sheriff, a couple of misbegotten teenagers, and an auto mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) thrown in for all the fixings of a pomo cliché-fest. Mr. Stone-the man behind Platoon, JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers-overcooks this movie with endless sweat, flashbacks, and rapid-fire close-ups. Small wonder U-Turn hit a dead end at the box office. Not that sanity has prevailed, mind you, but everything gets old sometime. Here's hoping a few future filmmakers pick up Mr. Stone's rewrite of John Ridley's story in bookstores and learn not to repeat history. Good riddance to a bad genre. The virtue of selfishness revisited
Becoming the leader of a herd of individualists sounds like a contradiction, but Ayn Rand did it. Objectivism, her dogmatic brand of libertarianism, is one of the most popular non-Christian creeds on the American Right. Ms. Rand's tale is told in a feature-length documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (Strand Releasing, unrated). This authorized biography, which earned filmmaker Michael Paxton an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, is much like objectivism. It's momentarily appealing but quickly turns immature and one-dimensional. The story is simple. Ms. Rand emigrates from the Soviet Union to find wealth and happiness on the American bestseller lists. Mr. Paxton's love of his subject shows in the endless details he loads into 145 minutes. It's as if he's cramming his audience for a test to be held right after the show. Mr. Paxton gets so bogged down in the details of Ms. Rand's life-like her obsessions with ragtime music, Manhattan skyscrapers, and Gary Cooper-that he leaves her philosophy in a mishmash. He notes that her books sell 300,000 copies a year, but he never explains why. Narration by Sharon Gless (Cagney from Cagney & Lacey) is mixed with hundreds of photographs and clips of Ms. Rand. There's also running commentary from Objectivist talking head Leonard Peikoff and other Friends Of Ayn. Everything spins Ms. Rand as a great artist and prophet of true Americanism. The rest of this hagiography is a whitewash. None of her critics are taken seriously. The film even claims her husband Frank was so dumb he drove her into adultery. After a long chain of sound bites, we discover that she hates both Christianity and Communism for the same reason: They require the self to sacrifice itself to a higher power. The eternal I is all-important. To give oneself for another-even in marriage-is evil. In a world of relativism, Ayn Rand found an absolute. Too bad for her, it was the wrong one. Lilith, Adam's alleged first wife
Forget chick flicks. Today's big thing is chick music. A national tour called Lilith Fair has taken Lollapolloza's spot as the king, er queen, of American rock festivals. Traveling to 57 cities across America this summer, this event promises three stages filled with over 50 different acts-all female. Performers include Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Sinead O'Connor, Joan "What If God Was One of Us?" Osborne, and the lesbian supergroup Indigo Girls. Lilith Fair proclaims a diversity of styles. But most of the music is nicknamed "coffeehouse pop." That's the angst-ridden singer-songwriter stuff that calls itself alternative music. That means no divas allowed. After looking at the lineup, one almost longs for Trisha Yearwood. Proceeds go to such chic chick charities as Planned Parenthood (who else?), an AIDS awareness group called Lifebeat, and a DC activist group called WOW (Wider Opportunities for Women). As usual, where there is left-wing anti-establishment radical politics there are corporate sponsors. This year's Lilith Fair gets GenX-hungry brand names like Levi's, Tower Records, and VH1. Starbucks Coffee is cashing in too, selling festival CDs, caps, and T-shirts in their stores and running concession stands at the concerts. The whole "celebration of women in music" was created by Sarah McLachlan, whose depressing ditties often get one-word titles like "Black," "Trust," "Touch," "Circle," "Fear," "Ice," "Gargle," "Swish," and "Spit." At Lilith Fair, the mainstream and the underground wrap themselves in a pink bow and become an acoustics-driven mess. Such shrink-wrapped pseudoculture should be no shock. Both the establishment and anti-establishment have shared the same creed for decades. Today the two are interchangeable. If watered-down feminism sells more Frappuccinos, so much the better.

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