The Post-Postmodernism Issue

The Birth of Altermodern

Is postmodernity slipping into something new?
THE BIRTH OF ALTERMODERN
© NAN GOLDIN / COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY, NEW YORK.
NAN GOLDIN – MISTY AND JIMMY PAULETTE IN A TAXI, NYC, 1991

I received a crash course in postmodern thought during my first semester at Swarthmore College. In a lesson that was to be repeated throughout my undergraduate education, the professor opened the class by admonishing us to reject binary thinking. As the class was staring at her dumbfounded, she divided the chalkboard in two with a thick vertical line and asked us to name the dualisms that structure our world. After she provided a few examples to get us started – male/female, white/black – we jumped into the game, calling out binaries one after another: rich/poor, smart/stupid, human/animal, cool/lame, skinny/fat … The game went on until the board was full and the air saturated with chalk dust. Pausing a moment, our comparative literature professor asked us if we noticed anything odd about the list we had constructed.

Looking at the chalkboard, we saw an easy answer: on the left of the line were “good” terms – cool, skinny, rich, smart, white – and on the right were their counterparts, the derided terms. In an instant, our class grasped an essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation. At least that was the intended goal.

In light of the traumas of modernity, where millions were slaughtered because they fell on the wrong side of the imaginary Aryan/non-Aryan divide, the project of deconstructing binaries should have been a positive development. In fact the primary way of disturbing categories – pointing out that the primary term is only defined through exclusion of the other – might have effectively stalled the pseudo-scientific Nazi eugenic project. The problem with the postmodern approach, however, was that it came too late. While it could have offered a way out of the genocide of World War II, by the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.

Consider the twisted fate of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a text long hailed as revolutionary because of its emphasis on fluidity, hybridity and multiplicity as anticapitalist tactics of resistance. The book has served as a handbook for leftist activists, anarchists and culture jammers since its French publication in 1980. And Michel Foucault, the archetype of politically engaged French leftist philosophers, even went as far as to declare that “perhaps one day this century will be known as Deleuzian,” a statement that was taken to prophesy the inevitable victory of our May ‘68 inspired anticapitalist struggle.

And yet according to Slavoj Žižek in the final chapter of his book Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, the exemplars of Deleuzian philosophy are not the anarchists but the late-capitalists: “In short, and stated even more pointedly, the thought of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, the ultimate philosophers of resistance, of marginal positions crushed by the hegemonic power network, is effectively the ideology of the newly emerging ruling class.” For Žižek, the misapprehension of Deleuze as a philosopher of resistance has led to the awkward situation where major alterglobalization theorists are espousing a suspiciously similar rhetoric to that of the globalizers. Singling out Naomi Klein, Žižek continues, “So, when Naomi Klein writes that ‘[n]eo-liberal economics is biased at every level toward centralization, consolidations, homogenization. It is a war waged on diversity,’ is she not focusing on a figure of capitalism whose days are numbered? Would she not be applauded by contemporary capitalist modernizers? Is not the latest trend in corporate management itself ‘diversify, devolve power, try to mobilize local creativity and self-organization?’ Is not anticentralization the topic of the ‘new’ digitalized capitalism?”

The significance of Žižek’s stinging critique of Klein is that it effectively tars an entire lineage of leftist political theory leading from Deleuzian multiplicities to Hardt and Negri’s multitude. And in light of there having been no compelling response to Žižek’s critique, it is hard not to doubt the postmodern tactics we’ve been using. Could it be that while we’ve been smashing boundaries and crossing borders, consumerism has quickened its global expansion by piggybacking on our identity-blurring efforts?

And now, entering a new era of humanity where postmodernity is slipping into altermodernity, we find that the binaries we rejected are not only blurring but finally collapsing. Unable to say with any certainty what is real or virtual, human or animal, organic or genetically modified, some wish to resuscitate again, but this time with nostalgia, the failed antimodern project of shattering distinctions. While the chorus – composed now of cyberpunks and activists joined by capitalists and technocrats – rejoices in the indistinguishable difference between online and offline, organic and synthetic, man and machine, the most crucial distinction of all – that between resistance and complicity – is collapsing as well. Unless we can discover a way to critique the system without furthering the system, we shall be lost.

It takes courage to insist that in the coming era differences do matter – like the difference between comrade and consumer, human and glutton or the good life and consumption – and that without a return to the genocidal modernist project, we can forge a new path that gathers its strength from the difference between spiritual wealth and material greed.

Micah White, www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org

94 comments on the article “The Birth of Altermodern”

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KenVallario

First of all, great article...I am always happy to see someone present in an articulate way why a return to a discussion of values is not only necessary but philosophically exciting.

the mistake made by the post-modern professor, as with most post-modernist is the drawing of a line, which is itself a betrayal of entrenched ways of thinking. it would be more accurate to draw little binary cells with their counter-parts flowing in a universe of ideas, one where such binaries collide and have infinitely complex effects on one another. such a universe does not necessarily mean that Good does not exist, any more than the polarities of an atom cannot exist in the presence of the ubiquitous field of gravity. it does, however, make physics very difficult, as the presence of good, in a world of hyper-speed ideological change makes ethics and philosophy seem impossible sometimes.

but, as our writer encourages us, such philosophy is now necessary for those who wish to transition through the coming changes with a feeling of conscious connection to their choices, the kind of enlightened relativism that allows for a creative use of the potential energies we will see released into the world.

KenVallario

First of all, great article...I am always happy to see someone present in an articulate way why a return to a discussion of values is not only necessary but philosophically exciting.

the mistake made by the post-modern professor, as with most post-modernist is the drawing of a line, which is itself a betrayal of entrenched ways of thinking. it would be more accurate to draw little binary cells with their counter-parts flowing in a universe of ideas, one where such binaries collide and have infinitely complex effects on one another. such a universe does not necessarily mean that Good does not exist, any more than the polarities of an atom cannot exist in the presence of the ubiquitous field of gravity. it does, however, make physics very difficult, as the presence of good, in a world of hyper-speed ideological change makes ethics and philosophy seem impossible sometimes.

but, as our writer encourages us, such philosophy is now necessary for those who wish to transition through the coming changes with a feeling of conscious connection to their choices, the kind of enlightened relativism that allows for a creative use of the potential energies we will see released into the world.

what a bunch of CRAP... words, words, words.. confused thoughts.. confused ideas.. no clarity of mind... a symptom of your time... a time harbouring confused individuals all acting... 'see meeeeeeeeeeeeeee.. I'm a genius.. I know how to quote Žižek...' fuck you.. fuck you all... amateurs... you got no clout.. only confused minds.. your illusion is.. you think you're free.. that you need no leader.. that you're independent.. that you are your own masters... but the fact is.. you're all confused cattle.. mad cows... divided and conquered.. unwillingly perpetuating the systems that you 'oh so oppose' .. you'll never unite..
---
another thing is... name dropping.. do you really think that's a good pussy tactic still??... I'm sure it was mighty sexy in the 1970s.. and do you stain your pants when you say words like 'Deleuzian multiplicities' and 'Negri’s multitude'??
---
just to set the record straight fool... the thing is.. we compete and use different strategies dependent on the environment we are a part of to further our own petty interests: survival and procreation... so don't fool yourself more than absolutely necessary .. there's only one thing that matters.. only one thing that ever mattered.. and only one thing that'll ever matter.. the root of all competition/war... and that's pussy.. access to quality pussy.. pure and simple... and that's why mankind never did, never do and never will cooperate..
---
when all comes to all : we are NOT equal, and what more is we don't want to be

what a bunch of CRAP... words, words, words.. confused thoughts.. confused ideas.. no clarity of mind... a symptom of your time... a time harbouring confused individuals all acting... 'see meeeeeeeeeeeeeee.. I'm a genius.. I know how to quote Žižek...' fuck you.. fuck you all... amateurs... you got no clout.. only confused minds.. your illusion is.. you think you're free.. that you need no leader.. that you're independent.. that you are your own masters... but the fact is.. you're all confused cattle.. mad cows... divided and conquered.. unwillingly perpetuating the systems that you 'oh so oppose' .. you'll never unite..
---
another thing is... name dropping.. do you really think that's a good pussy tactic still??... I'm sure it was mighty sexy in the 1970s.. and do you stain your pants when you say words like 'Deleuzian multiplicities' and 'Negri’s multitude'??
---
just to set the record straight fool... the thing is.. we compete and use different strategies dependent on the environment we are a part of to further our own petty interests: survival and procreation... so don't fool yourself more than absolutely necessary .. there's only one thing that matters.. only one thing that ever mattered.. and only one thing that'll ever matter.. the root of all competition/war... and that's pussy.. access to quality pussy.. pure and simple... and that's why mankind never did, never do and never will cooperate..
---
when all comes to all : we are NOT equal, and what more is we don't want to be

Anonymous

At first I thought you were just an idiot, which you are, but a thoughtful one.

That pussy shit does make a lot of sense, I give it to ya!

haha freakin idiot...

Anonymous

At first I thought you were just an idiot, which you are, but a thoughtful one.

That pussy shit does make a lot of sense, I give it to ya!

haha freakin idiot...

friends of Aris...

hmm just going to ignore human history and anthropology like that? Are you the tragic aspiring philosopher who when confronted with the current state of our species can only feel helpless like some sort of Orwellian character. Has the leftist mental masturbation sessions left you feeling as if they just can't wait to procure the next audience of name dropping starry eyed berkley students while waiting for the board to toss them their salary? Have you say given up and said fuck mankind, when are we going to finally be wiped off the face of the universe? If so then you're missing the obvious stuff friend, we need to dissolve the lines between us or we're then we're truly fucked.

Now competition is actually contrary to humanities very existence, how do you think we got out of woods? Granted we walked upright into the malls, but thats because we made a detour into capitalism, one I hope we find our way out of in this lifetime. We compete because we made competing our game, we turned to our children and said there's money out there and the only thing stopping you is that motherfuckers kid, no go to business school and buy a lexus. Of course though as kids we just inherit a fucked up culture, its not our fault but our problem anyway.

Lastly your reference to us competing for pussy is off a bit. Yes we once competed for what you called "quality pussy" when we had to fear wheat shortages due to raids by mongols. However today with the improvements in health, and environment (for those who can afford it) we have more attractive people than all past generations. Eventually there wont be quality anything to compete for because everyone is going to be quality, well after we deal with that poverty thing of course.

If you want to prove me wrong then move to the woods alone, and start competing for some pussy.

friends of Aris...

hmm just going to ignore human history and anthropology like that? Are you the tragic aspiring philosopher who when confronted with the current state of our species can only feel helpless like some sort of Orwellian character. Has the leftist mental masturbation sessions left you feeling as if they just can't wait to procure the next audience of name dropping starry eyed berkley students while waiting for the board to toss them their salary? Have you say given up and said fuck mankind, when are we going to finally be wiped off the face of the universe? If so then you're missing the obvious stuff friend, we need to dissolve the lines between us or we're then we're truly fucked.

Now competition is actually contrary to humanities very existence, how do you think we got out of woods? Granted we walked upright into the malls, but thats because we made a detour into capitalism, one I hope we find our way out of in this lifetime. We compete because we made competing our game, we turned to our children and said there's money out there and the only thing stopping you is that motherfuckers kid, no go to business school and buy a lexus. Of course though as kids we just inherit a fucked up culture, its not our fault but our problem anyway.

Lastly your reference to us competing for pussy is off a bit. Yes we once competed for what you called "quality pussy" when we had to fear wheat shortages due to raids by mongols. However today with the improvements in health, and environment (for those who can afford it) we have more attractive people than all past generations. Eventually there wont be quality anything to compete for because everyone is going to be quality, well after we deal with that poverty thing of course.

If you want to prove me wrong then move to the woods alone, and start competing for some pussy.

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