Defining Post-Modernism

Ever since around middle-school when precociousness set in and a few John Cage texts fell into my lap, I’ve always struggled with my working definition of post-modernism. Back then I didn’t want to betray my lack of comprehension with straight-forward questions: what is it? Though when I did explicitly ask the answer sailed over my head. The best clue until recently came from my sexology/cultural studies teacher L. Lewis who told me that “the existentialists passed the ball to the post-modernists.” Phenomenology and existentialism hold a lot of currency in my intellectual Rolodex of ideas and I can see how their efforts to reduce and locate this event in space-time ultimately crash into the wall of Sisyphean ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ angst. Thus post-modernism.

But I think I’ve broaden my understanding to include a more satisfying and illuminating range of ideas. I’m reading this text called Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture and it’s made me realize that post-modernism is about a new level of process-orientation-awareness. The pre-modern era, in the mythology of Kant and the Enlightened, is little child, lacking self-awareness. Modernism is realizing agency and taking an active role in the processes and patterns that human beings come to see as describing their behavior; in a way, self-awareness. Post-modernism, then, is becoming aware of and affecting the patterns and processes describing our way of becoming aware of and affecting the patterns and processes describing our behavior. I see a parallel in mathematics and physics in the idea of rates. The mind in the pre-modern era is about inertia, matter; in the modern era the focus shifts to constant speeds, velocity; and in the post-modern era it is about acceleration, or speed at which speed changes, the rates of rates of change.

It’s easy to see why so much of the literature comes off as convoluted and abstruse. It’s weird, highly referential way of seeing things, but it is a higher level of reality inasmuch as it’s a valid and logical representation of things, grounded ultimately in common-sense facts about the world. When I read this kind of high-minded literature I get sucked up into the myriad junctures of ideas at levels of abstraction at which I’m not used to thinking about things. All this language is a network of patterns extending human knowledge outwards, all of it constructed from base kernels of logic that seem innocent and unprovocative enough and yet you can blow them out to seemingly meaningless, irrelevant levels of discourse and the whole thing, the patterns of language, still maintain structural integrity.

It’s inspiring and somehow way more empowering than I had assumed to think of things on this level. The undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in this culture runs deep. I don’t know when I become affected by it. Thinking about my backyard in terms of process makes obvious what my top gardening priorities should be. This approach makes even more sense in music. I guess I wasn’t heavily influenced by the dogma of theory until recently, but I realize what a flawed paradigm it is in that it limits the motivic range of music to something unduly formal. Music takes on new meanings all the time! It’s deeply involved in and influenced by its environment! I should embrace the flexibility of meaning in music given context by looking to anticipate any and all environments into music. My next artistic priority: music with sophisticated mobility.


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