Wien: The Postmodern Love

by Elise Wien | 5/10/17 2:25am

Hello! I’ve been thinking a lot about power on this campus over the past two days, in the midst of all this local election mishegas. I think there are a variety of tactics to take down institutions of power: We can talk back to them, yell at them, meet with them in an instance of “civil discourse.” We can ignore them. Maybe in our absence they’ll shrivel away.

A moment of peace.

Kayuri and Corinne have been anxious lately. They haven’t been in my column for some time. So here, an hour after my comparative literature thesis presentation, is an essay on the Postmodern Love:

It’s the evening of our last class, and the professor has taken us to Pine, the swanky restaurant in town. All the graduating students studying comparative literature can fit at a round table. There are five of us. Someone’s dessert arrives deconstructed: crushed peanuts in a jar, a puff of cream on a plate.

“Whoa. Postmodern,” someone murmurs.

If I’ve learned anything from studying comparative literature, it’s this: No one knows what “postmodern” means. Or rather, no one agrees. One concept: If modernity refers to a time when Truths were capitalized, absolute and communicable, postmodernity questions that authority. It posits a dissipated, nebulous, subjective look at experience. It questions the very medium of communication, the value of communication itself.

Here’s a sample from a syllabus: “Appiah, Kwame Anthony. ‘Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial’ (1991); Moore, David Chiani. ‘Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique’ (2001); Shih, Shu-mei. ‘Is the Post- in Postsocialism the Post- in Posthumanism?’ (2012).” You get the idea.

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything you could call Modern Love, authoritative capitalization and all. I don’t know that there’s anything modern about my college experience, where everything is subjective, nebulous, unauthoritative.

I forget whole terms at a time and convince myself I’ve become wiser.

Another way of defining postmodernity is not as a chronological shift but as a way of thinking that’s appeared in every era of history. If modernity is one mode of thought — say, that everything revolves around earth — then the Copernican model would be postmodern, a re-mapping, re-positioning and re-evaluation of the self.

This, I think, is the type of love I’ve experienced at school. The Postmodern Love looks like this:

I was matched with my two roommates, Corinne and Kayuri, the summer before freshman fall. This was based on a questionnaire about our sleeping habits, cleanliness, noise level, etc., a questionnaire on which I’m sure we all lied. We’re graduating this spring, and with the exception of sophomore summer, we’ve lived together for every term we’ve been on campus.

We imagine ourselves as a sitcom, “Two Indians and a Jew.” One roommate is Gujarati Indian, the other is Potawatomi Native American and I am Ashkenazi Jewish. The seasons look like this:

Freshman year: We move into Russell Sage 111. It’s a two-bedroom triple with a tiny half-bathroom and an out-of-commission fireplace. Our room is markedly colder than every other room on our floor. Like, winter in New Hampshire cold. We do freshman year things. We run around the two-story homecoming bonfire (me: three laps, maybe; Kayuri: seven; Corinne: 60) and attempt to triple-bunk our beds. Stacking all three beds on top of each other would give us more space in the tiny inner room. Perhaps a small trampoline would fit there (not that we had one), more storage area (for what?) or a fort (never happened). Corinne does most of the work stacking the beds. She’s the strongest, and I have notoriously weak wrists. We have to un-bunk them after two nights because I (top bunk) keep hitting my head on the ceiling and Kayuri (middle bunk) suffers back pain from her inability to turn over. We watch students get arrested outside of our window for public urination. Spring term, we jump in a mud pit together. I ask them if they want to live together next year. It feels like proposing.

Sophomore year: We move into Mid-Fayerweather 110. Kayuri managed to get us housed together because she is an economics major who simply won’t take no for an answer — the Human Filibuster. We watch students get arrested outside of our window, this time for hazing. Somehow Corinne convinces us it’s a good idea to get the small trampoline in our room. We visit our freshman year quarters, and the current residents tell us the reason it was so cold the year before was because the flue to the fireplace was open. They closed it, and a pigeon carcass fell out. Corinne gets a Mellon Mays Fellowship and has a terrifying experience in which we think she might’ve been drugged on a night out because she can’t stop vomiting. (It turns out it’s because she’s gluten intolerant.) Kayuri goes to Spain. I intern at a literary magazine. Corinne declares her linguistics major. She’s going to work on Potawatomi language revitalization. The statistic is this: More people can speak Klingon than can speak Potawatomi. Kayuri becomes a tour guide. We crash her tours. I direct a play and cram the room with props.

Junior year: We’re all in different parts of the world for fall and winter terms, and we won’t see each other until spring. I study abroad in Edinburgh, where I gain two new roommates: Depression and Eating Disorder. The greater parts of my days are spent sleeping, staring at a wall or throwing up. Back at school, I see a counselor. I fear the relationship with Corinne and Kayuri has been codependent, that I’m destined to be sad when I’m not with them. Not codependent, then, I guess. Just dependent. Maybe I miss them unilaterally. We live together in the spring. I am still depressed, still bulimic. Great, then. It wasn’t them.

Senior year: We go to the voting booth together. We experience the collective emotions of the nation. When Number 45 is announced the winner, Corinne returns to the room and pours herself a drink.

“What if indigenous tribes lose sovereignty?” she asks. “What if they finish the genocide?”

The Postmodern Love presents us with pain that we share, instances in which we don’t know how to comfort. We feel feelings we ought not to, a pain in the chest that is not our own.

I don’t remember the first time I told my roommates “I love you.” The sentiment expresses itself in a host of different ways: expletives, two-and-a-half consecutive hours of Selena Quintanilla videos, conversations about the impact of protest on public policy, cultural opinions of mental health and treatment, menstrual taboos in different societies, “Who Wore It Best?” slideshows, head scratches, Kayuri reading us the news as we fall asleep at night. There is a friend Kayuri had in elementary school who was pregnant our freshman year. She now has two children and a husband. Corinne shows us a video of a Confederate flag t-shirt scandal at her high school.

“We come close to a race war about every two years,” she adds.

We know Corinne’s Michigan enemies, Kayuri’s brother, my friends from high school, all without ever meeting them. Eventually we meet each other’s families in the flesh, but the Skype calls, Facebook profiles and anecdotes during these past four years gave us an introduction long beforehand.

I’ve never been to their hometowns, but I can picture them. We all come from dinky places outside of major cities; Corinne is from Dowagiac, Michigan (in Cass County, known for its invention of kitty litter), and Kayuri is from Lawrenceville, Georgia (with its own Zaxby’s, which, if you’ve never been to one, is a fast-food joint that sells “zalads,” or salads topped with fried chicken). I’m from New Rochelle, New York. We have the Thomas Paine Cottage.

The Postmodern Love is continually rebuilding itself, like a hideous modular housing unit. This is the rule: No one talks to their freshman roommates. They get personalities and learn specialties; they grow out of each other. Instead, the Postmodern Love asks that we grow into each other. When we take on each other’s mannerisms and ways of speaking, we call this leaking, as though we’re faulty faucets rusting into one another. Corinnetalksreallyfastandthen. Stops short. Kayuri will say it’s the “literal worst.”

The Postmodern Love is like an orbit. The speed or attraction may change depending on the mass or the makeup of the body, but the gravity remains. Much of Modern Love encourages us to be independent entities, but this post-love opens us up to what happens when we start feeling for each other. I am trying to feel more for my parents, for people who don’t understand, even for (*gasp*) Republicans. What kind of possibilities open up to us when we allow ourselves to feel communally?

In a time when no one sleeps with the same person twice, when we can “ghost” each other over text and practice careful detachment, living with the same exact people for four years feels like a triumph. My friend points out that this doesn’t seem post-anything at all. This is Pre-Modern Love. This is Love.

Next year, we’ll all be living in different cities. If Modern Love requires synchronicity and centrality, this love skips time, allows us to hate one another for a moment — for keeping each other up too late, for saying something dumb, for not knowing how to comfort. This love allows us the flexibility of discovering who we are not only around each other but also in each other’s absence. Or so I think. I hope.