The Jersey Shore and the Death of Postmodernism

I admit it. I rang in the new decade with JWoww, Mike “The Situation,” Pauly D, Ronnie, Sammi, Vinny and of course, Snooki. Not a proud start to 2010. Perhaps I’m to blame for tuning into MTV in the first place, but once the cast of The Jersey Shore enters my living room, I am convinced that my remote suddenly “doesn’t work.” The next 59 minutes of my life is destined to feature binge drinking, flashes of crotch, fake tan, even faker boobs, steroids and haphazard nicknames. (And in that time, I fantasize that my Jersey Shore nickname would be B-Scream).

I am only one of 2.5 million viewers hooked on The Jersey Shore. Together, we are personally invested in Snooki’s well being. We want Ronnie and Sammi’s fledgling romance to survive. Maybe Pauly D will DJ our future kids’ 13th birthday parties? Will “The Situation” lead the rest of the cast in a core workout? Our hearts go out to “the grenade.”

All of these thoughts and outpourings of emotion spur one question: Why? Why does the drama surrounding these morons dominate our attention? Isn’t the real-world drama of two wars, a financial collapse, and an epidemic enough to satisfy even the most dramatic of drama queens? As we start a new decade, it’s only fitting that we ask the question: where the hell are we headed?

I only recently discovered Alan Kirby’s 2006 article, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” which was later expanded into the book Digimodernism, published last year. In his article, Kirby posits that our current, postmodern era is “dead.” In its place comes “a new paradigm of authority and knowledge formed under the pressure of new technologies and contemporary social forces” (a la The Jersey Shore). In light of The Jersey Shore’s popularity, I think he’s on to something here.

Before jumping into “post-postmodernism,” or, what Alan calls, “pseudo-modernism,” it’s helpful to revisit postmodernism. Postmodernism, like modernism and romanticism before it, placed supreme importance on the author, even when the author chose to indict or pretend to abolish him or herself. Whether you’re a fan of Great Expectations or Waiting for Godot, the dominant intellectual framework remains the same: authors write, and readers read. The curtain dividing creator and spectator is firmly drawn.

Postmodernism emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. In other words, we may do our best to convey what we mean, but what we intend to say will inevitably vary from what we actually say. The very fabric of our language is limiting. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, a personal favorite of mine, invented a term to describe this “language problem”: differance. Differance is the combination of the French verbs, “to differ” and “to defer.” The word suggests that over time, words come to assume new or varying meanings, and language itself is unstable.

In lieu of lamenting language’s limitations, many postmodern writers and thinkers celebrate this conundrum. This “celebration” of sorts is often expressed in postmodern art with an ironic self-awareness. Postmodern literature often, very playfully, pokes fun at the quest to find meaning. Think Beckett and Vonnegut.

The best example of postmodern TV that comes to mind is Seinfeld. “The show about nothing” is driven by superficial conduct and characters with strange dispositions. Most episodes revolve around the characters becoming involved in the lives of others, to typically disastrous results. Regardless of the damage they cause, however, they never gain anything from the experience and continue to be selfish, egocentric people. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Seinfeld, with its myriad allusions, jabs, and ironic plot twists, is one smart show. (And it is a “show” in the strictest definition of the word- the actors perform in front of us, and we viewers sit back and chuckle).

But alas, Seinfeld is so 1990s, and with the death of Seinfeld comes a new era: pseudo-modernism. Kirby notes that while all other past eras fetishized the author, the culture we have now “fetishizes the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it.” By definition, our cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them. The Catcher in the Rye will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not. Once Salinger had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its “material textuality” was completed. Its meaning may be up for grabs, but its very existence is determined by the authors and publishers. Kirby notes that “reality” shows such as Big Brother or American Idol, on the other hand, would not exist if it weren’t for the viewer:

“Big Brother would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the program – the telephoning viewers write the programmed themselves. If it were not possible for viewers to write sections of Big Brother, it would then uncannily resemble an Andy Warhol film: neurotic, youthful exhibitionists inertly bitching and talking aimlessly in rooms for hour after hour. This is to say, what makes Big Brother what it is, is the viewer’s act of phoning in.”

Kirby notes that this is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. The viewer herself plays the part of a deus ex machina– swooping in from above to determine the outcome of the spectacle at hand. Likewise, internet pages are not “authored” in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work (like Hopstop, for instance) or permit the user to add them, (like Wikipedia), or through feedback on media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to pseudo-modernism that one can easily create the pages herself. (Like a blog! How’s that for a little postmodern irony?).

While there’s no denying that our intellectual framework has transformed the way in which we interact with content, the question remains: what content? As our framework expands, our culture itself grows vapid. Kirby notes that whereas postmodernism favored the ironic, the knowing and the playful, with their allusions to knowledge, history and ambivalence, pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety. And it has crept “into every aspect of contemporary life; from a general fear of social breakdown and identity loss, to a deep unease about diet and health; from anguish about the destructiveness of climate change, to the effects of a new personal ineptitude and helplessness.” We can find TV programs and countless websites about how to lose weight, raise children, make friends, clean your home, and fry an egg. We pseudo-modernists are wasting time interacting, commenting, networking, clicking and tweeting about knowledge that was once considered intuitive or mere common sense. We click just to click.

While Seinfeld is a smart show about nothing, The Jersey Shore is a dumb show about everything. It is a clever ruse: The dramatic bar fights, the punches, the sexcapades. All of these events culminate into a feeling of being part of something pivotal, until, of course the hour is over and we retreat to another “reality” show. But pseudo-modernism and post-modernism share one thing in common: they appeal to human being’s desire to be in on the joke. While the postmodernist will never cease to enjoy a subtle illusion to Dostoevsky because getting the illusion it makes her, “feel smart,” the pseudo-modernist will persist in watching The Jersey Shore because, hey, “I’m not that dumb” In an age filled with anxiety, the cast of The Jersey Shore reminds us of what we are not: them. We are at once participants and mere spectators- invested in the drama, but distant enough to look down on those involved. We are “in on the joke” precisely because we aren’t them. And we aren’t them, together.

In the words of a despairing Snooki, “Me, I’m on the outcast.”


4 Responses to “The Jersey Shore and the Death of Postmodernism”

  1. Kirby’s article is now a book: “Digimodernism” (Continuum, 2009).

    • brigidduffy Says:

      Thank you for the correction. I will be sure to site “Digimodernism” in the article.

      Any thoughts on the above article?

  2. This is a great analysis, Brigid. It’s a nice creative attempt to connect some highfelutant ideas with some maddeningly inane discourse like the Jersey Shore. With that in mind, I have trouble tracking the connection completely. I get that pseudo-modernism is really looking at an interactive discourse. Here, you’re claiming that The Jersey Shore is interactive in that it evokes powerful reactions (usually of self-examining disgust) through its characters. For one thing, Jersey Shore isn’t nearly as interactive as Big Brother in Kirby’s analysis for obvious reasons. While your leap, which I will call the “in on the joke connection”, certainly makes sense, what if Jersey Shore is able to accomplish some sort of meaning without your completely repulsed yet simultaneously affectionate reactions? Big Brother is literally nothing without its viewers by design. Seinfeld and Catcher in the Rye exist as works without a viewer.

    Post-modernism and pseudo-modernism invite us to stop caring what the author thinks and makes texts self-sufficient creations. As you put it, some authors chose to celebrate this by making it clear in their work that they understand this will happen (by being self-conscious in their work). Does Jersey Shore undertake the same endeavor? If you consider MTV the author, I would say it most certainly does as MTV is obviously aware of how ridiculous these people are and seek to display them in the most entertaining manner possible. If you consider the characters of the show, through their decidedly intentional words and acts, they seem to be the complete opposite of “self-conscious.” These people think they have a story to tell. They think their lives are profound and filled with palpable tension and drama. What does pseudo-modernism do with that? In other words, what happens when the characters of a work aren’t “in on the joke”?

  3. brigidduffy Says:

    Thanks so much for your thorough and insightful thoughts, Tim. You bring up two excellent points.

    1. You are right that The Jersey Shore is not not as interactive as say, Big Brother. The very design of Big Brother requires interaction. The framework of The Jersey Shore is much more traditional. The audience views what is put in front of them. The author/viewer line is firmly drawn.

    I do not mean to suggest that all pseudo-modernist discourse must be “interactive” in general. I also do not want to infer that everyone who views The Jersey Shore necessarily has an emotional reaction to (or interaction with) the content. I’m sure that there are many people who are not moved at all. I am merely suggesting that as a result of our new “interactive framework,” the standard for real content has diminished considerably. We might still view some content in the “old fashioned” way, but is it of any substance? That is the question. You note that The Jersey Shore might be capable of accomplishing some sort of meaning, and my hunch is that you might be right. But what might that be? Viewers?

    2. MTV as an author- what an interesting, ailbet scary, thought. I also wonder if the cast of The Jersey Shore is also, “in on the joke?” They are making money, seemingly having fun, and trouncing around Hollywood all because we find their lack of self-awareness comical. Maybe the joke really is on us? Perhaps Snooki has the last laugh.

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