Someone who watches the last edition of the evening news on TV end with images of gangster diplomacy, genocide and a bank crisis, shakes their head and mumbles, sincerely downcast: what's the world coming to ?. and who then puts some cheer into the evening with a Crodino, zapping, a few art periodicals and. finally, a call to the Sex Dating Box (you never know) — such a person might just be the ideal reader of the Panic Encyclopedia, the definitive guide to the postmodern scene by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker and David Cook.
He or she shall find most of the subjects, people and phenomena which pass in revue in the 268 page reference work to be familiar. Not that everything which is said about Panic Art, Panic Elvis, Panic Fashion, Panic, Panic Hamburgers, Panic Jeans. Panic Money, Panic Manhattan or Panic Penis is old hat. but, still and all. the attention paid to this colourful array of subjects fits into the well-known postmodern frame of thought.
As is already apparent from the above summary, the authors and their 26 contributors turn their attention to trivialities and abstract problems with equal avidity. A painstaking analysis of the menu of McDonald’s can be found alongside of an essay in which the developments in quark-physics are found to be analogous to our culture in Nietzschian perspective.
The choice of subjects, their quasi-arbitrary presentation (alphabetical, but, then again, not completely), and the constant references to sources of inspiration such as Nietzsche.
Baudrillard and Bataille do indeed make this book a definitive guide to the postmodern scene. With its attention dividedequally among the arts, architecture, mass media, culture theory, trivia, technology and sexuality, it gives an adequate rendering of what might be called the 'postmodern sensibility'. And all this in style, that is, briefly stated in the characteristic culture-philosophical jargon.
Of course, the word used the most in this book is 'panic'. It precedes each heading and in many texts, it serves to characterize the condition of the art world, money-trade, television programming or science, for example. In order to avoid having the so-quotidian word 'panic' become immediately, completely synonymous with 'postmodern', we cite the definition found in the dictionary: Sudden, general, intense fright or fear caused by a real or imagined danger, which leads to extreme and/or injudicious attempts to attain security from it.
The hunting grounds where the authors go about their work is contemporary North American culture, in the broadest sense conceivable. Their gaze is guided by cultural-sociological and philosophical concepts, as they were developed by French academical theoreticians, beginning roughly in the mid-seventies.
This doesn't mean that they haven't got an eye for the most recent developments — on the contrary, the book is from 1989, but the crash on Wall Street is analysed in it by no-less than Baudrillard himself. Phenomena such as cyberspace and the latest hype in the New York art world are examined as well.
The book’s tenor is indicated with deadly accuracy by the word ‘panic’. Western culture finds itself to be in a situation of burn-out, total confusion and catastrophe. You could say that the writers aren’t crying, like the well-known street preachers: The End is Near ; rather, they’re searching everywhere for the evidence that the end took place a long time ago and that it passed by unnoticed.
The End of what? Of political ideologies to be believed in. of a meaningful awareness of history and place, of faith in the truths of a rationally practiced science; in a word, everything which seems to have once given us the idea that the world wasn’t confused, in panic and postmodern.
There are good articles and essays in the book. They make up roughly half of it. What they have in common is this: they are written in a contemporary academic cultural-philosophical jargon and they treat on subjects which traditionally do not form a part of the repertoire of the cultural philosopher. That is what makes them good and what gives them a suggestion of theoretical adventurousness. The other half of the book is filled with snippets, jokes, diary pages, fragments of scenario, newspaper clippings and failed essay-experiments. Much of it is embarrassingly bad reading. This has to do with the panic of the culture philosophers themselves.
Let me explain. While still reading the book, the feeling came over me that I had to make do with the only-moderately-successful attempt of a number of academics to free themselves from the institutional and discursive limitations which come with their profession. The panic reaction of a theoretician, who realizes that neat, orderly, restrained elaboration on disruption, panic, uprooting and such, is utterly unconvincing, and indicates the author's alienation and lack of humour.
This is the source of the ironic, specious organisation of the book, the quasi-completeness suggested by the alphabet and the jocular tone of many of the contributions. But, in spite of the few readable essays in it (in which the authors stick to their ground and write the kind of theoretical prose which they usually do), this book is the product of a sort of bad conscience, or cultural provincialism.
Extremely inaccurate, pretentious art-video scenario’s, schoolish analyses of a painting of a woman in a bathtub, who is a haunting image both of the postmodern self as a catastrophe site and of the meaning of paradox as the deepest language of postmodernism, draconic fragments from novels full of postmodern alienation in a muddy style, artists diaries; where all of this fails is simple: it’s failed literature. The authors have left behind their academic-theoretical jargon and have panicked, while still writing. In and of itself, this is no disaster. It becomes more dubious when you consider that the rhetorical panic which has captured the authors functions as an extra proof of their view of culture.
In many ways, this is like a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy'. You’ve lost your faith in the university and science, a political ideology can no longer direct and give structure to your efforts, when viewing culture and society, you feel uneasy with the phrases and forms of which your profession and your insights consist. Then, you consider your own situation as symptomatic, not only for the position of a critical intellectual today, but also for the condition of culture as such. Then you write the Panic Encyclopedia.
The amusing side of the book has a dark side. too. It's clear that the authors have to make an effort not to become furious or depressed about the developments which they describe. The postmodern situation can’t even be described except by means of a moral comparison with what preceded it. And the present period always comes up the loser. The End has then been passed by without being noticed, there is nothing to celebrate. But complaint is not allowed either, apparently, because the writers emphatically deny themselves any leaning towards criticism or indignation. We seem to be living in a hurricane of decay and corruption, and we can have no expectations of anything, not from a return to our feelings, to art. science, fraternization with foreign peoples, the enlightening influence of the intellect — nothing! Exactly. And it’s especially among the critical intelligentsia that panic reigns. And, thus, we've again come full circle.
There is probably a great deal in this book which is intelligent and stimulating, but the attempt to escape theoretical writing has an adverse effect on the power of the claims which are made. If. moved by curiosity, 1 open to the page where I can read something about Panic Sex, I find only the following quasi-profound cliche: What is sex in the age of the hyperread ? A little sign slide between kitsch and decay as the postmodern body is transformed into a rehearsal for the theatrics of sado-masochism in the simulacrum. Not sadism any longer under the old sign of Freudian psychoanalytics and certainly not masochism in the Sadean careered, but sadomasochism now as a kitschy sign of the body doubled in an endless labyrinth of media images, just at the edge of ecstasy as catastrophe and the terror of the simulacrum (p. 203).
Out of all the modem idles revues about sex and contemporary culture, this must be about the most learned-sounding formulation of the commonplaces concerning them. As a reader, this page does not produce a reaction of panic in me; rather, it produces a clear choice. I put the book aside and read either a better theoretical work about sex and contemporary culture, or well-written stories, poems, and journalism in which this theme plays a role. The Panic Encyclopedia is a curious book, that is its merit and gives it its right to exist. For the many interesting subjects which it deals with, it might be better to look elsewhere.
translation Jim Boekbinder