Manual Irony and the Discourse of Modernity

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It cannot be overemphasized that parody in the hands of the most accomplished contemporary artists far transcends anything evident in its classical forms. And it cannot be said too often that the problems of postmodernity, enunciated in part by philosophers and theorists, have been most fully expanded and explored by artists, writers, filmmakers, and architects broadly interested in cultural value. These works take parodic form to lengths so delicately judged that we might want to find a new term for their achievement, one that acknowledges the vibrant moral quality of play.

I am conscious in undertaking to "unpack" these texts, that I am reducing to mere analytical words, for the sake of a common cause, what is sublimely superior to mere analysis or to a single discursive language. These are not works for those still still? This novel, always delightful to re-read and to teach, is particularly difficult to write about because its values — in the sense that painters or musicians use the term "values" — tend to float in a kind of mobile arrangement that does not submit to standards of evidence and meaning-production.

The Person plot involves an indefinite number of years chronological time is unimportant and four trips between New York and "so-called Switzerland" in which the young man pursues his desire and, incidentally at the end of Chapter 11, manages to bed the exotic Julia. This narrative medium of the novel, with its distinct voice and interests, runs parallel to the Person plot not so much to undermine it, though it does do that, but to amplify it in ways that demonstrate to readers, if not to the hapless Hugh Person, what worlds of pattern and pleasure are available to anyone willing to digress.

Chapter 11 ends with Hugh and Julia's assignation in the same bachelor's flat on East Sixty-fifth where, coincidentally, she had met an earlier lover, now dead in a distant war. She Julia noticed that the close mirror as seen from the bed reflected exactly the same still-life arrangement, oranges in a wooden bowl, as it had in the garland-brief days of Jim, a voracious consumer of the centenarian's fruit. She was almost sorry when upon looking around she located the source of the vision in the folds of her bright things thrown over the back of a chair.

She canceled their next assignation at the last moment and soon afterwards went off to Europe. In Person's mind the affair left hardly anything more than a stain of light lipstick on tissue paper — and a romantic sense of having embraced a great writer's sweetheart. Time, however, sets to work on those ephemeral affairs, and a new flavor is added to the recollection.

We now see a torn piece of La Stampa and an empty wine bottle.

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A lot of construction work was going on. A lot of construction work was going on around Witt, scarring and muddying the entire hillside upon which he was told he would find Villa Nastia. Its immediate surrounding had more or less been tidied up, forming an oasis of quiet amidst the clanging and knocking wilderness of clay and cranes. There even gleamed a boutique among the shops forming a semicircle around a freshly planted young rowan under which some litter had already been left, such as a workman's empty bottle and an Italian newspaper.

Person's power of orientation now failed him but a woman selling apples from a neighboring stall set him straight again. An over affectionate large white dog started to frisk unpleasantly in his wake and was called back by the woman. Nabokov, , One is the Person pilgrimage, and the other the narrative discourse itself composed of language calling attention to its constructive power. That power, what's more, comes from a creative addition to experience. Time does not add up in terms of results; instead, it adds value "flavor" to recollection.

But this matter-of-factness is not single or simple: it translates the philosophical musing at the end of the preceding chapter, in which the constructions of memory — and their mechanisms — are likened to a cubist collage. Time reduces the ephemeral: the "mere" material environment carelessly noted by Hugh Person can and for him will carry intensely important meanings. Aesthetic construction appears here over the shoulder of and as an echo for more mechanical apparatuses.

The cubist construction of Chapter 11 "a torn piece of La Stampa and an empty wine bottle" returns to its elements in Chapter 12 "a workman's empty bottle and an Italian newspaper". Orange, in its turn, has its own frequency in the novel, appearing elsewhere in various fires occurring in book titles and hotels, and in some crucial orange peels by the side of a crucial trail.

The "apples" Chapter 12 introduce another theme with another set of frequencies into this already-crowded range, where selling "apples" echoes yabloni "apple trees," and "apple green" apron, shutters where the "apple" theme crosses the more insistent "green" theme "reptile green" ink, skis; "green wine," "glossy green nylon" and, especially, the "green skier figurine". Even the white dog from this passage frisks through more than once, re-appearing like Odysseus's Argos when Person much later encouraged by his psychiatrist makes his final ill-fated pilgrimage to find his past.

Each detail invokes the others, sometimes singly, sometimes in duos and triads, and in compounds with increasingly ineffable resonance. This other world, as Nabokov says in The Gift , "surrounds us always and is not at all at the end of some pilgrimage" The answer is, "a moment of contact" with an "essential" presence chap. But that doomed search leads directly to death. Or rather, to what the wiser narrative voice calls, "the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another" chap. The Person plot, with its helpless and rarely satisfied desire, occupies a parallel position to the other, more imaginative sequence superimposed on it by the powers of language and art.

The novel is a training exercise for novices on how to sustain those powers, as Chapter One explains. When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines! Man made objects, or natural ones, inert in themselves but much used by careless life you are thinking, and quite rightly so, of a hillside stone over which a multitude of small animals have scurried in the course of incalculable seasons are particularly difficult to keep in surface focus: novices fall through the surface humming happily to themselves, and are soon reveling with childish abandon in the story of this stone, of that heath.

I shall explain. A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. To slip away in pursuit of one, or to sink into a single "meaning" would be to lose the rhythm another figure from the novel by grasping at one of its elements.

The novice tries that, and sinks. The experienced miracle worker, however, learns to perform that "mysterious mental maneuver required to pass from one state of being to the next"; it involves a kind of suspension in which multiplied dimensions — including especially the "past" — shine through. In pursuit of his singular desire, however, the inexperienced Person breaks the tension film. Its play of elements, multiplied many times from the few instances mentioned here, seems to encompass the universe, yet occupies only one hundred pages; the 26 chapters composing it alternate between two and six pages each.

Where poor Person clumsily attempts to grasp the past, to relive it or retrieve what he thinks is its essence, the parodically distanced reader, staying "on the now," recognizes the past as a vital part of each present arrangement. The parodic element in such a text is not singular, but instead a constant and virtuoso act of language running multiple parallels to the Person plot.

Its resonances contrast entirely with Person's narrowing determinations. Nabokov develops the parodic gambit into a complex system of paratactic constructions, orbiting themes, multiple frequencies, exfoliating digressions. For the character, Person, and his pilgrimage, and for a range of workmen from house builders to readers, a lot of construction work is going on. For those not yet familiar with this cinematic jewel, a meagre starting point is this description from one U.

The art.

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity Twelve Lectures Studies in Contemporary German Social Thoug

The substantial construction of alternative discourse. The very values lamented in the so-called plot remain vigorously present in the filmic sequence. I say "so-called plot" because the sequence here includes so much, much more than "plot" and "character," those values imported from drama that were already inadequate for describing narrative in and that are certainly inadequate for describing film. The real "plot" here is a doubled and even multiplied sequence in which the supposedly tragic "failure of love in the modern world" is a lot less important than the happy, contradictory, and erotic that is, life-sustaining tensions between sight, sound, and explanation running in multiple parallels through the sequence.


To allege contrast between the "serenity of Vermeer" and the "emptiness of modern life" actually makes very little sense, once we take into consideration the visual delight of this film. The director and editors have constructed an articulation of sight and awareness that links the film directly not thematically or allegorically with Vermeer, especially in its treatment of light and of object relations in space, in its respect for details of ordinary life, in its encroaching but this is important non-tragic awareness of finitude, including that ultimate finitude of death.

The basic parodic form here consists of the commentary available in-between the two primary narrative codes of plot, and camera. Upon this is built a rich and textured set of values, in the painter's sense of "value. They meet thereafter in a cafe, and again in an unspecified number and kind of meetings amounts of chronological time are unimportant wherein the keynotes are a certain good will and lack of communication. This plot, and its outcome, remains episodic. In the manner of parody, this second code runs parallel to the first and, by its very existence, produces mutual tension and commentary between codes.

The camera moves around New York with apparent ease and delicacy, but always with restraint, never sweeping to heights or magnifying distances. This lens can make even the New York skyline look like a Vermeer: reduced from heroic materialism to a configured space by wide-angle lens and late-afternoon sun. But this limit does not confine: like Nabokov's narrative language, it opens up a seemingly infinite world of possible sequences, codes, and values. The actual frame almost always remains portrait-sized, featuring a head or profile, respecting a figure's precarious importance, and rarely taking in more than one person at a time or even whole bodies.

Its gravitational field remains an individual head or profile, where it usually comes to rest, but its motion takes in a range of objects in enclosed spaces. For example, in one sequence in an apartment room, the camera laterals left from a stockinged foot propped on a bed by a girl on the floor reading, then to postcards, trainers, a bit of woodflooring in a herringbone pattern, photos, magazines, the rumpled edge of a blue bedspread; then it laterals back along the same course, this time to the sound of weeping.

No zooms, no rapid breaks, no insistence on connection, no explanation of grief. This lens appreciates painterly values of color and intensity, of configured space and proportion. While the central figures pursue their obscure objects of desire, a world of beauty lies about them, disregarded. Like Hugh Person, these characters remain interesting insofar as they show some awareness of that Other world, represented to them in this case by Vermeer. They miss the resemblance of their own world to that of the artist, but the camera picks it up for us. Like the thematic iterations in Nabokov that provide texture but avoid meaning, Jost's various visual themes recur and vary gently, just perceptibly, doubling their possible value.

Money, for example, is a common currency, and perhaps the root of evil as one character muses , but it is also actual bills in a bundle, interesting in themselves and creating no desire: money is investments, but there are more kinds of investments than monetary ones; money raises questions of value, especially in the markets for selling, buying, and trading in currencies or in art. Floors, for example, or windows: wood floors in herringbone-patterns, grained marble floors, marble parquet floors in black and green; and windows in paintings, in apartments, in cafes, or conspicuously absent in commodities trading centers.

As in Nabokov's novel, multiple themes exfoliate: artists — a painter, a singer, an actress — who appear not as icons or as mythologized producers of desirable objects, but as ordinary talented people with ordinary problems; pictures in museums and galleries, re-incarnated in photographs and on postcards, the framed view that emphasizes the frame. In varying frequencies, objects and gestures occur and re-occur: glossy hair, telephones, upholstery, doors, platform railings along a quay or atop a skyscraper, muted colors of rose, grey, white, and beige; gestures of going through a door, looking over a shoulder, at a Vermeer.

The recurrences sustained by such elements vary in their mutual complexities: the same kind of thing over and over again like a novice practicing, and yet developed to such a degree that elements disappear into something more massively fused. The aesthetic achievement is profoundly qualitative. In the so-called plot, on the other hand, death haunts everything in the form of quantitative measure: "numbers, I'm sick of numbers," says the broker who wants to give it all up and opt for what he hopes will be love, for his Anna who has a face as beautiful as a Vermeer.

His "I'm dying," on the day when his currencies investments begin to plummet, punctuates a sequence in which death, or figures of it, have been a factor increasingly. The sequence then becomes a sustained search for qualitative results to escape from the realm of quantity and death. Its torque and vitality depends on what is fragile, unnoticed, perishable. Whereas in the "plot," death is Big but unimportant, life is small, perishable, and very important.

What "plot," relegates to margins and irrelevance, the camera recovers as exquisite in its finitude; nothing large or grand can equal the small things for vitality. Life by definition has qualities, or "values" in the painter's sense of value. With motion, light, passing contact, a magazine, a discarded shoe, a lot of construction work is going on, constantly creating a useable past.

Material objects "much used" as Nabokov puts it "by careless life" become "transparent things, through which the past shines. His Anna, his obscure object of desire, responds to the call, but the irony remains. The message reaches an answering machine, and he dies before she reaches him and before he learns that her plans did not include him.

The last word on value is delivered by opaque Anna's voice-over:. There is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite, even; nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms.

Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name, Vermeer. Both use parodic form to deny priority to a single sequence or narrative. The doubled and redoubled sequence always presents alternatives to any particular selection, until the selective act of attention itself becomes the focus of interest, especially as it resides in between systems.

These postmodern parodic texts that negotiate shifts between parallel systems and sequences achieve exactly that kind of discursive in-between "writing. Such texts as those discussed here preserve particulars from erosion by "meaning" so that they can function, in their particularity and discreteness, as the basis for a new kind of order: one that reorders relations between present and past, that constitutes such new orders entirely by differential relationships.

Progress accepted as driving force behind history. The following works spanning philosophy, art theory, architecture, and cultural theory have played a major role in defining the discourse and arguments of this field of study, or are useful syntheses for orientation and overviews. In all the discourse, we need to differentiate the terms and concepts of the postmodern as a condition of a historical era or postmodernity as simply what we are in whether we know it or not , and postmodernism reflected in movements with varying levels of intention and self-awareness , When interpreters of culture discuss postmodern strategies or features in architecture, literature, philosophy, and the arts, this usually includes uses of irony, parody, sampling, mixing "high" and "low" popular cultural sources, horizontal vs.

What was Modernism? The Postmodern and Globalization From Homi Bhabha, " The Location of Culture " If the jargon of our times - postmodernity, postcoloniality, postfeminism - has any meaning at all, it does not lie in the popular use of the 'post' to indicate sequentiality - after -feminism; or polarity - anti -modernism.

Postmodernity, History, Mediation, and Representation Crises in the Representation of History Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as "what 'really' happened" external to representation or mediation vs. Multiculturalism, competing views of history and tradition.

Walter Benjamin's recognition of the non-neutrality of history: "Where are the empathies [of traditional historicism? Debord and Baudrillard 2 "the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents" "the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture" Jameson.

Pastiche and parody of multiple styles: old forms of "content" become mere "styles" stylistic masks, image styles, without present content: the meaning is in the mimicry "in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum" Jameson.

Jameson's own nostalgia? Did this ever exist? The Modern and the Postmodern: Contrasting Tendencies The features in the table below are only often-discussed tendencies, not absolutes. In fact, the tendency to see things in seemingly obvious, binary, contrasting categories is usually associated with modernism. The tendency to dissolve binary categories and expose their arbitrary cultural co-dependency is associated with postmodernism.

For heuristic purposes only. Martin Irvine cct.

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All educational uses permitted with attribution and link to this page. Cited and quoted works are the property of the respective owners. Images: Barbara Kruger. Postmodernity vs. Ways of working with the term postmodern. Postmodernity, History, Mediation, and Representation. Crises in the Representation of History Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as "what 'really' happened" external to representation or mediation vs. The Modern and the Postmodern: Contrasting Tendencies.

The features in the table below are only often-discussed tendencies, not absolutes. Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for history and culture; local narratives, ironic deconstruction of master narratives: counter-myths of origin.

Faith in "Grand Theory" totalizing explanations in history, science and culture to represent all knowledge and explain everything. Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of localizing and contingent theories. Master narrative of progress through science and technology. Skepticism of idea of progress, anti-technology reactions, neo-Luddism; new age religions. Idea of "the family" as central unit of social order: model of the middle-class, nuclear family. Heterosexual norms. Alternative family units, alternatives to middle-class marriage model, multiple identities for couplings and childraising.

Polysexuality, exposure of repressed homosexual and homosocial realities in cultures. Subverted order, loss of centralized control, fragmentation.

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Faith and personal investment in big politics Nation-State, party. Trust and investment in micropolitics, identity politics, local politics, institutional power struggles. Faith in "Depth" meaning, value, content, the signified over "Surface" appearances, the superficial, the signifier. Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers without concern for "Depth". Relational and horizontal differences, differentiations. Crisis in representation and status of the image after photography and mass media.

Culture adapting to simulation, visual media becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms, simulation and real-time media substituting for the real. Faith in the "real" beyond media, language, symbols, and representations; authenticity of "originals. Hyper-reality, image saturation, simulacra seem more powerful than the "real"; images and texts with no prior "original". Dichotomy of high and low culture official vs. Imposed consensus that high or official culture is normative and authoritative, the ground of value and discrimination.

Disruption of the dominance of high culture by popular culture. Demassified culture; niche products and marketing, smaller group identities. Art as unique object and finished work authenticated by artist and validated by agreed upon standards.

Margins of modernity in: Subjects of modernity

Art as process, performance, production, intertextuality. Art as recycling of culture authenticated by audience and validated in subcultures sharing identity with the artist. Knowledge mastery, attempts to embrace a totality. Quest for interdisciplinary harmony. Paradigms: The Library and The Encyclopedia.

Navigation through information overload, information management; fragmented, partial knowledge; just-in-time knowledge. Paradigms: The Web. Broadcast media, centralized one-to-many communications. Paradigms: broadcast networks and TV. Digital, interactive, client-server, distributed, user-motivated, individualized, many-to-many media. Paradigms: Internet file sharing, the Web and Web 2. Indeterminacy, contingency, polycentric power sources.