Re: RARA-AVIS: Postmodernism and literature

From: david david (
Date: 22 Mar 2007

Miker in quotes:

"'Everybody who is somebody thinks he is wonderful, so it must be so."
  And that is a straw man argument. I didn't say that Foucault is wonderful or that anyone else thinks he is wonderful. I am just arguing that whether or not you agree with everything he wrote, Foucault was an intellectual, not a pseudo-intellectual. When every single important academic scholar agrees to the importance of work, it doesn't make the work
"wonderful," but it does make it pretty obviously academic. Likewise, I don't agree with everything you, Mike, say about postmodernism, but I recognize that you are an intellectual, i.e. "a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, esp. on an abstract and general level" (Webster's). We can disagree with scholarly work without flippantly deriding it as "pseudo-intellectual horseshit." Some of your criticism in your negative summary of postmodernism, for example, is valid and worth discussing.

"here's Foucault: 'No power is exercised without the extraction appropriation, distribution or retension of knowledge. At this level, we do not have knowledge on the on hand and society on the other, or science and state; we have the basic forms of power/knowledge.'

Is there some part of this quote that you disagree with? Of course power is thoroughly discursive. To take just one of a billion examples: the state apparatus in the US that established slavery was supported by "scientific" theories of racial inferiority. Foucault argues correctly that power does not exist separately from knowledge. This is a low stakes claim that is hardly controversial, but does not encompass the range of his arguments about power. You wrote that "[Foucault] noted that
[discourses of power] empower particular groups of people while isolating others in a marginalized state." The reason I argue that this is not a thorough version of Foucault's work on power is that Foucault did not argue that discourses of power are merely isolating, and it is this very argument of his about the complexitiy, dispersal, flexibility, variability and microstructures of power that is most interesting. In your discussion of Foucault, you changed the subject in midsentence to an alleged postmodern "deconstruction" of western democracy as an
"expansionist tyranny." Foucault, as far as I know, never argued that democracy was tyranny. My point is that in your effort to dismiss "postmodernism" as a bad thing, your argument tends to seek out the simplistic rather than the complex, and conflate a bunch of widely different thinkers into a single imaginary school that they themselves for the most part didn't consider themselves a member of.

"Postmodernism is very closely associated with
 leftist thought."

Regardless of what associations have been made, the earnest theory that the world is naturally progressing toward a golden age is one of the central notions of Marxism, and is one of the aspects of modernist thought most resisted by postmodernists. It is reductive to consider radical, ethical skepticism of rationalism "leftist" in the same way that it is reductive to consider libertarianism the lone province of the right. The whole left/right dichotomy is simplistic and not very useful in trying to understand complex discourses. I am so bored of the left/right thing. I agree with you that it is hardly worth discussing.

"Oh yeah. The Enlightenment is the reason for the
 Holocaust. What a classic piece of postmodern thought."
  Talk about logical fallacy. Again, instead of addressing what I actually say, you unfairly summarize it into a convenient man of straw and then knock him down. First, I don't think it is classically postmodern to think the enlightenment caused the holocaust. I think it is classically reductionist and unfair to misrepresent a lot of really interesting academic work, though. Second, It is because of the miracle of my great grandmother's not being killed in the holocaust that I exist. I knew her quite well and learned from her about the extermination of her 9 siblings, and i take what happened there quite seriously. i never said that "the enlightenment is the reason for the holocaust." That is a very trite and unfair summary of what I said. I said that some of the origin of the "questioning of modernism [has a] relation to the rationalism of systematic genocides in the 20th century." In other words, because there are aspects of rationalism/classification/reason/systematization that in extreme forms have been perverted into the service of systematic, rationalized mass murders, some philosophers who have been labeled "postmodern" have been a little suspicious, or perhaps nervous about grand theories, structures of power, unwavering certainty, political solutions, systems of power--not just dictatorships of the left but also of the right, not just "them" but also "us"--whover "us" happen to be.

"Equating anti-postmodern with anti-intellectual is logical fallacy number two, equivocation. Didn't they teach you that in school?"

I was not equating your rejection of postmodern critical strategies with anti-intellectualism. I was referring to the labeling of all so-called postmodern work as "pseudo-intellectual horseshit"--it wasn't your phrase but you agreed with it. To disagree with thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Butler, et al. is one thing, but to tritely dismiss work of such depth and intellect, in my opinion, is anti-intellectual. If you really would read the best of the work that is generally considered postmodern, you would surely find that it meets the highest rigors of academic scholarship. Just take Derrida's work on Austin's Speech Theory, for one example, or Foucault's History of Sexuality, for another. I myself am not in agreement with some of the arguments about postmodernism by Baudrillard the postmodernist, Bloom the conservative or Eagleton the Marxist, but I don't label their work horseshit. Maybe pseudo-intellectual horseshit is what guys who identify with hard-boiled protagonists a little too much call the stuff they don't want to have to read.

Those who care about this stuff might check out Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition" as one interesting starting place, particularly for his discussion of cybernetics and communication.

As for what constitutes postmodern fiction, I am not sure. So much has been given the label and it's all so different. From Borges to Amy Tan, it seems like nearly every post 1950s fiction writer has ended up on someone's list of postmodernists. Some of what's most often considered postmodern can be good, some not. Bartheleme, for one, wrote some stories i like and some that i don't. The one with the gerbil at the end was pretty fucking funny.


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