It is a little over four decades ago that the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard published his epochal The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, and we still haven’t found a new term to name the condition we currently inhabit, which we can of course no longer call “postmodern.” (Indeed, when did we stop calling it that? Sometime between 1989 and 1992, right when its most ambitious genealogies were being published? And is the generic “contemporary” simply what came after?) I often return to Lyotard’s “report” for its fiery, impassioned closing paragraph in particular, in the long shadow of which I believe we, as a culture, continue to pursue the business of atomization and fragmentation as usual:
We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole, and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return to terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.
Two things stand out in this bracing call to action: the notion, firstly, of “witnessing the unpresentable,” which I believe helps explain the centrality of art and aesthetics to any theorization of the postmodern; and the injunction to “wage a war on totality”—a slightly more militant spin on the postmodern gospel of a generalized distrust of so-called master narratives. (Lyotard again, in his preface to the aforementioned report: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”) One instance of such a master or metanarrative, an incarnation of the grand idea of an all-encompassing totality, that has been especially affected by this campaign is the hallowed, Hegelian concept of capital-h History—history as the progressive unfolding of reason in time—which is why the postmodern moment in art, culture, and theory has been so closely associated with both declarations of the “end of history” as well as intertwined reconsiderations of the (arch-Hegelian) idea of the “end of art.” Consider the following familiar urtexts, which define the historical reach of this argument: Francis Fukuyama’s infamous “The End of History” was first published as an essay in 1989 in the National Interest, a conservative international affairs journal, and expanded into a book in 1992 (Fukuyama was a State Department official at the time, given to painfully outdated grandiose claims such as: “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism”); Arthur C. Danto’s “The End of Art” was first published in 1986, and made the centerpiece of his widely read After the End of Art in 1997. (Donald Kuspit published his The End of Art in 2004; David Joselit followed suit in 2016 with the pithily titled After Art. Variations on the title of Fukuyama’s apocalyptic screed, meanwhile, are legion, as are its apparent inversions in such examples as Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams from 2008, Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History from 2012, or Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History
from 2016. At the time, Kagan’s title in particular prompted a slightly amused “already?” Adam Michnik’s The Trouble with History
from 2014 was probably the most wisely titled of the lot.) Now I am no historian of the historian’s trade, but it seems clear that some time in this short ten-year period, a certain trend that had been underway in the field of historiography since at least the 1970s coalesced in a veritable paradigm shift that increasingly saw grand synthetic projects such as Fernand Braudel’s three-part magnum opus Civilization and Capitalism or Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System replaced, in the “marketplace of ideas,” by such curiosities and oddities as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997) and Salt: A World History (2003) ; Kurlansky, a best-selling journalist, not an academic historian, later also published “histories” of milk, oysters, paper, and the year 1968); Julie L. Horan’s The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet (2000); Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History (2003); histories of facial hair (Allan Peterkin, 2002; Christopher Oldstone-Moore, 2015), as well as hair removal (Rebecca Herzig, 2016); histories—they are of course typically always named a history, never the
history, no matter how minuscule and seemingly exhaustible the subject in question—of the umbrella, the fork and codpiece, of clutter, solitude, and walking. It is not exactly the case, in other words, that the totalizing ambition of “world history” has been shelved entirely, but such histories are now more often than not told, tellingly enough, from the perspective of the everyday object, the less significant the better—as signaled, for instance, by the runaway success of Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (other such 100-object histories have been written, since, on the subject of Baseball, the Church, the Third Reich, Tudor England). Indeed, the contours of a law
could be discerned in this development: the smaller the object, the bigger the book; the more minute and microscopic the anecdote, the greater its history. The background of this “law” is defined by the gradual obscuring, over the course of four decades, of social, political, and economic histories (inherently more inclined to seek out the so-called bigger picture) by the rise of cultural history, of cultural studies, and the “cultural turn” in historiography so defining of the 1980s and 1990s publishing landscape. In this sense, we are indeed denizens of a properly posthistorical era, inhabitants of an age no longer given to sweeping historicizing vistas, but rather content to focus on— indeed, plainly obsessed with—the micropolitics of margins and fragments, minutiae and, well, details—the countless “traces” and shards cluttering and haunting the archival record. Where once there was a world, there is now merely an archive; where once there was History, there are now merely trivia. (And that’s fine.) Walter Benjamin is the widely revered patron saint of this guild of microhistorians, and it is no coincidence that his stature as the leading theologian of fragmentation is a function of his rediscovery in that same seminal mid-seventies period—a process of revaluation facilitated in no small way by the efforts of his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleague Theodor W. Adorno, who so memorably prophesied that “the whole is the false,” ergo, that only the fragment is true. And in the idiolect of Adorno’s hugely influential Aesthetic Theory, published posthumously in 1970, this basically means that only the work of art is true.
For some time now the field of contemporary art has been a privileged site for the unfolding of this very argument; it is where this “cultural turn” in the social life of the mind has been articulated most clearly in recent years. This can be seen in two entwined “trends” that I have written about extensively in the last decade: one is what I have referred to more precisely as the “historiographic turn” in art, theorized most extensively in an essay (published in 2009) and an exhibition (curated in 2013) titled The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art; another concerns art’s ongoing infatuation with the allure of the shard, the mystique of the microscopic, the romance of the fragment—the magic, indeed, of fragmentation plain and simple.
I do not need to rehearse the argument of this line of research, itself already of a certain age by now, about the art world’s endemic nostalgia and obsessively retrospective impulse (though it bears repeating that this diagnosis mostly applies to certain critically lauded sectors of said art world, which I think of as my art world): it is sufficiently clear, I believe, to what extent contemporary art’s saturation with lower-case histories has contributed, in the last quarter century, to the reigning sense of a posthistorical condition, reducing the modern pathos of historical experience to the perusing (“browsing”) of a cabinet of curiosities. Contemporary art museums and institutions have increasingly become the places we turn towards to learn about the past, specifically its marginalized subplots or the long-overlooked microhistories of subaltern identities—at the expense, inevitably, of the old modernist mandate of art that promised us progress (“make it new!”) and visions of the future instead. As is the case with so many other provinces of contemporary culture and discourse, History, torn asunder in innumerable petites histoires, has gradually been replaced with Identity here, and from the flotsam and jetsam of a million anecdotes and reminiscences—“where History was, shall Memory be”— the clouded contours of a novel species of master narrative appears to arise—one which rewrites the tangles of modern and recent history as the scattered stories of selves, and selves alone.
The knotted tangle of history, identity, and memory, then. This, of course, is precisely where the paramount literary phenomenon of the last ten years comes into full view: the rise and rise of so-called autofiction, and the adjacent boom in the memoir industry—the myriad stories of I. One founding myth in this ever-expanding microverse is that of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s phenomenally successful My Struggle, surely among the literary world’s least likely bestsellers at three thousand six hundred pages of painstakingly documented cigarette smoking, coffee making, diaper changing, food shopping, and general navel-gazing. (Elena Ferrante’s four-part cycle of so-called Neapolitan Novels clocks in at around half that page count; Rachel Cusk’s mid-2010s trilogy of Outline, Transit, and Kudos is another hugely successful landmark in this sprawling literary landscape, as are Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Single-volume touchstones that have appeared in these books’ wakes include Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) Indeed, doesn’t the worldwide success of Knausgaard’s My Struggle in particular demonstrate the force of the “law” I have referred to earlier with regards to the field of historiography: the smaller the life, so to speak, the bigger the book? The more banal the event, the more exhaustive its description, rendering even the most private of anecdotes and biographemes as somehow cosmically meaningful? “History,” under Knausgaard’s all-seeing, unpityingly scrutinizing eye, is finally just that: his story—an avalanche of memories, the more minute and mundane the better, burying the last remnants of the master’s grand narrative under the debris of being I. This knotted tangle of (a decidedly lower-case) history, identity, and memory: is this not the prism through which so much art produced in the last decades comes into indelible, pitiless focus— “My Struggle with History: A Memoir” the title, perhaps, of a future account of what makes today’s art truly contemporary?