A lot has been written about post-modernism: what it is, does it exist at all, when did it begin, is it good or bad, etc.
As scholars, we are supposed to be objective, i.e., keep our value judgements to ourselves. Or should we?
There seems to be an assumption, going back to such authorities on literary and social theory as, for example, Frederic Jameson and Ihab Hassan, that any (negative) valuation of post-modernism is the indicator of scholarly limitedness. Jameson makes the point when he regrets the fact that “The concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today” (Postmodernism and Consumer Society). Hassan appears to accuse, by implication, of backwardness and bad practice those scholars who fail to notice the development, when he writes:
“The reception or denial of postmodernism thus remains contingent on the psychopolitics of academic life – including the various dispositions of people and power in our universities, of critical factions and personal frictions, of boundaries that arbitrarily include or exclude – no less than on the imperatives of culture at large” (Toward a Concept of Postmodernism).
In other words, Hassan makes it clear that those who deny the existence of post-modernism are more committed to furthering their ambition than to pursuing the truth. We are made an unconditional offer of post-modernism.
Hassan further describes post-modernism by comparison to modernism: “if much of modernism appears hieratic, hypotactical, and defamist, postmodernism strikes us by contrast as playful, paratactical, and deconsructionist.” Seems to be a rather complimentary definition, in line with the social strategy of pluralism and tolerance, especially as Hassan goes on to call post-modernism ‘cooler, less cliquish, and far less averse to the pop, electronic society of which it is a part.”
Jameson, by the way, concurs, noting “the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture.” He follows the observation with a theory why the academe may be (or might have initially been) reluctant to embrace post-modernism. “perhaps the most distressing development of all from an academic standpoint, which has traditionally had a vested interest in preserving a realm of high or elite culture against the surrounding environment of philistinism.”
My question is here: is high culture necessarily so bad or popular culture necessarily so good that we should be glad of the disappearance of the former and the fruition of the latter?
Actually, Hassan sounds a cautionary note for those who are too fond of post-modernism, reminding that its development runs parallel to more distressing global trends – the simultaneous flourishing of “terrorism and totalitarianism, schism and ecumenism, … authorities decreat[ing] themselves even as societies search for new grounds of authority”.
Well, enough of heavy-loaded theoretical stuff for now.
Actually, I am not sure that post-modernism itself is bad – even though the term implies decadence and is otherwise perplexing: what is going to be next? Post-post-modernism. In itself, post-modernism is probably no better or worse than technological progress or globalization. It is our interpretation and use of the term and the values it carries that seems to present a problem. A slight problem, one might say. Just a slight ethical problem.
In the world of pluralism and tolerance, it is so easy to tolerate crime… And is it an accident that those who notice the flaw at the heart of post-modern doctrine are mostly (though not exclusively) Christian authors?
“Don’t you know where tenderness leads? … It leads to the gas chamber.” (Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome)
‘“When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness [i.e., Christ] its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Memoir of Mary Ann)
‘Tenderness separated from the source of tenderness thus supports a “popular piety” that goes unexamined, a piety in which liberalism in its decline establishes dogmatic rights, rights that in an extreme—as presently in the arguments for abortion in the political sphere and for “popular culture” in the academic—become absolute dogma to be accepted and not examined.’ (Marion Montgomery, ‘Walker Percy and the Christian Scandal,’ First Things (1993): 38-44, p. 39)
Each of these three quotations warrants an essay… But I am not ready just yet to say more.
Let those who know speak, for my academic muse is silent.