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In 'post' culture, the prefix is in

It's cool to use that little term ahead of -ethnic, -feminist or -political. But has society really moved to a next level that lessens the significance of the root word?

August 31, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

In the beginning there were the Beats. Who gave rise to the hippies, who went forth and multiplied and became the yuppies, who ushered in the Me Generation and the dot-com boom/bust. A simplistic view of cultural history, yes, but whatever. It doesn't really matter because now we are beyond all that.

Now we live in a world where millionaires shill for Target and fashionistas argue for "the power bikini"; where the latest pop cult bad boy is Ali G, a white Brit in black hip-hop drag, and Disney has given us Johnny Depp's Captain Jack, a pirate more Eddie Izzard than Robert Louis Stevenson.

Everywhere we look, the boundaries are blurring -- the concept of racial, ethnic, sexual or even gender identity, the strict political ideologies and movements of yesteryear, identifiable trends in art, music, drama and thought, the line between low- and highbrow culture. Been there, done that, voted it off the island.

Enter the brave new post-everything world in which we mark our rejection of past cultural movements, and our refusal to commit to new ones, with one little word: "post."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Post-feminist: A story in today's Sunday Calendar section on the cultural uses of the prefix "post" incorrectly refers to Ann Roiphe as a post-feminist. The post-feminist is actually her daughter, Katie Roiphe.

In the past few years, Americans have been told by people who claim to know that society is becoming post-black, post-ethnic, post-gay, post-ironic, post-feminist, post-political, even, gasp, post-cool. Some of this can be chalked up to the media's predilection for cover-headline-speak, but mostly, the post- labels are self-administered by the usual standard bearers -- activists, artists, scholars and the youth cultural elite.

In the early '90s, Camille Paglia ushered in the newly minted "post-feminists," with Naomi Wolf and Ann Roiphe following close behind like so many ducklings. UC Berkeley professor David Hollinger wrote about "Post-Ethnic America" in 1995; James Collard, then editor of Out magazine, began using "post-gay" in interviews a year or so later. In 2001, "Freestyle," a much-discussed show curated by the Studio Museum in Harlem was touted as "post-black."

A recent show at the Ben Maltz Gallery of the Otis College of Art and Design was, according to its title, "L.A. Post-Cool." This means, according to curator Michael Duncan's exhibition essay, that many young artists are rejecting the "heavy-handed sarcasm of ... nearly every aspect of mass media culture" and creating works that are, to borrow a few of his descriptors: "overheated, awkward, fantastical, romantic, earnest" and of course, "genuine."

The latest hobby among culture mavens is post- ing people -- the political complexities of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell are neatly tucked into the "post-black" paradigm, straight men with good grooming habits have recently been given the post-gender/post-gay "metrosexual" label, and those teens with the raspberry Mohawks and bicycle-chain belts may look like punks, but they're really "post-punks" which apparently is very, very different.

Art and theater that refuse to be categorized by racial identity or even diversity are "post-multiculturist." Our digitalized nation, in which advertisements and mega-retailers seem to have more influence than ideology or even legislation, is increasingly referred to as being "post-political," a concept vividly illustrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger's choice to announce his gubernatorial candidacy on "The Tonight Show."Strangely enough, the whole point of the original "post" -- postmodernism -- was its refusal to appoint, or even offer, an alternative to the movement it rejected. Postmodernism was supposed to be a loose collective of sensibilities that would naturally give way to whatever happened next, movements so ephemeral they might not even have a chance to be named. Instead it became a shorthand for overly geometric architecture, chairs that look like overly geometric architecture and the work of architect Michael Graves who now designs for, post-ironically enough, Target.

Now post- has become one of those terms that rely a lot on context and inflection -- part rejection, part recognition and part-too-cool-to-decide, post- means both hello and goodbye. Sort of like "aloha," if we weren't all very post-kitsch.

Which would be kind of cute if post- weren't attached to some pretty large and significant concepts. The danger of the post-er generation is that rhetoric will replace reality -- the success of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" may make society seem very post-gay, but as the recent split in the Episcopal Church over the appointment of its first openly gay bishop proves, all is not what it seems.

Original intent

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