Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Postmodern Condition

It’s already been ten years or so since I suggested that it was time for the local bookstore to start a Used Postmodernism section. The folks at Green Apple didn’t think that was very funny, but whatever point I had is perhaps a little less over subtle in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s death. The amorphous set of themes and assumptions formerly known as Poststructuralism and then Postmodernism is indeed long in the tooth.

Of course the philosophical interesting ideas of the French never really circulated as such. The influence of serious thought is surely indirect; what appears in public is a crude parody of the original. The parody can be significant in itself however. Postmodernism really doesn’t name a philosophy; but perhaps it identifies a historical condition; and it may be that historical condition rather than any fragments of credible philosophy that lingers on and on.

The philosophers, at least the pros among ‘em, may have decided that there is something outside the text and that no amount of sociology can dissolve the results that crystallize out of the sciences. They’ve taken notice that you can do things with words but also realized that you can’t do very much—the effectiveness of performative utterances such as the universally invoked example of the “I do” depends upon the pre-existence of an entire system of laws and customs and has no force outside of the tribe. Being married is merely a legal state, not a natural fact.

Only God Almighty is able to bring a world into existence by a WORD. “Let there be light,” works for Him. For us, “Let there be a terrible rumpus!” is more like it. To listen to the television, however, you’d think that what people wish or intend or decree is what creates all the facts, especially in politics. The talking heads endlessly rediscover that appearances are more important than realities and retail this profound truth to an audience that is supposed to be surprised by an idea that had been banal for two generations in 399 B.C. Let us not criticize this venerable sophistry, however; but ask instead the why it seems so apropos circa 2004 A.D.

If the Postmodern condition is one in which the realities that matter are cultural artifacts and what’s important is simply what people think, we must be somehow be insulated from realities that are non-human or at least alien to our own society. Under what circumstances can the physics of the atmosphere can be ignored in relationship to global warming? How can we get away with ignoring arithmetic in deciding a fiscal policy? In which universe do the opinions of the rest of the world have no relevance for American foreign policy? The presidential aide interviewed by Ron Suskind in an already celebrated article supplied the answer. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” But if we’re really going to create a new reality and revalue all values by virtue of our redoubtable Will to Power, we’re going to need not merely the belief that we have the power, but the power itself.

Children can live in fantasy worlds because the adults protect them. Nobody’s protecting us, but we’ve inherited a splendid playpen. We’re able to conduct our politics by the postmodern rules of fantasy, if only temporarily, because it has fallen out that we acquired a huge advantage over the other nations. Our military preponderance, for example, though universally overestimated, is quite real and all the more formidable because we are crazy enough to use it. More importantly, we haven’t maxed out the credit cards yet, so we can go on imagining that we’re wealthy even though we’re obviously going bankrupt. We can also outrage the environment, not because we can repeal the laws of nature but because technological karma works with a time lag. A dying man can eat anything. On the other hand, as the German’s say, “Erst Kommt das Fressen, denn der Moral.” (= I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!)

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