The Post-Postmodernism Issue

Postmillennial Tension

Can we be the ones we've been waiting for?
Postmillenial Tension
LYDIA PANAS/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK

We are living through postmillennial tension. We live in wait for a defining event that either never seems to come or, when it is declared to have arrived, only seems to reinforce the very darkness we dream of emerging from. This tension often takes the form of frozen anguish. We seem thoroughly jaded by the dreams of “progress” associated with modernity and capitalism but can hardly venture to move in another direction. Perhaps we cannot accept that there won’t be another grand narrative to guide us along, a new Moses floating down the river to guide us to some promised land.

The stasis we feel comes from waiting for a vanguard, a savior or a truth to set us free. The 20th century largely taught us to distrust such thinking, but the fog of postmodern depression that arose from the ashes of the dream of progress has been slow to lift. Beneath this frozen anguish, however, there is another sort of tension that describes our modernity: a productive tension.

Jean-Paul Sartre described anguish as the recognition of responsibility and the ensuing need to act without guarantee, without hope. Having just passed through the sea of hope and run aground on shores that look much like those we set sail from, we are straining to figure out where we stand, let alone where we are going. Perhaps we are in a position to reconsider modernity. We cannot return to a point in the past, but it might be safe to go back and take what we need from the wreckage. We are coming to grips with sorrow in our present, and we cannot complete this work of mourning unless we truly move away from the object of loss. Is there something in the modernist ideal that we cannot do without? Something that postmodern malaise has made us feel unable to deal with?

Michel Foucault’s conception of the “attitude of modernity” matches disciplined realism with the will to imagine things otherwise. We cannot understand ourselves by a return to our roots or by a notion of destiny. We must be able to face the harsh realities; modernity has left us without illusions, and with the determination to imagine the world anew. If the spectacular economy has gifted us anything, perhaps it’s the very wreckage left in its wake. The hegemony of “progress” has torn us from our traditional notions of order, identity and place. The current rupture in the global economy has perhaps made us more aware than ever of this void. The big question is whether we can turn this void of negativity into an opening of positivity: Can we act without hope? Without roots or destiny to guide us? Can we still envision another future? If we cannot, then we can be fairly certain of what our future will look like.

A NEW KIND OF TENSION

The tension we experience between our lives and the promises offered by modernity have often been suffered passively. The question becomes: Can this tension be put to work productively? Can we move past denial and depression and face the precariousness and risk we have been dealt? Can we use these antagonisms to animate our actions? The present moment offers us a clear picture of the divide between our dreams of progress and our reality.

For curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, the financial collapse of 2008 marks a turning point in history in which the tension between our dreams of progress and the realities of emerging disaster are plainly apparent. The illusion of the spectacular economy seems to have permanently ruptured. But even if the system seems to have died and people no longer seem willing to believe its promises, we cannot assume that overcoming it is inevitable. Even as the system fails, it seems to have an uncanny ability to cannibalize itself. The spectacular economy thrives on disaster, even its own failing is an opportunity for its profit.

Modernity has operated as a binary system in which progress is coupled with its negative: externalized risk, a mortgaged future, the excluded masses, precariousness and wandering … Our work consists in taking up what has been left on this underside of progress. As we wake up to see that what we have long been taught is realistic is actually impossible, we must work to turn this negative realization into possibilities. Within the complex lines of thought that made up modernism, there was also an ethos that strove to navigate an uncertain, discontinuous and ruptured world. It is this ethos that remains important to us. Bourriaud terms this emerging era “altermodern.” We have been broken from our traditional “ties that bind.” Precariousness, wandering and translation are marks of the altermodern. Purity and destiny no longer make sense for us; altermodernity is an other-modernity, picking up from those points left to the side of the dominant ideals of modernism.

That dominant ideal of modernity is tied to a notion of ever-expanding progress and limitless consumption. The oil crisis of 1973 signaled the onset of the postmodern malaise. “Our future was all of a sudden mortgaged,” writes Bourriaud in Altermodern. So while capital has continued expanding its reach in other areas, there has been a lingering denial – an inability to mourn the lost object and the dream’s impossibility. If this was the death of the dream, then our present reality of global warming, water and food shortages, market collapse and the continued proliferation of violent factionalism make it clear that we had better get on with mourning and confront the sorrow we have been trying to repress. Putting it off has only allowed the problems to grow.

A VOID IS AN OPENING

We have had a century of continuity in which the basic operating assumptions of the economic system have been hegemonic. In fact this version of “modernity” was to have closed the book on history: We have reached the best of all possible worlds; there are no alternatives. Proclaiming the end of history intimates that our desires have been satiated and that there is nothing further to strive for. To think that our desires could be fulfilled under this system is certainly beyond cynical. But that nihilistic cynicism complements the vision of progress associated with the modernist dream.

This spectacular rationality has been thoroughly cynical. The idea of progress we have held out is couched in exclusion, stacked “competition” and destruction of the natural environment. The idea that this could ever be “the best of all possible worlds” is nothing but calculated cynicism. That this system can no longer continue is not only due to the fact that so much of what it has tried to exclude, avoid and put off indefinitely is now proving impossible to ignore. Just as significant is that the very ideals of this system – the things it has deemed to be constitutive of “progress” itself – have been revealed as impossible. As the most recent financial collapse demonstrates, the system is thoroughly ruptured from within and riddled with contradictions.

So we find ourselves in this moment of rupture, precariously exposed to risk and perhaps devoid of hope. Can we think of these facts as possibilities? Can we confront our situation and imagine what things might be like otherwise, even without guarantees? The end of history has reached its end. Can we be the ones we have been waiting for?

Michael Larson teaches philosophy in Pittsburgh.

30 comments on the article “Postmillennial Tension”

Displaying 21 - 30 of 30

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Voltaire

I think the author's take on modernism is too hyperbolic. The ideals of the Enlightenment weren't supposed to be absolute. The whole awakening of the Enlightenment was to realize that simple absolutes like God and the ilk were unfounded. Ideas like Natural Law were bastardized and abused, but that does not invalidate the proposition that the universe obeys definable regularities.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were too smart for the chaff that followed in their wake. After that sharp burst of intellectual clarity, a swath of ignoramuses and romanticists flooded Europe. All of them took the ideas formulated in the Enlightenment and made an absurd hash out of them. Karl Marx just made stuff up, stamped the moniker "Laws of History" on it, and bang, 60 million dead in Russia and later another 30 million in China.
Plenty of geniuses generate ideas that fools misconstrue or dilute, just look at Darwin. Here was a genius who took all of the known living world as his province, with humanity as just a small district within that vast kingdom. He published one of the most important books in history, Origin of Species, and later went on to write Expressions of the Emotions in Man and the Animals which laid the foundation for understanding biological roots of Human Nature. Them Hitler and his clown-troope of dumbasses went and mutilated every truth Darwin extolled. The same could be said for many a genius throughout history.

Albert Camus, the Algerian philosopher, had a good line that sums up what I'm trying to say: "As soon as Reason begins to preach it is no longer Reason".

Voltaire

I think the author's take on modernism is too hyperbolic. The ideals of the Enlightenment weren't supposed to be absolute. The whole awakening of the Enlightenment was to realize that simple absolutes like God and the ilk were unfounded. Ideas like Natural Law were bastardized and abused, but that does not invalidate the proposition that the universe obeys definable regularities.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were too smart for the chaff that followed in their wake. After that sharp burst of intellectual clarity, a swath of ignoramuses and romanticists flooded Europe. All of them took the ideas formulated in the Enlightenment and made an absurd hash out of them. Karl Marx just made stuff up, stamped the moniker "Laws of History" on it, and bang, 60 million dead in Russia and later another 30 million in China.
Plenty of geniuses generate ideas that fools misconstrue or dilute, just look at Darwin. Here was a genius who took all of the known living world as his province, with humanity as just a small district within that vast kingdom. He published one of the most important books in history, Origin of Species, and later went on to write Expressions of the Emotions in Man and the Animals which laid the foundation for understanding biological roots of Human Nature. Them Hitler and his clown-troope of dumbasses went and mutilated every truth Darwin extolled. The same could be said for many a genius throughout history.

Albert Camus, the Algerian philosopher, had a good line that sums up what I'm trying to say: "As soon as Reason begins to preach it is no longer Reason".

John

Yes we are the fated generation!

We can either continue with business as usual and hence destroy ourselves, as the readers of Adbusters well know.

Or we can choose to do something altogether different.

Please check out these 2 related references.

http://www.beezone.com/AdiDa/reality-humanity.html

http://www.dabase.org/not2.htm

Plus the authors relation to both modernism & postmodernism

http://www.adidaupclose.org/FAQs/postmodernism2.html

John

Yes we are the fated generation!

We can either continue with business as usual and hence destroy ourselves, as the readers of Adbusters well know.

Or we can choose to do something altogether different.

Please check out these 2 related references.

http://www.beezone.com/AdiDa/reality-humanity.html

http://www.dabase.org/not2.htm

Plus the authors relation to both modernism & postmodernism

http://www.adidaupclose.org/FAQs/postmodernism2.html

Douglas Groothuis

Michael Larson's, "Postmillennial Tension," groped in vain for some foundation or liberating orientation in light of the demise of modernism and postmodernism. Somehow, we are "to act without hope" in light of an "altermodern" world of disruption, rupture, and precariousness. We cannot return to roots; we cannot believe in progress. But what is left? If there are no abiding standards for human conduct, no hope for human flourishing, and no transcendent orientation to lead us on and keep us in check, we are left to Shakespeare's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Douglas Groothuis

Michael Larson's, "Postmillennial Tension," groped in vain for some foundation or liberating orientation in light of the demise of modernism and postmodernism. Somehow, we are "to act without hope" in light of an "altermodern" world of disruption, rupture, and precariousness. We cannot return to roots; we cannot believe in progress. But what is left? If there are no abiding standards for human conduct, no hope for human flourishing, and no transcendent orientation to lead us on and keep us in check, we are left to Shakespeare's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

John Stockwell

It is an often true oversimplification that the stages of personal
human development begin with hopefulness in youth,
realism in adulthood, the pessimism of middle age, and
withdrawal in old age.

Of course the world is a place of opportunity and change!
It always was, but you could only see it in your youth.

Of course the world is a place of success and a place to build.
It always was, you only had to grow up to see that it was true!

Of course the world is going to hell in a handbasket!
It always was,
you just had to grow older and see that the system is unstable
and we must all work to hold it together.

Of course it is hopeless!
It always was. You didn't see it until you reached senessence and
became more interested in your doctor bills and your bowel
movements than in living.

Each is a state of thought, and we have the choice which thoughts
to think. Which will you choose?

John Stockwell

It is an often true oversimplification that the stages of personal
human development begin with hopefulness in youth,
realism in adulthood, the pessimism of middle age, and
withdrawal in old age.

Of course the world is a place of opportunity and change!
It always was, but you could only see it in your youth.

Of course the world is a place of success and a place to build.
It always was, you only had to grow up to see that it was true!

Of course the world is going to hell in a handbasket!
It always was,
you just had to grow older and see that the system is unstable
and we must all work to hold it together.

Of course it is hopeless!
It always was. You didn't see it until you reached senessence and
became more interested in your doctor bills and your bowel
movements than in living.

Each is a state of thought, and we have the choice which thoughts
to think. Which will you choose?

Dullard Trite

Is the glass half full? What if the glass wasn't a glass? What if it was a cremation urn? What if it was a cremation urn filled with what was left from the wreckage of your past? Wouldn't you want the urn to be half empty? For that matter, wouldn't you want the urn to be completely empty? In this sense, is your urn ever half empty or ever all the way empty? Samuel Beckett says that we're all born mad, but some of us remain so. So, maybe when you're born your glass, urn, jug, container, bowl, or whatever is completely full, and as you grow in maturity and evolve your container becomes more and more empty, lighter and lighter, as you sail toward your luxury condo deep in the heart of the western lands under the silver-lined clouds where happiness is the true measure of success in life. You might as well face facts, it's just a rhetorical question. One that depends on your point of view. So, I guess the best answer is: It depends. It depends on each particular situation giving cause for optimism or a cause for pessimism based on your interpretation of reality. So, tell me. Are you very content? Are you somewhat content? Are you not very content? Is your cremation urn half empty?

Dullard Trite

Is the glass half full? What if the glass wasn't a glass? What if it was a cremation urn? What if it was a cremation urn filled with what was left from the wreckage of your past? Wouldn't you want the urn to be half empty? For that matter, wouldn't you want the urn to be completely empty? In this sense, is your urn ever half empty or ever all the way empty? Samuel Beckett says that we're all born mad, but some of us remain so. So, maybe when you're born your glass, urn, jug, container, bowl, or whatever is completely full, and as you grow in maturity and evolve your container becomes more and more empty, lighter and lighter, as you sail toward your luxury condo deep in the heart of the western lands under the silver-lined clouds where happiness is the true measure of success in life. You might as well face facts, it's just a rhetorical question. One that depends on your point of view. So, I guess the best answer is: It depends. It depends on each particular situation giving cause for optimism or a cause for pessimism based on your interpretation of reality. So, tell me. Are you very content? Are you somewhat content? Are you not very content? Is your cremation urn half empty?

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