A few years back I was in crisis. I was turning over my beliefs as fast as my assets; I was entertained by information and informed by entertainment; I couldn’t get along with all of my selves. After a while, I realized that this wasn’t just my problem. The causes were deep, very deep, as deep as Western Civilization itself. And to fix myself, I had to fix the entire Civilization. So I got on the Internet and did a quick review of Western thought up to the present.
It seems that after 2500 years of heroic philosophizing, Western philosophy had dethroned itself, leaving in its place a coterie of tenuous usurpers collectively known as post-modernism. Described by Jean-Francois Lyotard as “an incredulity towards metanarratives,” post-modernism is also, according to David Harvey, “the situation the world finds itself in after the breakdown of the Enlightenment project.” To clarify matters, Umberto Eco defines it more precisely as “anything the user of the term happens to like or dislike.” Well, like it or not, I realized that post-modernism was the spirit of our times—such spirit as it was and such times as they are. The nameless entropy from which I suffered finally had a name.
But not only had Western Civilization come to the sorry impasse of post-modernism, post-modernism had come to an impasse itself. According to the Internet’s great quotations site, Schopenaur once said, “Truth goes through three phases: first it is violently opposed, then it is ridiculed, then it is treated as canon.” Clearly, post-modernism had already gone through the violent opposition phase (every academic with a web-site seemed to nurse some wound from the bloody interdepartmental battles of the 1970’s and 80’s), and was now stuck idling in the ridicule phase. It followed that the only way forward for post-modernism—and thus for me and all of Western Civilization as well—was to go for canonization.
After a comprehensive analysis of the methods of canonization in contemporary culture, I became convinced that the only way to embalm this new set of ideas into a dogma—one to which the broad masses could hold fast and use as a guide for everyday life—was through a pocket-sized self-help book. Portable Po-Mo. Disposable Derrida. Foucault-To-Go. Clearly that’s what was needed. Inspired by one of the more popular self-help series, I chose the title, “Life’s Little Deconstruction Book: Self-Help for the Post-Hip” and set about the task.
But could 365 neatly-numbered, digestible action statements save Western Civilization? Could post-modernism—its best energies exhausted railing against the Great Dead White European Male canon—itself be canonized? Could my fractured post-modern self be healed by post-modern self-help? It seemed absurd. But I screwed up my most flip, cocksure courage and penned my first maxim, “37. Don’t despair at the absurd, go with it.” And so I did.
My first task was to figure out how the best minds of the last quarter century came up with the oxymoronic term “post-modern.” Normal people know that what is modern is what is happening now, so how can you live in the post-now? Well, it seems that “now” ended in St. Louis at 3:32pm on July 15, 1972 when a large group of very boring buildings were dynamited. Because these buildings were classic examples of functional “modernist” design, this event marked the end of “modernism” and the emergence of a more eclectic “post-modern” culture.
Led by post-modern architecture (65. Learn from Las Vegas) and linguistics (167. Decipher signs by the trace of all in each), this new culture spawned what Jean Baudrilliard called “hyperreality,” a symbolic order in which reality is effaced in a self-referential universe of signs. A successful self-help book had to provide practical advice to all the denizens of this simulated world, including the artist: “36. Maneuver between pastiche and mish-mash;” the intellectual: “339. Prepare to be misunderstood;” and the average citizen: “14. Pretend to be real.”
This cultural shift was driven by the rapid development of a suite of technologies that transformed our experience in almost every realm, including: community (195. Visit the public square on your private screen), our own bodies (164. Reset your biological clock), and even reality itself (255. Design other worlds). David Harvey argues that these technical innovations have transformed how capitalism operates (188. Integrate globally, disintegrate locally) and led to another round of space time compression. According to Frederic Jameson, the major task of post-modern art and theory is to construct perceptual and conceptual maps for this new ordering of space and time (213. Be wherever, whenever).
With post-modern culture and technology properly canonized, I moved on to philosophy and politics. Surfing the Yahoo philosophy listings turned up the following Nietzsche dictum, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” a sentiment which has become a motif of our age. Without a fixed or final or higher truth, truth had splintered into a jumble of perspectives. Post-modernism was the fallout from this loss of center—a confused, free for all reaction to it—and I had to cover each permutation. For those who tend to regard every perspective equally, I put in: “174. Treat history as a resource bank of images for casual reuse,” while to those who hold to their own prejudice and damn the rest I offered: “241. Preserve your heritage through aggressive marketing.” For those determined to reclaim absolute truth, there was: “340. In panicked defense of the sacred, embrace fundamentalism,” and for those—including Derrida himself—who are seeking a kind of provisional meaning: “149. Affirm that some truth is still possible though a final truth is not,” and finally, for us Gen-X’ers—the whatever generation—who grew up amidst the post-modern turn and for whom entropy of meaning is almost second nature: “33. Be as if.”
By challenging the privileged status of reason and the grand narratives of history (237. Be wary of stories that presume to judge other stories), this loss of center gave rise to a series of difficult political questions that the book had to answer. Without a Big Story to anchor us to a social project, how can we formulate a politics? “111. Float globally, frame locally.” If we no longer believe in Progress, Marxism, or the Enlightenment Project, what do we do with the future? “105. Dismiss utopia.” And if we’ve given up on a better future, what do we care about? “158. Care less who has power than how its effects have made you.” So then, how do we take action? “147. Name what names you.” And under what banner? “216. Label your tribe.” And by what right? “92. Legitimate your own.”
Finally, I was ready to make my summary statement. I knew I would have to self-reference self-referentiality and be somewhat ironic about irony if—a big if—I wanted to be taken at all seriously. This led to “277. Use the word post-modern without being quite sure whether it is the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism or pop-culture shorthand for messy-looking buildings.” It was a wrap.
With post-modernism canonized, Western Civilization on the move again, and countless readers emerging from their retro-modernist ennui into a bright new post-hip hubris, it is time to come full circle and appreciate what I have done for myself. I still feel fractured but I have learned to “292. Play with the pieces.” Now when I am visited by existential doubts, I know that at any time I can just “361. Stop waiting for Godot.” Reason might be dead, history over, the self fractured, and knowledge hopelessly enmeshed in oppressive relations of power, but I am lip-synching the spirit of the age.