[ilds] baboonism

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Sat Jul 7 09:35:57 PDT 2007

I once heard a creationist say that dinosaur bones were planted by the 
Devil -- that makes me think that palaeontologists must be a crazy 
bunch. It's best to disregard what they say... (tongue in my cheek). 
Isn't that form of reasoning precisely what Bruce and Michael are 
offering us right now though? They find one thing problematic, so it's 
therefore best to disregard everything that doesn't fit their view -- I 
know both of them have minds with more queries than that, so let's avoid 
those grand dismissive gestures. They credit neither the discussion nor 
the author who pens them.

-- case in point; when we take the responses to the Times to define our 
notions of postmodernism, we may be confusing apples and oranges.

Andrew M. Chisholm (his last name nicely coincides with a theorist in 
the department I completed my PhD through...) defines postmodernism 
using a similar slippage (a messy word if I ever heard one). For 
instance, by using the quotation posted by Michael (provocatively 
without his censure or tacit acceptance -- did you mean to erase the 
author there Michael, which is still you through the traditionally 
author-killing technique of pastiche and/or Burroughs-ish cutting?), we 
find it "folds in on itself" (that's an allusion to some postmodern 
stuff I don't buy into). Is my last sentence postmodern enough in it 
syntactic convolutions?

Mr Chisholm makes the seemingly reasonable comment:

Postmodernists believe there is no knowledge or truth, only “discourse”. 
However, they also tend to hold that modish left-wing views are 
absolutely true and that anyone who opposes these should be persecuted.

We've moved from the universal to a tendency here: implicitly (all) 
postmodernists believe X yet they *tend* to believe Y, which is 
contradictory, so we should disregard X. In other words, I make a 
universal claim and then reject it as utterly wrong because of a 
tendency -- I'm not even saying his universal claim is right, but his 
reasons seem awkward.

Pamela then rebuts this in a classically pragmatist manner (a modernist 
philosophical move, I might add...), which I'll admit I'm drawn to. I 
like pragmatism in many respects. In other words, we should focus on 
useful discussions as well as our uses for a text or a particular 
reading. Just what postmodernism *is* matters little in comparison to 
how it functions and is used by many critics.

And besides, academic skepticism (the skeptical view that there is no 
knowledge, which is itself a statement from a position of knowing) is 
not a postmodern idea, so the "no knowledge" claim is off. The focus on 
"discourse," however, is spot on for historicism. By moving away from 
TRUTH to competing narratives or discourses, we open up many ways of 
approaching historical documents, even those for which there are no 
competing narratives (hence, they *must* be true, right? Irony again). 
To leap from that to leftism (and which leftism, pray tell), is a jump 
indeed. My hunch is that Mr. Chisholm isn't particularly fond of notions 
of discourse but he's dead set against leftism (I wonder, would that 
include libertarian anarchists, who I should think actually have a 
tremendous amount in common with die hard capitalists, who would 
typically be called modish right-wing values).

That said, many "postmodern" authors are notoriously difficult to read 
or to pin down to a single meaning. That's partly the point, partly the 
problem of translations, and partly just plain poor writing. I typically 
focus on the ideas and try to steer my classroom discussions away from 
'definitional excursions' into the meaning of words like "modernism" or 
"postmodernism," for which there are so many variant meanings and 
interpretations for them to be almost useless apart from popular slang 
to identify that thing we all know about but just can't describe... I'd 
rather focus on the traits of the specific thing being discussed or the 
specific meaning in a specific context rather than how I define it 
within a poorly defined movement.

But, what does this have to do with Durrell?

Perhaps more than we think. In the opening of _Bitter Lemons_, he openly 
directs our attention to his "characters" (do you call real people 
that?) and his desire to write a book that doesn't focus on historical 
TRUTHS but rather an "impressionistic" approach to multiple 
perspectives. Does that mean he wants a blurry landscape or one that 
only becomes intelligible as we allow ourselves to lose track of the 
particulars. Doesn't this also remind us of the _Quartet_ in unexpected 
ways? First the hermaphrodites, then multiple perspectives and a world 
peopled only by characters...

Well, that's sounds pretty close to postmodernism to me, at least in a 
slang sense. It could also be described within some notions of 
modernism, but perhaps it's best to split the difference and just say 
some funny ideas were circulating by that point in the century, and 
Durrell seemed to dig the flow on some level. After all, would you want 
to call _Bitter Lemons_ "history" or "discourse"? I'd prefer the 
tentativeness of the latter, 'cause I don't think I'd want to rely on an 
impressionist painting and characters for a grand historical TRUTH.

As for the "Underwear theory of History," isn't this precisely what 
postmodernism typically attacks? By creating associations between 
disparate things, we often reveal our own motivations more than any 
underlying TRUTH. If we stop talking about truth so much as those other 
factors, we might just get somewhere. After all, before we can even 
consider the pragmatic value of a discussion of wishy-washy words like 
"TRUE," I'd like to know better how we use them and talk about them. 
What purposes, and whose, do those words (let alone the ideas) serve? 
Think of the endings of _The Name of the Rose_ and _Foucault's Pendulum_ 
by Eco with regard to false patterns. I've often wondered how much 
Durrell's false pattern in his Quintet (overtly so, I think) influenced 
Eco in the latter book.

And then, Michael gives us Camille Paglia's comments (a female voice, 
Michael, or are you ventriloquising? -- another postmodern thing to 

"What happened was that the old bibliographical style of literary 
scholarship had become totally enervated and dead, and then New 
Criticism rose up in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties--and then it really 
started dying in the Fifties--as a way to talk about the literary and 
artistic qualities of a text. And then unfortunately that detached 
itself entirely from any historical context, and you got a whole 
generation of critics who came through who have absolutely no historical 
sense whatever--they haven't been trained to think in historical terms."

This is again slippery. Bibliography is loosing ground, and I lament 
that. I feel the paucity of my own bibliographical training on many 
occasions, despite my ongoing work in it. Yet, do we blame that on New 
Criticism (which is also out of fashion just now)? The notion of close 
reading does not lead to the death of the author, but rather it creates 
elbow room for the reader. Also, I don't know why New Criticism without 
History is the problem here -- it isn't a theory about anything, let 
alone a theory of history or truth. It's a reading practice, and it 
works wonders with poetry. It makes for a wonderfully enjoyable reading 
experience for the reader and an enriched text as well. Think about how 
many ways you could read the last 2 lines of Keats' "When I have fears" 
or how long it takes him to reach that "then." Those are the practices 
of New Criticism, and I think they enrich the text.

That said, even New Criticism is not cohesive, with many saying it 
anticipates the Death of the Author phenomenon (in line with T.S. 
Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"), yet this is contradicted 
overtly by William Empson, a founding father of New Criticism. His 
*style* in _Seven Types of Ambiguity_ is meant to augment 
author-oriented and bibliographic scholarship, not replace it.

Perhaps we had best admit that our terminology for these movements is 
generalized at best, so staying close to what is at hand may be more 
productive. The pragmatist in me suggests it may be more useful. As per 
Bill's comments, wouldn't it be interesting if we could explain what we 
mean, how we mean it, and why we mean it for words like "truth," 
"postmodern," "real," or "good."


Pamela Francis wrote:
> Though I can't completely disagree with Lincolnshire's equating of 
> Xnty with those who believe in the man in the moon, he and Surrey have 
> illustrated the common misconception of postmodern thought--and not 
> without some reason, as that is how it is quite often presented to the 
> Great Unread Public. But the case of David Irving (Holocaust Denier 
> par excellence) demonstrated--to those that were paying 
> attention--that postmodernist thought must be based on REASONABLE 
> debate. Even though, as postmodernists, we may question who has 
> written history and from what location--in other words, we must 
> question metanarratives--we also must question the questioning. In 
> this case, it is clear that questioning the metanarrative--with all 
> its repercussions for current prejudices and acts of ethnic 
> cleansing--cannot be questioned for any other reason than hatred, that 
> is, the continued perpetuation of violence against certain ethnic 
> and/or cultural identities. If the questioning of Holocaust 
> metanarratives cannot bring about anything other than more hatred, it 
> is an unreasonable debate, one which brings justice to absolutely NO ONE.
> On the surface, this tends to support the politically liberal point of 
> view, which many of the Great Unread Public equate with 
> nambypambyloveandpeaceforeveryoneness. But I find considerable logic 
> in the argument that the "questioning", i.e., the denial of the 
> Holocaust cannot bring about any hidden injustices to those who (I, 
> and I think most of you as well) believe perpetuated the mass murder 
> of Jews, Poles, homosexuals, and gypsies (to name only a few of 
> Hitler's victims). In other words, this denial redeems no one. In that 
> sense, then, it is not reasonable, and therefore is not an example of 
> postmodern theory in praxis.
> Having said all that, it is sometimes very tempting to tell confused 
> undergraduates that postmodernism is the idea that all ideas are 
> valid. It's just so much easier than being, well, reasonable...

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