So what the hell is cracks in Postmodernity? People keep asking me what this esoteric title means. I wish I could explain it to you. But the problem is, the cracks in pomo is something you have to experience.
So for context, here’s a little background about me. I grew up in a dreadfully bourgeois, upper middle class suburban neighborhood. Most of us were ethnic whites whose families had assimilated by that point to the bland, indistinct waspy monoculture that characterizes most suburban neighborhoods. We had just a smattering of legit wasps, black Americans, and hispanic people here and there.
The worldview I was handed was naive and shallow. It consisted of metanarratives about life’s purpose and meaning that amounted to “just be yourself,” “try to make the world a better place,” and “if you try hard enough, you can do whatever you want.” I naively believed all of this until I had my first crack in pomo.
In second grade, I first learned about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and of his assassination. I went home that day wondering, why would anyone kill someone who was trying to do something so good? Why does evil exist in the first place? My obsessive thought patterns would not let go of these questions, and rather than sleeping that night I lay in my bed crying. I asked my teacher to explain to me why hatred and evil existed, to which she responded, “those questions are a waste of time since we can never know the answers to them. We should just work harder to eliminate racism and then things will be better.” But this answer didn’t stave off the sense of dread which these questions imposed upon me.
The second crack came when I was a junior in high school. I had always been drawn to more rhythmic styles of music with a heavy bassline or sensual groove. My first inroads to r&b music were through more commercial acts like Beyoncé and Chris Brown. But as I plumbed the depths of American soul music, I discovered more arcane acts like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and Maxwell. Something about the signature sound of the so-called neo soul artists left me quite literally bowled over on the floor, enraptured by the sense of mystery within their voices and the instrumentation. Where does this beauty come from, and how is it possible that it even exists? How is my existence implicated in this beauty? These questions left me suspended in a state of tension between myself and their elusive answers.
The third crack came during my senior year of high school when I did what all good bourgeois high school students do, try really hard to get a good score on the SATs, build up an impressive resume, and apply to reputable universities. As the stress built up I started to wonder, what’s the point of doing all of this work? Is it merely to get into a good college, get a job, and then eventually die? I determined that if there weren’t some substantial, ultimate meaning to all of this toiling, that it was all just a wretched waste of time.
The last crack came when I was confronted with my limited capacity to be good. Everyone told me that if I tried to be myself and make the right choices in life, then I would be a good person. But who determines what it means to be good? And why is it that no matter how hard I try to be good, I make mistakes or get bogged down by self-indulgent tendencies? I wasn’t satisfied with the claim that I could make myself good, whatever that meant, by simply trying hard. My own will was clearly deficient and weak. I was not a good person, and was no longer interested in wasting my time trying to achieve this futile goal.
It wasn’t until my freshman year at college that I met people who understood the sense of drama and tension that pervaded my conscience. Providentially I met a wise old professor in my required philosophy class who told me that I was not crazy for asking these questions, but was instead being invited to embark on a search.
So as I continued my studies, I started to be able to name what I recognized to be deficient in the culture around me. To sum it up very crudely, I’ll borrow from philosopher Charles Taylor’s masterpiece A Secular Age. Before the Enlightenment, there was a general consensus that the world around us, and all mundane objects and social realities were charged with an existential meaning, they were imbued with or given a value by an entity that transcends ourselves. Thus everything from boring everyday tasks to painful tragedies inflicted by ourselves, others, or by nature were inherently meaningful. their meaning was not contingent upon the individual’s own power or creativity, but by an external objective force. We start to see that the locus of objective meaning shifts during the enlightenment from this external force, call it God or the universe, to the individual’s rational capacities.
So we see philosophers like Descartes or Kant postulating that meaning and moral truths can be deduced solely by using our own minds. We can also point to figures like the delusional Rousseau who claimed that human beings are inherently good, and that we can overcome our limitations by education and sheer will power. This is where the naive, flowery message of just be yourself, and be a good person take root. Inevitably, some came to find that these assertions opened the door for figures in power to enforce certain truth claims that were in fact not grounded in reality, and that did not account for the totality of factors in play. Figures like Nietzsche started to call the rationalism of modernity into question, thus opening the door to the postmodern claim that there are no objective truth claims, and that we each have the ability to create our own individual subjective truths or meanings without reference to any objective realities. Many associate postmodernism with poststructuralist theory, which to put it simply aims to deconstruct certain widely held narratives we associate with different social categories, all with the underlying assumption that there are no essential truths to which we can infer our social narratives.
So obviously this is a horridly bastardized summary of the last 500 years, but hopefully this can give a little bit of context to where I’m going with this podcast.
And I really want to try to be careful not to run the risk of creating clean cut boundaries between these schools of thought and their relationship to our culture and everyday realities. I find that much of the messages I received in school were a confused mix of modern and postmodern ideals. Specifically in America, that mix is saturated with empty sentimentality and hardened moralistic ideologies, 2 things the author James Baldwin vigorously condemned, which we can attribute to our Manichaean, puritanical past.
But the more I delved into postmodern thought in college, I found that it’s anti-essentialist bent which challenged the modern assertion that essential truths can be reached by reason alone, without relying on some meta-human, transcendent entity, could go in one of two directions. It could destroy any attempt to reach universally-accessible sources of truth and meaning and thus further atomize our culture and leave us feeling alienated and alone, or it could enable us to break beyond faulty, man-made truth claims and thus open a space for authentic truth claims to resurface once again.
Literary critic Wayne C. Booth once said that, “postmodernist theories of the social self have not explicitly acknowledged the religious implications of what they are about. But if you read them closely, you will see that more and more of them are talking about the human mystery in terms that resemble those of the subtlest traditional theologies.”
The mission of this podcast is to look for those cracks in postmodernity, those spaces where the complexities and nuances of the human condition can breathe freely and be expressed fully.
One of the most influential postmodern schools of thought is gender theory, initiated by the likes of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Gender theory is simultaneously fascinating and dangerous. It raises key questions about socially constructed norms of what it means to be a man or woman. But then it proceeds to call into question the category of gender itself, writing it off as a pure social construct.
But then we find figures like the male to female transgender writer Andrea Long Chu, who takes the initial claims of gender theory and brings them to their furthest extreme. “Everyone is female,” she writes, “and everyone hates it.” By subverting the conventionally subversive method of gender theory, Chu inevitably rehabilitates ontological and metaphysical categories that gender theory claims are null. Patriarchalism, for Chu, was not constructed on false notions of gender difference in order to oppress women. Instead, it was invented so that men could escape the horrifying truth that they are ontologically female.
Postmodernism taken to its furthest extreme transcends the naive certitudes of liberal humanism and allows space for the murkiness of human nature to bleed over our neatly drawn up categories. Camille Paglia in her 1990 debut work Sexual Personae, juxtaposes the naively optimistic liberal position of Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau with the more gloomy positions of the Marquis De Sade, Nietzsche, and St. Augustine.
De Sade construes his libertine sexual ventures not through the liberal lens of self-expression, but rather with the understanding that he is intentionally transgressing the pre-established laws of nature. His crack is twofold. It affirms that there is indeed such a thing as nature, there is an objective moral truth that is not subject to his fleeting whims (thus ironically challenging the post-modern celebration of subjectivity by taking his own subjectivity to its furthest extremes), but also challenges the modern assumption that nature is inherently good and benevolent, that it is not in tension with forces external to the rational will, and that sexuality is inescapably tied up with violence and death. Simply put, to be human is not all flowers and rainbows. It’s dark and bloody. And we can’t save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.
Paglia here builds on a point that Nietzsche first established in the Birth of Tragedy about the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian ideals. He refers, of course, to the Greek gods Apollo, who represents man-made structure, discipline, and order, and Dionysus (who made it onto the logo of this podcast) who represents pleasure and the uncontrollable, unpredictable chaos of nature. A healthy culture, says Paglia, recognizes and gives space to this tension, without trying to collapse the one into the other.
One of the shining examples of the triumph of the Dionysian is the Camp sensibility. Cultural critics like Susan Sontag and Fabio Cleto have attempted to put into words the elusive aesthetic and existential sensibility which, put simply, exalts the artificial over the natural. Camp ironically comments on the poor quality of culture by making art that is intentionally poor quality. Camp tells the truth by telling lies that are so horrible that you know they are lies. It’s so bad that it’s good, as they say. Some condemn camp as unnatural, ugly, or even diabolical. But the genius of camp is that it is indeed all of these things, and does not pretend not to be so. The devil is known not for celebrating what is evil, but for masking what is evil as being good. Just as the main concern of most religions is not sin itself but rather the claim that sin is neutral or even sacred.
Camp prizes aesthetics and performance over ethics and moral righteousness. Camp is good precisely because it’s not trying to be good. Today we attempt desperately to perform how good we are, without doing the arduous work of cultivating virtues. Camp also puts on a performance of hollow moral value, but at least it admits to what it’s doing. Thus camp’s use of irony to point out errors is to me, the epitome of postmodern aesthetic genius. It’s use of irony to critique errors by playing them up and formalizing them into a work of art is a much more effective way to critique falsehood than outright condemning it.
Early camp figures like Oscar Wilde aimed to critique the vapidness of the standards of English respectability by putting on absurd performances of artificiality and pretension. Wilde was known for his esteem for Catholicism, which appealed both to genuine saints and sinners, and poo-pooed Anglicanism which was for “respectable people alone”.
In a similar vein, Andy Warhol, upon whom was bestowed the title of the Pope of Pop Culture, critiqued the consumerism of his day not by condemning it wholesale, but instead by creating art that used popular advertising trends to offer an ironic commentary on both the inherent beauty implicated in and the miserable depravity of American consumerism.
Or take Quentin Crisp, the British aesthete, who came to fame in the 1940s for being one of very few publicly vocal flamboyant gay men. In a manner similar to De Sade, Crisp understood his own homosexuality not as a morally neutral mode of self expression. Instead it was a means to subvert both cultural norms and the design of nature.
Further, Crisp saw the gay man’s attempts to find true love with another “real” man to be grasping for the impossible. “This being, if he exists,” says Crisp, “is so rare that one might as well enter a monastery on reaching puberty.”
The unfulfillable desire to be loved by a REAL heterosexual man turns the gay man into a sort of prophet, or as Paglia puts it a shaman of our times. The gay man’s desire testifies to the inherent tension in all human beings between themselves and some mysterious, “impossible” fulfillment. Homoerotic desire is in constant tension between the unnatural and the super natural, the truth and lies, but god forbid the ordinary or conventional.
Upon visiting a Post-Stonewall America, Crisp criticized the attempt to normalize that which is inherently subversive, to reduce it to a merely neutral form of self expression, which to him amounted to annihilating it’s cultural significance, thus rendering it utterly dull and boring. We further see this discrepancy between narratives of homoeroticism in contemporary stories like the pagan pederasty of Call Me By Your Name, the Christian ascetical chastity of Brideshead Revisited, and the secular bourgeois love is love story of Love Simon. One only dare imagine what Crisp would have to say were he alive to watch the passing of Obergefell or the baby photos of the atrociously bourgeois Mayor Pete.
Camp has left its decadently artificial mark on western culture and remains alive and unwell.
The tension between nature and artifice, the sacred and profane has been passed down in the decadent baroque and rococo art and architecture in France, Italy, and Spain. depictions of the Greek god Adonis and the Christian Saint Sebastian embody the tension between sanctified moral beauty and pagan aesthetic beauty, between sacrifice and possession, and mystical and earthly eros…as do Bernini’s Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila and most Spanish crucifixes.
The decadent turn of the century authors like Wilde, Baudelaire, Huysmans, and later Lorca, who were determined not to trivialize the tension between the sacred and the demonic.
Or we can take more recent examples like Lady Gaga’s 2013 album art pop, or the stage personas of divas like Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and Ariana Grande. The paradoxical mix of hyper sexual machismo and gender bending emo aesthetic of bad bunny. The dark films of directors like Fellini, Pasolini, and Almodovar, and over the top contemporary teen films like Legally Blonde or Mean Girls. Or the intentionally corny humor of Disney channel shows and absurdist humor of Spongebob and the Fairly Odd Parents, or the blatantly unreal story lines of reality television.
And of course, let us not dare to forget, despite the demands of liberal bourgeois piety, the ultimate camp icon of our time, Donald J. Trump, whose grotesque artificiality and violent performativity offers the greatest ironic critique of American society than any other camp artist.
My dedication to decadence and the Dionysian is majorly indebted to contemporary music, namely genres that feature prominent percussion styles, which in my view give musical form to the aforementioned existential tension. Take the drumming patterns of reggaeton, Dominican dembow, house and eurodisco, dancehall, and Brazilian funk. I’ve written extensively about the tension of the dembow rhythm and the role it’s played in reggaeton and dancehall. I perceive the tension in the dembow to have a deep metaphysical charge, which is in part rooted in the drumming patterns used in the rituals of indigenous fertility cults. This echoes the anti-liberal attitude toward desire and sexuality of figures like Nietzsche, Freud, and de Sade.
Their percussion styles affirm the paradoxical beauty, complexity, and perversity of erotic desire which our culture is so adamant to cover over. These styles give musical expression to what Paglia calls the chthonian, “which means ‘of the earth’—but earth’s bowels, not its surface, writes Paglia. “The Dionysian, she continues, “is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze…Western science and aesthetics are attempts to revise this horror into imaginatively palatable form.”
Further, ethnomusicologist Geoff Baker writes that music like dancehall and funk carioca celebrate a “slackness”—referring to the moral and political apathy associated with the genres and the carnal, body-focused dancing that the music inspires which simulates the conjugal act. This slackness transgresses both political and moral ideologies, whether more radical or more reactionary, and challenges colonialist and capitalist attitudes as well as more progressive or socialistic ones.
Postmodernity must crack, or else. We have no choice but to transcend the polarizing dichotomies that we tend to find ourselves entrenched in, by starting from positions that take into account a more holistic view of what it means to be human and what it means to create social structures that value the totality of our needs and dignity as humans. At the root of most clashes between ardent socialists and capitalists is a lack of attention to the nuances that make up the human condition. The tension between freedom and state control, individuality and the need for community, the desire to love others and the temptation to gratify oneself are easily glossed over by individualistic and collectivist metanarratives. We are in desperate need for spaces where these tensions can be aired out without reducing or glossing over them. Above all, we need spaces for paradoxes to exist without downplaying or writing off any of the conflicting poles implicated in them. Take the both/and logic of figures like Dorothy Day and GK Chesterton who emphasized the interconnectedness of paradoxical values like freedom and obedience, personal and social morality, and the pursuit of aesthetic and metaphysical goods and political ones.
I am especially perturbed by The decaying of roots engendered by the forced assimilation of ethnic communities and more largely the dissemination of a bourgeois suburban mono culture. In place of ethnic identity rooted in a lived, shared experience, we are now forced into identity categories rooted in vague and reductive abstractions that further detach us from a common belonging. Writers like Patrick Deneen and Chris Arnade offer intelligent critiques of the elitism of technocrats who perform their benevolence toward underprivileged peoples, while in actuality aiming to erase their ties to community, lived tradition, and place, thereby promoting an anti culture that further atomizes us and renders us vulnerable to the influence of those hidden elites in power.
The bourgeois suburban existential ethos propagated by technocratic elites uses the ideals of comfort and self-sufficiency over tension and drama in order to distract us from what’s really at stake. This ethos demonizes small scale vices like the smoking of cigarettes while celebrating the empty virtues of mindfulness, fitness, and so-called self-care. “You must have a cigarette,” wrote Oscar Wilde in the picture of Dorian Gray. “A cigarette is the perfect pleasure. It never lasts long enough.” The impulse to ban cigarettes is rooted in the bourgeois determination to deny that humans are anything other than self-sufficient, autonomous m beings that can control their own will and the universe if only they try hard enough. We allow all kinds of medicinal mind-altering agents to distract us from this drama, when demonizing something like the cigarette, which stands as a symbol for the finitude of our existence and the destructive side of our drive for pleasure. There’s something to be said about the metaphysical implications of the moralistic glares a smoker often receives in waspy bourgeois upper-middle class neighborhoods which they are less likely to receive in ethnic working class ones.
So to sum this all up, the main mission of the pod is to offer ironic and pretentious cultural commentary that values the primacy of ontology and aesthetics over ethics and politics. The reality is that none of us are ethical, and no matter how desperately we attempt to perform how virtuous we are, we are all bad. The only way to reach any substantial sense of goodness will be through seeking that which is ontologically and aesthetically valuable, as in the contemplation of beauty and nature, before naively attempting in vain to make ourselves good without reference to any entities that are greater than ourselves.
Are you following all of this? Because I certainly am not. I usually don’t know what I’m talking about half of the time. But at least I can acknowledge it and don’t pretend to know everything…because I definitely do NOT. It should at least be clear that this podcast is going to be messy, confusing, a little all over the place, just like postmodern culture. Hopefully something will crack through it all.