“Paradoxically, the games of culture are protected against objectification by all the partial objectifications which the actors involved in the game perform on each other: scholarly critics cannot grasp the objective reality of society aesthetes without abandoning their grasp of the true nature of their own activity; and the same is true of their opponents. The same law of mutual lucidity and reflexive blindness governs the antagonism between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘bourgeois’ (or their spokesmen in the field of production). And even when bearing in mind the function which legitimate culture performs in class relations, one is still liable to be led into accepting one or the other of the self-interested representations of culture which ‘intellectuals’ and ‘bourgeois’ endlessly fling at each other.”
— Pierre Bourdieu
— Distinction, A Social Critque of the Judgement of Taste
“The era of the intellectual oracle is behind us.”
— Pierre Nora
— Le Debat
Is it possible that you have not yet heard the word – Postmodernism is dead.
Here’s the proof: “Postmodernism is dead, but its successor has not yet been crowned.”
That’s the opening from, Oscillating Towards the Sublime, by Sarah Helen Binney. It’s a book review in an online publication called, Metamodernism which has over the last ten years or so sought to position itself as the next thing, after the now dead previous thing, called, Postmodernism. It’s one of two articles we took the time to read, with the other being, About that Future Islands Performance.
We discovered this curious corner of the internet universe, because we were watching a video by “Dr. Layman” in which he took the time – so the rest of us don’t have to – to deconstruct the nonsense of someone called, The Armored Skeptic.
The Armored Skeptic is one of a loose affiliation, or cadre, of self described classic liberals, conservatives, and neo-fascists who deny they are regurgitating the greatest dance hall numbers from the fascist hit parade of the 1920s and 30s, and all agree that “Postmodernism” is a conjob cooked up by vile French intellectuals, and assorted effete reprobates determined to subvert the vital essences of the good guys. Layman makes quick work of the Armored Skeptic with some basic erudition, sarcasm and fact based details, which of course are the bane of YouTube reactionaries everywhere.
But, what really matters for our purposes here, is that Layman led us to Metamodernism and Metamodernism led us to a good laugh (at their expense) and this missive.
There’s two – at least – issues here.
First the absurdity of declaring an already baggy suit of a movement, that wasn’t a movement, dead, and secondly that both Binney and Metamod, seem blissfully unaware or blissfully indifferent to the consistent pattern of group A declaring group B, to be dead and buried; passé, and boring, the sort of thing that squares talk about where as the Hep Kats are all hanging at the new Kool space, listening to what’s new or really old, but having been resurrected it’s new again, and you can just fuck off. After all, just recall the scene in A Hard Days Night, where George wanders into the lair of a marketing thug, who demands to know if he is, the next big thing. In other words, this is an old situation and the honorable among us, neither tarnished nor afraid, go down those mean streets, sometimes guitar at the ready and slay the Madison avenue dragons.
Which brings us to how in the Modern(ish), era which we arbitrarily define as beginning with Twain’s Postmodern sleight of hand in the introduction to Huck Finn – where he has Huck say that he, Twain, is mostly honest – in other words, the character speaks to the author as if they were both authentic fictions or inauthentic people – Take your pick; six of one, half a dozen of the other – and ends with the French New Wave, – is defined by the urgency with which people assert the death of this or that movement, and the emergence of this or that new movement and is clearly not only a reflection of capitalism’s planned obsolescence, but is also a reflection of the acute, if not terminal anxiety in the face of the mass culture banality of capitalism.
In other words, Binney, a PhD candidate, needs a job, the tenure track is full, so, in the words of that noted philosopher, Sid Caesar, if you run out of doors to go through, build more doors. But also, having grown bored with “Postmodernism” within the context of how it is used, defined and discussed, by the narrative system of capitalism, Binney & co, have raised another flag – but, and this is crucial, without either being aware or not saying that they know they are using the basic methods of capitalism to declare something obsolete.
One of the hallmarks of this facet of capitalism’s economic thuderdome, is that academics periodically announce that some branch of some discipline, is to be excommunicated, and then they proceed to write lengthy papers, which become dense dissertations, which become books, they make their students read, so they can get papers published in magazines that confirm their previous announcement, that the older tenure hogging other gang, are a bunch of intellectually bankrupt deadbeats no one bothers anymore to read.
It is a circle of life project that repeats itself with the regularity of a bowel movement, and roughly the same amount of wit.
The result is that making statements like, Postmodernism is dead, are nowhere near as bold or even mildly interesting as the adherents believe. In fact it’s really dead (sic) on arrival.
The first thing to draw from that is that the declaration of Postmodernism being dead, is said in an a-historical sense, devoid of any recognition by the author & co, that these things don’t ever die, they just get recycled and not only because they have a kind of innate immortality to them, but because they are reflections of something that is constant – human consciousness.
What goes missing in arguments about things like Postmodernism, is that either one criticizes it as being essentially a deliberate con (thus positioning oneself as a reactionary and a committed cynic), or one critiques it based on the assumption that even if they were wrong, people like Foucault, or Barthes, or Pynchon, were/are operating in good faith and were/are not savants, who stumbled into an aesthetic the same way a drunk stumbles into the furniture.
The counter argument might take the approach that one can grant the premise, but times change, and perceptions change accordingly therefore, for example one does not, hear too many people talk about monads or Kantian certainty. (more on the old time-keeper in a moment).
And that’s true, except of course, if you drill down into Postmodernist writing you’ll find that most if not all of its methodology sounds more or less like the Buddhism with a Brogue of David Hume, and talking about Hume means you’re going to have to talk about Kant (among others), and in fact you’re going to find yourself, if you’re honest, talking about how Plato was responding to Heraclitus, which became Aristotle, which was regurgitated by Hume, who knocked Kant on his uptight ass, which was then absorbed by Hegel, who was misunderstood by Marx, who was bounced off of Merleau-Ponty, who took classes from Alexander Kojeve (and had, among others, as classmates, Andre Breton, Georges Baitaille, and though he denied it, J.P. Sartre) who was friends with Friedrich Hayek, who connects to Harold Bloom, who connects to Francis Fukuyama, who was a student of Francois Furet, who was a conservative French intellectual who didn’t like French lefty intellectuals like Foucault and Sartre, and whose writing was aimed at overturning the then dominant left wing narrative about the revolutions of 1789, and the Enlightenment, which required a new excavation of, among others, Kant.
And so, the truth is, not only do none of these people and their ideas ever “die” but every declaration of “new” is almost guaranteed to be false. In order for an idea or a movement based on an idea, to be “new” it must be in dialogue with that which it declares “old.” The moment it does that the condition of one and the other, is a matter of the economics of the university, the publishing houses, the media, and the politics of the moment. A symbiosis is formed and, even if one were to posit that Metamodernism is a genuine aesthetic, in order to understand it, one would have to understand what it is not, what it is in opposition to, and the context of its emergence. All of which means that, even if Postmodernism is a corpse, then whatever comes after it, has to drag it around like a dead weight, which paradoxically means, it’s not dead, is very much alive and what the Metamods are really saying is – we need jobs. And that of course means that any honest discourse about the subject would include an excavation of its context including but not limited to – sexuality, class, education, historiography, structuralism, post structuralism, and so on.
In other words, everything Postmodernism defined as going into the mix of the meta narrative, about which, per Lyotard, they (the Postmodernists) remain both skeptical and in a borderline, paranoid crouch.
And the reason for that is not only as they say in philosophy departments, that the history of philosophy is more or less a series of footnotes to Plato, but because human consciousness really hasn’t changed much since Plato was scoping young boys around the Agora and trying to figure out how he was going to get away with exiling all the poets. And because, as footnotes to Plato, they are admitting, with a sideways glance, that there is essentially nothing new under the sun.
The truth is, one may, for example, enter through the front door of the logical positivists with say, Bertrand Russell, and exist through the back door with your head buzzing with Hume’s bundles, but when you sit down to listen to Sartre explain why Hume was wrong, you quickly realize he’s essentially regurgitating Parmenides, while insisting he’s being original.
The reason is, aside from professional competition, that consciousness, even taking into account changes in diet and other important issues that may have or certainly did impact the development of the brain, it (consciousness) hasn’t really changed much and defining one’s experience of being aware today, is more or less similar to the attempts to do the same thing, 2,500 years ago
And we note with still more wry amusement that Binney proves the rule rather than the exception, because in order to prove her point about the death of Postmodernism, she reaches back to discuss, Kant’s conception of the sublime.
While it is true, and bares consideration, that there have been some serious changes, a lot of things have pretty much stayed the same.
For example, when Jean Baudrillard wrote: The invention of the railroad was also the invention of the railroad accident, a lot of people said, holy shit, that’s a profound contextualization of how the modern consciousness, tends to create artificial narratives, and insist that they are objective, when in truth they are subjective and arbitrary and that which we define as the object, is in fact also that which we define as its opposite, in that they form a symbiosis and a network of associations.
Other people of course said, he was just full of shit, but we don’t care about that right now, but we do care about how Baudrillard wrote that as if it was an original idea, when in truth, it’s just a variation of Heraclitus writing: The path up the mountain is also the path down the mountain. That which is this is also that which is the other.
Which later became Hume’s Bundle theory, which later became Roland Barthes’ S/Z except Hume didn’t mention Heraclitus, and Barthes didn’t mention Hume.
To add how much things don’t change, it’s worth noting that the responses to Heraclitus were more or less the same as the ones thrown at Baudrillard with some saying Heraclitus was a genius, and others saying he was a crank.
Another example comes to mind, and we want to begin by explaining that we shall turn to it again in a wider excavation of these issues, but present here as a kind of wry rebuttal to the declaration of the demise of Postmodernism.
We draw your attention to another old plumber by the name of Herodotus, who wrote a famous blues number called, The History of the World.
In it he writes, more or less to the best of his abilities, the truth about the world and sort of starts the business we now refer to as Historiography.
In this weighty tome he mentions his voyage to Egypt, where he conversed with the local wise men. They explained a lot of things and he dutifully recorded their words. In turn he asked them what they thought about Homer.
Oh, they said, very nice, very romantic if you like that sort of thing though, they said, there was one problem. What, asked Herodotus, was that?
Well, they said, the thing is, Homer had it all wrong. Helen wasn’t in Troy, she was in Egypt the whole time.
Well needless to say you could have knocked Herodotus over with a papyrus scroll or a feather – whichever was closer to hand – and he said, what do you mean she wasn’t in Troy?
And they said, just what we said – she was here. See after she and Paris blew out of Dodge, a great storm came up and knocked them off course. They ended up here where, his most gracious majesty, surveyed the scene and said: well Paris old sport here’s the deal. I’m not getting into a pissing contest with Agamemnon and his crew, so I’ll keep the babe here while you get back to your pops in Troy. After you settle your business with the Greeks, I’ll return her to Agamemnon.
And as he was on the run, far from home, and seriously outgunned, Paris agreed.
Needless to say when the Greeks got to Troy and the Trojans said, she’s not here, the Greeks didn’t believe them and swore that they could see here.
Now, dear reader you may be wondering how the Greeks could have, per the Egyptians, been so stupid. After all, either she was there or she wasn’t.
The answer has to do with a little something called bicameralism.
This is, in a nutshell (pun intended) the theory promulgated by the late Julian Jaynes, that in antiquity, the hemispheres of the brain did not fully recognize each other and as a result when one side of the brain “spoke” the other “understood” it as an external voice of command. Rather than rehash a lengthy and complex theory here, we refer you to the link below.
And we return to the story at hand in which, “Helen” in Egypt was authentic, and “Helen” in Troy was a bicameral echo. The Egyptian for all their intelligence didn’t know that. They knew something was up but not exactly how so they did their best. The Egyptians were telling Herodotus a story whose true meaning was unknown even to the ones telling it, because for them, as for so many others experiencing bicameralism, what we today define as either absurd, or only myth making, was in fact a genuine attempt to explain a genuine experience. The bicameral Egyptians believed the external voice that told them “Helen” was there and that what the Greeks “saw” was only a ghost. That “ghost” was the vapor trail of a slowly fading evolutionary reality.
This duality appears in multiple places in many stories. Prometheus and his brother representing the two split hemispheres, Pandora having two urns, one for each hemisphere, or Hesiod talking to the muses who invent truths and lies, representing the two sides of consciousness, Ulysses, hearing the Sirens who, are dismissed as an interesting myth but we believe represented the voice of command that was experienced as external, and so on.
But, what truly matters is that to make use of the details, to excavate this story from Herodotus, is to engage in Postmodern discourse; it is to make use of the hijinks of Borges and Pynchon, and narratives that are aware of themselves, as narratives, not only because it’s amusing (to the author) but because it is a system – among many – that allows us to process what we call reality and our experience of it.
Postmodernism is dead, you say?
Tell that to Helen.
Wherever you find her.
Which brings us to the second article at Metamodern.
Future Islands is a Baltimore based band, that has regurgitated 80s Brit synth pop and added something approximating American Blues. Since all modern music contains some approximation of something that sounds like American Blues we will leave that point aside for now.
We focus instead on two things. First how Metamod uses the band and a then recent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, as a fulcrum on which they claim to prove the new aesthetics of their system.
Central to their argument is that the new Metamod Hep Kat is aware of their use of older styles and tropes but, unlike the dead hand of Postmodernism, they utilize them without ironic detachment and thus, armed with a new found sincerity, they act.
That’s a nice story, and points for trying. Which, we mean, sincerely.
The problems begin with the stubborn fact that attaching the idea of detached irony to Postmodernism is to buy the hype of anti-left, reactionary capitalism, which had to find a way to discredit the anti capitalism and anti-establishment attitudes of the Postmodernists.
Keeping in mind that while of the left, as in, being against the establishment, Foucault & co were for the most part never card carrying Marxists. That is they did not join the party, even if they were in sympathy with those who did.
And the suggestion that they were awash in a kind of tepid do nothing nihilism, defined as, “detached irony,” is not only betrayed by the record of their involvement in the events of May 1968, but other events in which they took direct action, but also is betrayed by the reactionary response that sought to seize control of the narrative.
The vapor trail of that can be found today in the mutterings of Jordan Peterson and other YouTube goons, and assorted right wing hobgoblins, who know nothing about Postmodernism, and denounce it in a kind of bible thumping manner that reminds one of Brownshirts saying, when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.
The truth is that the Metamods are aping capitalist rhetoric while claiming to be in the vanguard of a new anti-capitalist movement. Their motivation (though they would deny it) is that they need jobs and their method, ironically, is proof of the on going accuracy of Foucault’s Postmodern aesthetic, that holds these cultural moments to be examples not of objective assertions of facts, but subjective assertions of assorted provisional fictions, contextualized by dynamics of power. Thus: X has a job. Y needs a job so Y declares X dead. Give me a research grant and put me on the tenure track, you bourgeois punks.
In the case of Metamods spin on Future Islands they end up being right, but for all the wrong reasons, except where they are just flat out wrong.
They correctly define the band’s similarity to a host of other bands, and that the bands lead singer, who looks like a slightly zaftig Burt Reynolds imitating a not yet porcine Marlon Brando, is a bag of gestures, each of which seems almost sincere but, while not really only schtick, are not quite authentic. But – and this is crucial for the Metamodern sales pitch – he knows he’s imitating everyone else but, he’s being sincere about it therefore get off of his back and enjoy the show.
All well and good except that in addition to the problematic issues outlined above, what goes missing in the Metamod narrative is the banal truth about the band.
Allow us to explain.
The band is not from Baltimore but is from the deeper South, and moved to Baltimore because Rolling Stone declared some years ago that Athens, Georgia was dead (sic!) and the new absolute center of new music in America, was Baltimore.
This of course was an attempt to ride the coattails of the stealth reactionary narrative of stealth reactionary David Simon’s efforts to turn Black Americans into a fetish for White hipsters. And that was of course because, The Wire which, in a decadent manner typical of capitalist realism, had, ironically made Baltimore popular, was then a popular show.
And secondly it was a way for the increasingly on financial life support Rolling Stone to declare itself arbiter of a new stomping ground similar to, say, an unemployed or under employed academic declaring that Postmodernism is dead.
But while it is certainty not illegal for a hungry band to move to Baltimore what Metamod leaves out is that Future Islands is a gimmick disguised as a band, pretending that its not only hip to its own jive, but that it is doing the gimmick with sincerity, so get the fuck off their back and enjoy the show.
Except that it’s not sincere and what is sincere is the same old same old attempt at a conjob, within the wider conjob that is America’s socioeconomic thuderdome. That is, genuine imitation leather.
Future Islands is a product that has no sincerity, and sounds more or less like a hundred other bands and when we watched their lead singer roll into clubs in the “Art district” of Baltimore, they were entering a world that was a combination of Weimar whore house and wax museum, without the charm and dominated by a vibe that was a retread of every other moment where insecure people, haunted by economic insecurity, suffering through a seemingly never ending case of the existential jitters and shakes, broke off into loose cadres dedicated to a Manichean sense of survival, punctuated by coded references to increasingly obscure pop culture talking points as if to say, not, I am holier than thou but, I am kooler than thou.
There was absolutely nothing about the band that said, we feel your pain, we’re like you only with talent, no sense of solidarity, or even the rocket fueled selfishness of a great artist on a trajectory towards fame, sacrifice, and self immolation. In other words neither The Doors nor James Brown; not Springsteen, or Kendrick Lamar.
What they were, was a musical Bud Light being sold as a fine Bordeaux.
Speaking of his critics, who defined him in his Brave New World era, as a sad failure, Huxley responded that, amid the ruins of the world in 1945, if he was an example of the sad failure of the intellectual class, then, he assumed, that made his critics hilarious examples of success.
Metamodernism strikes us, as hilarious.
For a look at our previous look at Julian Jaynes:
For a look at Metamodernism:
For a look at Binney:
And lastly, we draw your attention to our previous piece, Hamlet on Broadway, where we discuss the intrinsic longevity of ideas expressed through art and to which we add, that like them or hate them, “Postmodernists” like Foucault, or Baudrillard, or assorted anti-Postmodernists, endure.
Regarding Bourdieu, it’s worth considering this passage, which we quote at length, from his seminal work, Distinction:
“Up to now the sociology of the production and producers of culture has never escaped from the play of opposing images, in which ‘right-wing intellectuals’ and ‘left-wing intellectuals’ (as the current taxonomy puts it) subject their opponents and their strategies to an objectivist reduction which vested interests make that much easier. The objectification is always bound to remain partial, and therefore false, so long as it fails to include the point of view from which it speaks and so fails to construct the game as a whole. Only at the level of the field of positions is it possible to grasp both the generic interests associated with the fact of taking part in the game and the specific interests attached to the different positions, and, through this, the form and content of the self-positionings through which these interests are expressed. Despite the aura of objectivity they like to assume, neither the ‘sociology of the intellectuals’, which is traditionally the business of ‘right-wing intellectuals’, nor the critique of ‘right-wing thought’, the traditional speciality of ‘left-wing intellectuals’, is anything more than a series of symbolic aggressions which take on additional force when they dress themselves up in the impeccable neutrality of science. They tacitly agree in leaving hidden what is essential, namely the structure of objective positions which is the source, inter alia, of the view which the occupants of each position can have of the occupants of the other positions and which determines the specific form and force of each group’s propensity to present and receive a group’s partial truth as if it were a full account of the objective relations between the groups. ”
This offers a glimpse into the symbiosis of which some segments of different cadres are aware, and the extent to which they are dependent upon each other.