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BRAVE NEW WORDS HOW LITERATURE WILL SAVE THE PLANET
By Elizabeth Ammons
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Postmodern Fundamentalism
Recently I attended a college graduation ceremony at which three English professors spoke. The first read a long, dark poem about our inability to control life. The second praised the uselessness of studying literature. The third stated that we have the questions, not the answers, and offered an extended interpretation of the final scene of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds as a metaphor for life. Having your eyes pecked out by dive-bombing avians seemed to be the point.
If the new graduates were not terrified of the future and feeling powerless when they marched in, they certainly were when they filed out.
The Allure of Disdain
It would never do for "art" to be useful. I don't believe that. What force could be more powerful than people moving together with a single voice? - Wendy Rose, Bone Dance
For the past quarter century professional humanists have been theorizing the death of the author and the nonreferentiality of words on the page - the idea that words ("signifiers") refer to nothing actual but, instead, create and produce what we call reality. Meanwhile, right-wing activists in the name of religion bombed abortion clinics, reduced the World Trade Center towers in New York City to cinders, blocked Palestinians' freedom in their own homeland, and promoted a holy war for oil (the president of the United States calling it a "crusade"). People have been killing each other and getting killed because of strong beliefs while elite literary study has by and large been preoccupied with its own inability to believe in anything except critique and the supremacy of irony and irresolvable complexity.
It is not surprising that the prestige of the humanities has declined while "hard" social sciences such as economics and political science have gained stature. As Cornel West observed of poststructuralist literary critics in Prophetic Reflections almost two decades ago, "They talk about their subtle relations of rhetoric, knowledge, power, yet they remain silent about concrete ways by which people are empowered to resist" (56). Human beings, for good reason, seek answers. Yet for more than twenty-five years the most highly valued academic approach in the humanities has frequently amounted to little more than endless questioning, a process of dismantling certitude upon certitude until all that remains is what I call here postmodern fundamentalism: bedrock commitment to antifoundationalism, indeterminacy, multiplicity, and decenteredness. That is, instability. Nothing to hang on to, nowhere to stand.
In U.S. literary studies this emphasis on the instability of knowledge, the idea that it is socially constructed and therefore we need constantly to question and revise what we know, comes in part from the important activist scholarship and teaching of the 1960s and 1970s. The conservative New Criticism of the 1950s, reflecting cold war isolationism, argued against socially relevant ways of reading. Above all, it believed we should not connect literary study to politics. "New Critics" said readers should concentrate on how the aesthetic properties of a text function in relation to each other, not deal with life outside the text. In disagreement, many young scholars and teachers in the 1960s and 1970s insisted on literature's social relevance. Shaped by the civil rights, antiwar, and women's movements, they argued, as many scholars and teachers do today, that literature encourages multiple interpretations and that political values are always present whether we recognize them or not. As affirmative action opened the doors for people of color and white women such as me to become professors in the last quarter of the twentieth century, feminist, race-based, gay and lesbian, and class-focused critical approaches began to redefine the liberal arts. Such approaches revitalized the humanities inside and outside the academy by demonstrating the crucial role that art and ideas play in the struggle for progressive social change.
At the same time, poststructuralism, often referred to simply as deconstruction, turned away from engagement with social and political issues. Because literature comes to us through words, deconstructionists at prestigious U.S. universities maintained, we need to pursue the question studied by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European theorists: What are words? To what do they refer? Anything? How do we know? Before the modern era religion answered those questions in the West. Any culture announcing that in the beginning was the Word ties language to divine purpose and thereby closes debate. But the death of God argued by nineteenth-century Continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche blasted such confidence. If no God exists, no divine plan for humans or any other life in the universe can be claimed. Meaninglessness rather than meaningfulness defines the modern condition. Human reality consists of exhilarating self-determination, on the one hand, and profound alienation, isolation, and existential loneliness, on the other. Modernity, and now its contemporary offspring, postmodernity, liberates us from repressive authoritarian regimes of knowledge (this is how things are because God or the Bible says so). But it also and terrifyingly cuts us adrift. Is there a knowable purpose to life? No. Is there a divine plan that includes you? No. Each of us is on our own.
In a world lacking any agreed-upon purpose to human life, much less any reliable authority to establish truth, divine or otherwise, why study literature except to ponder our own pain and epistemological distress or escape into diverting linguistic puzzles? The very idea of a literary canon, like the word canon itself, reflects a now-irrelevant ecclesiastical mindset. A good deal of feminist, antiracist, sexuality-focused, indigenous, and economically grounded thinking over the last thirty years has resisted this retreat into abstraction. It has continued to stress the importance of literary analysis for activist social change. But poststructuralism, echoing New Criticism's isolationism, maintained that all we can know of what we call reality is our linguistic invention of it. It is fallacious to claim any direct or real relationship between literature and life.
Extremely popular in many U.S. literature departments in the 1980s and 1990s, strict poststructuralist thinking has waned in the twenty-first century. Intense worry about what and whether words mean consumes few humanists today; and even prominent poststructuralists such as Judith Butler now think about the corner that antiuniversalism has backed them into. And many critics - materialist, feminist, race based, multicultural, postcolonial, Native focused, gay rights - never abandoned socially focused ways of reading or commitment to literature's activist role in the world. Nevertheless, there remains a kind of schizophrenia or deep confusion in much literature teaching and scholarship because of the powerful influence that deconstruction had on elite academic thought. Poststructuralism's insistence that we are not talking about anything real in the world when we analyze texts persists as a nagging fear. It often shows up in critics' incredibly complicated, dense prose and use of language. In the early twenty-first century this sometimes takes the form of an avowed - and often quite celebrated - belief in the "inexpressibility" of language, its inability to communicate. It's as if in place of clear meaning, which cannot be produced because it does not exist, lots of difficult, smart-sounding rhetoric can stand in, and maybe no one will notice that little or nothing is said. I recently listened to a bright young scholar give an academic lecture for close to an hour in which she argued for and against reading three novels in terms of identity politics, the idea that one's identity location in the society carries with it political affiliations. Perhaps she was right, but the double move - offering an interpretation and then immediately deconstructing it - has become so predictable that it completely lacked content. All that came through was postmodern paralysis, a reluctance to take any position. Literary criticism has made a fetish of complexity, nuance, and the production of multiple readings for their own sake. Sometimes deconstruction of meaning upon meaning serves knowledge well. But not always.
My point is this. A continuing effect of poststructuralist literary theory has been to make all textual meaning complex and unstable, whether it is or not; and frequently this has the convenient apolitical consequence of rendering impossible any clear, defended, activist standpoint. Poststructuralist theory has lured the academy into a postmodern update of New Criticism's view of critical work as an end in itself, literary study as a kind of mammoth brain teaser, the goal of which, in good market-driven fashion, has to do, finally, with nothing more important than individual competition and advancement. Who can produce the subtlest, most nuanced, or surprising analysis? Generating erudite readings based on close, clever, tightly focused examinations of specific arrangements of words on the page (precisely what was taught in the 1950s) has returned par excellence as the job of the literary critic, right down to revival of "close reading" as the announced task at hand. In the early 1980s Raymond Williams warned:
There is a kind of attachment to specificity and complexity which is the condition of any adequate intellectual work, and another kind which is really a defence of a particular kind of consciousness. ... Thus we have always to distinguish between two kinds of consciousness: that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity, which is always, in a thousand instances, putting working generalizations and hypotheses under strain; and that other, often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for the endless postponement of all (even local) general judgements or decisions. (181-82)
Ambiguity and multiplicity have become ends in themselves in much liberal arts scholarship and teaching, which should not be surprising. Many academic humanists inhabit an intellectual context unsure about or even openly hostile to the idea of universal truths. Indeterminacy is the highest value that postmodernism as a worldview can offer.
RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM, only a century or so old, as scholars such as Karen Armstrong explain, fears that secular thinking has as its goal the wiping out of religion, which is largely true, of course. In response, religious fundamentalism digs in. It insists on the literal veracity of its belief system: the declared truths revealed in its sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Bible, the Qur'an, or the Book of Mormon. From the point of view of the religious fundamentalist, to question those declared truths is to render oneself an apostate, a person outside the fold, hopelessly fallen from the group.
While the secular academy disdains such literalism and blind allegiance to authority, as it should, it simultaneously and ironically practices its own parallel and no less mindless orthodoxy in its adherence to postmodernism as a faith system. So familiar by now that it is part of the cultural air we breathe in the modern West, postmodernism as a belief system has both dogma and creed. It worships antifoundationalism (there is no first principle or knowable foundation for knowledge or belief), relativism (there are no absolutes), self-reflexivity (without absolutes you are all that you can know, if that), decenteredness (without any first principle or absolutes there can be no center), and instability (all is dispersal and flux). A weakened belief in history plus an emphasis on surface as all that exists, as much postmodern visual art and architecture make obvious, flow logically from this worldview. Perhaps most important, postmodern fundamentalism's most admired affective and intellectual behaviors consist of irony, cynicism, and despair. In a universe without center, foundation, meaning, or purpose, what other responses could possibly make sense?
If these values affected only the thinking of academics, ordinary people could care less. But postmodern thought saturates the contemporary world. The values theorized in the academy parallel the felt reality of millions. Life in the developed world is characterized by acute feelings of disconnect between people. Around the world and across all economic classes, loss of direction and an absence of hope run rampant among huge numbers of young people in particular. For many of them, meaningful life's work, which represents a very natural wish, seems less and less possible even to imagine, much less achieve, especially in a global economy experiencing serial collapse. Belief in moral absolutes finds almost no broad-based expression in the United States, where shopping and overconsumption seem to be the highest goods. Should we be surprised that cynicism, stemming from feelings of powerlessness and purposelessness, frequently dominates public thought, especially among the young?
Certainly, there are many humanists who continue to advocate socially committed value systems such as feminism, egalitarianism, ecocentrism, Native sovereignty, and socialism. They have, from the 1960s on, insisted on the meaning and purpose of progressive struggle. Others respond by advocating pragmatism. They concede the meaninglessness of the universe but argue that we need to proceed as if meaning and universals exist. Really smart intellectuals, however, reject such thinking. They know the only rational, sophisticated response to postmodern reality is to own the brutal truth of nihilism. Failure to do so doesn't make you a sinner, religious fundamentalism's worst category, but a fool, postmodern fundamentalism's. In other words, and I am certainly not the first to say this, for all its antifoundationalism, anti-essentialism, relativism, and decenteredness, postmodernism is at core essentialist. Its essentialism consists not of God but of its own supreme principle, which is simply the flip side of religious fundamentalism's: the insistence that there is no spiritual reality.
It makes perfect sense that insecurity grips the liberal arts and the study of literature in particular. Even as many professional humanists talk about social injustice, wish for progressive change, and passionately critique systems of power that oppress people, they practice a knee-jerk adherence to the fundamentalist dogma of postmodernism. Everything is complex, nothing simple. There are no universals, only socially constructed and highly temporal and historically shifting patterns of belief. There is no right or wrong, only culturally invented versions of both, and no truth, only multiple and constantly shifting "truth claims." There is no center, no transcendence, no knowledge except that gained through reason, which can and always must be deconstructed. This is the postmodern fundamentalism that the humanities too often teach the young, a faith system of nihilism and powerlessness that many professional humanists bravely model, preach, catechize. And if young people are really smart and buy what we are selling, we reward them by accepting them into graduate school and inducting them as future practitioners.
The Crisis in the Humanities
Most of us have learned to accommodate to a world that has been flattened, made one-dimensional, disenchanted, despiritualized. And yet, we feel an abiding hunger because human beings are theotropic - they turn toward the sacred - and that dimension in us cannot be fully extinguished. - Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God
Several decades of fierce debate about the proper role of the humanities are now largely over. While some remain avid social activists and others strict deconstructionists, most professional humanists fall somewhere in between, eclectically mixing bits and pieces of Marxism, feminism, and antiracism, for instance, with bits and pieces of poststructuralist theory. This stir enables production of endless critiques of power relations without any actual political engagement - this is the eclectic first half: critique without activism - because poststructuralism undermines the idea that either words or actions matter. Put another way, progressive academic postmodernity encourages humanists to be rigorous, even brilliant, social critics who are simultaneously cynical, detached, always questioning and disbelieving, and above all suspicious or even contemptuous of anything that looks like faith, conviction, earnestness, or hope. Those are not only ridiculously irrational but also - cardinal sin in the academy - stupid.
Excerpted from BRAVE NEW WORDS by Elizabeth Ammons Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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