Why can’t we be ourselves, like we were yesterday?

postmodernism

Go to the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A. It’s amazing, it’s huge, it’s massively relevant as a commentary on late capitalism and culture, and was really inspiring.

I didn’t know a lot about postmodernism – especially postmodern art – before I went, but feel at least a little more informed now, and also super keen to learn more. The exhibition covers loads of ground, from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and includes fine art, graphic design, product design, craft, sculpture, fashion, photography, film, literature and music. It emphasizes the break with modernism as a narrow, formal approach and ideology who’s promise of a utopian future collapsed in itself, replacing it with an experimental and less certain approach that picked over the corpse of the modernist dream, appropriating and reusing elements of modernism and all that went before it. The exhibition stressed that the postmodern art movement is impossible to neatly define and characterise, and that a plurality of approaches and ideas was precisely what made it so different from modernism.

At the moment I’m really interested in cities and dystopias, my favourite parts of the exhibition were the ‘paper architects’ of the late Soviet Union who were trying to deal with the fall of the Soviet dream.

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

I also really enjoyed (well I didn’t enjoy it, it was kinda depressing, but fascinating) watching the move from the radical, anti-establishment postmodernism of the 1970s, towards a totally self-aware and kind of grotesque celebration of capitalism, power and consumerism. It wasn’t all a celebration, with pieces like Jenny Holzer’s “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” billboard, and another billboard in the London Docklands grimly announcing that “Big Money is Moving In” – part of Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson‘s Docklands Community Poster Project.

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

It showed the contradictions a lot of the artists were wrestling with, producing art that tries to critique the spectacular consumerism of the 1980s but ultimately becoming yet another commodity. The exhibition referenced lots of pop culture that I was too young to grasp the significance of at the time, and all the stuff about appropriation, bricolage and Leví-Strauss (ANTHROPOLOGY! Yeah!) was awesome – it didn’t quite get as far as the Situationists and detournment, but the parallels were pretty interesting.

Go if you can, if you can’t, watch Blade Runner and maybe some Talking Heads and New Order videos.

I went with my mum who came out raging against the commodification of art – after ending with a series of pieces criticising 80s excess and consumerism, a neon sign tells you to Shop! and you’re sent back into daylight and a stack of exhibition souvenirs (I got some Baudrillard badges because I’m pretentious). I now want to read everything by JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, watch Brazil, and be Grace Jones and/or Annie Lennox when I grow up. Also, Frederic Jameson is now top of my reading list, as someone who has somehow escaped all of my university reading lists so far…

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The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza

I’m really looking forward to Eyal Weizman‘s new book from Verso. I’m still getting through Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation which is probably the most interesting and original book I’ve ever read on Palestine, after Anthropological Urbanism‘s Rakan Budeiri told me about the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency project Weizman is involved with.

But I’m even more excited about The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza after Didier Fassin’s Munro Lecture in Edinburgh this March titled ‘Humanitarian reason: a moral economy of our time’. Fassin manages to straddle both anthropological, academic analysis and applied, practical work, and to me that’s what anthropology is all about. I should probably write a separate post about how amazing Didier Fassin is, but basically he got me thinking about how the catch-all concept of humanitarianism is really a way of depoliticising injustice, and is a banner under which all sorts of atrocities can be carried out, but is impossible to oppose. Like democracy. No one can be ‘against’ democracy or humanitarianism, but these are both ideologically flexible terms that are used by states and militaries to justify the most abominable actions, like war in Afghanistan for example, when economic and political motives entirely distinct from democracy and humanitarianism.

This is also something Badiou discusses, and of course Žižek’s Violence urges us to “think about the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence” which call for moral outrage and leave no room for sober reflection (2008:3). I’m really enjoying these writers at the moment, so reading that Eyal Weizman is also joining the debate around humanitarianism fills me with nerdy anticipation.

His book seems like it might touch on similar ground to Fassin and Rechtman’s Empire of Trauma as well as Žižek’s Violence, exploring “the defining intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières in mid-1980s Ethiopia; the separation wall in Israel-Palestine; and international and human rights law in Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq,” and showing “how military and political intervention acquired a new “humanitarian” acceptability and legality”. Nonetheless, Weizman is sure to bring new insights and analysis to this discussion, and I can’t wait to get hold of a copy.