At one point in time there was a hot discussion in some usenet groups of post-modernism. The good moggin (not to be confused with his evil twin, Bruce) mailed me his post-modern FAQ and I offered to review it in return. Thus are good deeds rewarded in this sinful world.
There are sundry schools of reviewing. I belong to that school which holds that the purpose of the review is to examine and illuminate the work in question for the reader as distinct from expository essays in which the work is an excuse for the reviewer to display his brilliance in topics of his own choosing or to serve as a literary consumers guide or yet to display the reviewers skill at verbal pyrotechnics as he savages the work in question. I also belong to that school of writing that does not shrink from writing long sentences. Thus this review is meant neither to rate nor berate but simply to view anew. There may, however, be diversions here and there as we follow Alice down rabbit holes.
The work in question is labelled as an FAQ, nominally answering the question “What is Post Modernism”. It is composed of three parts, the assembly, a bibliography, and a conversation. An innocent might well ask upon reading it, “What the fuck is this?”. As it happens “this” is a reasonable answer in a particular mode. Before examining the FAQ let us take a slight diversion to consider questions and answers.
Suppose I ask “What is Chicago?”. This is a question with many answers. Chicago is a large American city. Chicago is where the Bulls play. Chicago is noted for its stockyards. Chicago is where the O’Hare airport is. Chicago is a spot on a road map. Chicago is also the home of people, each person having their own Chicago. So, when I ask “What is Chicago”, there is the question: “What sort of answer do I want?”. Do I want to locate it as a spot on a mental road map or do I want an understanding?
This is the point of moggin’s formulation. He means to give you more than a spot on a road map. He means to show you some of the city, both some of the local dives and a broad view, that you might own this Chicago, not as a mark on a mental map, but as the beginnings of an experience.
This is an ancient and venerable expository device. When confronted with the task of presenting something complex, supply a body of experience first from which the student acquires the background necessary to understand the subject. Think of the movie, “The Karate Kid”, in which the kid paints fences and polishes cars thereby learning that which he did not know he had learned.
Exposition is all right in its place but sometimes we want to locate spots on road maps, to locate movements in the intellectual landscape. Moggin does not do this. He offers an experience but not an encapsulating definition. Perhaps he means to make a statement thereby, that no such denition is possible. This may be a statement that post-modernism is irreducible or, more subtly, that post-modernism denies reducibility. No matter, people want road maps even if they omit what others regard as essential reality.
For those who want maps I can commend this site:
and VanPiercy’s FAQ. For a quick summary I offer the following:
The terms, enlightenment, Victorian progress, modernism, and post- modernism refer to major periods in western intellectual history. Here are some quick descriptions, labels with a bit of printing on them.
The Enlightenment, 1700-1820, was a period of dethroning the medieval world view and enthroning reason. Think of Diderot and Voltaire, Newton, Fourier, the Federalist papers, and the Encyclopediasts.
Victorian progress, 1820-1900, added progress to the Enlightenment but did not alter the formula of simple rationalism. Think of Social Darwinism, manifest destiny, Karl Marx, Kant, Kipling, Tennyson, Ruskin, the linear novel, Steinitz and Lasker, and classical Newtonian physics.
Modernism, 1900-1945, was a revolution of sorts which (a) reacted to the simple schematic formulas of rationalism (b) reacted to the social disasters of the times. Think of Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, Reti, relativity, quantum mechanics, Frank Lloyd Wright, modern art, and fascism.
Post-modernism is what happened afterwards. Unlike its predecessors it is not a general phenomenon; the term “post-modernism” applies to a restricted arena of academia, literary analysis and political activism.
The section labelled assembly comprises 21 quotations drawn from Heraclitus to Derrida. The usual suspects, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Pascal, Beckett, Joyce, Marx and Lenin are represented, along with Adorno, Barthes, and Derrida. The function of this section is to present quotations exemplifying viewpoints that enter into the post-modernist view. They should be read. Briefly, though, they include “all is flux”, “history is oppressive”, “the formal is not the reality”, “the revolution is always subverted”, and some god-awful translations from the French.
The bibliography is introduced with the following paragraph:
“This is a highly selective reading-list. It’s designed to spotlight some of the works associated with post-modernism and to offer a way in for someone unfamiliar with the field. Qualifications: it includes only works of theory, criticism, and philosophy, and makes no effort to be comprehensive, even in those areas. I haven’t even attempted to address post-modernism in literature, not to mention painting and architecture, or feminism, or sociology and anthropology, or the many other fields where post-modernism has come into play.”
The authors cited are Blake, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Beckett, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, Laurence, Luxemburg, Lenin, Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, Arendt, Steiner, Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, de Man, Barthes, Foucalt, Deleuze, Borges, Cioran, Sonntag, and a few more.
This is an interesting collection of authors. It is noteworthy not only for who is present but for those who are not and for the topics that are not present. The revolutions in physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, are not represented. Goedel and Church, who defined the limits of Mathematics are not represented. Molecular biochemistry, the great adventure in searching out the inner secrets of life, is not represented. Computers are not represented; the venture into space is not represented. In short science is not part of this vision. Nor is much of modern political theory, of modern literature, or, indeed, much of anything. This is true, even if we were to extend the list to include fields mentioned but not covered.
This, then, is a restricted vision. The writers and thinkers of the enlightenment had a global view; they brought everything under the rubric of reason and the encyclopedia. Arguably one can say the same of modernism. Not, to be sure, of the modernism of the post-modernists — that is a carefully chosen selected sub set of all that modernism comprised. But one can point to the equivalent of modern art in many fields and point to common threads, e.g. the breaking out from premature perfection.
The modernism pointed to here is the modernism of 20th century irrationalism. Post-modernism, as portrayed here, is a continuation of that modernism.
The last part of this FAQ is the transcript of a net conversation on what post-modernism is. It would be easy enough to ridicule this conversation which reeks of the aromas of the hot-house intellectual. However one should not; the conversation is carefully chosen to capture the ambiguities of what is meant by post-modernism. The following quote is worth noting (slighly edited):
Pm is, at least in part, the claim that all of the alleged “facts” from which reasoned opinions are supposed to flow are in fact only premises from which power claims (you should, must, believe/act such-and-such way) arise. The result, as you rightly observe, is a kind of re-worked relativism.
This can be taken as a representative post-modern viewpoint at least as it appears in net discussions. Whether or not one agrees with this viewpoint is beside the point. The object of this section is to catch the tone of the post-modernist viewpoint.
We have opened the package and looked inside; it is time to wrap it up and look at from the outside. Is this an adequate FAQ? Does it answer the question? How well does it answer the question?
The answer is, I think, not well but it is a worthwhile failure. The essential difficulty with answering the question (what is PM) in a meaningful way is that how you answer the question depends very much on the background of the questioner. This is not just a matter of reading – one can have read most of the authors in the bibliography and yet not catch what the FAQ’s author is trying to convey. One has to go beyond exposition by immersion and explicitly inform.
The FAQ fails because it fails to consider the audience. As the saying goes, it preaches to the choir.
If it does not stand alone, how does it fare when read in conjunction with other works? Much better. Moggin’s FAQ is much like having a local resident showing you around. You will get much more out of it if you have read a guide book and looked at a city map first.
This page was last updated July 20, 1996.