The Hermit Poet

August 23, 2005

The New Sincerity as Response to Postmodernism

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:05 am

I highly recommend the following essay by Mikhail Epstein, The Place of Postmodernism in Postmodernity, which was presented in the 1997 After Postmodernism Conference.

I’ll pull some of the more pertinent sections out.

Here is what several Moscow artists and art scholars of the post-Conceptual wave have said about the subject: “It is crucial that the problem of the universal be raised as a contemporary issue. I understand that it is a utopia. It is done completely consciously, yes, utopia is dead, so long live utopia. Utopia endows the individual with a more significant and a wider horizon” (Viktor Miziano). “The future of contemporary art is in the will to utopia, in the break-through into reality through a membrane of quotations, it is in sincerity and pathos” (Anatolii Osmolovsky). The subject here is the resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer as a social project with claims to transforming the world, but as a new intensity of life experience and a broader horizon for the individual.

The Post-Conceptual Movement (aka the New Sincerity) is occupied primarily with the “resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer a social project with claims to transforming the world, but as a new intensity of life experience and a broader horizon for the individual.” While Epstein here is refering to the fall of the Soviet empire, the present rise of New Sincerity here in the US might well be seen as a similar reaction to 9/11. In this case, the vision of the American utopia has shattered, and in its place is the desperate need to establish an intense and individual connection to the world. An interesting parallel.

Regarding the rise of postmodernism:

Over time, postmodernism itself may be perceived as an initial and inadequate reaction to this aesthetics of repetition, whose suprising emergence seemed to demand a full anaesthetisation and automatisation of feelings.

Which Epstein further illustrates by noting:

The postmodern utterance of “I love” was masked by citationality as a loophole for meaning, in which the subject of language could shield himself from its literal meaning and its responsible consequences.

This shielding of self from literal meaning and responsible consequences seems to be the very thing that irks the New Sincerists about the present state of much of the poetry that is published today. The Postmodernist movement has certain created an atmosphere of irony and non-literalness, a rejection of sentiment, or even of authorial intent. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously many poets who have taken an academic path have been influenced by such thinking?

As a culture, postmodernism has definitely left its mark. From film to television to cartoons to books, we have been trained to question and distrust, to regard everthing as construct, and to participate as well in the “language game.”

More than that though, Epstein suggests:

The fundamental thrust of Postmodernism’s solution was toward a new impersonalism, the use of the unconscious and superconscious, a reflection of medievalism. This was accompanied by fragmentariness, dispersion, eclecticism, irony with respect to the absolute (which appears under various names: “totality,” “canon,” “center,” “logocentrism,” “metaphysics,” etc.) In other words, postmodernism works against two major postulates, that of the individual and the absolute, whose tortuous dividedness gave rise to the inexorbaly tragic sense of Modernism, combining extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. The man of Modernity is Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He aims for the absolute and tries to encompass it with his own personality. The collapse of this aspiration marked the end of the entire epoch of Modernity.

If postmodernism works against the individual and the absolute, it is no wonder that poetry which rises from such a tradition lacks feeling and responsibility. Without the individual, the poem is bodiless and bloodless. Without the absolute, there is nothing to answer to or to revile against.

Epstein continues

The tragedy of the division between the individual and the absolute, between the individual and society, and between consciousness and reality, becomes as impossible as the avant-garde utopia and ecstasy of overcoming that division. What kind of alienation is possible for a theory (postmodern) that does not accept anything as one’s “own” and “originary”? There is nothing left to become alienated from. The cause of tragedy has thus disappeared, just as has the possibility of utopia.

This is where the postmodern movement leaves us — with nothing to be alienated from, having made all signs meaningless, and all forms empty. And in such a vacuum, what kind of poetry is possible? It appears to me at least that the New Sincerity is a rejection of that vacuum – a refusal to buy into the legacy that postmodernism attempts to leave us. Instead, there is a call to refocus and resurrect the body and the absolute. There is a sense that the individual does indeed feel and in that feeling (despite the problem of translation from one body to another) is of potential universal worth.

Am I a New Sincerist? I don’t know. But I do know that I write to stay human. Even in the fragmented world, I write both in the body and in response to absolutes. I believe in blood and feeling. So perhaps I am.

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