• Brendan Graham Dempsey

After Postmodernism: 10. My Work and the 'Specter of Identity'

"Rise," Billy Norrby


Of crucial importance in the last scene of the previous post, I think, is Joel’s decision to see Spirit instead of Void. Were this choice not demanded of him, but the view somehow inevitable, uncritical, we would simply be back in the realm of naïve idealism, having merely changed one Transcendence for another. The whole Postmodern metaphysical critique would have been for naught, the whole revolution essentially a reactionary gesture. But, by being forced by Faust’s intractable skepticism to confront the Void in the new God, to look again at it with the Thinker’s epistemological lenses, Joel is forced to choose. If, to speak in Eshelman’s performatist terms, the transcendent vision of witnessing the God’s rebirth at the close of Canto 20 was a convincing phenomenological experience, then Faust’s prodding acts as the return of cold rational accounting. The decision now falls to Joel what to conclude.

For a moment, the sudden realization of this is like losing faith all over again (“and tears...”). But Joel has been down that road already; he has seen where it leads: to nihilism, consumerism, waste, destruction, ugliness, etc. By contrast, hope and a belief in something more has gotten him community, restoration, revitalisation, beauty, meaning. All based on Nothing—”God! / to be so empty—yet fill up the world!”

Joel chooses the better story. As observed earlier, this willed affirmation of transcendentals can serve as the first act of a particular kind of identity construction. To borrow the language of existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, this leap of faith is an act of passionate engagement, which occurs at the level of the single individual and proceeds from a sense of inwardness. The will to believe, then, confirms the existence of a subject, and a subjective engagement with transcendentals a dimensionality to which that subject can relate itself. This opens the door to Meaning, as the subject can now mean in relation to something. Such a sense of meaning is crucial for identity-construction. A narrative returns—no longer a metaphysical Master Narrative, nor a tribalist micronarrative based on the identity-markers of totalised immanence, but a personal narrative. By means of this movement, there is the return of something akin to what was lost in modern disenchantment and Postmodern critique. One gains a sense of orientation. As Joel puts it earlier in his confrontation with the dehumanising, commercialist Beast:


We fight!

We make a stand! And though we look as well

as any on the chaos that is life

without a Map—on galaxies of dust

within a Universe that’s centerless—

we stand, and hold our ground. For where we stand

we make a point! and there’s a Center—there’s

a landmark—Heaven—home. The naval of

the world’s our own: our humanness, our Earth.

(Canto 20, lines 377-86)

With the mention here of “Earth”, another crucial component of GOD’s paradigm for identity-construction comes into view. As noted earlier, the fully immanent domain of the ‘ecological’ emerges as a chief locus of transcendence in the work. Seeing Nature as sacred in this way links to important forms of identity-construction. The etymological origins of metaphors like “groundedness”, “rootedness”, etc. are close to the surface: a connection to the Earth or ‘the environment’ has always been a powerful element in establishing a sense of identity and purpose—a ‘sense of place’. It literally situates a person within a context, and thus provides a sense of orientation, a paradigm of relationships to other living things.

All of this is of course old hat to those already familiar with Deep Ecology and eco-spirituality, and it is not my intention to rehearse all such points here. For our purposes what is important is to appreciate how this avenue presents a way forward under the looming (post-) Postmodern “Specter of Identity’, specifically one that avoids the pitfalls of emerging trends.

At present, one could argue, two general camps have emerged in the aftermath of Postmodernism’s immanentising effect,[1] one on the political Left and the other on the political Right. In broad terms, the Left’s trajectory continues many residual Postmodern modes of identity construction. With a globalist outlook fitting its provenance within the logic of late consumer capitalism, it promotes an egalitarian pluralism.[2] It dovetails with Postmodernism’s critique of the Enlightenment by seeking to counter norms it regards as imperialist, white, male, and Western by promoting marginal(ised) identities, either to equal rank or in their stead. Its critics on the Right will claim—pointing to crackdowns on free speech on college campuses, the rise of a violent Antifa, etc.—that these efforts have acquired more than just a flavor of group-think and totalitarianism. From our perspective, we might observe that the return of dimensionality has re-opened the door to utopian idealism of a kind not seen since the Modernists, and that this has occasioned both the best and the worst of such idealism, including the zealous fervor that saw millions dead in concentration camps and the gulag archipelago.

Invertedly (I won’t say ‘by contrast’), and as part of the popular (and populist) reaction against the legacy of Postmodernism, the Right’s trajectory would ground identity in increasingly more narrow, parochial markers, such as along racial lines (or categories like “Western Civilization”, which often convey a racial tinge). Indeed, the re-emergence of fascist tendencies in America, and the West more generally, could be seen as a sort of fallback to certain Modernist forms of identity-construction after the recession of Postmodernism. At the same time, though, some have also simply appropriated the Postmodern language of identity politics for their conservative ends (alt-right white supremacist Richard Spenser, for instance, refers to himself as a “white identitarian”). In the great disruptions of the new period (economic, geopolitical, ecological, etc.), these trajectories are becoming more and more radicalised as the need for identity becomes more urgent and as those identity complexes are themselves increasingly defined in opposition to their ‘other’. As noted above, the threat of factionalism and group conflict is now very real, and very dangerous.

There are, of course, other post-Postmodern trajectories. One, a sort of ‘green party’ intrusion into this basic two-party system, is the paradigm GOD seems to advocate. One might call this trajectory ‘progressive localism’. In some senses, it contains elements of both models. Through its ecological commitments it retains a genuinely global scope: that of species and planet, of shared biological roots and ecological future. (Indeed, it even goes further than the global civility Hassan advocates by extending a sense of shared origin and destiny to all living things and ecosystems). At the same time, though, it opts for a narrower, more human scale of daily focus compared to Postmodern late capitalism. In this sense, it is decidedly anti-globalist, favoring small community engagement, local food production, handmade craft, etc. It would pick up on the anti/non-capitalist tendencies current among millennials and direct them to the formation of new kinds of sustainable systems (subsistence agriculture/ homesteading, barter and sharing economies, minimalist consumption, etc.). By such means, ‘place’ would become a living category again, as potentially quite diverse communities of people (that is, people whose superficial markers vary widely) could inhabit the same geographical space, to which a sense of commitment and attachment could accrue, reforging the kinds of social bonds lost to modernity on the basis of a new ‘transcendence’.

More than that, GOD advocates an aggressive project of identity-construction through the personal shaping of one’s spiritual narrative. The whole notion of exploding the traditional canon and opening it up for individual myth-making is predicated on this revolutionary form of self-authoring. While deeply personal, though, these micro-metannaratives also open up the possibility of community, by connecting with others around shared mythic constructs. The immanantising of spiritual experience by relocating its jurisdiction to the aesthetic could hypothetically allow for a post-Postmodern spiritual paradigm that keeps the best of tradition while avoiding the pitfalls—by supporting community (a “church”, in the Durkheimian sense) without making the creative individual subservient to the group.

In some ways, this is the new utopian aspiration presented in GOD—though not without it being characteristically shot-through with doubt and fraught uncertainties. The ‘utopia’ achieved by poem’s end, of course, rests on more dubious stuff than idealism. Is this, then, the sort of “pragmatic idealism” mentioned by Vermeulen and van den Akker? To what extent do the benefits of aesthetically-mediated belief extend into the political realm—before becoming debased as the “anesthetization of politics” (or “an aesthetic power”, as Joel cringes at Faust’s posturing in Canto 24). How quickly can “informed naivete” lose its rooting in (or access to) information? In short, if even irony and cynicism could be co-opted and appropriated by power, how long do sincerity and hope stand a chance? Must we be destined for totalitarianism?

Here, GOD goes even further to deconstruct itself, anticipating and enshrining its own critique before the last page is even turned. In the final Canto, as Joel prepares to head to the temple of Spirit reinvented, to serve some kind of priestly function in a new hierarchy for a new religion, he comes across a child already cynical about the new order. But, rather than chastise him—say, for regressing to some Postmodern narrowness—Joel simply smiles, takes the toy sword the boy is playing with, and gives him this injunction:

“See this Temple here?”

I say. He nods.

I meet his eye.

“This place

is home to God, reborn—a God our time

has reimagined out of all the Gods

that came before and withered with their age.

It is a moment’s monument: to what,

to them, seemed holiest—to what, to them,

their generation deemed its Best, and tells

that story. And, if time should pass (and time

will pass, most certainly) and this new God

grows stiff as stone, oppresses by its shape…

or if its spirals will not turn and mutate,

and grow to greater forms; or if this God,

by centuries of thinking-on, grows small

and wanes in awe, dwindles from art to law

or dogma, if it loses force—or grip

on the imagination—if it won’t

astound, amaze, or edify, compel

to praise or worship, soar the human soul

beyond the short and the parochial,

or shatter petty thought; if this new God,

with time, seems old, outworn, and will not alter

to fit the new expanses of the mind,

or fly beyond their contours to the shoals

of greater mystery,


blow it up.”

And, at these words, I jab the wooden blade

between my arm and torso: play-impaled

with Monster-slaying swords, and future wars

forever burning

and rebuilding Heaven.

(Canto 24, lines 590-629)

With this exhortation to the next and all future generations, subversion itself is codified within the new paradigm. It is as though, to every Hobbesian epigraph beginning each Book, a revolutionary addendum has been affixed: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Even—or perhaps, especially—metanarratives of Meaning require their checks and balances, safety valves and off-ramps. The new divinity, with all its ecological iconography, is, after all, a God of harmonies and cycles. The seasons turn, and even Gods grow old and die. In this sense, GOD is, you could say, an epic of that most ancient of myths: of the dying and rising God—through DEATH, DESCENT, and RESURRECTION. Through modernity, postmodernity, into a new, emerging period, and beyond.

[1] This effect was itself a response to the failure of the Modernist response to modernity’s broad disruption of identity-construction in traditional/premodern societies. [2] Jameson is insightful, if disturbing, in his analysis of identity factionalisation as an expression of consumer capitalist logic. He writes:

This is an objective dialectic that populists have often found repellent…: the emergent groups as so many new markets for new products, so many new interpellations for the advertising image itself. …[I]s not the production of the appropriate new group-specific products the truest recognition a business society can bring to its others? Finally, then, is not the very logic of capitalism itself ultimately as dependent on the equal right to consumption as it once was to the wage system or a uniform set of juridical categories applicable to everyone? Or, on the other hand, if individualism is really dead after all, is not late capitalism so hungry and thirsty for Luhmannian differentiation and the endless production and proliferation of new groups and neoethnicities of all kinds as to qualify it as the only truly ‘democratic’ and certainly the only ‘pluralistic’ mode of production? (p. 325)

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Contact Brendan at generationofleaves@gmail.com