At this point, our general consensus on 2016 seems to range between the first of the years of Tribulation and a collection of memes that should be dropped and disregarded as fast as humanly possible. But what if this year is neither a sentient beast intent on obliterating all we hold dear nor a fad created by melodramatics looking for a scapegoat? What if (and yes, I know I’m weird) 2016 was in fact a text?
Well no, that’s way too definitive a statement to make considering I’m about to do a postmodern reading of a particularly trying trip around the Sun… but why not? 2016 had a plot, it had characters (and a lot of death scenes), and quite a few running themes that make it perfect for a brief detour into some nice, entertaining literary criticism. (If you’re confused, don’t worry, this is postmodernism. It’s not supposed to make sense anyway.)
But to begin, we need a baseline. So I’m going to do what we English majors do best and steal ideas from better writers than me—namely, the good people at the Purdue OWL, who put together a nice little primer on postmodern criticism. In short, they describe postmodern narratives as resistant to “grand narratives”—pieces that question the validity of unviersal truths, of consensus, that paint knowledge as relative, changing, and in constant need of questioning. Postmodernism seeks to invalidate the idea of a system, of structure, of consistency, and it theorizes that the very idea of a cohesive narrative runs counter to the unstructured, uncontrollable, and thouroughly meaningless lives we live.
Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?
(Also note—yes, this is a reading focused entirely on American culture and politics. Because if I go any wider than that I’ll take up 20,000 words and also probably start crying halfway through. Sorry. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming—)
Let’s start with the most omnipresent of 2016’s trends: celebrity deaths. From January 10th to December 28th (with an honorable mention for Mariah Carey’s career on the 31st), we lost pioneers and trailblazers and every other word I can use to describe people who added something meaningful to our cultural canon. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Muhammad Ali, Prince, George Michael, Debbie Reynolds—2016 felled giants in every sphere it could find, and that’s only scratching the surface.
Yet it’s not necessarily the deaths I’m here to analyze—it’s our reaction ot them. Each and every one fed into the narrative of 2016 as the doomed year; they were the first indicator of the horror show about to ensue. Moreover, they seemed to shatter certain illusions of safety or security that had, until this year, remained strong. Namely, people who seemed larger than life were larger than life, should have been larger than life, but in the end no one was. 2016 deconstructed the mythology around our celebrities. In actuality, there was no pattern—only the uncontrollable nature of reality that designated this year as one of loss.
But wait, I haven’t talked about the most (textually) significant one. No doubt you saw the image overlaying this post, and no doubt you rolled your eyes and thought, “well, here we go again.” Well, I’m here to tell you that nothing epitomizes 2016’s particular brand of postmodernism better than everyone’s favorite departed gorilla.
Harambe died in May, and has somehow survived in our collective memory for the past seven months. Why? What is it about this all-around saddening, lose-lose story that seemingly the entire Internet latched onto?
Well, think about it. Is Harambe not the perfect defense mechanism for this year’s universal trauma? A way to vent and joke about the dying everywhere around us without interacting with the specter of human death, an outlet for a collective anxiety tuned by loss in every walk of life? Moreover, wasn’t he just another method to deflect the postmodern trappings of 2016—to ignore the futility and uncontrollability of the world around us, and to try and impart meaning onto the most unexpectedly futile event of all?
But of course, 2016’s embodiment of postmodernism really manifested in the form of… do I even need to say it? Do I need to talk like a historian and call it the Election of 2016? Where to even begin with the tragically, unabashedly postmodern debacle that was this year in American politics? Remember how I said knowledge in postmodern texts is viewed as relative? That it seeks to invalidate systems and structures? That grand narratives are torn asunder and frameworks fall apart?
How else does one describe a process that produced Lincoln Chafee and Donald Trump?
If the crux of postmodernism is that our traditional narratives do not, in fact, reflect life—that life is essentially unpredictable, impossible to pin down with abstractions or arbitrary meanings, nothing is more quintessentially postmodern than the six-car highway pileup in the middle of a blizzard in the Rockies in December that was 2016’s brand of political discourse. When your reality starts to resemble Yeats’ “The Second Coming”—when “the best lack all convinction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity” (7–8)—something somewhere along the line has gone wrong. And when we’ve entered the realm of “post-truth” as the Oxford English Dictionary put it, well, we’ve also entered the realm of a reality so wholly postmodern that every structure and every system has not only been rejected but ground into a pulp.
In other words, 2016 proved our old narratives wrong. It rejected an expected world and replaced it with one metaphorically (and quite literally in some cases) on fire. And that’s pretty damn postmodern.
Of course, I’m sure you’re wondering—what’s the point of all this? Why would I write something like this? Why would I call attention to all of these exceedingly obvious conceits? There must be some reconciliation, right? Some lesson to take away from all this?
This is postmodernism, remember? Objective meaning does not exist. We are all awash on a sea of uncertainty, gazing up at a sun that just got a bit more orange and balding, and for some reason started to brag about the size of its corona. And it doesn’t look like that’s stopping anytime soon.
Happy New Year!