'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Postmodernity of Gossip 

If you click on the link, you will be virtually transported to an excellent article by Alexander Cockburn about gossip, a subject that has interested him for decades. Interestingly, Cockburn never makes the connection, but one can certainly identify gossip as one of the first manifestations of postmodernism, because nothing bespeaks the collapse of metanarratives, such as say, the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom, as well as cultural fragmentation, like gossip.

Perhaps, this overstates the case, though, because, gossip has always been a prominent feature of American history, one need only recall the vicious slanders against Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. From the country's inception, gossip has always answered the call of resistance against the prospect of social change. As Gore Vidal observed, in a quote from Cockburn's article:

"Gossip?" Gore Vidal said to me. "Gossip is conversation about people. In the United States there has never been actual discussion of issues whenever a personality could take its place. We do that because we can never examine the sort of society we live in. Therefore candidates are rated according to their weight, color of eyes, sexual proclivities, and so forth. It avoids having to face, let us say, unemployment—which is a very embarrassing thing to have to talk about. Anything substantive is out. Otherwise somebody might say this is a very bad society and ought to be changed."

Indeed. His observation raises a troubling question, though, because while the emergence of the United States, and its attendant economic, social and cultural values, have commonly been recognized as the cutting edge of modernism, a modernism that fully flowered in the 20th Century, such an emergence apparently carried within it the seeds of its own demise. Capitalist rationality, the annihiliation of time and space through new forms of communications, ultimately served to gratify the public obsession with personality through gossip, thus undermining the social order associated with it.

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