On Kafka, Misreading Postmodernism, and Giving Up

In 2008, through a Republican connection with then-governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, a graduate of the university, President George W. Bush gave the primary commencement address at Furman University, sparking a faculty protest and a student push-back to that protest.

Once Bush being the speaker was announced, the days and weeks leading up to commencement were characterized by several media reports on the controversy, including some Op-Eds in the local paper by professors—one of which was by two neoliberal professors from one of the most conservative departments on campus chastising the protesting professors and characterizing them as postmodern.

Looking back through the rise of Trumplandia and the current focus on fake news and post-truth politics, this misreading of postmodernism is worth revisiting.

First, the protesting professors immediately balked at being labeled postmodern because most (if not all) were taking an ethical stand, counter to the postmodern questioning of objective or universal moral imperatives.

The neoliberal professors represented, even as elites, a cartoonish and dismissive lens for the public about nuanced and complex bodies of knowledge, ways of navigating the world.

By the twenty-first century, postmodernism was recognized as a moment in the twentieth century when modernism was unmasked, but that term and body of thought had mostly helped shape movements that many academics and scholars embraced (see this as one example of how complex postmodernism is as a term).

Postmodernism spurred many “post” ideologies, in fact—postcolonialism, poststructuralism, and others that, in fact, re-imagined how to reclaim the ethics and moral imperatives that postmodernism seemed to reject.

The key here is “seemed” since just as the neoliberal professors misrepresented the protesting professors as postmodern, they also grossly reduced postmodernism to something that may sound familiar today: there are no facts, no truths.

Once the province of liberatory academics—those seeking a dismantling of white/male privilege as the default norm, the universal—postmodernism as an argument about how controlling what counts as facts and truth is the province of who has power has today become a bastardized and politicized paradox in that partisan politics in the U.S. (and across Europe) has reached the logical evolution into nothing more than reality TV in the hands of the far Right—neoliberals, neoconservatives, white supremacists, misogynists, and neoNazis.

Toni Morrison’s Making America White Again details how this has come to fruition in the U.S.

First, she confronts how post-truth Trumplandia looks:

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

The debasing of the current U.S. reflects, as Morrison notes, “the true horror of lost status” among whites. And thus:

The comfort of being “naturally better than,” of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants—these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished.

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

Post-truth as a sort of mainstream faux-postmodernism and as fodder for political tyranny (fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism—real -isms to be feared) has already metastasized throughout Europe, as witnessed by Ece Temelkuran in Turkey:

This refashioning of a post-truth, post-fact Turkey has not happened overnight. The process has involved the skilful and wilful manipulation of narratives. We gave up asking the astonished questions “How can they say or do that?” some time ago. Truth is a lost game in my country. In Europe and America, you still have time to rescue it – but you must learn from Turkey how easily it can be lost.

It started 15 years ago, with a phenomenon that will now be familiar to you, when intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?” To counter that possibility, they widened the parameters of public debate to include those who were said to be representatives of “real people”. We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism, which always sounded more attractive than our boring facts.

In the U.S., white authority barely batted an eye at a black child being shot dead by a policeman, Tamir Rice, but how much different is that callousness than what Temelkuran reveals about Turkey?:

What is the practical effect of this new truth on everyday life? Well, consider one example. In Turkey today, we are obliged to indulge a debate about whether minors should be married to their rapists. It is predicated on the “real people’s” truth that in rural areas girls get married even when they are just 13, and thus have sexual maturity. It is, we are told, a thoroughly elitist argument to insist that a minor cannot give consent.

The faux-postmodernism of post-truth normalcy erases ethical ways of being and enables a crass Social Darwinism and consumerism—about which Temelkuran warns:

An analogy came to mind: that this is like trying to play chess with a pigeon. Even if you win within the rules, the pigeon will clutter up the pieces, and finally it will shit on the chessboard, leaving you to deal with the mess. Farage, having told us to “cheer up”, and that this was “not a funeral”, did exactly that. Having dumbfounded the audience, he announced – as if fleeing a boring party – that he was off to meet Donald Trump in Washington.

Be warned. For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it.

As I read Temelkuran’s account of a people who appear to have willingly abandoned their moral core, I was haunted by his “We gave up,” reminding me of Franz Kafka’s Give It Up!:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was walking to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “From me you want to know the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” he said, and turned away with a sudden jerk, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.

Kafka’s dark surrealism, at once comic and tragic, presents the human condition through two clocks being out of kilter.

The existential angst of modernism has survived postmodern revolts as Kafka’s work from a century ago rings true today for those of us surviving capitalism—the relentless call to consume, the never-ending burden of debt, and the terror of being late imprinted on us by formal schooling.

From Kafka to Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal and to Morrison, the message remains bleak about the power of authority to erase the humanity of the individual.

In Kafka’s sparse narrative, the tower clock and policeman as Authority combine to invoke anxiety and despair in the unnamed narrator, only “I.”

A century ago, Kafka imagined the state’s blunt indoctrination—”Give it up!”—and then today, Temelkuran admits that in Turkey, “We gave up.”

It seems that in these there are hard and undeniable truths.

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