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

For it is the beginning of a Civilisation that it remoulds all the forms of the Culture that went before, understands them otherwise, practices them in a different way.

It begets no more, but only reinterprets, and herein lies the negativeness common to all periods of this character. It assumes that the genuine act of creation has already occurred, and merely enters upon an inheritance of big actualities.

[Oswald Spengler]
The Decline of the West, Vol. 1, p.351-2

One of the simplest means at the disposal of 'pseudo-initiatic' organizations for the fabrication of a false tradition for the use of their adherents is undoubtedly 'syncretism', which consists in assembling in a more or less convincing manner elements borrowed from almost anywhere, and in putting them together as it were ‘from the outside', without any genuine understanding of what they really represent in the various traditions to which they properly belong

As any such more or less shapeless assemblage must be given some appearance of unity so that it can be presented as a 'doctrine', its elements must somehow be grouped around one or more directing ideas, and these last will not be of traditional origin, but, quite the contrary, will usually be wholly profane and modern conceptions, and so inherently anti-traditional; it has already been remarked that in 'neo-spiritualism' the idea of 'evolution’ in particular plays a preponderant part in this capacity. 

It is easy to understand that any such procedure greatly enhances the gravity of the situation; under such conditions it is no longer a question of making a sort of ‘mosaic' of traditional odds and ends, which might after all provide no more than a perfectly useless but fairly inoffensive amusement; it becomes a question of denaturing, and it could be described as a 'perversion' of traditional elements, since people will be led to attribute to them a meaning altered so as to agree with the ‘directing idea', until finally it runs directly counter to the traditional meaning.

[René Guénon] 
The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p. 245-6

Whence comes the Innovator's authority to pick and choose?

Since I can see no answer to these questions, I draw the following conclusions. This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. 

It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. 

The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. 

If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. 

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

[C.S. Lewis]
‘The Abolition of Man’, Selected Books, p.415

We shall now examine the principle of “riding the tiger” as applied to the external world and the total environment. 

Its significance can be stated as follows: When a cycle of civilization is reaching its end, it is difficult to achieve anything by resisting it and by directly opposing the forces in motion. The current is too strong; one would be overwhelmed.

The essential thing is not to let oneself be impressed by the omnipotence and apparent triumph of the forces of the epoch. These forces, devoid of connection with any higher principle, are in fact on a short chain. One should not become fixated on the present and on things at hand, but keep in view the conditions that may come about in the future.

Thus the principle to follow could be that of letting the forces and processes of this epoch take their own course, while keeping oneself firm and ready to intervene when “the tiger, which cannot leap on the person riding it, is tired of running.”

The Christian injunction “Resist not evil” may have a similar meaning, if taken in a very particular way. One abandons direct action and retreats to a more internal position.

[Julius Evola]
Ride the Tiger, p. 10

At their best, these qualities describe the scientific habit of mind - the willingness to submit every suspend judgment until all the relevant evidence can be assessed. "Nothing is sacred to them." Gouldner wrote: "nothing is exempt from reexamination."

As this observation may suggest, however, the critical temper can easily degenerate into cynicism. It can degenerate into a snobbish disdain for people who lack formal education and work with their hands, an unfounded confidence in the moral wisdom of experts, an equally unfounded prejudice against untutored common sense, a distrust of any expression of good intentions, a distrust of everything but science, an ingrained irreverence, a disposition (the natural outgrowth of irreverence and distrust) to see the world as something that exists only to gratify human desires.

The positive and negative features of this worldly, skeptical, and critical mentality are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to assign them, as Daniel Bell and others have tried to do, to sociologically distinct sectors of the new class—the good qualities to the scientists and technicians, the bad ones to literary intellectuals.

Both the virtues and the defects of the professional class spring from the habit of criticism, which, unleavened by a sense of its own limits, soon reduces the world to ashes.

For the same reason - because the enlightened virtues carry with them a long list of enlightened vices—it is impossible to refute the core of truth in the notion of a new class by claiming that all the evils attributed to it can be blamed on capitalist consumerism instead. Capitalism cannot be absolved, but neither can it be made to carry the whole indictment of modern culture.

Capitalism was itself the product, in part, of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. Its material achievements rested on the technology made possible by modern science. The "spirit of capitalism," mistakenly traced by Max Weber to the Protestant ethic, derived far more directly from the sense of unlimited power conferred by science - the intoxicating prospect of man's conquest of the natural world.

Scientific inquiry also served, as we have seen, as a model for the distinctive conception of history associated with the promise of universal abundance. Just as each advance accomplished by the critical intelligence was destined to be superseded by the next, so the definition of human needs and wants was thought to expand as those needs and wants were progressively satisfied. 

The insatiability of curiosity and desire appeared to give the idea of progress a solid foundation in psychological and historical observation.

As the heir to the critical traditions of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the new class pins its hopes on the eventual triumph of critical intelligence over superstition, cosmopolitanism over provincialism, man over nature, abundance over scarcity. Its belief in progress, chastened by twentieth-century events but not yet relinquished by any means, transcends commitment to any particular system of production.

We can readily agree with Gouldner's description of the professional class as the "most progressive force in modern society"; the question is whether that can still be regarded as a virtue.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.527-8

The work of destruction, commenced by the Reformation, which had introduced an era of criticism and revolution, had, I thought, been carried far enough.

All that was dissoluble had been dissolved. All that was destructible had been destroyed, and it was time to begin the work of reconstruction, - a work of reconciliation and love.

[Orestes Brownson]

What reactionaries have is a yearning for the idea of tradition from the comfort of their living room. When I have said before now that I’m a ‘postmodern traditionalist’, what I mean is that I recognise the flagrant contradiction in this position. It is, in fact, a form of decadence.

Everyone can read Julius Evola, but basically no one is going to do the breathing exercises he outlines in The Yoga of Power. The idea of doing some Gregorian chants in the morning followed by a visit to Starbucks or perhaps a spot of Stars Wars afterwards just seems intrinsically absurd to me.

The postmodern world makes a complete mockery of earnest rituals.

I will never forget going to a Hindu temple and noting that the worshippers had left the Gods a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and a 1-pint plastic jug of milk. The idea that Shiva shops at Asda is too much.

I think the Kali Yuga needs to pass for Spengler’s Second Religiousness to be found. I cannot larp; I will not find faith in old texts, even as I recognise this is the exact problem. This cannot be fixed.

The best you achieve is to use the knowledge from the traditionalists to find an inner steel as best you can, but this is mundane Jordan Peterson self-help or BAP-style self-improvement not Evolian transcendence. I do say a few mantras though, they seem to work too, but only for things like earning me money and not shouting at my wife.

Like I said, transcendence is beyond a child of the ashes. We may be a long way from it, but all we can do is to attempt to create the conditions for the coming of a Carlylean Great Man who will bring a cleansing fire – but right now most of us would simply settle for a sensible set of leaders who work in our interests rather than directly against them.

[Academic Agent]
‘How Did We Get Here (Part 3)’, The Forbidden Texts, Substack

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