The Hermit Poet

March 31, 2005

The Postmodernist Problem

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:12 pm

After a week and a half of reading postmodern decontructivist and postcolonial literary criticism I am now completely convinced that postmodern literary critics must fall into one of two camps:

1) Willfully ignorant – eg. They deliberately ignore the fact that maintaining a postmodern deconstructivist stance means that their entire discouse is meaningless by the very nature of that stance. This makes them in some sense hypocritical — they really can’t believe this in its entirety if they still engage in the act of producing new criticism. Unless, of course, that act is mere “play” — merely the act of creating nonsensical texts for other willfully and/or truly ignorant readers.

Why bother writing criticism is the language and concepts are acknowledged as being completely arbitrary? If, as the postmodern stance maintains, there are only signifiers and no signifieds — how in the world do they intend to make sense? Or do they? Are they simply reveling in the production of nonsensical texts? Is the production of literary criticism the new “erotic” text — the act of creating it and re-creating it in reading a form of pleasure for a very select few initiates.

2) Truly ignorant - They really don’t understand what they are saying — which may actually be a self-fullfilling actualization of the postmodern stance.

In either case, why move towards obsfucation? Why muddy the waters further? I have seen so many terms which, rather than elucidate, eradicate meaning. The very blandness of the terms point to their arbitrary nature. The concepts behind them might be useful in understanding the various ways we as readers encounter the text, but if they are buried in obtuse definitions, who can actually understand them?

It seems as well that even other literary critics have difficulty understanding or apprehending the intended meanings behind these terms. On several occasions I have found the originator of a term harshly condemning the misuse and/or misappropriation of the term. And, as misapplications of that term increase, the term itself becomes less and less useful.

Even coining terms to develop a “common” language among critics is a little more than a modernist pipe dream. Isn’t the effort to unify the fragmented discourse a modernist impulse as opposed to a postmodernist one?

As a producer of texts (ie. a poet), I view the project of modern and postmodern literary critics as largely a failure. If, at its root, good criticism should facilitate a better understanding and/or appreciation of a text, how does the critic’s act of obscuring the machinery of his approach through complicated and ill-defined terms serve the producer of the text or the general readers of the text. Criticism as it stands today, largely privileges other critics — it seems a rather rooted in old school nepotism and cronyism.

Counterpoint - It might be argued that the creation of a new lexicon / jargon of technical terms is necessary to facilitate conversation. This might be true in the case of the sciences where there is a concrete and clearly understood signified. In literary and social theory this fails. So long as critics will argue on one hand of the arbitrary assignment of signifiers to often non-existent signifieds, and on the other hand demand that their discourse utilize a specific trade jargon, that there will always be a sense that they want both to have their cake and to eat it too.

One Response to “The Postmodernist Problem”

  1. Kenneth G. Aitken Says:

    After our discussion of this post-modernist rhetoric I can see why it is confusing. As I understand it, the post modernist position is that the meaning of a text, the “message”, is what the reader thinks it is, and not what the creator of the text wrote, or tried to write with whatever degree of precision he achieved. In otherwords it does not matter who sent the message, the reader can assign whatever meaning he wants, and that is the meaning and message of the text
    This of course should be applied to whatever a literay critic writes or speaks as well. So the wisest critic will resist the temptation to send any verbal messages out to writers or other readers.
    The problem with this position in my humble and uneducated opinion is that it shows contempt for the writer and the writer’s message. No matter what a writer offers, the post modernist critic will assign any meaning to it he wants, thus avoiding the whole issue of communication, and promoting the perpetuation of ignorance.

    Back in ancient times, when I washed ashore in Hawaii, a local musician, Liz Damien sang, “there are none so blind, as they who will not see”. To reject the primacy of the writer’s meaning and message in the text, foolishness. There are none so deaf as they who will not hear.

    Truths are not relative. Listen to the hermit port.

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