This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.
One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.
This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.
Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.
Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.
My friend J. S. Bangs wrote a great blog entry in the last month or so about the abjection of the past and modernity. I have excerpted so much I could have just quoted the whole thing but I excerpted carefully. Particularly salient is J. S.'s observation that while people who lived in the past didn't have things we have they didn't see their lives as being bad. There is, of course, the sort of person who looks back now on the past with fondness and forwards things like "I miss Reagan" or "The Clinton years were better" but these people, I will callously declare, are people who are facing their own inevitable mortality and use emotional displacement--they don't really miss Reagan or Clinton so much as they miss the more unlimited horizons they had financially, emotionally, and physically. Old hippies don't miss the 1960s so much as they miss having the bodies of 20 year olds and the sense that they would do things that mattered.
The persecution of the past becomes necessary so that we can rationalize the present. People who justify abortion now can say that it is a necessary thing to prevent the repression of women. The babies who will never grow up to be women because they were aborted don't matter. We can discuss in enlightened terms how we are better than the racists of the 1950s and 1960s but the sad truth seems to be that every epoch of humanity will find a demographic to commodify, sell, and destroy as it sees fit.
When people ask of what benefit there could be in the study of religious history they may often see this in terms of looking back on benighted idiots from the past who believed the world was the center of everything. How much better we know things now. A society in which women were property also viewed children as property and infants could be thrown aside to die of exposure if they weren't good enough to keep or if they were too expensive to keep around.
The rationale for abortion today can dress itself up as being friendly to women, and in some respects it is because it grants women the power to kill. After millenia of women being killed in honor killings and so on I will hardly deny that there is a reversal afoot. But to suggest that we are better because we commodify the lives of unwanted children in a way that is considered pro-woman rather than patriarchal does nothing to change the reality that our society has rationalized the commodification of unwanted children while criminalizing abuse of wanted children in more or less the same way as the allegedly earlier, more barbaric, and less educated cultures we consider to be worse than ours.
The comics artist (comix) Art Spiegelmann was once asked about superhero comics in the Comics Journal, I think it was. In the interview he said he never much cared for superhero comics because those were the power fantasies and wish fulfillment impulses of children and that he had adult power fantasies. This is, I submit, the self-manifesting stupidity of comparison. The power fantasies of adults and children are, in my observation not so fundamentally different. What distinguishes the wish fulfillments of adults and children other than that adults of wish fulfillments that are informed by the transition through and beyond puberty? Let me reframe my polemic another way, what do people usually refer to when they euphemistically cite "adult entertainment"? How is that, precisely, more adult and emotionally advanced or intellectually sophisticated than the wish fulfillment fantasies of children?
A disabled man may have a fantasy of having normal physical abilities. As many people in the gospels were described, what they wished to receive from Jesus were simple things such as the ability to walk, the ability to see, the capacity to hear, a capacity to speak, to be free from chronic bleeding, to be liberated from seizures and demonic oppression. Adults who look down on the power fantasies of children tend, in my observation, to have an unrealistic assessment of the realism of their desires. It's not that the desires themselves are more realistic, it's that the person has the idea that his/her dreams are more "adult".
This gets to the question of genre. Are superhero comics really less "adult" than underground comics (comix for those snobs who wish to distinguish between "art" comics and "pop" comics)? Grant Morrison published his book Supergods this year. In it he points out that superhero comics let us directly ask questions about what kinds of powers we have as humans and how we should put it to use. Ever since we split the atom we have had superpowers as a human race, so how, really, is it unrealistic to have a comic book about Captain Atom and how the manipulation of atomic forces should be used to help humanity? But for a whole swath of people Captain Atom isn't serious while Dr. Manhattan is. If DC hadn't opted against Moore permanently killing off The Question Moore wouldn't have had to invent Dr. Manhattan.
Watchmen has been billed for decades as a "grown up" comic book but its plot points and narrative beats don't differ that much from a comic book for children, or a serial of a character like Indiana Jones. The central all or nothing stakes is not more "realistic" simply because a whole generation of comics readers in the throes of Cold War anxiety assumed (wrongly it turns out) that the world was going up in atomic fire or saved by peaceniks arguing for nuclear disarmament.
In other words, even those people who pretend to themselves and to us that they have more "grown up" wishes and fantasies reveal themselves, in the end, to be the same old kids who imagine that we can change/save/transform the world. The "realist" is simply the person who wants art to change the world by imagining stories about people who change the world with an idea like that humans should be treated with dignity. Obviously I take an extremely dim view of those people who imagine they have more "adult" views than others.
One of the most important modes of abjection that happens within Christianity in America is the contrast between the "authentic" and whatever is "fake" or "institutional". But there is another form of abjection, the contrast between"authentic" and "commercial" in the arts is something I want to write about at some length down the road. I am particularly interested in examining how this narrative pervades Western art and music and literary criticism across centuries. The contrast between "real rock" and "corporate rock" is instructive not merely because it's so easily observed but also because we can go back and look at how this dynamic can be seen in what can be broadly called a "socialist realist" outlook. But it would be somewhat inaccurate to say this impulse is a strictly socialist realist one since obsessing about which artist was the truly independent genius and which one was strictly working for "the man" predates even Marx's writing on such topics.
I hope later, maybe next week, to tackle writing about how pigeon-holing composers into certain categories partly establishes J. S.'s observations. If the 18th century was the beginning of a new capacity to abject the past then there's a fun article about Haydn's role in 19th century musical criticism and historiography that shows how ideology and aesthetics get used to simultaneously venerate and abject a single person and his work as a way to define both an artistic field and the society which would appoint itself the arbiters of art and taste.