The famous phrase, “well, that’s my opinion,” can be the end of a discussion or a debate, because we’re taught to respect what others believe. While this is fine in the realm of what sport team is best, your favorite musician, or your favorite book, it has recently begun to bleed into the scientific and cultural realms. This idea that truth is subjective to opinion aligns with postmodernist philosophy, and along with it comes cynicism, irony, irreverence, and meta-criticism. These all result in a culture where no progress can actually be made, because all of these characteristic are a critique, and progress is all but impossible due to the constant critique of current events.
With the postmodernist view that truth is subjective, comes the phrase “post-truth,” Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year. It is defined as relating “to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are far less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” So this describes a place where belief is more important than fact, or as Rudy Giuliani puts it, “truth isn’t truth.”
To get a better understanding, let’s backtrack. Author Frederic Jameson, in his book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, puts forth the concept that cultural logic follows the economy. This means that hope and despair follow the economic worth of the country, and that philosophy has shown to be valid. Starting with modernism, the cultural idea that the possibilities are endless and hope abounds. The modernist movement found its cornerstone in Ezra Pound’s maxim, “Make it New!” The movement was one of optimism that correlated with the industrial and financial boom of the early and mid 1900s. However, once the boom was over and the recession began in the 1950s, people began to look around at all of the possibilities and options what were available from their once prosperous economy, and felt despair. The idea that “nothing really matters” began to take hold; this is where postmodernism began. But as David Foster Wallace put aptly, “The problem is, I think postmodernism has run its course.” The idea of a postmodernist society is discussed heavily, but there is little talk about what happens after. So, what is after postmodernism? Post-postmodernism? Actually, yes. But it’s been labelled New Sincerity.
The New Sincerity movement has taken hold within the last decade, after the slow economic improvement following the 2008 economic crash. The New Sincerity movement acknowledges that modernism and ignorant hope is dead, but rejects the postmodernist idea that the only way to advance or live at all is through ironic cynicism or self-deprivation. New Sincerity decides to push past this belief, and explores the possibility of a new life of genuine and sincere hope.
A prime and condensed example of this transition from postmodernism to New Sincerity can be found within the work of Bo Burnham, comedian, author, and most recently, filmmaker. Burnham currently has three comedy specials out: Words Words Words, what., and Make Happy. In Words Words Words, Burnham discusses the idea that art is dead and nothing is real. In what., Burnham goes a step further to claim that meaning itself is dead. Through the first two specials, Burnham acknowledges and even relishes in the fact that there is no purpose, nothing matters, and therefore we don’t need to care about anything; but it’s his third special that shows a unique transition. In short, his third special’s philosophy recognizes the death of meaning, but genuinely pushes past it in hopes that new meaning can be found in this death.
Instead of embracing the chaos, and relishing in a lack of a clearly defined purpose, Burnham shows that happiness is probably possible, but it has to be worked at. Even if we cannot immediately give ourselves an immense sense of purpose, we can help give meaning to the lives of others. In Burnham’s ending monologue song, he sings, “come and watch the skinny kid… and laugh while he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.” While the initial reading of this line is somewhat desolate, there is a belief that while one many not feel at their absolute best, that shouldn’t stop us from pushing forward to make the world a better place.
Burnham never gives a complete answer to any of the gnawing questions presented through his comedy, but he does end with a sense of optimism, “Thank you for coming. I hope you’re happy.” And isn’t that really how life works? None of us have all of the answers, but that shouldn’t stop us from pushing forward and attempted to make our lives and the world better. Burnham ends his third special by leaning towards something beyond postmodernism, and that something is New Sincerity. This new cultural philosophy holds the idea that genuineness is important, that even if there isn’t some clearly stated purpose out there for all of us, we can still do our best to look for it.
New Sincerity rejects the postmodernist idea that we are alone with our beliefs, meaning that we are in this together, and together we can find real answers. This in turn means that for some things, there are real, factual answers that we can build off of to improve ourselves. We do not need to rely on a post-truth philosophy and solely our own philosophy, we are not that isolated. Post-truth, in postmodernist wording, is dead.
So the question was, what’s after postmodernism? The best answer I can come up with is genuineness, collaboration, and hopefulness despite despair.