Rewriting history — or not

I’m burying the lead here, folks, so bear with me.

Postmodernism offers many problems for authority and the status quo, which is the biggest reason those in power choose to vilify everything about it. Even that allegedly open-minded bastion of freedom called academia plays a role in this, because the institution of education (like all others) is also based on hierarchy and authority. I don’t think postmodernism is a choice; it’s simply a turning of the historical page. As such, those who steadfastly refuse its fruit are begging for irrelevancy.

One of the central thoughts of postmodernism is deconstruction, the taking apart of any belief (or whatever) and examining its roots. I think deconstruction is a good thing, and I routinely follow the practice in examining modernist cultural (and especially business) norms. It’s amazing what you can find by a little trip through history. The whole professional versus amateur journalism argument, for example, becomes a little more easy to understand if Walter Lippmann and his beliefs form the/a foundation for contemporary journalism instead of the illusionary heroics of Woodward and Bernstein.

As I’ve written in the past, the structure of the Internet forces users into the practice of deconstruction, whether they know it or not, by undermining the authority of text. This is the great cultural threat to the status quo. Through links and references — and especially those provided by bloggers — people are now thrust into a deconstructionist reality, where absolutes have difficulty flourishing. You can decide for yourself it that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you cannot deny that it is occurring.

A couple of years ago, Chicago attorney and philosopher Peter Lurie published what I think is a seminal essay in understanding the cultural influence of the Internet.

The content available online is much less important than the manner in which it is delivered; indeed, the way the Web is structured. Its influence is structural rather than informational, and its structure is agnostic. For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL can offer give no comfort to conservatives. It’s not that Johnny will Google “hardcore” or “T&A” rather than “family values;” rather, it’s that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent. He will be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that do not link, in some way, to some other text or game. For those who grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that endlessly plays out in unlimited directions. The web, in providing link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a postmodernist inquiry.
Long ago, I wrote that one of the victims of postmodernism is the age old belief that the victor in war gets to write the history. That is impossible now, and largely because people at the grass roots level are increasingly closer together thanks to the personal media revolution. If power doesn’t flow from the top anymore — and believe me, it doesn’t — then the manufacture of consent (Lippmann’s term) cannot take place. Just because the general says it happened this way doesn’t necessarily mean it happened that way. I think that’s always been the truth, but the reality is that it can’t be hidden anymore.

This is an enormous problem for those in power, which brings me to my buried lead.

The headline in today’s Tennessean reads: Bush rips ‘rewriting history’ of Iraq war. This is a textbook modernist argument in an increasingly postmodern world, and it makes the guy look like an idiot. It’s not that history is being rewritten; it’s that history is being written from multiple perspectives. That’s a BIG difference. There’s isn’t any one higher reality anymore that has the right to determine history for everybody, and this may become the greatest deterrent to war on our planet. It’s a problem for authority, however, because the need to control the history is a critical element in the justification for killing people in the first place.

How terribly modernist.


  1. brilliant post, terry.

    i studied with bill readings while at syracuse university in the late 80’s… his deconstructionist approach to language, film, academia, even crossing the street, completely altered how i perceive the world around me.

    if “arbol” truly meant “tree” life would be so much easier, eh? 😉

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