Sunday Night Journal, June 18, 2017
When I left the academy in the early 1970s postmodernism had not yet arrived in a big way. at least not in the English department, at least as far as I was aware. The whole thing has pretty much passed me by, partly by my own choice. There has always been for me a sort of bad odor about it, starting with the word itself: if "modern" means, more or less, "contemporary," what can "postmodern" refer to but the future, speculative and ever-receding? I'm sure that remark is tiresomely and stupidly pedantic to a postmodernist. I don't care. As I mentioned last week, I know I'm a relic.
Another off-putting feature is the rhetoric of postmodernism, to which I have had only limited exposure, but enough to reinforce in me the sense that there is something unwholesome about it. The needless and seemingly deliberate obscurity has been often remarked. What strikes me as even more fundamental, though, is that it tends heavily toward the sententious. If the rhetoric emanating from the liberal arts faculties of our universities now is representative, a politician of 1900 bloviating about motherhood was no more platitudinous than they, though he was probably more clear, and his platitudes more respectable.
The tone and the aims of course are entirely different. The sneer seems to be an important component of postmodern "discourse," to use a term that seems to be favored. Sometimes it's a subtle or implicit sneer, but it's generally there in a sense that the speaker, by virtue of his or her initiation into "critical thinking" (a term which, in the academy, does not seem to mean exactly what it appears to mean) is piercing some conventional falsehood and telling us how it really is.
I don't know whether what's called "identity politics"--the approach to politics that focuses on one's group identity as a way of positioning one within a hierarchy of oppressors and victims--is necessarily bound up with postmodernism or not, but they certainly seem to be related in fact. In general, from my outsider's and layman's point of view, postmodernism seems to be very much bound up with a very irrational and intolerant strain of progressive politics.
Such are my impressions. Are they wrong? Am I misjudging the whole phenomenon of postmodernism? I have the additional impression that there are orthodox Catholic theologians who are postmodernists or at least find good things in postmodernism. No doubt it would be a mistake to write the whole thing off, but is there enough there to make learning more worthwhile?
These questions are on my mind because of the recent doings at Evergreen State College in Washington (State). You've probably heard about it, but in case you haven't, a very brief synopsis is that a biology professor, Bret Weinstein, objected to a racial-awareness event which asked white people to leave the campus for a day, and was in response driven off campus by students. Weinstein, telling the story in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, attributed the intolerance to postmodernists. That piece is no longer available online, so I can't send you to it. There is an excerpt here, from which I will take an excerpt:
The button-down empirical and deductive fields, including all the hard sciences, have lived side by side with “critical theory,” postmodernism and its perception-based relatives. Since the creation in 1960s and ’70s of novel, justice-oriented fields, these incompatible worldviews have repelled one another.... So [the college's new president] tampered with the delicate balance between the sciences and humanities by, in effect, arming the postmoderns.
Well, is that fair? It's an interesting echo of the Sokal affair of twenty years ago, in which a real scientist submitted a deliberately nonsensical paper to a postmodern journal, which accepted and published it. The scientist, Alan Sokal, co-wrote a book about the whole syndrome, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. I read that book, and admit that it helped to form my prejudice against postmodernism, in part because it included actual quotations from postmodern thinkers.
It was for just this sort of question that I recently bought myself a copy of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. I figured it would be useful for learning a little about things I will never learn a lot about. The word "postmodern" gets about a page and a half of the dictionary's fairly dense print. This seems to be what I'm after:
Postmodern philosophy is therefore usefully regarded as a complex cluster concept that includes the following elements: an anti- (or post-) epistemological standpoint; anti-essentialism; anti-realism; antifoundationalism; opposition to transcendental arguments and transcendental standpoints; rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation; rejection of truth as correspondence to reality; rejection of the very idea of canonical descriptions; rejection of final vocabularies, i.e. rejection of principles, distinctions, and descriptions that are thought to be unconditionally binding for all times, persons, and places; and suspicion of grand narratives, metanarratives of the sort perhaps best illustrated by dialectical materialism.
My emphasis, of course. The writer, whom I presume to be at least sympathetic to postmodernism, goes on to mention "gender theory" as a species of postmodernism in which
the conception of "reason" itself as it has often functioned in the shared philosophical tradition is redescribed as a conception that, it is often argued, is (en)gendered, patriarchal, homophobic, and deeply optional.
You can certainly see how a lot of the madness currently on display in certain quarters of academia and the graduates of certain disciplines--alas, including literature--could be a manifestation of these ideas, perhaps in a dumbed-down form, but nonetheless clearly rooted in them. You can also see how this could be a very hospitable environment for intellectual hucksterism.
Concern for the very principle of truth as correspondence to reality prevents me from simply dismissing the whole thing. Even very confused and mistaken people often have worthwhile insights. But the answer to my own implicit question--should I learn more about this?--is pretty straightforward: life is too short. At age sixty-eight, that's my truth. To paraphrase Eliza Doolittle's father: I am a relic and I mean to go on being one; I like it.
We've discussed (admiringly) here more than once the films made in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. I always wonder how it was that such subtle, quiet, and serene films came to be made so soon after Japan was defeated in the Second World War. At least in the ones I've seen, the war is a fairly distant thing, and is not treated directly. One of them, Late Spring, generally considered one of his best, was released in 1949. The war had ended only four years earlier. I don't remember any mention of it in the film, though surely there must be at least some references to it. It puzzles me that life could have gotten back so close to something like normal so quickly.
Last week I read a novel, The Typist by Michael Knight, which sheds a different light on the period, and might be of interest to those who like Ozu. It's a first-person narrative by the titular character, who is a soldier working as a typist in the American administration set up by General Douglas Macarthur to re-design and re-build Japan. It's an excellent novel which brings together the reconstruction of Japan, the peculiar relationship between the American rulers and Japanese society, and the typist's own personal reconstruction in a moving way. I think it might be of interest to Ozu fans, as it deals with what Ozu does not, at least in the films I've seen: the raw physical wounds of the war, the desperate poverty and disgrace of many of the Japanese: black markets, prostitution, and all the sort of thing that follows war and conquest. It will be in my mind the next time I see Late Spring. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, there might have been at least some mention of the war's devastation in the film, but American censors did not allow it.
An addendum to discussion of the Beatles: someone who is named Bill Wyman but is not the Rolling Stones bass player has taken it upon himself to make a list, with commentary, of all 213 Beatles songs ranked from worst to best. I had never heard of the writer, or the site (vulture.com); I only saw a link to it on Facebook or somewhere and was curious enough to look. It's pretty entertaining, with no doubt something to offend and please everybody. I was outraged by #213, "Good Day Sunshine." What?!? What's the matter with this guy?! But I was pleased by #194, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da": "The whimsy will continue until morale improves." And surprised by #204, "She's Leaving Home." In general the writer seems to tend toward my low opinion of the white album, and of course I like that. I haven't actually read past the first 50 or so, but I did look ahead to #1: "A Day in the Life." I approve.
I pass a field on the way to work--or almost anywhere--that has been planted in sunflower seeds about about every other year. It's very lovely and cheerful for a time, but then becomes a scene of utter misery. Now every vestige of life has been removed from the field. Pretty soon it will be all over houses.
I'm going to have to go another way to work soon because the traffic on that two-lane road is going to be horrendous.
Posted by: Janet | 06/19/2017 at 08:50 AM
There are subtle hints in Ozu's movies about the occupation, and in one, the Father is talking to someone and mentions that his daughter has regained the strength she lost in the work camps.
The thing that really strikes me about the Ozu movies is that they chronicle the change from Eastern to Western dress and furniture and ways of life. The business world was very Western even before the war. You see this particularly in one of Ozu's pre-war silent films.
Good Morning, which is one of my favorites, takes place in a village, and you can see the initial resistance to and gradual acceptance of things like washing machines and television.
Yesterday, I watched a Chinese movie from director, Edward Wang, called Yi-Yi. It takes place in Taiwan, and you could easily have substituted Western actors for the Chinese and made no difference in the story whatsoever. Except for a bit of decoration, you would not have even know you were in an Eastern city. One thing I found interesting was that when the Chinese and Japanese business men were speaking to one another, they spoke English.The Typist
I am looking forward to reading
Posted by: Janet | 06/19/2017 at 09:04 AM
I'm not sure how The Typist leapt up into the previous line, but at least I didn't commit italics.
Posted by: Janet | 06/19/2017 at 09:14 AM
The same thing is happening around here with development--the fields turning into subdivisions, the roads getting more crowded. The automobile was just a big mistake. I like zipping around on my own as much as anybody, but it's a bad thing.
I haven't watched that many of Ozu's films--only two. The only reference to the war I remember is that one of the sons in Tokyo Story was killed in it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 09:48 AM
"Dear Prudence" was very high on the list!
Posted by: Stu | 06/19/2017 at 09:58 AM
That list is like potato chips. I need to be working but I keep going back and reading one more entry.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 10:18 AM
I do like postmodern and post-postmodern literature, though I am not prepared to argue their merits beyond my enjoyment.
Posted by: Stu | 06/19/2017 at 02:33 PM
What is it? I mean, you're talking about fiction, right, not philosophy & criticism? Give me an example.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 03:11 PM
Right, fiction only for me. I think that Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf ... are all good examples of postmodern fiction. They say that Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne) is the first example of postmodernism, even though it was written in the 18th century.
There are tropes such as: metafiction, magical realism, irony, black humor, etc. which are widespread in postmodern lit.
Post-postmodern are these new writers: David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, etc. Other than being "after" postmodernism, I'm not sure that post-postmodern has any real distinction.
Posted by: Stu | 06/19/2017 at 03:36 PM
I know. Once you have abandoned truth and reason, where do you go from there? Maybe back in the right direction, but I don't see much of that.
A novelist has to portray the truth of real things even if he doesn't intend to if he wants to have any story at all.
Posted by: Janet | 06/19/2017 at 04:08 PM
I think Catch-22 was the first truly postmodern piece of writing I was exposed to. It was all ironic deconstruction.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/19/2017 at 04:54 PM
But Joyce and Woolf are counted among the great modernists. Or at least they used to be. Maybe they got retrofitted when postmodern became the thing. Pynchon and Heller, yeah, I can see them being labelled postmodern. The more recent ones I haven't read, though I know Wallace in particular is very highly regarded by some people whose judgment I respect.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 05:21 PM
There seems to be some mistake in that Beatles list. The #1 song is listed at #138.
Posted by: Craig | 06/19/2017 at 05:39 PM
#42 of the 213: "It turned out that nothing could withstand the force of the Beatles, not even the Beatles themselves." Very good line.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 05:39 PM
"The #1 song is listed at #138."
[cry of anguish]
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 05:44 PM
I finally got through all 213. Of course I disagreed with a lot of the choices but overall I thought it wasn't bad. And a pretty good tour of the Beatles' work. I haven't heard a lot of that earlier stuff since the '60s, or in a few cases maybe never heard it at all.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 07:16 PM
Interesting Beatles list. I agree that with some very impressive exceptions the lyrics are not worth writing home about. I tend to like McCartney's fluffy stuff better than this guy.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/19/2017 at 08:09 PM
Woolf is modernist not postmodernist
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/19/2017 at 10:01 PM
I don't think Joyce is, either. Especially not Ulysses, which is ultra-naturalistic, just executed in a very different way.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 10:20 PM
I don't necessarily dislike McCartney's lightweight stuff, but I certainly agreed with this guy about some of it. For instance "Rocky Racoon" which I pretty much hate.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 10:26 PM
It's cultural appropriation for postmodernists to claim Woolf and Joyce.
Posted by: Mac | 06/19/2017 at 11:17 PM
Oh. I agree about Rocky Raccoon and such ilk. It is for to play, though. Maybe i can do one of those things where you put Christin lyrics to a popular song.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/20/2017 at 07:40 AM
I love Rocky Raccoon! I really love The White Album. I guess I need to review it so I can read all of Mac's ire. :)
Posted by: Stu | 06/20/2017 at 07:44 AM
Okay, maybe I don't know what Postmodern Literature is. I'll just listen to Rocky Raccoon again while having a cocktail!
Posted by: Stu | 06/20/2017 at 08:17 AM
Listening to Rocky Raccoon while having a cocktail would undoubtedly lead to another cocktail, so it wouldn't be all bad. :-)
Ok, I'll be gathering my negative thoughts for your review. Actually I was thinking last night that part of the negative feeling is the memory of the disappointment when it came out. Remember this was "real time" for me, unlike most of you. Expectations were really high.
Since I'm not a Beatles fanatic, some of the stuff in that 213 list about the circumstances at the time was new to me. The fact that they were pretty unhappy, fighting a lot, etc., sheds light on the sort of anxious, depressed vibe of the album.
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2017 at 09:45 AM
Going back to Janet's comment from yesterday: "Once you have abandoned truth and reason, where do you go from there?"
For large elements of western civ, the answer seems to be "You roll over and die."
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2017 at 09:51 AM
Even a Beatles fanatic back then would not have quite known what was going on, Mac. We keep thinking that "yesterday" was like "today" in that we know everything about everyone all the time - mostly with celebrities, of course.
While in Arizona I watched with a friend there 5 HOURS of an ESPN special on the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers and I was amazed at so many things I didn't know about those two teams in the 80s (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird). I was a big Celtics fan, watched everything I could, read everything I could in the Miami Herald newspaper. And yet ...
Different time periods. Hopefully my example makes sense. My brain may be ahead of my fingers ... another problem with the modern age!
Posted by: Stu | 06/20/2017 at 10:13 AM
Stu - in modernism the 'subject' is at the centre of things and that's how we get stream of consciousness novels - all about what's going on inside Mrs Dalloway etc.
In postmodernism the 'subject' is said not to exist, or be dissolved.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/20/2017 at 10:24 AM
What a great definition, Grumpy. Thanks! That explains Pynchon, Barth, et al
Posted by: Stu | 06/20/2017 at 10:33 AM
"Even a Beatles fanatic back then would not have quite known what was going on, Mac. We keep thinking that "yesterday" was like "today"..."
No, "we" don't. :-) In the remark about Beatles fanatics knowing a lot I wasn't referring to the time of the albums's release, but to all the years since, with tons and tons of information coming out and which serious Beatles fans probably know all about. I mean I've never paid much attention to that flood of information.
I remember the years of the Beatles' heyday very clearly and we definitely didn't know what was going on. There were rumors ("Paul is dead!) and I guess there may have been some news stories suggesting problems, but not much that was specific or trustworthy. Though you could tell from listening to the album that all was not well--most of the songs were either obviously John songs or Paul songs, for instance, not much apparent collaboration.
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2017 at 12:54 PM
I have never seen that picture of the young Beatles that's on the page with that list. I can't believe that because I had every magazine, every bubblegum card, every everything that came out about the Beatles.
Posted by: Janet | 06/20/2017 at 01:07 PM
Take it up with this guy, maybe?:
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2017 at 02:24 PM
We keep thinking that "yesterday" was like "today" in that we know everything about everyone all the time - mostly with celebrities, of course.
We knew a heck of a lot, though, because they were all over TV on the nightly news, the morning shows, the late-night shows. My favorite was the news coverage of John and Yoko's "bed-in" in 1969.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/20/2017 at 04:00 PM
But I didn't have a TV. I did hear about the bed-in and maybe saw a picture in a newspaper or magazine, but that was all. It's almost strange to recall now that if something appeared on TV and you missed it, it was gone. There was no way to access any sort of recording. Forget the internet--the VCR was yet to come.
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2017 at 04:59 PM
Once you've abandoned truth and reason you cease to be able to talk with those who haven't about anything important. You after hermetically sealed one of my coworkers when I worked at a law firm was like that. He was new agey. He explicitly rejected reason as I white male European means of oppression.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/21/2017 at 07:36 AM
I've ordered 'The Typist' from the library. I gave up on the current novel I was reading due to its unnecessary hyper-realism, of which more anon.
re: the Beatles, I think I've discovered a reason for my indifference, and it has to do with my age. I was born in 1961 and thus was a fairly young child throughout their heyday. I can remember my older cousins being smitten with some measure of Beatlemania, but I was a little too young.
By the time I started listening more seriously to music in the mid-70's the Beatles, while still loved by slightly older fans, were, like much 60's pop music, considered somewhat "out-of-date." And not enough time had gone by for them to be appreciated retrospectively like they would be by somewhat younger listeners.
I find this to be true of most of my friends. No one in the 50-59 age group is a Beatles fan. The fans are the guys who are 60+ (original fans) and younger than 50 (retro fans). So might we posit a sort of "Beatles gap" wherein people are too young to be part of the heyday, but too old to catch on retroactively?
For comparison sake, it's perhaps interesting to note that the first pop artist I liked and paid any real attention to was Elton John, and that this was his early stuff (1971-1975). By the time I entered high school in 1977 I was mostly listening to what they used to call AOR -- "album-oriented rock."
Posted by: Rob G | 06/21/2017 at 07:45 AM
"He explicitly rejected reason as I white male European means of oppression."
I often hear this view attributed to certain academics and their fellow travelers, and can't help thinking it's an exaggeration. But I guess it's not. Aside from your testimony, right there in the Cambridge quote in the post. These people will certainly create a wonderful world if they really get control.:-/
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 10:28 AM
Interesting thought about the Beatles gap. Makes sense. Possibly the general reaction that produced punk has something to do with it too.
Elton John--ugh. I did sort of like his first album, but it didn't take long for him to wear out his welcome completely for me, notwithstanding his gift for appealing tunes.
Interesting experience a few nights ago: watching the last episode of The Americans with captions on, with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" on the soundtrack, I encountered, via the captions, lyrics beyond the title and something about a penthouse for the first time ever, despite the fact that I worked in a record store when it came out and heard it a hundred times. I never had one moment's curiosity about the lyrics, which I guess is indicative of the extent to which I'd written him off.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 10:37 AM
I will take this moment to express how GREAT the Elton John concert in Mobile was about a year and half ago (I think). I never thought I would see a 68 year old put on such an amazing show, in front of 10,000 people in this sleepy Southern town.
Posted by: Stu | 06/21/2017 at 10:40 AM
I want to thank you for that yellow brick earworm.
Posted by: Janet | 06/21/2017 at 10:55 AM
Well, yeah, but don't forget that I liked him from about age 10 to age 14! The last song I can remember liking was "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," which came out in the summer of either '74 or '75. I didn't like 'Island Girl' much, and I pretty much stopped paying attention to him after that.
I still like some of those old tunes, but it's related more to nostalgia than anything else. I don't listen to them now like I listen to some of the other early 70's stuff I still like - America, Steely Dan, etc.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/21/2017 at 11:01 AM
I freely admit that my dislike of EJ is completely subjective. It starts with the sound of his voice. Obviously he's very talented.
You're welcome, Janet. If it's any consolation, I have it too.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 12:13 PM
I'm 58. I became interested in the Beatles in 1974 when I started high school and a friend of mine was a fanatic. There is a small group of us Beatles gappers who did become fanatical.
A funny story. 2003 was the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson. Hundreds of thousands of Harleys descended upon Milwaukee. The noise was horrendous.
The celebration was to culminate in a huge concert where all the Harley riders would listen to a great group that epitomized Harleyism. The CEO chose the group, but kept it completely under wraps until the concert itself. You can see where this is going.
So, the lights came up and out came--Elton John!
There was almost a riot. You can hardly conceive of an artist whose ethos is so antithetical to Harleyism. It was a real dud at the end of an excited week.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/21/2017 at 01:02 PM
I absolutely did not see where that was going, even though we were just talking about him. I was expecting Ted Nugent.
I have to say that it would not in the least surprise me to learn that H-D is active in gay rights etc etc. It's what corporations do now.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 01:09 PM
I mentioned above that I had stopped reading a novel due to its hyper-realism. It's called The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds, and is about the English poet John Clare and the brother of Alfred Tennyson, Septimus, who were apparently in the same insane asylum at the same time. I'm a great fan of Clare's poetry so I thought the novel might be interesting, especially since it received a lot of praise in the UK and was a Booker finalist.
Well, in the first 50 pages we get two rather crude and explicit references to oral sex, a three-page account of a mental patient receiving an enema, and an unnecessarily graphic account of the butchering of a deer.
My question is, why is this sort of repulsive detail necessary? Isn't simple basic realism good enough without going into all the "gory details"? If Clare in his insanity had a fixation on oral sex do you really have to describe it? Or can't you just say that another mental patient had an irrational fear of going to the bathroom, without describing in loving detail how the asylum staff had to deal with it? This is one aspect of modern literature I just don't get.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/21/2017 at 03:06 PM
Posted by: Janet | 06/21/2017 at 03:22 PM
As promised, not in the least surprised.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 05:48 PM
Not surprised by the "hyper-realism", either. I mentioned The Americans earlier. In the same episode there's a scene where somebody is listening to a clandestine recording that's mostly useless irrelevant conversation. We see him fidgeting, pacing, etc., because he's bored. But we also see him going to the bathroom. Not just going in, but standing there urinating, and of course we get to hear it too. This is *extremely* frequent now. It's like the directors go out of their way to work it in. In another series, I'm not sure which one now, there was a scene where a conversation is taking place between a man and a woman who have just ******. "Made love" doesn't exactly desribe it. There's absolutely no artistic reason why part of the conversation has to take place with the woman sitting on the toilet, but there it is.
It seems self-evidently some kind of Statement, but I find myself unwilling to dwell on it long enough to try to figure it out.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 05:56 PM
I guess it's a good thing I never got around to writing a piece about Goodbye Yellowbrick Road.
Posted by: Don | 06/21/2017 at 10:00 PM
Go ahead--just because I don't like it doesn't mean other people don't. Or can't. :-)
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2017 at 11:05 PM
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a great album! :)
Posted by: Stu | 06/22/2017 at 07:22 AM
I watched Silence last night, and though it was probably longer than it needed to be I thought it quite powerful. I was wondering if anyone had seen the 1971 Japanese version, since you all are big on Japanese movies. Scorsese did not show anyone relieving themselves.
Posted by: Stu | 06/22/2017 at 07:37 AM
No, there was no relief in Silence at all.
Posted by: Janet | 06/22/2017 at 07:56 AM
I am not convinced about the 'Beatles gap.' Certainly, as a 57 year old, I'm a bit unusual since I grew up listening to the Beatles in my mother's Greenwich Village shop. But in my 1970s English boarding school, a number of people had Beatles tapes and people listened to it. Certainly, it was not the biggest thing teenagers listened to it in the 1970s, but it was there and people liked it.
Elton John: my confession is that I never bought an EJ album in my teenage years because it was insufficiently grungy. I didn't like the sequins phase of pop music - I didn't like Bowie either. I liked Neil Young and grungy stuff. Today I get Pandora on my phone and I have to say I do enjoy EJ's songs. I enjoy 'I hope you don't mind' and 'Tiny Dancer' got stuck in my mind for ages.
Rob G wrote: My question is, why is this sort of repulsive detail necessary? Isn't simple basic realism good enough without going into all the "gory details"? If Clare in his insanity had a fixation on oral sex do you really have to describe it? Or can't you just say that another mental patient had an irrational fear of going to the bathroom, without describing in loving detail how the asylum staff had to deal with it? This is one aspect of modern literature I just don't get.
I once heard a good talk at a Stratford Caldecott Conference in Oxford about this. I hesitate to say the speaker was Debra Murphy, because she may have just been the only speaker on the bill whose name I recollect. Whoeveritwas gave a paper on hyper-realism, and said the direct purpose of it is to convince the reader by saturation that empirical reality is all there is. It was a kind of fictional vanguard of the new atheism, from the 1990s onward. I thought that was such a great point. If empirical reality is all there is, then describing every pork chop in a Butcher's window is just what a fiction writer needs to be doing.
Janet said that the agricultural land around her house is being turned into an estate. That happens so much in South Bend - its as if the town simply eats the land around it.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 09:39 AM
It happens around every town or city where people want to live. That's natural but the way life is organized around the automobile makes it very objectionable. Point B is ruined because it's between points A and C and people want to get back and forth between them easily. It really infuriates me to see people essentially lose their homes for the convenience of drivers.
That's a fascinating explication of hyper-realism. I had never heard the term before Rob used it here a while back.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 10:47 AM
I didn't like the glitter era of pop music, either, but EJ's association with that only sealed his fate for me, as I didn't much like him even before that side of him became prominent. I don't know..it's irrational and I can't really explain it, but somehow his music seemed unreal to me.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 10:50 AM
the main thing I remember of the explanation is that he did air piano to Lovely Rita.
This is telling us something about teaching with vivid illustrations.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 11:07 AM
the Butcher shop illustration is from a novel by Antonia Byatt.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 11:10 AM
Things have been going that way for some time. Joyce followed Bloom into the outhouse.
I would benefit from your father's explanation, probably. But I see there are about a hundred YouTube videos about it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 11:46 AM
I have not seen Silence btw. I sort of feel like I don't need to because I've read so much about it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 11:55 AM
"I am not convinced about the 'Beatles gap.'"
I'm thinking now that it might not just be an age-related thing, but also a social one, in that the gap wouldn't be as notable if you had older siblings, parents, etc., who influenced your listening. I was flying on my own so to speak, and in my adolescence the Beatles were just another 60's band that one heard on the radio from time to time.
That is a good explanation of hyper-realism, and I'd say it includes the modernist (post-modernist?) inability and/or unwillingness to differentiate between the beautiful and the ugly, the attractive and the repulsive, etc. -- the idea that beauty is a purely subjective category.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/22/2017 at 01:04 PM
The idea was that the senses simply fill and saturate our experience, because sensation is all there is. But its a *saturation* with physical sensations that the new atheist hyper fiction writer is aiming for, as a way of showing that sensation literally fills the picture and there is nothing else. In a sense, it's not a subjectivist move. Its not showing that subjectivity or consciousness is all there is. Rather the reverse. All there is is this objective flow of empirical data into the recipient of empirical data.
Posted by: Quite Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 03:03 PM
Consciousness or subjectivity is all too close to a 'soul' for the hyper realist. But for this kind of naturalist, the subject receiving the sensations isn't what matters. Its the lamb chops with the white frilly paper in the Butcher shop window. Its a kind of photo-realism.
Posted by: Quite Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 03:05 PM
Photo-realism is the opposite of the subjectivism of, say, Impressionism or Virginia Woolf.
Posted by: Quite Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 03:06 PM
This is a naive question, I know, but: do the practitioners of this kind of fiction actually think in these terms? Or are they just following a fashion? It seems to me that to some degree this fits in with the "privileging" of the visual that's been a broad movement in both fiction and poetry for more than a century now.
I don't know much about art but had the impression that photo-realism was something of a reaction to abstraction.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 04:19 PM
Yes I think its very plausible that London based novelists like Antonia Byatt or Ian McEwan or (and perhaps especially, the most brilliant practitioner of hyper-realism that I have read) Hilary Mantel are deliberately presenting a naturalist and naturalized world. They know enough to do that.
I just substituted photo-realism so I didn't have to keep writing hyper realism
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 05:08 PM
They knew what they were doing. England is a small place and London is smaller. Those writers would know each other and know people like Christopher Hitchens.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 05:27 PM
I was just thinking of Philip Roth as an American author who's doing the same -- "deliberately presenting a naturalist and naturalized world" -- and then found this article on him by A.S. Byatt, no less -- "The dying animal: In the post-religious world of Philip Roth's fiction, humans do not have immortal souls":More of that uplifting stuff here.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/22/2017 at 05:34 PM
"In a sense, it's not a subjectivist move. Its not showing that subjectivity or consciousness is all there is. Rather the reverse. All there is is this objective flow of empirical data into the recipient of empirical data."
Right. But if it's all empirical then there can be nothing inherently different between the beautiful and the ugly. A materialism of that sort would seem to reduce to a working solipsism -- an aesthetic dead end which would be hard to differentiate from complete subjectivity, at least in its final result. Black metal ends up being equal to Bach, even if you get to that conclusion via a different route.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/22/2017 at 06:10 PM
Hyper-realism is not necessarily a feature of post-modernism, then. The grand materialist-empiricist narrative doesn't fit with post=modernism if the latter is about subverting grand narratives of any sort. The aesthetic leveling (black metal = Bach) is another story. But there are strains of modernism that could very easily accomodate that (Dada etc.)
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 08:01 PM
Yes, Marianne, when I read Ron's post about hyper-realism, I immediately thought of Roth. Portnoy's Complaint was, I think, my first experience of anything like that.
Posted by: Janet | 06/22/2017 at 09:28 PM
I just read the Roth review that Marianne linked to. Wow, I can't wait to read that novel. :-/
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 09:48 PM
"The aesthetic leveling (black metal = Bach) is another story. But there are strains of modernism that could very easily accomodate that (Dada etc.)"
True -- there has been a fair amount of discussion over the years about whether postmodernism represents a break from modernism or is simply modernism gone to seed. It seems to be both, but it clearly varies in the way it plays itself out in relation to modernity's different elements.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/23/2017 at 06:15 AM
My first exposure to that sort of extreme realism was in some of the horror fiction I read in the 80's (Stephen King, Peter Straub, etc.). At the time I didn't give it much thought, assuming that it was just part of the territory. As time went on, however, I grew to dislike it, and eventually learned to avoid authors who wrote that way.
What surprised me was coming across that sort of writing later on in contemporary literary fiction. I think my first exposure in that vein was in one of Pat Barker's novels from the 90's. I didn't read a lot of contemporary fiction at the time, and coming across that in Barker's work was an eye-opener.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/23/2017 at 06:40 AM
Without taking the time to actually analyze it, this whole hyper-realism thing reminds me of Swift. Like "The lady's dressing room."
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/23/2017 at 07:43 AM
What makes literary fiction so interesting is the author presenting a different worldview for the reader (I think). I am a huge Philip Roth fan, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike. They are all similar, and different, sexual themes along with religious themes. A New Jersey Jew, Chicago/Canadian Jew, and Northeastern WASP. You don't find a lot of women who read them, but in my recent trip out to NM a female friend of mine had almost an entire shelf of Roth! ????
Posted by: Stu | 06/23/2017 at 07:53 AM
I haven't read much of any of those, mainly because I wasn't much taken by what I did read.
I'm very much inclined to think that postmodernism is just the last exhausted phase of modernism.
I think the "cloacal obsession" which some judge attributed to Joyce in Ulysses (I think)--the determination to include excretory details--is somewhat distinct from hyper-realism in general. As in the Swift poem, it's not just a desire to include all the data, it's also specifically a desire to shock or startle, though at this point the effect is fairly mild. I feel pretty sure that that's part of the intent in tv an movies anyway.
Posted by: Mac | 06/23/2017 at 09:42 AM
I love Bellow - one of the greats. To me, certainly he has a lot of sexual themes, but its not comparable to Roth banging on and on and about oral sex.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/23/2017 at 10:00 AM
I've read either two or three of Bellow's, can't remember for sure, and wasn't enthusiastic. No real objection, but they seemed sort of colorless. I would probably like Updike better if I gave him more of a chance (Stu mentioned him, too). I like some of his early short stories a lot.
Posted by: Mac | 06/23/2017 at 10:10 AM
MacArthur's speech at the football game. Have mercy.
Posted by: Janet | 06/28/2017 at 12:41 PM
Interesting that that game was played in Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.
Posted by: Janet | 06/28/2017 at 12:48 PM
Yeah. I assumed that the speech is factually correct but didn't check.
Posted by: Mac | 06/28/2017 at 01:43 PM
There's a 2005 NY Times article about that football game, but it doesn't mention a speech by MacArthur -- Nagasaki, 1946: Football Amid the Ruins
Posted by: Marianne | 06/28/2017 at 05:56 PM
At the end of the book there are some acknowledgements that mention historical events and I think the change of the location of the game. Can't check because it's back at the library. Can't remember whether it mentions the speech or not. But MacArthur is definitely described as the instigator of the game in the novel, which that NYT piece doesn't really support.
Posted by: Mac | 06/29/2017 at 07:30 AM
Had a look at the book, which I finished last night. The acknowledgements page mentions the game and the change of location, but doesn't say anything else specifically, other than that he "took great liberties" with the event.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/30/2017 at 09:53 AM
So maybe Macarthur's speech is one of them. If so that should have been acknowledged. It opens him up to the charge of going beyond "liberties" into falsification. Perhaps it was a speech Macarthur actually gave in some other context, or made of pieces of things he actually said? No way to know without a whole lot of research.
Posted by: Mac | 06/30/2017 at 10:29 AM
I think he made the whole thing up. I found the short story by the author that The Typist grew out of, “The Atom Bowl”, and it's got the speech MacArthur supposedly gave -- that story is here. I did a search on several of the phrases in the speech and the only hits were to Google Book's pages on The Typist.
Also found an interview with the author in which he said this about his approach to writing the book:
Posted by: Marianne | 06/30/2017 at 05:57 PM
Well, that's fascinating. Thank you for going to all that trouble. This begins to sound a bit suspect, depending on whether he was trying to make Macarthur look bad. The speech--if I remember correctly, it's already faded--has to do with God helping the U.S. conquer the Japanese--by helping us develop the bomb, maybe?--can't remember. It's not historically implausible, though. And not necessarily so bad, though it's shocking to us.
Still, this practice of simulating history and then modifying it, without noting that one has done so, seems dubious to me. He does succeed in what he set out to do, according to what you quote.
Posted by: Mac | 06/30/2017 at 07:49 PM
Reading that short story sure makes it seem as if his aim is to paint a very negative picture of MacArthur. But he really shouldn't have altered what he calls "capitol-H history" to makes the case against him.
Norman Cousins, who edited the old magazine Saturday Review, spent some time with MacArthur during the occupation of Japan -- MacArthur had invited him there to work as a consultant on the democratization of the country -- and the man he presented in his book The Pathology of Power comes across as a fairly thoughtful one. You can read some of what Cousins wrote on him with the "Look inside" feature at Amazon. There's a whole chapter on him: "General MacArthur in Fact and Fiction". Here's Cousins on dropping the bomb:
Posted by: Marianne | 06/30/2017 at 11:13 PM
I didn't get the sense that Knight was particularly negative about MacArthur in the novel, but rather presented him as a fairly noble man but also one of considerable contradictions.
In fact, the speech struck me as somewhat out of character with the way he portrayed MacArthur in the rest of the book, but perhaps that was intentional (i.e., the public man vs. the private man).
Posted by: Rob G | 07/01/2017 at 08:43 AM
I didn't either (get the sense that the portrait of Macarthur was negative overall). It was only the speech that I recall provoking the raised eyebrow. And quite possibly I'm being overly suspicious, being so used to the tendency to focus on and exaggerate the faults of the past that appears so often in the arts now.
Posted by: Mac | 07/01/2017 at 09:57 AM
I'm late to the game, but postmodernism (or at least the ideas it brings forward regarding family dynamics) has been a big game changer in therapy/counseling practices. Family values are less rooted in sacred principles of church and community and more rooted in a very private mix of personal, situational beliefs.
Families have changed, partly due to the prevalence of divorce and remarriage. And that affects children in a big way, since only about half of all children reach 18 living continuously with both (biological) parents in the home. And then there's gay/lesbian families, bi-racial families, cohabitating families, etc.
And philosophically, the theories and approaches we use have changed based upon new theories about how we process reality, how we know what we know, etc. and it's led to changes in our founding philosophies and metaphorical contexts for working with people.
Of course I wasn't a therapist before postmodernism took hold, but as a provider and patient of postmodern era therapy, I cannot imagine a therapeutic process that is heavily "prescribed" with a set of rules that are placed upon you, or you're guided towards, rather than finding your own journey through self examination of personal values. Therapy used to be "overt therapeutic strategies designed to change families through technically precise interventions" (thank you old text book for that quote). It was much more influence based: the therapist takes on the responsibility of directly influencing the behavior of their patient. I am not sure I would have ever sought out therapy, as a provider or patient, if that was the experience I was going to get. To me, it seems like the provider would be heavily biased towards their own beliefs, and then those beliefs become the basis of therapy and therapeutic goals. And one sure fire way to shut down a teenager (or adult who is practically a teenager, still struggling with that id phase, such as many addicts/alcoholics) in ANY therapy session is to tell them what to do.
For me, I am more comfortable with the idea of being a guide of self exploration for a person, so they find their own truths and set their own goals, despite what I may think of all of their choices in life. Because ultimately, it's THEIR life, no matter what my bias.
But of course that may be because all I've ever known, in a real and tangible way, is postmodernism.
Posted by: Gabby Ritter | 07/07/2017 at 02:43 PM
^What I was basically trying to get at is that therapy used to be based upon the belief that one's assertions are fundamentally true for someone else. And postmodernism brought about the paradigm shift, which I work under, that says everyone has their own truth. For me, it was an important step to take in the way we provide therapy. (Again with the caveat that I only really tangibly know postmodernism.)
Posted by: Gabby Ritter | 07/07/2017 at 02:54 PM
Ok, I'm almost done. It is ironic that therapy has moved this way, towards more of a process and less prescribed, given our healthcare system has gone the opposite. No one wants a process when it comes to being healed (understandably), they want a cure. But, because we're a more qualitative, process oriented field, funding by NIH and other bodies is getting more difficult to obtain without clear qualitative data, which isn't where we actually practice, and so many of us are having to either dump our qualitative research, or move to mixed methods to at least try and keep the process included. And further, the emphasis on "evidence based practice" largely led by the health insurance industry further goes against our process method, because it's difficult to quantify a process with numbers. And, if we're focusing on the postmodern idea of complete psyche individualism, then what works for one isn't going to work for another! (Ok well this last part turned out to be just a rant of my every day frustrations as a clinician.)
Posted by: Gabby | 07/07/2017 at 03:58 PM
It had never occurred to me that the word "post-modern" had a place in therapy. But I guess it makes sense.
There is a lot of common sense in what you say--dealing with people where they are, not trying to force them into molds that don't fit, using approaches that actually help (duh!).
But--you knew there was going to be a "but"--I think the philosophical underpinnings are questionable. "Everyone has their own truth." No, they don't. Not in the most important ways. Is that not another way of affirming the things I noted in the Cambridge definition--"rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation; rejection of truth as correspondence to reality"? I reject those rejections. :-)
Getting back to my original point, or one of them--whether or not post-modernism is actually distinct from modernism--this seems to me more a sort of surrender to all the dislocations of modernism than something really different. Sort of a throwing up of hands and saying "whatever." Whatever floats your boat (or has poked holes in it), we'll try to help you cope. That's not a bad goal up to a point. And it's not the therapist's job to fix society. But that doesn't have to entail blindness to the harm done by, for instance, 50% divorce rates.
Posted by: Mac | 07/07/2017 at 06:05 PM
To me, it seems like the provider would be heavily biased towards their own beliefs, and then those beliefs become the basis of therapy and therapeutic goals.
But see, I think this is inescapable. The idea that a therapist should not influence the behavior of the patient is a bias, and the new theories about how we process reality are a kind of bias, and the idea that there are different truths for different people is just fallacious on the face of it unless you completely redefine the word "truth."
I'm not saying that many or maybe most of the things that you do in your practice are not good, I'm just saying there is a bias there that is the basis of your therapy and goals.
Posted by: Janet | 07/07/2017 at 06:51 PM
Oh there's definitely bias, this is why we're all required to participate in supervision and have to complete so much continuing education. You can go down that rabbit hole endlessly as to whether you ruined someone's life. And then there's entire books of literature specifically written about transference and countertranference that we agonize over.
I'm just saying that a "one truth" model means that there's only one answer, no matter the question, and (for me at least) that doesn't feel like effective therapy based upon the research I've done and my experience.
Posted by: Gabby | 07/07/2017 at 07:32 PM
I feel like a better definition (to me) of the shift from modern to post modern is less "out with the old, in with the new!" and more, " the old has it's valid points, but let's expand it and build upon it based upon today's societal needs, norms, research and thoughts, and accept that one truth is not going to fit every single person". This is what I mean about everyone having their truth, rather than one truth covers all people living in our land, regardless of factors such as upbringing, ethnicity, religions views, etc. (Particularly when more and more our societies are blended with so many cultures. Although I am cognizant of how that is in opposition of what many religions teach, which often involves a few particular truths that form the foundation of further teachings.)
To me it's less about rejection and more about the continuum of learning to increase the knowledge base. And it also feels rather chicken and egg whether post modernism led the charge towards greater acceptance, or whether greater acceptance led the charge of finding a label for a movement that had already been charging forward before a label formed. Meaning, post modernism wasn't a philosophical understanding of the world that was taught across the land, it evolved from our society by our society's members, gradually over time, and was given a name. I don't see it as some sort of political movement or propaganda driven device, but more as a labeled/named reflection of the growth society is going through (the good and the bad). Given that modernism (at least in therapy) was a label for the belief of one truth that can be applied to everyone, I feel like post modern is an okay name to label the expansion to more than one truth (or individual truths).
I find the bad in our society, such as increased divorce rates, to be much much more complicated and based on many more factors than postmodernism as a phenomenon. Societal stressors (such as cost of living and inability to have a livable wage) create a HUGE strain on families. Additionally, the pain medication driving opiate epidemic is a huge factor. And then there are smaller, more local factors at play, such as the crack epidemic in the DC area in the 80s which was largely ignored (other than to demonize the impoverished African Americans living in downtown DC). Drug use/abuse, financial strain, physical/verbal abuse, etc. all increase rates of divorce, because it increases rates of dissatisfaction and unhappiness within households. I'm not sure that's the "Bad" of postmodern thinking, as much as it's the "bad" that has crept out of years and years and years of no one focusing any attention on the "undesirables" of our society. Divorce rates are substantially higher among those with no college education, for example. I'm not sure any form of "one truth" would have fixed any of the train wrecks that have been bulldozing forward to demolish families in our society. Because ultimately, even given one truth, people will interpret it and use it to their advantage over others, because that's what people do.
Posted by: Gabby | 07/07/2017 at 07:32 PM
(As an aside, Janet, there's been a whole paradigm shift recently in therapies for individuals with autism based upon postmodernism and a focus on individuality/individualism. It's an interesting movement that has dealt head on with the ethics of whether we should force individuals with autism to conform to our societal norms through learned behavioral responses, or if they they should be allowed to just "be" as they are and learn in their own way how to live within our society. In case that sort of thing interests you.)
Posted by: Gabby | 07/07/2017 at 08:01 PM
I don't have time to make a longer comment now, but I'm not at all sure that "postmodern" as used in the world of psychotherapy is the same thing as in philosophy and literature, although they're probably connected. Sounds to me like therapists borrowed and adapted the term to apply to the whole emphasis on non-judgementalism which has been in the process of climbing to the top of our culture's list of values for fifty years or so now. It seems like an unnecessary philosophical appendage to reasonable goals like, say, the one in your most recent comment about trying to work with rather than against conditions like autism (to the extent possible).
Posted by: Mac | 07/07/2017 at 08:50 PM