This image has been dancing around my feeds for a few weeks now and it always warms my heart to see it. I don’t know who originally published it and I don’t know who famously edited it in red. But I think it’s a response to the American election—specifically regarding the role that fake news played in magnifying partisanship.
To me, this says so much more than our nearly-exhausting criticisms of Trump. It’s about moral relativism. Which, to me, means it’s about postmodern sensibilities. Which again, to me, means it’s about popular storytelling.
I was born in 1987 so you’re welcome to project all your “millennial” notions onto me. My peers and I entered the workforce in the middle of a recession and proceeded to make fun of ourselves with lofty literature and mustaches we love to hate. We also participated in Donald Trump’s political triumph … dude.
In the mid 20th century artists were experimenting with ambivalence. I’m thinking of Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, John Cage, my belovéd Samuel Beckett, … art that reflects a world without a moral centre. That is, while the work might be morally charged in it’s context, it so often represents content that is not. To continue oversimplifying, the last century saw us become passive observers of ourselves, ironic critics of the world that we participate in generating.
Filter this down to me and the wide demographic of millennials. My university days saw a brief epoch of fashionable self-depreciation. I’m not merely referring to the concept of growing a mustache simply because you hate mustaches. But also to the isolation of our peers; becoming attractive by behaving aloof. Within my own small context this trend of disinterest-for-status didn’t last terribly long (thank God) but tiny pieces of the fallout from that can be seen in other facets of millennial culture (tindr, career ennui, and boycotting election day you idiots).
I didn’t set out to talk about millennials.
Growing up, the stories we consumed reflected the ambivalent experimentation that came before them. Homer Simpson has no moral centre. Tim the-tool-man Taylor had very little moral centre. No one in Seinfeld had a moral centre. Or Animaniacs. Or Ally McBeal. That 70’s Show. More recently than that we’ve seen the rise of the “anti-hero” fill our TV screens, characters who’s personal moralities revolve around the destruction of others (Tony Saprano, Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Don Draper, etc etc).
All this is to say that we grew up being reflected and fed by narratives that promote such an ambivalence as to permit, even encourage, a destructive sense of self-importance in our culture.
As I hypothesize that John Cage left a ripple that eventually contributed to Homer Simpson then Dexter Morgan, those who experiment with culture today will leave a footprint for the more popular narratives in the future. And of course that will eventually ripple back to something else which will create it’s own responses and the flux and flow between left and right expressions will continue forever. Unless the icecaps melt in this millennial lifetime.
Luckily, now we’re all sharing this cleverly edited cartoon which says that moral relativism of postmodernism is a sham! Culture gave us this tool to say that we are wrong sometimes and that, more importantly, what is right cannot move or change because it is right. Of course there’s a political danger in prescriptive truths as well but the implication is that we have a responsibility to justice. The implication of that is to say that humility is, once again, a virtue. Because we cannot hear those who correct us without a smidgeon of humility. And it is the ability to listen, more than the ability to know, that can best move us forward, out of postmodernism and into a hopefully brighter, more accountable, future.
The popular-narratives are already starting to shift in this direction as well. Audiences are desperately clinging to John Snow in Game of Thrones (don’t even think about it, R.R. Martin!) Amy Pohler’s sitcom Parks and Rec is another prime example because, while each character lives within a different bias, they are able to build healthy relationships by their similar attraction to goodness. It’s beautiful. Bob’s Burgers is a sitcom that obliterates the shock-mentality of Family Guy’s disinterested sadism because the narrative is centered around the characters’ love for each other.
So what is this that comes after postmodernism? Are television narratives, once again, ripe to be used for propaganda? Perhaps. But the millennial in me likes to believe that we’re smarter now than we were when televisions entered middle-class livingrooms. And I hope that we’re about to all learn how to celebrate a little intelligent humility.
May the reactionary emptiness of postmodern narrative culture recieve the poetic justice of a swift and empty death. Rest in peace and quiet my dear moral reletivism.
Who is experimenting with culture now? Outside of the industrial fascets of it … who are the Jackson Pollocks and Samuel Becketts that will inevitably influence a drastic but unknown shift in pop culture after they're dead?
You already know my answer. I end half these blog posts with the same thing: go to the theatre. Small theatres. Poorly funded theatres. Walk around an art gallery. There’s always one or two galleries with free admission in your city. Find them. When you do go, allow yourself to challenge the artists to challenge you more. They already want to whether they’re able to or not. And they’re extremely busy but absolutely willing to talk to you. So do it. Challenge them to challenge you and you will be contributing to history.
Despite having seen the edited cartoon every time I opened my computer for almost a week, it took me ages to find it again! Was it sensored? Copyright infringement thing? Or conspiracy against rising complexity? Or maybe I'm bad at using search engines? We'll go with that last one.