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Postmodernism, Hedonism, & Death


Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” right panel, detail

1,155 words

French translation here

“Postmodernism” is one of those academically fashionable weasel words like “paradigm” that have now seeped into middlebrow and even lowbrow discourse. Those of us who have fundamental and principled critiques of modernity quickly learned that postmodernism is not nearly postmodern enough. Indeed, in most ways, it is just an intensification of the worst features of modernity.

I wish to argue two philosophical theses: (1) there is an inner identity between postmodern culture and hedonism, and (2) hedonism, taken to an extreme, can lead to its self-overcoming by arranging an encounter with death—an encounter which, if survived, can expand one’s awareness of one’s self and the world to embrace non-hedonistic motives and actions.

For my purposes, postmodernity is an attitude toward culture characterized by (1) eclecticism or bricolage, meaning the mixing of different cultures and traditions, i.e., multiculturalism, and (2) irony, detachment, and playfulness toward culture, which is what allows us to mix and manipulate cultures in the first place. The opposite of multiculturalism is cultural integrity and exclusivity. The opposite of irony is earnestness. The opposite of detachment is identification. The opposite of playfulness is seriousness.

The core of a genuine culture is a worldview, an interpretation of existence and our place in it, as well as of our nature and the best form of life for us. These are serious matters. Because of the fundamental seriousness of a living culture, each one is characterized by a unity of style, the other side of which is an exclusion of foreign cultural forms. After all, if one takes one’s own worldview seriously, one cannot take incompatible worldviews with equal seriousness. (Yes, cultures do borrow from one another, but a serious culture only borrows what it can assimilate to its own worldview and use for its greater glory.)

The core of a living culture is not primarily a set of ideas, but of ideals. Ideals are ideas that make normative claims upon us. They don’t just tell us what is, but what ought to be. Like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” ideals demand that we change our lives. The core of a living culture is a pantheon of ideals that is experienced as numinous and enthralling. An individual formed by a living culture has a fundamental sense of identification with and participation in his culture. He cannot separate himself from it, and since it is the source of his ideas of his nature, the good life, the cosmos, and his place in it, his attitude toward culture is fundamentally earnest and serious, even pious. In a very deep sense, he does not own his culture, he is owned by it.

In terms of their relationship to culture, human beings fall into two basic categories: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy human beings experience the ideals that define a culture as a challenge, as a tonic. The gap between the ideal and the real is bridged by a longing of the soul for perfection. This longing is a tension, like the tension of the bowstring or the lyre, that makes human greatness possible. Culture forms human beings not merely by evoking idealistic longings, but also by suppressing, shaping, stylizing, and sublimating our natural desires. Culture has an element of mortification. But healthy organisms embrace this ascetic dimension as a pathway to ennoblement through self-transcendence.

Unhealthy organisms experience culture in a radically different way. Ideals are not experienced as a challenge to quicken and mobilize the life force. Instead, they are experienced as a threat, an insult, an external imposition, a gnawing thorn in the flesh. The unhealthy organism wishes to free itself from the tension created by ideals—which it experiences as nothing more than unreasonable expectations (unreasonable by the standards of an immanentized reason, a mere hedonistic calculus). The unhealthy organism does not wish to suppress and sublimate his natural desires. He wishes to validate them as good enough and then express them. He wants to give them free reign, not pull back on the bit.

Unfortunately, the decadent have Will to Power too. Thus they have been able to free themselves and their desires from the tyranny of normative culture and institute a decadent counter-culture in its place. This is the true meaning of “postmodernism.” Postmodernism replaces participation with detachment, earnestness with irony, seriousness with playfulness, enthrallment with emancipation. Such attitudes demythologize and profane the pantheon of numinous ideals that is the beating heart of a living culture.

Culture henceforth becomes merely a wax museum: a realm of dead, decontextualized artifacts and ideas. When a culture is eviscerated of its defining worldview, all integrity, all unity of style is lost. Cultural integrity gives way to multiculturalism, which is merely a pretentious way of describing a shopping mall where artifacts are bought and sold, mixed and matched to satisfy emancipated consumer desires: a wax museum jumping to the pulse of commerce.

Yet, even when desire becomes emancipated and sovereign, it has a tendency to dialectically overcome itself, for the reckless pursuit of pleasure often leads to brushes with death, which can cause a fundamental re-evaluation of one’s life and priorities. As William Blake said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

Furthermore, as much as hedonists wish to become mere happy animals, they remain botched human beings. The human soul still contains longings for something more than mere satiation of natural desires. These longings, moreover, are closely intertwined with these desires. For instance, merely natural desires are few and easily satisfied. But the human imagination can multiply desires to infinity. Most of these artificial desires, moreover, are for objects that satisfy a need for honor, recognition, status, not mere natural creature comforts. Hedonism is not an animal existence, but merely a perverted and profaned human existence.

Thus there will always be a “surplus” of humanity over and above what can be satisfied by natural desires. This surplus demands satisfaction too, causing a deep dissatisfaction and restlessness in every hedonist. This restlessness can also lead, ultimately, to a transformative encounter with death.

If animal life is all about contentment, plenitude, fullness—the fulfillment of our natural desires—then a distinctly human mode of existence emerges when hominids mortify the flesh in the name of something higher.

Hegel believed that the perforation of the flesh was the first expression of human spirit in animal existence. This throws an interesting light on the popularity of body piercing and tattooing in the context of postmodern culture, which is the subject of a future piece.

For Hegel, however, the truly anthropogenetic encounter with death is not the “little death” of self-mortification, but rather an intentionally undertaken battle to the death over honor, which is the subject of a future article as well.


This is the first of several pieces which I am transposing and adapting from various film reviews into stand-alone articles in order to encourage broader dissemination and discussion.


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  1. Sandy
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I was half expecting a test after that!
    The test being, so our Charles Kraftt would be a —–?

  2. Donar van Holland
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Prostitution may well convey the predicament of the post-modernist. An animal might be satisfied with paid sex, as his natural desires are being met, but man?

    I am reminded of the first novel of Michel Houellebecq, in which he describes the suffering of an ugly and mediocre man who still lusts after pretty girls. He buys sex, but it never satisfies him. He longs for something that cannot be bought. It is the recognition that he craves. After all, is there a higher recognition a girl can give than that she is willing to spend the night with him?

    Maybe the main difference between porn and erotica is the inclusion of the status, recognition, or even honour element. Then sex becomes more than a robotic event, but an intimate meeting of individuals.

    Postmodernism in its inability to recognize the importance of ideals is like capitalism, that cannot even conceive of valuable things that cannot be bought and sold. Both are bourgeois, and both lead to unspeakable suffering. But we are not supposed to complain. We have been “liberated”, after all. It is a suffering that dare not speak its name.

  3. southwards
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Very uplifting. Looking forward to the next pieces!

  4. Vick
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Food for thought here, thanks. I think I follow your argument and agree with many of the points made. I would just add (or slightly disagree) that the longing that the postmodern subject experiences, the deep dissatisfaction and restlessness of the hedonist, the aimlessness and emptiness of consumerism, is at root a problem not merely of a lack of ideals, but of a civilization which has eradicated the possibility of all foundations for any ideals.

    Perhaps there are foundations to be rediscovered. As irrefutably real, immediately present, and tangible to everyone, the body seems like an promising place to start, so I’m curious to see where you’re headed. Biology is the last redoubt of contemporary essentialism. The question is how to build on this bridgehead. Sometimes I think the question of foundations can be sidestepped as the postmodern pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty suggests, by simply asserting shared beliefs in a set of common values in the face of the knowledge of their contingency. Get enough people to share those values and they become real. This will likely be too wishy washy for many.

  5. Sandy
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if hedonism as described could also be applied to a race?

    hedonism, taken to an extreme, can lead to its self-overcoming by arranging an encounter with death—an encounter which, if survived, can expand one’s awareness of one’s self and the world to embrace non-hedonistic motives and actions

  6. Zarathustra
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Thank you again Mr Johnson. Excellent article. I have recently been reading “Explaining Postmodernism” by Stephen Hicks, which I have been enjoying. The more I understand PoMo, the more I realise both how absurd it is, and how I, as a young(ish) man, have been conditioned by it.

    While reading this, and thinking of your other article the other day on Strauss, I found myself wondering something, and it is either something that is very obvious or perhaps quite complex. What is the opposite of nihilism? Do we have a specific counter definition (of course, counter being the original, organic definition) of it? Is it Vitalism? Life affirmation? Amor Fati? Naturalism?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

      Both the denial of values (nihilism) and the affirmation of values partake of the same essentially subjective and willful attitude toward their objects, which is the deep root of nihilism. So the fundamental opposite would be an attitutude of openness, a susceptibility to an objective order of values which fascinates and enthralls us.

  7. Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Wonderful article. Can it be argued than that small doses of hedonism are necessary for a healthy existence? Legalizing prostitution? Or giving the young a year of morale depravity like the Amish Rumspringa so through which they can grasp the importance of tradition?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Hedonism is a moral philosophy that claims that pleasure is the good. That view is false, since we can recognize instinctively that there are situations when pain is good (e.g., a life-saving surgery, giving birth, fighting to defend oneself) and pleasure is bad (addictive drugs, crap food, etc.). So the amount of hedonism that we need is zero. Hedonism is a false theory about pleasure, so we need none of the false theory. But what about pleasure? That is another story, since pleasure is not THE GOOD, the standard of value. But it is A GOOD, judged by the standard of human well-being. Pleasure is part of a good life, but not the whole. Thus we need to USE IT RIGHTLY. That entails two things. First, we need to cultivate our tastes, so we take pleasure in healthy things and feel disgust for unhealthy things. Second, we need to cultivate the virtue of moderation, so we can contain our appetites within the bounds of humanity, rather than end up like the hedonists Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (the article is adapted from our essay on that movie). As for asceticism: I follow the Greeks. I do not think that the best way to master desire is to deny it altogether. When you are hungry, are you more or less hungry by starving yourself? Thus the proper way to master desire is to satisfy it moderately and tastefully.

      I do think a certain amount of latitude is good once your kids reach a certain age. If they are well-raised, they will have the capacity to moderate themselves and some discernment or taste. At the very least, they need to be taught the modern substitute for virtue, namely hedonistic calculus:

      Cut to the end of the evening. Vincent and Mia stagger back to the Wallace residence. Having eaten, drunk, danced, laughed, and shot up, Vincent’s desires are now moving in a sexual direction. But first he has “to take a piss.” He ducks into the bathroom to get a grip on himself. Here we see the roles of reason and morality in a desire-dominated life.

      For Plato, reason is a multi-faceted faculty embracing everything from induction from sense experience to calculating options and outcomes to mystical insight into transcendent truths. All human beings use reason, but only the spiritual individual accesses its highest powers. Jules Winnfield’s conviction that God was sending him a message is an example of the highest, mystical function of reason, although it seems none too reasonable to the rest of us.

      For desire-ruled individuals like Vincent, however, reason is merely a tool to satisfy their desires. It is empirical and calculative. Modern philosophy, no matter how rational it professes to be, tends to define reason merely as a tool for the satisfaction of desire, which makes even professed rationalists hedonists in the end.

      Vincent wants to fuck Mia. (There is no point in putting a finer word on it.) This, he claims, is “a test of character,” and he shows that modernity defines character, like reason, in a way that leaves desire firmly in control. Vincent would enjoy fucking Mia. But he would not enjoy the probable consequences if Marsellus finds out. (Mia denies the foot massage story, but who knows . . .)

      Vincent does not choose against sex with Mia based on his sense of the honorable or the sacred. Rather, he masters one desire by rationally counter-posing other, greater desires: the desires to remain alive and on good terms with his boss. Thus he resolves that he is going to have a drink, say goodnight, be a perfect gentleman, then go home and jerk off.

      Vincent, in short, achieves self-mastery though rational self-indulgence. Reason for Vincent means hedonistic calculus. Character means the ability to sacrifice present pleasures for future pleasures. These are the highest virtues to which a hedonist can aspire.

      As for prostitution: I have never given it much thought.

      • Sylvanus Carpenter
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

        Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly), I was encouraged to draw up some New Year’s resolutions based on an essay here on CC and two I came up with were “cultivate your tastes in high culture” and “acquire a sense of moderation” as well as a goal to exercise more and eat healthier. I certainly can’t claim to have perfectly reached these goals but we’re only in the third month of the year. At any rate, CC appears to be influencing me for the better.

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