Time for a new "ism"?

The death of a great thinker also marks the end of a movement

With the passing of Jean Baudrillard, should we be asking if postmodernism has gone the same way? The argument that postmodernism is over has already been made by academics, yet it is a grave mistake to restrict the debate to the practices and suppositions of philosophers and critics. Many academics will simply decide that, finally, they would rather stay with Baudrillard than go over to anything new. Again, there have been writers (such as the New Puritans, if you remember them) and artists (such as the Stuckists) who have declared the end of postmodernism, but it won't be replaced by some manifesto signed at a café by bullish young aesthetes. And yet, a compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead, just by looking at the cultural production of our times.

I have in front of me a module description, downloaded from the website of a British university's English department. It includes details of assignments and a week-by-week reading list for the optional module Postmodern Fictions. Most of this year's undergraduates will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the primary texts for the module were written before their lifetime. Far from being "contemporary", these works were published in another world: The French Lieutenant's Woman, Nights at the Circus, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and Blade Runner), White Noise. This is Mum and Dad's culture. It's all about as "contemporary" as the Smiths, as hip as shoulder pads, as happening as a Betamax VCR. These are texts just coming to grips with the existence of TV and rock music; they do not dream of the possibility of any of the technologies - mobile phones, email, in every house a computer powerful enough to put a man on the moon - that today's undergraduates take for granted.

Look out at the cultural landscape and you will catch hardly a glimpse of postmodernism. Its hallmarks - self-conscious reflection on the process of representation and manipulation of inherited artistic expectations; irony; the asserted impossibility of knowing "reality"; the interplay of high and low culture; the constructed nature of selfhood, and so on - are absent from almost all the dominant texts and cultural forms of our century. The only place where the postmodern is vibrantly extant is in cartoons such as Shrek and The Incredibles, as a sop to parents obliged to sit through them with their toddlers.

And this has happened so quickly. The word itself has become dreadfully unhip; the cultural modes associated with it are nowhere to be seen. What has superseded it? Good question, but one for another day. For now, weary English lecturers might care to note that they are going to have to prepare another module for next year's undergraduates: the one on "postmodern fictions", supplemented by a new one on "contemporary literature". It keeps them off the streets.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour