There are other worlds they have not told you of.
They wish to speak with you.

/ February 2022

Postmodernism, both as an aesthetic movement and as a political era implied by late capitalism, has been critiqued (notably by Jameson) as having eradicated our ability to imagine new collective futures. Our ability to construct radically new imaginaries has been eroded under a barrage of collages and revivications of past imaginations. This has created a cultural condition labeled by critic Mark Fisher as “hauntology,” in which we are haunted by our past visions of new futures, unable now to introduce mass-cultural narratives of novel horizons.

Commenting from a cultural twilight emerging from an ever-intensified late capitalist condition, we must attempt to recreate an ontology of the present which contains within it a potential for new realities. Under the force of my own subjectivity, I will herein bind together a handful of my favorite works of art to meditate on this ontological project.

The starting point is a legendary narrative mechanic, the hero’s voyage, specifically instantiated in the possibilities afforded by the “open road.” The dominant texts here being Don Quixote and “Song of the Open Road.”

I will then discuss some more contemporary resistances to the annihilation of collective narratives, focusing closely on the revolutionary song “Worth His Weight in Gold” by Steel Pulse and its relation to the broader postpostmodern “New Sincerity” movement.

Finally, the essay will discuss itself. From there, we will try to glean some final summary of what an ontology of the present could offer, and ultimately, of how we should live in opposition to the destruction of collectivity and rebuild dreams of the future.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is my favorite book. Predicated on the madness-induced resurrection of mythologies past, the tale of Don Quixote of La Mancha offers a story of the triumph of subjectivity over the universal. Harold Bloom compares Don Quixote to Hamlet, both being protagonists defined by “madness,” both leaving the reader unsure as to how much they truly understand about their masterful plots. I choose to read Don Quixote as being on a level of heroism above that even of the conventional hero figure, since Don Quixote’s heroism responds to the problems his subjectivity identifies, rather than problems dictated as existing objectively. The knight thus contests the very terrain on which “problems” are defined, something we on the left should find illuminating in an era when the myth of “clean coal” is being unironically replaced by “sustainable lithium,” to choose off-hand one of many absurdities.

Don Quixote’s adventure begins when he chooses to regain control of the ontological terrain he operates in, a state characterized (with widely varying degrees of judgment and forcefulness over the course of the plot) as “madness” in the text. Confronted with an unfulfilling and meaningless existed as a middle-aged bottom-rung member of the Spanish gentry, Don Quixote becomes obsessed with the “promise of unending adventure” from chivalrous tales, becoming compelled to “travel the world … to seek adventures … and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.” The solution to his drab existence is to mythologize himself, to choose his own reality of adventure in defiance of the dreary materiality to which he is socially bound. Here, we can recall the “Excursus of Enlightenment I” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which Adorno and Horkheimer, commenting on the Odyssey, understand mythological figures as being defined by their repetitive nature, their defining trait being one that must be compulsively replicated whenever the trigger occurs. Don Quixote’s life as a noble, trapped by its social realities, must be replaced by the repetition of a mythological hero, in this case a call to seek out and fight evil. Despite this mandate appearing to deny the hero agency, it provides a quest structure enabling the expression of subjectivity through confrontation with newness and the discarding of existing social shackles. Thus, the mythological repetition Don Quixote adopts sustains a self-actualizing experience rather than letting the hero succumb into a lifeless objectivity.

Our knight wastes no time in constructing the rest of his mythological universe around himself. He mentally transforms a peasant girl (a prostitute) with whom “he had once been in love” into Dulcinea of Toboso, the patron lady whom he believes every knight errant requires, based on the stories he has read (chiefly those of Amadis of Gaul). He similarly renames himself Don Quixote of La Mancha, from his former name of Alfonso Quixano the Good. I here quote Genesis 2:19, which will be relevant through this essay:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

Don Quixote’s renamings evoke Adam’s power of choosing the original name of all living things, a maneuver appropriating the divine power of speech being indistinguishable from reality (consider John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). Don Quixote reclaims the primordial, pre-fall power of human subjectivity shaping the world around it.

There is a certain inverted parallel to Odysseus at play in Don Quixote’s voyage. Odysseus flees mythological terrors, avoiding their hostile repetitions (Scylla mindlessly consuming his sailors, Circe transforming his soldiers, and so on, as discussed in the Excursus), always moving towards the restoration of his life of nobility in Ithaca, where his faithful wife Penelope awaits. Don Quixote, conversely, discards the linear progression of time which he inhabits in his daily life in favor of becoming a mythological figure, embracing repetitive conflict, in order to construct a universe of his own. Ironically, just as Odysseus is a proto-novel protagonist reacting against the narrative hostilities of collective mythological storytelling, Don Quixote is a neo-mythical protagonist reacting against the banalities of individualized life. His relationship with the peasant girl unfulfilled, he renders her into his own fictionalized version of Penelope, physically distancing himself from her to allow the construction of an epic storyline around satisfying his noble lady in preparation for a victorious reunion. Indeed, the plot of the entire novel revolves around Don Quixote constructing mythological creatures out of the mundane, rewriting the Odyssey around himself as he travels. This is the brilliance of Don Quixote: the mythologizing of the protagonist is ultimately what makes him human. The relatable character is the one who believes ultimately in his own subjectivity and his own universe of fables, rather than the harsh objectivity imposed from without.

The triumph of Don Quixote’s personalized storytelling is the spread of his subjectivity around him. Consider the extended stay he has with the duke and duchess, who are delighted to conspire to fool Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho for their amusement, but end up organizing their lives and wealth around the maintenance of an alternate reality. Indeed, the climax of this power dynamic inversion occurs when the duke and duchess stage an elaborate plot surrounding the bearded Duena, requiring several of their associates to serve as actors, mechanical props such as the wooden horse and bellows for simulated wind, and explosives. Although the dramatic irony lies nominally in Don Quixote remaining unaware that he is being duped, a more critical reading shows the overwhelming power of Don Quixote’s subjectively-created alternate universe to absorb the real lives of those around him. The real irony, then, is the duke and duchess believing that they are fooling Don Quixote without realizing that his personal sense of freedom is so captivating as to completely devour their lives and resources, these nobles themselves compelled to ignore the materiality of their estates in favor of joining Don Quixote’s story.

Ultimately, Don Quixote ends his stay with the duke and duchess:

Now it seemed to Don Quixote that it would be good for him to abandon the extreme idleness in which he had been living in the castle, for he imagined it would be a great mistake for him to remain confined and inactive among the infinite luxuries and pleasures offered to him as a knight errant by the duke and duchess…

Don Quixote has so successfully conquered the world around him by imposing his subjectivity that his life has become too easy, replicating the banal conditions from which he originally sought escape. He must return to his mythic repetition and continue to wander through the Spanish countryside, fighting monsters of his own creation. We can again compare this to Odysseus, who flees the hedonism offered first by Calypso and then the Phaeacians to return to his noble past. Don Quixote replicates the heroic abandonment of luxury, but while Odysseus does so to return to the even greater comfort and luxury of his family and estate, Don Quixote does so in glorification of voyaging itself, to the concept of the open road, offering the promise of further narrative.

Just as in the Excursus, the halting of the mythological repetition causes the mythic figure to cease to be. At the end of Don Quixote, the knight errant returns to his village, sorrowful (pun intended) from his defeat in battle, and falls ill. Aware that he is dying, Don Quixote announces his return to his original identity of “Alonso Quixano, once called the Good,” claiming to regret his “madness” that led to his knightly adventures. Strikingly, the protagonist’s friends, who have been plotting for the entire novel as to how to cure Don Quixote’s mental state, respond by maintaining his own narrative, which has now supplanted reality. His friend Sanson reasserts the myth, responding, “Now, Senor Don Quixote, you say this now, when we have news of the disenchantment of Senora Dulcinea?” Reality has inverted with myth within the novel, forced by the overpowering magic of Don Quixote. Later in the same scene, “whether Don Quixote was simply Alonso Quixano the Good, or whether he was Don Quixote of La Mancha, he always had a gentle disposition and was kind in his treatment of others.” This extracts a universal identity-essence, one of kindness, that supersedes both internal and external definitions of Quixote/Quixano. In this context, the adoption by Alonso Quixano of the Quixote identity at the outset of the novel, interpreted as madness, ultimately maintained his true identity and sense of self by allowing him to perform good deeds (as he saw them) rather than be trapped by the structural limitations of his social class and continue to complacently participate in feudalism.

Soon after, Sancho, inspired by Don Quixote, attempts to assert his subjectivity over the rational world: “your grace should take my advice and live for many years, because the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die.” Sancho continues, “say you were toppled because I didn’t tighten Rocinante’s cinches,” attempting to supplement Don Quixote’s narrative power and dispel the repetition-destroying story of knightly defeat to avoid collapsing back into the grim material conditions of village life. Of course, this is not enough: no longer a mythic figure, Alonso dies in bed. Sanson writes the telling epitaph, “death itself did not triumph / over his life with his death.” In addition to the implied immortal power of Quixote/Quixano’s story, this epitaph is consistent more literally because Don Quixote did not die, he disenchanted; only Alonso Quixano the Good, the mortal body from which emerged the mythology, truly died.

We can compare this death scene with the existential responses to death encountered elsewhere. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the titular hero Gilgamesh, becoming terrified of death after the divine execution of his friend Enkidu, journeys to the end of the world to find the secret to immortality. His quest fails when Gilgamesh fails the challenge of the immortal Utnapishtim to stay awake for one week, but the hero receives as a consolation prize a plant of rejuvenation. Tragically, this plant is eaten by a snake as Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, resigning him to find consolation in the grandeur of the walls of Uruk. A surprisingly similar plot reappears several millennia later in Don DeLillo’s postmodern classic, White Noise, in which hero Jack seeks the drug Dylar to stave off his fear of death. The greatness of Don Quixote lies in the hero himself never fearing death, either as Don Quixote or as Alonso Quixano. Don Quixote, living in a world of his own design, had no reason to fear death, for he faced everything on narrative terms of his own construction. After his final return to his village, the dissolution of the mythic Don Quixote into the corporeal Alonso Quixano leaves the latter having no fear of death, because indeed his subjectivity already died when he returned to his original mental state. The last words of Alonso Quixano were not noble or epic; rather, they were the dicta of his will, the dreary allocation of the meager capital amassed by a humble noble. Quixano’s will to live vanished alongside his incarnation of pure self-actualization, Don Quixote.

While Don Quixote obtains a framework for reinvention from a mythic past, Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” uses its form of lyric poetry to construct an ontology of the present unreliant on an existing body of wisdom, relying instead on the annihilation of temporality to deliver liberation.

The poem opens in the present moment, the physical motion ahead promising motion of self-actualization:

Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.

Beginning from nothing, the speaker creates a sense of self: the traveler, the wanderer, one whose quest of physical exploration is indistinguishable from that of psychological exploitation. Like Don Quixote, the speaker constructs their own mythology:

You road I enter upon and look around …
I believe that much unseen is also here.

The speaker chooses to believe in mythology, knowing that this choice will provide a more beautiful, meaningful, and authentic experience. The mythology, of course, is unbound by dogma, and is conjured in service to subjectivity.

In the third section of the poem, Whitman ritualistically names objects:

You air that serves me with breath to speak! …
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides! …
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

We recall here again the physicality of naming from Genesis 2:19: the speaker reclaims control over the alienated realm of objects by speaking them into being anew, now part of the subjective’s mythology rather than the objects’ objective materiality. The anti-temporal narrative framing of the poem also evokes the raw creative power of language from John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word,” since all speech in the poem takes place in the instantaneous present, beginning again at each moment.

Each act of naming, in this framework, inaugurates a new branch of fate; each assertion of subjectivity over physicality allows for a new reality. These acts of creation branch off of the endless open road, which acts as a spine of storytelling. We can compare this to Wim Wenders’s excellent film Kings of the Road (1976), in which the physical road provides a narrative framework for expeditions which explore the characters’ psyche through their explorations of space (think also of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), in which the union between psychological and physical exploration is near-total). Kings of the Road culminates in a written act of creation that physically bifurcates the open road, the paper-scrap poem of “Everything must change. So long.” irrevocably splitting the paths of the protagonists. We can think too of Borges’s “Library of Babel” story, in which infinite possibilities are afforded by motion through physical-narrative spaces.

Going on, we arrive at a striking pair of lines:

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles.

The “open air” of the open road is not only the ecological variety, but also speaks of freedom from existing concepts, from oppressive discourse, and from co-opted institutions of knowledge (earlier, the speaker is “done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms”). Through the world-making invocation “I think,” the speaker anoints themselves with the power of prophets, to perform miracles. Here is a new mythology of the wandering prophet, the Christ figure stripped of its dogmatic narrative baggage. The individual acquires sainthood not through coronation, but through declaration, through the simple decision to leave behind mental bondage and announce themselves a hero. Ecclesiastical language is used explicitly in the soon-after line, “from this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,” the priest of the self “ordained” by themselves alone. Here is Sartrean radical freedom without the ballast of unreconciled secularity: there remains a teleological movement towards personal liberation, a path requiring constant deconstruction and reinvention of mythology and storytelling through art (“free poems”).

The Christ motif continues:

Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

Here is a framework for a life without fear, an embrace of the holy luster of invincibility to cruelty along with celebration of righteousness. The open road affords such liberation, allowing us to reinvent valuations. In the “open air,” a “great personal deed … overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it,” that is, the actions of the subject are self-justifying and self-emancipatory: reinvention is the mode of being.

Reminiscent of Don Quixote’s stay with the duke and duchess,

However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

Like in Don Quixote, the realm of objects, of things, of that which comforts the desire for consumption rather than the desire for meaning, is an oppressive illusion necessary to be discarded. This critique, radical as it is, finds a surprising level of hypocritical absorption into mass culture (see, for instance, the wide understanding of Brave New World as presenting a dystopian image of control through hedonism, without the same mass acknowledgement of its incredible accuracy as a critique of late capitalism).

These Biblical elements of the poem construct the text as a secularized myth, a fragmented reincarnation of Biblical poetic myth. Consider the following passage, which sounds like something directly out of the King James Old Testament:

These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve…
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

The phrasing of “these are the days” (compare to Genesis 25:7, “And these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life”) is lifted out of its tribal historiographical origins and rendered into a prophetic edict. Indeed, the latter three lines quoted (particularly the moralistic middle two) retain the exact structure of the Ten Commandments (e.g. Exodus 20:15, “Thou shalt not steal”). Whitman has transfigured the beautiful poetic language of an oppressive document of cultural norms, a text wielding a mythologized past to enforce group cohesion, into a radical opposition to the ontological validity of the past. The past is nowhere to be found in “Song of the Open Road.” There is only “the days” of the future, a timeless and boundless space whose beauty is accessed only by a refusal to be weighed down by material or conceptual anchors of the past. The opposition to accumulation in the quoted lines applies simultaneously to the realm of the object and the realm of the myth, the narrative of the past, and the framework of conceptual domination enabled by any normative power conceded to the past.

Section 13 of the poem continues the annihilation of time, invoking the edict “To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it.” All things must come, and all things must pass. Experiences are to be used “to merge [experiences] in the start of superior journeys,” each narrative existing to destroy itself and become the primordial genesis of a new narrative. The past loses its claim to reality. As Jameson points out, the subconscious as a source of authentic conceptual space outside of capitalism has been eroded, crushing the surrealist project. Whitman (anachronistically) provides a solution by using the dream-like fragments of memories passed to replenish the subconscious, a maneuver which requires only the relinquishment of the ontological validity of the past. These narrative kernels constitute an inalienable, ultra-subjective core of a new mythology we can draw on to produce art and critique.

What is the result of these Zen-like meditations on the unreality of the nonpresent? Naturally, it is revolution. Whitman commands,

To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase…
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa.

The destruction of the past destroys with it the conceptual validity of ownership. The needs of the present call for the usage of objects without regard to conceptual limitations. As if it needed to be made more explicit, Whitman continues,

Now understand me well – it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.
My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion.

The conceptual seeding of the future provided by the past extends from the level of individual narrative-formation to the greater revolutionary cause. Thus the open road, the discarding of limitations, discards with it the separation of revolutionary forays into discrete temporal units, merging the leftist project into a continuous and constant reinvention. Finally, the great poem ends with,

I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

To travel is to unite, to fight, and to live. On the open road, the present destroys and reconstitutes itself. The Buddhist insistence on the present moment being the only temporal object which can be called “real” manifests through the mythology of endless curiosity, and demands that we each remake the present moment with a critical perspective liberated from the past.

Finally, a relevant passage from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, spoken by the titular character: “Don’t you see, if only I could live the rest of my life in some new way! If I could only wake some still, bright morning and feel that life had begun again, that the past was forgotten and had vanished like smoke.” Each revelation and epiphany becomes obsolete in its moment of conception by virtue of its solidification, the death of the analysis and critique which produced it. The past must be discarded, the present confused, the future undefined.

Let us now turn to one of the great visions of collective future in contemporary music, the song “Worth His Weight in Gold” by Steel Pulse. This song uses the postmodernist freedom-of-movement of signs and signifiers to construct a new mythology: colors, images, concepts (“true democracy”) can get constellated without justification, a mass-cultural hyper-linked lyric poem that participates in the guise of postmodern symbol-mongering to introduce a critical collective future.

The song initially appears to center around the order to “rally around the flag,” to dissolve the self into a mythologized Pan-African identity. Indeed, the colors named (“red, gold, black and green”) take the union of the red, black, and green tricolor of Marcus Garvey along with the red, gold, and green Ethiopian flag, making the rally-able flag a nonexistent but historically rich chromatic quartet. In the symbolic accounting of the flag, perhaps most significant is red corresponding to “the blood that flows like a river,” recalling one of the plagues put upon Egypt in Exodus. This is one of many elements of the song that ground it in the contemporarily-adapted Exodus narrative central to reggae, while inverting the specific symbol through the blood belonging to the victimized rather than acting as a plague upon the victimizers.

Perhaps even more interesting than the specific symbols is the framing thereof. Each symbol is preceded by “Marcus say, Sir Marcus say,” a repetition which recalls the invocation to the muse characteristic to epic poetry, with a modern update: the new heavenly muse is the earthly prophet of black liberation. The emphasis on “say” also recalls Adam’s power of speech to produce reality in Genesis, as previously discussed.

A key structural element of the song is the simulacrum of a mythologized, reinvented past becoming the conceptual basis for a liberated future. Like in Exodus, the narrative is one of “captivity, captivity,” of enslavement lasting into the present day. These conditions of oppression and alienation “required from us a song,” critical art being demanded to combat injustice. The demand to “repatriate” posits the imagined past of a blended African culture and Exodus narrative as being a meaningful image of a just future. Note that this line is followed with “I and I’s patience has now long time gone,” the “I and I” pronunciation invoking the Adonai of the Bible. The listener is asked to “remember when we used to dress like kings,” again harkening to a collectively-held mythological past. The line “a history no more a mystery” demands that this mythologized past assumes a reality status through the collective adoption of it as being a cultural truth.

The fascinating thing about this political ontology is that it does not operate by preserving exact historical data so much as by using preserved narrative kernels to project a past backwards from the present to enable a political project of the future. African history merges with Judaic lore to produce a post hoc narrative casting the Black experience in 1982 as being the continuation of an epic myth of global cultural combat, defiance, annihilation, and reconstitution. The future is the reclamation of a distant, mythological past exactly to the extent that it is a negation of the recent past, one in which Western empires hide behind liberal rhetoric in denial of continued injustice (this liberal rhetoric being critiqued in the album-titular line “True democracy,” stepping away from mythology to undermine the legitimacy of liberal democracy).

The narrativization of the past facilitates a rhetorical sublimation of the individual self into a collective project. The mythological arc of the Black diaspora unites its participants under “One god, one aim, one destiny.” Another Biblical appropriation comes from the line, “Ethiopia stretch forth her hands, / closer to God we Africans,” evoking Adam’s outstretched hand in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Here, the motif of asymptotic reaching towards the divine takes on a cast of authentic liberation, rather than the arguably more common postmodernist instantiation as existential dread (see, for instance, the Godspeed You! Black Emperor album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven for a more apocalyptic framing of the same symbol). The divine collectivity continues with “In our hearts is Mount Zion / now you know, seek the Lion, / our hearts is Mount Zion.” The central reference to Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (known as The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah), again applies the mythological lens to the oppression of the present. The brilliant elision of the preposition “in” between the first and third quoted lines represents a broader metaphysical project: the mythology of the past being in our hearts, it allows the emancipatory transformation of our selves into a physical manifestation of the collective mythology.

The most incredible line in the entire song grows in my mind to define it: “How can we sing, in a strange land?” I will discuss the self-referentiality of this line later, but for now let us focus on its critique. As in the “required from us a song” line, we are forced to reflect on the conditions of art under oppression. In exile and oppression, it is impossible to create art as “pure creation of the mind” (Le Corbusier). Of course, the line is itself being sung, negating the literal reading of its rhetorical question and bringing to bear a subtler critique: without the ability to fully express subjectivity, the “required” song must be one of negation, one that is ontologically organized against the present and towards a constructive future. The narrative kernels preserved out of the past haunt the present while providing the epistemological framework for a future emerging inevitably out of a rewritten past, the alchemical machinery for such transmutation provided by the engine of negative art.

Expanding outwards, “Worth His Weight in Gold” participates in a broader musical critique of postmodernism anticipatory of David Foster Wallace’s concept of a New Sincerity. Reggae and Afrobeat, among other (particularly Black-led) genres, participate in the self-aware industrial processing and recycling of images characteristic of Jameson’s postmodern “force field.” However, these images are disciplined and tamed, reconstructed into a hulking Frankenstein of cultural detritus animated towards a revolutionary teleology. Both reggae and Afrobeat are comfortable giving explicit names and ghostly recollections of events in an amorphous pastiche, but do so to provide figments of hope and defiance rather than a teleological concession to the grinding culture industry. Consider, for instance, this passage from Bob Marley’s “So Much Things to Say”:

Hey, I'll never forget, no way,
They crucified Jesus Christ.
I'll never forget, no way,
They sold Marcus Garvey for rice, ooh
I'll never forget, no way,
They turned their backs on Paul Bogle, hey, hey,
So don't you forget, no you,
Who you are and where you stand in the struggle.

Christ, Garvey, Boble, swept up with Haile Selassie and any other useful images towards an authentic resurrection of a collective future. This is one example arbitrarily chosen among many. The discographies of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh, along with Fela Kuti and other Afrobeat exponents, could provide endless more. Our ability to produce visions of collective future has not been lost, or even, on the whole, diminished. It has just been forced to operate as a subaltern voice within the cultural landscape.

Postmodernism has enabled the instrumentalization of images and cultural artifacts in the service of producing art. Criticisms of postmodernism lament (as do I) the loss of imagined futures brought upon by the self-consumptive aesthetic recycling program induced by late capitalist cultural pressures. However, the stylistic tools of postmodernism can be reclaimed. The freedom to use symbols of the past without context, to merge and collage images and ideas, to produce art in any medium, referencing any other work, without any need for justification – these tools promise total artistic liberation. Our goal should be to maintain this level of aesthetic maximalism without allowing the resulting works to be shackled by capitalist anti-conceptual forces.

I recently saw this phenomenon on display at the Oakland Museum of California’s Afrofuturism exhibit, which featured visual collages by Wangechi Mutu and other artists. The collage form indeed can be radical, and can move beyond postmodern nihilism. (The exhibit also discussed extensively Sun Ra, of course, a quote from whose music is the title of this essay.)

In this spirit, we can look at some great works which could be described with the New Sincerity label. For instance, Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days retain the absolute freedom of postmodern style while focusing their epic collages into a directed, analytical critique. These works resist the natural nihilism and degradation of meaningful experiences attacked by critics of postmodernism.

Indeed, the cultural violence of postmodernism rages on despite these noble efforts to move past it. The app TikTok is an image machine on scale vastly beyond what any twentieth-century critic could possibly have imagined. Sounds, images, videos, freely jumbled together, recycled, mutated, reappropriated, mingled with commentary, distributed instantly and infinitely – the pressures of commodification which prompted to initial postmodern surge have only intensified, and so too has the accompanying loss of the sense of collectivity, of future, of epic. But the critical promise of postmodernism, its promised stylistic liberation, has also been bolstered in the digital age. With immediate access to all symbols, all of culture, we must use the works and figments of the past as architectural components for a new art. The widespread turn away from nihilism and towards a New Sincerity is not inevitable, and the culture industry grows only more intense. We must make a decisive effort in our art ro reclaim something meaningful.

The art of the digital age must wield the technology of our moment, the visionary power of modernism, the stylistic freedom of postmodernism, and the collective mythology of the epic to maximally resist, negate, and deconstruct the present while driving forwards, briskly and with determination, towards a new world.

The final work I would like to discuss in detail is this essay itself. This is because I am fascinated with recursion. Indeed, Don Quixote, “Song of the Open Road,” and “Worth His Weight in Gold” all contain, to varying degrees, elements of self-referentiality. Don Quixote is aware of itself as a text throughout, particularly when discussing the False Quixote. “Song of the Open Road” contains the previously-discussed line, “I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also.” The poem itself, of course, is one such free poem. There is also the preceding line, “You express me better than I can myself, / You shall be more to me than my poem,” a self-aware critique of the power of art. Finally, the central line “How can we sign in a strange land?” of “Worth His Weight in Gold” rhetorically doubts its own creation in order to assert its negative power.

Douglas Hofstadter describes recursion as being the structural element which allows systems to achieve consciousness. While this applies literally to dynamic systems with the power to act on themselves, I believe that the philosophical tool applies just as well to art. Self-reference imbues works with the power of self-definition, self-awareness. The self-awareness of a work preempts the attack on aura characteristic of late capitalist cultural pressures. The text proclaims itself as text, subverting the implicit postmodern critique delivered by the incorporation of the text into collage.

The self-aware text gains a certain consciousness allowing it to interact with the reader as one individual interacts with another. We can preserve the postmodernist critique of Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” while retaining the persuasive and political (if not “Committed,” per Benjamin) potential of art through this self-awareness. We do not demand analysis or interpretation of the casual speech of our friends, yet we take what they say seriously as self-aware, reflective actors.

Of course, self-awareness is not required to achieve dialogue between the work and the reader. Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society” delivers the same edict for art as a whole, that it operates by creating a space of subjective reflection within the reader akin to that created by deep interpersonal exchange. The Buddhist koan literary form is designed to create such subjectivity-inducing ruptures and shocks within the reader, while lacking explicit acknowledgement of themselves as being koans within the text. Of course, one could argue that this self-awareness exists nonetheless in great works of art, since both the author and the reader (usually) know them to be works capable of inducing personal transformation in the reader. The intratextual sentience, however, still may provide a relatively unique form of defense and discreditation of the violence of the postmodern image machine.

Self-consciousness aside for the moment, this essay, and indeed the essay as a literary form (acknowledged as being such by, again, by Adorno), is defined by collage. The author (myself, in this case, to be explicit) rips verses and lines out of their native habitats and cages them into a zoo of language. The only thing that unites the works I have discussed in this essay is my interest in them. They were chosen, ultimately, arbitrarily, based on my chaotic thoughts. Every inclusion recalls a multitude of omissions. And yet, undaunted, I have glued them together all the same, brought them into service of my project of self-reflection. This is an act of self-actualization and reflection.

Indeed, this essay is about myself reflecting on myself. It situates itself within an infinite hierarchy of recursive analysis. First there is sense-data; then there is art analyzing it; then there are essays about the art; then essays about the essays; and so on. At what point can this great chain of critique disentangle itself from the inherent analysis a work at any level provides about its author? I argue there is none. The infinite chain of critical works is constitutive with an infinite chain of self-analysis and reflection.

Inevitably, I always return to recursion, for it is the only epistemological framework that allows for truly thoughtful discourse. Every critique can be critiqued, every analysis analyzed. We must embrace this awareness as the framework that provides any amount of legitimacy to any critique: that the critique critiques itself, that the chain has no end, that our journey for truth has come so far, has endless horizons ahead, and can never return to first-order ignorance.

As a literary analysis, this essay is about time. As a text, it is about itself. As a production of my hands, it is about myself. This was not my decision, but an inevitability. Every work I consume produces a critique within me, which itself produces a critique of itself, creating the infinite critical tower which I must analyze as a window into the infinite recursive tower of my own sense of self. Exploring the temporal ontology of these towers demands a closer look at temporality in the works which built the towers. Does the tower of critique itself expand as time passes and my knowledge increases, or do I only give labels to new depths which were already present? I have never been able to answer the analogous question for math, which is the only thing I can really be said to know anything about, so I will not attempt to answer the present question either.

The problem of time is raised more urgently by the material decision-making of my life. I must decide what to do, and I have no answers. Every plan I have creates its own ascending tower of critiques and its parallel tower of self-reflection. Every future I imagine critiques itself. There can be no resolution, no definitive answer, since I can never reach the end of the infinite recursions.

Such trifles did not stop Don Quixote, and they will not stop me now. The reality principle is no match for our subjectivity. The goal of this essay is to invert the power of the critical towers, to transform them from stultifying limitations on planning to emancipatory explorations of myself, to know better what I must do.

The essay has, to some extent, served this purpose. Now at its conclusion, I have some sense of the way forward. To learn from the past, but refuse its limitations; to create new mythologies freely and joyfully; to speak into being the world as I want it to be; to create and consume art with all tools available; to celebrate the present as the only true reality and as the locus of creation; to have confidence in my own power for reimagination. I will eat when I am hungry, and sleep when I am tired. I will live the life I want to live.

In Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, an alternative ending is imagined to the surveying of the (famously) 233-mile eponymous line: carried away with the overwhelming force of the unnaturally linear scar they have wrought upon the earth, the duo venture onwards West, passing through increasingly obscure towns and villages, splitting communities in two: “The under-lying Condition of their Lives is quickly establish’d as the Need to keep, as others a permanent address, a perfect Latitude, – no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion, – Westering.” Ultimately, this fantasy returns the protagonists East after they discover Uranus. Regardless, that is how I live: with no fixed place, but a fixed motion.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.

Postscript. Let me say something about Tarkovsky and desire. In Stalker (1979), neither character chooses to enter the room which grants wishes that they have journeyed so far to reach, fearing what it would reveal about their desires. In Solaris (1972), the protagonist decides to live a life of unreality, letting the neurological planet replicate for him a sentimental image of a lost life. In The Sacrifice (1986), a man’s bargain with a silent God to avoid nuclear war by destroying everything he loves is fulfilled. After the man is taken away for insanity, his until-then-mute son quotes John 1:1 for his single line, “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?” The disappeared Papa takes on the silence of God, his wish fulfilled, his life ruined. Desire is a complex and dangerous facet of humanity for Tarkovsky, no more so than in its relation with speech. There is an inherent terror in the expression and actualization of previously-unacknowledged desire. Thus, the universal religious prohibition, to various degrees of severity, of desire. As Whitman says in “Song of the Open Road,”

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

May we all have such certainty that the heavens suffice with their endless silence.

Postpostscript. It is unfair to imagine that radical new imaginaries are limited only to subaltern works operating within and partially against the postmodernist forcefield. The works, for instance, of Thomas Pynchon, can be examined to find the latent optimism within even the high postmodern canon. Pynchon’s books lean into absurdist nihilism and seem to view the total commodification of the sacred as a forgone conclusion. However, his books (I would particularly point to Inherent Vice, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon) contain at least one potent avenue for resistance and for forming new futures: counter-mythology.

Pynchon’s casual and profligate use of magic, myth, and fable, woven seamlessly into the brutal landscape of machinery, markets, and mayhem that characterize his narrative landscapes, shows us a way out of the madness. We can think of the oracular acid trips and widely-rumored but never confirmed great surfing waves in Inherent Vice; Tyrone Slothrop’s statistically impossible correlation between sexual exploits and V2 rocket strikes in Gravity’s Rainbow; and Dixon’s voyage into the subterranean world of the hollow Earth in Mason & Dixon. Pynchon indeed knows that there are other worlds they have not told us of. He shows us how to create our own mythologies, how to use the liberating approach of postmodernism to scrape together myths and legends from whatever detritic scraps of art and story have been left behind by the culture industry.

Postmodernism fails to articulate a coherent utopian vision as did modernism. But the tools of critique and imagination necessary to imagine new worlds have only been enhanced by the postmodern explorations of the past several decades. If the capitalist culture industry has taken away all that is sacred, so be it; we will declare with bright-eyed confidence and self-appointed authority that everything is sacred anew, that other worlds are possible, that the surreal shall be real and the impossible possible.

The industrial revolution brought with it an annihilation of subjective control over labor through the instrumentalization and standardization of work. Modernism reclaimed the technologies of this vast machinery in service of a collective dream, building housing for workers with the industrial processes used to oppress them. The same has played out again within the realm of ideals: postmodernism has responded to the total instrumentalization of concepts with sorrow, nihilism, and madness, but has always kept within it the critiques and analyses necessary to move beyond this form of ideological oppression. Free-floating concepts, cheap and fungible ideas – these realities enable new futures to be created with unprecedented conceptual freedom. What are we waiting for?