Playing with the Pieces

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

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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"
 

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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


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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


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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


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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


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