The Road going to no home

A review of Revolutionary Road (2008, directed by Sam Mendes )

One of the most effective criticisms that can be made of people who choose to live an alternative lifestyle is that it is (in the terms of this movie) whimsical or flighty. An alternative lifestyle is presented as a set of artifices that may make complete sense when initially constructed but can’t replace the foundation of how one has to live. Whether one’s life leads to riches or rags, one must make sensible choices about how one goes about the journey. Your journey is still here, in this world.

A bohemian, whether called a hipster, a radical, or a slacker scoffs at this definition of sensibility. It’s a big joke that generation after generation laughs at, slapping knees and each others backs until such time as they pause to catch a breathe, finding themselves as the object of the laughter. This big joke is closely examined by its participants only in a series of desperate attempts to find enough people who share enough values and aesthetic sensibilities so that an urban, childless, bohemian life isn’t meaningless. Every one else just sees this as the activity of childhood, of children, of people who aren’t taking certain biological or socio-economic aspects of life seriously, fantasy creatures who do not live in this world. For everyone else there will be offspring careers, and taking care of elderly parents. Whatever alternative lifestyles have to offer they aren’t, generally, meaningful responses to hard questions around retirement, child rearing, health care, et al.

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toy-land of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves

Revolutionary Road (the novel)

Revolutionary Road (the address of DeCaprio and Winslet in the movie) is the perfect place to raise a family and participate in the all the benefits of regular, mid twentieth century middle class life. Friends who don’t interest you. Neighbors you can barely stand. No one who ever wants to talk about life outside of the mundane. Beach trips, dinner parties and an occasional trip to a nightclub extend suburban work life outside of the work day. This routine, and even homogeneity itself, is the only way that white collar workers can possibly maintain their sanity while doing something that they hate.

Why is this? Why is routine and mundanity a necessity for office workers mental health? A crass interpretation would be that when you are doing something horrible, something that you can’t stand, then you have to shut down your critical impulses, as they are unnecessary facilities that just get in the way of the activity you have decided upon. Damn the consequences!

“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”

Revolutionary Road (the novel)

I haven’t read the novel that the movie is based on but I have to believe that it was a friendly response to it. Every quote I have found from the novel reflects the emotional moment that I found in the movie. Shiny happy reality wrapped around the sadness of choices that have moved beyond your ability to make them.

The casting of DeCaprio and Winslet was excellent in this regard. The two of them made their careers (and, I’m sure could have retired on the proceeds) as the romantic leads of the movie Titanic, the story of an enormous ship whose slow motion CGI dismantling far exceeded any actor’s ability to… exist. In this way the two movies share a common sensibility. Suburbia is the Titanic, born of hubris and monotony, preparing to hit a future that will sink it. But as actors these two have grown a great deal since Cameron’s heavy handed ministrations.

In the first movie Winslet was barely there,she was, more or less, the invisible half of a “great romance” which is the body-without-organs of cinema life. To her great credit Winslet went from being a Shakespearean actor, to Titanic, to indie films where she has spent most of the past decade (RR probably would be considered an indie film in the denatured terms that apply in the film-making industry). Her role in Revolutionary Road is the opposite of the Titanic role. Winslet is at the height of her power as an actor and as someone who is willing to make the fully aware and awake break from this world. For the story of Revolution Road, the myth of another path is called Paris; but almost anywhere could be the outside of patterned misery, of a job that they hate, of a life that holds no joy. Her arc in the movie includes putting her body on the line in the name of Paris (or at the very least getting out of suburban purgatory).

DeCaprio is a difficult actor to like. For over a decade he has been (especially early in his career) called the next Marlon Brando but he has yet to rise nearly to the level of a Brando or a Deniro. He is more likely to be spoken of as an actor in the same breathe as a Ben Affleck or Colin Farrel (not Clooney, Pitt or Damon). He is totally competent (even if it is hard to look at his face without worrying about how many bathroom breaks his director is giving him) but his risk taking (as an actor) seems… safe. DeCaprio’s role in Revolutionary Road is, again, competent, as he plays a character who seems prepared to leave behind a life of pedantic misery… until he isn’t.

Whereas the relationship in Titanic was all honeymoon (love and bliss and shit), the marriage in Revolutionary Road is the reality of what happens when the romance leads to children and ten years later you look up are realize you are fucking miserable–not just with the life you lead in this world, which is self-evident, but with the person you are living it with. What does falling out of love feel like? Most of us have this experience but it doesn’t make the transition to the plastic arts. We know that love looks like inhumanly beautiful people making kissy face but what does falling out look like? It doesn’t look like a dramatic fight with dishes and yelling since that still seems to lead to the kissing and the staying together. It looks like something else.

A ballet perhaps, where the feints and pirouettes replace action and honesty; where communication resembles a light slit experiment, exposing the incongruity between two types of behaviors, life and routine, passion and obligation, love and hate, the present and the myth. And as with most incongruity our skills aren’t suited for transition well. We do it poorly. We move from one thing to another with great stubbornness and inelegance. There is no ballet to the breakup. Things get messy and unclear.

The list is thousands long
People who decided it wasn’t for them
Did they really make that decision?
Conditioning runs deep in the U.S.A.
Teenage rebellion is just fine as long as you stop once you turn eighteen
Thousands of punks turned to society’s tools
There is something in their eyes
You can tell they sold out

-Filth The List

I am enough of a realist to understand the material reasons that counterculture/Bohemia (of which my particular post-hardcore, anti-authoritarian scene is but one of many) represents a chapter of most people’s lives (and not even a major one). I am also enough of a troubled dreamer to resent this and my resentment is not simple. On the one hand I don’t hold it against those passing through but on the other I sincerely wish it weren’t the case. I wish that there were enough here in this scene, whether it was material or spiritual, to keep everyone who finds my particular solutions ([anti]political, cultural, aesthetic), to be solutions for life.

The phenomena being reflected on is that individuals are not bound to each other tightly. They can experience the entire oeuvre of a decade-old band in an afternoon. They get resources from their class and Wikipedia explains their interconnections to the world. The critique of ideology has been fantastic for late anarchists in that it has allowed us not to get trapped by pastoralism or workerism, but it has also created a context where nothing that we can do to change the world is good enough to rise to even that level of description. Our critique of the incompleteness of our own activity has assured most of us that our activity is not good enough. It only makes sense that we abandon critique as incomplete. This autodigestion–coupled with the material force of this worlds pressures–is enough to convince the most die-hard Boheme to add their name to The List. But there is no list and no more home.

GaGa, Bowie, Hitler

The mythology is all wrong. Prometheus did not bring fire to the humans. This is what happened. Prometheus stole fire from the old, conservative gods and ate it. With this fire in his belly, he descended to the human world, jumped onto a stage, and told them, “I have brought you fire!” None of them grew warm because of the fire inside the rebel god—they only though they did.

GAGA, BOWIE, HITLER

Well you can bump and grind,
It is good for your mind,
Well you can twist and shout, let it all hang out
But you won’t fool the children of the revolution

-Marc Bolan, 1972

INTRODUCTION

The mythology is all wrong. Prometheus did not bring fire to the humans.

This is what happened.

Prometheus stole fire from the old, conservative gods and ate it. With this fire in his belly, he descended to the human world, jumped onto a stage, and told them, “I have brought you fire!” None of them grew warm because of the fire inside the rebel god—they only though they did. Mesmerized by his dancing flames, they crowded around Prometheus and confused the shared heat of their bodies for that of his own. In their ignorance, they truly believed that Prometheus had brought them fire. In truth, all Prometheus ever did with the fire in his belly was dance.

For his crime, the old gods punished Prometheus by chaining him to his stage. There, tied to the stage on which he once danced, an eagle devoured his insides. At night, when the world slept, when everyone forgot, Prometheus healed from his wounds. In the day light, the eagle returned and ravaged him once again. The eagle haunted Prometheus forever.

A YOUNG MAN

In 1913, in the German city of Munich, a young man successfully avoided military service. This young man was an artist who could not thrive in the art world. He had been rejected from art schools and told by the old conservative world that he could never do what he wanted to do. When the first world war began in 1914, he eagerly sought to join the same military service he had once avoided. In 1914 he was shipped off to the Western Front. Despite being wounded in 1917, he found war to be the greatest experience of his life. When the war ended 1918, and his world of heroes and battles was over, he had nowhere else to go. And so, on the streets of Munich, Adolf Hitler happened upon the German Worker’s Party.

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He entered this group just as he entered the art world and the military: looking for a world on which he could leave his mark. By 1921, Hitler had risen to become a minor party leader. They called him Fuhrer. In 1921, Hitler and 600 armed men surrounded the speech of their political opponent. From there they attempted to take over the Munich city hall. Eventually the Nazis were crushed and Hitler was sent to prison, but the attempted coup catapulted the Nazis into fame. A starving nation found comfort in the boldness of this political party. While in jail, Hitler wrote a book called My Struggle. His words were to find resonance in the desperate population of Germany. Finally, the artist had found his medium. All of Germany would soon be looking in his direction and before long, so would the rest of the world.

ANOTHER YOUNG MAN

In 1962, in the suburbs of London, a young man just out of art school declared to his parents that he was going to be a pop star. They did not want him to become a pop star. Despite this discouragement, the young man moved from band to band, hoping to find the one that would catapult him into stardom. He wrote songs for money over the years and drifted through London, living his life as if it was a long, theatrical conquest. When his dream band arrived one day, he made them “Ziggy’s band.” He told the world that in the end he would become “sucked up into his mind” after having “made it too far.” Ziggy Stardust jumped onto the stage and immediately started to disintegrate. The fame he sought began to leave marks on his face: strange, sparkling lightning bolts that he displayed to the starving world around him.

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The world from which David Bowie emerged was tumultuous and riddled with disorder. His album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was released in the summer of 1972, the same summer that the Angry Brigade was on trial. They were anarchists accused of firing a rifle at an embassy, sending bombs to members of British Parliament, and writing incendiary communiques, among other things. In one of these communiques, the Angry Brigade stated that “life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.” They once asked a question: “Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN.”

Bowie preferred to dance in front of everyone, watching as his face turned up on the latest shirts for people to spend all of their wages on. He proceeded to fulfill his own ambition until it consumed him. As Ziggy Stardust began to disintegrate, David Bowie started to unravel. He could not escape the stardom he had once craved. He could not escape his personality, his exoskeleton. He could not tell the difference between himself and his own image. Much like Adolf Hitler, David Bowie chased his projection into the future until it reached its wretched conclusion. Ziggy was to become an empty, desperate shell.

In his 1974 album Diamond Dogs, David Bowie declares that what he is doing is “not rock and roll. This is…genocide.” The dazzling luminary became rather dour. There was no more glitter, there was only a man with slicked-back blonde hair called the Thin White Duke. In 1976, his album Station To Station was released. During that same year Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, finally died. Rather than allow news of the dictator’s death to broadcast via satellite, Bowie chose to have his interview broadcast instead. Francisco Franco led a fascist army that, aided by Adolf Hitler’s army, wiped out and eradicated the anarchists struggling in Spain. The Thin White Duke spoke to England on the day that Franco died, but said nothing of the dictator’s passing. The same year, David Bowie told a reporter that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader.” Bowie later blamed this comment on drugs and stress. Also in 1976, he also said that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

Ziggy Stardust ended up as the Thin White Duke. His persona had eaten him. He retreated to Berlin, the city where Adolf Hitler killed himself. There he made records influenced by German electronic music. Millions of people had flocked to see David Bowie while he was Ziggy Stardust. Millions continued to see him after Ziggy was dead. His albums continued to sell, his face continued to be on the latest shirts, his words continued to be broadcast everywhere. In 1977, just as the insurrections in the Italian cities were starting, just as the struggle against work and the factory was intensifying, David Bowie said these words to the world: “I’m the perfect example of the victim of technology. I think it’s disastrous.”

A YOUNG GIRL

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In 2003, in New York City, a young girl began to sing in clubs. She had left art school, dissatisfied with the people in her classes, and started to make music. The young girl knew it was her “destiny” to become a star. Soon she was singing in night clubs in a leopard-print thong. This disturbed her father, a wealthy man who did not understand what his well-educated daughter was doing. By 2008, the young girl had crafted her first album and projected herself into the future, much like Bowie, much like Hitler. The Fame, released in the summer of 2008, was Stephani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s assault upon the world of pop-culture. She created an album, a persona, and an image that encouraged people to come to her and be themselves. Her album champions living like a spectacular movie star.

“This idea of The Fame runs through and through,” Stephani said. “Basically, if you have nothing, no money, no fame, you can still feel beautiful and dirty rich. The music is intended to inspire people to feel a certain way about themselves, so they’ll be able to encompass, in their own lives, a sense of inner fame that they can project to the world.”

Stephani, who had since given herself the name “Lady Gaga,” toured the United States promoting her new album. With The Fame, she began to develop a cult following that spread quickly through the electronic networks of the contemporary United States. Her image metastasized. Lady Gaga often expressed her love of David Bowie and wore a lightning bolt on her face in homage. As heiress to his tradition, Lady Gaga disseminated her songs of glamor, decay, and ecstasy. Her face appeared on the latest shirts and skirts.

Since the 1970’s, the aspirations of people like the Angry Brigade had been systematically crushed. There were fewer people attacking commodity society and they received less support than the anarchists of the seventies. By the fall of 2009, when Lady Gaga’s second album was released, the anarchists of the world had finally found a new power ever since the Greek Insurrection in 2008, an event which mobilized and inspired thousands of anarchists. Unfortunately, in 2009, commodity society was still more powerful, thanks to people like Lady Gaga.

With her follow-up album, The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga decided to dub her followers “little monsters.” Each song on her album was meant to be a monster that she found in herself. Lady Gaga, no longer calling herself Stephani in public, had become an exorcist for people who found comfort in her words and imagery. In interview after interview, Lady Gaga extolled her followers to purge their inner monsters from themselves at her concerts and through her music. Unlike David Bowie, Lady Gaga created an army and an empire for herself with her persona, an empire she sustained with constant touring and publicity stunts. In her music video for the song “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga is depicted as the leader of a hyper-sexual fascist army. With each stop in her Monster’s Ball Tour, Lady Gaga amassed more fans, swelling the ranks of her “little monsters.”

Like Adolf Hitler, Lady Gaga channeled the suppressed energy of her audience into herself. In the Germany of the 1920’s, Hitler told everyone that he was just like them, that he could feel their pain, and that, above all, he knew how to get rid of that pain. At the time, the population of Germany was poor, hungry, and starving for a common direction. In the United States of 2008-2010, the population was poor, losing their houses, and desperate for answers. Lady Gaga, a self-professed “freak,” told her fans she was just like them. Her fan base was composed of people with a reason to hate the current order. She spoke down to the freaks, excluded, the oppressed, trying to lift them up to salvation and inner fame. In the end, Lady Gaga did not liberate anyone, she only reinforced commodity society. Hitler used his fame to reinforce the fascist state. Lady Gaga used her fame to reinforce the capitalist state.

Costuming herself in a false benevolence, Lady Gaga told Oprah Winfrey, “All the things that I do, in terms of The Fame and in terms of The Fame Monster, it’s meant to sort of make it a bit easier to swallow this kind of horrific media world we live in.”

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TWO YOUNG BOYS AND A GIRL

Lady Gaga is currently doing nothing new. David Bowie did it before her. Kiss, the Grateful Dead, and Jay-Z all did the same thing. Every shimmering star is a distraction from physical reality. Every star mobilizes their fans in order to profit off them monetarily. Every star crafts webs of fantasy, delusion, imagery, and sound in order to keep their fans coming to their shows and buying their albums. Every star accumulates capital. Every star is a star unto themselves, a fire-bringer that never really shares the fire.

For every Adolf Hitler, there is a Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who created The Triumph Of The Will. As an artist, she felt no qualms about making a film for the Nazis. Her evocative film exaggerates and aggrandizes the Nazi leadership. It also depicts thousands of loyal fans giving the Roman salute to Hitler. Although Riefenstahl helped promote the Nazis in their ascent, she continued her life as an artist after the end of the second world war. Other artists would later find inspiration in her film techniques. She pioneered the art of displaying a star to a world. Since her 1934 film was released to the German public, cinema has mutated into the internet-centric media world of the present day. There are no longer lone Hitlers to keep people in line. There is a multitude of Hitlers out there, dancing on the screen, keeping the public in line.

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Auschwitz was never completed. Its construction continues to this day. Auschwitz is everywhere. Everyone must work in order to buy a Lady Gaga album. Everyone had to work to buy a David Bowie album in the seventies. Everyone had to work in Auschwitz. Before being removed from the ghetto of Warsaw and taken to the camps, Jewish prisoners fought an armed insurgency against the Nazis. In the end, Hitler told Germany that the insurrection was crushed. During the 1970’s in England, an anarchist guerrilla group called the Angry Brigade blew up train tracks, shot prison guards, burnt politicians’ offices, destroyed banks, bombed the media, and torched army recruiting offices. In the end, the sound of David Bowie drowned out their actions.

On the first of May, 1971, the Angry Brigade said this after bombing an upscale boutique: “We have sat quietly and suffered the violence of the system for too long. We are being attacked daily. Violence does not only exist in the army, the police and the prisons. It exists in the shoddy alienating culture pushed out by TV films and magazines, it exists in the ugly sterility of urban life. It exists in the daily exploitation of our Labor, which gives big Bosses the power to control our lives and run the system for their own ends.”

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The three artists in question, Gaga, Bowie, Hitler, are like all artists. But they have far more power than the others. Every artist who makes a film in Nazi Germany, every band who plays for money, and every singer who soothes the minds of her troubled “monsters” is a professional who keeps people in line. Hitler worked for the Nazi capitalist machine. Gaga works for the international capitalist machine. She gives it money. She keeps them entertained at home. In this world, art is used by capitalism to perpetuate itself. It uses the stars to stay alive and in return gives the stars what they ask for. For Lady Gaga, it was fame. For David Bowie, it was fame. For Adolf Hitler, it was fame.

In conclusion, the author of this article would like to make a simple request. Every artist reading should tattoo this phrase on their wrist: Art is Auschwitz.

Welcome to the Anvil – Editorial #1

Print is dead. The paper you are holding in your hand does not exist. It is not economically feasible. The demographic of print readership is older and heading north. As a result, this paper does not hold the presumption of the possibility of a successful enterprise. It is not capable of anything beyond what has already happened on the site. The medium is the message and the message is clear. But… (and we are not alone in this) we love print: the texture and physicality of it. More importantly we believe that reading the exact same thing in print rather than on a screen is a qualitatively different experience. It is slower, it invites a full reading rather than just a skimming. It smells, of paper, ink and the human hands it has passed through before yours. It feels real.

What we are

The Anvil is created by authors who are, or who have been, involved in direct contestation –not professionals, detached from what they write about, but direct observers and participants of this world, engaged in the tensions of our time. The mission of The Anvil is to share our observations on (macro and micro) culture in such a way that the content of what we are reviewing, and the deeper issues it exposes, are not compromised by our individual affiliations with a particular tendency, association, or principle. Because most of The Anvil’s authors are also transgressors they often choose to write with pen names. We suffer labels ungratefully and would like to use The Anvil as the platform by which we make our arguments and have our discussions away from labels. Reviews and critical essays are the way that we are going to pound these conversations into shape.

What we review

This first issue is a good representation of the range of material we will be reviewing. This includes a critical review of The Coming Insurrection, a book broadly known because for the histrionics of Glenn Beck’s partial review of it* (which launched TCI to the top of the non-fiction charts for a few weeks) as well as a broad reading of the music of John Prine (and how it speaks to, and against, the American psyche, irony, and common sense). On the one hand, popular culture is reviewed, from Sons of Anarchy to World War Z. On the other, reviewers consider the oeuvres of Jacques Camatte and Isabelle Eberhardt.

These pieces are eclectic and political, topical and obscure, literate and superficial. Reviews range from considerations on material for its life changing characteristics to grocery lists relating popular culture to life changing choices, dissonant rebellions against simplistic unities and paeans to the text (or album) itself.

How we do it

The content in The Anvil paper begins with the site. Everything you are holding in your hand began as an article, and often a conversation, on the website. We believe that we can take advantage of the best of both mediums to both have the level of conversation we would like to have AND reach readers where they are at.

In our unreal world, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the invisible things that are easily confused with reality: fake controversies, confused priorities, hyperbolic rhetoric about inconsequential things. We become disengaged with the torrents that pass us by. Paper slows us down enough to engage in the ideas that we are talking about. With the site as a place to have these conversations we believe they will become something of consequence. It could be activity together, it could be a different eye on the same things we observed yesterday, or it could be your participation in future issues of The Anvil. We have a world to explore together.

Strike the iron of this world while it is hot!

Footnote: “The book was written after riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005 tore the country apart, and that was before the economy really got bad. This is the anti- “Common Sense,” where I call for peaceful protest.” –Glenn Beck

How to Survive in Graduate School

A Review of Postmodernism is Not What You Think

Postmodernism Is Not What You Think by Charles Lemert, 1997.

Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 185 pages (first edition)

This first edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was written over 13 years ago, just before the “event” that changed everything. A proud and bright icon of modern architecture stands on the cover, mocking the two lowly constructions which appear to be from a younger age and time. It as if Charles Lemert wants to remind us that the problem of modernism have not yet passed. A simple and rarely refuted thesis dawns upon me: the problem of modernity is the problem that can not be gotten beyond. 1997 .. this was the same year that a lesser known post-anarchist by the name of John Caputo (you will recall an essay about Derrida’s “Responsible Anarchy”) introduced his book Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Caputo wrote in his book that the “apostles of anti-deconstruction seem to think [in response to] strange readings of odd poems in graduate literary theory classes, [that] when the sort of anarchy that deconstruction perpetrates threatens to spill over into the streets of ethics and politics, that is serious business and it is not to be taken lightly. [They] have to put a stop to it; that is [their] ethical and civic duty, [they, the] Knights of Good Conscience.”

One does not need to get behind the ethics of “responsible anarchy” to appreciate the way modernist ideas have inked their way back onto the pages of the book. Caputo wrote: “Deconstruction is […] the irrepressible anarchy of signifiers, the unmasterable, anarchic event of archi-ecriture.” And here, like so many signifiers spilled across a page, we are confronted with a proud modernism:

The problem of recuperation is precisely the problem of the retroactive powers of the state(ments); they inscribe the history of the text with the powers of the present. This is why Derrida’s responsible anarchy discloses is covered by the image of the state(ment). We have only to approach the image of the cover, in Lemert’s pro-postmodernism book to establish the legitimacy of this thesis and to thereby refer outside of the so-called anarchy of signifiers, and outside of the text, to the “nothing” that Derrida so favourably described (“there is nothing outside the con/text”).

1997 .. this was a time when so-called post-modernists, Derrida as our exemplar, were bitterly critiquing the works of modernist Marxists such as Habermas (and vice versa), proclaiming Marxism to be the shallow language of the university that one will have to learn to speak without speaking, to speak while secretly overcoming, to master so as to give way to the forces of anarchy in the university. This was a time when it was safe to present a cover of a modernist piece of architecture crumbling to the ground and yet Lemert did not take the opportunity. And has he not been validated by history?

2005 .. the second edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was published. This was a time of rational dialogue between postmodernists and modernists .. a time in which Derrida would overcome the differences he had with Habermas so that they might come together, as one, to speak in a single voice against a shared crisis of faith. When the twin towers of “system” and “lifeworld” come crashing down, we are left with the real terror of postmodernity and we run back to our safe space. Speaking in good conscience, Derrida and Habermas defend the ethical project of the Enlightenment. 2001 … three years before the modern towers came crashing down.

The introduction to the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (edited by Giovanna Borradori, 2003) explained the significance of this event in no uncertain terms: “This book is the first occasion in which Habermas and Derrida have agreed to appear side by side, responding to a similar sequence of questions in a parallel manner.” 2003 .. one “event”, an “event” that changed everything. Badiou would have us believe that through the witnessing of this rupture, in its (cover-)image, a the smooth ideology of the subject is puntured and s(he) is able to come into being by recognizing the dark face of truth. But here do we not experience precisely the opposite? The rupture of the smooth functioning of the system will always be sutured by the symbolic network of signifiers, the event terrorizes us, frightens us into submission, and we retreat back to a safe time, back to a safe place. The statist logic of modernity thereby is thereby renewed. .. Derrida and Habermas appear to us as the Knights of Good Conscience.

1997 .. 2005 … irony is at play between the two cover images. Whereas the archi-ecriture of the first cover reflects a time of modernity, while the book stands alone in defending the claims of post-modernism, the latter cover reflects a crisis of modernity at the hands of post-modernity: the twin towers of system and lifeworld are crashing to the ground. In a time of hope, Lemert has mocked us. In a time of fear, Lemert has frightened us. Finally, a book that goes all the way.

I had the honour and good fortune of listening to Charles Lemert speak at the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture at the University of New Brunswick. He shook the audience up with his words, provoking them. When they offered him looks of disgust, he disgusted them further. He stood unmoved by any of it, firmly in place. He spoke about the importance of coming to terms with death and stood like a corpse in front of an audience with dieing interest. After the lecture there was only one question and it was posed as such: “I respect you, Mr. Lemert, as a learned individual, and I respect that you are on the stage up there and that I am not, but all the same I wonder how you can go about spreading this theory of post-modernism and death and to thereby steal all the hope from our children?” The passionate interlocutor stood there with tears in his eyes as if to beg for mercy. Even I wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear, knowing very well he wouldn’t believe it anyway. Clearly, the interlocutor had not come prepared to engage with Mr. Lemert nor had he spent any time researching the thesis of his book.

A new thesis, rarely refuted, now dawns upon me: postmodernism is “the ability to drive people crazy, even to distraction.” This is what good post-modern philosophy does to people: it obfuscates and distracts them from the smooth functioning of their everyday lives, drawing them into new ambiences, new experiences, new ways of knowing and being. It does not do this by driving a plane into a giant piece of modern architecture, .. there is no reason to waste it all, to hurt so many people, on a strategy that won’t work anyway. But so long as I am alive, and so long as I know the error of the hysterics discourse, I speak through it from some other place of being. Imagine. Should one find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being a sociologist in the academy as well as an anarchist, a business owner and a radical, .. a baseball player and a freak; one nonetheless crucifies those who do the same. Let me reverse. Imagine. One should find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being an anarchist while also being prepared to be sacrificed to and alienated from the milieu for breaking the ethical codes that motivate the tradition, even while one believes these codes more dogmatically than most. Dare I say it? Having said it, I fear, I have already sacrificed too much.

Lemert’s quick on-point anecdotes were captivating. One such story described an incident in which a non-tenured junior colleague of sociology was carefully instructed that his/her department “so hate[d] postmodernism as to [have the individual stand] no chance of promotion should they be seen in its company.” It could similarly be stated as the case for any student of sociology, such as myself, who, after having searched through the archives of radical thought and, after finally exhausting the possibilities as to how to define the present crisis—of which it might well be impossible to doubt—to have finally stumbled upon a body of literature in nihilist anarchism, now finding herself having to defend such an audacious proposal! There is no defence! While reading this book, memories of undergraduate sociology courses vividly haunted me. I recall one debate that lasted for at least two classes in which a professor attempted to convince me that her department was more radical because it was not falling into the popular trap that so many other departments had become victim to: namely, the teach postmodern philosophy. But where does one go, in the university, to learn postmodern philosophy? Surely not Queen’s University.

The book is clearly written and surprisingly comprehensive: including, among several personal stories (even one reprinted love-note), well thought-out and cleverly focused treatments of Saussare, Derrida, Foucault, Debord, Mauss, Durkheim, Simmel, Strauss, Weber, Baudrillard, Lacan, Sivak, Habermas (who, I remember Lemert repetitively denouncing at the bar while we shared a few drinks), Barthes, Said, Rorty, Marcuse, Lyotard, Kristeva, Merton, Mills, Mead, Parsons, among many others. If one can move beyond Lemert’s naive retracing of the New Social Movements (a residue of the modern project) and his seemingly celebratory treatment of identity politics, the book is sure to be a good companion for any radical interested in understanding post-modernism and post-modernity from an academic who writes outside of the language of the university.

Lemert’s central line of argument is that not only is postmodernism not what you think, it is also not what you think. Trained as a sociologist, but be warned that he was also a minister, Lemert brings postmodernism to the sociological scrimmage line and, in the face of the supposed current crisis of theory suggests for us to stop asking “What’s wrong with sociology?”, “What is wrong with the university”, and to start asking “How does one speak the truth?, What truth?”

Perhaps there is something to this postmodernism thing after all. Whether one likes the term or not, one certainly has to admit that, as Lemert puts it, “something powerful, deep, and potentially far-reaching is going on [and this] seems to . . be beyond doubt.” A few interesting distinctions are made which are worth repeating. One of which is the difference between social theory and sociological theory. While the former is characterized by a critical attitude in the face of social life, the latter invokes a purely scientific methodology. Lemert is able to trace, not unlike many other contemporary sociologists, critical, even moral, impulses in such sociological figures as Durkheim, among others. It is this critical impulse that gives Lemert the academic force he needs to advance a case towards critically engaging with theories of the postmodern. Lemert is clearly a social theorist, he is not therefore a sociologist.

Another interesting distinction is made between what Lemert calls “radical modernism”, “radical postmodernism”, and “strategic postmodernism”. To put the matter simply: radical modernism is best explicated by Habermas’s defence of enlightenment subjectivity (the self-knowing subject), as can also be found in many of the Frankfurt school thinkers. Thus, one can sense, if not explicitly mark in the pages of such thinkers as Marcuse, the wanting to break away from the ‘iron-cage’ that Weber so dreadfully referred to. Radical postmodernism, as to be expected, is best explicated by Baudrillard and, to some degree, advanced earlier by the Situationists, for such thinkers the current situation is characterized not by the linearity and the reality of the past, but by hyperreality of the present. Strategic postmodernism, more cautious than full postmodernism and more critical than naive radical modernism, is interested in rewriting the history of modernity.

From a lonely, dark, apartment, such ends my one day encounter with Charles Lemert and the dreadfully depressing postmodernism he contends sociologists must be forced to think through. Though one might be in fear of that which is new, critical, and exciting, if one wants to invoke any sort of epistemological rupture, insurrection even, one must take, as Lemert puts it, ‘the mind of the fearless amateur’ — one who is not afraid to not know, to experiment with ugly and dirty ideas, and to face that which is unable to be explained (that which is impossible). Otherwise, one is faced with the likes of anarchism and its loyal servants who, on fear of having to contend with thoughts which bring power and responsibility closer to home, send out hostile emails, protesting the “dangerous” and decidedly infectious postmodernisms, post-lefts, and primitivists, and defending the even more dangerous and totalizing notions of progress, purity, social movements, and popularity.