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.