Postmodernism, Take 3: Dubious Asceticism

Postmodernism’s “form of alleged non-belief fulfils exactly the same affective conditions as every conviction in which one believes: postmodern skepticism, like every illusion of one’s own, is a specific way of accommodating the libido that, instead of producing pleasure, first and foremost produces self-esteem. It creates the same ego-fixated enjoyment of those who believe in everything that they believe in, regardless of what it is, only in order to believe in themselves- including those who do not believe in anything but themselves.

This libidinal function of postmodern skepticism, focused on the production of self-esteem, is the second reason why it seems necessary to break through the epistemological obstacle it erects. Not only does its skeptical theoretical claim seem dubious- so does its promise of happiness. Thus, just as postmodern ideology claims to correspond with the skepticism of classical antiquity at the theoretical level, at the affective level it wants to be thought of as a return to the pleasure- lost to modernism- in games, myths, infantilism, irony and kitsch. On the contrary, I want to show that postmodernism, rather than being a thorough critique of Enlightenment-based modernism, is merely an extension of the same ascetic enterprise carried out by different, possibly more efficient means. One sign of this can be observed in the rampant self-pity present since the emergence of postmodern ideology. Whereas modernism produced an enthusiastic daring and a certain tolerance for frustration with its utopian promises, the disappearance of utopia from Western societies has mainly resulted in a certain passion for lamenting; a lust for airing grievances, which consumes all other pleasures; the yearning to be a victim. These postmodern activities emerging from a tristful passion testify to an organization of affects that can be considered typical of ascetic ideologies.

The critique presented here, based on the concept of the illusion without an owner, thus applies equally to modern and postmodern ideologies. It sees the ascetic modern and the merely purportedly pleasure-friendly postmodern as accomplices- an “epistemological pair” as defined by Gaston Bachelard. Both obey the paradigm of one’s own illusion. They create the same specific way of accommodating the libido, the desire for one’s own self. This type of desire, as we would like to show, forms the substance of every ascetic, tristful passion that has advanced through Western society since the Enlightenment- and has been given even more strength by postmodernism.”

(Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners [Brooklyn, NY; London: Verso, 2014, orig. 2002])

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