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Harvey L. ??? POSTMODERN GRIEF Thought is a form of grief. Plato knew this when he described learning as recollection from previous lives, Kant when in the first Critique he reluctantly acknowledged that our desperation alone grounds our most cherished knowledge claims, Freud when he identified intellectual inquiry as one of the forms of sublimated sexuality, and Wittgenstein when his youthful solution to all the problems of philosophy culminated in an ominously Job-like silence. We "deal with the horror of recurrence," Jack Gilbert says, "by calling it / a million years. The death everywhere is no trouble / once you see it as nature, landscape, or botany."1 Thought may lament the loss of the mother (as in Freud), the father (as in Plato), or the world (as in Hegel). It may lament the loss of innocence (as in Nietzsche), knowledge (as in Kant), or hope (as in Camus). Thought may lament the immanent loss of oneself; perhaps any lament is a lament for the immanent loss ofoneself. But think we do, and lament we must, because lose we will. Thought is a form of grief, and postmodern thought is no exception. We postmoderns, and we are all postmoderns, have much to lament. The century in whose bang (or whimper) we will participate has been the scene of holocaust, famine, two world wars, the dropping of the atomic bomb, terrorism, unprecedented destruction of natural resources , and the mass destruction ofwhole segments ofsociety by drugs: more of what Auden calls "the facts of filth and violence / that we're too dumb to prevent"2 than in any previous century. My concern here, though, is with the dramatic change in communications technology that, although a less obvious occasion for grief, is a more immediate occasion for what is usually called postmodern thought. The information age, cyberspace, the global village, the postmodern Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 47-64 48Philosophy and Literature condition: call it what you will. The future will be, if the present has not become already, binary, brought to us by optical fiber and silicon, scrolling out of facsimile machines and appearing on video terminals. Out of the sea we came, and into a blue-green brine of computer monitors we are returning. No one denies that technological changes are now more rapid and more pervasive than ever before: the origins of writing and print were separated by five thousand years of human culture, television and the pc-editable, hand-held video camera by less than fifty. We have been less inclined, though, to acknowledge what postmodern theory has insisted on: when technology transforms our homes and workplaces, we too are transformed. The transformation itself is often transparent, because of what O. B. Hardison calls the "Great Wall Syndrome." The presence of the Great Wall was, according to Hardison, virtually unnoticed until it ceased to perform its original function. Not until it could no longer be viewed as "something that keeps somebody out," not in other words until it ceased to be useful did it confront its perceptors as a wonder of the world.3 As Hardison goes on to point out, though, the transparence of the transformation wrought on us by our technology does not diminish its pervasiveness. Even a technology as useful and transparent as clocks has irreversibly altered us. "By permitting precise control oftime, clocks also changed the nature of work, turning the day into standard and repeatable segments and permitting wages to be related to hours of work. Clocks therefore contributed mightily to making human behavior more 'like' the behavior of machines. This is a significant point because the introduction of machines that are like people into society is usually considered a one-way street. It is not" (p. 295). When we make machines like ourselves, they make us like themselves. That much of postmodernism, though, should not have caught us by surprise. We were supposed to have known it already. As long ago as 1931—32, for instance, the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria conducted a study among illiterate and newly literate collective farm workers in central Asia to show "that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 47-64
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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