Tuesday, December 05, 2006



After the most recent of the papers I've submitted to my Literature Seminar (which I've posted here) on Michael Palmer's Sun, my seminar tearcher Mark Bibbins said he'd be interested in hearing what my beef with postmodernism is. I've written a short statement on this, and will hand it in at class tomorrow.

Here it is if anyone is interested.

EDIT: Revised 12/6/06.

I really should be more careful to qualify my criticism of postmodernism, particularly because it is a lack of qualification that I find so objectionable. I don't unconditionally hate pomo writing, and I find that a lot of actual artists who might be considered postmodern (Anne Carson was one, Thomas Pynchon is another, and this, actually, is a lot of my interest in hip hop and electronic music) don't conform to the sterotypes and misclassifications that I find to be such an issue.

But I do find Pomo theory objectionable on a critical level. I've only read a limited amount on this, but it seems that the very best writers on the subject (Sontag, Benjamin) are still forced to make monstrously huge assumptions in support of their claims and many respected writers (Lacan, Foucault, Adorno) end up getting away with arguments that aren't really rigorous at all.

I do feel that postmodernism was a necessary step in the progression of the arts in society, but that the valid concepts put forward by postmodernism are no longer at the forefront of critical theory, and we should be modifying them more drastically, more rigorously, and into a more engaging and productive form.

To be more specific:

1) Literary criticism presents itself as a science of sorts, but I do believe in a basic continuum between "hard" and "soft" science. This doesn't mean that hard science isn't a very subjective, messy thing that can be used in all sorts of -ist ways (eg. Tuskegee, AIDS, etc.) but there are advantages. There most obvious of these are in the conspicuous need for and number of empirical and literal measurements... there are relatively discrete objects to measure, and objectivity becomes a matter of perspective and impartiality, but not so much definition. Clearly math is the most perfect in this regard, followed by physics and chemistries of various sorts, where there are empirical elements but in a somewhat abstracted, elemental form. Then the life and earth sciences, where the terms are increasingly complicated. The "soft sciences," psychology, sociology, social psychology, history, are much more subjective and problematic because they lack these discrete measurements, and also because there is more incentive to impose preconceived notions which are inescapable themselves. But at least relevant questions seem to suggest themselves: why did this group migrate at this time? What did population x or y have to gain from pasturing as opposed to trade? And so on. Literary criticism cannot even benefit from this level of organization.

So I view with great suspicion any claim in literary criticim to scientific rigor, and unfortunately the field is even less rigorous than is necessary. For example, there have been many wonderful developments in Social and Cognitive psychology in the last thirty years, going so far to challenge the Western notion of "self" in a way that is much more elastic and accessible than Lacan's mumbo-jumbo about "lack" and whatnot. Very careful measurments and studies have been made of how infants come to develop basic language skills, communicate, behave in isolation, recognize themselves, recognize others, and interact with objects and the environment. But in the arts, everyone prefers to talk about Freud and Lacan. Why? Everything they've said has either been disproven or improved upon. It's like arguing that the sun is massive and quoting Ptolemy to prove it. Doesn't Einstein or even Copernicus make the better argument, deeper, more implicatory, more sophisticated? And not to cut on Ptolemy, because he proved that the planets moved systematically, no mean feat (just as Freud powerfully demonstrated the power of the subconscious).

This is Big Point of Contention #1. Postmodernism, the argument that is allegedly at the vanguard of artistic experimentation, clings to arguments up to and over a hundred years old. I don't find that very progressive.

2) Demography compounds this effect institutionally... in America especially (I cannot speak for Europe or other parts of the world) postmodernism has become the experimental art status quo to an extent in academia. At least at the University of Chicago and New School I have found this to be the case... certainly, department heads are more conservative, and a lot of experimentation seems also closely linked to Modernist projects. But the established "edgy" is postmodernism. Yet because of #1, the idea is so outlandish and dated that it can't expand into *out* of academia. Even indiginous cultures and "Eastern" POVs supposedly liberated in deconstructive readings, etc., don't seem to hold much stock in arguments as conceived by 19th and 20th century European philosophers and revolutionaries.

I don't think one has to be a populist (though I am one) to see that it is unhealthy for a progressive artistic movement to be on the retreat. The risk is supposed to be selling out because the idea is too sexy, not sulking in a corner (or classroom) because nobody wants to come out and play. That's Big Point of Contention #2.

3) I think that these particular dead ends are politically deadly. Of course it's impossible to actually measure consequence, and it's always tempting to think that one's own activity is especially relevant or important. But I do wonder to what extent academic/artistic stagnation is responsible for our current mess. On the one hand the conservative America has catchy phrases like "New American Century," and the broader neocon message promotes a vision of unity and vigor that is unfortunately as catchy as it is misleading and pedantic. This is a sort of "preserve the union" vs. "free the slaves" dilemma. The motto of the literary left ends up being along the lines of "communication is futile." So besides the fact that the logic is flawed, it's not even a particularly attractive flaw.

4) The logic *is* flawed. One of the most interesting moments I've had in the last year was an article (I forget who) supporting deconstruction with a description of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Specifically, the argument went that since the HUP proved that nothing was certain, the same must go for meaning and language. I was surprised such a flawed argument could be respectably published. The HUP is one of the most elegant ambiguities ever: it states that one can never know the momentum and position of an electron, because at that scale any observation alters the phenomena... that participation in the observation distorts the measurement. This is transparently relevant to the deconstruction argument, because you could possibly make the argument that uncertainty is cumulative, from particles on up. The error is here: it *is* possible however to measure *either* positon or momentum, and it is *also* possible assess the likelihood of one position/momentum by compromising evaluation of the other. In sum, you *can* measure things, but everything comes at a price.

This seems to be a natural companion to rational discretion in accepting postmodern theory. While writers and scholars have done much in the last century to show just how biased and unstable a narrative can be, it is foolish to ignore the empirical utility of language, as well as the fact that not only does language grow in complexity and sophistication over time, but in fact communication and community are more developed in higher animals. Language is not, then, inherently unstable. It is subject to distortion, and unacknowledged distortion is very dangerous.

On several times postmodernism has (in its very name) been described to me as the endpoint of artistic evolution, in the sense that all subsequent schools will have to concede its critical rubric. This has always struck me as extremely arrogant. But hopefully from my comments in class I've come across as open-minded. I really hope to be committed to art that pushes the envelope, and right now I think that requires molting and shedding the skin of postmodern arguments that have really been around for a half-century now. I'm looking for new development that places more weight on alternation and oscillation than what seem like the simpler, more naive Pomo aesthetic, which seems to dwell in repetition and regression. Or, to put it a little differently, true irony that is nevertheless conditional, true sentimentality that is nevertheless self-conscious, and formal experimentation that exploits the greatest range of prosodic and narrative possiblity.

Some friends and I have started some experiments along these lines, we're calling Gothic Funk. It's still pretty gross and grimy and tiny, but it's been a lot of fun and I'm kind of obsessed with it now. We have a website: www.hereisnowhy.com/gothicfunk (parties #2 and #7 look the most spectacular).



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