My first brush with postmodernism, in the mid eighties at art school, scarred me; scared me off further tertiary studies. How could any commentary redeem mediocre technique? Didn’t making art require hand–eye coordination? These conceptual artists invested more craft in explanations. Didn’t great art embrace a spiritual dimension? Getting stoned was as close as the pseudo-politicised students came to transcendence. So I turned my back on the arts establishment. And, freed of the academic gaze, my art soon reverted to figuration. Meanwhile, I took up writing.
When I returned to tertiary studies after a break of two+ decades, I’d been warned in advance by a friend’s postgrad po-mo reader dense with cant like ‘epistemological dominant’, ‘historiographic metafiction’, ‘homogeneous monolith’, ‘contesting the universalizing pretensions’ etc. Not that I was alone in my dread. On the first night the tutor, whom I’ll call Dr A (for Ambiguity), asked us to share our associations with the words ‘Theory & Writing’. After a woman dared to say ‘Fear’, I volunteered ‘Dissociation’. Dr A reacted a touch defensively. (Lucky I hadn’t said ‘Mind-fuck’.) The following week, Dr A shared a 2006 essay with us: ‘Reality’s Triumph Over the Relative’ by Larry Buttrose, who argues that po-mo theory as taught in universities is so elitist, antidemocratic and deeply conservative that it not only undermines the self-belief of writing students but diverts them from engaging with the real world. For obvious reasons, Dr A appeared to take the essay personally, prompting us to discuss:
1) Do you agree with Buttrose: theory has become a left-wing orthodoxy controlled by universities?
2) Do you agree that theory is no longer relevant to the writer/reader?
At the time I had no strong opinion re Q1: I’d been exposed to theory as taught at uni for all of two weeks. As for Q2, had T&W not been a core subject, I would have saved $1560 (-10%). And what was meant by ‘no longer relevant’? When had it ever been? I didn’t know the course would prove more fun than one of my electives, or that I’d enjoy giving a seminar (the prospect of which had terrorised me) critiquing Nabokov’s lecture on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a realist story about a man transformed into a beetle (not a cockroach) – note to self: ‘realism’ is a style irrespective of plot – or that our final assignment, a piece of experimental writing, would give me (and some readers) more pleasure than I’d expected.
How do I respond, nearly four years later, to Dr A’s questions? To find out, I reread Mr Buttrose’s essay, which Dr A described as ‘polemical’, and am now struck by how Mr B appeals to the reader’s emotions over their intellect, e.g.: ‘For the most part [postmodernists have] given us little more than a migraine.’ Note the rhetorical device – ‘us’ – of assuming the reader to be on side. But he saves gibes that imply value judgements for the latter half of his essay, by which time we’ve (just kidding!) I’ve gotten used to his style: ‘risible waffle’; ‘nadir of self-engrossed, self-referential absurdity’; ‘pompous, self-righteous regime’; ‘opaque and nonsensical’; ‘bullshit-frosted bourgeois elitism’.* Presumably Mr B enjoyed catharsis in the writing of his essay; I certainly did in my first reading of it. Nor would I say now that I disagree with his gist. But when he says ‘[theory’s] precious self-absorption may have muddled the political will of a generation, especially those most exposed to it – humanities students, historically the most radical’, I’m not convinced. Most writing students with whom I studied hoped to get published and make money; the motives expressed by many were unashamedly narcissistic. It’s hard to imagine what sort of syllabus, if any, could counter such self-absorbed trajectories. Those few who evinced a ‘political will’ had more scope to express it in Theory than elsewhere: despite coyness when cornered, Dr A encouraged dissent and debate, so the class proved more conducive to discussion than others in which realism reigned. Clearly, Dr A was on a different page to Dr C, the repressive ‘Advanced Narrative’ tutor who kept pushing realism – the dominant style of drama in Hollywood today, to quote Dr A, yet also ‘a construct’, and so ‘not necessarily better than other kinds of styles’. No wonder most fiction published today conforms to realist norms. That’s what makes it easy to read, enter into and identify with. Outside of the fringe culture of zines, experimental writing, from what I’ve seen, appeals most typically to a left-wing academic elite (provided it falls within the narrow spectrum of political correctness).
The key to surviving Theory, I learned, is not to take it too seriously. So although I regret that most of my course notes are too fragmented to make much sense, I like to think they embody the spirit of postmodernism. Dr A’s least guarded utterances proved to be the most instructive, e.g.:
(On Barthes:) ‘The author’s not really dead.’
‘I don’t know why it’s called postmodernism, uh…’
‘You can make postmodernism mean whatever you like.’
As Mr Buttrose says, ‘Isn’t theory doctrinally of the intellectual left – feminist, post-colonial, queer?’ And in our required readings these camps were well represented. Yet, conspicuous for their thematic as well as authorial absence were two historically voiceless groups: 1) those disabled by mental illness, and 2) members of species other than human,† both of which tend to be low on the lists of left-wing editors’ interests.‡
In my final assignment I compared postmodernism to schizophrenia and applied an animal liberationist critique to Kafka’s story of the beetle. Dr A read it in class and said no more than ‘Great story!’ On the torn-off covering note it came back with, post-assessment, though, Dr A had written (below a brief, belated critique), HD, then crossed out the H, (no time to retype?) in a last gesture of ambivalence.
* Mr B’s tone recalls that of Richard Dawkins on a pet peeve: ‘I can’t prove that there is nothing in horoscopes, any more than I can prove that there is nothing in the (rather more plausible) theory that chewing gum causes mad cow disease.’ Or: ‘Astrology not only demeans astronomy, shrivelling and cheapening the universe with its pre-Copernican dabblings. It is also an insult to the science of psychology…’ And, winding up like Mr B with an appeal not just to logic (realism) but conscience, ‘astrology is neither harmless nor fun, and … we should fight it seriously as an enemy of truth’. Note, again, the ‘we’ used by a writer confident of popular support.
† I refer not to domestic pets, which inspire endless literary sentiment, but to creatures that suffer extreme cruelty en route to becoming food, fur/leather, lab test subjects etc.
‡ Why is this? For one, left-wing publishers sometimes struggle to attract funding, and members of groups #1 and #2 are less likely to sponsor, donate or subscribe.