Remembering Postmodernism Part Two: A Brief(ish) History of Postmodernity

And we’re back! To reiterate my caveat from my previous post, these discussions of postmodernism are filtered through my lens as an Americanist. Postmodernism is a global phenomenon, and while it is conditioned by American cultural and economic hegemony, its manifestations are various and culturally specific around the world. A significant element of the post-WWII world was the collapse of empires and the fraught process of decolonization, as well as the rise of the neo-imperialism of corporate capitalism. What we’ve come to call postcolonialism isn’t synonymous with postmodernism by any means, but on that Venn diagram there is more than a little overlap.

I reiterate this caveat in part because this post is probably the one in this series most specific to U.S. history. I have thus far offered a broad introduction to postmodernism and offered my specific understanding of what I consider its most basic unifying element; what I want to do here in this post is provide some historical context for the material circumstances that gave rise to the postmodern condition.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

Whenever I teach my second-year class on American Literature After 1945, I always begin the semester with a lecture in which I contextualize, historically, where the United States was at the end of the Second World War. And I begin with a question: where do you think the U.S. ranked globally in terms of the size and strength of its military in 1939? My students, to their credit, are always wary at this question—they know I wouldn’t ask it if the answer was obvious. So, obviously not #1 … but they’ve all grown up in a world (as indeed I have) in which American military might is vast, and the Pentagon’s budget is larger, at last accounting, than the next fourteen countries (twelve of which are allies) combined. So some brave soul will usually hazard a guess at … #5? No, I reply. Someone more audacious might suggest #10. But again, no. In 1939, I tell them, the U.S. ranked #19 globally in its military’s size and strength, with an army that was smaller than Portugal’s.

The point of this exercise, as you’ve probably gleaned, is to describe how the U.S. went from being a middling world power to a superpower in the course of six years—and how that fundamentally changed U.S. society and culture, and in the process reshaped the world.

There’s an episode of The West Wing from season three that centers on President Bartlett’s State of the Union Address; at once point speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) talks about how a president’s words can inspire a nation to great achievements, citing FDR’s SOTU in 1940 in which he predicted that the country would build 50,000 aircraft by the end of the war—which proved incorrect, as the U.S. actually built over 100,000.

While Roosevelt’s shrewd leadership of the U.S. through WWII should not be discounted, Sam’s historical factoid has more to do with propping up the Aaron Sorkin Great Man Theory of History: Oratorical Edition™. But this historical actuality does offer a useful thumbnail sketch of the sheer size and scope of the United States’ industrial capacity when totally mobilized. Consider the haunting images of planes and ships mothballed after the war, all of which had been churned out by American factories and which were now the detritus of a massive war effort.

Airplane boneyard in Ontario, California
Mothballed Pacific fleet in San Diego, California

The U.S. emerged from the devastation of the war with its industrial infrastructure intact, unlike those of its allies and enemies: Britain’s had been badly damaged, France’s suffered from the fierce fighting after the Normandy landings, and both Germany and Japan had basically been pounded flat by Allied bombing; the Soviet Union had had to move its factories far enough east to be out of the range of the Luftwaffe, while also suffering 10 million military and 14 million civilian deaths, more than any other combatant nation by a magnitude (the U.S. by contrast lost 418,500, only 1700 of which were civilians). [EDIT: as an historian friend of mine pointed out, China actually suffered losses comparable to Russia’s between 1937-1945]

All of which meant that the United States had gone from being ranked nineteenth in military strength to number one with a bullet (pun intended), with the world’s only fully functioning industrial base of any note; meanwhile, the returning soldiers benefited from the G.I. Bill passed in 1944, which, among other things, provided for college tuition. The discharged veterans poured into colleges and vocational schools and emerged with degrees that put them in good stead to swell the ranks of white-collar workers and take advantage of other provisions of the G.I. Bill, such as one year of unemployment compensation, low-interest loans to start a business or a farm, and low-cost mortgages. This government investment led to the greatest expansion of middle-class prosperity in history.1

The industry that had been cranked up to eleven in the war did not sit idle; as Americans earned more, they spent more. The Big Three automakers switched from jeeps and tanks to cars for the newly suburban nuclear families. Factories changed over from military production2 to making refrigerators, washing machines, and a host of new appliances that, the rapidly expanding business of commercial advertising declared, all households needed. And somewhere in all of that, television made its presence known as sales of television sets grew exponentially: 7,000 in 1945, 172,000 in 1948, and 5 million in 1950; in 1950, twenty percent of households had a television set; by the end of the decade, ninety percent did.

Meanwhile, the wartime acceleration of technology facilitated the rapid growth of, among other things, air travel: the first commercially successful jetliner, the Boeing 707, took to the skies in 1954.

But, you might ask, what does all this have to do with postmodernity? Well, everything … what I’ve been describing are a series of paradigm shifts in travel and communication technology, as well as the United States’ transition from industrial capitalism to full-bore consumerism. These changes were not just material, but symbolic as well, as the U.S. created of them a counter-narrative to Communism. Consumerism became understood as patriotic: the wealthier Americans grew, the more cars and appliances they bought, the more the American Dream could be held up as the obvious virtuous alternative to dour Soviet unfreedom.

This postwar period that comprises the 1950s and early 60s was the era, in the words of scholar Alan Nadel, of “containment”—a time that was marked, to oversimplify somewhat, by “the general acceptance … of a relatively small set of narratives by a relatively large portion of the population.3 Or to put it even more simply, it was a time of pervasive public trust in American institutions, especially government and the military. Now, to be clear, “pervasive” doesn’t mean “total”—this was also, after all, the time of McCarthyism and the Red Hunts, as well as the first glimmers of cultural dissent that would influence the counterculture of the 1960s (most especially embodied in the Beat Generation), and also the snowballing insurgency of the Civil Rights Movement. But taken overall, the 1950s—for all its nascent and repressed anxieties—embodied a complacency facilitated by prosperity and the higher standard of living prosperity made possible. As Nadel argues in his book Containment Culture, this delimiting of narratives was about containment: containing women in their domestic spaces, containing men in the role of patriarchal breadwinner, containing fathers, mothers, and children in the bubble of the nuclear family, containing Black Americans within the confines of Jim Crow, containing ideological expression within apolitical art forms like abstract expressionism and critical methodologies like the “New Criticism” being practised in English departments across the country, and above all containing the Soviet cultural threat with the power of America’s example and its military threat with the example of America’s power.

It didn’t take long for the 1950s to be nostalgized and mythologized in popular culture: American Graffiti was released in 1973, and Happy Days first aired in 1974. Indeed, the 50s were mythologized in popular culture at the time, with shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best embodying the utopian ideals of domesticity and the nuclear family. Even popular stories of youthful rebellion were stripped of any possible political content, perhaps most explicitly in the very title of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), or in Marlon Brando’s iconic line in The Wild One (1953): when asked what he’s rebelling against, he replies “Whaddya got?”

When Donald Trump made “Make America Great Again” his slogan, he was tacitly citing the 1950s as the apogee of America’s greatness.4 This was possibly the canniest of his various simplistic catch phrases, given that 1950s nostalgia has reliably proven attractive at such moments of cultural crisis or ennui as the early 1970s; but like all nostalgic figurations, it leaves a lot out. There were those during the 1950s who labelled the period the “age of anxiety,” though as I’ll delve into more deeply in my next post, it could also have been called the age of avoidance: the rhetoric and discourse of containment sought, among other things, to deflect from such new global realities as the threat of nuclear conflict and the haunting aftermath of the Holocaust.

One way to understanding the emergence of postmodernism—and this is indeed one of the primary arguments of Alan Nadel’s book—is as a product of the breakdown of containment, of the fracturing of a societal consensus in which a relatively large number of people accepted a relatively small number of narratives into a more chaotic and fragmented social order that was deeply suspicious of such narratives. Though this breakdown progressed over a series of shocks to the system—the assassination of JFK, the start of the Vietnam War and the concomitant rise of the anti-war Left, the growth and visibility of the Civil Rights Movement culminating in the traumatic murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, all of which unfolded on television screens across the nation—this fracture was seeded in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The war spawned a world that was more truly global than at any point in history. The world was simultaneously smaller and larger: smaller because of the instantaneous nature of televisual and telephonic communication, as well as the fact that one could travel around the world in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months; larger because of the ever-increasing volume of information available through new communications technology.

David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell 1987)

The increasingly efficient and indeed instantaneous transmission of information facilitated the more efficient transmission of capital, which in turn facilitated the growth of transnational corporate capitalism, which by the time we reach the orgy of financial deregulation also known as the Reagan Administration becomes less about manufacturing and industry than the arcane calculus of stock markets. By this time, America’s postwar preeminence as the sole nation with functioning industrial infrastructure had been steadily eclipsed as the rest of the world rebuilt, or, as with the case of China and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, had begun to establish their own industrial bases—facilitating the departure of blue-collar jobs as multinational corporations offshored their factories to whatever countries offered the lowest wages and best tax breaks.

This confluence of historical, economic, technological, and cultural circumstances created a profound sense of dislocation, a disruption of what Marxist theorist and literary scholar Fredric Jameson calls our “cognitive map.” Jameson is the author of Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), arguably one of the definitive works theorizing postmodernism (as well as being exhibit A of why “postmodern neo-Marxism” is an incoherent concept, but more on that in a future post). He borrows the concept of cognitive mapping from urban theorist Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image of the City; in Lynch’s telling, cities are comforting or alienating to the extent to which one can have a “cognitive map” of the urban space in which one can picture oneself in relation to the city. Cities with a straightforward layout and visible landmarks (such as Toronto) are comforting; cities that are confusing and repetitive sprawls (such as Los Angeles) are alienating.5 Jameson adapts this concept to culture more broadly: how we see ourselves in relation to what Jameson calls the “totality” of our culture and society is predicated on how much of it we can know. Someone living in a small town with no need to have intercourse with the larger society has a fairly straightforward cognitive map. Someone whose life and livelihood depends on circumstances well outside their control or understanding fares less well when they are negatively impacted by the offshoring of jobs or a financial meltdown that erases their retirement savings. By the same token, the individual in the small town’s ability to maintain their cognitive map will be impacted by financial downturns, or even just by having cable TV and the internet.

We could well substitute “sense of reality” for “cognitive map.” Where we find ourselves—have indeed found ourselves for several decades now—is in a place where reality feels increasingly contingent and unstable. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in American postwar culture, my argument basically fell along these lines—that the dislocations of postmodernity make the certainties of conspiracism attractive. I defended that thesis seventeen years ago (egad); as evidenced by the 9/11 Trutherism, anti-Obama birtherism, and the current lunacy of QAnon, conspiracism has only metastasized since then.

I am, to be clear, leaving a lot of stuff out here. But my overarching point is that what we call “postmodernism” is no one thing. It is, rather, the product of all the stuff I’ve described, and more. When the Jordan Petersons of the world accuse postmodernism of positing that any and all interpretations of something are all equally valid, they’re leveling that charge against nerdy academics influenced by a handful of French theorists and philosophers who are not, in fact, saying any such thing; Peterson et al are, though they don’t seem to know it, railing against a cultural condition that has made certitude functionally impossible, and which promulgates an infinitude of interpretations through no fault of philosophers and theorists and critics doing their level best to find the language to describe this condition.


1. To hearken back to my posts on systemic racism, Black Americans largely found themselves shut out of the G.I. Bill’s benefits, both because of explicit restrictions written in by Southern Democrats, but also because almost all banks simply refused to extend the low-interest loans and mortgages to Black veterans. While white America enjoyed the fruits of the postwar boom, accruing wealth that would be passed onto their children and grandchildren, the exclusion of Black America from the 1950s boom continues to contribute to the stark wealth inequality between whites and non-whites in America today.

2. Which is not to say, of course, that U.S. military production slackened much; even as the nation demobilized, it shifted focus to the new enemy, the U.S.S.R., and poured huge amounts of money into R&D for possible new conflicts. Indeed, it can be argued that the recessions of 1947 and 1950, resultant from the downturn of wartime production, were counteracted by the Truman doctrine in 1947—the principle asserting America’s obligation to contain Soviet expansion globally—and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Both events goosed the stock market with the promise of increased military production. By the end of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency in 1961, he had grown so alarmed by the growth of military production and the power shared by the Pentagon and arms manufacturers that the architect of the D-Day landings said, in his valedictory address to the nation:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society … we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

3. Alan Nadel, Containment Culture (1995) p. 4.

4. The peculiar genius of the slogan “Make America Great Again” is precisely its ahistorical vagueness—playing upon the intuitive contradiction felt by people whose instinct is to think of America as the greatest nation in the world, but who cannot see evidence for that greatness in their day to day lives. Hence, it must be returned to that state of greatness; and though the slogan’s vagueness allows its adherents to imagine for themselves precisely when America was great, the most standard conservative default setting is the 1950s (allowing for the likelihood of the most nativist part of the MAGA crowd pining nostalgically for the 1850s).And indeed, the touchstones of Trump’s 2016 campaign promises—the return of well-paid factory jobs, higher wages for the working class, the tacit and sometimes explicit exclusion of people of colour, and the return to a masculine America in which women know their place—all hearkened back to the era of containment (eliding, of course, the 90% top marginal tax rate and the fact that working-class jobs could support a family because of the pervasiveness of unions). Trump’s promises were all about containment, the boxing-in and walling-off of Black, queer, and women’s voices, and containing America itself from the influx of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims, all of which envisions a very strictly contained understanding of what comprises “real” America.

5. Posthumous apologies to Kevin Lynch for so egregiously oversimplifying his nuanced discussions of urban space.

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