Hail the Post-Modernist Prophets!

When I was in college, certain very alienating movements in art and literature were just getting momentum: Deconstructionist literary theory, and indeterminate (a.k.a. “chance”) music. Both of these theories attacked the notion of authorship.

According to deconstructionists, a literary work should be read strictly as a product of the assumptions that the author brought to it. The appropriate way to understand any literary work was to “interrogate” it. In the left-wing hothouses that college campuses became by the late 1980s, the result of such interrogation was to dethrone the classics because they and the society they inevitably represented, were ridden with racism, sexism, homophobism, elitism, cultural imperialism, beautyism, comprehensiblism and so forth.

Texts by great writers from Shakespeare to Saul Bellow should not be “privileged” over, say, a newspaper article, a rap song, or even a grocery list, according to deconstructionist theory. And certainly, the primacy of Dead White European Males as subjects for literary study needed to be overturned in favor of a more representative canon of authors.

Advocates of indeterminate music propounded similar ideas. Composer John Cage’s most famous work is 4’33” which is comprised of three silent movements. When it is performed, the audience experiences its own breathing, coughing, foot-shuffling and butt-shifting, as well as air circulation and any outdoor noises, as music. This was, obviously, contrary to the kind of music theory I was taught in school. Music is organized sound, by definition. It could be improvised, as in jazz, but not unplanned.

I considered myself opposed to deconstructionism, and was also more conservative in my music tastes (although the one John Cage concert I did attend was an enjoyable novelty). I tended to dismiss these schools as aberrations, newness for newness’ sake, a dead end artistically.

Well — I think I might have been wrong.

This occured to me tonight as I sat in an auditorium for a presentation to parents of high school sophomores. A couple hundred people were in the room, and most of them forgot to turn off their cell phones. So, throughout the presentation, I heard a random assortment of ringtones. They don’t sound like telephones anymore. They’re very individual: Funny sound effects, pieces of songs, bird chirps, human voices.

After a while, I started to like it. It was an odd, peaceful sort of music that was composed by the random decisions of people far away from this auditorium deciding to call someone inside. It was the kind of music John Cage would have loved, and I have to admit, he probably anticipated.

As for literary deconstructionism: I think the Internet is rapidly changing reading habits. What are hyperlinks but answers to anticipated questions? Authors don’t just write on the Web — they aggregate. The appropriate word for anything that appears on a Web site — whether it’s text, video, sound or graphic — is “content,” a very deconstructionist-sounding word.

Not only are most Web authors content-aggregators; they subject content to very skeptical interrogation. Andrew Sullivan‘s word for it is “fisking,” after a British writer named Robert Fisk (whose work Sullivan objected to, and would rebut line-by-line. It is not a technique Fisk invented; if anything, he is its unwilling victim.) All content is taken apart for analysis, and it’s done just as aggressively by the right as by the left. Whether you read Patterico, or DailyKos, you are reading a writer who takes a piece of text — a speech, a news article — and deconstructs it. Conservatives’ search for “liberal bias” is not much different from the original deconstructionist obsessions with racism and elitism.

You don’t just find deconstructionism on political topics. Many websites are devoted to deconstructing advertisements, television shows, gossip and other products of pop culture. These sites — Defamer, Adrants, Television Without Pity, FARK, MetaFilter, Gawker, to name just a few — are often said to be “snarky,” another Web-culture word that combines irony, skepticism and a sort of insider/outsider viewpoint that says “I’m immersed and yet distant. I despise, and yet I celebrate.” Nothing is sacred in Snarkytown, but anything can be worshipped.

Perhaps the most iconic post-modern site on the Web is “Post Secret,” which is the third most popular blog right now according to Technorati. Post Secret is nothing less than the deconstruction of the human soul. People send in 4″ by 6″ postcards, on which a shameful secret, hope or fantasy is confessed, anonymously. It is random from the standpoint of the reader in that no one postcard has any relationship to any other.

Each postcard is, in a sense, a work of art, but artistic technique is not “privileged.” If all you know how to do is take a photo of your hand holding a piece of paper with your secret, it is posted right next to an accomplished graphic. The secret is the point. But it also the point that so many Web-surfers want to read these secrets. Here are the most recent postcards’ messages:

  • I feel guilty being served by black people.
  • I am a nobody. I want to be somebody.
  • If you ate, in one sitting, enough food to make your stomach look like this… (photo of bloated stomach)…you would have to throw up too.
  • When my parent treats me well, I feel guilt…like I don’t deserve it.
  • If he dies in Iraq…I will be lost.
  • I used to be an anarchist. Now I read the Wall Street Journal every day.
  • I am not the sum total of all my failures.
  • I couldn’t orgasm because you looked too much like Jesus.

To me, the brief confessions of these anonymous authors, especially when aggregated in the huge numbers Post Secret collects, is high art. So there you have it. I embrace deconstructionism and randomness, and the demotion of the author. Never would’ve believed it.

2 thoughts on “Hail the Post-Modernist Prophets!

  1. That college you went to….sounds familiar.

    Great essay.

    Among the many reasons I enjoy traveling to New York City and staying the night in Manhattan (preferably in an older hotel with less than perfectly sound-proofed windows to the street) is the ambient sound. I remember the first time, being up late, unable to sleep after traveling from the West Coast, and just laying there in the dark listening to the taxi horns, trucks rumbling down the street, steam releases, and various unexpected metallic grating noises, all very loud. I felt like I finally understood the inspiration for 20th Century music, or even Charlie Parker. It was symphonic! Now I look forward to this experience.

    Then again, the noisy world also makes composers like Debussy (Preludes) and Chopin all the more beautiful because of what they were able to distill in a less formal way than the great classical composers.

    How does TV fit into this deconstructive world? Maybe TV is just part of reality now — a shared reality. So much of what we read and laugh at is derived from TV. If you don’t watch a certain TV show or talking head, whole threads of “deconstruction” make little sense. And what about Simon Callow, the American Idol guy? Would he have made a good English professor?

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