Wednesday, 6 June 2018

What comes next after postmodernism?

I

The frustration that led to Brexit and Trump hasn't dissipated. You can feel it out there.

I've been re-reading sections of A Thousand Plateaus because of how accurately it describes these movements, these interrelated continuous series of actions taking place locally in time, to use its impossible language.

The ideas in that book, despite their obtuse postmodern presentation, are invaluable to understanding events. Social networks have unblocked "flows" – exchanges of ideas, sentiments, cultures – that were long blocked by the system by encapsulating events into "stories" and compartmentalising them as "international news" or "foreign policy" and ignored. No longer.

But as ideas and sentiments flow simultaneously among people without filter or interruption, events are unleashed in their true form. The disruption is happening here. Not to the same degree of course, but it is happening. The frustrated stones crash into the Potomac, creating ripples which extend to LA, London, NYC and even Auckland. Those ripples are softened only by distance, which in this postmodern world is nearly irrelevant.

People on Twitter echo to a muted degree the feelings of the people in the streets. We are at the back of the crowd, far enough to be totally safe, but in the crowd nonetheless. We are so far back that we are facing the other way, facing our own local "regimes." We are not simply lending the streets our support, we are staging a much quieter riot against our own systems.

The purpose of whatever comes after postmodernism is to restore the appreciation of meaning within things that formerly were given a postmodern gutting. The point isn’t to argue that postmodernism is wrong, it's to say, "so what?" to every single one of its critiques or deconstructions.

I understand I’m arguing against the prevailing trend in pop culture. I appreciate that the notion of "I really like cake" is enough to get two shows put on television about decorating cakes. I know that I am not ever supposed to judge things.

But I'm doing it anyway. A show about decorating cake is stupid. There, I said it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't watch it. By all means, watch it. I like junk TV as much as the next person. But I know it's junk. Don't try to elevate it, because doing so degrades everything that should be elevated. That’s the feeling I’m talking about.

That’s what’s coming.

II

Most governments don't get what is happening or why these demonstrations are suddenly so effective when in generations past they were not.

The mating of social networks with masses of the dispossessed is giving rise to what Gilles Deleuze called a “war machine.” Don't be put off by that phrase. It simply means a spontaneously emerging, flowing, evolving social force that deactivates the powers of the system from within its own borders in response to a prolonged marginalisation of a group of people by that system. Here are some assorted excerpts from A Thousand Plateaus to explain:
"Either the State has at its disposal a violence that is not channelled through war; either it uses police officers and jailers in place of warriors...preventing all combat or, the State acquires an army, but in a way that presupposes a juridical integration of war and the organization of a military function. As for the war machine in itself, it seems to be irreducible to the State apparatus, to be outside its sovereignty and prior to its law: it comes from elsewhere... 
“...The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems. 
“The law of the State is not the law of All or Nothing (State societies or counter-State societies) but that of interior and exterior. The State is sovereignty. But sovereignty only reigns over what it is capable of internalising, of appropriating locally. Not only is there no universal State, but the outside of States cannot be reduced to "foreign policy," that is, to a set of relations among States. The outside appears simultaneously in two directions... but also the local mechanisms of bands, margins, minorities, which continue to affirm the rights of segmentary societies in opposition to the organs of State power... 
“But the war machine's form of exteriority is such that it exists only in its own metamorphoses; it exists in an industrial innovation as well as in a technological invention, in a commercial circuit as well as in a religious creation, in all flows and currents that only secondarily allow themselves to be appropriated by the State. 
“[E]ach time there is an operation against the State: insubordination, rioting, guerrilla warfare, or revolution as act, it can be said that a war machine has revived, that a new nomadic potential has appeared, accompanied by the reconstitution of a smooth space or a manner of being in space as though it were smooth (Virilio discusses the importance of the riot or revolutionary theme of "holding the street"). It is in this sense that the response of the State against all that threatens to move beyond it is to striate space...when a State does not succeed in striating its interior or neighboring space, the flows traversing that State necessarily adopt the stance of a war machine directed against it, deployed in a hostile or rebellious smooth space"
This is what our future looks like. We’ve been overtaken by nothing but sheer power, sheer will. We’ve lost any presence of the grand, beautiful, sublime, mystical. The progression of the positivist ideal has seen little pieces of philosophy carved off into scientific (or quasi-/pseudo-scientific) disciplines precisely insofar as they reduce their subjects of study to what is quantifiable, mechanical, immanent. We’re choking out all the transcendent, and the great postmodernist Jacques Derrida says we want it back. But the transcendent can’t be constructed of the immanent, by definition.

At the centre is our particular configuration of sign versus signified. It’s not in-sign-ificant that Descartes follows Nominalism. This is why we can only fetishise the Authentic, not attain it: Rather than abandon the self-referential semiotics of postmodernism for “Authenticity” we must try to reunite sign and signified, headline and article, trucker hat and trucker. And this can only happen when there’s something at once above and behind both sign and signified, something transcendent.

III

A Thousand Plateaus is a vital text for decoding what has happened – and what will happen – in the 21st century as we ask “what comes after postmodernism”?

Postmodernism isn’t dead, just like modernism or classicism aren’t dead either. People will continue to produce postmodern works or take postmodern approaches to culture, just as they continue to do with modernism or any other "-ism." What is changing is that postmodernism is no longer the dominant form and a newly dominant form is emerging.

Over the past decade, postmodernism became, well, obvious.

Irony saturates everything, the questioning of all beliefs and narratives became the default. We all came to accept that identity is constructed, and we even embrace new tools like blogs, Facebook and the internet so we can not only construct our identities with great efficiency but also project it to the world in ever more refined iterations.

At some point, however, it stopped working. It stopped being relevant. Or maybe people just got tired of it. The response to the postmodern itself became, “Whatever…”

Maybe we saw that everyone could do it, or because we felt at some level it was just superficial semiotic play. Postmodern works became self-deconstructing and appreciation of culture dissolved into nothing more than solving puzzles by following clues left deliberately by the authors. Maybe it was a heightened sense of reality after 9/11, or maybe the 2008 Recession makes the cultural pastiche central to postmodern culture seem trite. Or maybe the philosophy is simply exhausted.

Postmodernism is no longer the vanguard. So, what is? What comes next? What are this new form’s characteristics, its defining features? What does it conspicuously lack, and conspicuously have?

I think what comes next is something more Authentic, more sincere, more earnest, less ironic, less sarcastic. What I think comes next is the death of cool. The detachment and aloofness that defined "cool" are no longer palatable to younger generations. “Whatever,” followed by some glib deconstruction of motives, intent and meaning is no longer an acceptable response to an idea or question. Deconstruction is no longer an excuse for inaction or withdrawal.

IV

In the late 19th century, a progression eventually leading to Dostoyevsky and the polyphonic, deep-psychological novel arose from an atmosphere of nihilism and political upheaval.

Then Europe and Russia were struck by the Great Binge, the October Revolution and two world wars, effectively crushing the humanistic optimist worldview and paving the way for modernism, existentialism and nihilism 2.0. We were back to the homophonic novels, which were almost stripped to their bare minimum (see anything by Beckett) to unveil the absurdity and futility of man.

Such a view, of course, would be too dreadful to cope, so along came postmodernism, which nicely turned the spotlight back to You. Everything is individualistic, and nothing can be trusted. No wonder there are so many narcissists today. The ultimate folly of postmodernism is that the further down you dig, the more likely you’ll find yourself staring back. Narcissism wrecks generations.

We seem to be returning to the view held by Dostoyevsky. Even though he was a religious man, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christian ideology in his works. He lets his characters develop a fully personal voice with as much leverage as the next one. You can find the existential absurdity of Sartre or Camus in Dostoyevsky, but it is always surrounded by a humanistic, meaningful glow.

In this new philosophy, the preferred response seems to be “I know you can’t trust it, I know you can’t be sure, but still…”

Postmodernism began in architecture (or at least, the postmodern attack on modernism began in architecture). From there it spread through society before making its way into politics during Generation X’s political awakening. But today’s social condition, namely the GFC and the uninspiring future it portends, is felt most acutely by younger generations for whom the well-worn life paths walked by older generations are no longer reliable – or even exist anymore.

After giving this some thought, I think whatever comes next will start in music, where we already find a succinct response to postmodernism. Take, for example, “Month of May” by Arcade Fire:
Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Well, some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
I said some things are pure, and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
So young, so young 
So much pain for someone so young
Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
What matters is not that the lyrics directly question the hipster/GenX detachment. Messages like this have existed for decades, but they were presented as alternatives to the postmodern worldview, and consequently never became very popular. Now that has changed. Messages like this are becoming more popular and common. And unlike the past, this worldview is not presented as an alternative to postmodernism, but as a response to it.

People are starting to admit that while postmodernism is a box with some really useful tools, it’s not actually an answer to anything, and no help at all if you’re trying to figure out how to raise your kids. If some things are pure and some things are right, then you are obliged to write those things down, work out their consequences, and live in the new house you’ve built.

I know many people don't like him, but Derrida’s progression is worth following for what might be coming next. Early on, his life is all deconstruction, all immanent hydraulics, basically an extension of modern critique. But then toward the end of his life he takes a different turn toward the transcendent. He notices that justice can’t be deconstructed, so he starts looking at religion seriously.

His was basically a cry for some apocalyptic irruption into this immanent frame, some reconnection with the transcendent. You’d think that 9/11 would have been irruptive enough, but no dice.

V

Quite opposed to stepping beyond the cynicism of postmodernism in pop-culture into something “pure” and “true,” that Arcade Fire song reflects the guarded desire within postmodernism that despite no discourse achieving the consistency of Universality, there is an exception to the project.

There's a secret suspicion in postmodernism that while all discourses are false, there is one (out there) that is true. Arcade Fire is not beyond postmodernism but still within it experiencing a fetishised, disavowed version. At its core, postmodernism is a defensive form of a return to total belief in an Omnipotent Other following modernism’s attempt to undermine it by creating a new Universal. As Nietzsche said, God was dead before modernism began, but postmodernism cannot let go of God’s dead body; God’s dead body is still in the unconscious.

Postmodernism will finally be over when people are not only ready to intellectually accept the complete absence of an Omnipotent Other as an inevitability, but when they are ready to embrace the absence of an Omnipotent Other as the ultimate source of freedom within human creativity. A new Authenticity is the willful engagement of people in the structure of their own discourse, not for the sake of Universality, but fully accepting a complete absence of teleology. Meaning becomes a perpetual process with no ultimate end and something which will never be complete.

We are not in an age where a million little things need re-discovering or critiquing. We are in an age where a few things need a massive overhaul, and where everyone needs to work extremely hard for a lot less than they expected so that the next generation grows up in a better country than the one we found.

My personal bias aside, I think we’re moving towards an intellectual fragmentation as a result of the new internet technology. Because of the internet, the future will include all "-isms" and more, but there will never be enough support for any single idea to dominate the others. The future will be so many things that you won’t be able to point at one and say, “This is what comes next.” That’s what’s coming next.

VI

“Well, some things are pure and some things are right” is a rejection of postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives.

The response to the default postmodern assumptions is like the response the kids' grandfather would give: “How are you going to lift it with your arms folded tight?” You must lift it, on behalf of all values of “you” and “it,” because no one else will. I know the younger generation rejects its parents’ generation but rarely do they reach out to their grandparents or great-grandparents for inspiration. Something in society is screaming out for repair, not to be torn down. Isn't that the whole point of Deconstruction?
“It strikes me that the only reason to take apart a pocket watch, or a car engine, aside from the simple delight of disassembly, is to find out how it works. To understand it, so you can put it back together again better than before, or build a new one that goes beyond what the old one could do. We’ve been taking apart the superhero for ten years or more; it’s time to put it back together and wind it up, time to take it out on the road and floor it, see what it’ll do.”
— Kurt Busiek, Astro City.
I think the message of engaging in something requiring effort, patience and skill; of pulling together in hard times; and of making attachments to others rather than affecting a cool detachment are all hallmarks of the Next Big “-ism.” It is impossible to say what shape it will take because it’s in flux, but these messages are resonating with the public.

Of course, the postmodern response to the Arcade Fire song would be to deconstruct it, point out that if I’m listening to it, it’s for me. A postmodern response would identify the underlying power structures that made the song’s popularity possible – that a record label of older Boomers released the album that was promoted through large corporations and media companies for turning a profit, etc.

It would cynically say the band and the album capitalised on the economic fear and uncertainty of the GFC to deliver a message that makes them feel better or hopeful. The postmodern response would say the band’s identity is no less constructed that any from a generation ago, only it is constructed in the hipster, faux-1930’s through 1950’s style.

And my response would be, “that’s true, but still…”

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