[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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