Globatron Interviews William Gairdner – Part One

Posted by on Apr 30, 2009 in Interviews

Father Mapple Moab Adzu III, Globatron’s resident journalist interviews William Gairdner, famous author of The Book of Absolutes.  You can find out more about the man who calls himself a True Conservative and defends human universals at his website

Question #1

Are there aspects of culture today that you see as a good example of universalism. Are there countries or communities that you believe are ‘raising’ themselves at present. If so, could you talk a little about the particulars, whether it is a cultural form, or political, or literary, etc.?

Almost the entirety of the twentieth century study of cultures was devoted to so-called “cultural and moral relativism.” This term was effectively popularized by Franz Boas and then subsequently by many of his students such as Margaret Mead. Boas was a bright and energetic German Jew who came to America in part to flee the rising totalitarian mood in Europe surrounding the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. He felt very strongly that some political systems oppress others because they believe their culture is superior to all others, and accordingly, they run around oppressing and killing people to prove their point.

Boas became the head of the first Anthropology department in America at Columbia University, and set about teaching that there is no such thing as universal cultural or moral norms. Each culture has its own norms (within which there may be a good-better-best) but no culture has the right to impose its own values on another as “better” than theirs. In this sense, all moral and cultural values were said to be “relative.”

This ideal ruled the anthropological roost for almost an entire century (and according to many today is still true). However, the entire concept was held under suspicion by other social scientists who did not accept the idea that just because a certain culture thought the world was flat, or that slavery or cannibalism, or clitoridectomy was a good thing, this made it so. Clearly, some things were false and bad in fact, or by nature, and in themselves, whether or not some cultures and intellectuals thought they were true or good. Moral and cultural relativism also got caught in some obvious logical traps, too, because to say all values are relative means that this statement, too, is relative; which is to say, it is only true if you believe it is true. But if, five minutes later, you believe it is false, then at that time, it is false. A pretty silly position.

All along, however, and working quietly in the unpopular intellectual background, there were other social scientists – mostly anthropologists – who said that although it is true all cultures seem to have different practices, they also have hundreds of underlying common and universal beliefs, customs, moral values, and practices that they share. One of the first to unveil these between two covers was Professor Donald Brown, now Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who pulled about 300 of these cultural universals together (from studies of about 400 of the world’s cultures) and published a study of them in his book Human Universals (Mcgraw-Hill, 1991). The studies backing all this up are catalogued in something called the Human Relations Area File (HRAF) at Yale University (

The interesting history of and evidence for this entire development may be found in Chapter 4, “The Universals of Human Life and Culture” in my own The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a  Defense of Universals (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008). This book can be viewed on my website at Readers will see there that in fact, many of the anthropologists – such as Mead, Kroeber, Kuckholn, Malinowski, and others – who initially marketed the concept of cultural and moral relativism and denied the influence of biology, and also that any such thing as “human nature” exists, later recanted. However, this is still little known.

What really destroyed the moral relativist ideology, however, was the fact that the most relativistic political organizations of all time were the National Socialists in Germany (Nazis) and Mussolini’s fascists, and the international communists. They all embraced the relativist ideology because they saw right away that it meant they were now free to invent their own oppressive and dominating value systems, and that in this way they could not be judged by universal moral standards. So they did. At the Nurnberg trials, however, when these murderers were put in the stand, the international high court condemned them specifically, and absolutely, in the name of universal natural and moral law.

As for rising and falling cultures? Cultures rise when they are united in a kind of “cosmion” or common belief system that sustains them and guides, shapes, and also limits their behaviors. When they abandon such common belief systems and adopt in its place a system that revitalizes and privatizes morality (when a fact of life is “true for you, but not true for me”, etc – such as we believe now in the Western democracies) they are headed down. A wonderful mind, Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt, warned us of this in the 1930s, when he said “civilization is an act of the will. But if it becomes a question of drifting, the direction is always downward.”

Question #2

If human universals have been found in almost all cultures regardless of the great variety that exists topically, are you arguing that universals can ever be endangered?  Or, rather, are you merely arguing that intellectuals ought to acknowledge their existence, in a way so that we can then deal intelligently with those areas that are debatable aspects of human culture?  And how then, if that is your claim, do you bridge the gap between the universal, and how those notions are interpreted within those areas of culture that are more plastic, where it seems your concerns are more centered.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that it seems there would be an intermediary structure of thought that would be necessary, if human universals exist, out of which a universalist ethic would arise.  Unless of course, you feel there is a true danger to human universals that is unique to our time.  (i know, long question)

The answer is that for thousands of years, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans who basically invented natural law, and international law, and just war concepts, human universals have been an accepted fact of life. No one, until the advent of the Romantic period surrounding the end of the 18th century every doubted the existence of human universals and that there exists a universal human “essence” that enable us to speak of “humanity”, not as an individual, but as an essence or universal reality. I leave aside for the moment the answer to the question whether or not such universals exist, as Plato thought, in some heaven of ideas, as transcendental Forms, of which here on earth we experience only corrupted instances. that idea is accepted even today by such brilliant physicists as Roger Penrose and Paul Dirac, and Einstein himself. In the arts, from the classical to the new-classical period in Europe the argument was that there is best of everything. Certainly there is a best in the arts. And if that is true, then artists ought to strive to imitate the best (why strive to produce anything lesser?, was the thinking). So all artists wanted to be like Michelangelo and Leonardo and Rembrandt, et al. And that was how they were judged.

Back to culture: This does not mean that cultures and other things do not express particulars. Of course they do. But it does mean that if you drill down under the surface of any culture you will find universal moral truths held in common. For example: all cultures ban incest; all cultures have some form of marriage; all cultures believe there is something called justice; all cultures understand the notion of tit for tat; all have common linguistic structures, and so on.

Now, it is only since the Romantic period (in England, approx. 1750 – 1820) that there was a massive shift away from the classical concepts of universals, to particulars. Suddenly, artists started arguing that true art should stop reflecting universals, and should start reflecting particulars of experience: things unique, personal, emotional, and unlike any other. So that was the great watershed in the arts. We are still living through this romantic revolution with our focus on individual artistic expression – especially since the 1960s – so much so that we say art must always be “original” (unlike any other). Of course, the problem with that is that art became such an intense search for diversity that people have become tired of looking at art that is just some individuals angst splattered all over the canvas. The reaction was: if this is just about him or her, why should I be interested? So that is why a lot of modern art, if it is going to sell, has to have a decorative element (which for many takes it out of the realm of true art). that is the modern artists dilemma.

Question #3

I will ask you to speculate as to how this drama will unfold.  With a world fixed on particulars, how do you theorize such a world will reach its transformational crisis.  How will that look, how will such people, lost in the particulars experience it?  I would assume you have an optimistic scenario, or else why would you continue to work?  I would like to hear about that.  And a related question:  What is the role of someone who believes in the universal human values today?

Will we reach a Transformational crisis? We are in it now. Arguably, a civilization (most Western democracies):  that is not replacing itself due to a low fertility rate (averaging about 1.6 children per woman) when a mere replacement rate requires 2.1 children per woman; that is killing around 25% of its prospective citizens in the womb; that as of the year 2000 had more private policemen than public; that has an immigration and illegal alien problem and a drug cartel problem that is unmanageable; whose highest grossing internet and video sites are pornography of the most explicit kind; Need I go on?By any stretch of the imagination, this is a demoralized civilization.

The most glaring “particular” that is the focus of this civilization, in which people are “lost”, as you put it, is “Self’, self-satisfaction, personal pleasure, reluctance to postpone immediate gain or pleasure, for the benefit of others in future, disinterest in the next generation as exemplified by enormous national debt that will have to be paid off by those who are not here now to defend themselves against our appetites; and the background to all this is unconcern for the universal reality called humankind, civilization, the Greater Good of all, etc. As for optimism, I am a fighter at heart, and I feel we all have an obligation to be optimists. But to truly be an optimist you need to have some conception of the good, the true, and the beautiful that is transcendent and can be grasped by the mind. that is where the artist must step in, show the way. I feel that art that does not in some way uplift the human spirit, is a waste of time, it is just personal gushing, and showing off.

As for the role of someone who believes in universal human values? It is not a question of believing; it is a question of realizing and then deciding to live by, the obvious: that there is a universal concept of justice (such as, “might is not right”; a thing cannot be both true and false; love is a universal reality, etc.); that equality and equity are not the same (the first says that all shall get the same; the second that each shall get what is deserved); the most general universal moral law, by which all but the sick and deranged live, is: “seek to do good, and avoid evil.” the simplest definition of the natural law, which is known intuitively by all, is this: “the natural law is a command of right reason that follows nature for the common good.”

So, it calls for right reason, not wrong reason; and says we ought to follow what is natural for the common good, and not what is natural for what is evil.  Artists, too, can face these truths and decide to dedicate their work in some way to these ends, or turn against them, and that will be a measure of how they use their freedom.

Question #4

In your previous answer you point out the low replacement rate of Western democracies.  Am I right to read a preferential position toward the Western world, and if so, could you defend that position.  What are the virtues particular to the west?  And, how can a democracy, with its relationship to personal liberty, avoid a decline toward self-satisfaction and short-sightedness?

I was referring to the Total Fertility Rate, and so (not to be too picky) we cannot really have a “low replacement” rate. The issue is that there is no replacement; there is a negative. A hole that is going to get bigger very fast when the millions now over 65 die off. In the Western democracies we are not replacing ourselves through natural increase, and so this is going to be an unprecedented disaster unless there is a policy change very, very soon: No kids coming into grade school, empty storefronts in malls, office space going begging, a housing crisis of unprecedented magnitude.

What will governments do? When, or rather if, they wake up, here is the scenario I see.

By the way, if you have any readers who like to jump the gun and call people names when they read ideas they don’t like, I want them to know that I am not saying any of this is rational or desirable (though there are good arguments for some of it. I am just saying this is what I think Western governments will do to face the demographic winter that is coming.

They will:

  1. panic
  2. divert resources in order to pay women a lot of money to have more children
  3. generate charges such as “family-phobia” and “child-phobia” to re-educate women (and men) who do not have enough children (more than 2 per woman). Remember when, not long ago, we were made to feel stigmatized for having more than two children? this stigma will reverse quickly.
  4. Invent schemes for the tax deduction of all child and child-related home expenses until the last kid to leave home is 18
  5. The state will reverse its “liberal” position on homosexuality, and will start generating federal and state programs to influence the public via the education system in order to officially discourage homosexuality. Treatment and “recovery” programs will be offered tax free to all current homosexuals as a deductible medical expense. School text books will be re-written (again) to discourage all homosexual behavior.
  6. radical feminism (of the man-hating type) will be discouraged energetically an stigmatized as “anti-American”
  7. women who “work” outside the home will soon carry social stigma for abandoning their children to third-party (unloving) day-care. Day care will be stigmatized.
  8. Income-splitting will be brought back so that married couples can reduce their tax burden (this will not likely apply to common-law couples). France has been doing this for a decade now. All families in France divide their total income by the number of family members living at home. I have a Canadian friend who relocated to France because, with a wife and five kids, and though earning $150,000 per year, when he divides this amount by 7 … he pays zero income tax! Watch for this policy here.
  9. Larger Retirement savings plans will be created only for married couples with children
  10. No-fault divorce will be ended, and all divorce tightened right up and not permitted to anyone until after a five-year waiting period with mandatory counseling, if there are any children of the marriage
  11. Abortion will be banned, officially described as murder and anti-American, as in the past, with the exception of abortion for real threats to the life of the mother, rape, or incest
  12. all expenses for the adoption of children will be deductible, and adoptive parents celebrated.
  13. The most important kind of “family”, to receive special state concern, will be defined as “a married mother and father living together with their dependent children” and all other families will be considered secondary.
  14. Both mother and father will be considered equally legally and morally responsible for their underage children from conception.

As for my preferences for Western civilization? I think there has never in history been anything remotely close to the unique combination of political, economic, and moral “cultural settings”, so to speak, that have in the past few centuries produced the most wealthy and successful and scientifically amazing civilization ever.

Politically, those nations derived from Mother England have had a wonderful run of it by creating societies based on a rule of law, with checks and balances on government, etc., that has only in the past half-century been breaking down badly due to the “living tree” philosophy now central to Western courts eager to engineer us all into a socialist utopia by betraying their own founders’ beliefs and wise measures against top-down state power and tyranny.

Morally, and with all its imperfections, the Judeo-Christian framework, even though we are now living mostly on the “moral surplus” of it, has worked very well because it teaches moral agency and personal responsibility and self-discipline. That has all been eroded with the post 1960s “me generation,” and so now we have whole nations swallowing nonsense about the importance self-esteem, a concept they divorce entirely from any requirement for estimable behavior.

Economically, and with all its imperfections, the “democratic capitalism” we have enjoyed has created unprecedented wealth  (too much, perhaps, for many) such that whereas at the turn of the 20th century there was by any measure perhaps a half dozen wealth nations on the globe, there are today about 70. But predictably, when governments see wealth, they immediately see a huge possible tax harvest, and that is what they do.

Eventually, as for Sweden and Canada already, all centralizing, socializing states (all the Western democracies have gone this way)become what I call “tripartite” states in which one third of the people create the wealth, one third work for government, and one third are dependent in some way on government for their livelihood. At that point, the last two thirds will always gang up on the first third, and … game over for a once free society. This is Obama’s gambit. As famous author has said recently, everywhere on the globe we have more democracy, but less freedom. I have suggested here why that is so.



That concludes Part One of the interview.



  1. hooboy
    May 1, 2009


    “Now, it is only since the Romantic period (in England, approx. 1750 – 1820) that there was a massive shift away from the classical concepts of universals, to particulars. Suddenly, artists started arguing that true art should stop reflecting universals, and should start reflecting particulars of experience: things unique, personal, emotional, and unlike any other. So that was the great watershed in the arts. We are still living through this romantic revolution with our focus on individual artistic expression – especially since the 1960s – so much so that we say art must always be “original” (unlike any other). Of course, the problem with that is that art became such an intense search for diversity that people have become tired of looking at art that is just some individuals angst splattered all over the canvas. The reaction was: if this is just about him or her, why should I be interested? So that is why a lot of modern art, if it is going to sell, has to have a decorative element (which for many takes it out of the realm of true art). that is the modern artists dilemma.”

    Mr. Gairdner, this paragraph contains so many factual errors I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll start with your proclamation that since 1820 art shifted from the concern with universals to particulars instead. This observation is completely wrong and utterly baffling, The entire point of the modernist movement was to find the universal gestalt in art, to strip art down to its very essence and remove outside context and particulars, including any sort of representation of the outer world and/or illusionistic space. Before post-modernism there may have been a celebration of the male artist-warrior, artist as heroic figure, but the work they were creating was an attempt at the very opposite of what your interpretation of the results are. Rather ironic, hee hee, given the position on universals you are championing. Post-modernism represented a break with the modernist ideals of purity, autonomy of the art object, and your beloved universals. This break was a recognition that art can never be completely objective and universal, and all art history carries with subtexts, literally subplots that lay under the supposedly scientific chronicling of art’s march forward. A huge number of post-modern artists produce work that deals primarily with questioning what authenticity is, and subverts notions of authorship, genius, and originality. Jeez Loueeez, even the pop artists (Warhol in particular) created work meant to undermine those very concepts.
    As to only decorative new art selling, I have no reply as that’s too nuts of a statement for me to even begin to process. If anything in contemporary art circles today there’s grumbling about the market having a deep mistrust of, and turning its nose up at, anything that seems a bit too aesthetically pleasing.I don’t think you are very familiar with art history and contemporary art, and it seems you would prefer to filter what it means through your own particular set of interpretations – “I don’t understand/am not familiar with the concept behind most this work so I’ll make up my own rationale for it”.
    Pot Kettle you know the rest…..

  2. hooboy
    May 1, 2009

    Oh, and the rest reads just as batshitinsane.
    We need to race to populate the planet with OUR kind!
    Wimmin killing babies in their womb rather than popping them out to keep our Superior Western Values army strong? WTF?
    Homophobia? WTF?
    Xenophobia? WTF

    Universalist Aryan Nation, sign me up!

  3. hooboy
    May 1, 2009

    One last thing:

    “that equality and equity are not the same (the first says that all shall get the same; the second that each shall get what is deserved)

    FAIL. Equality does not mean that all shall get the same, except in your world. Here is the real definition for future reference:

    Middle English, from Latin aequalis, from aequus level, equal
    14th century
    1 a (1): of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another (2): identical in mathematical value or logical denotation : equivalent b: like in quality, nature, or status c: like for each member of a group, class, or society
    2: regarding or affecting all objects in the same way : impartial
    3: free from extremes: as a: tranquil in mind or mood b: not showing variation in appearance, structure, or proportion
    4 a: capable of meeting the requirements of a situation or a task b: suitable (bored with work not equal to his abilities)

    and as a bonus,

    Inflected Form(s):
    plural eq·ui·ties
    Middle English equite, from Anglo-French equité, from Latin aequitat-, aequitas, from aequus equal, fair
    14th century
    1 a: justice according to natural law or right ; specifically : freedom from bias or favoritism b: something that is equitable
    2 a: a system of law originating in the English chancery and comprising a settled and formal body of legal and procedural rules and doctrines that supplement, aid, or override common and statute law and are designed to protect rights and enforce duties fixed by substantive law b: trial or remedial justice under or by the rules and doctrines of equity c: a body of legal doctrines and rules developed to enlarge, supplement, or override a narrow rigid system of law
    3 a: a right, claim, or interest existing or valid in equity b: the money value of a property or of an interest in a property in excess of claims or liens against it c: a risk interest or ownership right in property d: the common stock of a corporation

  4. globatron
    May 1, 2009

    Hooboy as I don’t agree with about half of what Mr. William Gairdner expresses in this interview I do relate to his points on relativism. And I’m not nearly as optimistic for humanity as he claims he is. With that said, I do see a lot of anger in your responses to his interview and if I must remind you please read the disclaimer on this site as this is a place for rational commentary. So if you are indeed angry with his views try and form your thoughts rationally next time you comment if you could. I remember you calling Akbar a sociopath in the past and after asking you to refrain from such name calling we were able to have a very intelligent dialogue expressing opposing viewpoints. And possibly we learned something about each others opposing views through that.

    I don’t agree with the world needing to be populated. I feel it’s extremely overpopulated as is. We are pushing our natural resources to the edge and to a point of no return. I question Gairdner’s views on re-population because his must be directed at the white race alone.

    Many other races in America are procreating at a very rapid rate. And to follow that up I don’t feel America has some sort of strangle hold on liberty. I also don’t appreciate the seemingly red scare tactics of socialism. This seems to be a current counter attack by the GOP for universal medicine of which I am a firm supporter having to live with a brain tumor and having just started chemotherapy cycles that could last up to a decade.

    Hooboy I would appreciate you explaining yourself more on your view that Mr. Gairdner knows nothing about the arts. Exactly where do you see him going against or making up his own art history. Be precise if you will. I find the separation between the universal and the particular very interesting, however I don’t agree with many of the 14 statements made in his the last part of his interview.

    Also I’d like to remind you that this is the first part of a two part interview. I doubt Mr. Gairdner has the time to reply to your accusing angry tone on this blog and if he did I think that would negate the reason for having a second part to the interview.

    Father Moab I’m sure being the interviewer would like to here your comments as he formulates the second round of questions. Having spoken to him earlier tonight he is already formulating his questions and would be happy to take your concerns with Mr. Gairdner’s theories into his questions.

    Also if I must remind you Mr. Gairdner has a PhD from Standford University and at last count has published nine books and even though we might not agree with many of his views being interviewed by Globatron is most likely not the highlight of his illustrious career. I believe in treating others with respect even if we disagree. That is actually what is expected here on Globatron. I hope you wish to continue explaining your views further as I’d like to learn more about them. But as I stated earlier please try and keep your thought rational and try and refrain from obvious angry outbursts.

    Thanks Father Moab and Mr. Gairdner for your efforts in pulling together this interview. I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment.

  5. hooboy
    May 1, 2009

    Fair enough, I’ll tone down the sarcasm. However, I do not believe all moral/ethical positions need to be shown measured respect, and I find Mr. Gairdner’s thoughts on equality and race to be reprehensible.

    “Hooboy I would appreciate you explaining yourself more on your view that Mr. Gairdner knows nothing about the arts. Exactly where do you see him going against or making up his own art history. Be precise if you will.”

    Please read my first response. I took his statements in that paragraph apart and offered a rebuttal based on known facts. I am not sure how I could be any more precise.

  6. globatron
    May 1, 2009

    Great. Thanks Hooboy. Now we can have a dialogue.

    I just reread your first response and it didn’t seem very precise to me at all. I found it quite vague to be honest.

    Maybe if you went into more detail it would help me understand your point better.

    Thanks for understanding about giving folks respect.

    I’m not going to invite anyone on this site to share their views then tar and feather them. Let’s try and practice a bit of tolerance and compromise. To me that seems to be the key to any two way communication.

    The one thing I respect most about his replies to Father Moab is that he doesn’t hold back. That he lets it be known what he believes in. We might not agree with it but at least he’s willing to toe the line.

    We’ve been asking folks to do that for months on this site.

    What do you believe in Mr. Hooboy? Are you an artist? Just interested.

    May 1, 2009

    Globatron Interviews William Gairdner – Part One:

  8. Akbar Lightning
    May 1, 2009

    yo Hooboy, although I might read some of my own fears into his arguments, i cannot help but cite a few observations:

    1. There are some dilemmas in the contemporary artistic philosophical arena, and he represents one of those, as do you. the tension between universalism and subjectivism, post-modernism, is a valid tension, so i say argue for your side. if you feel the art world is in a philosophical progressed state, tell us why. have we lost anything, are there virtues in today’s art that should be made clearer?

    2. The level of emotion that you show is itself an indicator of a strong and powerful belief system, that is in direct contradiction to the deeper message of post-modernism, which at its best represents tolerance and open mindedness, a humility that comes from knowing that one is more often wrong than right. personally, i like strong beliefs, but like to see those filtered through a passionate commitment to teaching, to dialogue that brings people of opposing systems toward greater consensus, what value would post-modernism be if it left a huge group behind and called them ‘regressive.’ that is the same evil we fought hard to get away from. some might say that this is the virtue of Gairdner, willingness to subject his beliefs to questioning. just because I might disagree with some of his viewpoints, does that mean i have to label every aspect of him as deplorable, that would be illogical and barbaric.

    3. there is a definite tension to be found in matters of ‘life’, and that is itself a universal human question, that runs through matters of warfare, crime and punishment, and conception. these matters are complex and we ought to be more engaged with people with differing opinions, and if we are passionate about these beliefs, we ought to exhibit that through direct confrontation with people willing to talk it through. the team mentality found in contemporary political thinking is something i have resisted as a Globatron member.

    Akbar Lightning

  9. hooboy_
    May 1, 2009

    Would you both like a list of essays written from 1820 to the present by artists and critics outlining their beliefs and defining what they consider art? These writings stand in direct conflict with Mr. Gairdner’s statements about art from 1820 until the present day. Teaching is wonderful, but if we don’t all start with some level of knowledge about the events we are trying to discuss then it’s an exercise in futility. I can’t, for example, cite Modernism’s values or Post-modernism’s tendencies and be able to have a dialogue with you if you don’t fully grasp what those two movements were/are about. Have you read Clement Greenberg’s work and fully understood the degree of influence that he had at the time on the art world? Do you understand that at that moment in time his philosophies were widely accepted to be part the most progressive art movement to date? Can you connect the works that were being made at the time, and that are now part of the cannon? Akbar, your definition of Post-modernism is incorrect which makes it impossible to discuss the movement with you.

    The best (IMHO) book, in terms of accessibility and scope for you to read is Hal Foster’s (ed.) The Anti-Aesthetic, which is a collection of essays that encompass aspects of the movement. It’s a standard college art history book.?

    Here’s one of many pages that can be found on college curriculum pages. Although this page is specific to literature, the movements in art have been parallel:?

    This is Mary Klages page, and here is a relevant excerpt from her on Modernism vs. Modernity and the timeline involved:

    Like Jameson’s characterization of postmodernism in terms of modes of production and technologies, the second facet, or definition, of postmodernism comes more from history and sociology than from literature or art history. This approach defines postmodernism as the name of an entire social formation, or set of social/historical attitudes; more precisely,this approach contrasts “postmodernity” with “modernity,” rather than “postmodernism” with “modernism.”
    What’s the difference? “Modernism” generally refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century; “modernity” refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. “Modernity” is older than “modernism;” the label “modern,” first articulated in nineteenth-century sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled “antiquity.” Scholars are always debating when exactly the “modern” period began, and how to distinguish between what is modern and what is not modern; it seems like the modern period starts earlier and earlier every time historians look at it. But generally, the “modern” era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century. (Other historians trace elements of enlightenment thought back to the Renaissance or earlier, and one could argue that Enlightenment thinking begins with the eighteenth century. I usually date “modern” from 1750, if only because I got my Ph.D. from a program at Stanford called “Modern Thought and Literature,” and that program focused on works written after 1750).

    Huh. She also has a PHD from Stanford. Perhaps you should invite her to debate Gairdner??Her definition of Modernity:

    Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as “disorder,” which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between “order” and “disorder,” so that they can assert the superiority of “order.” But to do this, they have to have things that represent “disorder”–modern societies thus continually have to create/construct “disorder.” In western culture, this disorder becomes “the other”–defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of “disorder,” and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.

    Hmmm. Nothing to think about there when reading Gairdner’s missive, right? (Yes, apologies, I am trying to reel it in)

    One key thing to note is the definition of Modernism and its the emphasis on universals and the historical period it took place in, which was not so long ago. The period of high modernism is roughly 1910-1930 (this was the point I was making about Gairdner not knowing his art history/dates)

  10. Akbar Lightning
    May 1, 2009

    yo hooboy, that is a very articulate response, so thanks, first of all for that.

    your selections do help explain your understandings of modernism and modernity, however, they do very little to explain post-modernism. although, my reading of Greenberg is limited, my reading of art is quite extensive. in other words, it is important for me to explain, that as an artist, i have used my finite time to read paintings, art, etc. directly, and have resisted critique, as I think the best critique is art itself. my readings are of those thinkers i believe drive the art, rather than writers who respond. do i think this is somehow better than your approach, no! just better for me. i read the philosophers i’ve been told influence artists, as well as novels that shaped them.

    i understand that post-modernism is a kind of rebellion against the universalist, dogmatic approach to art, allowing for subversiveness in the form of kitsch, appropriation, etc. i get it, i really do. but, as an artist in the 21st century i am searching for a new horizon, and i find post-modernism feels to me like an old piety, one that is easily exposed when an artist is confronted with someone they deem ‘regressive’ like Gairdner. I am not supporting Gairdner’s claims, but I do think Post-Modernism has become its own little island, and it defends itself, when artists wish to ask about its legitimacy. if the claim of post-modernism is that artists must read certain books to question the art, then how does that differ from any other time in art history when an artist was subject to other forms of piety.

    point being, they are all moral positions. if post-modernism claims it is a liberating position, then the promise of liberty has always been tolerance of differing perspectives. i don’t think post-modernism has thus liberated us, i think it itself has been appropriated by the force of intensely deregulated corporate interests, and that has relationships with artistic academia that i find uncomfortable. some might say post-modernity is a deeper hubris, i don’t know.

    i think your passion for the subject begs the question, that you share your own reading of this term with us, rather than make an idol of other writers. i would be happy to read it, and taking your challenge, i will read one of Greenberg’s essays tonight and get back to you on that.



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