Tuesday, October 25, 2011

About Jonathan Lethem and Postmodernism

Jonathan Lethem's "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance: Notes on an Execution" in the October issue of The Believer is bad writing backed by a ridiculous argument.

Lethem's objective isn't to write a clear and compelling essay. It's to present a facade of intellectualism, combined with trademark McSweeney's-style cutesiness added to show that, hey, he's one of us.

Behind his clog of words, Lethem has two points. He doesn't try to prove the points. They're assumed. The herd he writes for accepts the points on face value. The essay is affirmation. "Hallelujahs" in a praise-pomo church service. The purpose of the essay is showing off.

Lethem's two points:

1.) Literary postmodernism is under continual assault.

2.) Postmodernism is like the film character Liberty Valance.

POINT ONE: Because literary postmodernism isn't under real attack, Lethem doesn't need to construct a real argument. His essay is a victory dance over pretend opponents. The idea is to make the unquestioning readership feel good: Rome replaying its wars with Carthage decades after the fact. A ritualistic dance.

Lethem writes,

"My version allegorizes the holding at bay, for the special province of literary fiction, of contemporary experience in all its dismaying or exhilarating particulars, as well as a weird, persistent denial of a terrific number of artistic strategies for illuminating that experience. The avoidance, that's to say, of any forthright address of what's called postmodernity, and what's lost in avoiding it (a sacrifice I see as at best pointless, an empty rehearsal of anxieties, and at worst hugely detrimental to fiction)."

What is he talking about?

Jonathan Lethem says of postmodernism:

"--the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture."

Really? By who?

Today, postmodernism IS canonical culture. The French critics Lethem defends in his essay are celebrated by the academy. They're part of the canon.

Lethem talks of the "collapsing of high and low cultural preserves--."

This sure isn't happening in Lethem's world! He's safely in the "high" end, along with metafiction, antinarrative, intertextuality, unreliable narration, "surrealism or magical realism or hysterical realism," irony, and the rest of the postmodern jumble. The academy does have values, of a sort. The intellectual jumble Lethem describes is its highest value.

The items Lethem lists and defends are now part of "high" culture. They've been around for fifty years. There's nothing threatening to "the literary community" about them. Go onto trendy lit-sites like HTML Giant and you see that these ideas and strategies ARE the literary community.

(To read this post in its entirety, click on http://kingwenclas.blogspot.com/p/jonathan-lethem-and-postmodernism.html )

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