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.)

In anthropology, and I think also in literary studies, the famous debates of the past are over, and some of the famous figures are no longer so obsessively read. Dominic Boyer wrote five years ago that “Foucault’s pervasiveness is largely unparalleled in anthropology, almost to the point that, like oxygen, one takes his ethereal yet nourishing presence in everyday disciplinary life almost for granted.” Today, Foucault is almost never the center of attention in my intellectual circles. It is, if anything, a ripe moment for an in situ study of the decline of postmodernism as an intellectual category. This doesn’t mean that we are returning to the intellectual climate of 1945, obviously. Some of the famous “post-modern” texts remain widely read, and much of the characteristic vocabulary and style remains dominant. But times have changed, I thought.

So I was surprised to find that, when the New York Times had an essay contest for college students to discuss what’s wrong with college, the winning essay was about postmodernism. “The Posteverything Generation,” it’s called, by Nicholas Handler, a Yale undergraduate who “hopes to become a human rights lawyer.”

What I like about Handler’s essay is that it gives us, in an admittedly stylized and polished fashion, a little glimpse of his experience of “postmodernism.”

What do we really stand for? Like a true postmodern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness, to present a cast of inspirational or revolutionary characters on our public stage, or to define a specific philosophy. We are a story seemingly without direction or theme, structure or meaning–a generation defined negatively against what came before us… We are the generation of the Che Guevera tee-shirt.

Handler is particularly interested in the relationship between postmodernism and our generation’s politics. And here postmodernism serves as the figure of his ambivalence towards politics and towards his parents’ politics. He distances himself from the political tropes of the past, “radicalism” and “revolution.” He suggests that new political activities, like contributing to or advocating alternative energy, have replaced sit-ins. (Never mind that his knowledge of the history of political action, or even of alternative energy, is impoverished and simplistic.) He hovers between the claim that his (our) generation has no politics (only anti-politics), and the claim that our form of politics is simply new and unrecognizable to our elders. He says:

How do we rebel against a generation that is expecting, anticipating, nostalgic for revolution? How do we rebel against parents that sometimes seem to want revolution more than we do? We don’t. We rebel by not rebelling.

But then he goes on to say:

Perhaps when our parents finally stop pointing out the things that we are not, the stories that we do not write, they will see the threads of our narrative begin to come together; they will see that behind our pastiche, the post generation speaks in a language that does make sense. We are writing a revolution. We are just putting it in our own words.

It’s interesting that Handler doesn’t want to end on a postmodern note; in the last analysis, there is order beneath our disorder, sense beneath our political pastiche of slacktivism and withdrawal. As if postmodernism is merely the ugly skin that conceals a good heart.

So what kind of experience of postmodernism does this reveal? Unlike other essays that I’ll examine in a later post, here the postmodern becomes a political idiom. In a kind of classical deconstructive move, categories like “politics” or “revolution” are employed even as they’re questioned, in something like Derrida’s writing under erasure. Fredric Jameson’s essay on postmodernism serves as the authoritative citation; Jameson is used as a source of critical insight, as analytic inspiration, but also as a model of contemporary group experience. (Handler, I should point out, views “postmodernism” as an intellectual current that’s distinct from things like “post-colonialism,” “gender theory,” and “structuralism”; this narrower use is probably more intellectually rigorous than my broader interpretation of the term, but also less helpful as a gloss of the term’s broader usage.)

And if Jameson is treated as an authority figure in this essay, what does that reveal? When Handler views the life and consciousness of our generation as “postmodern,” what is the upshot? Simply, perhaps, that everyday life is cast in academic terms. Handler himself is aware of this; indeed, he is surprised by this, as he says in his introduction:

I never expected to gain any new insight into the nature of my generation, or the changing landscape of American colleges, in Lit Theory. Lit Theory is supposed to be the class where you sit at the back of the room with every other jaded sophomore wearing skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses, an ironic tee-shirt and over-sized retro headphones, just waiting for lecture to be over so you can light up a Turkish Gold and walk to lunch while listening to Wilco. That’s pretty much the way I spent the course, too: through structuralism, formalism, gender theory, and post-colonialism, I was far too busy shuffling through my iPod to see what the patriarchal world order of capitalist oppression had to do with Ethan Frome. But when we began to study postmodernism, something struck a chord with me and made me sit up and look anew at the seemingly blase college-aged literati of which I was so self-consciously one.

Handler’s self-conscious and avowed self-consciousness is curious, and somewhat inconsistent with the postmodernism he espouses. If we are nothing but confused clusters of ideological forces, or products of semiotic circumstance, then consciousness would appear to be distraction at best, delusion at worst. But this is not only postmodernism; it is the junction of postmodernism with a much older Romantic ideology of self-formation. It is a postmodern bildungsroman; Handler “maintains a peculiar balance between the social and the personal and explores their interaction,” in Marianne Gottfried’s terms. For Handler, postmodernism allows him an escape from his jaded, ironic consumerism into something real. It’s what gives him “new insight into the nature of my generation.” Far from being a retreat into cynical skepticism, Handler casts postmodernism as the source of hope, and truth.

But our collective consciousness, Handler thinks, is “blase” consciousness, the cynicism that Zizek so often critiques as our dominant ideology. Handler is all too insightful, I fear, when he calls us “the generation of the Che Guevera tee-shirt,” a generation in which radical politics are commodified and sold, in which a movie about Che Guevara grosses $39 million. In Perlstein’s essay in the Times, he cites David Brooks’ category of the Organization Kid, someone who’s deep into “the bureaucracy that schedules students’ self-exploration,” someone who does social justice work through a campus club and has an eager deference to authority. To understand this generation’s politics, needless to say, you also have to understand the corporate and educational systems that limit and organize it.

Handler does not acknowledge that Lit Theory class, and postmodern discourse in particular, are also part of these institutions that “schedule students’ self-exploration,” part of the institutions of contemporary ideology. Handler is fascinating because he sees everyday life in postmodern, academic terms. But not everyone is privy to his purported insights; while Handler sits in class coming to private revelations, we as a group remain “a story seemingly without direction or theme, structure or meaning.” Tacitly, Handler views the postmodern condition as our generation’s curse, a condition that he, as a self-made intellectual, aims to describe and transcend. In the end, this comes less to an insightful political strategy than to a rhetorical technique of self-glorification. And postmodernism remains, in this case, one more idiom for distinguishing the individual from the collective. If there is a more adequate politics to be rediscovered in the classical texts of postmodernism (an oxymoronic category, I know), it remains to be articulated.