Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Summer Reading 4

The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture edited by Hal Foster

Another book on a class reading list; this one is a collection of nine essays with a preface by the editor.

Since I'm not a big fan of things with the postmodern label, I would not have picked this up on my own. As presented by the contributors to this book (with the exception of Habermas), postmodernism is a critique of modern ideals of rationality. While reading the book, I had the occasional thought that "Well, I could be wrong about the importance and high value of reason. But really? Hard to think so."

I am thankful for the challenges the book presented, but I have two competing beliefs about postmodernism. The first is that since postmodernism in general (if there is such a thing) seems to be the best contemporary challenge to philosophy as conceived by Socrates and therefore merits serious study and attention in order to meet that challenge. The second belief is that postmodernism is positively irrational and therefore hard to take seriously. Of course, these two beliefs are connected by the nature of postmodernism as a philosophy or ideology or archeology or whatever that subverts modern (and ancient and medieval) rationality. Note that this last sentence itself expresses the controversy, since most postmodernists deny that things have real natures.

Since I don't get the appeal of postmodern writing style, I'll just describe some thoughts on Craig Owens's article, "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism."

In Owens's chapter, it's difficult to tell if Owens is making an argument, trying to make an argument, or just opining. For example, this is what I think is Owens's summary of his chapter:

Here, we arrive at an apparent crossing of the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation; this essay is a provisional attempt to explore the implications of that intersection.

In the first part of this, we have two things before us: the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation. It seems highly unlikely that there is only one feminist critique of patriarchy and only one postmodernist critique of representation, but the definite articles modifying those phrases seem to indicate that there is only one of each. As to the merits or demerits of the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation, we are left in the dark. There are some claims made before this statement about these critiques, but no defense of the claim that they are defensible or even sensible critiques. Also note that the crossing of these two things is "apparent." This indicates that Owens is hedging his bets about his thesis. This becomes clearer when you look at the next part, which includes the assertion that the two critiques intersect. We have gone from an apparent crossing to an intersection without an explanation of why the crossing was only apparent in the first place or why it is no longer so.

Notice that when the essayist should be at his clearest, the point where he states the purpose of the essay, Owens utilizes metaphors and provides only a vague sense of what his purpose is. Consider it this way. Owens says that he has written an "essay," which is a "provisional attempt" to "explore" the "implications" of the "intersections" of the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation. Now an essay is something with which I have some familiarity, but what about the other phrases? Well, I know what all of the other words mean, and in other contexts their meaning is fairly clear. For example, if my friend asks me to go "explore" a cave, I have a good idea what to expect if I agree. There may be some variations (e.g., we might just walk about a cave, or we might need more serious spelunking gear such as ropes and headlamps), but what we'll be doing is fairly clear. We won't, for example, be skydiving. I think Owens is being metaphorical with his use of "explore," which is fine, but when what we are exploring are "implications" of an "intersection" of two sets of opinions held by Owens to be a critique of "patriarchy" and "representation," a little clarification would be appropriate (if the goal is to communicate clearly with the reader).

I comment on this because such vagueness is characteristic of the writing in the book, to greater and lesser degrees in each author, and although unclarity does not plague only postmodern writing, the cynic in me wants to say that unclarity is a necessary condition of postmodern writing.

I also found curious the inclusion of a chapter by Edward Said, whom I would not have considered to be postmodern. (Is Noam Chomsky postmodern then, too?) Contrary to the other chapters, I found the chapter by Said particularly lucid, though that may itself be because Said's chapter was right after a bunch of mumbo-jumbo (that's a technical philosophical term) by Jean Baudrillard.

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