Friday, January 21, 2005

Postmodernism and the Trumps

We live in a postmodern world.

It’s such a weird word, “postmodern.” It’s a weird condition. Modernists of all political stripes, from George Bush to the Pope to the Marxist critic Frederick Jaemson all hate the concept of postmodernism (although Bush is certainly a postmodern president).

What does it mean to be after modern? Some people insist it indicates the condition of the world post WWII, the last time a master narrative and a true melodramatic paradigm, when the old rules of war and diplomacy held sway—that is until the war was over and the true horror of the holocaust and nuclear weapons were revealed. In other words, it’s anything late twentieth century.

Jean-François Lyotard suggested that postmodernism was the breaking down of all master narratives. The idea that there is one single truth which can be discovered or understood through faith is challenged by all the other ideas that exist in a contradictory world. Faith in particular took a double blow from the holocaust and the H-Bomb, as many people—particularly of the Jewish faith—lost their faith in God after six million human beings were summarily executed simply for the crime of having been born, and then we showed that we now had the power to destroy all life on earth ourselves, with no help from God. So, too, Manifest Destiny and its consequences came to be recognized. Marx, Darwin, Hegel, even Shakespeare and Da Vinci who heralded modernism at its beginnings, came under fire. Only Einstein is different for, although a modernist, his theories opened up the doors to post modern thought. He laid the groundwork for the Bomb.

Artistically, though, postmodernism is defined not only by a breaking down of master narratives but also for its use of pastiche. A central concept is the idea that there is not one truth but many truths. It naturally follows then that there are many different ways to say the same thing. A separate but equally important idea is that there is nothing truly original in the world. Language itself quotes what came before, and therefore everything is a quote, a reference to something else. Referential art, which clearly borrows tropes from other places—not only steals from other works but does so blatantly, proudly displaying the structure of theft, is clearly postmodern. So too is self referential art, that which calls attention to its artifice. This is why artistically many works going back to Shakespeare and beyond can be called postmodern, and later critics have created a non-temporal definition of postmodernism, one not confined within the master narrative of time. MTV and the music video are considered the ultimate expression of postmodernism artistically. One professor I knew said the triumph of postmodernism was the elevation of parody to high art.

The only two narratives to survive postmodernism are capitalism and force, but that is because they trump all other narratives. Ultimately, force is irresistible save with superior force. Talk all you want about pacifism, but Gandhi would have been shot in the head and thrown in a ditch if he had tried his tactics against the Germans instead of the English, who still believed in some form of God. Force is postmodern because it breaks down all master narratives. The ultimate expression of this is how the existence of the hydrogen bomb, for many people on this Earth, calls into question the existence of God.

As for capitalism, it is an even better expression of postmodernism then force. If nothing has an intrinsic value (a necessary condition of postmodernism) then things only have what value we place in them. I can value a particular thing—say a picture of myself that brings back fond memories (what used to be called “sentimental value”). Another person, cleaning out my closet after I’m dead, might see the picture and throw it away. That doesn’t mean it never had value, it just didn’t have value to the person going through my stuff. Both assessments of value are perfectly valid. The breaking down of master narratives inherent in postmodernism leads to a leveling of hierarchies. Nothing is inherently “better” then anything else. The only way people have come up with to assign value to anything has been through money. However, the implication here is that, socially at least, the only *real* value anything has is its commercial value. This is why Frederick Jameson called postmodernism “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” To Jameson, postmodernism was marked by hyperconsumption and commodification.

Marxists hate postmodernism because the leveling of all hierarchies must include the hierarchy of class. If class no longer matters then Marxists have nothing to say, and there is nothing that pisses a Marxist off more then not being able to complain. The breaking down of master narratives means that their own narrative, built on the struggle of the proletariat, gets thrown out with everything else.

So what has this to do with media studies? Well, obviously, the commodification of everything is expressed through our consumption of media. Everything has a monetary value which is set, at least partially, by how it is used or advertised in the media. In an era of hyperconsumption marketing becomes an imperative. The more channels we have on cable the more images we are able to consume and the more fragmented our media and out lives become. The internet intensifies this, creating a space where master narrative simply cannot exist. Napster was one of the recent highlights of postmodern thought, the idea that ideas simply cannot be owned.

Perhaps I should have said that capitalism Trumps all other narratives.

Donald Trump is one of the best examples of postmodernism in action. Not only has he created a brand around himself, turning himself into a valuable commodity, but look at the way he has commodified his wedding. He is marketing it and using it to market himself while at the same time allowing others to piggyback onto it by giving him free stuff in return for that all important publicity. The $100,000 dress is likely to be free. He is getting deep discounts on everything. Rest assured, he will find some way—either through a reality special or thorough a liscencing deal, to actually make a profit--*PROFIT*--on his wedding.

Now that’s the art of the deal.

Check out this article from business week to see what I mean:

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Red State Melodrama

The Melodramatic Paradigm

The other day I mentioned the Melodramatic Paradigm, the idea that there are good guys and bad guys and the lines are clear cut. This is how most people view the world since the age of enlightenment. Up until the nineteenth century the Comedy/Tragedy paradigm dominated philosophy and literature. The universe was rigidly well ordered. Only great people could be the subject of serious ideas, of serious drama. Fate determined action. In tragedy a good people fall from great heights due to some flaw in their characters, usually pride, but the common people are only the subject of comedy. They are to be made fun of, their warts exposed and their foibles laughed at. They are incapable of being serious. The most noble thing they were capable of was young love which, in the comic paradigm, is tied to sex and will dissolve eventually into bitterness in the form of philandering husbands and shrewish wives. Only the nobility are capable of noble actions, and only their falls—their tragedies—matter. Eventually Arthur Miller showed us that the common man can indeed be the subject of tragedy, but long before that the common man had his own type of drama—the Melodrama, the drama of the French Revolution, where bad guys, often the aristocrats themselves, persecuted the virtuous, and only a strong hero could save them. Psychologists point out that this dramatic idea has become an important part of interpersonal communications: most people view conflict in terms of the “drama triangle,” the idea that all conflicts involve a persecutor, a victim and a rescuer. Melodrama became the dominate form of drama in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth it became the basis for nearly all dramatic film and television. Every cop show, lawyer show, western, mystery, hospital drama and soap opera is, at its core, a melodrama. There are other genres too: farce, satire, tragicomedy, true comedy, even now and then a real tragedy, but those are the subjects of later posts.

Right now I’m dealing with melodrama and with one in particular. Recently I wrote that, like a lot of depressed liberals these days, my favorite show is “The West Wing.” It really is a self masturbatory exercise watching “The West Wing.” We hold it up as some ideal vision the way a fourteen year old holds up a copy of playboy, and loose ourselves in a fantasy of its perfection.

Don’t we?

But I want to talk about a Red State melodrama. Not JAG, which is a conservative wet dream to be sure, but I want to talk about a show much closer to home. In my house there are two must see pieces of television (both NBC, of course): “West Wing” and every possible permutation of “Law and Order.”

My girlfriend is a fiend for “Law and Order.” She likes old “Law and Order” and new “Law and Order.” She likes Chris Noth, Benjamin Bratt, and Jesse L. Martin. She is still sad over Jerry Orbach’s death last month (so am I, to be honest). She watches SVU and CI as well. I think her favorite “Law and Order” actor is Vincent D’onofrio (and why not? She was a fan of Full Metal Jacket too). And, since “Law and Order” is on, seemingly, 24 hours a day, and since like all girlfriends she has a good pout, I can’t get away from it.

And I hate it. I love it, but I hate it.

I love “Law and Order” because it so beautifully written, so beautifully acted, and so righteous in its outlook (although the writing has been slipping the last two years).

I hate it because I hate Dick Wolf.

“Law and Order” is how the Red States view New York City. Forget the fact that crime has been falling steadily in New York for the past decade (due in large part, I’ll admit, to a Mayor whom I did not and will never vote for). Forget the fact that New York was just named one of the safest cities in America. You wouldn’t know any of this by watching “Law and Order.” Law and Order is New York City for Midwesterners—a city of evil, a strange and dangerous place with murder around every corner. It is certainly not Kansas (any more—never was, really).

Ok, that’s not a big deal. You can’t just stop making cop shows because crime is down. I mean, it’s not like crime has gone away, and after all: drama is all about conflict. Shows about nice families living together in peace haven’t done well since the Waltons (did *anybody* watch “7th Heaven?”)

No, the issue is that Dick Wolf plays to the ignorance, fear, and bigotry of a certain swath of America—the xenophobic, homophobic and (worst of all) the prurient puritans. On “Law and Order” if you practice any type of alternative lifestyle at all—if you are gay, if you are at all kinky, if you are a witch or a pagan or practice Santeria, or an academic, if you are or were a hippie, if you are into S&M, if you are into drugs, if you are in an open marriage or a pluralistic marriage or are a single parent or anything other then white-bread American you are guaranteed to be either a murder victim, a murderer, or both. It promotes a view of life where anybody who doesn’t practice straight, man on top married monogamous sex is a doomed sinner. “Law and Order” is comforting to those Ohioans who voted for George Bush because Queers shouldn’t get married, those same people who think New York is the devil’s playground (well, all of it except the New Amsterdam Theatre), because somewhere, deep inside, “Law and Order” represents a real Old Testament view of the world. It’s as if God is wrecking his retribution on those sinners in New York one victim/murderer at a time. It is melodrama colored by Red State glasses, as ridiculous as “West Wing” and twice as insulting because it’s insulting to me.


Tonight’s episode of SVU (which my girlfriend loved) was the worst! It was a good episode: WAY over the top, funny in the right places and certainly entertaining. It also subscribed to the conservative theory that academics are Frankensteins: arrogant, elitist and amoral, more interested in performing God-like experiments on your children then actually helping them. In tonight’s episode, which was kind of a riff on *Hedwig and the Angry Inch* one of a set of identical twins had been given a sex change operation because his penis had been accidentally cut off during a botched circumcision, making his gender indeterminate (by the way, Hedwig dealt with these issues in a much better way). The anti-intellectual part comes in the demonizing of the twins’ therapist, who is presented as using them as guinea pigs in his effort to prove the (to Dick Wolf) ridiculous theory that gender is learned not inherent, that it is a product of nurture not nature. This is a serious theory among some psychologists. SVU didn’t just make it up. I’ve got no idea if it is true or not, but SVU treats it as though it can only be the product of a diseased mind, and that anybody that subscribes to this theory (presumably including the thousands of real psychologists who actually do) are misguided and evil. In this episode, this therapy included having the twins simulate sex with one another so the girl could be “programmed.” Ok, that is both sick and criminal. However, it was handled like it was the natural product of any accademic inquiry. The psychologist is presented as being so arrogant that he doesn’t know his actions are illegal: he is even writing a book about it. My favorite part is when he told Detective Stabler that he couldn’t understand his theories because “you’re a bourgeois American who’s uptight about sex: that’s why your children all grow up to be sex maniacs.” I loved it, because it confirmed everything I had written an hour before (see above): liberal sex bad, conservative American sex good (it even gets in an implied dig at all those Godless Europeans as well). Talk about a conservative’s wet dream! THIS is how the people who voted for George W. Bush see us academics. If Wolf had done a piece suggesting that someone’s ethnicity had led them to these ideas of sex he would have been excoriated in the press, but academics are fair game (he did go after religion once, in an episode about female circumcision in Muslim families, but it’s ok to be prejudiced against Muslims and, to be sure, even *I* can’t find anything defensible in female circumcision). As you can imagine, I’m pissed.

This is a fiction that could have been written by the New York Post. It demonizes academics while having a salacious scandal, incest, murder, and a sex change operation all in one episode! This type of anti-intellectual propaganda is a cornerstone of the right wing culture war. This comes from the same impulse that led a US congressman to denounce Edward Said on the house floor, to press attacks against Noam Chomsky, and to Bill O’Reily saying that professors “are all a bunch of liberal pin-heads anyway” during an interview with President Bush. I’ve said it before: it amazes me how the “education president” can be so anti-education. And Dick Wolf is their mouthpiece. And it really sells the soap. Hell, even I watch it. :)

Friday, January 07, 2005

Me Me Me

Ok, so here’s what bugs me. I don’t mind that we as Americans feel a need to help the victims of the Tunami. I don’t mind that other nations around the world are grousing that we are not giving enough. What bugs me is how some media outlets are portraying our help. Media outlets right here at home. What bugs me is the New York Daily News.

The News is a tabloid and therefore reliant on the melodramatic paradigm—that which holds that the world is broken down into good guys, bad guys and innocent victims. The post is also more salacious then most other newspapers when looking at disaster. It is in the nature of the tabloids that they love a train wreck. The annoying thing about the News is how they take credit for the relief effort themselves. The front page of today’s News showed a smiling girl who had emptied her piggy bank to help the Tsunami victims, and a headline about a woman who had shared her savings with them. Nothing wrong with that. This is news—not hard news, but news none the less. What bugged me was the headline that thanked all those who had answered the News’s call to help, as if they were somehow in charge of the relief effort. What bothered me was how they inserted themselves into the story. It is not supposed to be a story about what wonderful things the News is doing to help the victims. It is supposed to be a story about the victims. I get annoyed when any newspaper toots its own horn, but especially in an instance of disaster like this.

Jaques Derida said that we are all narcissistic, it’s just that we can practice a kinder, gentler narcissism, and there is something to that. Nobody does anything for purely egalitarian reasons. We may do things because we think they are the right thing to do, but that in itself implies that we put a value on those acts, and value, in the end, is always personal. We give money to the victims of disaster for many reasons—because we are afraid that someday something terrible might happen to us and this helps us to refocus our fear, because we hope that if something terrible does happen to us that someone else will come to our aid, because this part of southern Asia is important to our own economy and it must be rebuilt, because we feel guilt at the conditions these people live in year round as compared to ourselves, and this guilt is focused when we see their suffering, we might do it because we are trying to bank some good will with God in the hopes he’ll let us into heaven, or maybe because we want our reputation to be bolstered by our good deeds, or perhaps it’s because we feel empathy for their suffering and helping them helps to relieve the suffering we feel vicariously through them—we are able to say “well, at least I’m doing something.” Mostly likely we do it just because it makes us feel good personally to help out. We get pleasure and satisfaction from doing good works. It doesn’t matter. Whatever selfish motivation prompts us to help those in need, it’s a good thing.

What is a bad thing is when news organizations exploit the suffering by making the story about themselves. Yes, this is also narcissistic, just as selfish as giving money because it makes us feel good and builds our reputation, but it is so cynical, so exploitative, and so out and out wrong. Yes, for a postmodernist to be saying that the actions of a news organization are flat out wrong may seem a bit hypocritical. So be it. They are.

News organizations are, on at least one level, supposed to exploit misery. It’s how they sell papers. Moreover, by impressing upon people the magnitude of the suffering they spur people to help, and that is good too. But when they cross the line from getting the word out to self aggrandizement, when they make their own philanthropy a part of the story, they have gone too far. The suffering of the sub-continent and the deaths of over 150,000 people may be grist for the mill, and may help the News sell papers, but when it becomes an opportunity for the News to say “hey! Look at us, aren’t we caring and great?” That is going way too far.