Playing with the Pieces

Mono                     -                  Poly
Serious                   -                  Play
Earnest                   -                  Ironic
Apollo                    -                  Hermes
Objective                -                  Subjective
Meaning                 -                  Interpretation
Vertical                   -                  Horizontal 

Postmodernism involves a seeing-through of everything. Tall towers, grand, looming structures can no longer be built because to build them requires a certain measure of ignorance, not to mention exploitation. Every direction is discriminatory, and so no direction is truly permissible. All that is left is to play with the pieces. Everything is ventured in the spirit of irony.

When everything is pulled down to a level plane then all things become, as Nietzsche puts it, 'mediocre.' 

Baudrillard defined postmodernism as 'the characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions possible'; a world in which everything has 'been done' and all that remains is to play with the fragments. 'Playing with the pieces - that is postmodern'.

The pieces with which the postmodernist toys are theories, ideas, and vocabularies in which the remnants of the lost modernist belief in the possibilities of progress, liberation, and meaning remain. Postmodernity is 'a game with the vestiges of what has been destroyed. This is why we are "post" - history has stopped, one is in a kind of post-history which is without meaning.'

It is more a survival amongst the ruins than anything else.

[Sadie Plant]
The Most Radical Gesture, p.155

One image which is reiterated by analysts of postmodernity is that of play. Nothing can be considered significant or important either in itself or because of its place in some cosmic plan.

All we can do is play.

Play is a Hermes image that is used [...] to express (justify? romanticize? disguise? explore? hide?) the groundlessness to which their thinking leads.

Hermes is quite happy with groundlessness, whether it is deconstruction or bootstrap theory or the Void.

His winged feet never touch the ground.

[Bernie Neville]
‘The Charm of Hermes: Hillman, Leotard, and the Postmodern Condition’, Journal of Analytical Psychology (1992), p. 349, and 'Out of Our Depth and Treading Water: Reflections on Consciousness, Culture and New Learning Technologies'

The pluralist way of dealing with the built-in commitment of words is to think of them all ironically, to engage in a play of mind which ranges over them all with equal nonchalance.

So we hear words like 'beauty' and 'truth' as if they had inverted commas around them. But the play of mind doesn't make available even the possibility of a shared understanding of the object: it's an act of power, not of communication.

All you can do with a play of mind is to watch its performance.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p.49

The notion of common or shared meaning seems to be in the process of disappearing, and the pastiche of postmodern art and architecture reflects a world in which anything goes.

Any system of cultural meanings can be 'deconstructed' (Derrida) and 'seen through' (Hillman), and we can deconstruct our deconstructions until all semblance of substantiality has dissolved [...] we see the notion of essential substance disappearing from discourse as it has disappeared from physics.

[...] there is plenty of attention given to communication, but rather less to the notion of what is worth communicating. Substance and continuity are giving way to process and exchange.

There remain no meanings, only interpretations.

[Bernie Neville]
‘The Charm of Hermes: Hillman, Leotard, and the Postmodern Condition’, Journal of Analytical Psychology (1992), p. 340, 348

Diana: I don't want your pain, I don't want your menopausal decay and death! I don't need you, Max.

Max: You need me! You need me badly. Because I'm your last contact with human reality. I love you, and that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.

Diana: Then don't leave me.

Max: It's too late, Diana. There's nothing left in you that I can live with. You're one of Howard's humanoids, and if I stay with you, I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything that you and the institution of television touch is destroyed.

You're television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death - all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays.

You're madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure and pain and love. (He kisses her farewell.) And it's a happy ending. Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife with whom he's established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell. Final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show.

Dialogue from the film "Network"

I looked back on the past and recalled my people's old ways, but they were not living that way any more. They were traveling the black road, everybody for himself and with little rules of his own [...]

[Black Elk]
Black Elk Speaks, p.215

Wilber depicts the mood of modernity as irony, "the bitter aftertaste of a world that cannot tell the truth about the substantive depth of the Kosmos...."

Writing more than sixty years earlier, Martin Heidegger concluded that the mood of modernity is twofold: boredom and horror. Moderns are bored because the one-dimensional ontology of mechanistic materialism has emptied humans and things of their substance; instead of being endowed with a transcendent dimension that allows things to manifest themselves and thus "be," humans have become clever animals competing for power and security.

Moderns are horrified because they surmise the utter meaninglessness of existing in such an ontologically poverty-stricken world. What Wilber calls the mood of irony may be how moderns have learned to transmute the grimmer mood of horror.

[Michael E. Zimmerman]
Ken Wilber's Critique of Ecological Spirituality

What is the clearest and truest thing we can say about the arts in modern societies? Answer: that they offer to one’s attention millions of images, their proliferation such that nobody could respond to them in ten lifetimes. The one clear thing is: they are too many.

[…] fifty years ago it was still possible to say what the official texts of culture were […] We are now required to be equally attentive to the remnants of historical life in every continent, or stand convicted of parochialism.

No text is more official than any other: if you think that Greek civilisation is more valuable than Mayan, you have to justify the thought.

I agree with Geoffrey Hartman when he writes, in The Fate of Reading, that ‘the growth of the historical consciousness, its multiplying of disparate models all of which press their claim, amounts to a peculiarly modern burden.’ To be aware of the past, Hartman says, ‘is to be surrounded by abstract potentialities, imperatives that cannot all be heeded, options exhausting the power of choice’.

[…] the notion of play, and - I would now want to add - the even more fashionable notion of indeterminacy in interpretation, are attractive to us, I think, as a strategic answer to the surfeit of cultural images calling for attention.

It is inevitable that we devise several strategies for neutralising the claims a cultural image makes. The proliferation of claims delivered with these images would be intolerable if we couldn’t devise ways of neutralising them. 

Indifference is a help, but it is not decent. Indeterminacy is an answer to proliferation; so is play; and so is the habit of voiding claims upon our attention by declaring them all equally arbitrary.

These procedures are feasible because there is no longer a Greek or Roman authority; no imperium. We are free as we move about our imaginary museum. When all else is at risk of failing, we can always reduce the claims of history by declaring history a fiction like any other.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 69-70

The typical stance of the contemporary critic is one of irony: he is the one who knows that we are all bamboozled; he knows the malice of bourgeois ideology, the spuriousness of metaphysics, the idiocy of our desire to ground history upon an intentional origin, whether it is God or a particular concept of man.

Indeed, there are two missing factors in contemporary criticism.  

The first is a set of principles which would renew or establish a sense of value in what we read and look at and hear; which would help us to discriminate between the thousands of objects and events which claim our serious attention.

The second is the’ conviction from which such a set of principles would emerge.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 122

But Morrissey going to number one in 1988 with 'Viva Hate' was very different from the Beatles going to number one in 1965.

Not only are the sales involved much smaller, post-baby boom, post-mainstream, post popular pop. Your granny isn't aware of Morrissey. Morrissey is hardly played on Radio 1 and MTV. Morrissey is, no matter how he may lament the fact, not part of the 'fabric of national life' in the way the Beatles were.

'The fabric of national life' is unchartably complex and can't be encompassed in any single pop style any more. Morrissey is simply the figurehead of a very large cult audience. Pop must learn to accept that it is now doomed to be a related network of unpopular musics.

No wonder poor old Top of the Pops, still clinging to a Reithian, pre-cable notion of One Nation, one 'pop' audience, is in such trouble. How do you show the same studio audience bopping to Mariah Carey and Altern 8? It's ridiculous even to try.

The American flag is now meaningless, just as the 'Union' Jack is. What 'union' can be or should there be between the mutually incomprehensible tribes who now make up Britain?

'Pop Stars? Nein Danke!'

To recognize, as the free spirits do, the necessity of illusion is not to realize that everything is false and that the only thing one can do is to produce more and more "mere" illusions and interpretations for their own sake.

The ironic distance, which seems to me essential to those who proliferate new interpretations simply for the joy of multiplying illusion, is perfectly absent from Nietzsche's description of his free spirits. 

Their interpretations are nothing short of their tables of values, by which their very lives are guided and even constituted.

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 61-2

"In the twentieth century nothing is in agreement with anything else" (Gertrude Stein). 

Grand theories and universal overviews cannot be sustained without producing empirical falsification and intellectual authoritarianism. To assert general truths is to impose a spurious dogma on the chaos of phenomena. Respect for contingency and discontinuity limits knowledge to the local and specific. Any alleged comprehensive, coherent outlook is at best no more than a temporary useful fiction masking chaos, at worst an oppressive fiction masking relationships of power, violence, and subordination. 

[...] the contemporary intellectual milieu is riddled with tension, irresolution, and perplexity. 

The practical benefits of its pluralism are repeatedly undercut by stubborn conceptual disjunctions. Despite frequent congruence of purpose, there is little effective cohesion, no apparent means by which a shared cultural vision could emerge, no unifying perspective cogent or comprehensive enough to satisfy the burgeoning diversity of intellectual needs and aspirations. 

A chaos of valuable but seemingly incompatible interpretations prevails, with no resolution in sight. Certainly such a context provides less hindrance to the free play of intellectual creativity than would the existence of a monolithic cultural paradigm. Yet fragmentation and incoherence are not without their own inhibiting consequences. 

The culture suffers both psychologically and pragmatically from the philosophical anomie that pervades it. In the absence of any viable, embracing cultural vision, old Assumptions remain blunderingly in force, providing an increasingly unworkable and dangerous blueprint for human thought and activity.

Faced with such a differentiated and problematic intellectual situation, thoughtful individuals engage the task of evolving a flexible set of premises and perspectives that would not reduce or suppress the complexity and multiplicity of human realities, yet could also serve to mediate, integrate, and clarify. The dialectical challenge felt by many is to evolve a cultural vision possessed of a certain intrinsic profundity or universality that, while not imposing any a priori limits on the possible range of legitimate interpretations, would yet somehow bring an authentic and fruitful coherence out of the present fragmentation, and also provide a sustaining fertile ground for the generation of unanticipated new perspectives and possibilities in the future. 

Given the nature of the present situation, however, such an intellectual task appears surpassingly formidable not unlike having to string the great Odyssean bow of opposites, and then send an arrow through a seemingly impossible multiplicity of targets.

[Richard Tarnas]
The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 401, 409 

The dangerous and uncanny point is reached where the grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the 'individual’ stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption. 

Nothing but new whys and wherewithalls, no longer any common formulas, misunderstanding in alliance with disrespect, decay, corruption and the highest desires horribly tangled together, the genius of the race overflowing out of every cornucopia of good and bad, spring and autumn falling fatally together, full of novel charms and veils such as pertain to youthful, still unexhausted, still unwearied corruption. 

Danger is again present, the mother of morality, great danger, only this time it comes from the individual, from neighbour and friend, from the street, from one's own child, from one's own heart, from the most personal and secret recesses of wish and will: what will the moral philosophers who come up in this age now have to preach? They discover, these acute observers and idlers, that the end is fast approaching, that everything around them is corrupt and corrupting, that nothing can last beyond the day after tomorrow, one species of man excepted, the incurably mediocre

The mediocre alone have the prospect of continuing on and propagating themselves - they are the men of the future, the sole survivors; 'be like them! become mediocre!’ is henceforth the only morality that has any meaning left, that still finds ears to hear it. - But it is difficult to preach, this morality of mediocrity! - for it can never admit what it is and what it wants! it has to speak moderation and dignity and duty and love of one's neighbour it will scarcely be able to conceal its irony! -

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 262