Ghosts of Postmodernism, Past, Present, and Future: Forget PoMo and Go Borderless.
An edgy essay by Robert Whyte and Z
I. Andrew Chapman’s recent APP essay, “Thoughts On The Relationship Between Postmodernism And Fascism” very insightfully explores the artistic, cultural, philosophical and political connections between postmodernism, aka PoMo, and fascism.
Here’s how Chapman defines “fascism” and “postmodernism”:
By fascism, I mean a political ideology that valorizes the nation-state, conceived as an organic whole, and seriously depreciates or even outright rejects the autonomy and human dignity of the individual; that places highly centralized governmental coercive power in the hands of a single charismatic leader, aka “the strong man”; that glorifies violence against and war with its perceived internal and external enemies; and that promotes a vision of social cohesion that’s essentially regressive and oriented towards an imagined ideal past.
And by postmodernism, I mean the late 20th-century artistic, cultural, and philosophical ideology that explicitly rejects early 20th-century modernism in all its forms; that is philosophically committed to individual and cultural relativism; that is highly skeptical of all universalist and/or essentialist theories in general and of classical metaphysics and Rationalist epistemology more specifically; that promotes an essentially detached, ironic, satirical, and uncommitted way of living; and whose mode of creativity is explicitly derivative and syncretic, by juxtaposing manifestly discordant, ready-made materials drawn from a wide variety of existing sources and traditions, aka bricolage.
That’s all very well and good, as a starting point.
Riffing on that, then, by postmodernism we mean a late, mostly European late 20th-century artistic, cultural, and philosophical ideology which arose after World War II as a reaction against, and departure from, 20th-century modernism, which postmodernists felt had failed (youngsters overthrowing their parents’ generation?)
Postmodernism, in stark contrast to modernism, held that there is no such thing as truth and denied that the descriptions and explanations of scientists and historians were true, or even false, just irrelevant.
They dismissed as naïve realism the concept of an objective reality whose existence and properties are independent of human beings.
Postmodernists reject any “faith” or “belief” in science, technology, reason or logic because these things, they claimed, had been shown to be inherently destructive and oppressive.
Postmodernists called attention to the contingent or socially-conditioned nature of knowledge claims and value systems, being products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies and not to any extent grounded in truth, therefore all equally self-referential, relativistic and useless.
Postmodernism, especially in France, began to compete with modernism in the late 1950s and gained ascendancy over it in the 1960s.
Granting all that as backdrop, our aim in this essay is three-part.
First, we want to ask whether or not current neofascist philosophies, such as the dark enlightenment as espoused by Nick Land and right-wing versions of Accelerationism as espoused by Curtis Yarvin, who blogs as Mencius Moldbug, can meaningfully trace their ancestry back to postmodernism or post-postmodernism, notably Deleuze and Guattari.
Second, we want to ask whether the present intellectual dystopian, cyborg-infested, futuristic nightmares of AI can be said to have an ancestry in pataphysics, dada, surrealism, as created by Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, René Magritte, and others, or whether these art movements represent the opposite of fascist thinking.
And third, we want to propose that there is in fact an artistic, cultural, philosophical, and political way of time-jumping forward, beyond all of this artistic, cultural, and philosophical baggage, and decisively breaking free of what William Blake so aptly called our “mind forg’d manacles”[i]: the individual and social cognitive, emotional, and ideological-political unreflective assumptions, biases, blinkers, filters, and protocols that thoroughly enslave us, even when–indeed, especially when, as in contemporary neoliberal democratic states–we seem to be most politically free.
We call this manacle-breaking artistic, cultural, philosophical, and political forward-time-jump, going borderless.
II. Postmodernism appealed to young intellectuals in the broader western world (including Canada, the United Kingdom, the USA and Australia) in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s because it represented symbolic or actual freedom from whatever they were “oppressed” by, whether it be modernism or just their parent’s generation.
Postmodernism, at a time when young people were looking for change, was emphatically and in-your-facedly anti-bourgeois, super-edgy, anti-establishment and counter-cultural, and appealed as an artistic, cultural, and philosophical starting point, an effective crash-out-of-spiritual-prison-and-liberation-from-mental-slavery strategy.
It was a rejection of the right way of doing things as described by modernism; modernist ways of doing things characterized by simplicity, elegance, minimalism, less is more, form follows function and utilitarianism, all grounded in science, logic and implying an objective reality.
It is interesting that instead of arguing positively for freedom of expression, ways of thinking, variety, difference, spontaneity, play and confusion including modernism, postmodernists argued that modernism was the problem and that postmodernism and modernism could not co-exist.
In essence they argued that modernism was a false ideology to be rejected in its entirety.
The youth and minority movements’ rejection of a manufactured depiction of the perfect citizen as aspirational and middle class, whose goals, raison d’etre, and fulfillment were bound up in social climbing displayed by conspicuous consumerism led to the enfranchisement around the world, not without casualties and failures, of youth, women, other than straight sexuality and other than white races in a liberalization of society through a general fragmentation and apparent breaking down of the class system which reigned through the modernist era.
Nevertheless, these people were largely ignorant of postmodernist philosophy, or in fact any philosophy whatsoever.
While postmodernism represented a changing of the guard in academic philosophical, artistic and cultural studies areas, it was mainly confined to those arenas.
It morphed in many cases into post-structuralism, though many post-structuralists do not consider themselves postmodernist, at least not any more.
This group of intellectuals are generally thought to include Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray.
Jacques Derrida is considered by many to be a significant and influential intellectual for developing “deconstruction,” a theory for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis–but which appears to be largely indistinguishable from gibberish.
One of the clues to detecting the influence of postmodernism and later similar philosophies is the use of excessively peculiar and vaguely defined jargon words like radical hermeneutics, bricolage, liminal space, and dialectical paradox — even to the extent that use of these words, even in the production of nonsense, had the ability to fool the editors of cultural criticism publications.
A notable example of this was the acceptance by editors of NYU physics professor Alan Sokal’s meaningless hoax written in apparently postmodern language.
Another is the existence of joke sites which generate postmodernist essays, where you will find such words and concepts as semantic desublimation, precultural patriarchial theory, the distinction between without and within, the textual paradigm of context, the prematerialist narrative and mythopoetical desublimation.
One of best known of these was written by Andrew. C. Bulhak, using the Dada Engine, a system for generating postmodernist essays, completely meaningless, but superficially plausible, just like real postmodernist essays.
Such things have tended to discredit postmodernism.
Nevertheless it remains obvious that we live in a polyglot, multicultural, unfair world filled with selfish greed, totalitarian behaviors, unhappy people, a public sector which is essentially child care for adults, and an education system hijacked by vocational concerns.
This all appears to be leaving the door open to more rather than less inequality and limitations on true freedom, with people globally being caught up in the excess of unrestrained capitalist competition between nations.
How much of this if any, can be seen to have an ancestry in postmodernism per se? Very little, we suspect.
How much can be seen to have its ancestry in the occult, religiosity, superstition, racism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism? Quite a bit, we also believe.
“Mind-forg’d manacles” in Blake’s sense have many and varied sources, all of them essentially at war with the classical injunction of radical enlightenment in the tradition flowing from Kant’s most excellently edgy essay of 1784, “What is Enlightenment?”: Sapere aude!, and then act accordingly!, i.e., dare to think and act for yourself!
When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with [her] dignity.
–It’s no historical accident that the publication and dissemination of Kant’s Critical and post-Critical philosophy almost perfectly overlapped with Blake’s artistic career.
III. Moreover, there are some art movements we admire and hope will not be be hijacked by and blamed for the fin-de-civilisation-as-we-know-it, including pataphysics, dada and surrealism, which on the face of it could be considered wilful and meaningless obscurantism, but which we believe can only exist in a world in which fascism is not dominant.
Pataphysicians, dadaists, and surrealists have inspired intellectual (not political) libertarians since their emergence in the early 20th century, and mostly (as far as we can tell) they are anti-fascists.
Does the dark enlightenment and the alt right Accelerationism disrupt this theory?
Can pataphysics, dada, and surrealism spawn fascists?
One of the Accelerationist manifestos uses language like this: “Meshing together fiction, number theory, voodoo, philosophy, anthropology, palate tectonics, information science, semiotics, geotraumatics, occultism, and other nameless knowledges, in these pages the incomplete evidence gathered by explorers including Burroughs, Blavatsky, Lovecraft, Jung, Barker, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson and Madame Centauri, are clarified and subjected to systematic investigation, comparison, and assessment so as to gauge the real stakes of the Time-War still raging behind the collapsing façade of reality.”
We think this is fine and entertaining fodder for fiction, but worry about people taking it seriously as a code to live by.
Regarding Nick Land and his early versions of accelerationism, it was to some extent antifasctist, especially as espoused by Mark Fisher, who was a really smart, caring, insightful guy who suicided in 2017.
He argued in his most excellent 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? that “the pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”
It was probably the lack of understanding and healing that led to his untimely death.
He also wrote an exceptionally perceptive and confrontational piece in praise of peace and love, “Exiting Vampire Castle,” a manifesto for good not evil.
Pataphysics was an invention of Alfred Jarry, a late 19th century French man of letters.
He was a funny, learned, intellectual (but not social) libertarian, an in-your-facedly anti-bourgeois, super-edgy, anti-Establishment, counter-cultural dude.
He was unapologetically unpopular and stayed that way with a ferocious opposition to boring conventional obedience to anything.
Dada was a refuge for anti-war artists in World War I and their absurdity was holding up a mirror to the world they found absurd.
Surrealism was a celebration of a type of humor typified by the juxtaposition of unexpected combinations.
We think at the heart of fascism, rather than postmodernism, pataphysics, dada and Surrealism, is actually tribalism and the battle for power for one’s tribe’s security.
We believe this is an outdated, atavistic cave-man instinct and yet still a driving force in human society.
Warfare, classical philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and psychology (have we forgotten some ologies? never mind) all are problematic and inadequate tools for understanding the present and the future because they are tools dealing with the past, embedded in the past and unable (as socially significant ways of thinking with traction) of rising out of the past.
The current example amusing us at the moment is: people think there are still social classes, being the working or slave class, the middle or management class, and the monarchy, wealth or owner class.
This is an outdated notion: what we have now is a basically honest underclass and an evil overclass.
The monarchy-, wealth-, or owner-class has morphed into the evil class which has no social responsibility because it doesn’t need any. It is no longer dependant on the underclass.
It can repurpose the underclass at will.
It can lie, cheat, deceive, dissemble, posture and protest, but it is characterized by everything we consider evil and getting away with it.
So we think it is important to have ways of explaining things so that we can help provide an emancipatory, radically enlightened Kantian framework–dedicated to breaking free of our “mind-forg’d manacles,” and then acting accordingly–for any emergent peace and love movement, as, e.g., exemplified by the young activist Greta Thunberg.
And this is the forward-time-jump we’re calling going borderless, which in turn is the real-world incarnation of borderless philosophy.
IV. By way of conclusion, let’s summarize what we’ve been arguing.
First, in and of itself, postmodernism, aka PoMo, is essentially unoriginal, and consists in nothing more than a way-cool and tragically hip oh-so-1980s-and-90s encapsulation of generational jealousy, an I-spit-on-your-grave-tantrum, a we-don’t-need-your-steenking-batches-nihilism, and a you-fucked-it-so-we’ll-fix-you-dummy-spitting.
–As it were.
Second, the emphatically and in-your-facedly anti-bourgeois, super-edgy, anti-Establishment, counter-cultural energy and impulse of pataphysics, dadaism, and surrealism is collectively on the whole excellent as an artistic, cultural, and philosophical starting point, and as an effective crash-out-of-spiritual-prison-and-liberation-from-mental-slavery strategy.
Third, finally, and most importantly, nevertheless, unless all of that artistic, cultural, and philosophical energy and impulse is also grounded in, or transforms itself into, by some sort of spiritual metamorphosis and transfiguration, something profoundly more substantive — namely, borderless philosophy with serious Kantian commitments — then they, and especially and essentially PoMo, just spin off into something essentially empty, self-indulgent, and nihilistic, even if oh-so-fucking-clever, which can, by a not-so-damned-hip but also and in fact ironically tragic complete dialectical reversal and a-snake-eating-its-own-tail-edness of its own original energy and impulse, even end up supporting neofascism.
So forget PoMo and go borderless.
[i] See W. Blake, “London,” in Songs of Experience (1794), lines 5–8:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
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