The Mastery of Fire and the Psychic Scars of The Somme: Why people are scared of postmodernism, by Robin Wyatt Dunn
In the reach of history we slip under its cloak, hoping to keep out of the cold, to leave behind old ways and adopt new ones, as quick as we can, with all deliberate speed, and unlike Brown v Board of Education we do, we let it the news ways . . . at the appropriate speed . . . so is it like Brown v Board of Education after all?
The present is this meniscus; the barrier; past to future; surrounding us, and we guard it, seek to manage it.
Modern comes from the ancient root *med: "to take appropriate measures."
To keep us warm.
To show the direction towards the fire.
To advise on the collecting of water.
We introduce one another and know one another's names.
Sometimes someone changes their name. And we introduce one another again. This is modern.
I was taught -- and I believe -- that modernism is the refutation of tradition; a repudiation of the old things who held us back in superstition, and so a welcoming in of the future, of the new.
In this modernism is about invention, even as fire was:
We modern people now with bear on our backs and deer hide on our feet have known fire, and firemaking, and we modern people made appropriate arrangements to keep the knowledge in the human family:
Modernism is fire.
Fire itself still is not understood at all. Science avoids it almost entirely. Our closest understanding of it comes from ancient religion: as either a fundamental force of the universe, or a gift from the gods, or a thing stolen from the gods, or all of the above.
Modernism is how we adapt. It is how we express our "divinity" -- our intelligence and will and strength and fortitude and ingenuity and joie de vivre here on Earth.
There is no understanding modernism without understanding World War One.
In many ways WW1 was the death of liberalism and the Enlightenment, and so represents both the establishment of modernism as a fundamental precept of post-1918 human life, and also the seed of its own destruction. Modernism is a natural ally of the Enlightenment in its quest for truth in all its multi-valenced reality, but it is also a tool for shattering us out our preconceptions, and our comforts.
The liberals of the 19th Century, under Disraeli in the UK and Bismarck in Continental Europe, envisioned a world run by an Enlightened Europe, free of the superstition of religious dogma and its religious wars, where tradition would be modulated by new temperaments interested in science, education, and technology. In a word: modern.
It would be World Peace.
But this same liberalism, this same fascination with technology, with deal-making and business, was of course a deal with the devil, who is only ourselves.
We murdered one another on an industrial scale in WW1, in a way that is still incompletely documented, because of its enormity, but more important because of the depth of the psychic scars of that war.
That WW1 gave birth to a huge amount of unprecedently beautiful and imaginative art, and new frontiers in philosophy and science, is unquestioned. But the central thesis, at least in art (and in some of the sciences too, though less so) was that we had failed. We fucked up big time. We had failed to understand something fundamental about reality, said James Joyce and William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf and Pablo Picasso. But we didn't know what.
To quote the neoliberal warmonger Donald Rumsfeld, we didn't know what we didn't know. We didn't know what dark spirit had made us kill one another in such horrific ways--such horrific imaginative ways--in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.
Some thing was missing from our understanding. Some picture of who we are and how we fit into the universe.
In this way, the concerns of modernist art must be understood as fundamentally religious: not concerned with god so much as with Man and his place in the universe. Why we are here; the old question, now asked with renewed force.
What does it mean that we have done these things?
To say that postmodernism marks some neoliberal departure from modernism and represents some Satanic cabal of cultural relativists who want to destroy society with pedophilia and "transgenderism" fails to understand that modernism was already fundamentally concerned with limits and our transgression of them.
Of course the (now well documented) Satanic cabal of the 'New World Order' does like to use cultural relativism to excuse its vices; but this has nothing to do with modernism, or postmodernism, which is really just modernism on crack cocaine. Modernism to the nth degree. Modernism become religion.
What is religion then? Only our language. Our understanding. Our culture. This is religion. Who and what we are as seen through what we tell ourselves about it.
This was the innovation of modern philosophy and science: an acknowledgement that we did not know everything, and never could, because of the fundamental limits of (even technologically aided) senses. A recognition of our own hubris, and how to account for it in our work and our lives: that is modernism. And postmodernism.
The anxiety surrounding postmodernism is an ongoing fruit of that horrific psychic scar of the Somme. We are still undead in the Somme, still a ghost shattered and broken but alive, wandering the Earth, asking:
Modernism and postmodernism are an attempt to answer the question.