On Easily Distracted there are a series of fascinating posts loosely occasioned by a couple of recent flaps in academe. ED wraps up for the moment with a really excellent meditation on what he calls the “porcupine approach,” by which he means the inclination of academics to get all prickly, defensive and offputting when challenged on their expertise. He’s right about all of it (and as a commenter perceptively notes, it’s not a strategy limited to academe).
I’ve commented in my own somewhat prickly way on that site, but I wanted to add to the general gist of ED’s analysis here. He counters porcupinity with an ethic of clarity, openness and humility that I admire and aspire to (again, in an admittedly grumpy personal style). He thinks that’s consistent with postmodernism and I agree. In fact, I think it’s essential to postmodernism (I’m telling a joke here, explanation follows).
The essential critical insight of postmodernism, if such a thing is possible, is that there is no essential critical insight. As Lyotard canonically put it, postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives,” including, inescapably, its own. That’s it – if you think there’s only one way to tell a story, you may be many wonderful things but you’re not a postmodernist. (The neatness of this exclusion is unsustainable within postmodernism.) This is why ‘postmodernists’ tend to collapse so easily into ‘wordy’, ‘over'(pun)ctu/ated, ‘tale-chasing’ ‘iron-y’. All the words and their parts you might use to describe it or do anything with it mean something else too in other equally valid narratives (discourses), and one must attend to these differences lest they sneak up and bite one from behind. Like all forms of skepticism postmodernism is conceptually inescapable, which is why practical people may toy with it but never entirely adopt it. You can break everything down nicely with pomo, but you can’t build anything up.
Now, here’s the thing about the academic flaps ED is talking about. Both cases involve people “dangling half-formed chunks of critical theory like a sacred totem about [their necks],” which is an awesome image. The thing they’re both doing that’s really bizarre is that the chunks of critical theory they’re dangling are derived from postmodernism. And they’re using those chunks to assert a privileged interpretive position with respect to their own work and postmodernism itself, apparently without irony of any kind. But the thing is, in pomo that is the ONE MOVE that you absolutely, positively cannot make without massive self-irony. Because a privileged interpretion is a metanarrative, and the first holy vow of postmodernists is to be incredulous of metanarratives.
It’s really interesting to see a discourse the purpose of which is to question power claims used as a power claim. In the ultimate irony, postmodernism has become dogma – or better, as ED says and NP analyzes, a fetish.