And ANOTHER one!

09Mar09

Here’s last year’s, then.  Have I changed?

One of the questions that have been the most interesting and most perplexing to me as I’ve encountered postmodernism in texts is “What’s the point?” This seems like an infuriatingly modernist, industrial sort of question in light of postmodern thought, but I might as well admit that at the end of the day I’m as pragmatic and practical as I’d once hoped I’d never be.  So I need to know what the point of postmodernism is.  I need to know what postmodernism can bring to the world-what it can do for us, what it can offer.

It seems to me that asking what the purpose of postmodernism isn’t terribly different than asking, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”  Though I’ve left this thought unexamined until recently, I’ve always thought of postmodernism as a “story that isn’t even true.”  What I mean, I think, is that postmodernism suggests that meaning is hard to pin down, slippery, not quantifiable-just like the “value” and “purpose” of literature.  Things that are “true” ought to be verifiable, measurable, solid.  [Digression: I feel like I can’t say anything without putting it in quotation marks because of postmodernism.  Thanks, Derrida[*].  “I” “love” not being able to “say” anything “original.”  Grrr.]  These aren’t adjectives I’d normally associate with either postmodernism or literature, or at least, what literature means to me (since that’s maybe the only “meaning” I can speak about with anything like certainty).

I heard someone say once that poetry is the ability to say things, in words, that can’t be said in words.  I think that might be what sums up literature for me-it’s circuitous communication, yet more direct than “just talking”; it helps us connect to each other more fully than saying, “I am here; I feel that too; I remember; I believe in this…” ever could.  There’s something magical in that paradox.  And the paradox-and the magic-bring me back to postmodernism.  I don’t like writers being clever for the sake of being clever, or worse, to make the readers feel stupid.  But I do like writers messing with my sense of what is and isn’t in an effort to say (with far more subtlety and complexity), “Are you sure of that?”  I think the only times I’ve ever really grown or learned in my life were times I stopped to admit that I was uncertain, that I didn’t have an answer or a plan, or at least didn’t have the best answer, the best plan. Postmodernism-in literature, in theory-helps remind me not to make assumptions so readily, not to take so much for granted, not to take myself quite so seriously.  And maybe that’s the “point” of it, after all-to encourage us to approach conclusions and “solutions” with more caution, more questions, and more willingness to sacrifice being right in the hope that, by doing so, we might arrive at more interesting, more useful destinations.  Or better yet, we might find that there’s more than one place to arrive “at,” or that the arrival itself isn’t so important as the process of working towards or through-the traveling, as tired as that metaphor certainly is.

Where does that leave me?  If literature connects us, and postmodernism enables us to be surprised, to be wrong, to be uncertain-well, then I think it looks something like this: postmodern literature brings us together so that we can all fall on top of each other as the rug gets pulled out beneath us.  We read ourselves together and support each other in the uncertain new worlds that emerge as a result?  That isn’t entirely optimistic, but might be more honest than other ways of summing up the purpose of stories and literature in our lives.  And honesty, for me, is the more useful and generative option anyway.  Can postmodernism, after all, be considered honest optimism?


[*] One of the theorists of the “everything worth saying has already been said” branch of postmodernism.

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