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One thing is certain: the image of America and postmodernism are inextricably bound up with each other. Nay, I will go a step further and say — get ready — that they are “coeval.” (Coeval is a rare term used by a certain philosopher and his acolytes.)

How so? Postmodernism in its first phase had what can only be described as a difficult relation to modern science and technology. You need only read any of Ralph Hancock’s various “postmodern conservative manifestoes” on this blog site to prove my point. It seems that the mindset created by modern science, which understands reality as objects or “beings” (and ultimately as “beings” to be reckoned for our use), has served to distance us from an authentic encounter with Being. And that is something to be pretty upset about. Just ask Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, and for a whole school of thinking that preceded and succeeded him, “America” came to stand for the very embodiment of this technological mindset and way of life. America, he said, is katastrophenhaft or the “site of catastrophe.” It dehumanized us, uprooted us, cut us off from access to the silent source of what can save us.

Heidegger even seemed to blame America for the catastrophic error of sending astronauts to the moon. (We will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the event this week.) The very thought of folks walking around up there, and taking pictures of the earth, ruined forever the very possibility of humans experiencing these bodies in their “original” or natural sense. As he said in his Spiegel interview:

Everything functions. That is exactly what is uncanny. Everything functions and the functioning drives us further and further to more functioning, and technology tears people away and uproots them from the earth more and more. I don’t know if you are scared; I was certainly scared when I recently saw the photographs of the earth taken from the moon. We don’t need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of human beings is already taking place. We only have purely technological conditions left. It is no longer an earth on which human beings live today.

As you might imagine, all of this America bashing led to a kind of perverse fascination with this country in postmodern circles. To come to America, to do a travel log of this country, was to experience the flatland of modern existence. One thing, however, changed in the aftermath of Heidegger. It became unsophisticated to appear as blunt as the master. Rather than rail against our fate, it is better to embrace it, allowing irony to replace disquiet. So it was that Alexandre Kojeve identified America with the “end of history,” with frogs making music and all of that, and Jean Baudrillard feigned his enjoyment at the utter artificiality of Disneyland. Everything in America became “camp.”

Despite my deep admiration for these authors and their contributions to our literature, I have one complaint to lodge against them. They talked a big game about experiencing the American way of life, but apart from a stop or two in a place like Texas in order to establish their bonafides, they never passed any time in the heartland. (Truth be told, Tocqueville saw much more of America than Baudrillard or Bernard Henry-Levy, and Tocqueville had to travel by horseback.) So what better way to meet engage authors on their own turf, and do an authentically postmodern number, than to go straight to Kansas? If you want to experience the “real” America ( l’Amérique profonde ), shouldn’t you go right to its geographical center, which by some complicated method has been calculated to lay on a cornfield in Kansas, near Lebanon, I believe? (The marker is placed a bit outside of the boundaries of the field, as its owner had a capitalist hang-up about the sanctity of his private property.) And shouldn’t you visit Kansas around July 4, the most important patriotic holiday? So it was that I accompanied a star travel writer for the New York Post , Jennifer Ceaser by name, on a tour of eastern Kansas. Our itinerary began just outside Osawatomie at a local drive-in. We did what we thought was the plain old American (and therefore ironic) thing and pulled our Chevy SUV into its berth, ordering via intercom. The crucial question was now to be put to the test. Can you: (a) in 2009, (b) be served a chocolate malt and a lime rickey, (c) at a drive-in, (d) in a small town, (e) by a nice-looking, cheerful young lady, (f) without the least touch of self-consciousness or irony? In Kansas, yes you can! If a postmodern irony there was to be, it would not be the Kansans but ours alone, two smug Easterners who prefer to drink their coffee from an Italian espresso machine. We made a solemn pact to renounce any such pretensions and give ourselves wholeheartedly and spontaneously to what lay ahead. Plus, the malt was to DIE for.

We swung into Osawatomie, a town known as “the cradle of the Civil War.” One of the first pitched battles took place in 1856 on the edge of the town between militiamen from the slave states and the abolitionist forces, under the command of John Brown. The violence in “bloody Kansas” was the consequence of Stephen Douglas’s legislative brainchild, the Kansas-Nebraska act, which made Kansas the site of competition between the two sides. Recall, too, that the Southerners succeeded in adopting a phony constitution by a rigged process, known as the Lecompton Constitution, which the Congress in the end did not recognize. (I understand that there are some “realists” in the White House currently pressing to revisit the issue.)

The curator of the John Brown Museum in Osawatomie is as knowledgeable a fellow about John Brown as you would ever want to meet, having written his master’s thesis on him at nearby Emporia State University. He has a remarkably nuanced view of the radical preacher, denying the typical take on him today as a pure fanatic. Even the images of Brown’s wildly wide-open eyes, as if he were possessed by a spirit, turn out to have a more mundane explanation. The great abolitionist apparently suffered from an eye infection that left its physiological mark.

It quickly became apparent that nothing could be further from the truth than the postmodernist canard that Americans are an a-historical people. Many of the Kansans in these small towns appeared to be about the most historically rooted folks we had ever met. They want to preserve everything. They are connected to a complex past that includes the pre-Civil War events, the great interstate highway to the west (the Santa Fe trail), the cowboys and the cattle drives coming up from Texas and Oklahoma, the great prairies, and the Indians.

Next we visited Paola. If you are interested in late nineteenth-century architecture, this is a town you will certainly not want to miss. It is the site of some of the best work of the architect George Washburn, whom Jennifer aptly dubbed the Sir Christopher Wren of Eastern Kansas. He is famous for his designs of courthouses, one very monumental example of which is in Paola, and of Victorian-style homes of which there are many spread throughout town. There is also an old Ursuline Convent, with an approach from Miami Street that is about as lovely as you will find.

From Paola we traveled south to Garnett, which boasts a less grandiose, but arguably more beautiful, Washburn Courthouse. In the public library — almost every library we saw got its start with funds from Andrew Carnegie, the so-called “patron saint of libraries” — is a small art museum, the Walker Collection, which is contains mostly American, but which has one work by Edouard Manet — a whimsical sketch entitled “Spanish Still Life” of a crushed sombrero atop a broken guitar — and a beautiful little pastoral painting by Jean-Baptiste Corot. Violating my self-imposed rule here, I’ll just say that there is something surreal, if not downright postmodern, in viewing a Corot in a small town in Kansas.

Then off to Chanute. But I will save that one for last, because of the deeper theoretical implications of that visit. From Chanute you cross the prairies—it’s not really that flat — to Wichita, which is the largest city in the state. Its residents call it a well-kept secret. It’s older and hipper (or “cooler” or “hotter”) than you would imagine, with a “scene” in its old town. It is also a city of museums, of a famous science museum and a fine art museum, if your favorite is American. Mine, of course, is. My colleague Paul Cantor, a noted connoisseur — er, let’s say “expert” to keep this American—of all culture high and low, once launched a dinner conversation about American art by stating unequivocally that the greatest American painter had a name that began with H and ended with -er; the only question was which one: Homer or Hopper. Well, both are represented in Wichita. As I cast my lot with Hopper, I was pleased that the museum has four Hoppers, the two on display (“Sunlight on Brownstones” and “Conference at Night”) being long favorites from print displays. I now had my chance to view the real thing up close. It is one of the great pleasures of regional museums (like regional airports) that you can proceed without being harried or pushed around. The concept “at your leisure” still has an existential reality in Kansas. [For the interested, these paintings can be seen here .]

When I think of Abilene, if it is not Dwight Eisenhower that comes first to mind — I’m a political scientist and the visitor can see Ike’s home, library and museum — it is the twangy voice of Glenn Campbell singing “Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen . . . .” Campbell came from Arkansas, so maybe his frame of reference was a little limited. (A last-minute web check disclosed to my disappointment that the song is about Abilene Texas, which was named for the Kansas town; but heck, there’s always Campbell’s other classic “Wichita Lineman.”) Never mind, Abilene is a very nice town, with no more than six stoplights or so. And, unlike the old days, no herds of cattle were seen being pushed through the downtown streets. There are two house tours, quite different, that no one should miss. One is of the Lebold Mansion, a Victorian structure with a tower that has not so much been restored on the inside as refurbished by two decorator artists who have sought to create the perfect image of Victorian décor. What they have created is the Ideal or Form of Victorianism. And they have missed nothing. I was happy to find a holder for walking sticks at the entrance, reminding the visitor that no real gentleman of the period would pay a social call without this accoutrement. The other is the perfectly preserved Seelye Mansion, which was home of the patent medicine magnate (or precursor to the modern pharmaceutical barons) Dr. A. B. Seelye. This house, done in Georgian style, is magnificent and has every amenity and object of good taste of the period, just as they were when Seelye lived there.

Now I want to get back to Chanute, another interesting little town, which still has a great soda fountain in its downtown drugstore (the Cardinal), and, of course, a Carnegie library. But there is something else in Chanute: a most unexpected museum of African art and of safaris in what used to be the town’s train station. The museum is honor of Martin and Osa Johnson, both Kansans, with Osa being a native of Chanute. They were pioneers in the genre of filming native animals and native peoples of the South Sea Islands and of Africa. Just about when Heidegger was preparing his Rektoratsrede , charting the path of the new and politically engaged German university, the Johnsons were releasing “Congorilla,” the first film made of animals from Africa using live sound. Which of these has had the greater impact, I do not know. Alan Bloom makes a powerful case for the Rektoratsrede in his classic Closing of the American Mind , so I guess it needs to be taken very seriously. But then I wonder how anyone could get through a long winter night without watching the ten best lion kills on TV, a genre that owes its origins to the Johnsons.

Well, Osa had a best-seller, provocatively entitled I Married Adventure . The book proves on almost every page that she remained faithful throughout to her spouse. This woman from Chanute took more chances in a week than most take in a lifetime. Johnson’s memoir, which has been sitting on my desk in close proximity to various postmodern tomes, is still very much worth reading. There is one episode in particular that merits close attention. It recounts an experience of the Johnsons with a native tribe of Kenya (the Turkana). The Johnsons bring in an airplane to their field camp, which is the first time the Turkana encounter this great marvel of our technology. Expecting to some kind of major shock from the natives, the Johnsons were surprised that the event met with almost total indifference. The plane took off and landed with no visible reaction. The only point of fascination was the shade cast by the wings after the plane was at a stop. The natives jostled with each other to take advantage of it.

Pushing the experiment further, the Johnsons persuaded (with no difficulty!) a few of the tribesmen to come aboard for a ride. I pick up the narrative now in Osa’s words:

A small village appeared below us perhaps a half mile from the shore. A few cattle, poor things, stood in the blazing sun. Martin [Johnson] asked our interpreter to point out a cow to one of the passengers.

“That is not a cow,” our Turkana passenger said emphatically and in some surprise. “A cow has legs.”

We saw his point after a few minutes. He could not, of course, see the cow’s legs from the air.

Our interpreter next pointed to a tree.

Again the Turkana shook his head; his mind was made up this time that we were very stupid people.

“That,” he said, “is not a tree. You look up to see a tree, and you can walk under a tree. That is not a tree.”

I have been trying all of the past two weeks to square the Turkana sage’s response with Heidegger’s reaction to the pictures of the earth taken from the moon. Let’s just say that at this point I have managed only to put the two experiences into dialogue. There are intriguing parallels, but I can’t quite decide if they confute or corroborate Heidegger’s argument. Confronted with a technological assault, the Turkana sage could very easily have seen his whole world destroyed. Yet by a simple (or supreme?) act of linguistic fiat, he avoided this dire consequence. His world lay intact, proving either that language is indeed the house of being, or that this sage, acting in behalf of the others, knew how to save his culture. Couldn’t Martin — Heidegger, not Johnson — have just summoned his courage and done the same thing as the Turkana, keeping his beloved “earth” intact, just as it was before the (putative) “great leap for mankind”?

On the other hand, it might be that our scientific mindset makes it impossible to engage in a similar act of resistance. Our mindset closes all possibilities save one: to remain open. We have no more choice to avoid questioning whether the earth has changed than the Turkana had to deny that he saw a cow or a tree: “Being” in its present stage of disclosure has us in its clutches, at least for the next few thousand years.

I’ll ponder all of this for a while. In the meantime, though, if you have had enough of unending commentary, espresso coffee, and dinners prepared in cute “stacks,” you should think of a real getaway to Kansas. It is as about as fascinating a place as you could imagine, an alien territory right in our own midst. And you just may be in for some quality Gellasenheit , too.

More on: Culture, Film, Science, Theory

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