Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Interview with Alan Kirby by M K Harikumar


Alan Kirby is a specialist in 20th-century literature and culture. He holds degrees from Oxford, the Sorbonne, and Exeter universities, and is currently working in Oxford. His first monograph, "Digimodernism", an exploration of cultural shifts in the aftermath of postmodernism, is published by Continuum on 1st July.

An exploration of cultural shifts in the aftermath of postmodernism

1] Your statement is '' post modernism is dead and buried''- how?

The statement has slightly different meanings in the various contexts where it can be applied. As a set of aesthetic practices, postmodernism appears old-fashioned and exhausted, uninteresting and irrelevant to today’s creators. As a sociohistorical account of our times it has been subsumed into a changed contemporary landscape; its points of reference are now remote from us. Philosophically, its concerns and strategies no longer fascinate and excite with the energy they formerly summoned, and many have been absorbed into the past history of thought. The superannuation of postmodernism has been announced by figures as diverse as Linda Hutcheon, Charles Jencks, Gilles Lipovetsky, Raoul Eshelman and Nicolas Bourriaud; it has been the subject of an exhibition at the Tate in London and a special issue of Twentieth-Century Literature. Nevertheless, traces of the old do linger on, often in mutated or buried form.

2] What is digimodernism, in a nutshell?

The simplest definition of digimodernism is that it describes the cultural impact of the encounter of new digital technologies with textual forms. It is the successor to postmodernism, but the two are not equivalent: digimodernism does not refer to an historical period, nor is it a collection of techniques or styles which artists may choose (or not) to adopt. Instead, it denotes the range of effects produced on the text and hence on culture and art of the passage through them of the wave of digitization, a process commonly thought to be as far-reaching as the invention of the printing press but which may turn out to be as momentous as the birth of writing.

4] Is the author still alive?

The author, erased and diminished by poststructuralism, and compromised and tarnished by postmodernism, is restored by digimodernism but in almost unrecognizable form. Digimodernist authorship is not the prerogative of some solitary, transcendent individual, and is neither venerated nor undermined. Instead, it is plural, social, and anonymous, multiple but not communal; it is distributed across varying levels of decisiveness, an unknowable number of contributors, and an unpredictable range of locations. The site of a swarming and uncontainable creativity and energy, it seems ubiquitous, dynamic and acute, and simultaneously nowhere, pseudonymous and untraceable.

5] In the 'takes the world away' world, how does a story work?

Classical realism is superannuated, transformed by modernism and undercut by postmodernism. And yet postmodernist antirealism now seems old-fashioned and bankrupt too: the narrative that points to its own construction, that doubts and sabotages its own ontology – this was not a trick that could be pulled off forever. Nevertheless, story itself is indestructible. Where does narrative go in the aftermath of these alternatives? One possibility, explored by 21st-century American cinema, is a compound of myth, allegory, drama, and fairy tale. Such narratives generate and sustain their own reality-system; they produce a world which resonates with ours but is independent of it. Seen in the long historical perspective, such a story reinvigorates the narrative structures of pre-modern societies. The Homeric, the Arthurian, or the Swiftian now seem strangely contemporary, at least in their shape and ontology. Post-Enlightenment bourgeois realism, which was challenged, renewed and extended by modernism, and then turned inside out by postmodernism, is now repudiated from a third direction. Yet contemporary narrative is a mishmash of old and new, reliant on electronic-digital technology as much as it refurbishes templates almost as ancient, in some cases, as literacy itself.

6] What will be the aim of a writer, in the digimodernist conception?

The challenge faced by a contemporary writer is to generate high-quality material from the altered landscape which s/he inhabits. The aim must be not to “make it new” but to “make it good”. Digimodernism is produced technologically; it is derived from the onward surge of computerization in whose path an artist may choose to stand. It is a primarily textual revolution, a reinvention of the mechanics of the text, rather than an aesthetic or historical turn. One does not then find digimodernism necessarily in the work of self-consciously “cutting-edge” artists, but in a universally-accessible negotiation with the forces of digitization. The outcome of that negotiation can be texts which are banal and mindless, or brilliant and profound; this is the horizon of the digimodernist writer.

7] How can we break the modern and post modern notions of aesthetics?

For the artist the process is relatively simple: by historicizing modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, by seeing them as products of and rooted in a finished era, the artist can move beyond them and work from within a changed artistic landscape. Critically, matters are more complex. Modernist aesthetics and texts retain within their fields a sociocultural prestige, even supremacy, in spite of postmodernism’s vigorous attempts to deflate and dethrone them. Postmodernist aesthetics themselves were, to an extent, the expression of economic and social forces which are still largely with us. Extricating ourselves from the stranglehold of either will therefore be difficult, but accepting that their necessary authority is broken may be the first step.

8] Is literature outdated?

It would be truer to say that the notion of the obsolescence of literature is itself obsolete. As characterized by John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967), postmodernism constructed itself as a form of writing that arrives after the conclusion of the literary main event. The classical achievement of literature was said to be over, and postmodernism its inheritor. This formed part of a broader discourse of “endings” and “deaths” which became a recognizable feature of postmodernism and, for a time, fashionable. In retrospect, though, the claim was parochial, both in time and space, and served only to register one of the immediate consequences of the seismic historical shifts which shook the West between 1914 and 1945. Nevertheless, certain versions of the literary have become outdated as literature adapts to changes in the world around itself. Digimodernism provides a new and specific challenge, that of a complete reformulation of the mechanics of the text. On the whole, I would say that, at least in English, literature is more vibrant and interesting in the 2000s than it was forty years earlier, though it has hardly begun to absorb the impact of this contemporary textual revolution.

9] Can television or the Internet alone cater for the needs of a reader?

The social decline of reading was explored and condemned by 1970s-80s’ cultural commentators such as Christopher Lasch and Allan Bloom. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, the Internet has generated a vast quantitative rise in reading, in the number of hours spent deciphering written text. The quality, both of that reading and of much of that text, is less clear, though. We live in an age of fascination with the possibilities of computerized text, to such an extent that television has been restructured, away from the music hall or vaudeville antecedents which influenced its incarnation in the 1950s-60s, in the direction of Web 2.0 (interactive television). What is interesting is that digimodernism has caused the status of various forms to shift. In postmodernism’s heyday, when what Fredric Jameson called “above all a visual culture” reigned supreme, it was assumed that television would drive radio to near-extinction. In the 1980s, MTV’s endless cycles of music videos epitomized a depthless dominant culture of the spectacle. Twenty years later the music video is dead as an art form, MTV fills its schedules with reality TV, and radio – liberated by digital technology – is experiencing a second golden age. The future status of literature is currently being shaped by revolutions in publishing and reading, and remains to be settled.

10] How can we read the old classic novels?

The emergence of digimodernism is consonant, it seems to me, with the recent and remarkable rise in the profile and popularity of Jane Austen, whose narrative shapes (what I call “endlessness”) appear highly compatible with contemporary tastes in fictional form. The 2007 film The Jane Austen Book Club suggests a more tactful, modest, and pragmatic approach to classic literature than the politicized ultra-skepticism often associated with postmodernism’s take on its literary inheritance. Valentine Cunningham has outlined such an attitude in his Reading after Theory.

12] What is your conception of language?

The question is a pertinent one because cultural postmodernism relied, through its philosophical wing or interrelationship with post-structuralism, on a certain conception of language. As Jameson and others showed, cultural postmodernism was consonant with a specific evolution in Saussurian linguistics. To move beyond postmodernism it may then be necessary to displace that conception of language or to supplement it with others. My personal preference is for the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, which is partially, though not wholly, compatible with the post-Saussurian approach. Its hardheadedness and robustness offer a way forward from such an approach which has yet to be properly explored.


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1 comment:

Jayan said...

An aesthetic move with zero accident

m k harikumar