Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Apparition of Postmodernity

So I was going to write something on the concept of theoretical pessimism, but then got distracted by this article from The Australian on the rather severe absence of opportunities for students to study Australian literature systematically at university level – severe as in:

Next year, the University of Sydney may have no students taking up the country’s only honours program in Australian literature.

Readers not from Australia may not appreciate how local discussions of anything vaguely related to literary matters – or, more broadly, education policy – somehow always come back to postmodernism. Sure enough, this article obliges:

THE decline of Australian literature is also blamed on funding cuts and the inexorable rise of postmodern theory, a charge that supporters of that theory deny strenuously.


But this indifference doesn’t just come from the pincer movement of academics – Eurocentric traditionalists on one flank, postmodern theorists on the other – who have pushed Australian literature to the periphery.


Pierce declares that the tertiary sector’s neglect of our literature exposes a disconnect between the public and academics: “It isn’t as if people have stopped reading Australian literature. It’s a dissociation of the readership from the formal study of Australian literature.”

He says the rot set in when academics who “abased” themselves before the altar of literary theory acquired institutional power and “captured literature departments in the ’80s”.

Postmodern literary theory – and its near-relation, cultural studies – do not accord canonical works, Australian or otherwise, a privileged place. Such theories hold that everything from Big Brother to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Peter Carey’s Bliss is a text, thus diminishing the role of serious literature as a defining cultural force.

The bitter divisions provoked by the rise of theory are well known. Yale University professor Harold Bloom has attacked cultural studies as an enemy of reading and part of the “lunatic destruction of literary studies”.

In Australia, what remains largely unexplored is the role imported, voguish theories have played in the destruction of our literature.

I have a strange fascination with the way in which postmodernism has assumed this sinister reds-under-beds status in Australian policy discussions. The article is filled with more mundane explanations for the plight of Australian literary studies at the tertiary level: longstanding Anglophilia and deprecation of local cultural production; a shift in student interests away from the humanities and, for those who remain within the humanities, toward programs such as creative writing, and away from the study of literary texts; changing structures for the funding of tertiary education, which have resulted in pressures on universities to demonstrate the financial viability of individual degree programs; the drying up of career paths and publication opportunities for tertiary students of Australian literature… But these mundane and obvious causal explanations apparently lack the lustre of postmodernism as a form of spectral causation – after all, how can you beat something that can be demonised as “imported” and “voguish”, that “captures” departments and causes “rot” and that, apparently, carries a faint whiff of idolatry, requiring as it does ritual abasement before an altar of literary theory.

The casual juxtapositions sprinkled through the article are equally problematic – the absence of any impulse to try to reconcile or make sense of contradictory statements suggests the degree to which postmodernism functions as a spectre. Thus the article notes that postmodernism denies privileged status to the canon, while also asking readers to imagine that Eurocentric traditionalists have cooperated with postmodernists in a pincher move to squeeze out the teaching of Australian literature… The article also cites funding cuts and postmodernism in the same sentence – hitting here on something that may represent an actual relationship, but mainly in the sense that the assault on specific forms of academic theory is often hauled out as a political rationalisation for funding cuts, on the grounds that the sorts of “frivolous” studies postmodernism is claimed to promote, are then taken to exemplify why universities must be made more accountable in their use of government funds.

It would be obvious to regular readers that I am very critical of many theoretical approaches that could legitimately be described as postmodernist. The spectrisation of the term “postmodernism” in local policy discussions, however, has very little to do with either the theory or the practice of any kind of actual academic theory. Whatever the intentions, the term “postmodernism” in Australian policy discourse has come to function as a useful deflector of political energies – invoking this term predictably draws out people compelled to defend the theoretical tradition, whose participation in this ritual debate then reinforces the impression that the political dispute actually has something to do with academic theory. Coverage of the various criticisms and defenses of postmodernism then dominates the public discussion. Meanwhile issues that, from my point of view, would be worth a more serious and sustained discussion in the public sphere – changes to the structure of funding for tertiary education, for example – can hide in plain sight, while the heat of the postmodernism debate helps ensure that light rarely falls on them…

Maybe I’m writing about pessimism after all… ;-P

2 responses to “The Apparition of Postmodernity

  1. Sinthome December 4, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    I never sure what to make of the use of the term “postmodernism” in these contexts. From a structuralist perspective it seems to focus as a floating or empty signifier, void of any genuine content, condensing everything that is supposed evil without ever saying much about what this evil is. Distinguishing genuinely postmodern engagement with this use of the signifier, it seems to me that the real target here is the critical tradition (and by this I mean something much broader than critical theory, dating as far back as the Greeks) that has a nasty habit of piercing cherished illusions. People tend to get a bit uppity when a bit of the Real is hit. While that might provide some solace, it doesn’t do much to rectify the problem of disappearing funding.

  2. N Pepperell December 4, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    I think you’re right – on many different levels.

    First a disclaimer that I’m more frustrated than I should be at these sorts of things, mainly because it makes me feel like I’m watching someone with a wind-up toy – there’s a ritual quality to the “postmodernism” debates in Australian public policy, in which each side plays its predictable part – wind them up, and away they go… I want people to break out of these defined roles… (On other occasions, I’ve written more sympathetically about this repetitive pattern – I must be in a grumpy mood – either that, or I’m just more polite when I comment on someone else’s site… ;-P)

    But, yes, “postmodernism” is something of a floating signifier, in the sense that the term isn’t used in ways that have a clear relationship to a theoretical tradition that might meaningfully be called by this term, but provides a vessel for other content. (There’s the added issue of watching how the term “postmodernism” interacts with the term “cultural studies” in these policy debates. The term “cultural studies” gets paired with postmodernism, as though the one glosses the other, or is omitted in favour of the term postmodernism, but is rarely used without the term postmodernism close by – perhaps because “cultural studies” tracks a bit too closely to some of what is provoking anxiety…)

    In any event, the content of the term “postmodernism” is generally some vision of corrosive and destabilising relativism, understood to be undermining a romanticised vision of traditional Australian values. The battle over how we want to imagine our past is a perfectly worthwhile conflict – I don’t expect people not to fight over something as important as this.

    What concerns me is the overlaying of this conflict onto other, separable ones, and the way this conflict serves (somewhat like the demonisation of feminism in some US discourses) to deflect attention away from structural changes… I also become disappointed when academics in particular accept the terms of this debate as given – and so either rush to defend postmodernism in its academic form, for example, or go out of their way to argue that postmodernism was innocuous in its effects.

    Strategically, I’d like to see the discussion redirected back to other causes (and I say this realising that academics approached for public comment on an issue like this may have little effective control over the questions they are asked, or the answers that will actually hit the press, so I’m not trying to be unduly harsh on any actual people whose positions appear in these debates).

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