Issue 6.4, November 1991

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Essay Except

The Postmodern Crisis: Discourse, Parody, Memory

by: Vincent Crapanzano

In writing about the baroque Trauerspiel, The mourning play, the play of melancholy, Walter Benjamin (1977:177-178) notes that the allegorical physiognomy of history conjoined with nature-- "The word 'history' stands written on the countenance of nature in the characters of transience"-- is present in reality in the form of the ruin. "In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting." Today, in an age that has been declared postmodern-- indeed, by some, in Spain for example, as neo-Baroque-- the ruin has been replaced by quotation, the trace, really a pseudo-trace, a detritus, a re-ferent, a carrying back to/from a past, which is so completely decontextualized, so open to recontextualization, that it, the quotation, the trace, becomes at once an emblem of a past evacuated of history (history understood as a somehow meaningful account of the past) and a signal of the artifice of any such account, any history. Ironically, demonically, the denial of the possibility of a "real" mimetic account, of any master narrative, proclaimed by the relentless signals of artifice does in face announce an overarching narrative of-- a consuming obsession with-- artifice. As baroque mourning-- constituted on the experience of transience, death and the corpse-- gives way (I need not pass, I suppose, through the defiles of neoclassicism and romanticism) to today's (ideologically bruited) jouissances, constituted on the experience of change, of differance, of rupture, the bit, the flickering image, the digital sound, no doubt masking a postcoital emptiness, nostalgia, and te longing for repetition and reunion, so allegory, whose artifice, at least during the baroque, was mournfully relished, surrenders to artifice, whose allegorical possibility is playfully denied. There is in all play a danger that the truth alluded to (from the Latin Ludere, to play) will break through and arrest the play. (431)

Crapanzano, Vincent. "The Postmodern Crisis: Discourse, Parody, Memory." Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 4 (1991): 431-446