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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: January ::
Re: Postmodernism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0052  Friday, 16 January 1998.

[1]     From:   Harry Hill <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 1998 11:18:46 +0000 (HELP)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0050 Re: Postmodernism

[2]     From:   Robin D. H.Wells" <
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        Date:   Friday, 16 Jan 1998 12:16:54 +0000 (GMT)
        Subj:   Postmodernism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 1998 11:18:46 +0000 (HELP)
Subject: 9.0050 Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0050 Re: Postmodernism

Horace's sugar-coating of pills was, of course, repeated in Sydney's Art
Should Instruct Through Delight, a philosophy that has influenced my
acting, teaching, writing and directing throughout my life.

Beckett delights, by living as he does in that last resource of ours,
language and its subtleties. As Mrs. Rooney is made to exclaim as she
struggles with her corsets on a dusty Irish road, "Christ, what a
planet!"

At least Terence Hawkes takes delight in what he imagines is his
destruction of the apolitical joys of others; his style has verve and
poise despite the apparent message it contains. As Waugh said to his
military superior who accused him of consistent drunkenness, "Why should
I give up the habits of a lifetime to satisfy *your* momentary whim?"

Harry Hill

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin D. H.Wells" <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 16 Jan 1998 12:16:54 +0000 (GMT)
Subject:        Postmodernism

To relieve the boredom of exam marking I've been thinking about Terry
Hawkes' delightful Christmas Puzzle and the mixed reactions it got. I
think the confusion arises from the fact that respondents don't seem to
have noticed the deliberate Catch. The answer to Terry's Puzzle (if I've
got it right) is that he's craftily combining two wildly incompatible
discourses and quietly laughing up his sleeve ("Ho, ho, ho") as he waits
to see if anyone noticed.

Respondents have been complaining that postmodernism doesn't help them
to understand Shakespeare. I think, with respect, they've missed the
point of theory.  When people like Terry tell us that human beings lack
inner selves, that authors don't exist, and that reality is simply
wall-to-wall text we don't take these things as meaningful statements
about the world.  Much less do we imagine they can tell us anything
about Shakespeare. The point about such pragmatically self-refuting
assertions is not that they have any truth value - the dimmest
high-school student can see that everying would grind to a halt if they
did - but that it requires considerable brain power to put together a
plausible-sounding defence of such nonsense. That's the point of
poststructuralist theory: lacking any kind of explanatory value, and at
complete odds with all the latest research on the way the mind works, it
nevertheless serves as a useful way of ranking academics and students in
some kind of order of cleverness.  Only the very brightest will be able
to handle theory with any panache, and only the dimwits will take it
seriously. So books like Terry's own _Meaning by Shakespeare_ achieve
high scores in the academic rating system that we have in the UK: after
all, it takes genuine style and wit to argue plausibly in defence of a
proposition so patently absurd that if you tried applying it in real
life, say for example to the grading of undergraduate essays, you could
expect instant mass litigation. (Just as an experiment, try telling your
students you graded their essays on the basis of *your* meanings, not
theirs, and see what they say.) All this is of course familiar,
uncontentious stuff.

Familiar too is the traditional Marxist belief in the social utility of
literature: by enabling us to understand how ideology works it can help
to bring about the overthrow of the present corrupt order of things and
usher in a new age of truth and justice (though Marxist convention
dictates that you don't actually say what form the new dispensation will
take).

The cleverness of Terry's Christmas Puzzle lies in the fact that he
cunningly combines an old-style Marxist belief in social change through
education, with a tongue-in-cheek espousal of precisely those
poststructuralist principles that make purposeful social change
impossible. If there are no historical certainties (no Holocaust, no
Falklands, no Gulf War, no Serbia, no Rwanda) only representations, and
if human beings are incapable of communicating with each other anyway,
then there's not much point in trying to read history. And if we can
never learn from the past, we might as well give up any hope of
understanding how we got to where we are now, or how we might change
things for the better. So if you are a committed Althusserian and you
believe that, in the master's own words, "The study of history is not
only scientifically but also politically valueless", then life really
does become "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying
practices".  Which is presumably why the great Marxist historian EP
Thompson described Althusserian Marxism as a freak of intellectual
fashion whose only appeal was to "aspirant intellectuals whose
amateurish intellectual preparation disarms them before manifest
absurdities and elementary philosophical blunders, leaving them
paralysed in the first web of scholastic argument they encounter".

An entertaining little Christmas brainteaser Terry! Ho, ho, ho.

Best wishes,
Robin

PS: I think you'll find, Terry, that it's not the funny names that cause
people to fall about with such disrespectful mirth. It's the funny ideas
- like this one from Baudrillard: "The most rapid route is the straight
line but, in the non-Euclidean space at the end of the century, a
baleful curvature ineluctably diverts every trajectory", or this one
from Kristeva: "The notion of constructibility, which implies the axiom
of choice associated with all we have put together for the poetic
language, explains the impossibility of establishing a contradiction in
the space of the language of poetry".
 

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