Po-mo on the ropes?

Here’s a link to an article in Christian Science Monitor proclaiming the demise of post-modernism in Eng Lit academia. Since this is a topic that has occasionally provoked useful discussion in the ozplogosphere, I thought it was worth drawing the article to readers’ attention. Some edited extracts to give you the flavour:

Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.

According to some, theory has been losing its grip on academia for years now. “For me, theory reached its apogee in the early 1980’s and has since been declining,” says Roger Lathbury, professor of American fiction at George Mason University. Today, he says, it’s a matter of “the pendulum swinging toward the center.”

Some of the biggest names in the field would seem to agree. In Chicago last spring at a discussion sponsored by the journal “Critical Inquiry” cutting-edge thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Frederic Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent two hours saying that postmodern theory was ineffective and no longer mattered in the world outside academe, if it ever did.

And in his new book “After Theory,” Terry Eagleton of Manchester University argues that postmodern literary theory (which he defines as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects . . . the possibility of objective knowledge” and is therefore “skeptical of truth, unity, and progress”) was relevant in its heyday, but no more. …

All the stranger, then, that, according to Eagleton, “cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver.” Eagleton now accuses theory of toying with esoterica while ignoring the real issues of life dealt with by literature.

Specifically, says theory’s reformed bad boy, “[theory] has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil…” And that, as Eagleton says, “is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on.”

But if theory is so profoundly flawed in its inability to address the ideas and emotions that not only make us individual but also allow us to marry, build communities, and undertake the countless transactions that would be impossible without basic shared assumptions, how did it ever become so popular in the first place? How did the notion that There Is No Truth become The Truth? …

The article doesn’t really answer that question. But maybe there’s simply no answer. To some extent the whole post-modernist project is based on continually exposing (as if it was earth-shattering, subversive and revolutionary) a couple of propositions that most thoughtful people wouldn’t even dispute: namely that norms, values and assumptions are culturally-determined and therefore not necessarily universal, along with the Marxist insight that broadly accepted values are determined, consciously or otherwise, by the powerful to entrench their dominance. Post-modernism gives an illusion of radical brilliance to these fairly unremarkable propositions through deploying an increasingly tired bag of analytical and rhetorical tricks.

Critically analysing norms, values and assumptions and their relationship to maintenance of existing social and political structures is certainly a relevant aspect of literary criticism (and most other humanities disciplines, including law), but it need not be done using the po-mo bag of tricks, and it certainly shouldn’t be done at the expense of exploring the myriad other aspects of the human condition that great literature explores.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2021 years ago

I think that’s pretty reasonable, except in that I would add that the po-mo movement had more to contribute than this suggests, which it has contributed, and the disciplines have taken on board and, as the article says, have generally moved on.

2021 years ago

How to deconstruct almost anything.

Via an earlier (and long) SDB post concerning what he saw (amongst other things) as the attempted infiltration of PoMo into science. it’s about 1/2 way down.