Thursday, September 15, 2005

post-postmodern.. again?

Okay, call me ignorant. I had thought that in finding George Steiner (who was a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study at the age of... wait for it... 27) I had made an isolated discovery. Maybe that's why I got so jumpy about it. He is an extremely intelligent person who has so imbibed postmodernity that he has moved beyond it, towards in fact, a reappraisal of God.

Must have been a fluke.

Turns out however he's not alone. Another person immersed in postmodern literary theory (who got his doctorate from Cambridge at the age of... wait for it... 21), and who has similarly evolved (minus the God bit) is the eminent theorist Terry Eagleton. But of course you probably knew that. And if you didn't, let me remind you that the reason literary theorists matter is because literary theory is where postmodernity began.
"We are living now in the aftermath of what one might call high theory, in an age which, having grown rich on the insights of thinkers like Althusser, Barthes and Derrida, has also in some ways moved beyond them" (2).
But this is no retreat - he, like Steiner, has learned much from the great (and gone) generation of pomo thinkers - learned enough, that is, to progress.
"The West, then, may need to come up with some persuasive-sounding legitimations of its form of life, at exactly the point when laid-back cultural thinkers are assuring it that such legitimations are neither possible nor necessary. It may be forced to reflect on the truth and reality of its existence, at a time when postmodern thought has grave doubts about both truthy and reality.... The inescapable conclusion is that cultural theory must start thinking ambitiously again - not so that it can hand the West its legitimation, but so that it can seek to make sense of the grand narratives in which it is now embroiled" (73).
Chapter titles in After Theory such as "Truth, Virtue and Objectivity" and "Morality" might give you an idea of what Eagleton (who literally wrote the book on theory) is intersted in recovering.

By the way, this ain't your garden variety "Neo-con" aversion to postmodernity. Would that Eagleton, a senior academic theorist with no attachments to Christianity whatsoever and a bona fide Bush-despising progressive, would be that easy to dismiss.

But no need to worry. It must be just a fluke... again.

Click here for some more Eagletonian gems.

On Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists want a strong foundation to the world, which in their case is usually a sacred text. We have seen already that a text is the worst possible stuff for this purpose. The idea of an inflexible text is as odd as the idea of an inflexible piece of string... Fundamentalism is a kind of necrophilia, in love with the dead letter of the text (206-7).

On the Bible

The Book of Isaiah is strong stuff for these post-revolutionary days. It is only left in hotel rooms because nobody bothers to read it. It those who deposit it there had any idea what it contained, they would be well advised to treat it like pornography and burn it on the spot (178).

On Marxism

Now, however, it looked as though what had started life as an underground movement among dockers and factory workers had turned into a mildly interesting way of analyzsing Wuthering Heights (44).

On Culture Replacing Religion

It is no wonder, then, that culture has been in perpetual crisis since the moment it was thrust into prominence. For it has been called upon to take over [religious] functions in a post-religious age; and it is hardly surprising that for the most part it has lamentably failed to do so. Part of religion's force was to link fact and value, the routine conduct of everyday life with matters of ultimate spiritual importance. Culture, however, divides these domains down the middle... [but] In most stretches of the globe, including much of the United States, culture never ousted religion in the first place. Even in some regions where it did, religion is creeping back with a vengeance... The age in which culture sought to play surrogate to religion is perhaps drawing to a close. Perhaps culture, in this respect at least, has finally admitted defeat (99-100).

On Absolute Truth

Some postmodernists claim not to believe in truth at all - but this is just because they have identified truth with dogmatism, and in rejecting dogmatism have thrown out truth along with it. This is a peculiarly pointless manoeovre... They reject an idea of truth that no reasonable person would defend in the first place.

In less sophisticated postmodern circles, holding a position with conviction is seen as unpleasantly authoriatarian, whearea to be fuzzy, skeptical and ambiguous is somehow democratic. It is hard in that case to know what to say about someone who is passionately commited to democracy, as opposed to someone who is fuzzy and ambiguous about it... For this strain of postmodernism, claiming that one position is preferable to another is objectionably 'hierarchical'. It is not clear in this theory why being anti-hierarchical is prefereable to being hierarchichal (103-104).

'Absolutely true', here, really just means 'true'. We could drop the 'absolute' altogether, were it not for the need to argue agains relativists who insist, as their name implies, that truth is relative... Nothing of world-shaking significance is at stake here. That truth is absolute simply means that if something is established as true - a taxing, messy business, often enough, and one which is always open to revision - then there are no two ways about it. It does not mean that truth can only be discovered from some disinterested viewpoint. In fact, it says nothing about how we arrive at truth. It simply says something about the nature of truth itself. All truths are established from specific viewpoints; but it does not make sense to say that ther is a tiger in the bathroom from my point of view but not from yours. You and I may contend fiercely about whether there is a tiger in the bathroom or not. To call truth absolute here is just to say that one of us has to be wrong (105-106).

The claim that some truth is absolute is a claim about what it means to call something true, not a denial that there are different truths at different times. Absolute truth does not mean non-historical truth: it does not mean the kind of truths which drop from the sky, or which are vouchsafed to us by some bogus prophet from Utah. On the contrary, they are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation. A lot of what is taken as (absolutely) true at any given time will no doubt turn out to be false... Not everything which is considered to be true is actually ture. But it remains the case that it cannot just be raining from my viewpoint (108-109).

On Moving On...

Postmodernism has an allergy to depth, as indeed did the later Wittgenstein. It believes that part of what is wrong with fundamentalism is its pitching of the arguments at a universal, first-principled, a-historical level. In this, postmodernism is mistaken. It is not the level at which fundamentalism pitches its claims which is the problem; it is the nature of the claims themselves (191).

The generation which followed after these path-breaking figures did what generations which follow after usually do. They developed the original ideas, added to them, criticized them and applied them. Those who can, think up feminism or structuralism; those who can't, apply such insights to Moby-Dick or The Cat in the Hat. But the new generation came up with no comparative ideas of its own. The older generation had proved a hard act to follow. No doubt the new century will in time give birth to its own clutch of gurus. For the moment, however, we are still trading on the past - and this in a world which has changed dramatically since Foucault and Lacan first settled to their type-writers. What kind of fresh thinking does the new era demand (2)?

We can never be 'after theory', in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking, as our situation changes. With the launch of a new global narrative of capitalism, along with the so-called war on terror, it may well be that the style of thinking knows as postmodernism is now approaching an end. It was, after all, the theory which assured us that grand narratives were a thing of the past. Perhaps we will be able to see it, in retrospect, as one of the little narratives of which it has been so fond (p.221).