Who are the friends of the people, and how do they fight the post-modernists?

To Manuel Moreno Fraginals on his centennial

One. The term “postmodernism” —as a description of a society rather than a particular poetic or artistic movement— had already being used by Charles Wright Mills in the 1950s. I remember reading him more than three decades ago in Havana, with the background noise of the 1980s polemics that were shaking the island’s culture at the time. The debate on post-modernity did not arrive all alone. It came with the impact of perestroika, at the heyday of the first generation of artists born after the Revolution; with the official turn toward the West, now that danger was emerging from the East; with the search for the specific place of a Caribbean socialist country amid the simultaneous debacle of the modern world and the communist camp. There was a great amount of tension between an aging New Left based in Cuba and a flourishing New Right growing in the United States. There was also the incipient impact of a North Americanization to be taken into account which, through Cultural Studies, would end up dissolving anti-colonialism, the irruption of new social subjects or the revolution itself.

Submerged in that Cuban environment and under the effects of its accompanying maladies, I wrote a few little essays, two of which I have recently revisited. Like “Más acá del Bien y del Mal” [This Side of Good and Evil], subtitled precisely “The Cuban Mirror of Postmodernity”, now included in my book Cubantropía. Or “La Arquitectura Posible” [The Feasible Architecture], which introduced the exhibition “Arquitectura Joven Cubana” [Cuban Young Architecture] and appears in La Utopía Paralela [The Parallel Utopia].

I also recall the first time I stumbled upon the term “post-postmodernism” —if you don’t want “post” soup, brace yourself for a second helping. It was in Barcelona in the early nineties and I read it in an interview with David Bowie, who used it to explain why Mick Jagger borrowed from Lenny Kravitz in his album Wandering Spirits. A Warhol-like trick by which the influential took advantage of the influenced and turned the tables on him.

As usual, Bowie was almost 20 years ahead of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or the Reina Sofia in Madrid. And after two exhibitions —“Postmodernism. Style and Subversion. 1970-1990” and “From Revolt to Postmodernism. 1962-1982”— , at the onset of the second decade of the 21st century, both institutions declared postmodernism to be a chapter that had been closed.

Framed in the grid of the first world, such projects did not pay due attention to the wild post-modernism of the peripheries, which neither took place in post-industrial societies nor manifested itself exclusively as the cultural logic of late capitalism (although such issues were not entirely alien to it). In those landscapes, “the postmodern” functioned both as a legitimization of the pervading syncretism and as a culture of resistance —this is how Osvaldo Sánchez saw it in the Cuban case—; or to bring some oxygen into the struggle against different oppressions —external and internal, from the right and the left—, an agony embodied by Pedro Lemebel in Chile.

Far from American neoconservatism, French post-structuralism, weak Italian thought or German critical theory, postmodernism encouraged —beyond a hard northwestern core— an experiment in cultural democracy where news of political democracy barely filtered in. It served the same purpose for the countries of late Eastern European communism as it did for the South Americans, which were gripped by neoliberal dictatorships. It promoted the emergence of migrant poetics in the centers of the world and lent exposure to the incipient Chinese pop. It was essential for the “Afropolitans” in and out, and for the empowerment of popular cultures. It renewed the metaphors of insularity in the Caribbean and brought a passion for recycling and quoting that extended to music, plastic arts and architecture. More than a novelty, it was a validation of the mestizaje already present in Oswald Andrade’s anthropophagy or Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation, to mention two pioneering examples.

None of the above implies that postmodernism was a panacea to these regions. Or that it didn’t have its dose of posturing and complicity with a market in need of picturesque reinforcements. Or that it did not manifest itself many times as a copy of a copy, and as imperialist accompaniment —case in point, the cultural policy carried out by Operation Condor in the Southern Cone of Latin America. But it was a movement as varied as its critics, who ranged from Marxists to champions of the New Right, to tyrannies promoting strong identities, watchdogs of Cuban officialdom or remnants of the Frankfurt School.

How can we forget Habermas’s visit to the first Venice Architecture Biennial that resulted in his agonizing defense of modernity, 40 years ago. How can we not remember Cuando Ya No Importe [When It No Longer Matters], that novel by Onetti bitterly describing the opening of a Ronald Reagan Museum of Postmodern Argentinian Artists. How can we dismiss the fact that Carlos Fuentes referred to Subcomandante Marcos as a “postmodern guerrillero”, in the same way that Vázquez Montalbán described Hugo Chávez as a “postmodern caudillo”.

It is not a minor detail that, while “La Cultura” (with its capitalized solemnity) thought it had lost a lot to postmodernism, “las culturas” (in their arbitrary diversity) believed they had gained something from it. In that vein, Nelly Richard proclaimed that the time had come for “the crisis of the original and the revenge of the copy” and Wole Soyinka referred to an African “tigritude”. Aníbal Quijano found another possibility for utopia —for the mere fact of “ceasing to be what we had never been”— and Geeta Kapur set off the alarm about a carnival of appropriations that could end up dissolving identities in societies marked by colonialism.

From Mexico, Roger Bartra coined the concept of “dismodernity”, clarifying that we should not apply this term, taken from “dismothernism” instead of “dismodernism”, to Derrida’s deconstruction but to the idea of “desmadre” [utter chaos], something that we Latin Americans were more familiar with.

Two. After growing up in such desmadre, after my Cuban discovery of Wright Mills, after Bowie’s early pronouncement, after witnessing some venerable institutions certify the death of the postmodern, and after saying goodbye to the 20th century, I naively thought I could now sleep peacefully and move on to other matters. Especially, since I had ended up in a country like Spain, with little prominence in those debates, where a postmodern was nothing more than a degraded specimen of modernity: a “minor modern”.

But my dream fizzled out in the blink of an eye. And right away, I saw myself waking up with postmodernism by my side again. Together with other hovering ghosts, like the Cultural War and rampant neoconservatism, accusations of fascism or communism, gender discrimination claims or “non-complexism,” the canon and its anti-canon, exasperating lectures about authenticity and appropriation…

In terms of updates, if the previous Latin American controversy between “postmos” and “antipostmos” had taken place outside the nuclear space of this polemic, the Spanish debate today seems to be taking place outside of time. The former was eccentric; the latter, extemporaneous.

Is it the deep Spain, or the invertebrate, the empty, the emptied Spain…? Let us make room, too, for the anachronistic Spain.

If we were to apply right now the overused dramatic gimmick of the comatose state —like in the German film Good Bye Lenin or the Chinese novel Beijing in a coma— and someone woke up in this country after a more or less extended lethargy, he or she would believe that Reagan or Thatcher are still alive, that Jean-François-Lyotard has just published The Postmodern Condition; Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay; Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae; Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint

You might even think that the Cold War is still raging on.

This, like almost everything else, follows a pattern. After events such as its entry into NATO (1982), and the milestones of 1992 — the Barcelona Olympics and the Universal Exposition in Seville —, is there any Spanish attempt to get hooked on the world that is not post-modern? How can we describe, in politics, Aznar’s Atlantic front, catapulted by the performance that was the Perejil Island crisis, and the photo of the Azores? How to define Zapatero’s Alliance of Civilizations —a Deleuzian rhizome without origin or destination? What to say, in cultural terms, of Martirio, of Morente’s Omega album with Lagartija Nick, of Ricardo Bofill’s architecture, of the Nocilla Generation?

It is no accident that an attempt to revise Spanish modernity was called After the Rain (Eduardo Subirats); that an essay examining these paradoxes was titled Afterpop (Eloy Fernández Porta), or that one of the most read blogs on current politics is called Postpolitics (Esteban Hernández). All these examples, and some others, convey the awareness of a malaise typical of a culture that showed up at the banquet barely in time for dessert, with the cake already dished out.

Three: It may have to do with the fact that Spain entered modernity so early on (Marx said that without the conquest and colonization of America the first version of global capitalism would not have quickened). And also with the fact that Spain arrived late to a post-modernity in which it has not found much accommodation. As if it couldn’t get a foothold in the hub of the world and, at the same time, looked with dread to a periphery to which it’s being relegated without a fruitful discourse to accompany the fall.

Perhaps that’s why this renewed anger against what is considered “post-modern” represents, above all, the arrogance of fear — fear of ambiguity, of the fractional, of identities by choice, of the advance of a hybrid culture hard to fit into the mindset of an immutable Spain. In a facetious tone, here the “post” does not refer to a “posterior” entity but to a “diminished” magnitude. In fact, it is not usually used to qualify but to disqualify. Be it the trans or Catalan independence movement, the new LGTBQI identities or the post-communist left, the hipster limbo or the mixing with the “barbaric” cultures that threaten at the shore.

In this light, it is understandable for the “anti-postmodern” world to often draw from motifs such as the rural and the working class, nation and the people, war and bullfights. But, to what extent are these reparations not also postmodern quotes from a blurred world? Do they not constitute, perhaps, the remake of an essence that “vanished into thin air”? In every resounding celebration of the popular, can’t there be heard a very postmodern echo of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown inviting to learn “from all things,” however tacky and unassuming they may seem? And could it be, in short, that we are all postmodern and peripheral, although some of us hide it better than others?

Consider the appeal to the working class in a country that has relentlessly destroyed its industrial fabric, whose industries —a symbol of the most “enterprising” hipster condition— have mutated into factories of artistic creation that are as leftist in their rhetoric as they are champions of ultra-capitalism in practice.

Perhaps it is worth taking a look at the original book paraphrased in this article’s title: Who are the People’s Friends and How They Fight the Social Democrats. It is an essay from 1894 signed by Lenin, and I hope that the Abimael Guzmán of the moment —the sixth or seventh sword of Marxism— does not tag him as postmodern too. Fact is in this piece the Bolshevik leader launches a devastating critique of populism in his time, of the false representation of a popular class he barely understood, and of the patching up it meant for a czarism which, deep down, was more intent on patching things together than on demolishing them. But, well, this happened over a century ago, and describes such an archaic political situation that today we could only conceive it as a quote-remake-parody.

A little more earnestly now, Gore Vidal said that people who lose their empire recover their souls. What he did not explain is how reluctant their elites can be when it comes to practicing that post-imperial recovery and how predisposed they may be to lament their loss forever (“More was lost in Cuba”). Especially in today’s Spain, where revolution takes place in museums and performances in parliaments. Where transition has ceased to be a bridge to a destiny in order to become a condition, a perpetual work in progress. And where, more often than not, instead of the revenge of the copy, we prefer its reverence; over the translator, we reward the ventriloquist, and call a “cultural war” any skirmish that serves to tear us apart for the mere pleasure of dissection itself.

If postmodernism came to be defined by “Everything goes”, current quarrels seem to be governed by “Let nothing work”. Constantly alternating between adamism and mimicry, the left speaks to society with the academic language of American universities, and the right, with the anti-academic discourse of American populism. A colonial soap opera in which conservative patriots and progressive anti-imperialists agree on imitating the United States, and in which we copy a letter from celebrities offended by what they call “cancel culture” as well as Obama’s “Yes We Can. And empowerment and decoloniality, without forgetting that instant of bilingual ecstasy contained in the “relaxing cup of cortado” with which a mayoress of Madrid defended the venue of an Olympic Games that we never got to host.

It is a pity that, in copycatting, this Anglophilia copies the themes, but not the structure; the gesture and not the background. It would do us a lot of good if universities would seriously make an effort to teach Latin American culture, Arabic culture or anti-colonial history —if only for their role in the shaping of Spanish tradition, modernity and post-modernity.

And that’s enough for now. With this pro-Anglo note I make a stop, hoping that the conciliatory spirit behind my words has been taken into account. I would like nothing better than for my good faith to be perceived. And if not, as that great anthropologist of 20th century culture that was Pacho Alonso would say, I am willing to “be called ugly”. Which sounds cool.

IVÁN DE LA NUEZ
IVÁN DE LA NUEZ
Iván de la Nuez. Essayist and curator. Among his books are La Balsa Perpetua [The Perpetual Raft], El Mapa de Sal [The Map of Salt], Fantasía Roja [Red Fantasy], El Comunista Manifiesto [The Comunist Manifesto], Teoría de la Retaguardia [Theory of the Rear Guard] and Cubantropía [Cubantrophy]. Among his exhibitions, La Isla Posible, Parque Humano, Postcapital, Atopía, Iconocracia, Nunca Real/Siempre verdadero y La Utopía Paralela [The Possible Island, Human Park, Postcapital, Atopia, Iconocracy, Never Real / Always True and The Parallel Utopia].

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