Meaning and Being-in-the-(Modern)-World: A Response to Heidegger

Sports cars in full glory, triple-X-electric sex, automatic coffee pots with built-in alarm clocks, rocket ships and escalators, bent metal, graven images in chrome, and the human world modified, amplified, bigger, harder, faster, more than the tin-can can hold: these are the things I own; This is the world into which I was thrown. This is the world in which I am to find meaning.

Over the course of some time spent in that world, at a time when it, as we know it now, was in development, a variety of thinkers like T.S. Eliot have approached the developing situation known as modernity. They have asked, what does it mean? Their conclusions are diverse, and all of them are partial, but in general they lament the coming of modernity, for fear that it will supplant all of culture thus far. Their ideas may have been complete for their time, but modernity is no longer in development. It is here.

My reply to those ideas is informed particularly by the idea posited by Heidegger that we are thrust into the world, and it is there that we must find the tools to make meaning out of the chaos. Heidegger explains our being as a being-in-the-world, which means there is a relationship between the world we are in and our being. The meaning we make out of the world depends upon the world from which we make it. Wouldn’t it be better to look, as Heidegger, at the world into which we are thrown as potentially useful?

I was born in 1980. I spent my adolescence with the Internet. I don’t remember a time before television, space walks, fax machines, urban sprawl, MTV or any of the other accouterments of modernity, or their accompanying ideas. There is a pre-established assumption in this world that meaning/end/purpose is to be found in profit, as it once indicated favor from God. This assumption is one of the things we’re thrust upon and forced to deal with. It’s a big one. Yes, all these things that surround us: materialism, social structures, and work ethics. They all exist for profit, which, if no longer regarded as a valid meaning, lends nothing to the meaning of the world around us. Thus, we are thrown into this world full of meaningless things. Our job is to make meaning of them. It would be a huge mistake to ignore our very tools for meaning. Lets look at the realm of art for example.

My generation uses hip-hop as a form of discourse, primarily as an expression of anger. For example, The Iliad is a similar expression of anger. Both are long and lyrical. Both use death, violence and the possession of women as central themes. Now, present both forms of discourse to your typical literary pundit and they will call one of them art, extolling its universal themes and virtues. The other one will be largely ignored, except perhaps to be passed onto a sociologist. The Iliad, being an immaculately crafted example of oral tradition at its best, does deserve its reputation as a beautiful work of art. Any given hip-hop song might even deserve to be dismissed, on the grounds that it doesn’t say anything that every other song in the genre hasn’t already said. However, it should be noted that the genre is new, still formulaic, and while the formula may have some serious problems, there is an undeniable potential there for unrivaled lyrical beauty. Nevertheless, the genre gets entirely ignored by the critical eye.

Thinking like this in situations like these results in real artists and thinkers, discouraged or excluded from any realm of discourse that is a product of the modern age. (The only exception to this rule is in the visual arts, where the commercial success, and upper-class acceptance of pop art opened the eyes of the associated thinkers to the potential for meaning in the imagery in the modern world.) Any idea that says to me that I should avoid modernity, with its lack of culture, is an idea that denies me the freedom to move about in the world into which I have been unwittingly thrown. If I am only relegated to what gets called culture/meaningful by those in the know when it comes to culture/meaning, then I’m resigned not to communicate with the majority of my generation. Deny me the world in which I live, and there goes my chance to make meaning from it. I’d prefer to make meaning with it.

As a result of prevalent intellectual attitudes we’ve got speakers denied proven tools for speaking. How many people listen to hip-hop on a daily basis, in this world I’ve been thrown into? And how many people read traditional poetry? The masses aren’t right by number, but when faced with the question of meaning in the world we’re in, my response is to communicate. This is probably a common response. Look at the vast realm of communication (if not expression) that has grown out of the modern world. Communication cannot exist without an audience. The larger the audience, the more the communication, the more people I can share my meaning with, the more I can contribute to the dialectic of history. Therefore, the more potential a medium has for reaching an audience, the more potential it has for expressing meaning. Why then must I relegate my expression of meaning to methods with a shrinking audience in order for my methods to be regarded as having any validity?

Furthermore, the continued critical assumption, held by thinkers like T.S. Eliot, that the modern world and its products are void of meaning and therefore to be ignored is perhaps the most dangerous idea a thinker could have. So long as this idea is propagated, it is true. If the thinkers of the world dismiss as meaningless the growing realm of modern communication, then so long as they are ignoring it they are denying it the addition of their thoughts, their meaning – and so while it grows, it grows thoughtlessly and wanting meaning.

This critical dismissal exists for noble purposes though. It cries out against the meaninglessness of our modern surroundings. Maybe it will go away. If all of us go to the theater instead of the television, perhaps the television will wither and die. But why should television die? Even if all the paintings ever made were hideous, it would be awful to throw out the paints and brushes because of the beauty that could be made with them. However, if everyone listens to hip-hop, and not to epic poetry, then epic poetry is not communicating, so it expresses nothing; it is rendered meaningless. Then, when it comes to epic poetry, the fear that modernity will supplant previous culture has been realized.

The lament: there is art, which is a lot of work, and then there is television for example, which is wasted work, for it is not art, and it is not art because it does not express a universal truth, they say, so they urge us to ignore it, precisely because the majority of us don’t. Ideas of objectivity and universality are still pervasive in the aesthetic discourse, more than they should be in light of what Heidegger had to say.

What is this assumption that in order to be real art, there must be some objective truth expressed? Art is experienced, as life is experienced. Heidegger has to say about the experience of life; (and perhaps vicariously on the subject of art) that it is not built upon universals.

There is no objective truth for us to glean from the experience of life. We’re supposed to get what we can from it, and we can no longer go around calling what it is that we do get a universal. Change is too much of a universal for that to be true, especially in the modern world in which we find our being. Universality isn’t what makes validity.

The problem, with art though, is that it is communicative as much as it is experiential. I think that the emphasis on objective universals exists as part of that larger desire to communicate a thing to humanity. Even if this is successful, though, even if something is communicated such that it is objective and everyone can see the thing in the message, every single member of the audience will interpret that single thing differently. With this in mind, I think its safe to assume that the thing being communicated could validly be “just a situation.”

By this I am not proposing aesthetics of spectacle. I mean that art, like life as Heidegger describes it, has the power to thrust human beings into a situation, who are left to make what they can of it. So I don’t see why, then, the artist needs to act like god, and plant a trees of objective universal knowledge within the creation. It might be nicer to have a fruitful garden with a plethora of delicacies, ripe for the choosing. That seems more true to life to me.

I think there is a better distinction to make. There’s no point searching for the objective universal in a situation like the experience of art, which won’t work any more than Heidegger has shown it to fail with the experience of life (certainly not if art is to last in a millennium begun in the midst of rapid and complete change). Instead of a distinction between objective truth and meaninglessness, there should be a distinction between communication and expression, and these should be the new criteria for meaning, when it comes to the products of our being-in-the-world.

The mere communication is actually a fertile ground for new expression. After all, expression doesn’t work without communication. The foundation already exists for expression on a colossal scale. We already have communication on such a scale.

As we enter the new millennium, we no longer have the luxury of denying our being-in-the-(modern)world. Television, etc.– these aren’t coming. It’s all here. The fears are now realities.

The time is now that, in my opinion, the modern-artist’s spirit of experimentation could be taken more seriously, and further. What if they had experimented with these new things, instead of blasting them as a cultural wasteland? Of COURSE they were a cultural wasteland. They were brand-new, and those in control of the flow of culture we too busy lamenting these new things to contribute any legitimate expression to them. What if Picasso had drawn Saturday morning cartoons? What if a comic book deserved the Pulitzer? What if the poet laureate rapped with eloquence? What if Eliot had listened to Heidegger? If Eliot had made his point that we should have genuine expression and thought-provocation, while at the same time accepting his being-in-the-world, a world too colossal to stop and not all of it bad, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in now. Then, perhaps the cultural wasteland we’re thrown into wouldn’t be as bad, if the nature of its mediums had been defined by something other than a creative power vacuum. We can fix the bad; we can even use most of it as tools. We can keep the good. There’s no need to ignore it all.

I want to see everyone who would be creative, expressing in addition to the communicative foundation. I want to see turntable-DJs in the orchestra pit. (After all, these instruments function by the same essential principal: friction on a surface). I want poetry on the airwaves, paintings on the billboards. I want to see every critic examine the dichotomies among art and entertainment: meaning and statement: expression and communication: culture and situation. I want them to come to those dichotomies with less arrogance and more hope, more sense of possibility. I want meaning where previously there had been none, and I think we should make it out of the meaningless void into which we’re thrown, even if that void isn’t the culture we once had, which was also built from a void. I disagree with rejection of the meaningless. A blank canvas is meaningless. Reject it, and it never gets painted.