The postmodern era may be said to date from the end of WWII, determined by Hiroshima and even more importantly by Auschwitz. The end of full-scale war as a rational strategy–our debt to Hiroshima and Nagasaki–was a turning point in human history. In international relations, it gave rise to the apparent stand-off of the Cold War, with what appears today as its absurd doctrine of equivalence between “the two systems.” In the domain of anthropological theory, it stimulated a new understanding of violence as the key problem of human society that led to Girard’s Violence and the Sacred and to GA. In the practical sphere, the discrediting of the almost exclusively masculine province of intraspecific violence that had justified, literally from the beginning, culture’s focus on male desire led to the melting-away of resistance to feminism over the next decades.
Even greater was the effect of the Holocaust on social relations. This paroxysm of “prejudice” and “discrimination” made all group dominance suspect; the war was followed by decolonization, the civil-rights movement, feminism (again!), gay liberation, etc. Dominated by victimary resentment and the fear of arousing it, the postmodern era saw the dismantling of virtually all explicitly hegemonic structures and institutional behaviors; many of the ethnic and other counter-resentments unleashed by this liberation are still unresolved. The usually noted characteristics of the postmodern esthetic–its distrust of “the subject” and of “master narratives,” its denial of originality and propensity to citation from historically diverse sources–may all be placed under the rubric of the suspicion and deferral of closure. The specter of a real apocalypse to be avoided at all costs makes the well-ended narrative unappealing. The lessons of both Hiroshima and Auschwitz combine in one simple message: no more final solutions!
In the immediate postwar era, despite works like Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies or Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism, most intellectuals understood the moral bankruptcy of utopian closure to apply only to the right-wing socialisms of Mussolini and Hitler. It took nearly fifty years for the intelligentsia to realize the symmetrical bankruptcy of the variety whose “Internationale” exhorted us to victory in the “final conflict.” Although this symmetry seems in hindsight an inevitable corollary of the postmodern ethos, it did not appear to follow from the original premises of postmodernism that market society is the minimal, stable form of human relations. Suddenly, the Cold War between the market and the command economy was over; just when we were getting used to the idea of living in the postmodern era, we were in the process of entering a new one.
One definition of the post-postmodern era is suggested by the truce in the culture wars declared by the “bobos,” the “bourgeois bohemians” referred to in Chronicle 208; the coming of genetic manipulations and other forms of power over what had been the biological determinants of human life, as discussed in Chronicle 181, suggests another. The end of the fundamental opposition between the market system and its culture is a corollary of the disappearance of the system’s political Other. In contrast with the necessarily authoritarian nature of the military decisions that dominated the Cold War, decisions concerning technologies of creation rather than destruction are bound to be made democratically: fundamental life-enhancement cannot be treated as an economic good. The restraints thus placed on market exchange should further mitigate the resentment endemic to the system.
Although the discrediting of political utopianism gives us reason for optimism, the coming era is likely to be much more unsettled than the one now ending. The relative stability of postmodern international relations reflected not only the “balance of terror” but the era’s quasi-romantic faith in victimary revelation. The Soviet Union not only survived economically but benefited morally from the mantle of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It sufficed to show oneself a victim for one’s resentment to be morally, and often materially, rewarded. The utopian rebellion of 1968, the kiddie reenactment of what Marx already called the farce of 1848, gained legitimacy from its links to the more or less genuine liberation movements of the period. The victimary basis not only of 1968 but of the whole postmodern era was nicely summed up in Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s now all-but-forgotten slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands.”
The post-postmodern era, in contrast, cannot afford the automatic validation of victimary credentials. The resentments incarnated by guerilla movements such as Hezbollah or the Tamil Tigers cannot be resolved simply by acceding to or even by negotiating their demands; they can only be reduced in the long term through integration into the global exchange system. This means not the “McDonaldization” of the globe but the establishment of the mode of reciprocity–the economic–that is the least culturally constraining. But however delicately and deliberately this is done, it will surely take much time and human suffering before countries like Haiti or Sierra Leone, to name a couple recently in the news, are able to participate on an equal basis in the world economy.
Perhaps I am showing my age, but I no longer see art as the central stage on which new forms of human relations are acted out. The postmodern era feared closure and acted out the deferral of closure, most notably in Beckett’s minimalist dramas. But high minimalism was hardly the sum total of the era’s esthetic activity. Today, when the esthetic avant-garde has been reduced to infantile excrementalism, popular art entertains us with often quite sophisticated dramatic fantasies without regard for “higher” esthetic judgment. This is no small matter. The end of “high art,” the termination of the phase of civilization that began with Homer’s epics, is an esthetic phenomenon far more significant than the specific forms the post-postmodern esthetic may adopt.
It is no coincidence that the end of high art coincides with the end of the “culture wars” between artiste and bourgeois. Although its localization in identifiable professional groups dates from the Romantic period, this opposition itself is the defining feature of high culture. Where the exchange system promotes circulation of desire, high culture enacts its renunciation. Tribal ritual combines the moments of culture and exchange in a single process, but it does not confuse them. In the esthetic moment the central object is admired, in the economic moment it is divided among the participants. The distinction between these two moments, the student of Generative Anthropology will recognize, is the essential deferral/difference opened up by the sign in the originary scene.
From Achilles’ wrath to Vladimir and Estragon’s clownish quarrels, high art has always been about the deferral of resentment. The reader/spectator is made to identify with desires that cannot be fulfilled and suffer along with the protagonist society’s sacrificial complicity with those who attempt to realize them. Significance in the literary mode is acquired at the price of renunciation, of the internalization of the sacrificial values externally incarnated in myth. At the end of this process, we have “purged” our resentment by vicariously enduring the hero’s punishment and acquiring the resulting significance in his place. The end of the age of high art that tragedy exemplifies obliges us to ask what characterizes our era that was not applicable to the stages of civilization from the Achaeans to the Cold War.
Myths, as Girard describes them, are rationalized stories of lynchings in which violence is mitigated and/or made to appear justified. We need not share Girard’s realist etiology to accept the view that myth is an attempt to make plausible the creation of significance in an event through the projection back into the past of a model of human intentionality (“anthropomorphism”). As sign-users, we reenact the origin of the sign that defers violence. Such tales may be detached from their original ritual context.
The Iliad, and Western “high culture,” begins with a word (menin, from menis) that denotes the rage of resentment. A mythical treatment of the subject matter of the Iliad would center on Achilles’ choice of a short and glorious life over a long, dull one as his application of a sacrificial model of significance to himself. But the story as told emphasizes another theme, that of a “rage” that reflects not Achilles’ painful accession to significance but the necessity of resigning himself to its loss. Achilles must learn to accept the subordinate status to which the Trojan expedition condemns him.
The higher values of culture are those of restraining personal desire in the interest of the social order. High culture teaches this as the lesson of desire itself; desire leads to evil and should be renounced. Literature is not the simple repetition of this lesson but its application to the diverse modes of desire generated within cultures throughout history. How can this lesson no longer be of use? It is not that morality no longer exists in the modern world, that the marketplace has eliminated all moral restraints. On the contrary, we have observed how the “bobos” temper hedonism with responsibility. What is new is rather that the mere elimination or “transcendence” of mimetic desire can no longer be envisioned as the ultimate goal of culture. The coincidence of our disaffection from socialism with that from the category of high art exposes the deep complicity between culture and social utopia. The emergent complicity of culture with the marketplace, and more specifically of bourgeois high culture with the market society it affects to disdain–I would date this emergence from Madame Bovary in 1857–can no longer remain hidden behind the sacrificial plot-line now that the bourgeois system has proved itself sole possessor of the political-economic terrain. Our popular culture remains utopian as ever, reconstituting originary deferral in myriad ways, but this utopian closure is accepted as entertainment, as a kind of (soft or hard) spiritual pornography, rather than as defining the goal of our moral existence.
The post-postmodern only draws the final anti-utopian conclusions from the postwar era: the failed utopia of socialism is revealed to be the political (and therefore final) incarnation of the utopia of high art. Those who bewail the end of this utopia should recall that the greater nobility of societies whose ideals are higher than themselves is a measure of their inferior capacity for moral reciprocity. Thus we should not encumber ourselves with the self-denying irony of “post-postmodern.” By passing the millennium mark, we have put millennialism behind us. With your help, dear readers, Generative Anthropology will come to be recognized as the most useful way of thinking in the post-millennial age.