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”

Displaying 81 - 90 of 94

Page 9 of 10

Caalamus

Take it a step further and say that valid philosophy should be accessible to people with no knowledge of celebrities, be they academics or doers... & all the more accessible to those ignorant of "history"

Dynamics are dynamics.

Theories, theories

Academics is incest...

"Philosophy" it's most deformed progeny

Esotericism is criminal///

Caalamus

Take it a step further and say that valid philosophy should be accessible to people with no knowledge of celebrities, be they academics or doers... & all the more accessible to those ignorant of "history"

Dynamics are dynamics.

Theories, theories

Academics is incest...

"Philosophy" it's most deformed progeny

Esotericism is criminal///

NBNG

Complicity isn't through philosophy, modernity, post-modernity, being binary or hybrid. Complicity-is-through-buying-what-they-want-you-to-buy. If you buy stuff they are marketing at you and/or stuff they are invested in then you are complicit in making them richer. That is all there is, period. Was that to simple for philosophy? Does philosophy need to spin its gears amongst its other gears without touching base with the real world in order to be philosophy? If you want to resist capitalism, its going to be hard because in this stage it has become extremely good at occupying almost every niche (market) conceived and executed, so that challenge, I believe, deserves attention from all the thinkers out there. But the only thing that actually exists in this physical world are actions. Ideas without action is nothing; a physical event has to take place in order for a difference to happen. Don't buy. Confront feelings that make you want to buy. When you overcome those feelings you won't need to "resist" because they no longer exist and who needs to resist what doesn't exist?
So binary is modern, hmph. I guess the crusades were modern as well as the witch hunts or catholic vs protestant prior to Queen Elizabeth, right Micah.
Don't forget kids; the internet is not a "series of tubes", it does not physically exist. I wish I could've used up less void.

NBNG

Complicity isn't through philosophy, modernity, post-modernity, being binary or hybrid. Complicity-is-through-buying-what-they-want-you-to-buy. If you buy stuff they are marketing at you and/or stuff they are invested in then you are complicit in making them richer. That is all there is, period. Was that to simple for philosophy? Does philosophy need to spin its gears amongst its other gears without touching base with the real world in order to be philosophy? If you want to resist capitalism, its going to be hard because in this stage it has become extremely good at occupying almost every niche (market) conceived and executed, so that challenge, I believe, deserves attention from all the thinkers out there. But the only thing that actually exists in this physical world are actions. Ideas without action is nothing; a physical event has to take place in order for a difference to happen. Don't buy. Confront feelings that make you want to buy. When you overcome those feelings you won't need to "resist" because they no longer exist and who needs to resist what doesn't exist?
So binary is modern, hmph. I guess the crusades were modern as well as the witch hunts or catholic vs protestant prior to Queen Elizabeth, right Micah.
Don't forget kids; the internet is not a "series of tubes", it does not physically exist. I wish I could've used up less void.

Brian Oreon

I tend to agree. The path to a post-consumer-capitalist way of life depends on maximizing local self-sufficiency, reducing reliance on and connections to the totalizing global structures of consumer capitalist corporations and institutions. We don't need to confront the current regime of power, we need to withdraw from it, creating new societies under their radar with built-in resistance to anti-democratic concentration of power in any form.

Brian Oreon

I tend to agree. The path to a post-consumer-capitalist way of life depends on maximizing local self-sufficiency, reducing reliance on and connections to the totalizing global structures of consumer capitalist corporations and institutions. We don't need to confront the current regime of power, we need to withdraw from it, creating new societies under their radar with built-in resistance to anti-democratic concentration of power in any form.

DAT

Mr. White:

As a long-suffering victim of postmodernity myself, I was pleased to read this essay in the print version of Adbusters #88 this February. I too think that we have reached a Fukayama-ish "end" and the time for theorizing the great 'what's next' is now. However, while I admire your pedigree as well as your intent, I find several major contentions with your logic and, most importantly, with your concluding course of action centering around the rejection of binaries.

Your initial articulation of postmodernism as "the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking" is necessarily reductive but appropriate. However, your following claim that "It was all done in the name of political liberation" seems overly simplistic. Postmodernism is not a political reaction, not essentially so, and 'liberation' (whatever that it) is not the goal. Instead, it is a reaction against culture and the rejection of the simplifying force. Using articulations of postmodernism by Jameson or Harvey it is an economic liberative force; using the more broad strokes of Baudrillard and Lyotard, it functions more as the individuals rejection of their own reduction to tropes and pastiche. To resolve the Thomas-esque raging against the dying of the light of modernity to one for political liberation seems to me to be more action committee cheerleading than honest philosophy.

You use an anecdote from your time at Swarthmore to illustrate postmodernism syllogistically: "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." I find this to be an accurate summary of pre-postmodern thinking. Both modern and premodern (within and outside of the Adbusters articulation) philosophies emphasize the binary instead of reconcile or dissolve them. I do disagree with your bold claim that oppression originates in how we think, but that bit of epistemological arm-wrestling is far, far beyond the scope of this humble letter. However, while you reach a reasonable conclusion that our hope rests within the escape of this binary, your treatment of this escape defines my philosophical bone to pick.

I'm sure he would not appreciate being my 'bright line', but Hegel happened. We live in a tradition where a solution for the binary exists. Thesis and antithesis produce synthesis. This, to me, is a more correct explanation of the descent of Deleuze into capitalist co-option. That being said however, the dialectic is apolitical, non-political; Hegel's tools can tear down Smith's house as well as Engel's. By embracing an epistemic tool that is philosophically productive instead of something that leaves us to the wolves, we can actually move forward instead of running the risk of making the same ideological mistakes as those the West currently is stained by.

You use the term 'Altermodern' to describe the burgeoning rejection of postmodernism. I am familiar with its use by the Tate and have had problems with their articulation of its meaning as well. Altermodern designates a new form of the modern, a change and restating: a new modernism. To risk stating the obvious: modernism did not work. It still privileged the monadic Enlightenment ego and centralized truth, but hid it from us, made it as inaccessible as God or Virtue. Modernism established a non-metaphysical Platonic world of forms and then laughed when he couldn't find it. Of course we couldn't find it, there were to tools. Joyce best illustrates this state: yes I am writing a novel, no I won't tell you what it's about.

What the altermodern is doing is embracing the same mistakes that modernism made, what postmodern struggled (and struggles) to reject. But postmodernism has shown that it is not the answer. Its track record is proof enough that the decentering and dissolution of the definitive and demarcated leaves life empty and devoid of meaning and at odds with real human experience. What is needed is a reconciliation between the establishment of a privileged position and an honest admission of omni-hybridity. Despite what may be accused as merely a semantical feud, I suggest post-postmodernism and happily pit it against your altermodern.

Where the altermodern is negative, the post-postmodern is positive; where the altermodern is binary, the post-postmodern is dialectic; where the altermodern is reactionary and political, the post-postmodern is sincere and personal. We may be altermodern, but I am post-postmodern...and so are you.

Of course, the reason why this letter is pleading is because the modernity is alluring. The privilege is like the ambrosia of the lotus. And while the philosophers you invoke - the esteemed Zizek, Deleuze/Guattari, the panopticon himself (Foucault) even the name-dropped Hardt and Negri - struggle with and vaciliate between modernity and postmodernity (binaries themselves), they acknowledge the danger therein.

Your article has not even that: "Unless we can discover a way to critique the system without furthering the system, we shall be lost." That's a binary, my friend, and an insidious one at that. It is also at odds with your claim that we need to find value in the difference.

I disagree. The binary needs not be rejected, effaced, erased from the plane but engaged and embraced to create a middle path, a synthesis that creates something productive from destructive forces of economy and culture. You could call it post-postmodernism, sure, or even "root beer float," but what is important is that is does something, makes something out of what we've already got and that, I think is worthwhile.

Sincerely,

DAT (thegreatslow.wordpress.com)

DAT

Mr. White:

As a long-suffering victim of postmodernity myself, I was pleased to read this essay in the print version of Adbusters #88 this February. I too think that we have reached a Fukayama-ish "end" and the time for theorizing the great 'what's next' is now. However, while I admire your pedigree as well as your intent, I find several major contentions with your logic and, most importantly, with your concluding course of action centering around the rejection of binaries.

Your initial articulation of postmodernism as "the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking" is necessarily reductive but appropriate. However, your following claim that "It was all done in the name of political liberation" seems overly simplistic. Postmodernism is not a political reaction, not essentially so, and 'liberation' (whatever that it) is not the goal. Instead, it is a reaction against culture and the rejection of the simplifying force. Using articulations of postmodernism by Jameson or Harvey it is an economic liberative force; using the more broad strokes of Baudrillard and Lyotard, it functions more as the individuals rejection of their own reduction to tropes and pastiche. To resolve the Thomas-esque raging against the dying of the light of modernity to one for political liberation seems to me to be more action committee cheerleading than honest philosophy.

You use an anecdote from your time at Swarthmore to illustrate postmodernism syllogistically: "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." I find this to be an accurate summary of pre-postmodern thinking. Both modern and premodern (within and outside of the Adbusters articulation) philosophies emphasize the binary instead of reconcile or dissolve them. I do disagree with your bold claim that oppression originates in how we think, but that bit of epistemological arm-wrestling is far, far beyond the scope of this humble letter. However, while you reach a reasonable conclusion that our hope rests within the escape of this binary, your treatment of this escape defines my philosophical bone to pick.

I'm sure he would not appreciate being my 'bright line', but Hegel happened. We live in a tradition where a solution for the binary exists. Thesis and antithesis produce synthesis. This, to me, is a more correct explanation of the descent of Deleuze into capitalist co-option. That being said however, the dialectic is apolitical, non-political; Hegel's tools can tear down Smith's house as well as Engel's. By embracing an epistemic tool that is philosophically productive instead of something that leaves us to the wolves, we can actually move forward instead of running the risk of making the same ideological mistakes as those the West currently is stained by.

You use the term 'Altermodern' to describe the burgeoning rejection of postmodernism. I am familiar with its use by the Tate and have had problems with their articulation of its meaning as well. Altermodern designates a new form of the modern, a change and restating: a new modernism. To risk stating the obvious: modernism did not work. It still privileged the monadic Enlightenment ego and centralized truth, but hid it from us, made it as inaccessible as God or Virtue. Modernism established a non-metaphysical Platonic world of forms and then laughed when he couldn't find it. Of course we couldn't find it, there were to tools. Joyce best illustrates this state: yes I am writing a novel, no I won't tell you what it's about.

What the altermodern is doing is embracing the same mistakes that modernism made, what postmodern struggled (and struggles) to reject. But postmodernism has shown that it is not the answer. Its track record is proof enough that the decentering and dissolution of the definitive and demarcated leaves life empty and devoid of meaning and at odds with real human experience. What is needed is a reconciliation between the establishment of a privileged position and an honest admission of omni-hybridity. Despite what may be accused as merely a semantical feud, I suggest post-postmodernism and happily pit it against your altermodern.

Where the altermodern is negative, the post-postmodern is positive; where the altermodern is binary, the post-postmodern is dialectic; where the altermodern is reactionary and political, the post-postmodern is sincere and personal. We may be altermodern, but I am post-postmodern...and so are you.

Of course, the reason why this letter is pleading is because the modernity is alluring. The privilege is like the ambrosia of the lotus. And while the philosophers you invoke - the esteemed Zizek, Deleuze/Guattari, the panopticon himself (Foucault) even the name-dropped Hardt and Negri - struggle with and vaciliate between modernity and postmodernity (binaries themselves), they acknowledge the danger therein.

Your article has not even that: "Unless we can discover a way to critique the system without furthering the system, we shall be lost." That's a binary, my friend, and an insidious one at that. It is also at odds with your claim that we need to find value in the difference.

I disagree. The binary needs not be rejected, effaced, erased from the plane but engaged and embraced to create a middle path, a synthesis that creates something productive from destructive forces of economy and culture. You could call it post-postmodernism, sure, or even "root beer float," but what is important is that is does something, makes something out of what we've already got and that, I think is worthwhile.

Sincerely,

DAT (thegreatslow.wordpress.com)

Anonymous

I can't believe i actually wasted 5 minutes to read the crap above. This is stupid and daft, written in a pseudo-intellectual speak that attempts to demonstrate and 'expunge' knowledge while only playing with the surfaces of symbols in the most superficial way...

Anonymous

I can't believe i actually wasted 5 minutes to read the crap above. This is stupid and daft, written in a pseudo-intellectual speak that attempts to demonstrate and 'expunge' knowledge while only playing with the surfaces of symbols in the most superficial way...

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