Thursday, December 4, 2008

I hereby choose to be premodern...

The problem with David Foster Wallace's desire, as James alludes, is that you really can't go home again. Can't. Not that it's bad, not that it's hard. It's that you are asking the mind to knowingly change itself back to a state of unknowing. Since you must be conscious of something that you are asking yourself to do, that's impossible.

It's like the old question regarding the question of the installation at an art museum. (I'm cribbing this.) The professor says, "The reason the urinal hanging on the wall in the gallery space of the art museum is different from the one hanging on the wall in the bathroom of the art museum is that one is in the gallery space, and the other isn't. The gallery urinal is in the installation. Whether the artist or the curator or the viewer wishes it to be different is immaterial; the urinal has been installed." The student asks, "How do you de-install the urinal?" The professor says "Take it off of the wall. But as long as it is being held up as an object of art, it is subject to the rules we understand the 'gallery as concept' to operate under, the meta-installation." The student asks, "How do you de-install the installation?" The professor says, "You can't. You are asking the mind to de-install itself." The same, here.

It's come to my attention that since the movie 300, there's been this "new Spartans" meme in certain conservative circles, people who want to return to the old ways, the old conceptions of honor and manliness and what have you. And they want to do and say and look like the Spartans did and spoke and looked. What they don't seem to countenance is that the idea of asking "Is this how a Spartan would stand" would be a thought of mind-shattering revolution for an actual Spartan. The mindset necessary to attempt the project undoes the project. (I also imagine these guys are less inclined to participate in enthusiastic man-on-man sodomy than the Spartans were.)

It seems that people often believe the the problem isn't so much the knowingness as it is the consequences of that knowingness-- the verbal irony, the disconnection, the ennui, the unreality, the emotional death. That's only as true as it's true that fixing the shivers and sneezing and fever cures a flu. You can stop every symptom but you haven't killed the disease. Incidentally, I think some people are convinced that having a postmodern outlook means that you celebrate or sneer in the face of it. That isn't true. Look, I don't want the world to be this way. I don't have any choice in the matter.

James is right, of course, that this doesn't have to be a moment of despair, but merely a moment of opportunity. There are small graces in this kind of world, if we look for them. James is a conservative, and thus it is inevitable that his project will be foundational, postmodern or no. That's not a luxury I have. We share, however, the important distinction (which we also share with David Foster Wallace and everyone else) that we really can't go back again. Every conscious attempt to moves our target farther from our fingertips. Unless we can come up with some sort of brain-washing syndrome or hypnosis, we're stuck here. Or, perhaps, we could get a group of like-minded people together and buy some island together in the South Pacific, and raise a group of children, free from Rorty and Heidegger, never hearing of Nietzche, no such movies as The Last Action Hero or Bolt, no The Real Inspector Hound, no Tristam Shandy, no Fake Steve Jobs, no Don Delillo or David Ives, no Stephen Colbert, and you're god damn right, there's a Santa Claus. Would it be worth it? Could you do that to your child, live that kind of lie, even when you were sure it would leave them in a happier and more fulfilling world? I might have to, I'm not going to lie. No kids, so I don't know. But giving the gift of certitude to someone might be worth essentially taking on the mantle of the town elders from Footloose.

(The great question of how this island would be politically and economically organized, if the kind of people I'm thinking of came together to pursue this project, would be worthy of a fat sociological text all its own.)

Anyway, there's always Will Wilkinson's solution: in a response to a post of mine once, he wrote about the wisdom of putting the top down and throwing your arm around your girl. He was right, by god.

I know, you've heard all this from me before. If you've got a good horse, you might as well ride....


raft said...

Freddie: "(I also imagine these guys are less inclined to participate in enthusiastic man-on-man sodomy than the Spartans were.)"

actually, i imagine not.

Chris said...

I think what you're regarding as the postmodern condition is just the human condition. I mean, you've got "Tristam Shandy" in there, which is pretty old. Almost as soon as novels where invented, there were parodies of novels. And plenty of people, including me, had a childhood phase of wondering if the world was real or not, whether there really was anything over the hills or not.

Some of your hypothetical children in the South Pacific will feel the same. They'll have to decide how to walk, what kind of clothes to wear, how to be authentic, just like everybody else does. In every society there are smartasses and neurotics, humorless squares and undoubting conformists.

Maybe all you can hope for is to keep the level of recursion reasonably low. That is, not worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying ...

BP said...

Think I agree with Chris. I mean, this idea that irony is postmodern! I thought you knew Shakespeare.

The answer to Wallace's conundrum is to make oneself stupid. Only then, in default of knowing, can one escape the complications of knowingness.

Out with the sledgehammers, people -- this is going to hurt.

Freddie said...

It's not the irony that's postmodern. It's the awareness that reason (an essential condition of irony) is itself socially constructed.

Josh said...

As usual, I agree with you Freddie. But I'd like to get your read on the literary part of the question, the part Foster Wallace is (was) discussing. Do you imagine the next bunch of literary rebels won't aspire to be pomocons? That they won't attempt to be anti-rebels? (And, if so, what do you imagine will pop up in their stead?) Or do you agree that there will be some sort of (doomed, of course) literary anti-rebel movement? (Neo-Johnsonianism? Oy.)

I guess my terribly broad question is: What do you see changing on the literary front - or do you think that, because of post-modernism, we've hit some sort of literary stasis?

ryan said...

Freddie: Do you believe that it's possible to be postmodern and believe in God? Because that would seem to change your equation a bit, no? I agree that you can't "go home" again. That's why I could never be Catholic: the idea of a single human authority figure who defines rationality and ethics is convenient, but aside from it being unscriptural, anyone born after about 1700 will have a very hard time taking that proposition seriously if they're honest with their intellectual inheritance. For me, the project is thus figuring out how postmodern truths fit with premodern truths. You seem to be telling me that this is impossible, but I can't for the life of me see why this should be the case.

So my immediate question is that if you, hypothetically speaking, believed in God, what difference would it make for you?

Freddie said...

Belief in god would change everything, ryan-- see here.

paul said...

What you're both leaving out is that Wallace in fact manages the premodern (well, pre-postmodern) moral complexity of someone like Dostoevsky, WITH all of the postmodern tricks. He really does manage to Aufheben it into a synthesis. There are still real human problems and issues in postmodernity, and they can still be addressed within a hypertextual/metatextual work of literature.

And it's completely possible to be religious and postmodern; religion isn't one of those human institutions that gets knowingly 'postmoderned' (though I guess perhaps some Protestants seem to think this). Revelation transcends history, interpretation (every interpretation falls short, the only true theology is apophatic theology, etc), 'subjectivity,' etc etc; it's pure noein, pure seeing, despite what Derrida et al. claim.

Incidentally, THIS is the answer to our predicament, not the cheap hand-waving semi-nihilism of "hanging out with friends and your girl, yeah!"

ryan said...

Freddie: I read that post when you first made it. It's actually what started me reading your blog, to be honest. I didn't comment then, but here seems just as appropriate.

You asked there, and it seems relevant now, "Why postmodernism, with God? What use language games, with God?"

I think there's a reasonable answer to this, and it's simply that pre-modernism and post-modernism have a lot more in common than either of them do with modernism. The problem is that the moderns read pre-modern intellectual history as a precursor to modernism, and the post-moderns received their history from the moderns.

I could go on for pages on that subject, but suffice it to say that a serious Christian should have no problem at all with post-modern critiques of modernism. Just because I believe in God does not mean that I believe that rationality is uniform, equally available to all, or objective. You can be a foundationalist without being a rationalist. Christianity isn't even entirely unfriendly to the idea of identity-politics that post-modernism seems to beget, it simply insists that whatever other identities we create for ourselves, our identities as members of the household of God take precedence.

So yeah, I'd agree with you that there's a lot of fingers-in-ears, "I can't hear you!" going on from a lot of wannabe-Chestertonians (particularly in Catholic circles in my limited experience), who basically want to argue that because the modern project is a bad idea that we can pretend it never happened. But there's no reason to think that post-modernism is inherently anti-theistic or anti-Christian.

richard booth said...

the island is actually a forest, and that movie is called The Village.

Freddie said...

Haha excellent point Richard.

Margaret E said...

"But there's no reason to think that post-modernism is inherently anti-theistic or anti-Christian."

December 5, 2008 1:14 PM

I agree, Ryan. Both modernism AND post-modernism brought change to our way of knowing and understanding, adding layer upon layer of irony, skepticism, and so on. But if God does, in fact, exist, He has not changed one iota just because our ways of seeing and knowing have. In other words, the fact that it is now more difficult for some to believe in God than it was hundreds of years ago says more about US than it does about God. God is unchanging. We are the ones who have changed. We are the ones who "left the garden," so to speak, leaving our clarity of vision and knowledge of God behind. Why did we ever think our increase in knowledge of things OUTSIDE the garden would translate to an increase of inner-garden knowledge? We don't have to "unknow" anything (which, as Freddie points out, is impossible for thinking people, anyway). We merely have to entertain the possibility that, no matter how sophisticated we become, no matter how much we THINK we know, we are still, and ever will be, less than God; we are, thus, incapable of TRULY knowing.

Beautiful piece, Freddie. Your honesty and open-minded, open-hearted striving move me. As a former atheist, I can assure you that beilef in God DOES change everything. I've been reading up on Evelyn Waugh, lately, for a presentation I have to give on Brideshead Revisited. I was struck by something he wrote of his 1930 conversion to Catholicism (which shocked the literary/arts world, as he had been seen as the quintessential atheist/modernist.) Waugh wrote, by way of explanation:

"It is no longer possible . . . to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests."

Of course, you don't believe in that "supernatural basis," but you are young, yet!

Waugh also wrote this description of his conversion, which so resonates with my own:

"Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world,
where everything is an absurd caricature,
into the real world God made;
and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly."

You may believe that you are way beyond such a simplistic interpretation of experience, but so did I. It all begins with sincerely, sincerely asking – and being TRULY open to the possibility that God might answer. In other words, humility.

Good luck to you, and keep striving.

Dave Roth said...

I feel obligated to correct the common, but false, belief that Greeks (among them, the Spartans, of course) practiced sodomy.

Since being penetrated is to be "like a woman" (according to the Greeks) it was an extremely unmanly thing to have done to one. Thus it was never practiced by upright males and essentially only male prostitutes allowed themselves to be penetrated. In Athens, in fact, proof that a male citizen had been penetrated was sufficient to disenfranchise him (since it was proof that he was a man-whore).

Greek man sex was primarily intercrural.

Freddie said...

Greek man sex was primarily intercrural.

Nothing gay about that.

Moff said...

Huh. I was thinking about this post walking home tonight, in the midst of the latest episode of the Ongoing Existential Crisis That Is My Life, and lo and behold, ryan and Margaret have already said pretty much everything I would have said, and much better, too. I would only add that if the situation is as grim as you paint it, Freddie (and I can't see how it isn't), then the act of turning to God seems rational.

I mean: "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" Obviously, God isn't the only possibility; but if the other option appears to be meaninglessness, and that wasn't the answer you were hoping for, and there might be Something Else Out There, what keeps you from investigating Him?

I, of course, started reading your blog because of the pomocons post, too (and one of those healthy humbling experiences it was, jackass though I was about it at the time), and you seem to be saying there that indeed, meaninglessness isn't the answer you're hoping for. What you don't say is why you settle (bad word; obviously you wrestle constantly, but I hope you'll take my meaning) for it. I know you're not a conventional atheist, but I'd be interested to hear sometime why you are an atheist.

Freddie said...

You deserve a real response, Moff. In the meantime I'll just say that it's worth pointing out what an unbearable douchebag I was towards you in that instance.

Moff said...

@Freddie: Heh. There was plenty of douchiness on my side, too. It was like a whirlwind! We couldn't tell down from up! Words were flying like bullets, and it was all we could do to hope we got out of there with our skin intact. I try to tell my kids about it, sometimes, but they just want to play with their Wiitendos. Ah, internet.

Jordan said...

@ Dave:

One thing is that we can't take the Greeks as some homogeneous whole. Each city state had a fairly distinct culture and it wasn't until the Persian wars that there was any kind of established "Greek" identity.

With respect to Sparta, that particular culture was different even from a Greek perspective. Boys were separated from their families at the age of 7 and brought together for some of the nastiest survival and indoctrination training humanity has seen. There was also a mentor relationship that tended to develop between boys when they were about 12 and older male citizens. Often this involved sex, but it was also a way to teach them about how to be members of the community. This also meant that who was penetrated was determined by age those who survived the training would eventually be on the other side.

Lastly, it was tradition in Sparta that men had to marry by the age of thirty. On the wedding night, the woman would be shaved and dressed in a man's cloak.

Really, what should bother us about people wanting to build societies about the Spartan model is that it was one of the most heavily regimented societies ever. Everything was done in the service of the state. The state was built on slave labor (the Helots). Economic advancement was nil (Lykergos set up the monetary system to be intentionally obtuse and non-portable, leading to almost no trade). Societies built to be that static fall apart for good reason.