Friday, September 05, 2003

Modernist in a postmodern world

Reading about Baudrillard (no one in their right mind would actually read him - or at least not all of him), it occurred to me why I don't like the idea of PJ Parks.
PJ Parks is not a writer. She creates digests. She writes books about books.
I realised, reading about Baudrillard, that I have a modernist view of art and writing in particular. In a nutshell, modernists believe that art should reflect life, in the sense that it should be somehow true. They believed, or if they didn't believe it, were inspired by the idea, that the world should be made a better place. They were part of a bigger project (which in the UK led to the Welfare State, the great social achievement of modernism, as well as the huge swathes of functional but ugly architecture that still blight our cities, because architects proved able to understand the idea that art should serve a purpose but totally unable to understand that art should be beautiful). By saying art should reflect life, I'm not saying it should be lifelike. Quite the opposite. The great modernist art is abstract, increasingly so as the twentieth century passed. But it should be formally beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. You can define those terms as you like. The idea is pretty much that art *represents* something, and maybe even above and beyond that, it should be personal.
In writing, we'd probably say writers had to write about the human condition. The great modernist writers wrote about the workings of the mind. They created the axioms of modern writing - no omniscient voice,
style above content, you know the kind of thing. There are still modernists today, of course. Their champions are Atwood, Carey, DeLillo, Pynchon, Franzen, McEwan.
For a modernist, writing what you know is a touchstone. Flaubert, who refused to write about sensations he had never had (so that, when he wanted to write about a night in an onion field, he had to spend a
night in an onion field), is something of a modernist god. The idea, I suppose, is that writing must reflect something real. Now, to a postmodernist, art does not reflect reality. There is no reality to be discerned in it. The signs of art don't point to anything in "the real world". They point to themselves. I won't go into the whole thing but...
An example, though, might help. Damien Hirst's shark in a tank. It's not *about* anything. It's just a shark in a tank. See, in the postmodern world, that's art. Putting an object in a tank is art because it's all about interpretation. There's no objective standard. It's art if I think it is, not if I don't. I've always despised that attitude because it means cunts like Damien Hirst get to choose who's making art and who isn't. If you're a poor unconnected soul like me, it seems just another way for the privileged to keep the door shut. Rimbaud was able to demand that Verlaine help him, because of his talent. If postmodernists can rob us of the need of talent, then there's no Rimbaud.
Suffice to say, though, that PJ's books, which are about the books she has read, are postmodernist par excellence. Her book on the Great Barrier Reef is not *about the Great Barrier Reef*. It's about the
things she has read about the Great Barrier Reef. For a modernist, it's impossible to conceive. It's as if Flaubert didn't visit the onion field. Zut alors!
If you don't know what "neo-TV" is, then go google "Eco+neo-TV" and
you'll get an education. But if you do, you'll know that in a sense PJ is writing "neo-books". But here's the thing. You knew there'd be a point, and if you got this far, you need one, hey? You cannot
criticise a chat show host, because to do so is to say that his or her work is something that can be criticised (that is, that it's valid), that it qualifies in some way as TV (rather than neo-TV), which is a
ridiculous idea. A chat show host does not produce anything. He or she re-forms, packages, but above all is a conduit, an interchangeable part.
Like all modernists, I don't want to be interchangeable. I don't want my work to be interpreted, or for me to just "be a writer" in the same sense that the guy at the servo is a "pump attendant", or even that a
teacher is a teacher, no matter how good they are at that.
PJ Parks is not a writer. She's a neo-writer. She writes about writing about things. The things are not part of what she writes about because she is writing only about their representations. Part of my struggle
in writing is not to write about representations, not to fall back on our shared understanding, but to write about the things themselves.
There's nothing wrong with being a neo-writer. After all, there's nothing wrong with being a plumber.


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