Here’s the thing. Nobody writes anything grand any longer. Or, nobody who gets to be taken seriously by the cultural elites writes anything grand any longer.
Nothing that uses big words.
Nothing that is confident.
Nothing that is self-assured or that makes strong positive claims.
Nothing that refers to any of what were once considered life’s certainties—good, evil, birth, death.
Instead, everyone just be jaded, everyone must self-depricatingly introduce themselves a as a common fraud and then either implicitly or explicitly signal that they are writing, with self-awareness, in the grand tradition of frauds.
— § —
In a similar vein, nobody (who is to be taken seriously) does or tries to do anything grand.
But we’ll get back to this in a moment. Let’s start with the writing, because it provides for a nice on-ramp to the problem.
— § —
This was getting rolling when I was first in college.
I remember hearing in various and sundry classes that nobody would be taken seriously any longer for discussing morality—good and evil as things—because such writing was “anachronistic” on its face; that you couldn’t use terms like “life” or “death” in class or in your work because this made you seem silly; that everyone recognized it when someone was trying to “sound like Shakespeare” or “come off as an intellectual” and that this was in fact deeply embarrassing because of course both Shakespeare and intellectuals had already come and gone and anyone that had the gall to implicitly echo their methods and purposes was only too evidently asking to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with giants that had long since gone from the earth, never to return.
My parents thought this was because I went to a liberal state university instead of the private religious university they’d attended. But that’s not the case; after that, I attended two private universities for graduate work and taught in a mix of state universities, privates, and community colleges for nearly a decade. This kind of thinking was suffused throughout the academy, and indeed throughout society as a whole already twenty years ago.
But then it got more extreme. It wasn’t just that you were a judged fraud by using proper English in a non-self-effacing way and referencing good and evil and happiness and sadness, a fraud of obviously deep impoverishment when stood next to history’s greats, oh no—it was far more than that.
By the time I was halfway through my Ph.D. somehow it had become that they were all frauds. Every last one of them, from Marx and Nietzsche back to Plato and Socrates. Bunch of fucking frauds, an oppressive elite who had hoodwinked everyone into believing that there was something more to life than dominating others. The basic and most embarrassing problem with history was that the plebes had been so incredibly naive—dare we even say “stupid”—for so long, taken in by this easy grab at free power and free money, made all the more shameless and embarrassing at once by the fact that these dudes already had more than their fair share by being white and male.
Foucault and a few others showed us the truth—it’s noogies all the way down—and now we realize that to be “woke” (though this term as such only recently enters the lexicon, the concept has been around for some time) we have to know that everyone else knows that we know that everyone else knows… … … insert self-effacing, jaded, cop-out from life here that that basically disavows any and all attempts to do anything worthwhile, lest anyone thinks that’s what anyone else is trying to do.
In short, to be taken seriously, the thing that you must first do is demonstrate in some way, clearly and explicitly, that you are in no way serious, that you understand seriousness to be impossible, and that you have already chanted thrice today the mantra that none of the claimed “greats” were ever serious either, and—to quote from the lexicon of neo-unserious-ungreats—”we won’t get fooled again.”
— § —
The way I read things, a lot of the bewilderment at how things are playing out in western civilization right now is a lack of any capacity to believe in greatness. This is the source of the bewilderment about Jordan Peterson, Bernie Sanders, Trump, ISIS, Elon Musk, etc.
Note that I don’t mean “good” in the moral sense when I use the term “great” here; what I mean instead is the dictionary definition, i.e. “notably large in size; of a kind characterized by relative largeness; remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness; chief or preeminent over others; long continued; remarkably skilled; marked by enthusiasm,” etc.
All of these figures that I named above and more are notable precisely because they’re not playing by the unserious, hip-to-the-game, I-know-that-you-know post-Foucaultian rules of mutual self-effacement. They do not start out with implicit or explicit disclaimers along the lines of, “I am unserious and unspecial and will demonstrate that shortly, I freely admit and assert that nothing can be known because nothing is knowable, that all things are ultimately equal and subject to debate amongst factions, and that those in more naive times understood to be history’s greats were, in fact, charlatans and street performers engaged in mounting little animated tableaux for embarrassingly credulous crowds, so with that out of the way, now that you know that I know and I know that you know, I’ll proceed to indignantly prevaricate apologetically in the general direction of my preferences, with as much passive-aggressive skill as I can muster.”
No, they go for the jugular. They stand up and take what they believe to be theirs, not by hipsterism, irony, and elitist in-crowdism, but by attempts at sheer moral, intellectual, or physical force.
The problem with the neo-Foucaultians has always been that underneath it all, the belief that if everything was power, yet all of this power was by happenstance and accident of birth and a matter of insider trading, then in fact the deeper historical truth was that nothing was power, we all share equally in power or in no-power and it’s all just a matter of the game.
These days, anyone who commands even a little bit of attention—much less the enthusiasm of millions—is instantly denounced, be they left or right, would-be saint or would-be sinner—precisely because they are able to do so. They command unapologetically in one way or another and—horror of horrors—reality appears to comply.
This puts the lie to the idea that the only power that was there was an emergent phenomenon resulting from credulity about power, and that once we all saw the “wizard” behind the curtain, we could all join the game on equal terms.
Instead, it seems to suggest that some things are more powerful, effective, and grand—whether for good or bad—than others, and this is something no-one can countenance. Because then Milton and DaVinci might actually have been the genuine article rather than charlatans, and that then means that I and my I-know-that-you-know-aw-shucks-we’re-all-losers-fighting-over-scraps-but-at-least-we’re-hip pose are in fact less great than Milton and DaVinci. That Luxembourg is less great than Soviet Russia. That Robin Thicke is less great than Wagner. And so on.
The universal equality of all things that purports to level the battlefield amongst equals is smashed, and the taken-for-granted ideological fraudulence of hierarchy claims suddenly seems less taken-for-granted.
In an age in which everyone thinks they’ve cut the giants down to size, the last thing they want to have to do is confront the possibility that the giants may not have been changed after all, and that they are indeed severely overshadowed—that not only is life not fair, but that life will never be fair, no matter how much violence we commit or how much fighting we do, because there was only one Einstein, and he wasn’t—after all—a patriarchal charlatan and little more.
— § —
The other problem, of course, that even fewer people want to think about is the idea that if the giants haven’t actually been cut down to size after all—and we allow ourselves to see what is right in front of our faces—then we have to confront the possibility that there are forces in the world more powerful than us—that are simply greater than us, and that may be diametrically opposed to our selves.
Of course, the evidence for this is literally everywhere but somehow we have not yet managed to quite see that this can’t be changed by applying a few ironically discursive accusation and shame tactics—that if ISIS is about to behead someone, saying, “I know what you’re up to and you’re nothing more than a sexist little boy who never got enough love” isn’t all that useful. Dead is dead.
(Of course, we hide our dead and fastidiously do everything that we can to avoid ever having to admit that they exist, even while they’re still above ground.)
— § —
The point of all this being:
Like just about everyone, I’ve secretly been musing about the state of our national politics and of the world some time now, and I think some of what we’re seeing stems from the theology of ironic disbelief in all greatness that emerged with postmodernism and that enables us to tell ourselves happy rationalizations about ourselves and (rather than our own lack of greatness in comparison to others) the general lack of reality underlying all greatness claims.
We hate greatness, for all the reasons outlined above.
So on the one hand, whenever we see it in anyone or anything, we immediatly refuse to believe our own eyes, and instead rail against it as a fraud. This leads to conflict, polarization, and hate.
And on the other hand, as a part of the bargain that must be in place for greatness not to exist, we refuse to believe in our own potential greatness, or to attempt any truly great things, and thus are powerless in the face of greatness.
Instead, we engage in discourse, which postmodernism told us was actually the basis of everything. It’s all just a simulation; don’t play the game, rewrite the program!
No. They were wrong. Greatness exists, materialism obtains, and some people and things are great and some others are not and others still could be but won’t because they’ve believed the lie that nobody is and that the proper first step in all things to be respectable is to disavow greatness and its pursuit entirely. Hopefully the greats (or at least not the only greats) are not the guys that want to kill you. Thing is, if you refuse to believe in greatness, and refuse to try to be great, and set about instead whining about things using so many (non-big, non-metaphysical, oh-so-ironic and lowbrow) tropes, greatnesses that want to kill you will ultimately have their way with you.
— § —
In shorter terms:
Postmodernism was wrong.
Real stuff exists. Some of it wants to kill you.
We have likely buried potential greats under piles of ironic, self-referential bullshit.
Words can also be great deeds, rather than mere ironic, self-referential bullshit. The best way right now to tell the difference is to look at the reaction to the words. If they’re virulently hated and critized in very public ways by quite a lot of people, they’re probably great—whether great for good or great for evil.
There is a difference between great deeds (including great words) and mere discourse. The difference is that the latter is an AWOL game of tic-tac-toe while your countrymen die on the battlefield.
The greats have free run right now because the plebes have been trained not to believe in greats as anything other than a figment of discourse, even as their own legs are being sawed off. Hence Trump. Hence ISIS. Hence school shooters. And so on. And the more you point this out, the more people hurl invective and explain what an asshole you are (even as their legs continue to be sawed off, and rather than standing up and doing something about it).
It’s not the god(s)/great(s) that are dead, it’s postmodernism, only people may not figure it out before they themselves are dead, leaving only the god(s)/great(s) that killed them behind.