Mrs. Holle had two legs: one Aryan the other one non-Aryan. The non-Aryan leg was of wood and attached during the day and then late at night, before going to bed, disconnected. […] In the year 1942, when the German troops had reached the Wolga, the shadow of the wooden leg, which after all was non-Aryan … as was the wooden leg … had made a rather funny grimace; it had been a despairing grimace…
Edgar Hilsenrath, The Nazi & the Barber
“You’ll give me the money if I sign a paper to say I won’t make a claim to being the Earl of Droitwich?”
Wodehouse, If I were you
As John Dewey once so aptly phrased it: “Values are invaluable.”
With that paradox he managed to express two insights at the same time. Not only does a society need a more or less coherent system of values in order to survive as a society; there is also the danger that under the stress of too much strife and discord its members begin to deliberate what their values ‘really are’.
True values, however, are what intrinsically ‘counts’, what is self-evident and what never comes up in the every day life exchange of social discourse. So discussing our values is a contradictio in terminis. It is a danger sign. Aims, yes. Expectations, yes. Norms, yes. They are all subject to evaluation and criticism. If however values – in that famous ‘last instance’ at the base of such a system of aims, expectations and norms – become themselves the object of critique, it signals peril and risky business. Values are the meta-level that ‘sustains the rest.
The same dialectical problem is at stake with the notion of Identity. Again I am using an American phrase: People do their own thing. One is what one does, this unreflecting. However, I should have written: One was what one ‘is’. Postmodernity has overturned the self-evidence of identity. Constantly in a state of hyper reflection, one is soul searching and pondering one’s ‘Self’, ‘reworking it’, worrying about possibilities missed by having ‘chosen’ without knowing the plethora of all the options.
Now, someone born as a hermaphrodite may have a serious practical problem. Elle Bandita, a Dutch rock singer, was fated to have seen the light like this. One presumes that others are pondering her sexuality as is Elle Bandita herself – in confusion. However, she claims to have has solved her problem: “After all, it is just a body. I stand above it.”
Whether she manages to actually live, to exist such meta-level consciousness, or whether it is the identity bravado of la Bandita, one will never know.
Life styles galore! As if P.G. Wodehouse – born in 1881 and the writer of a long series of books in which almost everybody seems to impersonate anybody else – was already writing the script for The Postmodernity Show yet to come.
So much, methinks, is certain: After the mix up in adolescence we once more become our body. Or again: That is how things stood in the past. In postmodernity, even after adolescence there seems to be a continuous discourse obliging each and everyone to reflect on his/her ‘body’ and its ‘identity’. According to some the whole machinery of psychotherapy is but a shopping mall for people who would like to ‘fill in their defective identity’.
Interestingly, according to research done at the University of North-Texas the use of dating apps tends to cause depressions in both females and males. The more they ‘date’, the more they feel ashamed of their own bodies which they begin to ‘monitor’. Read: fitness centres, cosmetics, fashion et cetera – and their latter-day explosion for both sexes.
Postmodern shame culture at full speed, people with a ‘minimal self’ loosing their ‘self-esteem’. They experience their body as alien, because it is ‘imperfect’. They experience themselves as unreal and find it necessary to create a fake authenticity. Thus, paraphrasing Erving Goffman: The presentation of Non-Self in everyday life…
So, there we have it: the Thousand dollar/Euro Question of Postmodern [Non]Existence. Am I authentic? Is she authentic? Is what I am experiencing authentic? Is my experience authentic?
Last week, while walking my hometown, I picked up a folder with the following text:
Shopping in Authentic Haarlem. The very best routes through authentic, historic and traditional city centres. AUTHENTICITY Haarlem – http://www.authenticcity.nl
The word ‘traditional’ is of course looming large in the advertising of various ‘craft shops’, ‘antique’ bookshops, ‘coffee roasting houses’ and other such ‘true’ establishments. Other folders can be found servicing the authentic tourist who is looking for hofjes, ‘original’, ‘old fashioned’, ‘brown’ café’s.
Already quite some time ago Umberto Eco already pointed out that widespread media info causes most people to have ‘seen’ something already second hand before they actually experience it ‘live’. Even the television program showing it may be ‘live’. This induces disillusionment – ‘reality’ often does not live up tot its mediatised, pimped up version.
With a shiver on his spine this old-fashioned, unmistakably still Modern traveller turned his back on a movie that was shown in the old train that was hoisting itself up the Andes, direction Machu Picchu – a film of course on… Machu Picchu. My gaze licked the real Mountains outside my window pane – that seemed to be the proper support act for the show of the old Inca town up there. The other travelers were watching the movie instead.
Also decades ago Jean Baudrillard analyzed the phenomenon of the simulacrum. Whereas in modernity one normally differentiated between ‘something real’ and its ‘simulation’, Postmodern Man is not any longer equipped with this social instinct to make and thus to see the difference between real and fake. Standing on the shoulders of Marshall McLuhan, Baudrillard foresaw the coming world of alternative facts… Incredulity is not any longer our thing.
Whereas once the reading of a novel or the watching of a movie or a play presupposed that capacity of a willful suspension of one’s disbelief, postmodern ‘reality’ as such is floating. Everything is a shadow of shadows, what is ‘real’ is hanging in the ropes.
Added to this effect is the more general human phenomenon of projection. With our Gestalt brain we always already add and/or subtract aspects of what is seen, always constituting the-thing-for-us, instead of experiencing the mythical thing-in-itself.
Postmodernity has combined the two phenomena mentioned above, actually modelling experience into how something must be experienced. ‘Authentic Haarlem’ is updated by designers, interior decorators and gardeners in such a manner that their pimped versions of ‘hofjes’, ‘traditional shops’ and the like have become hyper-real, that is: looking just like what it is in the media-pimped imagination of the ‘authentically’ touring visitor. Everything ‘old’ is brand new – pristine.
In postmodernity the experience circle has been closed. That loop may well be termed vicious. The postmodern authentic is fake per se. The tourist in search of the authentic, however, has a feeling that he is ‘really’ in touch with the ‘real thing’.
This explains perhaps the fast transformation of art into what has become the postmodern religion and of musea into cathedrals where the ‘gods’ themselves are celebrated and almost to be touched – certainly to be observed devotedly. Whether or not an observer has the slightest feeling for the artwork he ‘experiences’ has become irrelevant. Museum visits have become almost exclusively a tourist attraction. Contact of the visitor with art is in most cases only once in a lifetime. It is all about him.
To have been there… Preferably provable so, this by way of a selfie with the work of art included in the shot. The intense and long-term conversation with art has become outdated. People are now literally turning their back on whatever their so-called experience is all about.
I am here! Postmodernity’s supreme paradox.
Like ‘identity’, ‘authenticity’ has lost all reasonable meaning.