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College Quarterly
Fall 1993 - Volume 1 Number 1
Crossing the Postmodern Divide
Albert Borgmann
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992
Reviewed by Will Griffis

Dear Albert -
Your book is stunning in its ambition and directness in addressing the systematic and massive subversion of central things and practices in our time. The central things and practices that inform and ground us in our humanity are indeed threatened, perhaps fatally. This abolition of the sacred is endemic to modernity and to postmodernism, since both rest on technological practice. I believe it is Jean Baudrillard who speaks of the cool digitality of the liquidation of all referen tials, of the death sentence of every reference, of the murder of the real, and the desert of the real itself.

This eclipse of focal things and practices, the trivialization of the real, is epochal. Which is to say that it is inevitable but not, we hope, necessarily total and final. For if it is then we are surely lost, and we will become, in Heidegger's horrific vision, labouring animals left to the giddy whirl of our products, who tear ourselves to pieces and annihilate ourselves in empty nothingness. We will thrive, perhaps, but as silly, shallow beasts, mindlessly lost in an obsessive organizing of meaningless activity.

Heraclitus said Man is kindled and put out like a light in the night of time. But it is not our inevitable oblivion in the night of time that is the tragedy. The ontological tragedy is that the light before it is extinguished should remain so narrow and weak a beam. As philosophers we must scream and rage, and in our solitude weep, over the incalculable magnitude of lost opportunity.

But as you have said, old friend and teacher, we must beware the extremes of arrogance and despair. And Nietzsche has warned that we should not gaze too long into the abyss lest the abyss gaze into us. But this is a risk we must take. Herein lies our heroism, if we have any, or perhaps our foolishness. But as you have also said, philosophy is no good unless it does what must be done. Your book shows conviction, coherence, and courage. It does what must be done. Thank you. Will

CQ Editor Howard Doughty comments -

Europeans have had the best of philosophy. Seduced by their polysyllables, we have been ridden through twentieth-century phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and marxism. Partly envious, partly embarrassed by our North American pragmatism, we have been both fascinated and repelled - fascinated, though jealous of the virtuosos of vocabulary who captured the essence of existence, and repelled both because we worried that continental minds were having us on and because we sensed, lurking among them, occasional Nazis.

With postmodernism, however, we can get our own back. North Americans are peerlessly modern and uniquely know that modernity has failed, that its assumptions are hollow and that it destroys all that (we seem to remember) we once cherished. No matter that German sociologist Max Weber, who had in 1904 already summed up the twentieth century as an “iron cage,” pointed toward the United States and roared: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

Now, our turn is coming. Albert Borgmann has composed one of several remarkable books about our millennial crisis. A philosopher at the University of Montana, he goes to the core of moral thinking amid technology out of control. So far, Canadians see postmodernism, if at all, as an artistic category in which to dump Margaret Atwood, Alex Colville, and Robert Kroetsch. We would do well to study American seismologists surveying contemporary social faultlines, for remembering George Grant will not pass for cultural analysis forever. – H.A.D.

Will Griffis, a philosopher and teacher at Maui Community College, was asked to review Albert Borgmann's new book. He sent us this letter.