Truth, lies and post-modernism

As Mark Bahnisch observes below, the confected furore over Wayne Sawyer’s silly editorial has now given federal Education Minister Brendon Nelson a pretext to launch an enquiry into teacher education. Readers will recall from multiple previous posts (here and here and here) that Sawyer’s editorial lamented the failure of former high school English students to share his insight that “critical literacy” required a vote against the Howard government.

Others have also blogged on the controversy. Graham Young at Ambit Gambit makes some commonsensical observations:

There are numerous defenders of Sawyer, and a common theme in their defence of him is that because he was speaking in a private capacity, criticism of him amounts to censorship. In fact, this defence itself amounts to censorship. If criticism equals censorship, and censorship is wrong, then criticism must be wrong, making the expression of contrary opinions impossible.

Professor Bunyip also blogs on the furore in his usual acerbic style. But the Bunyip’s elegant prose disguises the grievous sin of hypocritical double standards at the very least:

Even the classics aren’t immune. Again last year, the fruit of Professor’s loins was up to his young sporran in Macbeth. All the conventional theories and analyses of the Scottish Play were covered, but the one that Squirt recognised as a stretch, even in his relative innocence, was his teacher’s favourite: Lady Macbeth had to be considered in light of society’s refusal to grant women open access to power; therefore, when her husband took up the dagger at her behest, the play became an uprising by proxy of the oppressed. And, yes, the Professor is paying to have this stuff jammed between his child’s ears. …

The best answer to those questions comes not from the Professor nor any other RWDB yearning for the ways of the past, but from Susan Sontag, of all people. In writing of the Jewish mystic Simone Weil, she inadvertently let the truth slip out, “An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth.” she observed. “It may better serve the needs of the spirit.”

Bunyip implies that this quote shows Sontag making the almost apocryphally po-mo suggestion that distortion and misrepresentation of meaning may sometimes be preferable to faithfully seeking authorial intention. But strangely, he doesn’t supply a hyperlink to the Sontag article from which he quotes. Having a couple of minutes to spare from battling the forces of evil in the tertiary education bureaucracy, I Googled the Sontag quote, and made a fascinating discovery. The quote is from an article Sontag wrote in the New York Review of Books way back in 1963. Frequent visitors to the Bunyip’s Billabong will instantly recognise the irony here. The Professor frequently castigates his favourite bete noire Phillip Adams for borrowing ideas from the New York Review of Books in a dishonest manner verging on plagiarism. Adams habitually mentions the source of inspiration for his op-ed articles in passing, but then fails to make clear that most of the rest of his article is a close paraphrase of it ( see here and here and ABC Media Watch’s somewhat generous take on Adams’ habit here).

The Professor avoids this particular sin, because he not only mentions Sontag but makes clear that he’s quoting from her. But when you actually read the article, you find that he’s not only quoting her out of context, but that Sontag’s actual intended meaning is almost diametrically opposite to the one Bunyip ascribes to her:

There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering¢â¬ârather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr. …

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary¢â¬ânecessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and¢â¬âonly piecemeal¢â¬âfor their “views.” …

Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation¢â¬âlike Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s¢â¬âwas Simone Weil’s. I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil’s life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world¢â¬âand mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing. …

According to Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler is no worse than Napoleon, than Richelieu, than Caesar. Hitler’s racialism, she says, is nothing more than “a rather more romantic name for nationalism.” Her fascination with the psychological effects of wielding power and submitting to coercion, combined with her strict denial of any idea of historical progress, led her to equate all forms of state authority as manifestations of what she calls “the great beast.” …

Simone Weil as a historical writer is tendentious, exhaustive, and infuriatingly certain. As a historian she is simply not at her best; no one who disbelieves so fundamentally in the phenomena of historical change and innovation can be wholly satisfying as a historian. This is not to deny that there are subtle historical insights in these essays: as for example, when she points out that Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination. (Immediately after, of course, she says that these¢â¬âboth Hitler’s methods and the “normal colonial ones”¢â¬âare derived from the Roman model.) …

The originality of her psychological insight, the passion and subtlety of her theological imagination , the fecundity of her exegetical talents are unevenly displayed here. Yet the person of Simone Weil is here as surely as in any of her other books¢â¬âthe person who is excruciatingly identical with her ideas, the person who is rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit.

In other words, Sontag is saying nothing even remotely resembling Bunyip’s claimed meaning (that it’s sometimes OK to assert a false and confected meaning for a text instead of the one the author intended). Ironically, that’s exactly what Bunyip himself does, by citing Sontag as authority for a proposition almost diametrically opposed to what she was actually saying!! It’s a classic example of the propensity of some on the right to embrace post-modernism in its most pejorative, caricatured sense, while simulaneously professing to deplore it.

Incidentally, except in its most corrupted form in the hands of semi-educated, unintelligent practitioners, post-modernism/post-structuralism doesn’t stand for the proposition that a text can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. As US legal academic and blogger Jack Balkin explained in a 1987 article about post-modernism:

Deconstruction began as a series of techniques invented by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others to interpret literary and philosophical texts. These techniques, in turn, were connected to larger philosophical claims about the nature of language and meaning. One such assertion is that the repetition of a text in a new context often subtly changes its meaning. Deconstruction was first imported from Continental philosophy to American literature departments and later migrated to American law schools. Deconstruction became fashionable in America about the same time as reader response theory, which held that the meaning of a text is produced as the reader encounters it. As a result, deconstruction became wrongly associated with the improbable claim that texts mean whatever readers want them to mean. This notion is not only a misinterpretation of deconstruction, but also of reader response theory.

Both deconstruction and structuralism are antihumanist theories; that is, they tend to emphasize that people’s thought is shaped and determined by structures of linguistic and cultural meaning. Both deconstruction and structuralism asserted that people are culturally and socially constructed, and that they internalize culture much in the same way that they internalize a natural language. The linguistic analogy is particularly appropriate: A speaker of English cannot make the words of that language mean whatever she likes; more importantly, she doesn’t even want this to be the case, because part of being an English speaker is having internalized a sense about what is the proper way of talking and thinking. For the structuralist and the deconstructionist, language speaks us as much as we speak it.

Distorting the intended meaning of a text and twisting it to one’s own purpose is a sin that knows no ideological boundaries. It can equally be committed by lefties, feminists, gay rights activists, conservative christian fundamentalists or RWDB bloggers. It has little connection with post-modernism but a very close link with intellectual dishonesty.

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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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Spot on, Ken. If Kevin Donnelly reappears here, I hope he’ll engage with what you’ve correctly said about deconstruction and post-structuralism rather than retailing his tired “it renders truth meaningless” stuff. The amount of intellectual dishonesty and failure to read the authors they critique (usually not at all, sometimes in a sloppy way) associated with the critics of deconstruction is astonishing. Even people like Jurgen Habermas, who should know better, as a theorist of so-called rational and transparent communication, manages to write a chapter ostensibly on Derrida in “The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity” relying largely on caricatures of his work. I get really sick of it.

I note Kevin Donnelly pushing his alleged critique of deconstruction over at David’s place as well:

http://dox.media2.org/barista/archives/001691.html

If Dr Donnelly wants to continue to maintain that deconstruction is what he incorrectly claims it to be, I’d like to see him do so by citing authors and specific passages and contextualising them, and then refuting them by argument. In other words, by engaging in scholarly debate.

There’s an excellent book by Herman Rapaport – “The Theory Mess” – which tracks all this over a long period of time.

Derrida himself often called for an ethics of reading and respect for the canons of scholarly debate. He also wrote, as I’ve quoted before:

“I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference and the stability of interpretive contexts radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth, reference and stable contexts of interpretation.”

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/007918.html

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Nice post Ken.

Postmodernism is a difficult – perhaps, or even probably, impossible – term to define, which is maybe why it can so easily become something of a catch-all for contemporary complaints. It is, imo, best regarded as a cluster concept, which gathers up a diverse set of reactions to modernism and its presuppositions, including but far from limited to the philosophical movements of deconstruction and post-structuralism. Curiously (or not), while there is neverending controversy (and complexity) over what ‘postmodernism’ is, there seems to be close to universal acceptance that ‘modernism’ has concluded in a historical sense, even amongst those entirely hostile to what they imagine postmodernism to be.

Willy G
2022 years ago

“Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.”

Damn, I knew this reminded me of something, but it took a long time to dredge it up. Michael Moore? Fahrenheit 9/11? Ah ha, got it…Strident bush critic and NYT columnist Paul Krugman and his (in)famous ‘essential truths’ review of Moore’s most recent ‘documentary’.

“And for all its flaws, “Fahrenheit 9/11” performs an essential service. It would be a better movie if it didn’t promote a few unproven conspiracy theories, but…people see the film to learn true stories they should have heard elsewhere…Viewers may come away from Moore’s movie believing some things that probably aren’t true…Someday, when the crisis of American democracy is over, I’ll probably find myself berating Moore…But not now. “Fahrenheit 9/11″ is a tendentious, flawed movie, but it tells essential truths about leaders who exploited a national tragedy for political gain, and the ordinary Americans who paid the price.”

Yes, substitute Moore for Weil and Hussein for Hitler, and Krugman has given us a sterling example of ‘unbalance’ as a greater truth. He seems to have picked up on Ms Sontag’s zeitgeist quite nicely, no? Something that’s not true isn’t a lie. Yeah, got it.

But, and I hope I’m not revealing myself to be a semi-educated, unintelligent practitioner here, I’ve read Ms Sontag’s passage, and I’m non the wiser as to how the Bunyip is supposed to have taken her words so badly out of context.

And Ken, I think the problem that conservatives such as myself have with deconstruction and post modernism in general is not that a text can be interpreted to mean whatever you like; it’s the shameless nihilism that inevitably accompanies these philosophical approaches.

For example, I have strong doubts the idea of Lady MacBeth as a feminist anti-hero ever crossed the Bard’s mind. Yet this interpretation is somehow made ‘legitimate’ because it conveniently emphasises some of the doctrines today espoused by shadowy groups of unelected powerbrokers who decide what and how our kids are getting taught.

Damn straight I don’t like it.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

C.L., I think that’s a nice summary. Chris’ point on the earlier thread about postmodernism having been assimilated to the extent that the critique was valid is also a worthwhile insight. As I’ve argued a number of times, you find little po/mo scholarship in the Australian social sciences, but some of the valid epistemological insights have been taken on board.

One obvious exception, though, C.L., is Habermas who continues to argue that modernity is an unfinished project.

Willy G, your comment exemplifies what I’m annoyed by in the conceptual imprecision of the anti po/mo crowd. You speak of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” as if these were the same thing and as if they were unified schools. Both Derrida and Foucault repeatedly denied they were postmodernists. Foucault thought it was a meaningles and sloppy concept. But like every proponent of traditional humanism, you never quote a specific author and you don’t take the trouble to engage with those whom you dismiss. Post-structuralism might be anti-humanist in the sense that it rejected the phenomenological existentialism of Sartre etc. but that’s not the same thing as nihilism. Derrida wrote of hope, of messianism, of justice as undeconstructible. If so-called deconstructionism was just nihilism, it wouldn’t attract all the clamour and alarums it does. Derrida never talked about indeterminacy, but rather of undecideability – that is to say a determinate oscillation within concepts. This is an argument in epistemology and indeed the philosophy of truth claims which has little or nothing to do with the way English is taught in high schools.

Your example (unsourced) is much more likely to have come from feminist theory about subject positions (some of which is mechanical, some of which produces insight) than any species of deconstruction, which was eclipsed in literary theory in the late 80s. I would really like you to reply with some evidence that deconstruction is equivalent to nihilism, citing texts and making arguments, rather than the constant assertion we hear from one side of this debate – what Derrida would call an instance of the false bond or the encounter that seems to take place but never actually does. We can actually engage on this stuff, and if we’re ever to come to some productive insights on things like truth, justice, and for that matter, pedagogical method and goals, we need to.

But all I keep reading is assertion not backed by evidence.

I’d really like the opponents of these scholars to demonstrate some rigour themselves

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Christ, I’m tired! I seem to have mistaken cs for C.L. I hope neither gentleman will take it amiss.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Put it down to too much birthday good cheer yesterday and last night…

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“I’m non the wiser as to how the Bunyip is supposed to have taken her words so badly out of context.”

Interesting asessment. Being in or out of context is all relative, huh? When, incidentally, does “not so badly” make it all the way, relative to “badly”? Don’t tell me, when it is as bad as Saddam?

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I’ll take it as an ideologically incorrect compliment Mark. I also had facetious tags around the last sentence in that earlier comment, which were deleted by Troppo in posting.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

But MacBeth can be read in so many ways, why such an insecurity about its interpretations. Shakespeare often gave his women characters some of the best dialogue. Whilst I’ve read some pretty long-bow characterisations of novels most of them don’t merit scrutiny once you’ve read the novel so I can’t see what you are worrying about. Personally, think let your child read the book and ditch the Cliff Notes and let them make up their own mind about the text, about what they find pleasing and exciting. If I novel can be summed up in 25 words or less it must be a pretty lousy book.

Kids have strong enough Bullshit detectors, they know a lot more about when they are getting taken for a ride then you realise. Sort of like reading something from Andrew Bolt comparing vegetarians with Nazis where when he provides no empirical evidence you wonder what he’s actually aiming at. Luckily, I think the vegetarians are safe from any reprisal as the premise of his article is absurd (I’m pretty sure that the people eating lentils in Newtown are not planning to ethnically cleanse the remainder of the restuarant).

I’m sure there are books with Shakespeare as atheist/communist/feminist/masculinist/nationalist/homosexual/aesthete/Goalkeeper for Preston North End/opponent to puritanian wowserism/Ovid voluptary/linguist extraordinaire/exemplar of the postmodern condition/repressed Freudian subject/mates with the mysteriously disappeared boozer Marlowe/jester/compelling entertainer/slightly sissy looking artist/boaster/toaster/verboaster/trickster/yarn-meister/idle dreamer who never got a real job/monarchist apologist/post-colonialist/ supporter of the colonial project/entrepreuneur/religious icon/creator of such an expansive vernacular, and I could go on and on and on. Personally fascinated by how much is abound in these texts that they offer so much to so many people. It would be so much more productive if this was harnassed in encouraging broader scholarship and appreciation than the endless stream of Cultural Wars, which achieves so little in the way of understanding.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I imagine the intent of the author would have been very different, Chris, if Currency had used exactly the same words as you, but who’s to know? All we have to go on is the text and all the other texts that make up blog people. Who was it who said “il n’ya pas de hors-texte”?

This author did intend it as a compliment, at any rate. But who knows where the letter is destined? To cite, or rather, to iterate. All very Derridean?

*All communication carries within itself the possibility of failure or miscarriage*

Glen Fuller
2022 years ago

“And Ken, I think the problem that conservatives such as myself have with deconstruction and post modernism in general is not that a text can be interpreted to mean whatever you like; it’s the shameless nihilism that inevitably accompanies these philosophical approaches.”

Willy G, it seems as if you are confusing different brands of ‘high concept’ French theory? I dunno? Besides Baudrillard and his infamous proclaimation of the ‘death of the social,’ which philosophers (or whatever sort of theorist) proclaims a philosophy premised on nihilism? Perhaps you need to define what you mean by ‘shameless nihilism’ (with some examples). Believing in different things to those you believe to be universal, or even believing that ‘universals’ are always ethically suspect, does not mean that people are inevitably nihilists or peddle a philosophy of ‘shameless nihilism.’

The ‘inevitable’ conservative accusation of ‘nihilism’ to me reads like shorthand for the conservative dismissal of a set of beliefs that are hard or troubling (or even impossible — for a conservative) to understand. Maybe?!?! It is all speculation until Willy G gives some clear examples of the “shameless nihilism that inevitably accompanies these philosophical approaches.”

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

It’s like the Lacan statement (If I recall this is when he is referring to Poe’s Purloined Letter) that the letter always reaches its destination. This does not suggest it always reaches the correct destination.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, Stephen, that’s what I was alluding to – and Derrida wrote an essay criticising Lacan called “Purveyor of Truth”. There’s a comprehensive discussion of the interchange in a book called “The Purlioned Poe” edited by John Muller and William Richardson.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Willy G

In summary, Sontag is saying that many of Simone Weil’s ideas were utterly wrong-headed and even repugnant. Yet, she says, there are nevertheless valuable insights to be gained, both from her writing and her life: her work is worth reading despite its manifest defects. She isn’t saying (or implying) that Weil (or any other author) can properly be interpreted as meaning anything contrary to what they intended to say (the impression Bunyip tries to create).

As for po-mo generally, I should be careful with my nomenclature, making sweeping generalisations and conflating post-modernism and post-structuralism. But I don’t currently have the time or energy to do so, nor in many respects the depth of understanding.

However, please don’t take me as an enthusiast. I have a jaundiced and fairly negative view of the impact of both post-structuralism and the broader po-mo ethos/movement. I agree with many of the comments that Rob has made on earlier threads about the danger (and too often the actuality) of deconstruction ending up imposing meaning on text rather than trying to find a meaning that can be drawn from it with any integrity. However, that result flows not from any philosophical claim of indeterminate or utterly subjective meaning of text, but from an open-ended, excessive application of deconstructive technique: meaning is too often imposed on a text under the guise of searching for hidden meanings and supposedly tacit value/power assumptions, instead of being derived from the author’s actual language, concerns and subject matter.

Of course, I’m guilty in the above of the sin Mark B identifies of discussing all this in generalities rather than ascribing particular criticisms to the thinking of particular writers (Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard etc). But I think I’ll leave that to others more acquainted with the detail. Suffice to say for present purposes that I’m not an enthusiast for post-modernism in any of its guises, but nevertheless think it was worth making the point that none of its variants stand for the proposition that texts can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean, nor can any of them usefully be labelled as “nihilist”. “Relativist” certainly, but ultimately the insight that all value propositions, moralities etc are culturally specific is pretty unsurprising, almost uncontroversial. So what? That insight doesn’t rob anything of meaning, it just entails a recognition that the meaning may not be universal, that the same events or words may mean something quite different to a person from a different time, place or culture. Surely that isn’t what you mean by “nihilism”, is it?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sorry, that should read “The Purveyor of Truth” or “Le facteur de la verite”.

Interestingly, in light of the discussion above, the editors make this comment in introducing Derrida’s essay:

“What is left of ‘truth’, then, when deconstruction is over? Derrida admits, after putting in question the ‘value of truth’ in all its forms (i.e, as conformity, as certitude, as aletheia, etc.) that we nonetheless ‘must have [it] (1981b, 105).”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, interesting response, and probably more generous than I’m inclined to be since a lot of the anti-po/mo stuff really gets my goat up.

Having said that, I’m no postmodernist. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman makes a careful distinction between what we might call “postmodernist theory” and postmodernity. The latter can be a useful analytic for analysing the very large and interconnected changes in so many aspects of the political, social, economic and cultural world over the last thirty years or so, and it requires no acceptance of the principles of po/mo theory to do so. Rather, a sociological analysis tends to see postmodernist theory as a symptom of broader changes in the world.

I’m rather fond of post-structuralism, though, and a lot of my work over the last eight years has been influenced by it.

“I agree with many of the comments that Rob has made on earlier threads about the danger (and too often the actuality) of deconstruction ending up imposing meaning on text rather than trying to find a meaning that can be drawn from it with any integrity. However, that result flows not from any philosophical claim of indeterminate or utterly subjective meaning of text, but from an open-ended, excessive application of deconstructive technique: meaning is too often imposed on a text under the guise of searching for hidden meanings and supposedly tacit value/power assumptions, instead of being derived from the author’s actual language, concerns and subject matter.”

Well, maybe, but I remain unconvinced that this really is proper to deconstruction or post-structuralism as such. I regard the appropriation of post-structuralist themes by literary theory as fairly disastrous on the whole – Foucauldian literary criticism often totally misses the sort of things Foucault was trying to say. That’s precisely because it’s *too* textual. Foucalt himself was careful to insist that there is a material world and a dialectical interplay (although he wouldn’t have used those Hegelian terms) between it and the discourses through which different groups perceive it. Edward Said was one of the few literary critics who got Foucault (mostly) right. There’s a large literature that criticises literary theory for misunderstanding the (admittedly difficult) philosophical underpinnings of modern French philosophy, and I basically agree with it. Derrida later said that he regretted saying “there is nothing outside the text” (there’s also a question as to which that’s the most apposite translation from the French) and it’s no surprise that those whose business is reading literary texts seized on it. All he basically means is that each text has its own web of con-texts.

Said’s well known argument about ‘Orientalism’ really just says that the way the West accumulated knowledge about the Middle East was coloured by political motivations, older stereotypes and had a political end – colonial rule. So the way that “we” perceive Arab peoples and Islam is the product of our history, and the “Arab Street” looks very different to those who inhabit it. That’s got huge political consequences, as we can see in current Middle-Eastern power politics. Like your later comment about relativism, it’s just a truism that anyone who applies a modicum of logic should be able to work out for themselves. But in our culture, we often adopt a universalist position as if we could abstract ourselves from the world and look at it from an Archimedean point. It didn’t take a deconstructionist to say that, it was being said by phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty in the 40s, and by some philosophical schools in Ancient Greece. Derrida’s real purpose is just in figuring out how this process of abstraction and the reification of truth works itself out in different species of writing, and how we can never escape the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions on which all our knowledge is founded.

As I tried to argue before, the sort of reading that you criticise in the last sentence I’ve cited is really not deconstructionist or post-structuralist at all. If anything, it’s a rather debased version of structuralism. It can produce insight, but if all one does is to point out power relations then one doesn’t get very far.

As to the author’s intention, Derrida himself is very careful to situate his readings in their contexts. His point is that a lot goes on in texts that the author doesn’t intend, (because we’re dealing with a common stock of language and concepts and figures much bigger than ourselves) and also to question the “unity” of the figure of the author if you like. For instance, Goethe’s Faust Part II was written 30 years later (from memory) than the original Faust and the characterisation, thematics and approach are all different, because it’s written at a different time and by an older Goethe marked by experience. Brian was telling me Goethe in his old age couldn’t stand to read “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. So if we were to read Shakespeare’s last plays and assume (for instance) the rhetoric around kingship had the same intention in Lear as in the early historical plays, we’d make a mistake and be far more “textualist” than the deconstructionists. And to my mind, knowing something about the political and historical and cultural contexts of Shakespeare’s plays enhances their enjoyment rather than the opposite.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’ll add too, that as the quote above implies, “truth” is not a self-evident concept, as anyone who’s done first year analytical philosophy knows.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Thanks for the Sontag link, Ken. I think you’ve got it about right, and are certainly right in your criticism of Bunyip’s misrepresentation. Do you think he’ll come clean?

Chris’s point about the difficulty of defining pomo is right too, but I’m less benign with the conclusions I draw from this. I suggest it does mean the concept is pretty much meaningless and that that matters quite a bit. In purely practical terms, I’ve found, proponents of what they call pomo will, when you point out the contradictions in what they are saying, often reply: “But my version of pomo doesn’t include that aspect.” This very quickly becomes intellectually unacceptable, I think. In fact, the next ploy is generally, amongst the pomoists themselves, to reject the term ‘postmodern’ altogether, something many we normally associate with the area (Rorty, Foucault) have done. The term, they argue, is just another ‘totalising’ tool in the modernist armoury. This sort of logic ultimately slides into all the worst aspects of nihilism, relativism etc that critics of pomo (like me) deplore. Worst of all, at a political level, it leads to quietism, a sort of gutless conservatism where you don’t work for change at all because that just leads to the next stage in the workings of power. Not for nothing that Habermas called Foucault and co. the “new conservatives”.

Still, Chris is right in that the term is useful to suggest there is a modern period and that some of the characterisitics that define it have come to an end or are at least, rightly challenged. And this is one of the points Bauman makes (to pick up on Mark’s comment.)

And certainly, some of its insights are worthwhile.

The hilarious thing is, as you rightly point out, is how often so-called opponents of pomo end up spouting and practising the very thing they claim to hate. We see it all the time as the right seeks to minimise the seriousness of, say, prisoner abuse in Iraq, by relativist appeals to the crimes of others. Or examples like the bunyip one you cite here. The new standard bearers of postmodernism are certainly the hardline right. Which is precisely why the most striking critiques of pomo have come from the left (I think you yourself have linked to the Martha Nussbaum takedown of Judith Butler, for instance). But Habermas, Chomsky and other unacceptable lefties are amongst the key opponents of postmodernism, at least as it manifests politically.

Then again, maybe this is all just a fancy way of saying that some people are willing to lie and misrepresent on behalf of their own ideological views.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

I reckon Lawrence Sterne started all this, R Mutt pissed all over it, Debord pointed out the mainstream was unwittingly incubating it, Warhol commodified it, Derrida, Foucault, Eco, Bateille et al sold it into academia and Luther Blisset was the striker.

Essentially we’re now all smartarses about being smartarses. ‘cept for all those who are not smart about it but still arses. Bunyip’s kid knows more about how this is played as it lays than the sub-Auberon Waugh domestic simulacrum which keeps telling him to turn the Grey Album down.

Toryhere
Toryhere
2022 years ago

Some verses made upon reading ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in the bath one Sunday afternoon:

Every time I hear of some croney or crone,
talking dangling Derrida or palsied po-mo,
I can see Dr Johnson kicking that stone,
and Witgenstein’s p-ker stemming the floe,
of the reels of Rawls and the post-Kantian slush,
the Feyeraband sarabande and the Sontag mush.

We in the law who hunt with words as our prey,
Have seen the judge-lawmakers come out to play
And mangle reality with much torture and delay
To make the statutes mean what they say.

Of course post-modernism is now drawing its pension,
And the true conservatives, lefties, still french-kiss it with glee,
Angels are dancing on pinheads of their invention,
But the emperor is shivering as he sits down to pee.

(troppo is definitely po-mo, it says the word ‘p-ker’ is ‘questionable content’)

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Well it was P T Barnum who reckoned he gave the punters a bit of humbug to get them through the doors so they could enjoy the real exhibits of his natural history museum. Of course he was dealing with paying adults and the concern here with Sawyer and Co, is that perhaps they’re dishing out too much humbug to a captive audience of kids. In this situation, I guess post modernists could see the need for some ACCC intervention for false advertising nowadays. You know, abuse of market power type arguments.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

The real problem, it seems to me, is that postmodernism has fallen into the hands of very bad practitioners, and now suffers more from its advocates than its critics. And unfortunately too, since Marxism has largely died as a philosophy capable of credible, practical application – whatever its appeal at an abstract level – it has been appropriated by people looking for a new political stick to beat the non-progressives over the head with.

Two of the most sellf-consciously PM books I have read in recent years are Jenna Mead’s ‘bodyjamming’ (I referred to it in Ken’s post on Joe Cinque’s Consolation) and Mourning Diana, a collection of essays edited by Kear and Steinberg. Both books are unmistakably political – Mead wants to destroy Helen Garner for betraying feminism, K&S want to mock the emotion that surrounded the death of Diana and at the same time lambast Britain’s New Labour – but it’s doubtful any of the essayists who contributed to them would recognise or acknowledge the fact. But this isn’t PM’s fault; rather, it is the misunderstanding or mis-application of PM (hard as it is to define, to be sure).

If you are going to take seriously Foucault’s thesis that all things are contained and expressed within power discourses, which have consequences for the exercise and legitimacy of political power, you have to accept that the discourse about discourses is ALSO a discourse, and subject to the same dynamics. Therefore, a good postmodernist should be able to apply Foucauldian principles to the discourse of Foucault himself.

But this is very difficult when Foucauldianism has been used consciously as a means of criticising a writer, a political movement or a political system. If you start thinking about your own discourse in discursive terms, obviously the whole edifice starts to resemble the House of Usher, and is liable to suffer the same fate.

Now, this sounds as if it’s philosophy disappearing up its own rear end, but that what happens in philosophy. Barthes saw this very clearly, where he argued that to recognise a myth (or, in F’s terms, a discourse) AS a myth means you can no longer believe in it, at least in an uncomplicated way.

So no ‘good’ postmodernist should ever be a believer, but rather a doubter, a sceptic. The problem is that so many of them are believers, and use PM as the instrument of their belief. That’s because they use PM as their intellectual vehicle of choice to populate the (pre-discursive) horizon with political meaning and import. But they can’t see that what they are doing is exactly what Foucault described – using the structues of language to distribute and anchor power among society’s constituent groupings – to their ideological and intellectual advantage. You can see the circularity here.

When all’s said and done, pomo, for all its undoubted heuristic virtues, is and remains an intellectual fashion. Like so many fashions, it has had its moments of genuine colour and excitement, but also its lapses in judgement and taste. And like all fashions, it will reach its use-by date and fizzle out, like logical positivism. No paradigm ever outlasts Kuhn’s Law of Scientific Revolutions. I think that date is fast approaching.

Sorry for the length and confusion of the comment.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Mark,

OK, I admit it, I did English Lit when you were still allowed to read DHLawrence and Marvells’ ‘To his coy mistress’ – we also studied Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis. In relation to postmodernism, the following is from my book (is it right or wrong?):

“A more recent attack on the status quo in education is represented by a range of theories and ideas that can be broadly defined as the postmodern. While acknowledging the difficulty in defining such an inherently ambiguous term,

Richard Tarnas defines the postmodern as:

‘an open-ended , indeterminate set of attitudes that has been shaped by a great diversity of intellectual and cultural currents; these range from pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis to feminism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and postempiricist philosophy of science”

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“Those committed to the postmodern argue that common sense ideas about objectivity and truth, that they exist and that they can be proven to exist, are wrong..” Presumably those committed ones claim this error to be an objective truth?

*sorry, old po-mo joke*

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

But a good one. ”Truth is relative. We know this as a truth’. But how can you make an absolute statement about a relative condition?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“In fact, the next ploy is generally, amongst the pomoists themselves, to reject the term ‘postmodern’ altogether, something many we normally associate with the area (Rorty, Foucault) have done.”

Rorty’s more of a Deweyan pragmatist really and Foucault said that it was a meaningless concept – and that it was so slippery he couldn’t understand what it was – not too dissimilar to your point, Tim.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

As Rob suggests, cs’s “old po-mo joke” actually encapsulates one of the central paradoxes/problematic aspects of post-structuralism: – although more sophisticated po-mo practitioners are conscious of the contradiction inherent in denying the validity of any notion of objectivity and truth (or at least continuously asserting their contingency and cultural relativity), they can’t really help adopting a pseudo-archimedian position in critiquing the works of others, because it’s effectively impossible to avoid (we all have beliefs, and reckon they’re right or we wouldn’t bother discussing or writing about them) . On some levels this sort of consciousness of the contingency of values is a good thing (inter alia, it promotes a healthy scepticism and humility), but it also has a tendency to lead to obscurantist, convoluted, incoherent prose. We also often see, as Rob eloquently puts it above, “that so many of them are believers, and use PM as the instrument of their belief. That’s because they use PM as their intellectual vehicle of choice to populate the (pre-discursive) horizon with political meaning and import.”

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

At least this thread has inspired some poesie!

And Nabs, I think Sterne should be studied in Senior English.

Kevin, that’s a reasonable summary, and not unfair except insofar as demonstrated by the quote from Tarmas the term collapses together a large number of philosophical movements many of which would violently disagree among themselves. Thus I question both its utility and the reason for its usage – which I think is political rather than analytical.

The question as to whether “objective essences” or “things-in-themselves” exist is really both epistemological and ontological. Kant, for instance, certainly didn’t believe in the first (it’s a poor choice of phrase by Tarmas anyway) and certainly denied we could have unmediated access to things-in-themselves. The Kantian contribution to Foucault’s and Derrida’s (and Lyotard’s) thought is underplayed and is probably as important as the Nietzschean/Heideggerian. Thus, when Derrida writes that the Enlightenment project must continue and that he sees himself working in its spirit, is he being nihilist? No. Towards the end of his life, Derrida and Habermas came closer together – at least in the sense of respect for the other and opening a dialogue. Foucault also realised his closeness to the German Critical Theorists just before he died. Derrida’s political writing for the 90s insists on democracy as an ideal always to be held before us. I could go on. I’ve threatened or promised to put up a post on Derrida and politics, and perhaps I will.

You might be aware of the debate between Derrida and Searle, which is a series of misunderstandings. To put into question western rationality is not to deny that there is or should be such a thing. In fact, it’s wholly within the spirit of Western knowledge to subject its own presuppositions to scrutiny, as Descartes for instance did. Or, just as Marx was one of the most eloquent writers in praise of the achievements of liberal capitalism, and his watchword “ruthless criticism of all that exists”.

It’s a bum rap, Gov.

Rob has it right – po/mo (and post/struct) have fallen into the hands of sloppy practitioners. That’s where the educational theory that I also criticised on the earlier thread comes from. I just think it’s unhelpful, misleading, and unnecessarily polemical to put this down to an evil plot by French philosophers to destroy Western Civ.

Rob, I’d take issue with your comment about Foucault’s own discourse if you mean his writing. Foucault understood discourses to be a series of statements in a particular domain – ie the discourse of medicine as a professional knowledge, not a synonym for the work or argument of a particular author.

As Tim’s noticed, I did previously link to Nussbaum’s critique of Butler and my work seeks to expose the political sins of postmodernist theory and argues it’s a dead end. But I don’t think that we can usefully do this by caricaturing it.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

May I say, Ken, with the greatest of respect, that I don’t like the term ‘confected furore’?

I think the discussions in related threads have been sufficient to demonstrate that many people, some of whom you may not agree with, have intellectually defendable postiions at odds with yours on this subject.

A lot of people on the left would prefer that some issues were not ventilated publicly: this is one of them (abortion is another).

Well, we think otherwise. Sawyer’s remarks opened a window on modern academic mores that might otherwise have remained closed. We took issue with his views, expressed as a formal office holder in a major educational organisation. What is there to object to in that?

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hey Rob,

High five, as my daughter would say. I just hate the way left-wing academics hate being caught out; like a rabbit in a spotlight!. Looks as though the AATE has removed the Sawyer editorial from its website. What does that tell us?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s pretty stupid to take it down, I’d agree.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob

If you’ve read my posts and comments on this topic, you couldn’t possibly equate my position with that of the “left”. I agree with many of your points, and some of Kevin Donnelly’s as well; I have a fairly jaundiced view of po-mo theories (while acknowledging that they contain some valuable insights); and I agree that a rigorous, open-minded enquiry into the teaching of English would be a good thing. I do, however, think that Sawyer’s article was given a prominence that it didn’t merit, and used along with other anecdotal material to buttress propositions that strike me as far too sweeping. It was in that sense alone that I think the furore is “confected”. Moreover, much of this discussion is getting very overheated on the part of participants from both sides of the ideological divide (as witnessed by your attempt to push me into a left ideological box irrespective of my actual views).

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, I think both Ken and I have described Sawyer’s article as “stupid”.

Nelson, of course, has not announced an enquiry into teaching English but one into teacher education generally. Or at least that’s what he suggested. I suspect a massive amount of work’s being done at DEST at the moment to try to come up with some realistic terms of reference.

I think you’d need a very well resourced enquiry with very eminent people on it to make any real difference. It’s going to get caught in the Federal/State vortex as well.

Nelson has proved to be an exceptionally interventionist education Minister. The idea last year that DEST should vet decisions to create and abolish individual subjects is ludicrous micro-management by Canberra bureaucrats. I’ve been involved in two reviews of degrees and double majors, and the work involved is considerable. Why one would have to justify it all again to someone in Canberra is beyond me.

Andrew Bartlett said on another thread that he suspected Vanstone was a worse immigration minister than Ruddock. In turn, I think Nelson is a worse minister than Kemp.

He seems to specialise in confected furores and populist nonsense (funding tied to flagpoles, etc.) while his department goes about its merry way interfering in things outside its ken and its constitutional domain. Whatever happened to Mr Reith’s slogan “No more power to Canberra”?

Different education faculties in different states already have to conform their courses to the standards of Education Departments and Boards of Teacher Registration etc. I’d lay money that all that comes out of Nelson’s enquiry is another bloody layer of bureaucracy – as if those of us who work in universities didn’t have enough bureaucratic crap distracting us from doing what we’re actually payed to do.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Oh incidentally, I think it’s good we’re having this debate.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Ken – I apologise if I was inadvertently pigeon-holing you. I thought of retracting the remark immediately I made it and am happy to do so – in the spirit of Troppo civility, which I do admire (you’d never get this kind of thread over at Tim Blair’s).

Mark – my response to Foucult has always been influenced by The Archaeology of Knowledge and the The Order of Things – not as well known as Madnesss and Civilisation and Disicipline and Punish, but I’ve always felt more intellectually persuasive. But not entirely so. This is an extract from an article of mine on the subject:

“Foucault’s theory of discourse, first and most persuasively articulated in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), underpins a lot of what now passes for literary and historical criticism in the academy. Foucault argued that to understand a discourse, one must strip from its objects all the meanings which the human sciences had located there, and understand the dynamics by which the discourse itself operates: the way in which it configures, distributes, expresses and contains meanings among its constituent elements. Events, as elements of the discourse, or rather the pre-discourse, are irruptive and specific, and essentially discontinuous. All continuity, all explanation, is imposed by the exterior discourse, whether it be one donated by historicism or the human sciences. And those exterior discourses are inextricably linked to the exercise of authority in the world external to the constituent elements of the discourse. Discourse therefore becomes an instrument of political power, both cementing and legitimising it.

Now, in all of this, Foucault’s reasoning is complex and subtle. It is not too much to say that he describes a metaphysics of discourse that opens up a new dimension in language. Here many of his latter-day adherents do him a disservice, using unsubtle approximations of his logic to produce crude statements about power and language. It is also true that Foucault’s account of language is incomplete. He pays scant attention to the crucial element of word-meanings, and does not appreciate that the primal task of language is to provide, not an instrument for the exercise of power, but the framework for a shared understanding of the world: to ensure, in effect, that when I say ‘table’, you do not hear ‘elephant’.

Indeed, if you undertake an enquiry strictly based on the archaeological principles Foucault advocates, ignoring signification, you find yourself looking at scattered language objects in a landscape that has been denuded of meaning, and which you are again obliged to populate with significance. So, in a real sense, you arrive back at your original point of departure. But no pioneer in new horizons of thought ever gets it completely right, and if we can now move beyond Foucault it is only because he has himself has shown us how to do so.”

I hugely respect Foucault and what he did, and believe he was one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. But he wasn’t always right: none of them were.

Mind you, when I read this stuff, including hat I’ve just written, and then think about what Sophie posted over the way on her thread, I can’t help thinking this is just the same intellectual wankery that many people will think it is. Somehow I think it misses the essential point entirely.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Rob. I’m not as familiar with Foucault’s earlier work as with his later.

Why would people think this is “intellectual wankery”? I’m sure that the general anti-intellectual ethos that prevails in Australia would lead some to that view but if postmodernism has the consequences some argue it does, then surely it’s worth debating? The Right seems, these days, to think ideas are important. So do I. Bring it on!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

At Tim B’s place, I’m sure just using the word “postmodernism” would get you banned! Shining temple of free speech that it is…

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Oh, I agree, Mark, I agree. But somehow I think Sophie’s closer to it.

I read all sort of commentaries on language when I was at uni. I started to lose faith in them, Foucault included, when I realised that writers like Calvino and Borges had forgotten more about language than academics like them would understand if they lived through five millennia.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

To all those involved; as somebody who has only recently become involved in forums like this, I have thoroughly enjoyed the free and frank exchange of views. Below is an article I wrote for the papers in 1992 – funny how the debate has been around for so long! At the time I was a member of the AATE and a lone voice; such was the strength of the new orthodoxy that I resigned from the asociation

Literature, does it exist? No, not according to a recent American study, entitled:The Death of Literature.

In the words of the author, Alvin Kernan, the great works of our literary heritage are now considered: “destructive of human freedom, the ideology of the patriarchy devised to instrument male, white hegemony over the female and the ‘lessor breeds'”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I’m going to attempt to link this discussion back to its ostensible subject: the teaching of English literature in high schools. We all seem to agree that Sophie makes some excellent points about the need to emphasise and convey the creative, imaginative, enlarging horizon-expanding aspects of literature, in part by praxis not just dry theorising.

However, at least for the top students in the advanced HSC stream, I also think they need to be exposed to some of the major theoretical strands of academic thinking. That unavoidably means grappling with po mo theories to some extent, despite their sometimes convoluted, jargon-laden nature, as well as precursors like the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer, and even critics like the (now unfashionable) FR Leavis.

The real problem is how to convey the theory without confusing and boring the students and robbing the subject of most of its joy, and how one can do this when most of the teachers (and some of the teacher academics who teach them to teach) have a half-baked understanding of much of the theory themselves.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I was just about to mention Leavis. The nub of the issue, it seems to me from reading Kevin’s article is twofold:

(a) how one assesses literary value;

(b) whether there is such a thing as literary value.

I’d answer yes to the seconq question, but have to run now to a meeting so will leave the first in the air.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Ken,

I have to diagree with the idea of teaching theory in year 12. Why destroy the subject? Remember Blake: “He who sees the infinite in all things sees God, He who sees the ratio, sees himself only”.

Also, in response to theory, some years ago S.L.Goldberg at Melbourne Uni wrote:””people are more likely than not to go on being interested in people – as much as they are in abstract theories and ideologies, or impersonal forces, or structural systems, or historical information, or even the play of signifiers. So it is more likely than not, I’d say, that people will go on valuing those writings that they judge best help them to realize what the world is and what people are, and to live with both as realistically and as fully as they can”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Kevin

Maybe that’s one of the key early questions any enquiry needs to address (at least to the extent it focuses on English teaching). At the moment the NSW HSC curriculum appears to teach English largely through a po mo/hermeneutics theoretical framework, but without expressly labelling it as such or directly teaching the theories themselves. Should we instead simply immerse students in literature and elicit their untutored emotional and intellectual responses to it? Or do we also try to equip them with some of the critical and analytical tools that the western canon has developed over the last century or so? And if so, which ones?

Rafe
2022 years ago

I would really appreciate if Ken or Mark could briefly indicate a couple of the issues that have been advanced or illuminated by Derrida et al. I know that many people consider that literary theory has reached unprecedented heights of philosophical sophistication but the people who said that, like Howard Felperin, had nothing to back the claim apart from garabled bits of Kuhn and Wittgenstein.
I am prepared to bet anything that people are prepared to match, up to my customary limit of a dollar, that the modern high theorists have not advanced any ideas that are both new and robust. They may have some insights that are new to people who have not done any homework, like reading Rene Wellek who is a genuine master in the field. Incidentally I have put on line (on Catallaxy) Wellek’s short critical comment on deconstructionism. There is also a link to my review of Felperin’s book on the movement.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, re your (a).

It has to be something that involves the community – the real community, not academia. And in a sensible way. Not sure what I mean by that but Sophie’s experience seems to point the way.

Somehow we have to give back to people the right to determine the shape, nature and content of their own culture. Take it away from academics, commentators and pedants. Give it back to parents and citizens and residents. Let them be the ones to decide. Let them reestablish their power over us (pedants and commentators). Their values and aspirations, not ours – except to the extent they coincide,which I suspect is but rarely.

Tired and incoherent, I am now going to bed.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

And, Ken – how many average Australians understand the meaning or derivation of theword ‘hermeneutics’? And do you blame them?

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

In response to Ken’s point about year 12 literature and how it might be approached. One of the chapters in my PhD thesis addresses the issue. Too long to post. If anybody wants me to email it as an attachement, feel free to ask. My address is:

kevind@netspace.net.au

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rafe, I’ll come back to you – just about to hop in a cab and go to a meeting.

Rob, but there’ve always been arbiters of what is and isn’t culture. It’s probably more democratic now than it was in the glory days of Arnoldian culture.

Kevin, it’s been pointed out often enough that if you claim that you’re not using any theory, then the basis for the intrepretative practices you teach is unexamined (and perhaps unreflected on).

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

“Rob, but there’ve always been arbiters of what is and isn’t culture. It’s probably more democratic now than it was in the glory days of Arnoldian culture.”

Tell it to the people who designed and built the National Museum of Australia, and populated its galleries with silly tat. There’s arbiters for you.

I’m off, I’m gone.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rafe

I’ll leave the first question in your new inquisition to Mark B (or someone else with a deeper grasp of Derrida et al than I possess). On your second question (how many Australians know what the hell hermeneutics is), I think I’ve answered it in my previous comment to Kevin Donnelly. I suspect the answer is very very few because, although the current English curriculum is heavily infused with approaches taken directly from hermeneutics, students aren’t taught the theories themselves, or for that matter their derivation from biblical scholarship.

My answer to my own question to Kevin (should we just get students to respond in an untutored fashion to the literature we make them read, or should we equip them with some of the evolved critical and analytical tools?) is that we SHOULD overtly teach the basics of the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer particularly, but should mostly avoid teaching po mo at high school level. Although hermeneutics (like pretty much all 20th century humanities theorising) is shot through with cultural and historical relativism, it mostly avoids the “discourses” about power, privileging, values, hegemonies, dominant paradigms and the like which are characteristic of po mo deconstruction. It’s these latter characteristics that mostly arouse the ire of people like Kevin Donnelly (and me, for that matter), because they have a tendency to subvert meaning and substitute the ideological obsessions of the interpreter/critic for the insights and perspectives of the author. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, mostly just equips students with a structured toolbox of interpretive approaches and techniques to which (I suspect) most people wouldn’t object, and which can only enrich a reader’s appreciation of any literary work.

Having advocated teaching the basics of Heidegger and Gadamer, I wonder how long it will be before someone mentions Hitler.