Friday, February 15, 2008

The Pseudomodernist Condition

Is 'Pseudomodernism' the cultural logic of Blairism? Such is one of the possible implications of this (surprisingly good) piece in Philosophy Now, via Voyou. Although certain elements of postmodernism still have a terrible grip (students considering anything remotely politicised to be 'judgmental', general flip ahistorical cynicism, nudging and winking etc), the specific aesthetics have died a rather quiet death, particularly in architecture, the area in which the term was coined in the first place. In London the last two postmodernist buildings were finished in the mid-late 90s - the horrendous 'contextual' fortress of Porticullis House opposite Parliament, Terry Farrell's appalling Mi6 Ziggurat - and since then a Modernism of one sort or another has been dominant, perhaps because the grim statism of the aforementioned buildings left a Modernism able to do what pomo supposedly did (playfulness, attractiveness) rather better. Pseudomodernism shouldn't be regarded as some sort of victory for Modernism: instead, it was born directly out of Postmodernism. Consider the career of Terry Farrell and Partners since the 1980s. First, the allegedly witty TVAM (now apparently disused and ruined) - then buildings which conjoured up prestigious real estate out of thin air and in the process said an enormous fuck you to the public sphere: Alban Gate and Charing Cross station, which piled corporate space atop wide roads and rail platforms - and through Mi6, ending up with a very different kind of building for the security state.

Farrell's Home Office Headquarters is Pseudomodernism in excelsis. With its combination of Mendelsohn curves and Van Doesburg patterns with desperate-to-please colours (furnished, as per the Blairite fetish for the 'creative industries' by Liam Gillick) it provides a calm, ostentatiously friendly face for the bang-em-up-and-send-em-off-on-a-'rendition' brigade. Similarly, all of those new towers (named, in infantile, Jencksian style, after their alleged resemblances to Gherkins or Helter-Skelters) make none of the eclectic gestures and mashings together of different historical styles that characterised pomo - and stone has mostly been replaced by glass. Psuedomodernism is the Modernism of the city academy, a Modernism without the politics, without the utopianism, without any conception of the polis - a Modernism that conceals rather than reveals, Modernism as a shell. This return of Modernist good taste in the New Labour version of Neoliberalism has turned architectural Postmodernism, surprisingly, into a vanishing mediator. The keystones, references, in-jokes and 'fun' of 80s-90s corporate architecture were the face of neoliberalism's most naked, brutal phase, for the time when it didn't dress itself up in social concern. In the passage from Norman Tebbit to Caroline Flint, the aesthetic of social Darwinism has become cooler, more tasteful, less ostentatiously crass and reactionary, matching the rhetoric.

The elements of Pseudomodernism mentioned in Kirby's piece imply that Pseudomodernism is an operative aesthetics. If Postmodernism was spectacle as dazzlement, then the Pseudomodernist artefact makes absolutely no sense without the direct participation of the spectator. Pornography in its various forms is used, Big Brother is Warholian catatonia without the telephoned voting, and the paradigm is extended across all those talent shows that Gordon Brown thinks are such a fine example of meritocracy. Think also of MySpace and blogs as examples of forms based purely on the direct participation of the user. If there is a trace of an older Modernism here, it's a surprising one. There's a definite hint, in Pseudomodernist Operativism (it's neologism day, play along) of Brecht-Benjamin-LEF's conception of factography, the operative word, Productivism. In a piece I wrote on this a while ago (a rewritten version is in the forthcoming book) I made this point, that MySpace is a sort of bastard descendant of the 'two-way newspaper' of the Five Year Plans. As Kirby rightly points out, what has been created using these forms is mostly staggeringly vacuous and egotistical. Yet rather than using this as an excuse and taking refuge in print and the peer-reviewed journal, we should be in there using these new apparatuses, filling them with a new content rather than the usual banalities.


Blogger Jasper Bernes said...

Hmm. . . I didn't really find Kirby's piece very useful, or knowledgeable even. He doesn't seem to have much hold on postmodernism as it was originally formulated, antagonistically or triumphantly. His claims about participatory forms having superseded postmodernism sound like nothing less than Baudrillard, in the 80s, writing about Disneyland. Or Jameson on the Bonaventure hotel. It's hard to see how anything is dead in that sense.

It is true, however, that the cultural forms originally designated as postmodernism had a somewhat limited extension. But that doesn't mean that such forms aren't part of a larger cultural formation. The problem with the discourse in the 70s and 80s is that it focused on the most extreme and hateful examples, rather than trying to totalize the entirety of cultural production--good, bad and indifferent. Admittedly, Jameson sometimes does this.

7:15 pm  
Blogger roger said...

Okay, I'm too much the editor not to ask: Psuedo, and not Pseudo? Is there some connotation I'm missing here, like artificial suede or something? Is this a spell check stutter or the real thing? OMG, IT'S A POSTMODERN QUESTION! But how can I not ask?

7:16 pm  
Blogger Jasper Bernes said...

Excuse me: . . . Baudrillard, in the 70s . . .

7:18 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Roger - oh damn, that's always something I misspell...

Jasper, I think you're right, and what I was getting at was that this marks a particular morphing of Postmodernism rather than anything else. But a more useful term, maybe, avoiding the particular semiotic variants that the word evokes: Farrell's architecture for instance.

8:53 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

TVAM isn't disused, just dilapidated.
and shit.

3:30 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Also, there is a small piece of the budget in any large development that has to go on 'public art', very often designed by one of the architects to save time, rather than phoning up a 'public' artist. This often ends up being nothing more than some LEDs under the pavement or something similarly vacuous.

An architecture student said to me recently- 'my work is post-postmodernist', and that, along with this essay, is BS. Surely a great irony of postmodernism is that it negates the idea of post-anything?

I suggest 'Pseudomodernism' in the architectural sense is better thought of as 'polite modernism' or 'lifestyle modernism', which is of course a way of aestheticising (read depoliticising) modernism, which is Pomo thinking through and through.

3:50 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

'Pseudomodernism' in the architectural sense is better thought of as 'polite modernism' or 'lifestyle modernism', which is of course a way of aestheticising (read depoliticising) modernism, which is Pomo thinking through and through.

Sure: good taste modernism, perhaps. I always rather liked the coinage 'idea modernism'. But the pseudo-' prefix strikes me as less reducible to patrician disdain. It diassociates it from 'our' modernism. But as I think I made clear, it should be seen as a version of pomo rather than its supersession.

5:08 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

oops, 'ikea modernism'...

The reason I liked the piece - which is no great shakes theoretically - is that it made clear just how dated the pomo literary canon is by now, and suggested that particular versions of pomo, mainly literary (as ever, literature folk are not conscious of their own irrelevance) are played out.

But for quite different reasons, I liked the term politically, because of the analogue with Blairism. It might not look like Nigel Lawson or Michael Graves, but it is, in its essence, and the appearance of a) modernism or b) social democracy is illusory, and needs to be unmasked.

8:31 pm  
Blogger it said...

I was about to also like the phrase 'idea modernism', until you said you meant to write something else.

I think I still like it.

But 'd' is nowhere near 'k' on the keyboard, so I wonder how you mistyped it. Perhaps you meant it after all. Yes, I think perhaps you did.

11:17 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Also, expanding slightly, what's the real difference between 'iDea modernism' now and Art Deco in the '30s, I wonder?

10:41 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Well, Douglas, as you know I'm a fan/apologist of all things deco. I would say that ikea modernism, in the sense of the ubiquitous luxury flat, is totally alien to deco/moderne because of its overwhelming beigeness and tastefulness. The interesting thing abt deco is the tastelessness, the glamour and superfluousness, which is often more interesting than yer proper modernism. I.e, I'd take most 1930s Odeons over the work of Maxwell Fry, facade-deep though they were.

But as for idea modernism, by which we could mean either the Jencksian 'fun' modernism of 'Ken's towers' or maybe the 'learning can be fun and a bit like business' model of the Idea Store - that has much more in common with deco, in the concern for the memorable image, the populism, etc. That's one of the things that makes it the rather less offensive of the two options, maybe...

4:45 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

i'm a bit torn here but in general i think it striking that architects are convinced that there is a relationship between form (what things look like) and social or progressive content. post modernism is therefore forever linked to city office blocks and M15 headquarters as that is shorthand for 'bad, sinister, thatherite' when it was equally applied to liberal programes such as art galleries, housing and town halls. a sentimental, or simply taste based, affection for the forms of 1920's modernism does NOT make you a social radical. ikea modernism is bland and uninteresting true, but the radical shapes of contemporary architecture are equally unable to carry radical content i you ask me. visual radicalism i can handle and my split between content and form is used here expediently, but don't claim that pediments or giant egg cups are vacuous please. and i LIKE tv am. it's very deco.

10:30 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

aha, i was hoping from a response from you, for obvious reasons! ok then...

post modernism is therefore forever linked to city office blocks and M15 headquarters as that is shorthand for 'bad, sinister, thatherite' when it was equally applied to liberal programes such as art galleries, housing and town halls.

'socially progressive pomo'= that french new town in Brazil, I should think. But 'equally applied' is tricky here: Hillingdon town hall and lots of Barratt Homes maybe, but on the whole it was a style which came to the fore under neoliberalism, and hence was mainly used for neoliberal purposes (like mass spec housing, trading floors etc - and the expansion of galleries and museums in the 80s is misread as 'liberal'). i don't think pediments are 'vacuous': on the contrary, they evoked the glib populism and smug anti-intellectualism of the period pretty nicely. any direct style-epoch-politics link is going to have its lacunae, but i think pomo as a thatcherite aesthetic is really not too large a leap...

a sentimental, or simply taste based, affection for the forms of 1920's modernism does NOT make you a social radical.

well, this much is clear, and was my point all along. the home office doesn't stop being illiberal because it's in a building that nicks off erich mendelsohn, any more than mi6 is illiberal because it looks like timmy mallett doing lev rudnev.

12:28 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

well of course i refrained from commenting at first to avoid being too predictable but the other comments got my gander up.

of course architectural forms have meaning 'outside' traditional architectural discourse, so in that sense they might become meaningfully connected to an era (thatcherite or otherwise) but Terragni was a paid up fascist and that doesn't seem to worry most of the architects who flagrantly and unimaginatively rip him off today.

it would be absurd to claim that a building such as the clore gallery extension by stirling is somehow connected to thatcherism or neo liberalism. perhaps you should try. you might equally claim (especially given their backgrounds) that ABC or The Human League are Thatcherite and that is obviously silly. or indeed constructivsm and stalinism.

and why is it always glib populism? poor old populism. its very unpopular in actuality. funny. why not deep populism? you know. just for once. intellectualism doesn't always mean taking on all the tropes of the intelligentsia.

but anyway, i enjoy your stuff so why quibble eh!

3:05 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Likewise, and point taken on the populism.

But I like a challenge, so the reasons why Clore gallery is a thatcherite building (i am only three-quarters joking here) - well, for one thing the fact that it's the Clore Gallery: the phenomenon of entire wings of galleries being named after their plutocratic benefactors is very much an 80s phenomenon, all those spaces named after sundry de Bottons, Ondaatjes and so forth; Chin Tao-Wu's book Privatising Culture is very good on this process, usually a consequence of a) the decline in public art funding under Thatcher and Reagan and b) art collecting as tax avoidance. Obviously Stirling wasn't directly dictated to by these conditions, but the forms he was using from Stuttgart onwards had this 'hey kids, art is fun and not statist and dull!' element which pandered to a certain 80s jollying up of forbidding, frequently critical art into the atrium-dressing we know and love today. So not a Thatcherite building as such, but pretty inextricably tangled up with it.

The thing with architecture, as any fule kno, is that clean hands are kind of tricky: the power that builds, builds. The Human League or ABC (actually Heaven 17 would be perfect here for their mock-corporate pose) were able to be both critical of and part of the 80s' conjuncture in a way that architecture, as object, isn't really able to do. But of course I'm not saying that any given example of pomo is inherently neoliberal, that would be silly - though the connections are really pretty frequent.

(also the liking of Eisenman for Terragni is not particularly inconsistent of him, cf this hysterical Archinect interview)

1:23 pm  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

i take my hat off to you on the clore gallery. not a bad attempt! i saw the worst case of benafactorism in america at the new museum where even the escape stair had a benefactors dedication. but i still don't see why a building like the clore is dismissed as a 'jollying' up thatcherism. the problem is that once again, the forms are meant to have this immutable connection with a system of fixed meaning and therefore will always mean the same thing and will always be verboten to use. which makes them all the more appealing to anyone trying to resist the hedgemony of 'tasteful' modernism. a tactic of appropriation very familiar to the modernist avant garde of course. all the terms describing po mo are all pejorative. 'jollying' up, glib populism etc. how about the case for the staatsgalerie as tragic ruin, or eloquent articulation of cultural difference? why is it jolly? i see no jollification, only formal dissonance.

however i thought Alan Kirby's article a bit odd and am moved to respond a bit more at length.

incidentally i share your enthusiasm for dutch brickwork particularly michael de clerk who's work is wonderful and strange. and i bet you loved our wimby! project at that conference!

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