Friday 21 May 2021

Cool, ironic 1980s Postmodernism - and its transformation to the 2021 world

In the middle 1980s I came under the spell of the Anglosphere version of that postmodernism which had been building up for several decades. My entry was via the theologian Don Cupitt, philosopher Richard Rorty and the religious studies professor James P Carse

Their thing was that life had no depth, and no purpose. And the idea was that the problem is in the people who regard this as a problem. 

Their goal was - like a therapist - to cure us of the irrational desire for more than what this life now had to offer; and to encourage a value-system which was wholly satisfied with the transient here-and-now which appeared and disappeared leaving no trace. 

Because there was no purpose to living; the focus was moved from vertical justification (based on meaningful history pointing at a desired future), to evanescent horizontal justifications concerned with how the present world fitted-together - to be suggested and discarded unendingly, and which strove to be stimulating, amusing... to generate an edifying affect (albeit temporarily, and needing frequent and novel replacements).  

In lucid and calm prose; Cupitt relativized all of Christian history and possibility (except for his own authority as relativizer!). Under the assumptions of a cleverly concealed leftist morality; all religious activity was unmasked as being motivated by power-seeking, money or psychological need. 

The suggestion was that Christianity must be reconceptualized and reorganized in pursuit of these taken-for-granted moral ideals - with the new church as something like a Cambridge college: an educationally-orientated dining and conversation club, organized by some charming rituals.  

Rorty said life was a conversation - and the purpose of living was to 'keep the conversation going' in as pleasant, amusing and 'edifying' a way as possible; characterized by an even-tempered, humorous and ironic tone. 

Carse - in his book Finite and Infinite Games - regarded living as playing; and the challenge as making this play 'infinite' - so that the game never ended, but instead regenerated itself, by continually changing the rules. 

In their differently flavoured ways, all these men were advocating that life become explicitly a matter of pleasure-seeking - of hedonism. Yet their underlying socio-political leftism shaped this hedonism, in line with contemporary ideology; so that this hedonism must be pursued within frames of socialism, feminism, sexual liberation and environmentalism - for instance. 

But all these writers affected a cool, ironic, witty detachment; and their core ideas came across as heartless, demotivating and nihilistic. If they hadn't been personable and charming chaps; their message was very close to the kind of psychopathic exploitation and selfish manipulation which much the same ideology supported in some French authors such as Foucault. 

In practice, and Rorty was specific about this; the positive, hedonic pleasure seeking became replaced by the negative program of avoiding suffering - both physical and psychological; and this slotted-into the New Left program of victim politics and lifestyle critique. This was more motivating and provided some basis for altruism, since intellectuals could get angry on behalf of the humiliations allegedly suffered by those defined as oppressed, marginalized, excluded etc. 

Thus a cool, hedonic philosophy advocating a life of pleasurable distractions; evolved into this world we see around us. Where anger and resentment are the prevalent emotions, and ultimately everything is justified in terms of opposition. 

And they all tried to deal with the inherent nihilism of their views by suggesting that death did not really matter because in reality everything was temporary; that life was simply self-justifying; and that the way to cope with the fact that everything was futile was... not to think about it, but to become utterly absorbed in the business of living. 

Their vision of the ideal life was, indeed, much like their own lives: pundits who straddled academia and talk-shows; a life of lectures, workshops and parties; a life of public speaking and publishing. 

Keeping busy, keeping active and productive; trying to get as much 'fun' as possible from life, work hard to cram-in as much enjoyment as possible - without harming others, they would hasten to add (as if that were possible!); which meant, in practice, vociferously and explicitly supporting leftist causes while engaged-in amusing/ playful/ pleasurable talking, writing and teaching.  

(The dark fact that many-or-most people engaged in a life of pleasure and novelty-seeking will sooner-or-later engage in some kind of serial, escalating and manipulative sexual promiscuity was only very indirectly implied; except by a few such as Foucault, who did this to the highest degree; while being philosophically rationalized and praised for his ruthless and aggressive selfishness in a 'radical' cause.)   

And what then? What if or when one is sick, old, tired?... 

Keep going, if at all possible. Keep 'engaged' - and die 'in harness' while in the middle of one's latest book... Regretting nothing except lost opportunities for playful pleasures...

Of, if the miseries outweigh the pleasures - presumably hope to die quickly and painlessly - whether by luck - or, if not, by assisted suicide or euthanasia. 

So, here is a vision of life. A positive vision? Well, not really; because it is explicitly futile and doomed to end in death and to leave nothing behind. So amount to a moment-by-moment intent to live with enjoyment and without suffering; pursued under cover of ideological altruism.  

This cool postmodernity is now mainstream among those few remaining intellectuals who espouse any positive goals in life. But mostly it has been discarded in practice as something that just doesn't work. Its positive ideals are just too feeble, and too difficult to sustain - because nothing is more physically and psychologically impossible than a life of continuous pleasure.

In practice, cool postmodernity invariably subsides into the expedient careerism of bureaucrats and celebrities, passively bobbing-around in the currents and tides dictated by the Global Establishment - yet accompanied by a self-gratifying and marketable pose of courageous radicalism.


Avro G said...

Yes. This is everywhere today. It occurred to me recently that the symbol of our age - our cross, our hammer and sickle - is the Amazon smirk. Ironic, pleased (temporarily) with its newest material “good.” And nothing else.

The Continental Op said...

The end result is our social environment is in total ruins--everyone is encouraged to be an isolate at home, addicted to consuming content on a screen. People no longer have an identity formed by their social relations (family, community, church) but by the corporate brands they consume and the rage/resentment they pour out on "social" media.

Your discussion of how the church has failed fits in well here--the church should be a bastion of healthy social relationships that bolster Christian faith and practice but has instead surrendered to the social isolation ("Zoom Church"), with devastating spiritual results.

a_probst said...

Don Straik Cupitt.

And reading that linked obituary of James P. Carse makes me not at all disappointed to have learned of him this way. Where did he find the energy?

Bruce Charlton said...

@COp - Zoom church - Ha! Aside from its obvious absurdity, it is a complete negation of what the churches have been saying for 2000 years - evidence of shameless dishonesty.

But the bland/ eager acceptance of lockdown has indirectly revealed the already-feeble nature of social relations in a world without God. I know of many examples where the birdemic is used as a convenient excuse to avoid family and friends. There truly is a death wish at work across the world - I mean a wish for permanent self-annihilation, only held-back (for now) by the cowardice of the materialist.