Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Post-Modern Virtues

If it can be argued that YouTube, through creating post-modern consciousness in vast numbers of people (beyond artists and the culturally inclined), is performing a service (of improvement and cultivation) to society, the matter and manner of "post-modern virtue" needs to be looked into. That is, it cannot be taken for granted that post-modern consciousness is necessarily a good thing; if it is a good thing, the reasons for this must be enumerated. This is a particularly useful exercise because YouTube is not the only Web program that is instilling post-modern consciousness; Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and even Google are all having roughly the same effect. One argument that can be posited is that post-modernizing consciousness has (ideally) the effect of reducing class boundaries, through making different forms of information widely available. It used to be that if you wanted to pick up information about something abstruse or arcane, you had to wait for an opportune time to make a jaunt to the local library. The amount of information that people could absorb was limited by how much leisure time they had. This is especially true of people who do work that does not involve much cognition, people in what have come to be known as "subaltern" positions. Now, the Net has made many poems, parts of novels, song lyrics, and other texts readily available for free. Post-Modernism has more connection to 18th century "Enlightenment" ideologies than people realize; the ideal is of a populace, armed with knowledge. Class leveling, of course, can take more than one form: people who in earlier days would not have thought to write have become active text creators on the Net. The stale elitism that would proclaim the hegemony of print texts is not merely declasse but moribund; speech-as-text is already widely used and recognized. The problem is that it is not widely used and recognized by "professionals," those with a vested interest in creating the kind of durable texts that have a shot of developing and maintaining continuing life. This project is specifically designed to clear a path for others who do not write ephemerally to adopt speech-as-text as a new mode of communication, in a manner of supplementing print and enacting a spirit and ethos of egalitarian expansion. So, the tendency to efface class is one post-modern virtue.

Another is the creation of a new kind of Individualism. As things were before, artists, writers, and others were pretty much confined to their geographical locations. If you lived in, say, Cleveland, you interacted with others of your particular ilk in Cleveland. If, for some reason, you did not feel comfortable in the milieu that you found yourself in, you just had to bite the bullet and patiently wait for things to change. With the Net, this problem has been greatly reduced. The irony is that this is particularly true for those who happen to be supplementing print text with speech-as-text. Just communicating over the Net is one thing; but when this leads to exchange of books, and this exchange is fruitful, there is very little not being fulfilled that is fulfilled when geography is not an issue. Digital consciousness and print consciousness can stimulate and fulfill each other; no conflict between forms is necessary. In fact, successful textual relationships that run on both cylinders can be (are, I have found) more fulfilling than relationships that either run on one or the other cylinder. So, the point is that post-modern consciousness, rather than posing a direct threat to tradition, can actually enrich textual traditions of reception, consumption, and general exchange. Given a choice between an inchoate reading public and a Net audience, a Net audience would seem to be preferable, because it "talks back" (even when the talk happens to be dissonant) and because Reception (defined as textual work dissemination among a small coterie audience) and Consumption (defined as textual work consumption by a mass, unknown, faceless audience) can happen simultaneously. The Internet itself, like IT, is all about levels: how many are operative at any given time, both as regards individual subjects and as regards different forms of mass consciousness. I am of the opinion that the many-leveled, many-tiered nature of digital consciousness is a virtue, often specifically because, contrary to popular belief, it reinforces traditions rather than effacing them.

Ultimately, the most salient virtue of post-modern consciousness is that, if it does not engender addictive behaviors (which, admittedly, it sometimes does), it is a stimulant to participatory behaviors. The more destructive and/or insidious forms of culture all involve manners and forms of passivity: watching a TV set (which is not colloquially known as a "boob Tube" for nothing), going to the movies, listening to music. You can watch a good movie and witness incidents of heteroglossia; can watch, say, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy having a heteroglot encounter; if you a perceptive viewer, you can internalize this incident and interpret it in your own way; but it does not engage you directly. Post-modern virtue manifests as a subject who actively seeks out heteroglot encounters; who creates speech-as-text as a mode of engaging the Other; and who also knows that this engagement happens across lines of class, race, and gender. This is why I feel that YouTube serves a positive purpose other than just as a place to watch cool old videos (though it is good for that too); YouTube says in bright neon letters, You can engage the world; it grants a fundamental sense of agency that is lacking in other arenas. That YouTube has not been picked up as a means of engagement by more professional level writers is disappointing, but it will change. Few know that print itself was once considered subaltern; courtesans and court poets for decades preferred to write things out and distribute them in manuscript. Print was crude, vulgar, and took on the negative attributes of the commodity. Now, after centuries of hegemony, print has its first serious rival. As happened with print, Net publishing is (in some circles) considered vulgar and the realm of the subaltern; but if enough serious writers pick up on its possibilities (and I am confident that they will), there is nothing outside the text may become there is nothing outside the Net. Post-modern has the virtue of bringing us forwards, rather than backwards; of engaging more Others, and less our own coteries; and of creating the heteroglot encounters that these engagements inevitably engender.

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