Monday, July 24, 2006

"Have a Nice Day!": How to be Postmodern Without Really Trying.

I sit in a silent New York apartment. The day is clear, warm, breezy. Across the street from my place, a building was struck by lightning two days ago. In the opposite direction, two buildings away from mine, there was a fire that destroyed a business, which was a man's life-work. He has no adequate insurance, I believe, and everything that he owns went up in flames.

By comparison with his troubles, the daily harassments I experience in writing my blog entries seem less significant than usual. The image-posting feature of my profile is not working again. Maybe it'll be fine by tomorrow. I have spent about an hour battling to write these words. Beckett's antihero says: "I can't go on, I'll go on." I plan to go on fighting for what I believe.

Try comparing Beckett's Waiting for Godot with Donald E. Westlake's Dancing Aztecs, then read the first pages of John Banville's Shroud. The literary feeling of being stunned in those works is what I am after in this essay because it has become the condition of the postmodern subject.

I continue to receive messages from e-bay concerning a computer that I "sold" on line that has not been received, despite their admission that I do not have an e-bay account and have never sold anything on-line; an e-mail purportedly from the "IRS" informs me that (with a click of my mouse) I am entitled to a reimbursal of $69.95; an anonymous phone call results in an insult or silence, then the caller hangs up. I receive bills from service providers indicating that previous payments are not credited to my account. I am threatened with an interruption in services. I then receive an apology and an offer of more services. Each message is written in a suitably friendly tone by a computer, closing with a pleasant wish: "Have a nice day." An AOL instant message to my child says "I hate you." When she asks the sender: "Who are you?" The response is: "You know." All of these messages are received in one typical day.

The owner of the Delicatessen that burned to the ground stood for hours staring at the empty shell of his place, smoking a cigarette, silently, aging before my eyes. When the police and firefighters left, they said: "Have a nice day."

Several young Americans will die or be wounded in Iraq today, as politicians scramble to see whose friends will get government contracts, so that they can then show their gratitude to the politicians who got them the contracts by providing some hefty kickbacks. Most of the truly awful, dreadful, unkind, uncharitable, mean and sometimes stupid people I have known are lawyers, politicians or judges, sometimes all three. These are the people making "value judgments" for large segments of U.S. society. The most unethical people, in my experience, get to decide on the ethics of others, usually while wearing splendid black robes. Maybe it's better in places other than New Jersey. I sure hope so.

Without a doubt several of the most stupid and cruel persons that I have had the misfortune to know were and still are judges in New Jersey. It is not simply that such people are morons. It is the arrogance of these moronic power-wielders that shocks the conscience.

The American Communist party owns corporate stock, like any good capitalist, according to Harper's magazine. Everyone wants to see "Superman" at the multiplex this week. Me too. Regis and Kelly "banter" on television, like eight year-olds, and are described in T.V. Guide as "witty." Regis immitates a duck. Everyone laughs. Why can't they be mature, like me?

Both Israel and its adversaries admit to adopting policies of "retribution" that will result in civilian casualties, that is, in killing innocent children and old people to "stop" terror. The U.S. government "regrets" the deaths of "40 to 50 thousand Iraqui civilians." The number is probably higher than this. Some say 100,000. These casualties are deemed necessary, however, because of "strategic objectives." Politicians debate the appropriate terminology to use when referring to women in official publications, including those identifying the "unintended casualties" in Iraq who happen to be female. After all, it may be necessary to kill them, but there is certainly no need to insult them. Never refer to women as "chics," unless they are from Dixie.

The New Jersey Assembly is officially against "smoking in public places," as lethal levels of pollution increase the risk to residents' lives as a result of industrial pollution by political contributors, even as corruption devours the institutions of government. People are tortured in state jails and prisons. Worse than this is done secretly to persons "of interest" to government agencies in their own homes -- for reasons that are not explained and with the knowledge of at least some of the authorities -- who will then deny that knowledge publicly. In other words, they lie -- including some judges -- while requiring others to tell the truth. A sign on the Turnpike says: "Have a nice day."

Aporia is the rhetorical mode of contemporary life. What is "aporia"?

Aporia is a Greek word meaning "difficulty, being at a loss," literally a "pathless path," a track that gives out. In classical rhetoric it denotes a real or pretended doubt about an issue, uncertainty as to how to proceed in a discourse. (David Lodge)

The resources of rationality are severely challenged under these conditions. Persons receive such an overwhelming number of mixed messages and anxiety-producing communications or "information," couched in the banalities of advertising and commerce -- which has become the official language of the State -- that (at some point) the intellect refuses to absorb any more facts and simply shuts down. Information overload, combined with Vietnam levels of stress, usually resulting from threats of one kind or another, produces paralysis. The contradictions are overwhelming, especially when added to even more glaring contradictions in a person's experience of power in society. Your torturer smiles and says: "This is for your own good."

"More information has been produced in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day, and the total of all printed knowledge doubles every eight years." One daily newspaper contains more information than the average person absorbed over a lifetime prior to the seventeenth century. (See Richard Saul Wurman's Information Anxiety.) The result can only be overload and bewilderment, leading either to tragedy or farce. We live in a movie written by Woody Allen with Samuel Beckett. We find ourselves in a universe invented by an evil deity (the CIA?), combining the qualities of Kafka with Stoppard's humor.

Most people remain blissfully unaware of these contradictions. They live in a zone beyond reason. Thus, the United States is happily torturing people -- most of whom are held indefinitely, without trials or charges -- even as the U.S. government criticizes the human rights violations of other countries. Public officials speak reverently of the same Constitution that is ignored by them, usually with the blessings of the courts. The nation with the largest number of nuclear weapons in the world expresses concern about nuclear weapons in the hands of other countries. Given our astonishing success in Iraq, the U.S. is reported in Time magazine to be planning an invasion of Iran, a country with close to 500,000 men in its army and near to developing nuclear weapons. Malcolm Bradbury's "Dr. Criminale" says:

... what specter ... haunts Europe, or the rest of the world? The specter that haunts us is the specter of too much and too little. It is an age of everything and nothing. It is culture as spectacle, designer life, the age of shopping. ... So my friends if you can reconcile ... literature and power, ideas and chaos, and if (by the way) you can prevent collapse at the European fringes, stop mad nationalisms [and fundamentalisms,] avoid collision with Islam, and solve the problems of the Third World, you will have done well and your time will not be wasted.

Cervantes's "Don Quixote" wonders: "If all the world is insane then what is insanity?" The particular form of collective insanity that we live with has to do with the abandonment of reason and Enlightenment notions of rationality. "It's all relative." "It is just true that there is no truth." "We will sell no wine before its time." My favorite: "Have you had your sprinkle today?" I sure hope so. What do any of these slogans mean? Do they really mean anything? Incidentally, do you think that a good way to avoid collision with Islam is to promote atheism and feminism in their countries?

We need a poet of the absurd on the level of Kafka, at least, to capture this strange moment in world history. Something about the horror of the Holocaust and all that has come after that event has unsettled the psyche of Western humanity, so that we have not yet fully recovered. Perhaps we never will. Global technological civilization is experiencing a mid-life crisis, just like many of us. Weirdly, I have chosen this period in my life to be highly sane by abandoning the fantasy world of normality. Most people do the opposite. Curiously, I do not want a red sportscar or a twenty year-old mistress.

The U.S. government wants something like this: an Americanized global population, munching burgers at McDonald's and heading to "action" movies afterwards. It is inconceivable to many U.S. politicians that lots of people on the planet do not want our kind of life. America is attractive to many people; but it is also horrifying to others. This psychological fun house, filled with distorting prisms and mirrors -- that are mostly television screens -- is the jungle in which we must live. It is called "postmodernism." And now for a "respectable" academic definition of this important term. Get your highlighters:

Postmodernism tends to be used in three broad senses: a term to designate the cultural epoch through which we are living and largely viewed in apocalyptic terms; as an aesthetic practice which is seen variously as coextensive with the commodified surfaces of this culture or as a disruption of its assumptions from within through a "micropolitics" or a "politics of desire"; and as a [philosophical] development in thought which represents a thoroughgoing critique of the assumptions of Enlightenment or discourses of modernity and their foundations in notions of universal reason.

Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, translated into English (allegedly English) in 1984, boiled postmodernism down to a single phrase: "an incredulity towards all metanarratives." We don't "believe" anything: Not Marx, not Freud, not Jesus. We do not want to believe anything. Naturally, this means that we end by believing everything: the power of crystals, New Age designer "spirituality" -- available at Starbucks -- and the absolute good faith of the U.S. government. We must live today in the space between these contradictions.

We find ourselves in an asylum where media images provide the only shared basis for meaning and identity over religion, family, nation, where commodified forms (or "simulacra") of genuine human emotions and relationships are available "for a small fee." Someone will pretend to care about you on the phone for $149.99 an hour, plus tax. Many people purchasing items on-line or from "The Shopping Network" are really only hoping for a conversation with a person who will "be nice to them." This is not only weird, but sad. No wonder we're all "cukoo for Cocoa Pops."

This is a unique situation in human cultural history, which is bound to produce strange works of art made by demented people. Those who have experienced the special horrors of this epoch, like being tortured or insulted by people -- who then pretend that "nothing happened" the next time they see you and ask you to do the same -- have to find meaning in experiences that defy rational comprehension. These human monsters will then instruct you to be more ethical. They will ask you to be truthful at all times, even as they lie about what they have done to you and to others.

Are we really in Iraq to export democracy? Can democracy be exported to societies without the historical preconditions for democratic institutions? Will Iraq ever become one of the Massachusets Bay Colonies? I am skeptical.

In the absence of religious commitment, art seems to offer the best outlet for these frustrations, while satisfying a need for understanding and community. Hence, totalitarians fear art and those who make it, seeking to destroy human creative expressions, as I can attest, whether on the Internet or when it comes to Chomsky's Turkish publisher. Foolishly, despite my unpleasant experiences, I refuse to stop hoping that things can be better and that we can understand one another. I will always insist on justice and fight for what I believe, which includes the right to believe something, to love a few people, and to face my torturers. (That's you, Terry and Diana.)

One technique that may prove useful is ironic "substantive" communication. (Richard Rorty) It is the attempt to say something meaningful, while acknowledging the insanity of the very effort to communicate under these bizarre conditions. It is the effort to reason with one's guards at the concentration camp, by way of black humor or other devices that allow for sufficient distance from the discourse -- so as to avoid violence and rage -- through laughter at the madness and hypocrisy of power's need to be liked or thanked by its victims. A sign above the entrance to Dachau, I believe said, "work will set you free." That is an early example of cruel postmodernist irony.

Isn't it surprising that people do not want to be occupied? How come they don't want to be "altered" against their will? Not even "for their own good"? Do you really wonder why they're angry at us in Iraq and lots of other places? "Don't tread on me," applies to everyone. Iraquis want to say to Americans: "Thanks for getting rid of Saddam. Now go home and let us govern ourselves." The U.S. response is: "We'd like nothing better. Unfortunately, if we do that, a week after we're gone, there will be another Saddam in power, who will probably be worse than the first one and the entire region will be destabilized." Any suggestions? It's not enough to say: "End the war now."

If the U.S. simply withdraws immediately, the most likely results will be: 1) a collapse of the fledgling democratic government in Iraq, with total anarchy and civil war engulfing a fragmented nation leading to many more casualties, possibly in the millions; 2) an unchecked Iran will sponsor terror by numerous organizations in Lebanon and (possibly) Syria, creating further difficulties for Israel and the free world; 3) an impression will be created in the Middle East that the U.S. has no stomach for prolonged conflict and can always be beaten in a guerilla war, encouraging conflicts in many other parts of the world and more bloodshed; 4) there will be a resulting internationalization of a "hot" or military conflict between militant Islamic fundamentalist factions in the area and U.S. interests, spreading throughout the region and threatening the energy supply of the entire world.

The U.S. (and others) would have to return to the area in massive numbers, as a matter of survival. Iraq has become a no-win situation -- maybe it always was! -- a crisis which will only become much worse if a hasty decision is made now. At this point, it is irrelevant to say, "I was against the war." It just so happens that I was and still am against the war, but I am also against an even greater war that will be caused by an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. For this reason, Senator Clinton cannot call for the immediate return of all troops -- especially if she finds herself Commander in Chief some day -- since she cannot limit her options. We are already in this war. The point now is not simply for the Iraqui people to "win the war," but to win the peace.

I am now convinced that we are losing the peace, prolonging the loss of life for Americans and Iraquis, increasing the dangers of terrorism in the world by remaining in Iraq. We find ourselves in a situation without a satisfactory exit option and only prospects of more suffering in the future, which reminds me of New Jersey's legal system.

You can only speak in parables, stories, metaphors and symbols, if you wish to make sense of the enormous amount of data each of us faces, not to mention the challenge of moral education for a generation of ethical relativists and skeptics. Indirect communication is the only answer: "Once upon a time ..." Hey, that sounds like traditional religious communications! That's fine. Just don't call it wisdom literature or mythological art, certainly not religion. Call it "the madness of art." Has anyone seen the Matrix?

According to the Mexican novelist and thinker Carlos Fuentes, "the greatest crisis facing modern civilization is going to be how to transform [overwhelming volumes of] information into structured knowledge." Think of 9/11 and the massive amount of "intelligence data" that was not understood at the time. It might just as well not have been available at all, since it was not absorbed. Fuentes suggests, as I do, that we must develop narratives that impose resonant patterns of meaning on data -- data that is then made digestible -- which does not necessarily mean fictionalizing it. (See my essay on Ricoeur's "Hermeneutics of Freedom.")

Democrats and Republicans are about to enter another election cycle, the party that wins will develop the best "story links" (as they say in Hollywood) with American archetypal images and desires, especially the desire for hope (we want to believe in leaders) and purpose in public life. I am reminded of Philip Roth's summary of a story by Kafka, which captures my predicament and yours, since we are sharing a cell in this concentration camp:

"... 'The Burrow' is the story of an animal with a keen sense of peril whose life is organized around the principle of defense, and whose deepest longings are for security and serenity; with teeth and claws -- AND forehead -- the burrower constructs an elaborate and ingeniously intricate system of underground chambers and corridors that are designed to afford it some peace of mind; however, while this burrow does succeed in reducing the sense of danger from without, its maintenance and protection are equally fraught with anxiety: "these anxieties are different from ordinary ones, prouder, richer in content, often long repressed, but in their destructive effects they are perhaps much the same as the anxieties that existence in the outer world gives rise to." The story (whose ending is lost) terminates with the burrower fixated upon distant subterrenean noises that causes it "to assume the existence of a great beast," itself burrowing in the direction of the Castle Keep.

I know how that Kafka story would have ended. The haunted creature either keeps burrowing in his fight for freedom -- perhaps turning to face his tormentors -- or surrenders and dies. I would always choose to fight. My advice to all politicians is to fight for what you believe that brought you into politics in the first place.

Prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are depressed, often suicidal and defensive. Therapists wonder why. Prisoners' guards and interrogators also report pathologies and severe reactions, depression and anxieties that are often just as severe as -- or worse -- than those of their victims.

What you do to another, you do to yourself. Torturers and victims are locked in a lethal embrace. Think of Sartre's "Antisemite and Jew." This is just as true for nations as for individuals, which is especially worrisome when considering the current crisis in the Middle East and America's foreign policy. What we do to others, will be done to us. I will be seeing you soon.

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