student experiences of postmodernism, part 1

One of the most interesting phenomena of post-Reagan academic culture in America is the student perception of “postmodernism.” Or of “postmodern theory” or simply of “theory.” Now, to be honest, I find ‘postmodernism’ useless as an intellectual category. Possibly it remains useful in thinking about art or architecture; I’m not sure. Of course, I recognize “postmodernism” as a term with a well-known, if fuzzy, referent. It designates such French intellectuals as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Lacan, and certain American academics like Donna Haraway or Richard Rorty or James Clifford (in anthropology), and more importantly a whole academic social world, recognizable by its characteristic concerns, idioms, arguments, and styles.

I find it useless, myself, for three reasons. For one thing, it’s too vague to be useful in academic work. It elides all the intellectual, disciplinary, and institutional differences between, say, Derrida and Foucault, or Deleuze and Lacan, or Rorty and Haraway. Second, it’s typically used as a term of abuse, a brand of shame that designates others rather than selves. No one I know self-identifies as a postmodernist (in the same way that there are no self-identified “hipsters”). And finally, it’s seeming like a rather obsolete category at the moment; its famous controversies are behind us and its leading figures are long tenured or deceased. (1971: Foucault debates Chomsky on human nature; Allan Bloom sparks the Canon Wars, and Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings surface; 1996: the Sokal Hoax; 1995-1998, the Bad Writing Contest.)

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