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Postmodernism gone nuts

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  • C. S. Wyatt
    About a year ago I left active participation in the list because I felt that some members didn t understand, nor believe, my opinion that education in America
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2004
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      About a year ago I left active participation in the list because I
      felt that some members didn't understand, nor believe, my opinion that
      education in America (and Europe to a lesser extent) suffers from a
      postmodern, decontructionist, anti-historical malaise. To be kind,
      instructors are not teaching how to appreciate literature and social
      sciences -- instead finding "truth" just about anywhere...

      From today's New York Times is a report on the annual gathering of
      "experts" in my field of Composition and Rhetoric:

      MLA Eggheads Meet Amidst Dirty Words and Queered Lit
      Published: December 27, 2004

      Every year more than 10,000 literature scholars gather at the end of
      December for the convention of the Modern Language Association, the
      120th of which begins today in Philadelphia.

      Past conventions have yielded papers with titles that were rife with
      bad puns, cute pop-culture references and an adolescent preoccupation
      with sex, from "Victorian Buggery" to "Bambi on Top" and the
      tragically hip "Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to K. D.
      Lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of
      Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies."

      The convention has become a holiday ritual for journalists, as routine
      as articles on the banning of Christmas crèches in public places, and
      every year a goodly number of those scholars tempt journalists to
      write articles, like this one, noting some of the wackier-sounding
      papers presented.

      Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association barely registered on
      the public consciousness for its first century. Professors attended to
      doze through papers about Chaucer and Emerson, schmooze one another
      and lobby for posts at more prestigious campuses. But in the 1980's
      the conference became the site of annual skirmishes between old-school
      traditionalists and the increasing powerful new breed of
      postmodernists, multiculturalists, feminists and queer-theory advocates.

      The traditionalists insisted on subjecting literature to close textual
      and historical analysis; the newcomers seemed more intent on
      retrofitting classic works into currently trendy political theories on
      race, gender and sexuality.

      By the 1990's those skirmishes had helped start the so-called culture
      wars, and the association had been so overrun by theory that the Old
      Guard formed their own anti-M.L.A., the Association of Literary
      Scholars and Critics, which held its 10th annual conference in
      November in New Orleans.

      The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly academic journal, has said
      that this intramural battle of eggheads first went public at the 1989
      Modern Language Association convention, when The New York Times noted
      a paper titled "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Though
      downright demure compared to some papers at subsequent conferences, it
      sparked a public scandal and became a totem, some scholars believe, in
      the neoconservatives' attacks against the "campus radicals."

      Basking in this unaccustomed level of public notice, Modern Language
      Association scholars brought increasingly attention-grabbing papers to
      the convention through the 1990's, "queering" the "canon," some said,
      and championing the "postcolonial," proposing wild theories about
      everything from comic books to hip-hop to television and movies. Last
      year, perhaps hoping to put a stop to the trend, the Chronicle of
      Higher Education announced its first Annual Awards for
      Self-Consciously Provocative M.L.A. Paper Titles (a k a the Provokies)
      but this year the Chronicle decided to drop the awards. Scott McLemee,
      a senior Chronical writer, explained that "crafting titles to get them
      written about and attacked in the press used to be exciting.

      "Now it's become a reflex, and their hearts aren't really in it anymore."

      However, from this year's several thousand entries, the Provokies may
      still have a long, robust life.

      After two solid decades "queered" remains a major preoccupation,
      evidenced by titles like "She's Just Like Alvy Singer! Kissing Jessica
      Stein and the Postethnic Jewish Lesbian," "The Lesbian Mammy,"
      "Queering World War II," "t.A.T.u. You! The Global Politics of Faux
      Lesbian Pop" (t.A.T.u., meaning tattoo) is a Russian female pop
      group), and "A Place for Giggling Field Hands: Queer Power and Social
      Equality in the Mid-20th-Century Plantation Myth." Then there's the
      race/sexuality/avant-gardist trifecta of "Feeling Around in the Dark:
      Black Queer Experimental Poetry."

      Tragic hipness, multicultural agendizing and an almost abject embrace
      of low/popular culture converge in titles like " 'Dude! Your Dress Is
      So Cute!' Patterns of Semantic Widening in 'Dude,' " an entire session
      dedicated to papers on Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," "Urban
      Expressionism: Theater, Ritual, and the Hip-Hop Generation's Black
      Arts Movement," "Utopia in the Borderlands; or, Long Live El Vez the
      King" (El Vez is a Latino Elvis impersonator), and "A Pynch in Time:
      The Postmodernity of Prenational Philadelphia in Thomas Pynchon's
      Mason and Dixon and Mark Knopfler's 'Sailing to Philadelphia' " (Mr.
      Knopfler is a rocker best known for wanting his MTV). The clunkiness
      of all this suggests that eggheads are still nerds, but it that some
      of them are terribly self-conscious about it now.

      Clearly they still have a lot of sex on their minds (and time on their
      hands), judging from titles that range from the painful-sounding
      "Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture"
      to the salacious "(Post) Feminist (Porno) Graphics, à la Française" to
      the achingly 90's "The Cyberjunkie and Cyberporn Princess: Reflections
      on the Virtual Reality of a Subjectless Asian American Critique." This
      is the type of theory the Berkeley professor Frederick Crews famously
      satirized in his 2001 Modern Language Association parody "Postmodern

      And there's much, much more. What any of it has to do with teaching
      literature to America's college students remains as vexing a question
      to some today as it was a decade ago. There is, in fact, something
      achingly 90's about the whole affair. The association has come to
      resemble a hyperactive child who, having interrupted the grownups'
      conversation by dancing on the coffee table, can't be made to stop.
      Citing Professor Crews's book in The Partisan Review last year,
      Sanford Pinsker said: "In my better moods, I try to convince myself
      that 'Postmodern Pooh' marks the end of the arrant foolishness that
      has turned literary studies into a laughingstock; in my darker
      moments, however, I fear that there are other, even more outrageous
      would-be celebrities hoping to cash in on whatever post-postmodernism
      turns out to be."

      Or, as Mr. McLemee put it: "The circus is looking pretty threadbare,
      and the ones trying to do the freak show aspect of it are looking
      silly now." And yes, many believe that the press is encouraging them
      by continuing to pay attention.
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