I feel that in my last two posts (on Tár and postmodernism) I managed to miss the big idea that was lurking in both of them. The idea is that the study of culture, and especially popular culture, is no substitute for understanding (what we might call) “the human condition” (if we didn’t know any better).
My brief and superficial post about approximating a definition of postmodernism was prompted by a book I am reading (Everything, All the Time, Everywhere, by Stuart Jeffries) that tries to explain the origins of postmodernism with a combination of economic policies and pop culture. The basic story, according to this book, is that, in the 1970s, neoliberal economics obliterated the modern dream of building a society that provided its members with fundamental goods (education, healthcare, protection against poverty, etc); at the same time, neoliberal politicians mouthed the ideals of freedom and the good life, with the rationale that untrammeled greed would provide everyone with a better lifestyle. Artists—and, especially, rock bands—responded by pointing out the manifest hypocrisy of both the modern promise and the neoliberal appropriation of that promise. They celebrated “western progress” ironically, pointing out the blatant lies and the cheap consumerism that was supposed to constitute human flourishing. This, basically, is what postmodernism amounts to: recognizing modernity for the fat lie that it is, and weaponizing its own false promises against itself.
There is much in this story I agree with, particularly the disasters that neoliberalism has generated and continues to generate. “Trickle down” economics really is just pissing on the poor, and all that. And rock bands and other artists have been pointing this out—at least until recently, as most of them by now have been co-opted by forces of capitalism. But putting these two things together (neoliberalism and rock bands) doesn’t really amount to anything like an interesting philosophical movement. I tend to agree with the economist Thomas Picketty that the neoliberal world economic order isn’t anything new: it is basically a return to how things were prior to WWI. And so protesting how bad this order is also isn’t anything new (see Marx, K.). I’m not sure there’s anything the Sex Pistols were trying to say that Rousseau didn’t say, and there’s something very 19th century about David Bowie.
The deeper idea, I suppose, is that there is a fundamental conflict between some of the things we value in human life and our aspirations to create a system that provides those things or near substitutes. Humans have basic needs, and they like having loving communities of people looking out for each other; and they love creative expression, and they love some degree of conflict. They also hate being stifled by “loving” communities, and they hate being fenced in by rules that allow for greater population density (like “No loud music after 10 p.m.”). So they try to create systems that strike a livable compromise between meeting our human requirements efficiently but also allowing for individual expression. But every compromise proves unstable, especially when at the same time there are humans running around trying to enslave the others.
We are animals that like to cuddle and fight; and we are thinkers who can create policies. We might call this being both Apollonian and Dionysian. The Sex Pistols and Rousseau are Dionysian complaints against the Apollonian policies of either neoliberalism or old-fashioned liberalism. Apollonian policies and philosophies are complaints against the disease, poverty, and bloodshed that historically results from people just living by their “cuddle and fight” natures. So what do you want, punk? You want barbarism, or suffocating policy mongering? We punks want both, of course, and that’s an enduring problem.
Believe it or not, I think this same idea was present in thinking about the film Tár. There is a sense in which the conductor Lydia Tár is living by her “cuddle and fight” nature. She is a monster, in her appetite for plumbing the depths of great works of music, in her domination over the other people in her life, and in her fighting (there are several scenes of her boxing as exercise, and at one point she puts those skills to use against a rival conductor). She also has deep love for her daughter, and losing access to her is her greatest punishment. But she needs to be reigned in, because she is seriously hurting people. She is reigned in by the #MeToo movement, which is a kind of cultural policy to provide restitution to victims of harassment and worse. In a formula, Tár’s Dionysian love for music and the feeling of power falls victim to an enlightened society’s Apollonian policies for protecting individuals. And it’s hard not to feel both admiration for Tár’s force of personality and also the rightness of holding her accountable.
Thus it would be wrong to view Tár as a film with a moral message. It’s not: here’s a monster, and look, she gets what she deserves. One might have this view if one’s vision is restricted by the policies that shape our current culture. Instead, at least as I see it, we should think: here is a complex human embodying what we should love and hate in our species.
At the start of this post, I claimed that the study of culture, and especially popular culture, is no substitute for understanding “the human condition”. What I mean is that the productions and policies of culture, whether popular or more effete, are symptoms of deeper forces. Getting at those deeper forces requires more than discussing the symptoms. What more it requires, in my view, is something like the history of ideas, and maybe even philosophical psychology (like the Nietzschean one I was just using). A look at our culture provides only a snapshot of how deeper forces are being played out right now; trying to articulate what those deeper forces are is a difficult task we should view with a bit of fear and trembling, since we are usually not the best at understanding ourselves.
Indeed, come to think about it, I am a bit skeptical of anyone being able to do it, since I can’t really see how we can get informative feedback from “the human condition” as to whether we have come up with a good theory or not. The library has a lot of books that try to use some history of ideas or some philosophical psychology to try to explain the human condition, and at this point they seem just ridiculous (see Hegel, G., or Freud, S.). So what exactly am I bitching about? I suppose my complaint is that the book on postmodernism I happen to be reading right now fails to satisfy my own sense of what a real explanation would look like; and to write a better book, and provide a real explanation, would require a deeper engagement with a lot of hard books; and even that, finally, might not amount to much, I think.
See? Skepticism always wins.
I haven’t read the book, but agree with you that a lot of what is parroted as post-modern are just new ways of stating Rousseau, Freud, Neitzche, Marx, et. al with our new mediums. And I have reluctantly resigned to see why you and many others come to think skepticism always wins: it’s really hard, when looking at the best things we’ve got, to think that it’s possible to Solve It and definitively get at those deeper forces.
But to me at least it seems that one thing, when sort of looking at the history and I guess my own experience, that feels different. Theres often a sort of recursive self-aware hypocrisy, or rather, a fear of attempting a sincere project to Figure Things Out. I feels like the very skepticism you discuss what I feel is the most unique thing about what is often called postmodernity.
Sure, hume was a skeptic, and so were the sophists, and comedy and irony has existed since time immemorial, and surely monks and ascetics rejected self-assertion, but it was done in a context in which sincerity and irony were clear, where the authors did things within a social framework of earnestness where who was critic (or who lived in a state of resignation) and who was zealot was clear.
But now, educated or online types, fully aware of the diversity of human experience and pessimistic of our tendency to overdramatize ones own situation, are so far from anything like the Second Great Awakening, where many were so self-certain as to sincerely think that their conscience was God speaking to them; or the somberness and utter seriousness Victorian morality took itself. Simply revolting against these would normally replace things with a different value structure; but it seems the areas we often describe as “postmodern” is when faith in both faith and criticism/irony has been lost.
But it always feels like to me that not just confidence/sincerity but also skepticism/irony fall into a sort of bootstrapping problem, where either attitude you start with, justifies and keeps itself entrenched. The only real way the attitudes change is if either makes it difficult to cope with life. But irony is corrosive; and part of living is acting as if you have It Figured Out. So in the passing of time one generation’s irony becomes another’s cliché, younger people, growing up, sick of irony, either attempt a return to sincerity (yet at the same time knowing they’re hypocrites and can be criticized just the same as they once were, mixing both) or they continue in what is now edgy (fascistic, racist, but also, if one is in a more conservative area, sexually libertine, socialist, etc.) People are confused as to what even is Apollonian or Dionysian, what is transgressive art and what is rule-oriented, etc. I think you can see this in things such as meme culture everywhere, so I guess possibly there are some things that can be gleamed from culture on its own.
Thanks for commenting, Jack! I would be wary of assuming that people’s attitudes and commitments were clearer in the past, though it might seem that way from the texts we have inherited and the time we have had to study them. I suspect that everybody always feels like they are in the middle of figuring things out. Richard’s comment below nicely captures the grand variety of “idea-things” we can experience over the course of a day or a week – no wonder we’re confused! But I also share your worry about the corrosive effects of my beloved skepticism. In addition to the health that skepticism brings, we need the thinkers who dig deeper with the confidence that they are getting somewhere. Leszek Kołakowski wrote a great passage expressing this:
I like this. I thought your ‘rant’ against Postmodernism left a lot out and I know you have read a lot of say, the German philosopher who wrote about Bubbles etc. I think no matter how esoteric and ‘challenging’ we become, that human condition is addressed, indeed by Nietzsche with his seemingly ‘dark’ insights etc and in another way by Rousseau with all his quirks (for me so far his ‘Confessions’ is the best as it is, in some ways, an examination of himself and self)…But I see all these aspects, punk rock, the Language Poets, all kinds of “strange” art, difficulty or pop (via Warhol who was deeply religious despite his seeming superficiality that tells us something of our culture). The human being is a constant. The reader of say ‘If on a Winter Night a Traveller’ by Calvino, or of the philosophy of Baudrillard, Barthes and others of Theory, might turn to the poetry of Edward Thomas (my favourite ‘Adlestrop’) or Owens, and then — very different — Keith Douglas. Then have a squizz at Chhristopher Middleton, Raworth, Ashbery, Charles Bernstein etc then in music from a beautiful even naive pop song to Schnittke or other more far out writers. Then some heavy rock etc. Then read a cookbook, or a book on sport or whatever. As long as we keep anchored. There is suffering and meaning in the world. There is room for Bertrand Russell, Popper, and perhaps Sara Teasdale or Pam Ayers, an uplifting book, a good thriller. Then maybe to dip into (as I am now) Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good or Evil’ which indeed raises some good questions. Then going for a walk or run or a hike etc. Philosophy fascinates, as do ideas. But yes, the human condition, no matter how indirectly, is there, sometimes enhanced by its absence per se….Something like that.
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Sounds like a wonderful way to spend one’s time!