why i am not a postmodernist
Post #593 • August 2, 2005, 4:20 PM • 120 Comments
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of a God is a conception derived from the ancient oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian
A point-by-point refutation of Kathleen's comment #197 under this post, as promised in #199 under same, turned out to be unnecessary. As a quick rejoinder, I offered:
[Quoting Kathleen:] That painting which depicts Chinese porcelain is showing the affluence of the Dutch household, not Dutch appreciation for other cultures. Wrong - it shows both of them. This idea that the former negates the latter is simply an intellectual bias, and one I don't share.
But this is pretty much the whole deal. Kathleen had just described a brief history of Dutch colonialism and racism. For her, they taint any further discussion about the art. For me, the taint is on history, not art. Humans do bad things and good things simultaneously.
But using excerpts from Kathleen's post, we can witness pomo failing on three points:
1. It depends on the conflation of categories, but it is extremely selective about which categories conflate and which supposedly don't.
Your response showed a poor understanding of colonialsm, post-modernism, and the economic and social ramifications of art thoughout history. Sure, you have a good grasp of philosophy and aesthetics, but you are mistaken to think that it translates.
This presupposes that postmodernism translates infinitely but philosophy does not. I see no evidence for this. The only reason you might think otherwise is because you imagine postmodernism as a meta-category that includes philosophy. If anything, the reverse is true.
2. It subordinates all concerns to political and economic ones, as if politics and economics were the underlying basis of all human activity.
...many people are uncomfortable with the assertion that Nefertiti was Black, because of course, her grandfather, Ptolemy, was Greek, even though there is no mention anywhere of her grandmother's race, nationality, or effing identity. So, the Greeks "appreciated" Egyptian culture because they appropriated it? Or because they flat-out ruled it?
"No mention anywhere of her grandmother's race," etc., doesn't indicate Nefertiti's blackness any more than refute it, but even if she was green, what bearing does that have on the Greeks usage of Egyptian motifs? You have to notice here that appreciated gets scare quotes but appropriated does not. Scare quotes are a non-reason-based tactic that in this instance are used to throw doubt onto the former term and present the latter one as given, even though neither case is proven here. How about the possibility that the Greeks learned from the Egyptians? Alas, there's no room in the pomo cosmology for such a possibility, as the Greeks were a conquering nation. Upper and lower Egypt were united by force under King Narmer, but that doesn't seem to play into this.
This reduction of aesthetic motives to political ones is a game you can play with any big theme. Sexuality, for instance, as one might with a simplistic reading of Freud; we could discuss Ptolemy's forceful penetration of the land of the Nile. But assertions like this are unprovable and useless, and furthermore, life is complex. When Alexander invaded India around 200, it set off a Greek vogue in Indian sculpture for a couple of centuries. In the Egyptian case, the conquerors absorbed the style of the conquered; in the Indian one, the reverse happened. Can both of these be explained by colonialist theory? Of course it can. You can explain anything with colonialist theory. Lube up your prose with scare quotes and get twisting.
Human behavior at its base is not political, economic, aesthetic, or anything else. It just is, and no one has come up with a grand theory about it yet that doesn't immediately create a giant class of counterexamples. People are like that. So is art.
3. Reason and facts serve it poorly, so it relies on belief and guilt, like a religion.
The tenets which you put forth in your above comment display an ethnocentric, self-important view, so intoxicated by privilege that you appear to be blind to it.
No disrespect, but was pomo invented by Catholics? I ask because it has such richly developed descriptions for sin, some of which are so innate as to resemble the concept of original sin. I'm led to understand that the so-called Good News posits that since I don't accept Jesus as my savior, even if I do good works in this world, I'm destined for an eternity in perdition. Likewise, my only way out of comfortable ensconcement in European patriarchal privilege necessitates a path of feminism or racial activism. Wait - is that an "or" list or an "and" list? What is racial activism, anyway? Is it enough that I believe that people should get paid the same amount for equal work regardless of of their ethnicity or gender? Does it matter that my first two girlfriends were shades of coffee?
Don't answer - I already know it. The answer is no. The first is an example of measurement using the ultimate state-approved mechanism of codifying value, money, and as such is part of the arsenal of power-mongering coercion, long in use by European patriarchy. The second implies that my male organs became involved in a transaction of "affection" which necessarily exploited historically compromised entities, females and blacks, in a simulacrum of interpersonal exchange, under the guise of a romantic model inherited from a sexist tradition of Western courtship. See, it's easy to generate this crap once you get the hang of it.
But even if it weren't absurdly reductive, internally inconsistent, unreasoned, joyless, and dependent on guilt-inducing nastiness (ethnocentric is a fancy way of calling someone mildly racist, and I'm not sure about the mildly part), you can't use it to talk about art because it presupposes that art is simply another manifestation of politics. All postmodernist discussions about art devolve to political discussions, yet somehow its adherents think of themselves as open-minded, moreso than people who don't share their views. This may be its greatest absurdity, but not its most hilarious. That honor goes to much of the art it defends.
I'm with Russell - "We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages." So let us persist and make the best art we can.