Whoosh! Issue 49 - October 2000


IN ILLO TEMPORE...
AN INTRODUCTION TO A MARXIST ANALYSIS
OF THE MAKING OF A POSTMODERN MYTHOLOGY
IN XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS


Page 4

MYTHOLOGY IN A POSTMODERN AGE



Misplaced Vegas showgirls.

Xena: Warrior Princess sometimes has problems with too much postmodernity.
From MARRIED WITH FISHSTICKS (105/515)


[76] The giant development of Productive Forces under capitalism seemed to have left this far behind. In the new conditions created by bourgeois accumulation, development of the machine, free exchange, etc. [Note 69], seemed to have turned these things in ancient history. Yet, suddenly, the main stronghold of the bourgeois ideology turned commonsense, in the Sanctum Sanctorum of Mass Culture, television itself, in the core of the imperialist system, well after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the USSR. Suddenly the old and pessimistic heroic ideology makes a triumphant comeback! As comrade Lenin once said, it is impossible to be a Marxist without understanding the laws of dialectics, of which the main one is, as stated by old Engels in The Dialectics of Nature, that "Life consists precisely and primarily in this - that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else". The understanding of Mass Culture as hopelessly reactionary, made by the Frankfurtians in the 1940s, seems to have been somewhat premature, at least in this case. Yet, there is a XENA episode, ULYSSES, where the myth of Ulysses and the Sirens is reworked in a way that runs counter to everything said about this myth as a metaphor of the human condition in bourgeois society by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectics of the Enlightenment. Suffice only to say that one of the shortcomings of the Frankfurt School, seems it is not being dialectical enough.

[77] Victorian optimist notwithstanding, there remained always a streak of pessimism in the bourgeois consciousness. As expressed in the depressed remark of Flaubert's, quoted above, that to rake the past is depressing, as History is only a narrative of crime and folly, as human consciousness does not generate the self-enlightenment of the human spirit, that life is struggle. This is something that the most orthodox Marxists, like Lukacs who wrote The Destruction of Reason, explained by assigning such utterances to the "decadent" period of bourgeois ideology. Something that was put as early as the close of the 1848 democratic revolution, the last "progressive" manifestations of said bourgeois ideology being the philosophy of Hegel and Ricardian economics [Note 70].

[78] The simple chronological problem that bourgeois society has been existing, and developing outstandingly for some 150 years after the supposed beginning of this "decadence" is sufficient to tell us that Lukacs is making a teleology. His ideological overseers in Stalin's Moscow could rest assured on the imminent demise of capitalism, but none the less untenable. "Decadence" is a moralizing notion that no serious Marxist should be allowed to employ as an explanatory factor. Something that must be stated clearly, since, in the realm of bourgeois mass culture where we are, a Marxist is always a goggle-eyed fanatic wanting to bomb the world waste to put an end to this "decadent" society. Better to talk about an inner tension of the same ideology.

[79] As Isaac Deutscher has said in the 1960s, the sole tenet of Marxism that has resisted unvanquished the last 150 or so years is the notion that Capitalism rests on a contradiction. This contradiction is between its social development of the forces of production on a scale never seem before, a development attained through free competition and private capital accumulation; and the antisocial uses to which the fruits of such social development have been put. We have been existing, during this time, seated on relative levels of inequality of a scale yet unseemly in the whole of human history, and such relative inequality does not give signs of abating, quite the contrary. In the last 20 years, with the intensification of the "imperialist" [Note 71] traits of capitalism [Note 72], there has been a necessity for the "deregulation" of the existing legal statutes [Note 73]. This was done in order to attract capitals, to lessen the growth of the threat of chronic unemployment, and to scrap entire national industries in the wake of international competition. The emergence of states [Note 74] where all social and health indicators [Note 75] have been steadily declining, in the absolute absence of economic resources to counter such things, the sinister (and in essence criminal) role of such international entities as the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO [Note 76] has not made us more secure about our ability to be the sole owner and lords of our individual destinies. The undeniable, yet-unseemly material wealth that surrounds us notwithstanding, we see a world in turmoil, crying out for a hero?

[80] In such a world, where the old, inclusive, all-embracing ideologies such as Socialism and 19th-century-nationalism, concerned with the idea of melding together the unimagined community, are in a semi-comatose state. The only inclusive ideology remaining is being Islamic Fundamentalism, as far as it tries to include everyone based on a simple shared belief. This exception notwithstanding, the ideologies that prevail are those that share the common trait of affirming a particular identity in spite of everything. If the world is a cruel place, then what rests to us, especially to the petit-bourgeoisie, as the spontaneous working-class consciousness has been always one of making the best? Perhaps to make the minimal damage of the existing conditions, partial gains notwithstanding? To affirm a narrow, exclusive group identity in spite of all circumstances, no matter what? That is the rationale (if we may use the word) behind most of present-day gender, environmental, minorities rights, indigenous struggles, in short, the "politically correct" politics, used to affirm a particular identity and single interest against all overwhelming circumstances, to do "single-clause-ism". But to what end?

[81] Poor Lukacs, when bashing Nietzsche in the interest of his Moscow Stalinist mentors, said that the mythologizing of history made by Nietzsche, in opposition to the refusal of the historical process in itself made by his master Schopenhauer, had as its rationale the idea of eternal recurrence, that found literary expression in the myth of the Eternal Return, which, Lukacs contended, was non-dialectical through and through (right), and that served to the ideological purpose of affirming the inevitability and eternity of the class struggle and of social inequality, in that the eternal recurrence of class opposition would always serve the purpose of revealing through it an elite of superior humans. "In short, Nietzsche's philosophy is the imperialist myth designed to counter socialist humanism" [Note 77].

[82] What would Lukacs, who died in 1971, had thought, had he seem that what passes as left-wing politics today is mainly Nietzschean, and bases its actual militancy exactly on the myth of the Eternal Return? For what the various single clause groups of people wounded by capitalist accumulation, that go to the streets in order to demonstrate for this or that particular and narrowly defined cause, therefore allowing bourgeois interest to pose as the defender and bulwark of all things universal [Note 78], want, is exactly to ascertain that they will remain in place, that they shall not be wiped from the face of the earth, that they shall have their place in the grand scheme of things. Hardly inspiring, of course, but very understandable at a time of overwhelmingly defeats, as a source of solace.



Killroy was here...

Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971) on the cover of his book, "A Defence of of History and Class Consciousness"


[83] There is a XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS episode, DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, where, after the portrayal of the death of the two main characters in the preceding episode, both said characters, plus Joxer, were shown as being reincarnated in today's Los Angeles, in a New Age setting. The episode finishes with this supposedly inspiring motto: "We never die, because we are never really born" [Note 79]. Ironic, of course, but that something so sad can be offered as comedy says more than thousands of learned volumes about the disenchantment that pervades the spontaneous ideologies of our time. We exist, we survive, and that is all we can expect.

[84] The myth of the Eternal Return, of course, could be charged with more optimistic overtones, as a notion of authenticity, of an unswerving loyalty of the individual to his convictions, and beliefs, aims and interests. In other words, charged to the idea that "our life is justifiable only with we fashion it in such a way that we would want it to be exactly as it had" [Note 80]. Nonetheless, to regard the idea of eternal recurrence in an optimistic fashion, one has to associate it with the idea of hindsight and, therefore, of active transformation. That is to say one could look backwards and say: "Had I the chance to start anew, I would have done exactly as before, given the fact that it would be the only chance of becoming who I am now".

[85] In an article written at the beginning of 1901, the young Trotsky played with that idea: pessimists will think that the 20th century was supposed to be our future, and optimists will retort that it is only our present [Note 81]. We think ourselves content with what we are because it is what we have become, and with us, the world around us.

[86] A former girlfriend, when shown the copy of my manuscript about Trotsky, retorted somewhat disparagingly: "So you are the last one!" to which I retorted: "Perhaps I'm not the last of the old ones, perhaps I'm the first of the new ones". The "new" ones, at that time (December 1996), existed mainly in my imagination; they continue to do so even now. But anyway, it is the notional existence of this prospective audience that has shaped the whole of my work as a writer and, therefore, that has shaped myself. If the idea of a possible transformation of the surrounding world, and of ourselves, is taken away, there only remains a perpetual present from which we cannot get rid, and to which, nonetheless, we must cling. Our present striving after being expressive, instead of being effective, is the main symptom of such a condition.

[87] In fact, an optimistic view of the Nietzschean notion of the Eternal Return, could not help, in my personal view, to be an un-Nietzschean one. For the notion of wanting to live one's life all over again, because of the value attached to the process of living it, will lead one, almost inevitably, to the Hegelian notion of the self-enlightenment of the spirit, of the idea of a history of one's individuality, and attached to it, to the idea that one's individuality will be true to itself through ultimately aiming at a given end. Attached to such a notion, one will eventually come to the idea that what is "true" to the individual is what is useful and valuable to his/her preservation and reproduction. In other words, "p is true and q is false if p works and q does not" [Note 82].

[88] In reality, such a notion would be undistinguishable from the old Hegelo-Marxist tag that "Truth is always concrete". Therefore, the notion would break with the consistent denial by Nietzsche that individuals have a History, that is, that they define themselves in terms of their ends and of the means they devise to attain such ends. In Nietzsche, individuality defines itself as a sum of attitudes, in the sense of a given arbitrary set of tastes, preferences, manners, to which the individual adheres and from which s/he cannot be torn apart. "[T]he old may still need 'another toy and another pain' in relation to which they can be, of course, no more than children once again" [Note 83].

[89] According to the Genealogy of Morals, "Originally - so they[The pragmatist 'historians of morality']decree - one approved unegoistical actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done; that is to say, those to whom they were useful; late one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistical actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good-as if they were something good in themselves"[Note 84].

[90] What we have above is a superficial understanding of the Marxist notion of ideology. An ideology is something that historically preserves the interests of the ruling class, and at the same time is taken as the eternal foundation of truly human life, and therefore, good in itself. The notion of good is historically created as a function of the utility, in a given historical situation, of a particular set of values for the ruling class, and therefore to the reproduction of a particular historical form of class society. Nietzsche, however, finds such notions completely nonsensical:

"Rather it was the good themselves, that is to say, the noble, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian. It was out of this pathos of distance that they first sized the right to create values and coin names to values: what had they to do with utility!"[Note 85]

[91] At first sight, this seems only to be an instance of the most disgusting reactionary thrash -- and it really is. The problem, however, is that it is a very particular kind of reactionary thrash. We can easily conceive, in the trite Marxist explanation, of a ruling class, which makes a living from general social inequality and justifies its exploitative position by putting its high position as necessary to the general welfare. In fact, a century of vulgar Marxism has made us to expect it:

"And what dictators do
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave...
The habit-forming pain
Mismanagement and grief" [Note 86]
—W.H. Auden

[92] What Nietzsche is probing into, is the possibility of the individual members of a ruling class that prefer the acting out of their stylish whims to the peaceful reproduction of their own society, even at the price of scuttling the said society under the burden of these asocial whims. They prefer personal style to general utility. This contradiction could be felt mostly in a class society where the entire social order was organized in terms of the utmost contradiction between the interest of society as a whole, i.e., the Productive Forces, to use the proper Marxist terminology, and, the various sectional interests inside the ruling class, i.e., the Relations of Production. This degree of contradiction can only refer to a particular historical society, namely, bourgeois society.



Excuse me...might you have some Gray Poupon?

"Nietzsche is dead"
-- God


[93] In an essay about Nietzsche written around the turn of the 19th century, the young Trotsky also considered that the asocial aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy were nothing but the reductio ad absurdum, the stretching to its limits of the main accepted tenets of bourgeois morals [Note 87]. Since bourgeois society bases itself on the idea of the individual interest and nothing else, the idea of a performa tic individual style that tries to act itself out will ultimately become an end in itself. In a time of acute social crisis, when the possibility of a wide social consensus is ruled out, as the "lower" classes cannot be heard anymore as they would propose only unacceptable things and the ruling class is deeply divided, each individual interest becomes an end in itself and is to be pursued no matter what the consequences are. The idea of a common project gradually vanishes from the scene. "A literature without power of synthesis", said Trotsky, meaning with that, of course a literature without the power to produce a general ideology, "is a symptom of general fatigue and a hallmark of societies in an epoch of sharp transition" [Note 88].

[94] For, in fact, the sharp recurrence of Nietzschean notions in our everyday ideologies cannot be taken, but as a sign of sharp transition and general social fatigue. We have seen that it is impossible to view the idea of the Eternal Return in an optimistic and constructive fashion without, at the same time, ceasing to be a Nietzschean. There are, in my humble opinion, no elements in the texts that allow a constructive view of the eternal recurrence notion. Therefore, one cannot help finding the idea of eternal recurrence as deeply pessimistic, in that it proposes a view of society as a clash of various individual styles forever opposed to each other. The noble, says Nietzsche, is above all one who simply is [Note 89], and remains equal to oneself. But the fact is that, since a society cannot remain forever mired in this clash of styles, in the long run, a solution must be found. We cannot accept culture to remain a patchwork of various mutually exclusive ghettos forever. That can be perceived only as chaos and decay. We must choose between the idea of the self-enlightenment of the human spirit, and therefore turn into Hegelians, or resort to the notion of one of these styles prevailing upon the others by way of outright conquest and destruction of the others. In short, we must choose between revolutionary hope and counter-revolutionary despair.

[95] For the fact is that our postmodern condition has produced a swift and abrupt change from our horse sense about the inevitable character of human evolution and human progress through the Hegelian notion of self-enlightenment around the Cunning of Reason. Somewhere during the last 20 years we have lost the spontaneous ideology that "humanity cannot not learn" (Habermas). Now we think ourselves prisoners of our particular identities, and to boot, we need those particular identities, and think that we must cling to them no matter what, or otherwise propter vitam vivendi perdere causas [Note 90]. Therefore, the frantic, quasi-suicidal adhesion of a Xena to the particular objects that give her life meaning, appears to us as a truly expression of the heroic in today's consciousness.

[96] The higher ideological expression of this collective climate of opinion has been a return to Nietzsche. With the unsystematic slant of his philosophy and his refusal to even consider the problem of the universals, it may seem at first glance to be a progressive development, in that all viewpoints can now be accepted, all particular identities acknowledged, all local problems to be considered equally noteworthy. Much of the left wing of postmodern thinking, and above all post-structuralism, take precisely this viewpoint as its starting-point. After all, why should one affirm that the old and largely notional "class-consciousness of the working-class" had precedence over all kinds of gender, minorities, environmental, etc., issues?

[97] Behind this refusal to consider the existence of a meta-narrative, performed by a supposedly meta-subject, there lurks something a little more disquieting, namely, the disparaging of all social and political activity as something that can be orientated to a given end. Philosophically speaking, we have returned to the extreme version of the idealist tradition. This tradition, in Western philosophy, began with Parmenides and states that things subject to change, at the same time are and are not, and since not being does not exist, things that change do not exist, and therefore only seem to be. In Aristotle's Metaphysics, that train of thought led to the idea that there exists a difference in fundamentals between corruptible and incorruptible things, each forming a separate gender, and that therefore all perishable things cannot be reduced to single imperishable essences [Note 91]. Therefore, social processes, being perishable, cannot be reduced to a single essence. They consequently organize according to principles that are themselves perishable. Hence, there is not a meta-narrative that can explain social processes in themselves. There is only a multitude of processes that organize according to laws of their own, that come into being, and then perish, all in the same level and with a single degree of importance or lack of importance. In this anomic social world, where everything exists and ceases to exist, without rhyme or reason, the general state of mind can only be one of despair combined with an attempt of clinging to one's separate identity at all costs, no matter what.

[98] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is part of this general state of consciousness, under the cover of the affirmation of a particular, gender identity. In its awareness of the renewed tragic condition of the present time, it deserves to be studied. When needing a starting-stone for subsequent commentary, perhaps we could put our entire argument into a nutshell, by remembering Trotsky's notions about the utility of THE DIVINE COMEDY? Watching XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, from a Marxist standpoint, can be good in that it inspires and rouses us, because it makes us desire something other than what is. Is that not enough? What more could possibly a work of art desire?




Next, on Pay Per View...---

"Brutus is dead"
-- Gabrielle
From ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (108/518)



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