‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ (The Postmodern Danger): Or, How to Make Art in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!
In “The Theatre and Society,” a class I have taught at the University of Missouri, my favorite lecture is about the transition between modernism and postmodernism. I like to describe “modernism” as a sort of umbrella term, under which the other “isms” (symbolism, futurism, expressionism, surrealism, absurdism, etc.) live. The commonality between these “isms” is they are all strategies through which artists have sought, one way or another, to portray the “Truth” (with a capital “T”).
Toward the end of the twentieth century, fed a steady diet of the work of writers such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Jean Baudrillard, scholars and artists began to question whether or not there was actually such a thing as “Truth,” and pointed out ways in which “Reality” is constructed through discourses dominated by the forces in charge of the production of culture in order to maintain their power and the status quo. This realization led to the postmodernist movement in art, which was characterized by strategies such as pastiche, quotation, appropriation, assimilation, and deconstructionism. Thus, the delimiting factor between modernism and postmodernism is the shift that occurred when the postmodernists no longer believed in “Truth with a capital T.” (I like to emphasize this point by writing the word “Truth” on the chalkboard while discussing modernism, and then drawing the “no” symbol vector over the word as I begin discussing postmodernism).
This lecture on the transition between modernism and postmodernism always ends with an admonition, a warning that I call “The Postmodern Danger.” This warning is based on criticisms of postmodernist thinking that have been echoed in the work of writers such as Fredric Jameson, Sherry Wolf, Alex Callinicos, and John Molyneux. The Postmodern Danger is the possibility that discourses of postmodernism, which question the idea of “Truth with a capital T,” and seek to deconstruct the maintenance of power and the status quo through a questioning of the dominant discourses of cultural production, might be misunderstood, and ultimately fall into the wrong hands.
In other words, when we are taught critical thinking skills and encouraged to “question authority” (that iconic, bumper-sticker slogan based on the philosophy of Socrates and popularized by 1960s guru Timothy Leary), there is a danger that authoritarian figures might hijack the message that Truth is something culturally relative and socially constructed, and appropriate postmodernist strategies for their own agenda. Now, it seems, that is exactly where we find ourselves. Is it possible we have we entered a new epoch, beyond the postmodern (the post-post-modern?), where the strategies of deconstructivist art are no longer effective?
It’s an interesting conundrum. Once the notion of a singular authority is destabilized, a void appears, and a new authority always seems to rush in to fill that void. I hate the term “post-truth,” but I can’t figure out a better way to describe the phenomenon. As someone who writes about the construction of categories of identity such as gender, ethnicity, class, and as someone who creates theater that can be described as “postmodernist,” I worry about this problem, a lot. Is it possible scholars and artists like myself, who have attempted to illuminate the ways these cultural categories are constructed, have unwittingly laid the groundwork for certain politicians to claim that the “Truth” is relative and then fill the void created through the questioning of that notion with their own, substituted, “alternative” facts?
There may not be such thing as “Truth” when it comes to sociocultural constructions, but it seems that at a certain point there must be such a thing as “facts” and “lies,” even beyond our phenomenological impressions and the discourses around the dominant cultural paradigm. The alternative is that our perceptions are becoming so skewed that we no longer possess a sustainable strategy to deal with physical “reality. ” How do we account for pesky “facts” within a philosophical discourse that no longer has a good way to describe them, and, to this point, has failed to find a viable strategy to discredit alternative fictions? This is the question artists and thinkers are now faced with. I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, but what follows are a few of my thoughts on possible strategies that might begin to remedy this conundrum.
First, it occurs to me it is time to begin the process of reconstruction. If we have actually entered a new epoch of post-truth (and, paradoxically, I am not sure this is actually true), then, at least in some way, the goals of deconstruction that the postmodernists established have been met. One might even say, although it is arguable, that the “revolution” is complete; and this is one of the main problems with revolutions. There is always a never-ending cycle of revolution. The cycle of historical revolution is never truly over. Once a revolution ends, a new dominant cultural paradigm takes its place, and so the revolution begins again.
There is a famous anecdote in Augusto Boal’s The Rainbow of Desire. Boal describes a moment when, after performing for oppressed peasants in a village in North-East Brazil (in what Boal calls his “rehearsal for revolution”), it turns out the people they are performing for are actual revolutionaries. Misunderstanding their intentions, the peasants invite Boal and his group to join them in setting fire to the house of a local military colonel and to help them kill his family. Boal admits his mistake in metaphorically asking the peasants to spill their blood, while they take him literally, and he is not ready to take on the same risks.
So, I must ask: are we, as artists, really in search of a revolution? Historically, revolutions have never ended well for people like us. Just as the void created at the end of the deconstruction seems to inevitably become filled by purveyors of alternative truth, the void of power created at the end of a political revolution is most often filled by the most ruthless of dictators. We need an alternative to a militaristic strategy of revolution.
Perhaps it is now time for artists and scholars to concentrate on creating work that imagines the possibilities of a positive future, beyond the dystopian moment that we currently find ourselves in. This is, at least, one of the reasons why pieces of dystopian art, such as such as zombie stories and post-apocalyptic action movies, are so popular. We are all coming to terms with, even if only subconsciously, the possibility that facing an actual apocalypse may become our reality in the near future. Thus, we find ourselves in a constant rehearsal for dystopia.
Therefore, I propose one way to begin the reconstruction and to break this self-fulfilling prophesy is to strive to create art that reimagines Utopia. With this missive, I join writers like Jill Dolan and Jose Esteban Muñoz (in turn inspired by idealists such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin), who have written about the possibilities of portraying Utopia in performance, and the possible futures that dreaming of Utopia might open up for us. Instead of giving in to the inevitability of dystopia, we must stay resilient in the face of the daily onslaught of oppression and remain hopeful, no matter what horrors and atrocities are unleashed. This is undoubtedly more easily said that done, but, nevertheless, it must be done. We must begin to spin the fables of the reconstruction.
Beyond performative Utopias, another strategy for the reconstructive art may lay in the art of comedy. They say that sometimes we must laugh because it hurts too much to cry, and that saying seems truer now than it ever has been. How does one create reflexive, resistant art, when the most over-the-top performances are the ones being crafted by dominant cultural forces that have co-opted the principles of deconstructionism for their own ends? Some of the most effective acts of resistance have come from the world of comedy. Comedy is a genre rooted in instinctual, evolutionary behaviors associated with play. Just as the smile acts as a meta-signal to frame the act of play (it says “we are not actually fighting, we are only playing like we are fighting”), an act of comedy frames even the most serious political discussion in a way that allows us to laugh at even the most absurd inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
Thus, we have seen some successes of resistance in performances like John Oliver’s “advertisements” during Fox News broadcasts; the comic delivery of the news on Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report or Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show; and Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy’s impressions on Saturday Night Live. Comedy seems to work so well because it frames even the most hyper-reflexive performances of the political moment within a context that invites critical thinking in a way that “traditional” journalism or “serious” theater and performance cannot do.
A third strategy for reconstructive art, ironically, is a return to realism. In the face of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” artists must continue to tell True Stories. At the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference held in New Orleans in 2007, Guillermo Gómez-Peña performed a piece called “The Cone of Uncertainty,” during which he told a true story about unarmed members of an African-American family and their friends who were ambushed, shot, and killed by police while attempting to cross a bridge to escape the floodwaters. At the end of the performance, Gómez-Peña entreated the audience to remember this story and to tell it to others, lest it be forgotten to time and covered up by the powers that be. Eventually, justice was served.
We must tell True Stories, about mothers and fathers separated from their children during immigration raids, about innocent people who become the victims of shootings by authorities, and about DACA students who are supposedly “protected” by law, but deported nonetheless with no due process. We must tell True Stories of refugees who are driven from their homes by wars we created, then shunned from our borders because of the color of their skin, the way they dress, or because of the gods they choose to worship. We must tell True Stores about the underhanded wheeling and dealing performed by those in power who, despite their call for “law and order,” are never held accountable for their crimes. Through our refusal to accept the premises of “alternative facts” and maintain a constant struggle to discredit them, we can keep the stories of these victims alive, and maintain hope that justice will eventually be served.
Surely, many other possibilities exist for work to begin on the daunting task of imagining the possibilities of a positive future. This is my manifesto. This is my metaphorical call to arms to artists and scholars to join me in the endeavor of finding new ways to begin the reconstruction. It is all too easy, under the weight of the constant bombardment of oppression, for us to become worn down, despondent, and give up. It is all too easy to give in to the forces of division and play their game of pointing the fingers of blame. NOW, we must begin the reconstruction through the creation of art and scholarship that reflects, sustains, and engenders hope.