Oh, hell, let’s post MORE shit!

09Mar09

Think Pieces, now and then.  The most recent one didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, and is a little redundant in light of things I’ve written on here previously (read: last summer), but since it’s not really FOR you, I guess I just don’t care what you think.  Anyway, here’s this year’s Think Piece #2:

Postmodernism Broke My Think Piece. For Real.

So, I’m going to start this with a lengthy quote from Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions) because that’s generally a good idea, right?

I thought Beatrice Keedsler [a novelist character in the book] had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. (215)

I read this over the summer, and while I didn’t just love the entire book, this passage stood out as a pretty important one. For one thing, it seems to address the question of What’s the point of stories that aren’t even true? in a resoundingly negative way: Stories that aren’t true promote insanely destructive behavior, Vonnegut suggests. But it seems important, too, in that it seems to imply that we allow fictions to plot the course of our realities. This necessarily reminds me of Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum—where there are copies, and copies, and copies, and we place little value on originals, so we get a little confused about what exactly “real” means. The U2 songs “Even Better than the Real Thing” and “Babyface,” off of “Achtung, Baby!” and “Zooropa,” respectively, get at this concept a bit as well. (Since we’re talking about postmodernism, might as well throw in some pop culture references, right?) Now, the moralist in me wonders whether this is okay, whereas the postmodernist in me says it’s not okay or NOT okay; it just IS, and it IS because it WORKS.

But I’m not exactly content with that. The story I tell to make sense of the world—my own little master narrative, if you will—demands that I weigh things in terms of their potential and actual destructiveness. So, while I do love so much about it, postmodernism goes on the “Is this right or wrong?!?!?” auction block tonight. So I come up with some either/ors to consider:

· Is it more wrong for someone to impose their beliefs (beliefs that work for them) onto someone else for whom those beliefs may not work very well at all with only “It’s the Right Way!” as their justification, OR for people not to need to justify their actions at all, however horrific, because everyone is essentially allowed to create his/her own rules for acceptable behavior?

· Is it more wrong for people to be immersed in “artificial” realities (like gamers frequently are, for example) OR for people to insist on having pureness, insist on originals, which are generally exclusive and expensive and on the whole promote staggering elitism?

To be honest, I’m having difficulty even constructing these binaries because they’re so easy to break down. There’s little point in arguing that one approach to life—modernity or postmodernity—is morally superior when both have their drawbacks and—and this is the really key idea—there’s simply no need to choose between one or the other if neither works for me (or you, or someone else). But that still leaves me with the question of whether ethically/morally, postmodernism is okay by me.

I think maybe this goes back to the difference between postmodernity and postmodernism. Postmodernity is the condition we live in—the one in which people can destroy entire cities—countries! So many lives!—by pushing a button from a comfortable room many thousands of miles away, the one in which many people live their lives staring into or through a screen of some kind rather than actually touching and looking at and listening to what’s immediately surrounding them. That? I feel fine with not liking. That might make me a Luddite or an elitist or a hopelessly stodgy stick-in-the-mud traditionalist, and I get that, but I still feel okay about saying that there is a difference between the reality into which we are born and the “reality” into which we plunge whenever we choose to mediate our existence, generally out of a desire NOT to be doing whatever we’re doing. I guess what I’m saying, maybe, is that postmodernity seems to be characterized by denial of reality and the desire to escape reality. And I don’t like that.

Postmodernism, though—as an approach to understanding and talking about today’s world—I might like. I like that it’s not didactic. I like that it doesn’t demand that I come to certain conclusions about what I see and hear and feel around me. Most of all, I like that it doesn’t demand this of others, or suggest that I should. That comes at a cost, I suppose—it prevents me from really being ABLE, in good conscience, to judge others. Does it prevent me from deciding what is right and what’s wrong? Maybe.

Frustrating. I don’t think I actually got anywhere with this one. I guess what I’m (still) asking is whether I can still even USE words like “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” in good conscience in our postmodern world. Can I? Can anyone? AAAAAUUGH!!! I think the world might be ready for post-postmodernism. Not modernism revisited, but…something completely different.

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One Response to “Oh, hell, let’s post MORE shit!”

  1. 1 m

    wow. reading this is causing much thought. i like it. i have never thought about a difference between postmodernity and postmodernism. but, now that i have read some of your thoughts, i find the distinction pretty important in how i am coming to understand these ideas.

    “Postmodernism, though—as an approach to understanding and talking about today’s world—I might like. I like that it’s not didactic. I like that it doesn’t demand that I come to certain conclusions about what I see and hear and feel around me. Most of all, I like that it doesn’t demand this of others, or suggest that I should.”

    the desire to be in a world that does not have worldviews demanding ‘this is the one and only true way to understand the world and live in it’ is something that really speaks to me, to things i’ve been thinking about recently. it seems that the essence of domination and power-over is wrapped up with this, with the belief that one way of being is right and, therefore, all must live accordingly or be destroyed.

    I really like this:
    “…but I still feel okay about saying that there is a difference between the reality into which we are born and the “reality” into which we plunge whenever we choose to mediate our existence, generally out of a desire NOT to be doing whatever we’re doing.”

    thanks for sharing this think piece!


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