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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.