Tagged: Postmodernism

The Great Crustacean

little-lobster-costumeDavid Foster Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster is worth reading for nothing else than the following two paragraphs:

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible—[Dostoevsky]’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.”

I miss him when I read him now. But being serious in the age of irony needs moral issues that are worthy of engagement rather than distancing; take Romeo and Juliet—the family rivalries are actually antiquated and quaint. The strangled universality is that love might triumph but people are crappy. Antiquarian moral conundrums may be translatable to our era but there is no guarantee that it will be so. Whale hunting is just dumb and cruel—not a great human drama. And that leaves open the possibility of the conversion of the aesthetic distancing to re-converge with everyday life. Too bad we lost a champion of the cause.

Politics is Religion

Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy has steadily distanced itself from Continental Philosophy for many reasons, but the defining difference must be with respect to the correlation of meaning with textual intent. Continental Philosophy deconstructs (at least in recent years) and as a phenomenon there is cultural significance to the motivation to tear down the assumptions that we have carefully nurtured from the Enlightenment through to Modernism. Meaning disconnects from words. It slurs. And reinvention is the only persistent motivation.

Arguably, though, it is only Continental Philosophy that cares about politics and culture, which makes it less abstract and irrelevant than the thumb twiddling of the analytic strain. Modern culture and our claims about significance are the lambs for the slaughterhouse. I thought of that voting in one of California’s ever-present elections today. Simon Critchley carried the water for me with his recent argument that politics is essentially religion (side-note: check out his discussion of Philip K. Dick in the New York Times recently; nothing really new to anyone who has read the VALIS books, but the facts concerning Dick’s later years and death are worth understanding). How is it religion? Because it is easy to redraw the semantic map in Continental Philosophy. Words mean what they are positioned to mean and the positioning is highly variable. The only solidity is in faith-based attachment to a theory of meaning, and politics exemplifies that in a way that is passingly second to religion itself.

We can see the effects of this religion in the defining political conflict of our era. The Pew Research Center’s new report, Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years, shows this political religion at work.  On a majority of issues, the study shows, among Americans who self-identify as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, there has been a steady increase in the disparity between opinions. If there was an “ultimate” rational basis for deciding policy, and if policies ultimately worked without ambiguity and trade-offs, we should be converging towards democratic perfection (or Marxist perfection, or something). It just ain’t so, though, and will likely never be for Critchley. The best we have in America is the remnants of deism expressed in the collective ciphers that ennoble Enlightenment aspirations, and the symbols that hang from those early yearnings like the rotating placards of a mobile. We only have the shadows: jeremiads over America’s ashes, expectations built on original sin, odes to the failures of progressive ideals, and the cultural symbols that support them.

It is easy to retreat away from this religion, and many Americans do. Don’t vote. Don’t discuss politics. The weather is always interestingly uncomplicated. There is no adjusting the rationality of others, only a slow effort at proselytization. It then becomes a matter of the relative offensiveness of one political religion or another. Who said the most reprehensibly unjustifiable thing? And there are open opportunities to deconstruct and ridicule the strongest claims by politicians and their supporters of all stripes. By doing so, we become cynical critics of these religions but are at least engaged and empowered within the system. So vote early and often, and hone your mocking circuits for going after high value targets. Doubt is the perfect antidote to religious assumptions, but should not be seen as leading to apathy. Instead, doubt is a cure-all for certitude that leaves the door open for action.