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The existential trap of postmodernism.
I don't need you to tell me what clothes to wear
I don't want suggestions about my hair
If the whole world buys your bullshit I don't care
I'd rather put on something that you won't dare
— Prince: I Rock Therefore I Am
Somebody asked me why Boomers seem to be oblivious of their privilege. The concise answer I gave was that Boomers exploited the systems-that-were of the postwar era. In other words, they got dishwashers and air conditioners because that’s the economy of convenience their parents desired. I may get all of my particulars wrong but it is entirely reasonable to me that somebody who was a kid during the Great Depression and then got drafted into WW2 and survived both has seen a level of suffering and destruction that our current sensibilities can only dimly perceive. The exceptions, I think might very well be those deserving poor who comprise the constituency for our most loud and bleeding of hearts. So for the sake of argument, let us draw some equivalence between somebody growing up to become the parent of a Boomer born in 1952 and somebody born 20 years ago in Chiraq.
My answer in sympathy with my hypothetical Boomer revealed my prejudice against Postmodernism. Using the difference between The Honeymooners and a Boss Baby movie as an example, I made the following argument.
Postmodernists demand more alternative content, therefore more channels with a low conformity and high diversity. But that requires more production, more money. Impossible before cable. Then cable expanded capacity. In order to fulfill postmodern demand for maximizing the alt, things like special effects and non-human characters (cartoons, anime, talking pets, etc) had to be legitimized. Now that we can sustain an a debate about “What is a woman?” demonstrates the success of postmodernism. But it is neglect of the modern world that will curtail this success, because you cannot run a postmodern economy in a sustainable way. When your best and brightest people are generating revenue by monetizing abstractions, they are not employed doing simple modern things like manufacturing and distributing baby formula. Suddenly Americans find themselves watching fantastic films like ‘The Boss Baby’ and actual babies can’t get food. So why did we spend a billion dollars creating these entertainments? Because there is a real, but smaller and unsustainable postmodern economy in conflict with the modern economy that Boomers created out of the postwar surplus.
That’s a rough approximation of my complaint and prejudice against postmodernism, and I take note as it specifically applies against my own profession in the IT industry. Something I noticed 30 years ago. What’s digital can represent the liberating truth as well as pernicious falsehoods. So I know what kind of projects I have decided to take on ethically in my industry whenever I had a choice. But I’m also quite aware of our ability to create and monetize virtual worlds. Much more of my life was spent when the overwhelming majority of Americans would ask with a side-eye “What the hell are you nerds doing sitting in front of computers all day?” The snarky answer we could have predicted was “We’re building the Matrix into which you and your children will be our bitches.” I was not so much into revenge of the nerds because I was both sociable and on the side of liberating truth. At least liberating truth for corporate management who, back in the 80s, were quite resistant to having anyone but secretaries and CAD engineers look at cathode ray tubes.
What I didn’t know and never expected was how something like Twitch would become a billion dollar business. When I played videogames with skills beyond that of my young children, they found value in just watching Dad play the Master Chief and destroy the bad guys. Twitch is the company that makes money livestreaming people playing videogames to people sitting on their sofas.
In case you are reading this sometime beyond the immediate timeframe in which it was written, you should know that right now, there are these markers of cool known as Bored Ape NFTs. These are simply cartoon tokens of wealth and privilege that are emblematic of idiot knockoffs of the Less Than Zero style Billionaire Boys Club designer labels of the 80s. I call it postmodernism when you can monetize this worthless dreck. I don’t know what to call it when peasants validate this cool as something aspirational. I guess it’s the opposite of ‘cultural appropriation’ which would be ‘cultural exploitation’. Either way it’s a fad fashion that has no business crowding out the modern economy.
Just because somebody wants an 18 carat gold plated toilet seat is not a good knock against capitalism. Even if some critic has the nerve to call it art, I can live with that. But when folks start taking the artifacts of symbolism as a lever to weigh in against what the modern world is and the philosophy and ethics that built the modern world, that’s when I have a problem. I’m not saying that if it comes down to it I absolutely will not live in the Matrix, but I absolutely will not ignore the physical world and human evolution in it.
Consider the implications of the following from 2017:
Mythologies about the Internet’s function as an equal opportunities space have long been debunked by everything from the digital divide, to this understanding that online space is part of the real world. Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, for instance, dismisses the false dualism of online and offline lives, presenting instead a theory of augmented reality where “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” A racialized and gendered body online, while spatially and temporally removed from the immediate threat of physical violence, is still subject to dehumanizing attacks. A Black body online is always a Black body. It is dialectically co-constructed through online and offline representations and understandings, revealing the workings of race as artificial. As Tufts professor Christina Sharpe writes in her 1999 paper “Racialized Fantasies on the Internet,” “[t]he virtuality of race in cyberspace begins to expose it as already a virtual construction in real life.”
This [dreck] is what I have to deal with, seriously. Which means I have to navigate between the reality of engineering products that serve people and the use of monetized madness. If you are not involved in the sausage-making of IT, then it may seem that philosophy, ethics and tech design are all of a piece. It is true that designing a user experience generates a more disciplined, directed & immersive experience than designing a video entertainment for TV or online, but neither of these things are like setting broken bones or cleaning out and suturing a gunshot wound. When you’re building a franchise like Grand Theft Auto, you have dead bodies, gunshots and smashed limbs all over the place. A Black body online is not always a Black body. How seriously need we take that symbolic manipulation?
Well if that is your literature, that of ‘dialectic co-constructions’, you must take it very seriously. Why should anyone accept that literature when all of human history has nothing to do with what’s being built now? The answer is that IT and postmodernism, just like the Bored Apes have proven they can pull an economy out of their ass. It is the greatest and riskiest venture of all time, and in that is it’s great promise. So let’s break that down to simple terms.
Lowriders, Timberlands, Blunts & Electric Guitars
I’m going to overburden this metaphor and hopefully make my point.
There is nothing so special about a 1964 Impala that any designer in Detroit could envision. Everything about that car was designed for the broad American market. I know what it’s like trying to fit my big butt into some Dockers. It doesn’t work. So in the 90s I wore Girbaud jeans, just like all the cool black kids. But my big black ass could fit into the front seat of a Chevrolet. It’s a design consideration made with the broad modern market in mind. Indeed the same design consideration had to be made in Japan and Germany as well. They had no idea what black and Chicano kids in LA would do with aftermarket customizations that made the 64 into ‘our’ cultural property. Same with Timberland boots, Blunt cigars and everything Jimi Hendrix did that lead to inspire Eddie Hazel to make the funkiest song the world has ever known.
But the thing that made Girbauds righteous to me and my cadre was that the fashion world was closer to understanding our tastes and needs. We could afford to look overseas and to that one little joint in Greenwich Village that had what we were specifically looking for to spite the mainstream. So we could talk up the validity of our self-construction in French designer clothing until ultimately ‘we’ changed the fashion and through the market mechanisms of fashion, baggy pants became something mainstream manufacturers had to put into production. It doesn’t take much to calculate if Gap and Old Navy now physically make loose fitting pants. Nor does it take much to calculate how quickly they refit their supply chain to put skinny jeans on the shelf now that it’s the fashion.
In that space of innovation between the mainstream design and that alternate aftermarket is where concepts open up for creativity and the money it can generate. But if we’re going to try and monetize the second order effects (which is what’s really going on when you write about stuff you cannot build in order to leverage influence on builders) you cannot a false equivalence between the modern machinery of physical production and postmodern critiques. Furthermore, you cannot assess culpability on mainstream design that doesn’t accommodate an oppositional narrative.
I guess another way of saying it is if you spend your life talking shit about my ugly baby, you can’t curse the sex I had making her when she grows up and slaps you silly. This is the slight of hand of postmodern critique. That slight of hand makes it magic. So this is my declaration. Postmodernism is magic.
My tweet today.
So I do not trust Postmodernism to generate orthodoxy outside of its necessity for generating criticism of every interaction of mankind and the natural universe. It is an enabler for us bored apes to create Bored Apes. It is the rationalization of infinite confusion. It is useful for generating economies and secondary and tertiary markets for things we cannot directly experience or change. It is derivative by definition. But most importantly, it serves our will without challenging us to correct our fit in the natural world.
The Black Angle
It turns out that, in a little story I like to tell, that I was at a derby day for black academics at Harvard somewhere back around 1993. Long story short, very few of those present, save one professor from a southern technical university, were excited to hear about this thing called the internet. I, at the time, wore a baseball cap backwards as was the fashion, with my email address embroidered on it. (email@example.com) I told them if they really wanted to reach out to the grass roots, they should build web servers. No. They would rather continue their academic publishing and teaching salaries. Within a year, this cadre invented the term ‘Digital Divide’ and individuals like Percy Sutton were making demands of companies like AT&T to cut out specific black-owned and operated ISPs for black enterprise zones. He led a boycott of telecom that ultimately failed and therefore did not become the proprietor of the Harlem fief of the internet. Interesting story. Ask Omar Wasow.
Now that it has been aptly demonstrated that a sufficiently sophisticated technical apparatus can make money like magic, adding postmodern constructions and deconstructions doubles the power of illusion. It should come as no surprise that clever Americans are on the move to exploit. Black Americans, always on the putative back foot are not too late to the party. Indeed the BLM party has just the right racial bouncers at the door, and it’s all the rage. At least it has been for several years now, and it has figured out how to arbitrage Black bodies. It’s a long bet on racial essentialism that will ultimately go bust, but for the time being, though it’s overvalued and oversold, it maintains its inflated value.
So to the title. Do we want more postmodern blackness whose potential for magic remains, as most postmodern productions, mostly infinite? Can we invert the meaning of history and negate the risks of the American Revolution? How long can we pretend the construction of the BIPOC was the sine qua non of America’s founding?
Can a Lil Young X Jabreezy go viral and turn powdered wigs and stockings into the next mean mugging hiphop worldwide phenomenon? The ground was broken by Audre Lorde and a host of other black academics who have decided that magical inversions, historical revisions and rhetorical circumlocutions are the path to black mental liberation. Go ahead, read that paragraph above again where the social media theorist ‘splains how racialized and gendered bodies online are dehumanized. Not with sticks or stones, therefore no broken bones, but within the narratives of videogames like Grand Theft Auto. Have you ever played GTA San Andreas? I have. Dude, I’m even hip to the Hot Coffee Mod.
Is it just a game? Is it just monetized magic? Is it just the inevitable consequence of postmodern rationality? I don’t have a definitive answer, and will not come up with one. Somebody else is on the right tenure track for that task. Or perhaps it has already been done and the answer lies on some paywalled website I’ve never heard of. Meanwhile I’m safe because I understand that no matter what people think, their actions in the real world are constrained by certain laws of physics that have been stable long enough for us human beings to evolve. We may claim to possess a third eye, but we cannot materialize one. Well, radar is expensive.
I say black Americans, like any humans, will be motivated to engage the market of postmodern creations and destructions. Like any humans we are all enticed by the wish fulfillment of magical illusions. All such illusions require deceptions be they three card monte or videogame hacks. There’s always people behind the curtain whose motivations and incentives can be ascertained.
I believe that people who are genuinely deprived of their material and psychological basics will revolt and that will also be predictable. It must also be material and psychological in nature because that is how we have evolved to be. Living in houses with electricity and computers is the evolutionary novelty. Without some serious genius work, it will be unsustainable. We cannot keyboard our way to the future. So on any timeline, the investment in postmodernism is a short bet. I hate to say that war is the answer, but an accurate telling of history shows this to be true when those basics are stolen. Postmodernism just gives us metaphorical cans to kick, so we can pretend to be productive. My recommendation is to divest. Get real.