Let there be a Postmodern Drip; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Milton

[Note: my problem w/ footnotes still remains.  Sorry.]

So I just accidentally caught a bit of PBS’ art:21.  Not having ever really seen the show, I cannot comment at length other than to say I’m mildly surprised by a few things about it.

1)  Its existence.  That, despite the slashing of budgets around the country for publicly-supported arts—perhaps most notably in our public school system—PBS has devoted an impressive amount of time and funding to archiving the contemporary art scene (or at least an institutionalized take on it).  2)  The speed of whatever (might still be said to) come(s) under the heading “avant-garde” in its ability to slink into the “mainstream” of public television.  For instance, I only sat and watched long enough to get what the show was trying to do: interview artists, show their work, talk about their process, etc.—all in a more-or-less banal fashion—but was immediately struck by the “painter” and “sculptor” Jeff Koons sitting and talking to the camera while the shots of his work being created resembled factory floors with many laborers toiling to produce surplus value, and the owner (read: artist) was nowhere to be seen except talking to the camera.  If this is the avant-garde, like a video I watched of the making of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a undergrad women’s studies class, at least we don’t have the myth of the lone, toiling, individual artist to contend w/ anymore—it is a collective, Stalinst endeavor, a 5-year Plan, if you will (. . .); and it is formally sanctioned by PBS (better than FOX I suppose).  3)  Baudrillard was “right” (perhaps, at least in this regard) when he wrote:

“Therein lies all the duplicity of contemporary art: asserting nullity, insignificance, meaninglessness, striving for nullity when already null and void.  Striving for emptiness when already empty.  Claiming superficiality in superficial terms.  Nullity, however, is a secret quality that cannot be claimed by just anyone.  Insignificance—real insignificance, the victorious challenge to meaning, the shedding of sense, the art of the disappearance of meaning—is the rare quality of a few exceptional works that never strive for it.  There is an initiatory form of Nothingness, or an initiatory form of Evil.  And there are the inside traders, the counterfeiters of nullity, the snobs of nullity, of all those who prostitute Nothingness to value, who prostitute Evil for useful ends.  The counterfeiters must not be allowed free reign.  When Nothing surfaces in signs, when Nothingness emerges at the very heart of the sign system, that is the fundamental event of art.  The poetic operation is to make Nothingness rise from the power of signs—not banality or indifference toward reality but radical illusion.  Warhol is thus truly null [yay to living in pgh], in the sense that he reintroduces nothingness into the heart of the image [my emphases].  He turns nullity and insignificance into an event that he changes into a fatal strategy of the image” (“The Conspiracy of Art.”  The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays.  Trans. Ames Hodges.  Ed. Sylvère Lotringer.  New York: Semiotex(e).  2005 [1996].  27-8).

4)  The final spoken line of Mary Heilmann’s segment, which filmed her “finishing” a work: “let’s leave that postmodern drip.”

And this brings me to the point that has been on my mind all day: how is simply leaving a drip, an “accident,” a self-referential awareness of the artifice one is creating postmodern!?  (Has Cervantes taught us nothing?)  Heilmann, here at least, is intentionally inscribing postmodernism not into her painting itself, but into her filmic inscription of that painting, into the institutionalized, publicly accepted portrayal of her artistic process.  This is not really to comment on her art at all (a visual practice that perhaps reached its peak in Mondrian—oops, that’s a comment in-and-of-itself. . .), but rather to suggest that this perhaps off-the cuff, highly edited comment is both obscene and untimely.  Obscene b/c it attests to her own self-aware position as a filmic representative of 21st-c. art, in all the excessive surplus of her reification.  Untimely, b/c I couldn’t help but to inscribe my own current teaching of Paradise Lost upon it—i.e. I am weirdly and perhaps desperately attempting to locate some sort of hip, postmodern take on Milton to “dazzle” my students w/, and am simply not finding it.  Milton is an incredibly drippy poet, this is a given.  But where is that postmodern drip!?

Rather, and I know this is quite an unexpected (except for the title) left turn, but it is precisely the traditional, canonical, and established take on the aporias of Milton’s text which are fascinating me right now, which are dictating my pedagogical approach to something I probably have no right to be teaching in the first place.  For instance, over the past two classes, we talked about light, the Word, language, gender, freedom, predestination, Satan’s status, good vs. evil, authority/discipline/sovereignty vs. the individual, etc. etc.  And it has been kinda gettin’ my rocks off.  I don’t know what it is.  Perhaps it’s the old dead white-guy in me (I’m one of those things, and approaching [the] (an)other[s]), but some of the most enjoyable things I’ve taught in the past couple years, of course w/ some notable exceptions, have been, for lack of a better term, canonical.  Where does this come from?

Well, that is probably a pretty damn (stupid-)easy question, in oh-so-many ways, so let me rephrase it.  Why do I, as someone who has for so long valued the new, the minor, the interstitial, the subversive, the alternative, the marginal (or was I just deluding myself before . . . !? [oh no; damn]), all of a sudden get this supreme satisfaction for engaging, teaching, and in some cases writing about, such a text?  And not even in some sort of new or interesting way? but in the same-ole’ way my a-bit-more-than-slightly-overweight undergrad Miltonist did?  (Seriously, take a look at his page.  He literally looks exactly like what one would expect a corpulent Miltonist to look like.[1] And yet I’m realizing what an incredible debt I owe(d) him.  So I apologize if this is a bit adolescent.  Hell, one of the best things my students said today was that Paradise Lost was like a simplistic teenage drama, w/ Satan as the rebellious son.[2] Sheer gold.)  Is it possible that PL has certain universal resonances that not only myself but my students can appreciate, understand, be frustrated by, and work w/?  Or is this simply yet another case of the ability for PL to be, in short, Blakean?

Or is something entirely different going on?

Like, where’s the postmodern drip?  If Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin is the major contemporary reinterpretation of PL (and of course, I’m drawing upon his introduction to the second edition of Is There a Text in This Class for the title of this piece. . .[3]), it would appear there is still an ample amount of work to be done w/r/t this question.  And so of course it is here rather than somewhere else that perhaps even an inkling of what this work might consist of can be posited.

In other words, if PL is anything, it is a case of absolute archival over-accumulation, excess, abundance.  It splits its seems.  There is simply too much textual, historical, critical, and classical crap, which it holds gravitationally w/in its constellation, to dismiss its archival logic, its hyperarchivization.   The manner in which it has presented itself to me and the manner I cannot but help to present it to my students is wholly reliant on the fact that it is a significant node w/in the archive, not least b/c it is something I have decided to take into close-account.  Though the archive’s logic may be dictated by virtually anything but oneself, that is perhaps the entire point of PL: I’m Satan; I dictate my own goddamn archive.  No law rules the freedom of my textual play.  I cannot be subsumed systematically.  My freedom spreads, and it is an archival spreading, not necessarily subject to any authority whatsoever.  The Fall is a realization.  Humanity enters historical time, archival time w/ man’s first transgress; holy crap it would’ve been boring otherwise.  The very thing that makes possible the thinking, imagining, or writing of PL is the subject of itself.  W/o the Fall: no archive, narrative, history, art:21. . . no postmodern drip.  No Jayson Green screaming “I am Nietzsche!”  And so for a brief moment, is it perhaps alright to, I don’t know, love Milton a bit? to be all Christ-y w/ him and break the law (in more ways than one, if you know what I mean)?

Walking home from the liquor store tonight, reading as usual (re: walking, not the liquor store), I was pointed to/reminded of a text I’d forgotten about w/r/t the Fall: chapter 3 of Žižek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf.  Re-reading it tonight, thinking it would offer me that postmodern drip, the only thing that really stood out (as it often does in the case of that Slovenian) was a joke in a footnote:

(Before the footnote (i.e. in the text proper): “In a wonderful alternative history essay, ‘Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus,’ Josiah Ober entertains the hypothesis that Pilate did not yield to the pressure of the mob, and spared Christ, who survived, and thrived to a very great age as a successful preacher, supported by the Roman authorities against the Jewish establishment; his sect gradually became dominant, and also became the Roman state religion, albeit in its more Jewish version, without the Cross and Redemption by Christ’s death.  The coincidence of Fall and Redemption makes this hypothesis strict sensu beside the point.”)

“This also makes meaningless the well-known Christian joke according to which, when, in John 8:1-11, Christ says to those who want to stone the woman taken in adultery, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone!,’ he is immediately hit by a stone, and then shouts back: ‘Mother!  Didn’t I ask you to stay at home!’” (The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity.  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.  77, 181).

And perhaps therein lies the ultimate lesson of any take on PL.  Subverting it ultimately, imagining that therein (and, by proxy, in Genesis too) Eve (and Adam) never eat that fruit, but remain in Eden forever, happy, genuflecting, praising God, and fucking/multiplying in the most holy of ways (read: w/o pain)—what would be the point of that?  The reversal of the Fall, unlike the reversal of so many other things that we encounter in the phenomenal world, isn’t funny.  There is no irony possible if Eve doesn’t eat the fruit.  No laughter at all (Dionysian or otherwise).  Unlike most jokes, which require some small amount of distortion from the “real,” the only thing that is funny about the Fall is the Fall itself rather than its inversion.  There is no humor in an unfallen world.  The Fall literally produces the possibility (and thus the instantiation) of laughter! And this is perhaps the real question of PL: what is happiness w/o laughter?  What then is the more privileged human quality: freedom or laughter (and of course we get both in the Fall)?  Happiness isn’t even an issue here—its question is ludicrous.[4] Freedom or laughter, or are they not synonymous?

I cannot help but to think here of Jubal Harshaw’s response to Mike from Mars’ question: “What is ‘Man?’” in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Faced w/ the near impossible task of defining exactly what makes humans human, Harshaw responds to Mike that “Man is the animal who laughs.”  “Because man is the animal that laughs at himself.”  Ultimately for Harshaw, this ability to laugh resides in our ability to feel pain—we laugh ’cause it hurts.  To watch Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Jim Carrey and laugh, is to laugh at the pain they are having inflicted upon themselves.  And, at least for Heinlein (here), this is the most fundamental aspect of being human! In other words, Milton’s great ambition (perhaps not realized in something like Paradise Regained) may have been, in a very real way, to write the comedy of the West, the narrative which produced laughter (perhaps as a by-product of freedom or vice-versa).  W/o the Fall, w/o transgression, pride, knowledge, etc. etc., there would be no laughter.  And this is why I am so stricken w/ PL, b/c I want to end on a question akin to: “and is it possible to be human w/o laughter,” when in fact this is a very traditional/canonical/normative question to ask when faced w/ a text such as PL, and, indeed, one which has been asked in far more subtlety, detail, and complexity quite a while ago in Nietzsche.  But I cannot refrain.  Is perhaps the postmodern dripping I am so eagerly and desperately seeking not simply this: wtf does PL have to do w/ laughter?  This: is there any the difference b/t Adam and Eve laughing gloriously at their fall and the final scene of Dr. Strangelove, w/ that dude waving his cowboy hat while straddling the bomb, laughing gloriously?  And yet, still no postmodern dripping. . . .

[1] Btw, take a look at the image on his desktop—priceless.  Esp. w/r/t myself and its archival resonance.  In other words, my moms had a bunch of cheap art books in our massive library (which was of no interest to my young self b/c it was all—except for these art books and a few others—my pops’ English history before 1800 [if only I’d’ve known!]), and one of their covers was that image, one which weirdly assailed me at every point.


[2] i.e. “Fuck you Dad,” you don’t understand me!  I’m moving out as soon as I’m 18!

[3] To say absolutely nothing of Kubrick, the apocalypse, or the bomb. . . .

[4] Like when someone responds to the question: “what do you want out of life,” w/ “I just want to be happy.”  Yeesh.

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