second note for The Modern and the Postmodern with Professor Michael S. Roth
Something Professor Roth said in one of this week’s videos sparked today’s note: that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, far more a diagnostician than a physician, did not believe we could go back to the natural state from which we’ve come, that we have no choice but to forge the freedom that comes with civil society. There’s no going back.
I should mention that Roth is also concerned that we students not be quick to critique the things we’re reading. It’s far more important, he says, to focus on what Rousseau meant than on what we think or feel about it. As a general principle I understand his point. It doesn’t make much sense to argue that Rousseau was out of touch with reality if by “reality” we mean 21st century America, and not 18th century Europe. But at the same time it doesn’t make much sense for me to read any book at all if I am not interested in how that book may affect my life. Obviously I want to understand Rousseau, and as a reader of Foucault I want to understand Rousseau in the context of the moment in which he wrote. But my search for understanding has a wider context: it is always my own time I am trying to come to terms with. If I can reach no understanding about myself, then all my attempts at learning are empty. It seems obvious to me that the subject of the course – modernism/postmodernism – is implicitly who we are today. As such I have questions while reading Rousseau that I don’t think should be ignored. For example, how did Rousseau come to the conclusion that ancient man lived alone, independently of others? Even baboons live in groups. I am presuming that the 18th century scholar did not know that baboons lived in societies with rules of order, supposing instead that they tore through the jungle as free agents – eating, mating and screaming at their enemies. But was there no degree of subjective speculation on Rousseau’s part concerning how ancient man lived, even considering the limitations owing to the young state of the human and animal sciences during his time? Was it not possible for a mind of his time to attribute anything akin to rational order to creatures of the wild? Were not wolves, running in packs, known at that time to depend on cooperation to take down prey and survive? Or did prejudices concerning irrevocable differences between men and animals hold sway? And yet, of all people, Rousseau seemed to recognize that the closer ancient man was to the other animals the “purer” he was. In any event, Roth points out that the word “corruption”, as applied to contemporary peoples, cannot have any meaning without a reference point to nature – a natural state of purity. And Rousseau defined that natural state for his time. Those ideas have had repercussions. That is the lesson.
But my mind wanders. I thought about Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the whole system of which centers on the Lawgiver. Rousseau makes it clear in The Social Contract that extraordinary men are required in order to write laws and build society. The people cannot do it themselves. Moreover, the people sometimes have to be duped into obeying: “It is this which has obliged the founders of nations throughout history to appeal to divine intervention and to attribute their own wisdom to the Gods; for then the people…. obey freely and bear with docility the yoke of the public welfare.” This, however, is not as straightforward as it seems, for in the passage just preceding it Rousseau suggests that the lawgiver, the “extraordinary” man, may perhaps be inspired by God in the first place. I’ll not critique, but it seems to me Rousseau is right on about one thing: there’s no turning back to a state of natural innocence. We’ve got to figure this thing out. This is what defines us in our modernity.
But my mind, being what it is, wanders on. It seems to me there’s something else here, something essential about modernism that can at least be glimpsed. I have come across many people who either deny the validity of postmodernism as a distinct phenomenon, or else admit an inability to see the distinction. As I understand it, this denial or inability to see clearly is due to the fact that postmodernism, compared to modernism, is a difference of degree which, at a decisive point, becomes a difference in kind. As such it can never be separated from modernism, as its very name declares, albeit in a crude and unsatisfactory way (and the unsatisfactory nature of its name, in turn, contributes to the denial and obscurity). This inability to go back to the Garden of Eden, if you will, reminded me of the famous text on the puppet theater by Heinrich von Kleist. In this brief essay (also published in a Berlin journal 26 years after Kant’s answer to the question of enlightenment) Kleist frames the problem as that of losing natural grace. If I might paraphrase: as man became more civilized and especially self-conscious, he lost his unreflective beauty of movement, a quality which can easily be seen simply by observing wild animals. The passage from Kleist’s essay that lingers in my mind – and which I am connecting to our reading of Rousseau – is this one:
We have eaten from the tree of knowledge; the paradise of Eden is locked up; and the Cherubim is behind us. We must wander about the world and see if, perhaps, we can find an unguarded back door.
I know from reading The Confessions that Rousseau suffered from self-consciousness. He describes how pathetic he appears when in conversation, compared to how strong he appears in print. This painful contradiction is an essential aspect of his personality. And it is such pain – the pain of self-consciousness – that Kleist’s essay addresses. That search for an “unguarded back door”, although treated with a degree of humor in Kleist’s text, continues to provoke thought today (although I have not confirmed the suspicion, I feel confident that this text was the inspiration for the film Being John Malkovich). Kleist also invokes god, but in a way that, unlike Rousseau’s God, does not seem connected to Christianity and therefore out of reach to all those but the faithful. Noticing that even marionettes, obeying the laws of mechanics and gravity, can suggest an unreflective beauty of movement that, while different in kind from the natural grace of a wild animal, is similar in its enchanting effect on the observer, Kleist writes that
it would be quite impossible for a human body even to equal the marionette… only a god was a match for matter; and that was the point where the two ends of the round earth met.
The passage is more powerful if written in the present tense: only a god is a match for matter, and that is the point where the two ends of the round earth meet. Kleist is suggesting that the problem of self-consciousness can be solved, subverted or short circuited not by avoiding it, denying it or fighting it, but by sitting inside it and blowing it out from the inside. We go around the world to arrive at where we are: we meet ourselves, face to face. And we know this is true: when we watch a great actor work, for instance. They are so good at being themselves that we are convinced they’re someone else. Self-awareness, the source of so much evil for Rousseau (leading to vanity and pride, among other things), and that which, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, we can’t escape, has to be made a strength, and not a weakness. This is also a task that we, in our modernity, cannot forsake. Like it or not we’ve got to deal with it.
To the degree that we become aware of this task, we have entered the realm of the “postmodern”. The postmodern is not distinct from modernism in time. On the contrary it is coexistent with it. That is another source of confusion resulting from its crude name: it is “post” not in the temporal sense but in an abstract sense – one step out of – modernism. There may be people who imagine themselves to be out of modernism, who may embrace the temporal sense, but this does not change the fact that from the beginning of the time when we became aware of modernity there have been people who have exhibited hyper-awareness with regard to it, and it is this characteristic itself that becomes a difference in kind which we have given the unsatisfactory label “postmodernism”. There are many people today (I have encountered them repeatedly in social media) who see only negative characteristics in this self-awareness. But there are those, like myself, who take pleasure in the postmodern game, and even find it empowering. That is all I wish to say today.