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Terror and the Aesthetic: The Legacy of Postmoderism By Richard Jones

Ter ror and the Aesthetic: The Legac y of Postmoderism By Richard Jones

Ter ror and the Aesthetic: The Legac y of Postmoderism The intellectual war that some thirty years ago spawned the polemical beginnings of what we today, somewhat ominously, collectively refer to as postmodernism has by now largely lost much of its luminosity as a legitimate term for explicating any possible understanding of the times in which we live. In the aftermath of the post 9/11 era, together with the backlash of its concomitant cultural reassessment, the term postmodernity has arguably been overtly politicised and has nowadays come to mean that which describes the global reach of the various multi-national organisations and neo-liberal governments of the West, and the nation states which they together collectively foster, support and represent. In the current climate of political unrest, the conditions for the aesthetic - or indeed artistic - exploration of the issues surrounding this transitional period of cultural change remain problematic, at least insofar as the art world still retains a critical distance from tackling such issues head-on in any overtly controversial or subversive manner. The modernist aesthetic, so often classified as a site for resisting the dominant bourgeois culture, has long since consumed and digested its avant-garde roots, having lost the ability to affect any real revolutionary change in the wake of a society that has simply absorbed it as yet another commodity to be marketed as any other mass-produced object of historical curiosity. So where does all this leave the concept of postmodernity as a wholly aesthetic practice as we rapidly approach the second decade of the 21st century?

I In his essay, Modernism – An Unfinished Project (1981), the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas attempted to identify some of the key symptoms of postmodernity, and argued, in direct opposition to many of his contemporaries of the time, that modernity had, in fact, not come to an end at all, but was rather in a transitional stage of critical reassessment which had resulted from the representation deadlock which began at the end of the 1960s with the advent of Pop Art together with the reactionary trends toward minimalism and conceptual art. If we follow the Habermasian line of thought, postmodernity is the symptomatic condition that results when the cultural sphere and the means by which cultural production takes place become unequivocally conjoined by a profound shift in the sociocultural and economic structures that govern the very idea of how aesthetic representation is manipulated at the most fundamental levels production. In short, what we are left with in this interstice is a society that is both pluralistic in terms of the means by which culture is produced on the one hand, and insular in the terms by which cultural production is marketed within the socioeconomic framework of such a society on the other, ruling out even the most rudimentary beginnings for the aesthetic possibilities of originality and authenticity. This process then gives way to a seemingly unending sea of replications, reproductions and repetitions as a by-product of the structures which they in turn need to support their legitimisation as objects of cultural consumption. The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the “new,” and this means the ever-new demand for yet another repetition.

II The trend towards the sweeping and universalising tendencies of postmodernist thought have their foundations in the critical analysis of

architecture, which began during the late 1970s and early 80s - most predominantly in the writings of the architectural critic Charles Jencks, and in particular his books, The Language of Postmodern Architecture (1977) and What is Postmodernism (1986) respectively. In these works, Jencks argues that under the aegis of postmodernism, different epochs and styles seemingly coexist within the same timeframe, distorting the idea of the temporal linearity of historical progress as a result. In the postindustrial age, where information has become the most precious of commodities, a critical reinterpretation of the past, as it is reconditioned in and by the present, remains one of the only truly aesthetic avenues still left open to explore as we embark into a future that is equally uncertain in terms of the new modes of representation that we shall no doubt, given time, encounter.

III For Kenneth Frampton, architecture, in order for it to be successful, must steer away from the tendency to reintroduce the existence of designs from another era, and instead reintroduce ideas which were traditionally at odds with one another. The dualistic opposition of technology against nature, for example, as it pertains to the context of both art and architecture, would seem to generate a boundary between mutually exclusive zones of aesthetic representation. Architecture, from antiquity right up until the pre-industrial era, was seen to disturb the natural order of the environment and sit uneasily within the landscape. Technology, on the other hand, was seen as a way of transcending the natural world to be used as a vehicle by mankind to master himself on his journey toward becoming a god of his making. Architecture, writes Frampton, can only be sustained today as a critical practice if it assumes an arriĂŠre-garde position, that is to say, one which distances itself equally from the enlightenment myth of progress and from a reactionary, unrealistic impulse to return to the

architectonic forms of the preindustrial past. A critical arriéregarde has to remove itself from both the optimization of advanced technology and the ever-present tendency to regress into nostalgic historicism or the glibly decorative....The emergence of the avant-garde is inseparable from the modernization of both society and technology.’1

IV The problem that progressive experiments face today in the era of latecapitalism are many in number and few in practice. In embracing the heterogeneity of the infinite relationships between culture and the spirit of so-called freedom embodied by the liberalising effects of the various f free market economies of the world, we find ourselves with fewer and fewer options left open to explore the structures of a continuous dialectical process that has been with us since the Enlightenment. As we find ourselves the victims of globalisation’s mutual assured (self)destructiveness, the antagonisms which reside within our society are not the cure and nor do they represent the real crux of the problem either. There is a danger that in searching for difference in too many of the wrong kinds of places - through the inciting of the unpredictable - there will come the absolute propensity for the unimaginable and the potentiality for the unthinkable – the creation of culture existing solely as a fetishised franchise for the insane ruminations of failed states and the collective, empathic indifference of militant extremism. American supporters of “progressive practices” have witnessed the coalescence of their mutually opposing ideals with all the unknowing distain of an arrogant self-assurance directed against the faceless hope of a dying nothing, choosing instead to again impose the mite of their collective political

Frampton, K. (1983) Towards a Critical Regionalism, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, New York: The Free Press, p. 20 1

will on those they would choose to subjugate through the mechanistic framework of the global economy and its acolytes. They too run the risk of declaring themselves for and against everything except that they want too want to be the self-proclaimed, self-organizing, interactive and intelligent managers of chaos on a global scale. The dilemma is that once the progressive potential of ideals from a bygone era come full circle, the concept of heterogeneity will not set people free nor free them from the dead hand of a politically inept bureaucracy. The bric-abrac of late-capitalism’s now defunct idealism is no longer the guiding light that shows us the way through the rock outcroppings of modernism’s demise, but instead actually fosters an economically incorrect system of mutual assured exploitation and betrayal.

V The events of 9/11 have galvanised the public consciousness to the extent that all the aesthetic innovations of the last century have paled in comparison. The horrors depicted in Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, which although quite an adequate depiction of the atrocities committed by Franco’s bombing of the Basque county in an abstract sense, fails to move us as to the real human cost involved in the technological precision of killing on a mass scale. Don Delillo’s contention that “Terrorists, not artists, now speak most directly to the collective unconscious” is a rather poignant observation given the images of the hijacked aeroplanes flying into the World Trade Centre on that fateful morning, which the national networks repeatedly showed to us over and over again, as if to awaken us to the fact that we had already missed something of an era defining moment, as opposed to event which effectively ended an era. In choosing to destroy the WTC, which arguably served as a colossal metaphor for the power of the nation state and the global economy from which it benefits, the terrorists had unwittingly succeeded in revealing the very core of the pitfalls inherent to the ideologies of postmodernism.

VI The World Trade Center was designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki and the engineer Leslie Robertson, and was completed in 1970 just as American began what was to be one of the most significant economic downturns of the post war period. The building itself incorporated many innovative construction techniques in order for it to achieve, at its highest point, the 1,727 ft above ground level. The towers were designed as framed tubular structure, which extended in loosely-spaced columns tied together with deep spandrel beams along the exterior perimeter. The interior had 47 columns, all concentrated in the core. The large, column-free space between the perimeter and the core was bridged by prefabricated floor trusses. The floors supported their own weight, as well as live loads, provided lateral stability to the exterior walls, and distributed wind loads among the exterior walls. The floors consisted of 4 inch (10 cm) thick lightweight concrete slabs laid on a fluted steel deck. A grid of lightweight bridging trusses and main trusses supported the floors. Upon the initial opening of the towers, there was an enormous amount of criticism levelled at the phallic nature of the architecture. Another critic even remarked that they resembled the boxes that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building had been packed in. On September the 11th 2001 at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time, Al Qaeda suicide hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the northern faรงade of the North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., a second team of hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, which collapsed and disintegrated at 9:59 a.m. At 10:28 a.m., the North Tower collapsed and disintegrated. The four remaining buildings in the WTC plaza sustained heavy damage from debris and were ultimately demolished. When the attacks had ceased and an assessment of the event had finally taken place, some 2,750 death certificates were issued relating to the attacks. Of these, 1,614 were identified from recovered physical remains. 340 Emergency personnel and 60 police officers were killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The multi-national investment bank Morgan Stanley was the largest tenant occupying the World Trade Center, with approximately 2,500 employees in the South Tower and 1,000 in the North Tower.

By Richard Jones

Published by i-cabin(texts) 2008 Copyright Richard Jones 2008

i-cabin(texts) - Touching On Architecture Series - Part Two For more information contact

Terror and the Aesthetic: The Legacy of Postmoderism  

Touching on Architecture Series, Part 2: Terror and the Aesthetic: The Legacy of Postmoderism By Richard Jones Published by i-cabin(texts...

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