Academic criticism does have a role in real life: Postmodern: The apparent obscurities of formal culture analysis only lightly mask vital insights.


July 07, 1996|By Drew Limsky | Drew Limsky,Special to the Sun

It has become quite commonplace, even fashionable, to deride academics for being hopelessly out of touch with the concerns of the reading public. What, many would ask, is so important about a clique of lit-crit elitists, with their arcane theories and pretentious-sounding interrogations? The answer is, plenty.

Most of us could live out our lives quite happily without pondering the distinction between the signifier and the signified, much less the difference between Foucault and Derrida, yet the ideas that are all but buried within the tortuous terms and translations of literary theory have undeniable implications not only in regard to what we read, but what we watch on the movie screen and TV.

Whatever arrows we sling at literary criticism - charges of inaccessibility, passionlessness and myopia are frequently heard - the truth is that academic discourse informs public discourse.

The jargon of any profession is always mystifying to the uninitiated, yet we still bump up against the theories whether we realize it or not. Take law, for example: you don't have to know the nuances of the exclusionary rule or be able to use res ipsa loquitur in a sentence to appreciate the relevance of the law to our lives.

Literary and cultural criticism is much the same - it has a slow but steady influence on the creators and conduits of our society's art, entertainment and information.

When Bill Clinton is branded "the postmodern president" in magazines readily available in the supermarket, more than a few ears are ringing in the English departments of Harvard and Berkeley.

The trouble is that much of the language derived from literary criticism is tossed around indiscriminately, because it sounds chic and cutting-edge. Is President Clinton postmodern because something futuristic or high-tech about his manner or policies, or does the modifier attach because the president performs so well on TV?

The phrase is impossible to interpret from the new clips alone. But just a cursory understanding of the word "postmodernism" reveals not only the possible accuracy of the characterization, but the far-reaching moral and societal judgments behind its application.

Postmodernism is easiest to define in relation to modernism. In this context, it would be a mistake to equate modernism with the up-to-date, the contemporary; rather the term is tied to a very specific period of time, namely the era between the two world wars, when innovators like Joyce and Eliot and Woolf and Faulkner challenged many of the aesthetic conventions of their day, producing an angst-ridden art that attempted to account for the mass destruction and social and spiritual decay they felt were engulfing modern life.

To the moderns, society was having a nervous breakdown; therefore the literature of modernism was marked by themes of alienation and despair, strife and chaos, disconnection and disintegration; its style was often elliptical and free-associative, suggestive of the psychoanalytic process.

Rather than try to report what they felt was an unattainable objective reality, modern artists meant to capture a scattered, subjective consciousness. Woolf's novel "To the Lighthouse" and Eliot's epic poem "The Waste Land" were by design not easy reading, but the modernists were deadly serious in their belief that the artistic struggle offered the only hope of redemption and insight into a world spinning out of control.

Postmodern literature mocks this serious type of exploration, dismissing the search for knowledge and revelation by which the moderns lived and died.

To the postmoderns, literature delivers nothing new, but can only rehash, satirize and simulate; Donald Barthelmes playful 1967 novel, "Snow White," a parody of the familiar fairy tale, typifies this irreverent attitude.

The contrast in visual art is just as striking as in literature: compare the highly personal styles of van Gogh and Picasso to the deliberately mass-produced character of Warhol's and Lichtenstein's pop-art.

In movies, the itch to repeat is ubiquitous: instead of the original vision of Hitchcock and Welles and Altman, we are inundated with big-screen adaptations of old TV shows (e.g. "Batman," "The Brady Bunch," "Mission Impossible").

Formula upon formula

"Pulp Fiction" embodies the postmodern principle; a shrewd collage of 70s blaxploitation film and other B-movie genres, the film celebrates formula and the repetition of formula. Authorship and originality are eclipsed by imitation and derivation.

The reward of postmodern works depends not on the oft-delayed illumination of the human condition, what James Joyce called the epiphany, but rather on the audiences immediate recognition of mass media imagery and catch-phrases. Instead of Citizen Kane s frustrating search for the enigmatic Rosebud, we get Jan Brady's instantly familiar cry of outrage at her older sisters success: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"

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