Reality in the rubble

Culture | The fall of the twin towers heralds the collapse of postmodernism

Issue: "A patient nation," Oct. 13, 2001

The modern era began, say some cultural historians, with the destruction of the Bastille, the French prison, on July 14, 1789. The Enlightenment revolution overthrew tradition, authority, and faith, all in an effort to create from scratch a new utopian order of reason and humanism, a mindset that would dominate Western culture, through numerous reigns of terror, for two centuries.

This modern era had its symbolic ending with the demolition of another building, marking the beginning of the postmodern era. On July 15, 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis-confidently designed to better the lot of the poor through social engineering-was purposely blown up. The modernist attempt to solve all social ills through humanistic assumptions and scientific rationalism resulted not in a utopia but in crime, degradation, and despair.

If the fall of a great work of architecture is a milestone for cultural change, then surely the collapse of the World Trade Center-twin towers of 110 stories utterly destroyed by a terrorist attack-marks the end of postmodernism.

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Postmodernists rejected the very possibility of objective truth, insisting that reality is only a construction of the culture or of the mind. But the planes that crashed into the buildings and into every American's consciousness were no mental constructions. Objective reality in all of its hard edges asserted itself.

Postmodernists rejected the very possibility of objective morality. What is right or wrong varies, they said, according to the culture or the individual. If a person chooses certain values, that makes them right for that person. The terrorists certainly made a choice, and what they did was right for them. But somehow their cold-blooded murder of thousands of ordinary men, women, and children was seen as pure, objective evil, something postmodernists had professed not to believe in.

Postmodernists believed that all cultures are equally valid, that we have no basis for saying that one society or way of thinking is better than any other. Actually, one culture is worse than all the rest, according to the postmodernist curriculum, namely, Western civilization. When that civilization was attacked, though, it began to be seen as something worth defending. It became hard to consider the havens of Islamic terrorism, which teach hatred, oppression, and suicide bombing, as really being equal to the land of the free.

New York City is the capital of America's culture-the home of the publishing industry, the playground of the intellectual elite, the great media center, the epicenter of the art world, the home of the trendsetters and the fashion industry. Suddenly, their sensibility changed.

A characteristic trait of the postmodernist attitude is irony. Since nothing is real and everything is fake, nothing is taken seriously. Yet after the attack Jerry Seinfeld, the personification of New York cynical comedy, put together a benefit for the victims. David Letterman, the king of mockery, comforted Dan Rather on Late Night, both of them close to tears.

Hip publications like the online magazine Salon printed testimonials from self-confessed flag-burners turned flag-wavers. Intellectuals, novelists, and artists were changing their tunes like musicians in Carnegie Hall.

What had once been fashionable in the avant garde world of the arts now was seen to be in embarrassingly bad taste. Art that attacked America was no longer so attractive, now that America was under attack. The purposeful creation of ugliness no longer seemed as clever, in light of the real ugliness that hung in the air of New York. Some artists had been doing things like carving up human corpses and displaying photographs of the results-in light of the body parts in the rubble of the World Trade Center, this no longer seemed amusing.

It had become fashionable to ridicule ordinary people who could never understand the esoteric experimentation of the art world. But now everyone was hailing the heroism of the blue collar cops and firefighters who died trying to rescue the office workers, and who continued to pour themselves out combing through the rubble.

Voices in the art world are calling for a new movement, one that is more "human" than the slick cynicism that had ruled before. The New York Times asked artists what the attack will now mean for the arts. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano is calling for the recovery of "our titanic richness of musical resource with unmistakable structural order."

Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel fame, noted the sounds of silence after the attack, the "almost total absence of the popular culture from the nation's airwaves." He went on to condemn the nihilism that has dominated the arts and predicted a big change: "We should recognize that seismic events impact on the creative process and that artistic and spiritual rebirth can follow a shattering experience."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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