The XFL and the Death of Postmodernism

On January 25th, 2018, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon made the unexpected announcement that he was re-launching the XFL, his failed football league from 2001 that ceased operations after only a single season. Reporters greeted the announcement with a combination of surprise, curiosity, and incredulousness. The mere act of a reboot in 2018 isn’t so surprising; after all, the past two years have seen classic TV series such as the X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Roseanne resume production many years after reaching their respective cultural zeniths. The obvious contrast between those shows and the XFL is that the former generally received love from fans and acclaim from critics, while the latter (in its short life) was universally, mercilessly panned—a discarded piece of cultural debris that was floating steadily out of the world’s collective consciousness. Until last Thursday, that is.

What struck me about the XFL’s return, however, was the grave challenge it presented to the postmodern theoretical framework that has dominated literary and cultural criticism over the last 50 years. Postmodernism, a cultural aesthetic Fredric Jameson describes as “empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous,” emerges when the dominant forms and trends within art, philosophy, music, literature, entertainment, and other spheres of culture are endlessly recycled, recombined, re-appropriated, and to varying degrees, reimagined. Postmodern culture thus constitutes a pastiche in which many frayed, disparate threads weave into a tapestry that is at once new yet uncannily familiar. I argue that two chief characteristics of the postmodern are self-awareness and irony—and I will show later how the XFL’s return brazenly upends these tenets.

First, this self-awareness constitutes a deliberate, conscious choice of an artist to incorporate an established cultural artifact, mode, or form into a new work. Thomas Pynchon, widely considered to be the definitive postmodern novelist of the last 50 years, consistently wields with deliberate precision references to every corner of the pop-culture universe—even deft nods to cartoons like Road Runner and The Simpsons—all to produce the paradoxical, unmistakably postmodern effect of both bombast and depth. Pynchon’s self-awareness is indispensible to this approach—he can leverage in his writing discarded or otherwise mocked cultural fragments precisely because he knows how bad they are. Irony, too, helps signal the postmodern aesthetic. Certainly, there is irony in the knowledge that, for a writer such as Pynchon, cultural castoffs and low-art dregs form some of the most vibrant watercolors he brings to the canvas of his writing.

A recent example demonstrates the power that irony and self-awareness have, even in the hands of an artist far less capable than Pynchon. Michael Bolton rose to fame and the top of the adult-contemporary charts in the late 1980s and early 90s on the back of a husky, high baritone voice while piping ballads that dripped with the noxious sweetness of high-fructose corn syrup. Bolton’s niche music genre predictably fell out of favor as the grunge-infused 1990s progressed, with the obituary of his career written to devastating effect in the film Office Space. Yet irony and self-awareness enabled Mr. Bolton to enjoy a career renaissance of sorts 20 years later, beginning with his legendary “Captain Jack Sparrow” digital short on Saturday Night Live. The song works precisely because of Bolton’s acute awareness of where his career fits in the broader pop-culture landscape, and it is with this heaping helping of irony that he reinvents himself in spectacular, laugh-out-loud fashion. Indeed, he’s punctuated his renewed, ironic superstardom with last year’s incredible Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special on Netflix. Absent irony, Bolton’s catalogue would stand as a dubious, “what were they thinking?” sort of cultural artifact—the Bobs’ celebration notwithstanding. Yet today we can all hear “When a Man Loves a Woman,” have a good laugh, and appreciate his unique contributions to our contemporary cultural moment.

Michael Bolton’s successful reinvention, through irony and self-awareness, provides a useful waypoint in navigating what the XFL’s return portends for the explanatory power of postmodernism in 2018. It’s not good. The XFL was a fiasco that failed in almost every imaginable way—ratings, finances, and quality of play. The Attitude Era overlay to mediocre football (amazingly) disappointed both football and wrestling fans. When NBC and WWE mercifully euthanized the XFL after one disastrous season, no one—aside from perhaps Homer Simpson—pined for its return.

The XFL thus stood as another chunk of cultural rubble under the watchful gaze of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History that, as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s, no one was particularly eager to retrieve. To be sure, five or six years ago someone could comfortably, ironically wear a He Hate Me jersey and few would think twice about it. But it is perhaps the abject lack of irony with which Vince McMahon announced the XFL’s return that signifies the death knell for the postmodern framework. To paraphrase my Spectacle of Excess colleague Andrea, the unironic, brutal earnestness of this enterprise has stunned wrestling fans and critics alike. Bringing back the XFL—the failed fiasco that for seventeen years has inspired scant amounts of nostalgia to any person outside of Stamford, CT—requires a fully and willfully negligent disregard for basic self-awareness. Truly, is there a worse time to announce the reboot of a league ostensibly founded to celebrate football’s most violent aspects than now, when CTE and other gruesome injuries (think Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier) have forced fans and parents to reexamine their relationship with the game—Vince’s vague promises of making football “safer” notwithstanding? Quite frankly, the brash tone-deafness of an XFL re-launch in the football-saturated, safety conscious environment of 2018 could only be exceeded by Harvey Weinstein returning from Hollywood exile to produce a remake of Porky’s. Or perhaps by 68 year-old Jerry “The King” Lawler, oblivious to the cultural backdrop of the #MeToo movement, screeching “PUPPIES!!!” on the 25th Anniversary Monday Night RAW special. (Sadly, only one of these examples is hypothetical).

And yet, one can better apprehend Vince’s seemingly inexplicable decision to resurrect the XFL when it is framed within today’s broader cultural and political moment. Indeed, we live in a time characterized by fracture, distrust, and tribalism, in which people of various political persuasions eschew authentic and good faith dialogue with their ideological opposites in favor of retreating into their own echo chambers. These bubbles, which offer relief from any uncomfortable kind of self-awareness that comes from honest and careful self-assessment, form a place in which the perceived legitimacy of dominant narratives is commensurate with how badly their proponents want to believe them (with evidence and rigorous analysis being, at very best, a tertiary consideration). I suspect such a bubble exists within the confines of WWE headquarters, where the decision to resurrect the XFL maintains striking parallels to the company’s stubborn, three and a half year insistence to push Roman Reigns as a traditional babyface. When the postmodern lens is overlaid on this bubble in WWE and others like it (marked by willful, arrogant earnestness that is utterly devoid of self-awareness and irony), its explanatory power collapses precipitously.

Perhaps the XFL’s return signaling the death of postmodernism is hyperbolic, or at the very least, premature. Maybe there’s nothing more to this story beyond a corporate carnival barker burdened by his stubborn desire to right his first failed foray into football from 17 years ago. But at the very least, we ought to be on guard for other spheres of life in which irony and self-awareness get crowded out by the kind of gaslighting earnestness described in this essay. These social, political, and cultural spheres (read, bubbles) will act as a kind of kryptonite to the postmodern framework, steadily depleting its power and importance in the coming years. If Thomas Pynchon ever answered fan letters (or his Twitter), I’d be sure to congratulate him on the end of a great run.



Recent Posts

Recent Comments



John Dvorak Written by:

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *