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May 29, 2005 - Michael Jackson and Postmodernism

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Terry Eagleton is a professor of cultural theory at Manchester University and offers us this - The Ultimate Postmodern Spectacle - Wednesday May 25, 2005, in The Guardian (UK) – where he argues that Michael Jackson and his trial hold a mirror to modern western civilization and its blurring of fact and fiction.

Well, given American politics and the current war in Iraq now being waged on its twenty-seventh premise – there being no WMD and no ties to the al Qaeda baddies there at all, and clear evidence even the powers that be knew what they were telling everyone way back when was essentially a grand fiction – Eagleton may be onto something.

For us postmodernists reality is overrated.  And the Jackson trail proves that?  I think that’s the idea.

Here’s the premise –


Celebrity trials, like those of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson, are sometimes loosely called postmodern, meaning that they are media spectaculars thronged with characters who are only doubtfully real. But they are also postmodern in a more interesting sense. Courtrooms, like novels, blur the distinction between fact and fiction. They are self-enclosed spheres in which what matters is not so much what actually took place in the real world, but how it gets presented to the jury. The jury judge not on the facts, but between rival versions of them. Since postmodernists believe that there are no facts in any case, just interpretations, law courts neatly exemplify their view of the world. There is a double unreality about staging the fiction of a criminal trial around a figure who has been assembled by cosmetic surgeons. Jackson's freakish body represents the struggle of fantasy against reality, the pyrrhic victory of culture over biology.


Well that’s a handful.  Postmodernists believe that there are no facts in any case, just interpretations?

One thinks of the New York Times Sunday magazine item Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind (October 17, 2004) – a discussion of how George Bush makes decisions.


… In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''


Ah yes, creating our own realities – the basis for all courtroom tactics.  Having served on jury duty many times, it seems to me that fits.  And listening to what comes from the Mouth of Scott – Scott McClelland, the White House press secretary, not to be confused with the nasty Mouth of Sauron from Book III of Tolkien’s odd epic – one does feel hammered by something like a clever attorney, arguing for a reality that may not be what you think it is. It all depends on how you look at it.  Scott makes his case.  We take notes.

Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 10 - issue date: June 9, 2005 (item dated May 12, 2005) – in The Secret Way to War parses the Suskind item slightly differently.


Though this seems on its face to be a disquisition on religion and faith, it is of course an argument about power, and its influence on truth. Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept - a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe. The last century's most innovative authority on power and truth, Joseph Goebbels, made the same point but rather more directly: There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be "the man in the street." Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.


Okay, and that is fine in the world of politics.  But is there a wider implication?  Can the techniques of Joseph Goebbels make Michael Jackson anything Michael Jackson wishes to be?

Is Michael Jackson black?  Depends.  Eagleton points out that quite a few young people are not even aware that he is.  Nothing is what is seems.  Reality?  Nature?  Don’t worry about it.


If postmodern theory won't acknowledge that there is any such thing as raw nature, neither will this decaying infant.

It is hardly surprising that he has expressed a wish to live forever, given that death is the final victory of nature over culture. If the US sanitizes death, it is because mortality is incompatible with capitalism. Capital accumulation goes on forever, in love with a dream of infinity. The myth of eternal progress is just a horizontalized form of heaven. Socialism, by contrast, is not about reaching for the stars but returning us to earth. It is about building a politics on a recognition of human frailty and finitude. As such, it is a politics which embraces the reality of failure, suffering and death, as opposed to one for which the word "can't" is almost as intolerable as the word "communist".


Whoa, Nellie!  Mortality is incompatible with capitalism?  The myth of eternal progress is just a horizontalized form of heaven?

Could the appeal of Bush’s divorced-from-reality optimism – the war is going well, tax cuts for the obscenely rich make life so very much better for those scrambling to avoid falling into homelessness and starving in the streets – just be just a yearning for heaven?

Josh Marshall on September 2003 in the Washington Monthly offered this: The Post-Modern President - Deception, Denial, and Relativism: what the Bush administration learned from the French - and the core about the Bush folks is this:


Ideology is really all there is. For an administration that has been awfully hard on the French, that mindset is... well, rather French. They are like deconstructionists and post-modernists who say that everything is political or that everything is ideology. That mindset makes it easy to ignore the facts or brush them aside because "the facts" aren't really facts, at least not as most of us understand them. If they come from people who don't agree with you, they're just the other side's argument dressed up in a mantle of facticity. And if that's all the facts are, it's really not so difficult to go out and find a new set of them. The fruitful and dynamic tension between political goals and disinterested expert analysis becomes impossible.


Reality?  Who needs it?

And yes, facticity isn’t a real word – but it works here.

But Terry Eagleton, considering the trial of Michael Jackson, is onto something bigger.  It’s not Bush and his troops.  It’s western civilization!  Golly!


If Michael Jackson is a symbol of western civilization, it is less because of his materialism than because of his immaterialism. Behind the endless accumulation of expensive garbage lies a Faustian spirit which no object could ever satisfy.

Like Jackson's cosmetic surgeons, postmodernism believes in the infinite plasticity of the material world. Reality, like Jackson's over-chiseled nose, is just meaningless matter for you to carve as you choose. Just as Jackson has bleached his skin, so postmodernism bleaches the world of inherent meaning. This means that there is nothing to stop you creating whatever you fancy; but for the same reason your creations are bound to be drained of value. For what is the point of imposing your will on a meaningless reality? The individual is now a self-fashioning creature, whose supreme achievement is to treat himself as a work of art.

Ethics turns into aesthetics.


Somehow Michael Jackson has morphed in Oscar Wilde, without the talent.  And Bush becomes a self-referential, self-indulgent work of art?  Something like that.

Eagleton does make the obvious connection to Bush –


… just as there are no constraints on the individual self, so there are no natural limits to promoting freedom and democracy across the globe. What looks like a generous-hearted tolerance - you can be whatever you like - thus conceals an imperial will. The tattoo parlor and George Bush's foreign policy may seem light years distant, but both assume that the world is pliable stuff on which to stamp your will. Both are forms of narcissism for which the idea of reality putting up some resistance to your predatory designs on it, whether in the form of the Iraqi opposition or a visit from the local district attorney, is an intolerable affront.


Well, Bush does get obviously pissed off when reality puts up some resistance to his predatory designs on it.  Terry has that right.  If you cannot stamp your will on life, on all of reality, where’s the fun?

The conclusion?


Postmodern culture rejects the charge that it is superficial. You can only have surfaces if you also have depths to contrast them with, and depths went out with DH Lawrence. Nowadays, appearance and reality are one, so that what you see is what you get. But if reality seems to have dwindled to an image of itself, we are all the more sorely tempted to peer behind it. This is the case with Jackson's Neverland. Is it really the kitschy, two-dimensional paradise it appears to be, or is there some sinisterly unspeakable truth lurking beneath it? Is it a spectacle or a screen?

If courtrooms are quintessentially postmodern, it is because they lay bare the relations between truth and power, which for postmodernism come to much the same thing. Truth for them, as for the ancient Sophists, is really a question of who can practice the most persuasive rhetoric. In front of a jury, he with the smoothest tongue is likely to triumph. On this view, all truth is partisan: the judge's summing up is simply an interpretation of interpretations. …


That does seem to be where we are – all truth is partisan.  He who can practice the most persuasive rhetoric wins.

I’m not sure depths went out with DH Lawrence, but let that pass.  I blame William Carlos Williams, myself – you know, that doctor from Patterson, New Jersey and that dammed Red Wheelbarrow.

Whatever.  Eagleton’s advice in this postmodern world?  Get yourself a good lawyer.

Works for me.



Terry Eagleton blames DH Lawrence - and I blame William Carlos Williams and that Red Wheelbarrow – for taking the depth out of things, or removing fixed meaning or whatever.  Morris Dickstein, the widely-published noted professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and says his students not longer want to read such stuff – as they prefer nineteenth-century realism.  You know, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and such folks.  Really?

See Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
In an era of uncertainty, reality makes a comeback.
Morris Dickstein, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2005



… for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the "real" raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on whoever controls the flow of information that influences them. They believe with Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations. Along with notions like truth or objectivity, or moral concepts of good and evil, there's hardly anything more contested in academia today.

Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by uncertainty or exposed as ideology.


But many of us are still living, in spite of sensing Nietzsche was onto something.

Dickstein’s nod to Bush –


…there are many ways to simulate reality: staying on message, for instance, impervious to correction and endlessly reiterating it while saturating the media environment. Ideologues, whether they're politicians or intellectuals, dismiss any appeal to disinterested motives or objective conditions. They see reality itself, including the electorate, as thoroughly malleable.


Yeah, what else is new?

What has changed?


… many Americans today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own senses. They turn to what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty."


Well, this deep nostalgia for something solid and real probably explains the evangelical Christian capture of the whole of the Republican Party, and events in Kansas trashing science, claiming God is real and Darwin a secular, relativistic fool.

Dickstein only notes reading preferences –


… In his book "After Theory," a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks "a certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything."

To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.

Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and Wharton's "House of Mirth" showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing.


Yeah, but these authors are, each, deadly dull.  Give me William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  Sinclair Lewis and his outrage at the meat processing industry is not something one returns to now and then – and even my eighth grade students way back when found Stephen Crane simple-minded.  Things solid and real can be a tad stultifying.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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