[Paleopsych] LAT: Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
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Mon May 30 22:15:25 UTC 2005
Postmodern Fog Has Begun to Lift
In an era of uncertainty, reality makes a comeback.
By Morris Dickstein
May 26, 2005
For most people, "reality," though sometimes elusive, is as palpable
as their morning coffee or the gigantic heads carved into Mt.
Rushmore. It is simply there. From their point of view, the phrase
"get real" means "shape up," and the fabricated thrills of "reality
TV" seem appealingly authentic.
But for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into
postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the "real"
raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving
it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on
whoever controls the flow of information that influences them. They
believe with Nietzsche that there are no facts, only interpretations.
Along with notions like truth or objectivity, or moral concepts of
good and evil, there's hardly anything more contested in academia
Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or
she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism
preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by
uncertainty or exposed as ideology. But it is also true that the media
revolutions of the last century, while they hugely expanded our access
to knowledge, created far more effective tools by which that knowledge
could be manipulated.
In this conflict, the master strategists in the White House, though
they claim to stand by traditional values, are very much in the camp
of postmodernism. In the New York Times Magazine last October, for
example, a "senior advisor" to President Bush told Ron Suskind that
journalists and scholars belong to "what we call the reality-based
community," devoted to "the judicious study of discernible reality."
They have no larger vision, no sense of the openings created by
American dominance. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create
our own reality."
He might have added that there are many ways to simulate reality:
staying on message, for instance, impervious to correction and
endlessly reiterating it while saturating the media environment.
Ideologues, whether they're politicians or intellectuals, dismiss any
appeal to disinterested motives or objective conditions. They see
reality itself, including the electorate, as thoroughly malleable.
Like the media spin that is its sinister double, postmodernism didn't
spring up from nowhere in the 1970s. Today we can look back on the
20th century as an age of turbulent dislocation and uncertainty. Not
only did its wars and genocides uproot whole populations, but its
philosophic and scientific ideas, from Einstein and Freud to
Wittgenstein and Derrida, uprooted centuries of moral and religious
ideals. Modern artists -- beginning with Picasso, Stravinsky and Joyce
-- reflected these changes by revolutionizing the medium in which they
worked, leaving some in their audience exhilarated and others
dumbfounded at seeing older forms of representation turned inside out.
Postmodern theorists, promoting a fluid sense of identity, were only
the latest step in unhinging art and discourse from any stable sense
of the real world. Just as political upheaval left people physically
insecure and globalization left them economically insecure,
postmodernism was part of a complex of changes that left them feeling
morally insecure, uncertain about who they were or what they really
For some, there was a newfound freedom in all this. But many Americans
today, sensing that the foundations of their world have crumbled, feel
a deep nostalgia for something solid and real. Surrounded by a media
culture, adrift in virtual reality, they seek assurance from their own
senses. They turn to what John Dewey called "the quest for certainty."
I see evidence of this in my own field of literary studies, which has
long been in the vanguard of postmodernism. In his book "After
Theory," a widely discussed obituary for decades of obfuscation that
he himself had helped to promote, Terry Eagleton mocks "a certain
postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything."
To understand the changes that shook the modern world, my students and
colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in
the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells,
Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and
Willa Cather. For readers like me who grew up in the second half of
the 20th century on the unsettling innovations of modernism, and who
were attuned to its atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, the firm
social compass of these earlier writers has come as a surprise.
Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely
romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of
society. They described the rough transition from the small town to
the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more
homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants.
They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values,
social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser's
"Sister Carrie" and Wharton's "House of Mirth" showed how fiction
paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of
the real world than any other form of writing.
This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for
escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of
the world around them and the world inside them. Now that the overload
of theory, like a mental fog, has begun to lift, perhaps professional
readers will catch up with them.
Morris Dickstein teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. His new book, "A Mirror in the Roadway:
Literature and the Real World," is just out from Princeton University
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