Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin

When it comes to art appreciation, I'm about 70 years behind the times. I claim some comprehension of works from Impressionism, Futurism, and Cubism; I get Surrealism to some extent; with Abstract Expressionism, I can see that something's being said, but can't quite follow the message. After that, not so much. I don't get Modernism, let alone anything that might be post- that.

So, for me it was a great pleasure to get a meaningful, understandable definition of post-modernism. This came in the form of a proposed post-modernist approach to history, in the collection of essays called "Re-Thinking History" by Keith Jenkins (Routledge, 1993). Jenkins' discussion of post-modernist history draws from a 1984 definition by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Post-Modern Condition. Lyotard describes this existential state as characterized by the "death of centers" and behavior showing "incredulity to metanarratives".

This might seem just more gobbledygook, but it means something to me. When I went to college, history was a battleground between the standard interpretations--the DWEM (dead white European male) version of history, Euro-centric, or Amero-centric, and also the alternative centers of interpretation: the revisionist line, the Marxist line, Afro-centric, femino-centric, even homo-centric and pharmo-centric (history of drug use). Each was driven by an ideology--a "metanarrative"--which conditioned the interpretation, and the selection, of historical evidence.

So, the post-modernist throws off the metanarrative of religious dogma, the Communist ideology, even, perhaps, these nouveau ways of looking at our history. This parallels the political point of view which arose after the end of the Cold War, that nothing is left standing but the liberal democratic ideal, the one that allows all other points of view, the one that is supposed to remain.

Now, though, even this last ideology falls. I think of CNBC's Larry Kudlow as a represntative exponent of this last metanarrative, the one that goes something like this: "all we have to do is let the markets, in their wisdom, solve the problem. Let the bad companies fail, and the good ones will survive, and prosperity will return,,," and we will all surely get rich, like Larry. Well, I'm sorry, Larry, but it doesn't work that way, and it didn't work that way, and we don't believe in your world view anymore.

We are truly ready for that post-modern condition now. No party, no ideology, no belief in government, or capitalism, or anything except what works for us subjectively. Cut taxes--anyway the ones I pay--and give me the benefits--the ones I want. That seems to be where the post-modern mind is at.

There is something to be said for throwing off the burdens of inherited patterns of thought which limit us; further, for fighting against the belief structures which seek to hold us down, or even against narcissistic self-regard as an overriding philosophy of life, too. But what is left?

When everything has been de-bunked, what should be left should not be bunk. But what I see is fragmentation of society, collapse of civil norms, and a whole bunch of folks burrowing in and pursuing just those necessities to provide for themselves and (maybe) their immediate families. Culture is just the sum of your club memberships, in most of which you can participate without leaving your study.

What does this post-modernism lead to, though? Devotees would say, I think, to nothing. There's nowhere left to go. I see it differently, though: this throwing off is just a transitory phase, until something really big comes along, something which will find us coming together, not with one voice, but in shared perception of a meaning worth appreciating and an objective worth pursuing.

For me, that would be something about preserving civilization, the survival of the species, and the survival of life on the planet. It will take an awesome threat to make us all aware of the urgency and moved to act (OK, maybe not all of us; there will be those who are just waiting for the Second Coming, the 11th Imam, nuclear devastation, or other nihilistic forms of total destruction). I do feel that it's coming; it's just a matter of time, and maybe of the right events.

The title of this post, "mene, mene, tekel upharsin" is the proverbial "writing on the wall"--that which God is said to have mysteriously scrawled on the walls of Babylon shortly before its destruction (from the Bible's book of Daniel). It's said to mean "you have been measured and found wanting", though the literal translation of those Aramaic words is "counted, counted, weighed and divided". My post-modern translation of that would be: We know the value of everything, and it's nothing much.

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