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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

"There's a real breaking down of definitions in general," Dumenco said. "There's an increasing tendency in the media to just throw stuff against the wall to see if it will stick, and everything's just sort of blending together. Look at Eminem. Look at who's listening to Eminem -- middle-aged white guys."

If this sounds messy, well, Darwin never gave evolutionary points for neatness. In youth culture, especially, the highbrow/lowbrow divide increasing has no meaning at all, the black/white division is dissolving, the urban/suburban division is dissolving and, as for the gay/straight dichotomy, forget it.

In terms of the cultural conversation, the Supreme Court's recent dismissal of sodomy laws was more final punctuation than preamble. In the last year, homoerotic male models, waxed glossy and stripped to their skivvies, once more made the rounds in Abercrombie & Fitch at Christmastide; "single mom" Rosie O'Donnell finally publicly acknowledged her partner, now mother of O'Donnell's fourth child; and Bert Archer, author of the newly published "The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality)", declared us not just post-gay, but post-straight as well."You've got 16-year-olds in Ohio getting their chests waxed and pumping steroids," Dumenco said. "You've got straight guys who are gayer than the gay guys."

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.

All of which he believes is a Very Good Thing. "We're looking for movements," he added. "But there may not be any movements because now it's all about the mixing. There are no more definitions. That's the definition."

Is the term accurate?

Yet while post- makes good cultural conversation, some people worry that terms like "post-gay" or "post-black" are not only inaccurate -- how can someone actually be post-black? -- but dangerous. Many of these political identities were claimed as the first step in overthrowing oppression, of destroying social, economic and legal disparities. To say that society is "post-gay" when most people's health plans certainly are not hints at a cultural shell game -- look at our magazine ads, not our adoption laws or hate-crime records.

"In reality, we're not post-feminism or post-gay," DePaul's Bartlett said. "At this university, for example, there are no spousal benefits for domestic partners. We're working on it, but this is a Catholic university. Maybe we're post strict identity politics, but I wonder how much identity politics goes on under another term."

Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York, has researched and written extensively on issues related to gender and race, and he is unconvinced that we are post-anything.

"There may be a growing black middle class," said Hacker, author of "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal" and "Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men," "but most of those people don't work for private business. Most need two incomes just to get to the suburbs -- and those new black suburbs do not, for the most part, have the kind of elite high school that is the gold measure of a good suburb.

Neither do we have equality for women, who still pay what Hacker calls "the marriage penalty." "Women who make $100,000 or more are by and large divorced or single -- because you still cannot be married and have a family and succeed in business."

What Americans do have, Hacker said, is a collective identity crisis. "You look at the suburbs of Denver or Seattle and there's a post- for you. Post-ethnic neighborhood. In the past, people knew who they were -- they were Irish or from Alabama. Now we figure out who we are by shopping. And people can shop for ideas as well."

Post- is an interesting concept, he said, but the power elite is much as it ever was, straight male-dominated and very Anglo. It's the media, he said, that have changed. In the past year, "soft" issues like the New Virginity, Wives Who Out-Earn Their Husbands, the Cult of Harry Potter and the Truth About Diets have been on the cover of national news magazines.

"The media now covers less hard news and more cultural stuff," he said. "The cover of Time or Newsweek used to be the secretary of treasury. Now, who even knows who that is? It's all about lifestyle. So the media needs new trends, always new trends."

But the media have ever reflected the social psyche, and we are now far too media-savvy, too self-surveying and informed to leave analysis to future historians. We will declare our own Renaissance, our own Reformation, thank you, and do it in Real Time. And as technology outstrips philosophy and morality at every turn, who can blame us? It's a natural impulse to want to control whatever we can, even if it is just a momentary self-definition.

In a way, the "post"-ing of America is simply a nationwide example of how difficult it is to describe certain patterns of human thought, creativity and action -- as with art, we know what we like when we see it, but it's awfully hard to put into words sometimes. The next big thing may not quite have taken shape yet, but there is a preferred point on the horizon.

"Post"-ing, Hollinger said, "is not so much a matter of 'moving past' something, but rather of defining just where one wants to go next."

Without quite letting go of the last recognizable signpost.

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