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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 5, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Olives, Postmodernism, and Literature Lost

I never ate olives as I was growing up. The presence of olives on a pizza was sufficient reason not to have a slice.

And I wasn't really all that wrong. The canned black olives that you usually get are rubbery and tough-skinned. You have to work to find olives that are worth eating.

Let me save you a bit of searching. The Santa Barbara Olive Company offers pitted ripe black olives that have flavor and texture that have something to do with fresh olives.

No chemical preservatives. Lower sodium. Frankly, those are just words on the label to me. What matters is the taste. The firmness and chewability. The look. These are the real thing, folks. Check them out at www.sbolive.com. Or buy them at Earthfare on Battleground.


Most people couldn't care less about how literature is taught at the college level. Except that it does affect you: You've already been trained, by high school teachers who forced you to read Scarlet Letter, to believe that any book you like is trash, and any book that is officially "good" is unreadably dull.

For good or ill, our culture largely consists of the stories we share -- including the stories about those stories. No department at an American university has greater influence over how you perceive our contemporary culture than the English department -- whether you majored in English or not.

In 1982 I was in a doctoral program at Notre Dame. I watched alertly as the hot new literary theory of Deconstruction began to pop up more and more often. Visiting scholars would speak about the piercing new insights of Jacques Derrida and others who were jumping aboard the bandwagon.

As I listened and read (yes, I deserve the medal for having read an entire work by Derrida, in translation), I began to realize that most of what I was hearing was jargon -- the specialized vocabulary that a community uses to talk about matters that outsiders either wouldn't or shouldn't understand.

Jargons are a powerful thing. I remember when our third child was born having a seizure, he was placed on heavy doses of phenobarbitol, to keep his brain activity under control. Meanwhile, various specialists looked at him and did their tests, while my wife and I grew more concerned that our baby was lying there in the ICU so sedated that he barely seemed alive.

If that's what he needed to have a chance of survival, fine; but as time went on, my wife and I realized that the doctors we were dealing with had no idea what was wrong with Charlie Ben.

Now, that's fine -- doctors are human, and they don't know everything. What bothered us was that they were giving him serious drugs without knowing what his condition was. They were treating a symptom and then guessing.

So when the latest specialist suggested a new course of drugs, my wife and I began to resist, asking just what these drugs were supposed to do. I thought of two ways of saying how ineffective I thought their methodology was.

The first was a colorful metaphor: "So you've got a whole bunch of keys, and you want to keep drying them in the door to see if one of them fits."

The second was the one I actually said: "I don't know if it's wise to keep treating him for an undiagnosed condition."

Now, as medical jargon, that's pretty elementary. But it had an astonishing effect. He looked at me with widened eyes, changing his posture and his tone of voice. I hadn't realized how much he had been condescending to us until he stopped, and said, "Oh, I didn't realize you were in the profession."

Apparently my language sounded like the jargon of the medical community. It was my passport.

To some degree, every trade and profession -- and sport, and hobby -- has its jargon, born of necessity. Be it model trains, tiles, meteorology, physical training, or flipping burgers, there are items and processes you understand that outsiders have no idea of, and you have to have specialized vocabulary to talk about it with your peers.

There's nothing wrong with that.

Precious, Empty Language

But the more I investigated the jargon of Deconstruction, and the better I understood it, the clearer it became that it was a fake. The specialized terminology and phraseology were not conveying difficult concepts that could not be said any other way.

On the contrary, it was the terminology alone that made the theory difficult; the actual ideas were rather simple to explain. The most useful insight was simply this: The author of a literary work will always include elements of the culture around him, without meaning to.

So when we read any literary work, only certain aspects of it are really from the individual author, while most are from the culture. This point is well worth making, though it hardly explains everything -- and certainly not everything important -- about any literary work.

But if you take the idea to its extreme -- which Deconstructionists immediately did -- you start saying absurd things about how literary texts are really just the culture talking to itself. Which explains everything except change, and ignores the fact that some authors are more beloved, and some more effective, and some more transformative than others.

I began to test my understanding of Deconstructionism by listening to speakers and then, during the question session, asking, "So what you really mean is ..."

The answer was always, "Well, I suppose so, if you insist on putting it that way, though it ignores the ramifications ..." (or words to that effect). The tone always implied that I was something between an idiot and a spoilsport. Didn't I get it that Deconstructionism was the perfect dissertation mill? You could go back to every burned-over region of English literature and write whole new dissertations that consisted of applying the vocabulary of Deconstructionism to the same old works.

Deconstructionism ultimately had about as much insight to offer those who try to understand literature as, say, the much-vaunted "three-act structure" has to offer screenwriting: A critical tool that can fit anything rarely has anything useful to tell us.

So Deconstructionism quickly moved over and let Multiculturalist, Feminist, Queer (their choice of word), and Ethnic Studies, under the common rubric of "Post-Modern" literary theory. All used the same technique: a precious vocabulary applied to any work, so that nothing important or interesting was said, but it was said unintelligibly, so no one could tell.

Nobody seemed to mind that all literary works analyzed by this methodology were made invisible by it; it was all dissection, and to no particular effect.

Postmodern Takes on Tolkien

This semester I'm teaching a course on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. One of the works I acquired for the use of my students was a very interesting collection of essays about Tolkien as a medievalist, Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages (ed. Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers).

Most of the book consists of perceptive essays that are quite illuminating and helpful -- done using traditional methods and approaches to criticism.

But you'll only find that out if you either skip or slog through the first two essays, which are part of a section entitled "Recontextualizing the Medieval in Postmodern Middle-Earth."

That heading is clear warning, of course. Translated, it just means, "We're going to look at Tolkien's Middle-Earth, not in its genuine contexts, but in a completely inappropriate Postmodern way, judging it by the criteria of an academic culture that Tolkien never knew but surely would have despised."

The first essay, by Verlyn Flieger, is not without interest, but keeps insisting on comparisons with more recent works popular with academics but irrelevant to the context of Lord of the Rings.

For instance, he invokes John Gardner's brilliant Grendel, which makes the monster in Beowulf the hero of his own novel, and utters this sentence: "In Gardner's hands this once-medieval monster becomes Sam's postmodern stepchild and Gollum's foster brother." A clever thing to say, and one utterly devoid of meaning. But the Postmodernist will doubtless emerge from this essay thinking that the author has actually said something.

But the second essay, by Gergely Nagy, is simply sad. It begins: "That contemporary literary theory [meaning "Postmodernism"] should disregard Tolkien seems at first sight perfectly normal. The revival of medieval or even antique narrative traditions, generic features, and thematic elements that Tolkien's work exhibits and tries to affect does not make for a text that would appeal readily to the theoretician: it operates models of reading, frameworks, and presuppositions that no longer form a part of the basic apparatus of readers (not even of critics), and thus it creates a text that would seem to be a "curiosity" rather than a serious problem for interpretation."

What this absurd, pseudoscientific, and condescending paragraph is actually saying is a self-contradiction: First Nagy asserts that Tolkien's work is a revival of medieval and antique literary traditions, and thus is not what readers today are used to reading. Therefore, he says, it does not need interpretation.

Wouldn't you think that a work that is outside the familiar tradition of contemporary readers would cry out for critical interpretation to help readers access it?

The truth is that Lord of the Rings, while it does indeed draw on old traditions that few modern readers are familiar with, is read easily by those very readers. The truth is that its very accessibility is why Nagy assumes that Postmodern critics would ignore it -- they specialize in interpreting works that nobody actually likes. Popular literature need not apply; or if it does, it is not interpreted, it is autopsied.

Nagy then proceeds to demonstrate that you can apply Postmodern technique to make any work of literature unintelligible and unenjoyable. In other words, Postmodernists can kill anything.

His conclusion is that Tolkien is really doing a Postmodern thing with Lord of the Rings. But this is only sayable because the words he's using can mean whatever he wants them to mean.

The essay becomes a perfect demonstration of what I have long said: Whatever Postmodernists say, which is not false, is obvious. It only appears subtle and wise because of the convoluted sentences and precious vocabulary.

A Blunt Object

There is an additional, most pernicious aspect to Postmodernism: It has been used to include all cultures and all writers except the works that created Western Civilization and their writers, who suffered from the triple handicap of being white, male, and dead.

Very odd, when Postmodernists stress their inclusiveness, that so much bile has been poured out on writers of previous generations for daring to be just as racist or misogynist as the rest of their culture.

I mean, if the idea is to accept all cultures, why was a huge exception made for the very culture that made such tolerance a virtue -- ours?

Postmodernism has also been deeply politicized: It conforms perfectly with the beliefs of the extreme Left in the United States. In other words, instead of being the study of literature, Postmodernism has become the application to literature of a contemporary political ideology.

So in the hands of many "scholars" and professors, "Critical Theory" became a device for attacking the dead and the nonconformist. Any writer from the past could be attacked for not being multicultural enough, no matter how ethnocentric the perspective of the attacker; any contemporary writer could have his reputation destroyed for no other sin than disagreeing with the dogmas of Postmodernism.

That's what happens when you send your kids to college these days. If they start taking literature courses, they are as likely as not to be indoctrinated with a set of anti-religious, anti-traditional beliefs -- no matter which authors they are supposedly studying.

Education then consists of being hit in the head with a blunt object called "Theory" or "Multiculturalism."

And I say this with deep regret, because I used to be a multiculturalist -- back when it meant opening the canon and adding to the existing literary culture.

The Brainwashing Factory

If you doubt my word -- after all, I haven't read everything or visited every English class! -- then take a look at John M. Ellis's Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

First published in 1997, this is a careful, scholarly examination of Postmodernism -- or, as it is often called, "Critical Theory," showing how pervasive it has become and how politicized, inaccurate, and destructive it has always been and continues to be.

One of the worst sins of Postmodernism is that it has cut us off from our cultural roots. This was already in process, of course -- as Modernism became enshrined in our university English departments, the denigration of authors prior to the Modernists was quite severe. The attitude was, "We'll study them, of course, but we all know that the good stuff is what we're getting now."

Postmodernism merely finished the job.

There are those who respond to Ellis by saying, "Maybe there was once a problem with this, back when he wrote the book, but the whole Theory movement is fragmenting and it's no longer the New Thing, so don't worry about it."

The trouble is that the fragments continue to pursue the same doctrines and to have the same culture-killing effect, and they continue to celebrate embarrassingly bad literature while punishing much better writers who happen not to have guessed what would be politically correct a generation or century after their death.

Furthermore, there was a definite bias in hiring new English faculty members for a generation, so that now faculties contain substantial numbers of True Believers -- people who were successfully indoctrinated by the first generation of Postmodernists and have no idea what scholarship or rigorous thinking even are.

Indeed, many of them insist that the very principles of scholarly and intellectual rigor are "male" or "white" or "ethnocentric preference for Western modes of thought," so that even desiring those things proves you are one of the enemy.

That's what is happening when somebody shuts you down by saying, "That's the male point of view," or "Of course that's how white people think," as if that proved that your ideas don't actually have to be answered, they can simply be ignored. Your thoughts are irrelevant solely because of your race or your gender.

The wrongheadedness of such statements are obvious the moment we put the shoe on the other foot. If, for instance, I dismissively said to a woman, "That's the female point of view," or to a black person, "Of course that's how black people think," I would be regarded (correctly) as a complete sexist or racist.

But I do not and never have thought that way, and I find it outrageous that when we send our kids to universities, they often return saying precisely those things -- thinking that it proves they are "intellectual" and "educated."

No. It just means they've been brainwashed into elitism, exclusivity, and smugness; and they've been taught not to consider new ideas. Instead, they fit everything into a predetermined context, and anything that doesn't fit, they assume is a lie. They aren't skeptics, they're fanatics.

And this is bound to continue as long as we have departments and majors at our universities that have no actual subject matter, only an ideology.

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